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.