Even before the film was put on the studio floor for shooting, I knew that Lal Singh Chadha would not work. Notwithstanding that Forrest Gump is an American cult film and Lal Singh Chaddha has been ably adapted, yet the film would not have worked in India, even if there were no adverse publicity. Understandable that the propaganda against the film was politically motivated yet there was something in the film spirit that ran wholly contrarian to the Indian ethos; one who does not get this essential constitution of the Indianness, to my mind, should no longer aspire to remain a filmmaker. Hence exit Aamir Khan, he has lost his philosophical home in India especially because his ethos and that of India’s are now at variance. Here is why.
Who is Forrest Gump and how is he the innate spirit of America so that everything in the American Constitution and the constitution of everyday life must be tested against his emotional well being and material success? At the core of the character is disability and America being a Sparta in spirit requires Spartan citizens, full of physical brawn and intellectual brain, material as well as spiritual success, inclusive but also has its own religion of success and pursues its own culture of future. America is a land of the prospects, of upward mobility and here the disabled, the colored, the women and perhaps the Catholic, like in Sparta constitute formidable others. It becomes, thus a challenge to the effectiveness of America to see Forrest Gump have a normal life.
The post-Independence situation in India is different. It is a land with an ancient past, which needs to be realized in the future by way of political autonomy. But the mere politics is inadequate to grant autonomy to the middle-class intelligentsia, the social class that won the Freedom. The Indian Constitution is geared towards providing this middle-class intelligentsia its fuller manifestation. People, irrespective of social class and caste, creed and religion, language and culture are supposed to become this member of the intelligentsia in attitude, mindset, and manners. The challenge of the Indian Constitution is to help a person who may have the capabilities but not the means to attain the status of the middle class. Hence to qualify as a candidate of popular imagination, the candidate must be seen to be one superior in qualities and capabilities though poor and without means and opportunities to use those capabilities into a materially comfortable life. Forrest Gump is automatically disqualified in the popular imagination. Our mascot is Apu; he is found even beyond the trilogy of Satyajit Ray; he sneaks into the images of the heroes of our popular cinema, practically in every language; one who suffers due to lack of means when s/he deserves every bit to be at the helm of affairs in terms of capabilities.
The challenge to Americans and hence to Forrest Gump is to make a lot of efforts at achievements; the challenge to Indians and hence to Apu is to make many complaints to allow the society to give him the right space. America’s politics is all about hard work; India’s politics is all about reservations and distributions of entitlements. The two do not match despite both being diverse democracies looking out more into the future rather than at the past. Lal Singh Chaddha is thus the wrong model for us. We cannot have much to do with it.
The above then brings us to the question of the popular cinema if it reaches out to the nation or nationalism. It perhaps does in the sense that the politics of the nation is the final limit and hence the final possibility for the manifestation of the individual’s capabilities. The nation serves as the reality principle of the film; take that away, the cinema loses its context. The universal appeal of a film lies in its context; place the context firmly, the actor’s agency finds its higher order principles. In Forrest Gump this was the case. In Lal Singh Chaddha, the context was missing; it did show India in its palpability but missed out India in its aspirations. Therefore the Apu trilogy, now over 70 years of age finds its appeal while Lal Singh became a damp squib.