In defence of Syed Ahmad Afzal’s ‘Laal Rang’

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By Prasun Banerjee

‘At the stroke of midnight’ on August 29, 2020 a Facebook post accompanied by two still frames from a film caught my attention. The film, the author of the post referred to, is Laal Rang, a 2016 Bollywood crime movie directed by Syed Ahmad Afzal and produced by Nitika Thakur and Krian Media. The film, as the director confirms, is based on a report on the draught-stricken Bundelkhand farmers who were selling their blood for money. Set in Karnal, Haryana around 2007, the film is gruesomely disturbing and critiques, through a treatment of the blood racket as its subject, the post-Independent liberal democracy in India.      

Laal Rang foregrounds Shankar Singh Malik (Randeep Hooda), the Devta or God of the poor, who is in reality a blood mafia. A devotee of Lord Shiva, Shankar (as his name suggests) operates from his shabby den which is his illegal blood bank. As we enter his den for the first time, we see from a distance a pale wall whose details are immediately revealed as the camera takes a close shot. We see a swarm of nails for hanging the illegal pouches of blood, a Damru and a pink piece of paper that carries a graffiti of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose along with his iconic speech written in Hindi: Tum Mujhe Khun Do, Main Tumhe Azaadi Dunga (Give me blood and I promise you freedom). But the word Azaadi (freedom) has been struck off and replaced with a hand-written word Paise (Money). The ad-libbing, we believe, has been done by Shankar himself to advocate his ‘philosophy’ of life. This made the author of the Facebook post unnerved, as he wrote, “Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose abused again.” He considered this a “bad taste” and a deliberate attempt to “defame an international icon.” He demanded “the removal of such scenes from the movie, with an unconditional apology from the produces and the director.” He urged his friends to do the same, “Let us boycott the producer and the director and all their films. Give negative reviews.” Immediately after his post, his Facebook friends poured in comments conceding his ‘views’ and one person even went to the extent of calling the director a Deshodrohi or anti-national, a word much popular these days and yet highly contestable.  

The author’s almost proverbial edict “Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose abused again” is intriguing because the word ‘again’ in his statement is perhaps his attempt to surmise diachronically at the ‘habitual attempts’ of Indian filmmakers to vilify Netaji, our national hero. The author is perhaps alluding to films like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005) by Shyam Benegal and a recent one, Gumnaami (2019) by Srijit Mukherjee. These films also faced similar disdain despite their creditable social, historic and artistic values beyond the ethos of entertainment. None of these films can be branded as defaming and abusive as they are well-researched and are attempts of the filmmakers to revisit Bose in our collective unconscious. Again, the branding of such films as ‘derogatory’ is a testimony to the tendency of selective (mis)reading of elements/scenes, de-contextualizing them completely from the whole narrative of the film. Afzal’s Laal Rang is no exception to this practice.

In this article, I argue that the juxtaposition of Netaji and his ‘customised speech’ on the pink paper with the illegally acquired pouches of blood on the shabby wall of Shankar is a conscious choice of the filmmaker. It is not to libel the iconic patriot or to gain cheap popularity by brewing controversy, but to re-contextualize Netaji and the relevance of his revolutionary imagination in an Azaad Bharat and to address the dark reality of the poor and the marginalized in rural India, who still have to sell their blood to feed themselves. The film also unmasks people like Shankar who always take advantage to make money out of the blood bazaar. This also alludes to the body bazaar in India where human organs are still harvested. The film is a road to visit the Other of India which is Bharat, while the Self is India. The binary of India (Urban) and Bharat (Rural), however, needs redressal. Ironically in both of them the vision of Netaji has not yet been realized.

Netaji’s presence on Shankar’s wall is, according to me, a political necessity of the film. Netaji’s historic speech Tum Mujhe Khun Do, Main Tumhe Azaadi Dunga to the members of the Indian National Army in 1944 was a clarion call for the collective sacrifice in order to free the country from the colonial oppression. For Netaji, Azaadi or Freedom can only be achieved by sacrificing blood, an idea far removed from the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence. Freedom in Free India, as Netaji envisaged, should not mean political freedom only; it must necessarily involve social and economic freedom as well. But in Laal Rang the word Azaadi has been replaced with Paise giving it a narrow, singular yet meaningful connotation tinged with irony. The film, however, does not present a single verbal reference, either by Shankar or by any other character, to Netaji. The pink paper remains almost unnoticed by the visitors to the room. Nowhere in the film has Shankar uttered his ‘maxim’ Tum Mujhe Khun Do, Main Tumhe Paise Dunga (Give me blood, I promise you money). 

The silent and absent presence of Netaji along with his (tampered) axiomatic speech next to the horizontally and vertically arranged illegal pouches of blood, not only creates a montage, but also foregrounds the metaphor of blood as a connecting tissue to juxtapose the two contrary ideas of Azaadi or freedom: one envisioned by Netaji, the patriot and the other by Shankar, the protagonist of the film, who can well be viewed as a modern day Dracula in the guise of a blood mafia. Shankar’s idea of Azaadi which he has replaced with Paise is an economic one through the illegal transaction of blood, while Netaji’s was an emancipatory one only to be located in the distant past. The illegal donors also equate Khun or Blood with Azaadi not in the Bosean sense of the term, but in the Shankaresque sense, i.e. Paise that can ensure freedom from hunger, their intimate enemy. Ironically, they are also giving their blood, but it is not for the country. Rather, it is their survival strategy in a country that has failed them. It is ironical that their ‘sacrifice’ denotes a kind of failure in actualizing the reformatory programmes imagined by Netaji for a post-colonial India. The wide shot that captures Netaji and the illegal bold pouches in the same frame (see pic) is the film’s most crucial moment which, though macabre, symbolically fuses dream (Netaji) and reality (Shankar) melting the past and the present in a single time frame. The wall, which has a spatio-temporal quality (it keeps changing: sometime crowded with blood pouches, sometimes empty. But the only constant thing is the presence of Netaji), is a character that works as a historian and mediator between Netaji and Shankar.

Although Netaji and Shankar co-habit the same room, they never ‘meet’ in the course of the film. Netaji is only a passive onlooker of the events and a mute witness to the illegal blood pouches which are the metonymic substitutions of the poverty stricken plebeians in rural India (Karnal is a representative of this). This unvoiced connection between Netaji and Shankar is not only intriguing but also highly nuanced. Shankar has no relationship either with Netaji’s patriotic fervour or with his political and ideological point of view. To him Netaji is just a cult figure from the pages of history and his Give me blood and I promise you freedom is just a catchphrase and a linguistic sign for him connoting Netaji’s heroism and leadership. In the film Shankar’s self-image is that of a leader who emerges not as a Don but as the Devta to the people, as confirmed by the rickshaw puller, one of Shankar’s beneficiaries. Though a mercenary, Shankar is viewed as an emancipator by his people. His individual ‘talent’ is the customization, if not a deliberate distortion, of Netaji’s Speech in order to justify his action and to internalize the meaning of Azaadi only as ‘profit’ and the liberation of his people from hunger. However illegal or wrong his ways may be, he lives by his maxim which is his point of view. Moreover, it is interesting to note that Shankar, as his name suggests, is a worshipper of Shiva who symbolizes power, both destructive and creative. The juxtaposition of Damru (a small two-headed drum) and Netaji on the bloody wall of his den translates his preference for the destructive power (Shiva) and heroism (Netaji) which he connects unconsciously not only with his felony but also with his notion of masculinity. Shankar’s egotistical estrangement from Netaji’s vision and revolutionary philosophy, despite his (Netaji) constant presence in the room, is a comment on a generation that is unfortunately oblivious of Netaji and his visionary outlook of India as a free nation.

I would love to approach Shankar’s relationship with Netaji from a psychoanalytic position too. Although, Shankar’s identification with the small piece of pink paper that carries the graffiti of Netaji and his political slogan can be interpreted as a pattern of free association, Netaji in this film, as I argue, is Shankar’s unconscious, his alter ego only to be encountered and identified with at the end of the film. Shankar is finally released from jail after his imprisonment for what he had once done. His punishment is a poetic justice that the filmmaker has not forgotten to suggest. Shankar, however, comes out metamorphosed and in the final scene he tells Rajesh (Akshay Oberoi), his one-time partner in crime and confidant, to donate blood, but this time not for any illegal blood bank, instead for the NGO he is now running. Shankar’ transformation is a key to his unconscious where he finally meets his alter ego, i.e. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who, ironically, was always with him. Shankar now internalizes the true meaning of Azaadi, one that imagined by Netaji, and is able to re-connect with Netaji’s idea of emancipation through his reformatory participation at the NGO. His metamorphosis also allows him to locate not the destructive force of Shiva, as he did in the past, but the creative aspect of his deity.

To conclude, I must caution that we are talking about a film which is primarily an art form. Art invests an artist with the freedom to rearrange and reconfigure the materials to recreate what T.S. Eliot called something new in his 1919 essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. Moreover, art also creates a space where the ‘given’ can be re-evaluated, questioned, demystified and subverted as well. Art also demands detachment and distancing from the personal and collective sentiments associated with the subject art deals with. Syed Ahmad Afzal’s Laal Rang, a brilliant piece of art, raises after decades of Indian Independence some serious questions regarding the meaning of Azaadi, as Bose envisioned it. Afzal’s treatment of Netaji in this film, far from being derogatory and abusive, has only reinforced the poetics and politics of the film in treating the subject matter which is bleak, appalling and therefore demands urgent reflection. As an artist, Afzal is the conscience of our society. The film has neither defamed Bose, ‘the patriot of patriots’, nor has it abused the Hindu religion by juxtaposing Damru with the illegal blood pouches. Moreover, it would be undeniably unfair, objectionable and exclusionary to reduce Afzal to a Deshodrohi or anti-national. This, I fear, might complicate the whole issue further primarily because of Afzal’s religious affiliation. We envision an inclusive India, Netaji once dreamt off. So let us be reasonably conscientious. Let us stop being judgemental. Let us approach art objectively. This is possibly the only way we can appraise any art form.  

Bio:
A former Fulbright Fellow at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY),  Prasun Banerjee is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, North Bengal St. Xavier’s College, Rajganj, Dist. Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.

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