How Do We Watch Films? Vikas Dubey’s Death
On the 9th of July 2020, Vikas Dubey a dreaded gangster of Kanpur died in a police encounter. Weeks before he died, he killed eight policemen at point bank range when they raided his den of vice. As if in an act of revenge, the police killed him too in a supposed encounter, brought him dead to the government hospital in Kanpur and thus ended the life of Vikas Dubey. Now this drama was almost telecast live through the 8th of July 2020, which had Suraj, my 35-year-old domestic help glued to his mobile phone. Thoroughly excited with the dramatic encounter which involved the very city hospital in whose premises he was born and raised before he migrated as a casual worker for sundry jobs in Delhi. Suraj’s day was made, the episode charged him up, got all his nerves alert and excited and made him joyful in the daily the drudgery of the routine chores in our house. So, elated he was that the very same hospital in whose premises he stole mangoes, had his wounds dressed by an attending nurse, and had that surgery of his hernia by the resident surgeons, the very chowk at which one had to take a turn into the campus were not only the site of the drama but also beamed over in all the news channels. Suraj gathered every detail in his head of the encounter, from Vikas Dubey’s arrest in Ujjain, the spot where he was slapped by the police for saying that he was Vikas Dubey, Kanpurwallah, the spot where the accident was made to happen, namely in the overturning of the police car. In his mind, Suraj enacted every bit of the events, sometimes taking on the role of Vikas Dubey, sometimes the policemen, as he narrated and narrated the story, to us and his friends in the neighbourhood or discussed with his brothers over phone, he presented a solo drama, playing all the characters as they appear in the narrative and weaving the narrative tighter and tighter with each retelling.
Suraj manages to read the Hindi newspaper which we subscribe at home for him. He scanned the newspaper for each threadbare detail on the case. He devoured all the channels in YouTube to get as many details about Vikas Dubey. In his inspections he gathered details of how he married at the age of 20, love marriage, he underscored, how his children are studying abroad, how he emerged into the world of crime, how he planned kidnaps and ransoms, appropriation of land and properties and even fraud. Dubey, it seems had politicians and policemen in his pay roll as well. Next, he reads the news of how his mother shut herself up in her room after she received the news of the death of her son, Suraj now imaginatively fills in the emotions. I think that this is how we watch films.
Firstly, he gets charged by a movement, there is unusual movement in the rhythm of things. Why is it that Suraj gets charged and not I? It is fine to say that Suraj gets all excited with car chases and shoot outs because he is unlettered and uncultured, and I may get excited by discovering a new author writing on fascism because I am so erudite and elitist. Well, these differences are with us and cannot be used to explain an immediate and perhaps a short lived phenomenon; for there are many things those which invoke the same responses from Suraj and I, namely the Covid 19, the sorrow at the loss of our pet, and to outcomes to India’s performance in T20 matches. The immediate cause must be related to something in the phenomenon of immediate response, namely the event of Vikas Dubey’s dramatic encounter and death. To my guess, it must be the movement itself, the movement which is of a different beat to the beats of everyday life as it unfolds for Suraj. Suraj has a more anxious and agitating life than I do for he lives on far many more contingent parameters. Compared to my parents back in Kolkata I have a more agitating life because relative to them, the existential parameters for me are more uncertain and tentative.
Suraj lives in an overcrowded slum, struggles over water and his turn into the washroom, fights mice, ants, and lizards in his cramped room, faces frequent raise of rents and tuition fees for his children and lives at our beck and call. The rhythm of his life is high pitched, disharmonious, and high strung as compared to mine. My life is high strung with frequent power cuts and uncertain water supply, conflict over car parking as compared to that of my parents. My liberation lies in rhythms those are at a pitch higher than those I face at present, which would mean access to better quality of service deliveries. I vote for a government that promises “vikas”, not the Dubey, but genuine development. Suraj has no chance of a better life, for him the liberating rhythm would be a release of his tense nerves those which grow taut within constant confinement of his life, namely waiting for his turn in the washroom, fighting pests at home and so on. His emancipation lies in the release of his energy, which could be sports but then that needs social camaraderie which the poor do not have, nor access to playgrounds and far less the access to institutions which support sports. He would thus love the opportunity to be on the streets. The popular Hindi film, known as Bollywood these days has a lot of street in it where heroes chase and fight villains, romance heroines, ride on vehicles with wind in their hair. Here in the streets also grows the high drama, high decibel, fast movements, actions like shoot out resulting in the serious consequence of death. Such an ensemble of stuff presents a rhythm that Suraj, in his social condition finds redeeming and even relaxing. Suraj thus absorbs the rhythm of the events within his body as he mono acts the entire “play” of Vikas Dubey’s arrest.
In this he finds as most inspiring the fact that the “sets” of the drama are his very own. He immediately identifies with the film since he can ‘’enter’’ easily through the familiarity of the subject. The “film” has no “hero” he can identify with, no issues, he identifies with its “sets” which are the premises of his home in Kanpur. The identification is the “point of entry”.
Once he aligns into the rhythm and finds the identification, the two may exchange places or happen simultaneously, he is eager to set into his heads as many details he can and place them in a logical sequence. In the first few rounds of the retelling of the stories, he uses the details which are apparent in what is shown to him, namely through the news videos but as soon as he organizes them in a time sequence, he goes back into looking for details on Vikas Dubey’s biography, his marriage, children, parents and even childhood. His mind, now over with the initial excitement of the drama seems to settle down into the “research” mode in which he looks to collect details those which are not directly available or accessible to him; namely details of Vikas Dubey’s past.
Meanwhile he also taps on the prevailing emotions in the story, tragedy of the mother having lost her son, resignation of her family, the anger of the policeman, the villainy of politicians. Only after engaging with the possible emotions, Suraj concludes the story, Vikas Dubey killed. Then he emerges into the morality of the plot for without drawing a moral QED, the story does not end for him for he is sincerely a theist who believes that there is justice in this world, might not be for individuals but for the system as a whole. The bad men need to die. Didi, he tells me, Vikas Dubey had to die because he was immoral. But did Suraj really think that way? Was there not an admiration in his voice for the guy? His children study abroad, he said, with suppressed satisfaction, he has made a lot of money, again admiration and looked after his mother very well, deep respect. Yet, he had to be killed, fatalism as watching the antihero, acceptance of the consequences of the huge risk this man took in his life. Vikas Dubey, on further reflection started getting transformed from dangerous dacoit to a loving family man who gave up his own life for the comfort of his family, the ultimate sacrifice and heroism of a man in the Indian society. Suraj, like millions of men like him, feels the pressure of being a breadwinner, often the sole breadwinner of his family for even if wives and children work, their contribution is not a serious income, it is only man who is supposed to earn for the family. When opportunities of legitimate incomes are few and far between especially in societies with low education and high unemployment, avenues of upward mobility are often through illegitimate means. This sociology is the genesis of the antihero in Hindi films. Once Suraj finds a moral rationale for the death of Vikas Dubey, namely he had to die, he dwells on his personal attainments, his sacrifice, the emotions and even the other side of the question, that he was a brave and a brilliant man who finally achieved what every man dreams of achieve, a wonderful life for his family as members of the upper class. Vikas Dubey, now punished is over; what remains of Vikas Dubey is what Suraj is free to cherish, his persona, his being a perfect family man. Sounds so familiar to the last dialogue of the mother in Deewar where she hands over the gun with which the police will kill her son and says to herself, that as a mother she has punished the son, as a woman she will now go to her progeny; as a social being she has disciplined, as a natural being she will love. Ditto same for Suraj.
What we see then in the above story of Suraj, the making of a film audience, indeed a popular film, the low brow and the kitsch and not the high art for the high brow audience.