A Wednesday- Making Fools Of Us All
By Ashley Tellis
A Wednesday is the latest in a lengthening list of films that prove that the Hindi film industry is complicit with the Indian state in demonising the Muslim and producing amnesiac versions of Indian nationalism and 'terrorism,' says Ashley Tellis
The slicker Hindi films get, the more status quoist they get. Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal of the figure of 'the Muslim' (in scare quotes because this is a homogenised, monolithic category in the Hind film/Indian national imagination). No Hindi film appears able to work out of the assimilationist (placing the burden upon the Muslim to prove his citizenship twice over, whether in Sarfarosh or Chak de India, if he wants to belong to the Indian nation) model or the binary of the good Muslim/bad Muslim (the good Muslim is he who ceases to be Muslim in his identification with the Hindu nation-state (Anwar, Aamir) and the bad Muslim, soaked in his Muslimness, is irrational, infantilised and dangerous, typified in the figure of the 'terrorist' (the villain in Aamir, the boys in Black Friday, the 'terrorists' in A Wednesday)) and 'terrorist' is also in scare quotes because this 'terrorist' has no history in the Indian national/Hindi filmi imagination, no context, no particularity. He is just 'Muslim.'
Aamir involved the straightforward pitting of the good Muslim vs. the bad Muslim. Aamir, the protagonist, was young, neoliberal, bore no marker of Muslimness on his person, did not have any sense of being wounded as a Muslim, had no sense of community and blew himself up – in a super-nationalist re-writing of the suicide bomber figure – to save a busload of 'innocent Indians,' at the expense of the possible wiping out of his own equally innocent family (the good Indian gives up his family for his nation, as the police officers in A Wednesday also make clear). The bad Muslim was a con man, duped an innocent Muslim into becoming a 'terrorist,' terrorised children (a child bawls at his petting) and was blinded by hate and zeal for the revenge of his quam.
A Wednesday takes this one step further. It muzzles the Muslim into figure of the 'common man' (sic), (and this is a man; women have no place in this world except as vulnerable victims in need of protection (the wife and child of the police officer or the hysterical 'wife' of the common man who keeps calling him to check that he's not blown up by random bombs) or gormless nationalist (the journalist, very eager to please the state)). This latter is, perhaps the film's only accurate depiction, the Indian media, especially electronic media, as the stooge of the Indian state, particularly on the issue of 'terrorism,' where we all want to outdo each other in our nationalism and there is no space for questioning and criticism, which are the hallmarks of a democratic media.
This 'common man' refers to a certain 'them' (and this 'them' are terrorists, which means Muslims, because all the terrorists in A Wednesday's, and the Indian nation-state's worlds are Muslim) as 'cockroaches,' insects which must be killed not nurtured. Just like the Indian nation produces itself as a blank, homogeneous category, empty of time and with no memory at all except of its own sovereignty and integrity, so also this common man has no sense of history or time and only a sense of his own integrity. But this integrity does borrow (like the nation does) a language to build its own sense of sovereignty that is curiously selective in its appropriation of history.
Hence, the central protagonist of A Wednesday who is clearly, despite the pathetic ruse of shielding us from his name, a Muslim (he speaks khaalis Urdu with a perfect accent; he greets the 'terrorists' with the insider quality of the communitarian; he's marked Muslim throughout the film, before he disclaims it preferring the 'common man' appellation). Just like the Indian nation-state, however, this 'Muslim' has peculiar memory loss.
He has no memory of the Shiv Sena pogrom against Muslims in Bombay but a clear memory of the bomb blasts; he has no memory of the Narendra Modi-led genocide against Muslims in Gujarat, but has clear memory of Godhra; he speaks of great inconvenience he faced caused by things like the blasts on Bombay's trains, but offers no account of the inconvenience days of rioting caused, when the entire city was shut down and only Muslim schools houses and shops burnt; he has great fellow feeling with a stranger-friend on the train, but no feelings at all for Muslims raped and killed on a genocidal scale in the two cities of Bombay and Gujarat. He blames the police and the law for not 'nipping terrorism in the bud' but never asks them why they stand and watch, while minorities are being butchered. Whether in the 1984 Sikh pogrom in Delhi, Bombay 1992-93 or Gujarat 2002, unlawful forces and in a deeply unlawful manner, killed minorities and the police stood on the sidelines and watched; the courts never gave anybody justice, though the convictions of Sikhs (who murdered Indira Gandhi) and Muslims (in the blasts) were swift.
The common man of A Wednesday, then, like the Indian nation-state, offers no justification for his selective memory, instead he offers a clear portrait of his Other, the enemy. A Wednesday makes the Muslim into a homogenous 'terrorist,' linked to Al-Qaeda, blowing up innocent people for no reason at all or only because they are Muslim and therefore mad. The Bajrang Dal makes and uses bombs, but can never be 'terrorist'; the Sangh Parivar can kill Muslims and Christians with impunity (as in Orissa and Karnataka) but that is never anti-national.
At the end of the day, this 'common man' is not R.K Laxman's common man who spoke for a whole class of people, irrespective of religion, for decades in The Times of India. This 'common man' is the perfect 'good Muslim' that the Indian nation-state and the Hindi film industry (there is a snide remark passed off as a joke in the film about how Hindus are the minority in the film industry, because it is dominated by the Khans and so the Hindu hero needs protection) are so keen to produce; the Muslim they traumatise so many ordinary Indian Muslims into becoming, just as they produce the very category of the 'Muslim fundamentalist' they deplore, precisely by such representation.
The Muslim the Indian nation-state and A Wednesday uphold is the Muslim who hates all Muslims, who denies all community except the neoliberal, Hindu nation-state, who hides his taveez, who sees all Muslims with suspicion, who kills people the Indian state calls terrorists without asking any questions (such is his mindless loyalty to the Indian nation-state) and who has no memory, as noted already, of his own, or his community's, suffering at the hands of the Indian nation-state.
In effect, he is no longer Muslim and has to no longer be Muslim to be Indian, which, while on the surface, seems like an unmarked category (in secular, empty time) is, in fact a Hindu category. That is why, the narrative voice of the fim is that of Anupam Kher's character – the Hindu Commissioner of Polie – efficient and swift, in rounding up all terrorists, but who is finally sympathetic to "common man," and his own unlawful methods of revenge against 'Muslim terrorists.' Look at the forces that he can mobilise – the Hindu police officer, his junior, whose wife and child are in danger travelling on the local train (fully into heterosexual love and, therefore, evoking the sentiments of the audience) and the single, Muslim police officer, loyal but brutish, who finally gets the wound in his arm from the Hindu police officer to create the drama for the media – he has unquestionable authority. The film also makes fun of the serious human rights violations around encounter killings which are a heinous reality in this country.
That an actor of Naseeruddin Shah's stature and calibre agreed to essay this role and lend this poisonous representation credibility and weight is shocking. That we are expected to buy into this extremely dangerous nationalism and that this violence on the Muslim is done in our name (the name of the collective, nameless, ordinary citizens, 'common men') shows that we have lost our collective mind (the audience in the theatres dutifully clapping at all the jingoistic claptrap that the character played by Naseeruddin Shah spouts, the critical acclaim for this openly communal film (its anti-Muslimness barely concealed by the flimsy mask of the 'common man' chicanery) shows that we are indeed stupid, common people. We buy into all the lies that the Indian nation-state, the Hindi film industry and the media wants us to believe. We are smug and righteous about our stupidity.