For quite some time now I have been sensing that India is in the grips of a death wish. The growth rate of population is slowly coming down, the size of family is decreasing and while life expectancy is on the rise, the huge scale of female genocide seems to convey that here is a civilization that no longer wants its reproductive capability to be protected. The uncertainty over livelihoods is increasing for most Indians who live off land, depend on forests and work in factories. The middle class who had somehow secured a future for themselves, death also looms large as living gets costlier and requirements of a long list of consumer products portend to throw households into an irretrievable debt trap. Each day prices rise, wages refuse to raise, competition gets intense and need for qualifications grow heavier. The middle class runs fast to stay in the same place, trying to desperately save resources to launch children into respectable income classes. This uncertainty of social position, the precariousness of one’s income class, one’s difficulty in negotiating so many contenders to education and employment makes the middle class invest huge anxiety and paranoia into just maintaining a status quo. This anxiety and uncertainty over a future is the reason translates itself over what we witness as a death wish of our civilization.
Within our families, boys get preference over girls and expectedly enough the more upwardly mobile a household is, more it tries to kill its girls. The declining ratio of female to male is becoming a scandal in our country. We tend to cast off the aged and the sickly and India, a country which is famous for its family now requires laws to ensure that children look after parents. It is therefore only keeping in trend with such tendencies that Guzaarish is a film where the hero, a paralytic patient seeks death.
In the public sphere, we are intolerant of other people. Road rage says that we cannot tolerate our fellow travellers, crime against women says that men hate them in the public space, ethnic and communal politics says that we wish to eliminate a part of our population on basis of ascriptive profiling. Economic growth excludes the poor, drives them off the land, crushes farmers and chases away migrants. This is a political culture of death wish. Guzaarish is a film that is located in a culture of death wish.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali specializes in the opera style. The opera is a form of musical performance that originated in 16th century Florence, a high point of Renaissance that also saw a clash between the forces of the republicans and the Duke of Florentine, a conflict in which the latter won and imposed a tyrannical order crashing all semblance of a republican system. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were important persons in this period who showcased their works in Florence seeking perfection of form and order, a perfection that resonated the perfectness of the new institutions of tyranny, often supporting political and/or intellectual authoritarianism. The opera is a form that was born out of this search for a perfection and which has its roots in tyranny as well as despair against it. It is interesting that Sanjay Bhanshali adopts the opera format as his distinctive style.
The opera contrasts with the melodrama, the latter having originated in France during the Revolution some two centuries later in one major score. While the melodrama celebrates the bringing forth of a perfect life by working through the existing conflicts and contradictions, the opera is a monological assertion of deep emotions sharply articulated and acutely intonated so as to silence every contesting voice and expression. Melodrama thrives on drama as its name suggests while the opera needs to be “watched” and “seen” as spectacle, as its name suggests. Melodrama contains melody, or music but that is more as a background score in order to help its thesis grow and resolve, while the opera makes a visual spectacle of its melody emanating from the voice of the singer/actor. The Hindi formula film has adopted the essential form of the melodrama and punched it with the high pitched voices of its singers as in an opera and made a spectacle of its music. The operatic tone of the formula cinema has ensured the cinema’s position as a spectacle. But Bhansali tilts slightly more towards the opera and in this create a whole new genre of addressing the popular film. Guzaarish is an instance of it.
The idea of an opera is death because only death can be perfect in a way in which life cannot be. Guzaarish seeks death only as perfection. The hero of the film suffers from a paralysis that makes him totally immobile and only euthanasia can help him overcome his pain and hence the film becomes a representation or a Guzaarish for mercy killing by the patient. While the hero seeks death, he also shows us not the imperfection of life in general but the imperfection in his own life; a life which had been so perfect for him once that it seems utterly unreal and dreamlike. The life that he leads at present is so unpromising that it leaves no hope for any improvement. The hero, therefore looks to death to help him attain the perfectness of life that he yearns for, a situation that may hold equally well for a terrorist who hopes for a utopia that only death can earn for him. Most of us are lured with such five star lives through media images of advertisements, serials, sets of reality shows, magazines of lifestyle, celebrity role models that the objective conditions of our lives can never deliver unto us. Studies on young boys trained as terrorists reveal such impossible gaps between ideas of perfectness of life and the empirical conditions of their income opportunities. Death comes in as the untested belief that promises to deliver dreams and hence the dream to die and the death desire being the only romantic angle to life.
The other angle in this death wish is of course plain economics of household budgets. With economic liberalization comes the retreat of the State leaving the space to the market and private initiative. This change in the economic game playing requires new kinds of skills and knowledge that requires new kinds of investments into human resources. Since the State has already withdrawn from the arena, education falls substantially on the households. There is a competition over the household resources; what gets cut are expenditures on “non earning” investments like a girl’s education and care of the old and the infirm. Guzaarish, is a desire to get rid of the indisposed and non- earning. The dire financial condition of the hero and the hopelessness over his health gets insisted upon through the defence lawyer and the attendant doctor. In the formula of the popular cinema, the star is the self of the viewer and for those viewers who have liked the film, must have, at some point of time seen themselves in the hero, condemned to live in an insufferable life. For a sociologist, the main research question is why some viewers feel their condition to be like that of a quadripalgic hero; what are the pains of such viewers, what are their despairs, fears and desolations?
It is not as if the film did not contain life; a caring nurse who is self dissolving in that care; a host of fans of his radio show, good friends and loyal staff and a surviving elderly mother. All characters not only care for the hero but their lives seem to have been totally organized around caring for the patient, loving him, desiring him. Yet, the hero wants to die and everyone else eventually agree because of his unbearable pain, perhaps not so much of a physical pain as it is an emotional pain of being utterly physically dependent. It is the pain of imperfection, an imperfection that exists vis-a-vis only an idea of perfection. The concept weighs down upon the content, the abstract is held above the concrete. This is a pursuit of perfection, a perfection that only can be imagined and which is so transcendental that it can never be realized in that which exists. Hence Guzaarish.
Yet there were huge opportunities for the hero to prove a point; he could have proved the superiority of the mind over the body, he could have exerted heroism by winning through his mind, he could have reproduced by training many magicians, he could have either forgiven or ruined his enemy’s child and extended the conflict between the nurse and her husband a little more. In all of these, the hero could have been at the centre of a drama, secured his agency and assumed control of life that tries to deny and defeat him. But were the hero to do this he would have become the star of a melodrama and not of opera. The opera format requires the hero to be cynical of life, disdainful of the lesser mortals who believe in it and by claiming the worthiness of transcendental perfection decries life as it exists. Possibly, the viewers who seek themselves in the hero too conceal such disdain towards life.
I keep thinking of Anand, a film that genuinely seeks life over death. Every moment of life becomes beautiful when contrasted with death. It is a film that seeks blessings of life rather than be contemptuous of it. It is a film of the 1970’s, an age when we were still underdeveloped, militarily weak, grappling with food crisis; we did not have millionaires. But we had a polity where we sought to include the poor, the marginal, and the downtrodden. We were also a country that believed in a plural and an inclusive politics, a politics that fought privileges to get more space for the periphery, a culture that imagined itself to be on the side of the downtrodden. In the days such as these, we were a nation that had hope and not despair, yearned for life instead of death. This is why, Anand, a film made in these times looked for life everywhere and tested its limits against death. The hero of Anand faced with a certain death scraped every bit of life as savouries; the hero of Guzaarish, in his desire for death casts every savoured moment of life as crumbs. When compared and contrasted Anand and Guzaarish tells us that while we have seemingly done well in terms of GDP, we have also moved from life towards death, from hope into despair.