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Laal Singh Chaddha: A comfortable film for the obedient Indian

It's one among many love letters Aamir Khan has written to himself, seeking a utopia that only a few are comfortable with

laal singh chaddhaLaal Singh Chaddha hit the big screen on August 11.

To the mildly sensible Indian citizen, the everyday struggle of being a member of a religious minority may come as no surprise. On a day when they feel terribly sensible, they might follow the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s (NCERT) suit, and make do with a selective representation of history by evolving with the times. This citizen could be Atul Kulkarni, Advait Chandan, or Aamir Khan — the writer, director and actor, respectively, of Laal Singh Chaddha, which hit the big screen on August 11.

The NCERT, which dropped the 2002 Gujarat riots from its Class 12 Political Science syllabus earlier this year, explained its stance by stating that it wanted to “rationalise the course content, and avoid overlaps”. Perhaps the makers of Laal Singh Chaddha also underwent similar epiphanies, except that Kulkarni and Chandan’s carefully “curated” historical accuracy falls flat. The 2002 riots do not even warrant a passing mention in the film. For a film that has been 14 years in the making, produced by one of the leading actors in India, and the plot of which unfolds against crucial historical events and political standpoints, this appears to be a deliberate, big miss, almost like an erasure.

The process of selection and omission of historical events within a work of art invariably brings up the question of representation. History, as we know it, is the memory of the collective. It is the memory of a community, which is passed from one generation to another, through interpretations in art, politics, and popular culture. The early 20th-century French filmmaker and theorist Germaine Dulac puts the responsibility of art in general, and cinema in particular, in perspective when she says, “It isn’t enough to simply capture reality to express it in totality, something else is necessary in order to respect it entirely, to surround it in its atmosphere and to make its moral meaning perceptible.” A tool of mass communication, perhaps even more than an NCERT textbook, cinema carries on its shoulders immense responsibility.

One also wonders if it’s the choice of subject — the story of Robert Zemeckis’ 1994-film Forrest Gump — that has rendered Laal Singh Chaddha rather weak. Forrest Gump is not without its faults — the neurodivergent protagonist is obedient at best and repetitive at worst. At this point, comparisons between Gump and Chaddha are inevitable. As the plot tightens against the backdrop of real events unfolding in the second half of the 20th century, Gump’s character advances through life, Bildungsroman-style. He lives through the assassinations of a few US presidents, survives the Vietnam War and is projected as a war hero, becomes the nationwide champion of ping-pong, owns the restaurant chain Bubba Gump Shrimp and has stakes in Apple Inc. In the Indian context, Chaddha’s story begins to unfold in post-Emergency India. Chaddha is witness to India winning the 1983 cricket world cup, Operation Blue Star, the 1984 riots, LK Advani’s rath yatra, protests against the Mandal Commission, Kargil war, Bombay blasts, even Milind Soman’s infamous nude photoshoot with Madhu Sapre. The neurodivergence is nothing but a mild inconvenience in both cases.

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However, in the case of Gump, the film’s preoccupation with conflict is not something that is dealt with in isolation. The historical events that unfold in the backdrop of Gump’s life are not merely events, they are explanations for the choices characters like Jenny make. Unlike Laal Singh Chaddha, Forrest Gump contextualises the characters.

Lately, many critics have called out the caveats in Forrest Gump, and its portrayal of what is perceived as the fruits of being a law-abiding citizen who stays clear of dissent. In both films, the neurodivergence of the protagonist is used to justify his apolitical nature. Even so, Laal Singh Chaddha, at best, comes across as one among the many love letters Khan has written to himself, seeking a utopia that only a few are comfortable with.

Laal Singh Chaddha is a cosy, comfortable film for the obedient Indian, who knows that the nation is polarised, but who is himself or herself safe owing to religion, caste or class.

anuradha.vellat@expressindia.com

First published on: 12-08-2022 at 07:04:44 pm
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