Riot Act

By chance or design, Kai Po Che unambiguously places blame for the 2002 Gujarat violence where it belongs

Kai Po Che’s protagonists are immersed in the milieu of an old Ahmedabad. The film’s climax depicts the days in 2002 in which the city was gripped by violence. {{name}}
01 April, 2013

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE MESSAGE of the movie Kai Po Che, a recent Bollywood blockbuster that follows the lives of three friends in Ahmedabad around the beginning of the 21st century? What does it seek to say about the Gujarat riots of 2002, which assume crucial significance in the film’s climax—or does it not seek to say anything about them at all? The movie has been attacked for not being aggressive enough in showing the one-sided nature of the violence. It has also been criticised as less direct on the question of culpability than the novel it was adapted from, Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes Of My Life. In a piece comparing the film with the novel for the New York Times’ India Ink blog, this publication’s Snigdha Poonam suggested that the film had softened the political context of the novel, and was not, in fact, “about the Gujarati entrepreneurial spirit, or friendship, or cricket, or any of the various themes that the popular author Chetan Bhagat has suggested in press interviews”. (If Bhagat really believes the film shows Gujarati entrepreneurial spirit, he gets its details wrong, as we shall see later.)

When Bhagat was asked, in an interview with NDTV, about how he had “handled a politically sensitive issue” like the riots, he responded: “You can talk about anything as long as the intention is good, as long as the intention is positive, as long as the intention is to really tell people that we need to heal the wounds, and learn to move on as better people.” In both his novel and the movie, he added, “there is no taking sides or insinuations”. Continuing this theme, in an interview with the Indian Express, Bhagat said: “Why and how [the riot] happened, that really is an opinion. And that the film doesn’t have.”

But the adaptation of Bhagat’s novel shows precisely why and how it happened. Kai Po Che, which I think is a wonderful film, accurately depicts the primary source of Gujarat’s communal troubles. It tells us two things: first, that the violence in Gujarat was one-sided. It was Hindus slaughtering Muslims in their neighbourhoods: official figures of the dead show that the ratio of Muslim to Hindu victims was four to one, despite Muslims being only a tenth of the population. And second, that this violence was not discouraged by the state in the years that the Hindu right has ruled it.

The urban Gujarati has swallowed the belligerence and the bigotry of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This belligerence is shown by director Abhishek Kapoor exactly as it is: unprovoked and menacing. It is remarkable that such a direct depiction of this, something so obvious to anyone who has studied the riots, has taken as long as it has. But it is very warming to watch it done, with such clarity, by Bollywood.

The villain of the movie is Bittu Mama, the stern Hindutva-minded politician and uncle of one of the three friends who are the heroes of the film. At five separate points—at his home, both before and after an election campaign, during a meeting with a pandit and just after the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra—the film tells us that Bittu Mama and his gang are bad news. The threat of his gathering legions tells us that they are seeking to make trouble, not reacting to provocation.

The riot of 2002 was a manifestation of a constant hammering away at religious difference in a tight urban space. Bhagat and Kapoor have done well to tell the world how things were and remain in Ahmedabad. They are as this film suggests. The procession that Bittu Mama leads before the election is like Ahmedabad’s annual Jagannath Rath Yatra. This rath yatra features oiled and muscled young men from local akharas, on flatbed trucks, showing off their shirtless bodies and their weapons. Their procession consists of hundreds of vehicles. With slow deliberation, it is led through the Muslim neighbourhoods of the old city, with the men shouting Hindutva slogans.

The casual religious bigotry of Gujaratis is shown beautifully and accurately. It comes in the scene when Ali, the cricketing prodigy whom the heroes are training, is called “lehngachaap” (pyjama-wearer) by his giggling teammates at the coaching class. No doubt they learnt this from their elders; it is a phrase that I knew as a child in Surat. The other phrase I knew was a jibe about circumcision, and in the film, one of Ali’s tormentors playfully pulls his pyjamas down.

This sort of bigotry is commonplace. When I worked in Ahmedabad a few years ago, I was told this joke, which many found funny, about the Indian cricket team being felicitated by Narendra Modi. When Irfan and Yusuf Pathan come up, he laughingly asks someone at his side: “Kai rite bachi gaya?” (How come they escaped?)

In the adult world outside the cricket grounds, the snarling manner in which the Hindutvawadis of Kai Po Che are shown speaking of Muslims is also real. I found a scene in which Muslim refugees from the 2001 earthquake are denied assistance accurate and historical. The excuse made by the Hindu organisers of the camp is that there isn’t enough for everybody, but the reason for their denial is clear.

The focus on “us—we are victims too” is also nicely and subtly done. The actress and BJP member Kirron Kher reminded me of this recently during an NDTV debate show we were both on. She cut in when someone referred to the violence in Gujarat, to say, well, Hindus were killed too, so why just go on about the Muslims. Many of our biggest stars—Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan—are either in the BJP or supporters of Narendra Modi. Bollywood is not necessarily as liberal as Hollywood. We must not forget that.

Bollywood also has little knowledge of caste, and that is not a bad thing. The one thing Gujaratis will find strange in the film is the names. They are all wrong. I don’t mean the fact that all the names are what Gujaratis call ‘savarna’, upper caste. That is fine and it is so with all our movies. The diversity of castes in India is rarely visible on screen. I meant the characters all have the wrong last names. Gujaratis know Patels, who are peasants from the same caste as Jats, as blockheads, not cautious people. The Kehvatkosh, a collection of Gujarati sayings, will confirm this. But the only Patel in the movie (Govind) acts like a Baniya, all prudence and caution. The Brahmin (Ishaan) is a hothead, bashing in headlights with his bat, an act Amdavadis will find difficult to reconcile with someone bearing the surname Bhatt. Another Brahmin (Omi Shastri’s father) is shown for some reason with the Baniya’s khata book, or daily income-expenses register. The only Baniya in the movie (Urvashi ‘Mehta’) is a teacher. I went to three schools in Surat and to a polytechnic in Baroda and I cannot remember ever having had a Baniya teacher. Then the poor Muslim family has a name from the North Indian upper class nobility, Hashmi. The broker who shows the boys around a mall under construction is Hassan Sheikh, a generic name rather than the name of someone from a Muslim mercantile caste. Perhaps this was deliberate, and done to escape cliché. I suspect, however, that it was not.

The problem that Kai Po Che’s critics have with the movie is that it does not blame Modi for the riots. But ultimately, a ‘riot’ is violence by civil society, enacted when the state steps aside. It is usually the neighbour, not a stranger, who burns your house and rapes your daughter in the pol, the Amdavadi word used in the movie for a neighbourhood inside the walled city. (Surtis call it sheri.) The state is the villain in Gujarat’s riots largely by omission.

Nonetheless, in the absence of any attempt at healing by the state, the communities have remained apart. The post-riot divisions that usually occur in Gujarat’s cities have become permanent in Ahmedabad.

There was an astonishing news report in early March about plans for the first municipal school in Juhapura, a large Muslim neighbourhood that has sprung up in recent years. This is only a stroll from the office of the newspaper where I worked in 2005–06, and it is not far from the most expensive parts of the city, where millionaires like Karsan Patel, the owner of the Nirma Group, live. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has been run for years by the BJP, and no number of newspaper reports has moved them into supplying even basic things, such as water, to the ghetto. The school is also only a plan.

This is the most disturbing long-term aspect of Gujarat under the BJP: that it has encouraged the neighbourhoods to be segregated, for Muslims to be ghettoised and separated from Hindus, through violence that BJP ministers have been convicted for. The film, in fact, contains a reference to this segregation, when Ali’s father, a politician, pleads for help for the residents of Juhapura. This seems like a deliberate addition, and I am glad Kapoor inserted it.

RSS groups, one comes to realise upon engaging with them, don’t see themselves as perpetrators. They are victims who must fight back. Something like this is shown in the movie. The moment comes in a scene leading up to the riots in the film, where Gujarati Hindus appear angry with themselves for being effeminate and vegetarian. Putting Muslims in their place, as they did in 2002, is seen by such Hindus with some satisfaction, because they think they are right to do so.  This swallowing of the Hindutva message—that Muslims must be shown their place—by the urban Gujarati Hindu, male and female, has not been made explicit, but then it is not the subject of the movie. Nor is it simple to show. One may as well write off a commercial movie if it tries to say that the majority in an Indian city is made up of bigots.

And it is true also that it isn’t as if the violence is present at all times. There has not been much bloodshed since those days of 2002, as we are often reminded by Modi’s supporters. The natural state is reconciliation. It is only in episodic fashion, when the state is passive, that passions are allowed to get out of hand.

But where does the violence go? I could not understand it after the slaughter of 500 Muslims in Surat in 1992, in riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. I still cannot understand it—this return to normalcy, or what seems like normalcy, in the Gujarati city, only days after carnage of a truly barbaric scale. Perhaps another film should be made on this, but it is not fair to demand that Kai Po Che should have carried the burden. It has done what it set out to do brilliantly and, as I said, without ambiguity.