Directed by: Dijo Jose Antony
Distributed by: Magic Frames
Written by Rudolph Lambert Fernandez
Hollywood and European filmmakers habitually caricature or critique legitimate state power going rogue. Less so Eastern or Asian filmmakers. The former are rarely shy of protesting totalitarian impulses as soon as they see them. The latter usually wait, until it’s too late.
A brave Asian film, “Jana Gana Mana” (2022), (on Netflix) bucks this trend.
Many writers have dwelt on “JGM’s” seemingly humdrum plot. Its execution is all they say it is: loud, preachy, caricaturish. Its pacing is overwrought, its style clunky and its script unwieldy.
But they’re missing how it aspires to a truth-telling that’s rare in its Asian milieu, how it invites introspection, even among complacent “free” states beyond Asia. Melodramatic polemic it may be, but in these times, necessary.
Director Dijo Jose Antony and screenwriter Sharis Mohammed show how a “democratic” state colludes with a casteist elite to secure and keep a chokehold over its masses. Government, “JGM” says, is no substitute for governance. Even tidy, air-brushed democracies require a revolution now and then, when they become as suffocating as regimes they’re used to denouncing as totalitarian. A “free” media, judiciary, state, and polity do not make a democracy. Not if they’re free to do what they like instead of what they should.
The narrator sets that tone, ushering in the first scene with the words: “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth alone triumphs).
In a pitifully patriarchal Asian-film milieu, “JGM” boldly revolves around three women.
College student Vidya rises against a casteist academic but hits a ceiling. She commits suicide, despairing that the ceiling is made of granite rather than glass. Through her death, she condemns her “killer”. When professor Saba, rises in her defense threatening to expose him, he kills her too, this time literally. Saba’s martyrdom inspires another woman, Vidya’s college mate Gouri, to rise and fight in her place.
But the elite close ranks. Academia, polity, and police collaborate to protect the killer. They disguise Saba’s murder as gangrape, by whipping up public and media frenzy against petty criminals who are, in fact, innocent of her murder.
Goaded by political masters to swiftly seal the case, police murder the criminals as they try and “escape”. No one worries if it’s staged. All heave a sigh of relief: good riddance, justice done.
One man, Advocate Aravind, shines an indignant light on the truth in court, willing the masses to rise alongside these women, alongside him, to expose the elite.
Aravind’s prognosis is penetrating. He indicts a complicit media that chooses trivia over truth, facts and stats over context, reportage over reveal, and propaganda over exposing what power wants to hide. He blames pliant police, legal, and judicial systems. He chastises feudal academia. He skewers the self-serving politician.
The binding tie? Caste! A “supreme value”, a cross-governing lifeblood that seeks and secures obeisance.
The fulcrum? Fear. The protester tries to quell fear, to start and sustain protest. The politician tries to provoke fear, to quell that very protest.
Consider, Aravind says, the narrowed eyes of the upper-caste elite, gazing steadfastly on the prone lower castes, the masses, who must be consolidated, mobilized. Against whom? Anyone will do as long as they fit the bill of “enemy”. Here, it’s the defenseless, lower-caste petty criminals, easily implicated as rapists, and killers.
As long as it’s some “other”, any “other”, the masses have neither the time nor the energy to fight the elite, their real enemy. No wonder this “institutional murder” frustrates the masses, expressing itself sometimes in suicide (Vidya’s), and at other times in homicide (Saba’s).
Political economist Peter Bernholz once refined earlier, simplistic definitions of Totalitarianism, by redefining it:
“A totalitarian regime is an ideocracy which has not yet reached the aims implied by its supreme values, and which tries to pursue them with the spiritual and secular power available after it has gained domination of a state.”
For those at the receiving end, Bernholz implied, Totalitarianism is a movement rather than a state fulfilling all its “conditions”. It’s a work-in-progress, not a finished product. Those fighting it must fight its impulses, however slight they seem, instead of waiting for every “condition” to be fulfilled, before rising in protest.
“JGM” shouts this from the rooftops. Its most riveting scene lasts barely three minutes.
A dark-skinned low-caste student (Vidya) has been waiting years for her light-skinned upper-caste guide (Prof Vydharshan) to clear her doctoral thesis which, even to an external examiner’s eye, is well past fit for a doctorate. She tries to persuade him. Vydharshan stays smug.
Vidya: I reworked everything as you said, Sir. The situation at home is really bad, Sir. Please, Sir. I’ve gotten this far only by struggling so much.
Vydharshan (laughs to himself): How far?
Vidya (stunned that he’d so unthinkingly dismiss the odds she’s beaten to get into college, let alone strive for a Ph.D.): Sir?
Vydharshan (turns casually to look at the sweeper lady in the distant corridor): Vidya! See Muthulakshmi?
Vidya (gazes at the sweeper, in despair, as Vydharshan’s meaning, dawns on her)
Vydharshan (approaches Vidya, his voice sweetening, as if talking to a child): Her mother used to work here a while back, also as a sweeper. In the future, her daughter too will work here……….as a sweeper.
Vidya (swallows hard, eyes brimming with tears)
Vydharshan (smiles condescendingly): At lunch, we give our leftovers to Muthulakshmi. She happily accepts it. She might even take some home. But (Vydharshan’s hand trembles in furious contempt) not even once…..has she complained……that she didn’t get any food. Because she knows that our magnanimity is not her right!
Vydharshan (continues, smiling, sniggering): See Vidya, research is about quality. How would you know? There’s no point in talking about quality to people who work on farms and garbage dumps.
Vidya (musters all the pluck she can, to try and take him on, making no secret of how he’s used her work and passed it off as his own): For the past three years the international publications published in your name and the sanctioned project you mentioned worth Rs. 2.5 crores, I completed all these with garbage quality, Sir?
Vydharshan (snorts): Oh, you’re questioning me? You are fit only to obey us! Just to obey. (Vydharshan spits his anger at social justice imperatives around college admissions) The people here, who under various pretexts admit lowlifes who clean toilets, they’re the ones to blame! You want to complain to the dean? Go ahead. You can do nothing here. Mind you, not seven, even after ten years if you have to finish your course and leave this campus, you need my signature! OK? (Vydharshan advances menacingly, hinting at her lowly looks, her dark complexion) If you still haven’t understood what I said, go and look at yourself in the mirror.
Vidya’s suicide critiques equality of “outcome” that’s not grounded on equality of “opportunity”. If you deny the masses their most basic rights, what’s the point of your condescending offer of a seat on the high table? How is freedom without equality any different from continuing colonialism?
Long live the Revolution
“JGM’s” prescription is pointed. And it isn’t: “protest by suicide”!
Protest peacefully, “JGM” says, but protest. Protest so that there are fewer suicides and fewer homicides. Protest to protect the “equality” that others won for you, with their lives. Protest until you can live that equality, with dignity, without fear. Start on the streets, but reach everyone else, everywhere else.
“JGM” respects its freedom fighters, but loves its revolutionaries.
If strong men rage on the inside but stay mute on the outside (Vidya’s muscled male batchmates), it is frail women (Saba, Gouri) who’ll rise, raging inside and outside. They’ll sing the usual “long live our nation”, and “long live our motherland” slogans all right, but they’ll shout another: Inquilab Zindabad (long live the Revolution).
“JGM’s” slogan of choice, Inquilab Zindabad is an Urdu slogan, coined by early 20th century Muslim scholar, freedom fighter, and poet Syed Fazl-ul-Hasan, also known by his pen name, Hasrat Mohani.
Mohani was no subversive. He was a patriot, the first Indian leader to demand complete independence (purna swaraj) from the British Empire. More venerated freedom fighters were wary of his revolutionary purna swaraj, preferring the tamer, more incremental dominion status. Only later did they adopt Mohani’s fearless, ultimately visionary demand. For it was this stubborn insistence that pressured the Empire into granting unconditional independence. It was his call for Revolution that helped turn the tide.
Mohani dreamed of freedom beyond territorial integrity or sovereignty or statehood. Those were a starting point, not a goal. He dreamed instead of freedom of citizenry — freedom of body, mind, and spirit.
“JGM” too is like a forest fire of a “Revolution” lit in a peaceable Nature Reserve of superficial “Freedom”. Prof Saba lights the spark. Student Gouri fans the flames. Provocateur Aravind nurses it into a roaring fire. Their revolution spills onto the streets, thugs turn on their political masters, and conscientious student activists contest elections against heavyweights. Suddenly, the masses grasp their real, hidden strength — their unity, bound by a humanism above any other “ism”.
Screenwriter Sharis Mohammed uses sharp exchanges between characters to flesh out how some governments pretend to be democracies, how some politicians feed off “emotion”, the “madness” of the public, converting “party workers” into “devotees”. He alludes to performative social justice, how it works like a bee, single-mindedly buzzing around the flower of identity (my religion, caste, race, class, sex, complexion, diet, attire, city, state, language), ignoring the root, stem, branches, and leaves of injustice hurting everyone and everything else.
Righteous anger must inform “right action”
Critics are right, “JGM” tries to cover too much ground. The writer-director duo seems to argue right back: there is a lot that needs to be covered.
Isn’t “JGM” exposition to the point of pain? The writer-director duo appears to argue right back: that’s the point.
“JGM” argues that if you see (really see) the pent-up agony of the desperate, dying, or dead masses, Aravind’s shouty speeches in court seem tame — monastic, not militant. “JGM” is one long, wretched wail, so you’ll have to forgive its inelegant dribble.
Two of “JGM’s” plot elements threaten to rob mass protest of its raw power.
First, the policeman who connives with politicians to sexualize (and therefore sensationalize) Saba’s murder as gang rape rather than punishment for daring to defy casteist-elites, later volunteers self-incriminating evidence of his complicity.
Second, Aravind, who attacks a spineless media, judiciary, and state, appears inspired, partly, by personal vendetta than purely by principle.
Both hint that the masses may need a bit of luck in their fight. Director Antony’s point? The masses should do their darndest to earn that luck.
Here’s where Antony’s cameo only seems random. Tellingly, he plays an inspiring professor (after all, it is a professor who is killed for the crime of “inspiring”). First, he scrawls Mahatma Gandhi’s ethic on the classroom board, “the best politics is right action.” Next, he looks his class in the eye and recalls his own professor’s words:
“The chairs you are sitting on have a history. Not of those who sat on it, but of those who rose up from it. Those who took to the streets to protest. That is ‘Revolution’!”
Rise, Antony seems to say. Go beyond theory, to practice. Embrace fearless protest of injustice. Sing your anthems all right, but if you don’t rise up to injustice against the vulnerable, it matters little whether you sing, or what.
The camera captures that essence, looking up at Gandhi’s words on a plaque: “In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.”
“JGM” insists that protest, of any sort, must start with the individual.
Vidya’s alone when she rises — no one backs her.
Saba’s alone when does — not one fellow professor backs her.
Gouri’s alone when she does — only later, do fellow students back her.
Aravind’s alone when he does — only later, does a hostile court back him.
It is after they rise, that mere bystanders band together, crowding the streets in protest.
Equally, “JGM” insists that protest must not end with the individual.
Stirring closing scenes show an angry, but anxious, Gouri, dressed in her best colors, rising to contest elections against a heavyweight. She glances at her serene self in the distance, dressed in deathly spotless white. A caution to herself: if you’re not prepared to die in this fight, you might as well sit down.
You also see Prof Saba, as if back from the dead, prompting young Gouri to move from mere anger in the gallery to meaningful action on the ground. Saba might as well be talking to the audience.
Saba’s saying that unless individual change leads to collective and institutional change, any change, no matter how brave, will die as she did. She’s also saying that unless protest spills from the masses in the streets back into individual change in legislatures, courtrooms, newsrooms, police stations, and college campuses, that protest will fizzle out where it begins – the streets. That, “JGM” warns, would be a pity.
“Jana Gana Mana” (2022) Trailer
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.