Guest post by ZAHIR JANMOHAMED
When I started conducting research in Gujarat two years ago, I kept being asked the same question among middle class youth in Ahmedabad: “Have you read Chetan Bhagat?” When I asked what other books they have read, I often heard, “Actually I only read Chetan Bhagat.”
So I started to read Bhagat because I wanted to relate to many of the young people I was interviewing. But it was not an easy task.
Partly this is because Bhagat does not write ambiguous characters—the MBA student, for example, will act greedy and will learn that he needs to loosen up; the mischievous boy will understand there are costs to his deviousness. Reading a Bhagat book is like scrolling through a Facebook timeline—we are just checking in on what people are doing, catching momentary glimpses of who they are, but we rarely learn about the interior journey of each character.
Bhagat is not, however, without talent and his strength is his pacing. He knows how to remove the hiccups that often slow a story down and many Gujaratis I meet tell me they do not read but make an exception for Bhagat. But Bhagat’s pacing is also his weakness. Jonathan Franzen often says young authors today write novels like television. Modern television owes much of its influence to the music video with its non-stop cutting. If we are bored with an image, chances are a new image will appear 10 seconds later. The same can be said with Bhagat’s books—if a scene tires us, a new one will appear a page or two later.
This might be an unfair critique of Bhagat as story is not Bhagat’s goal — this much he has admitted. He is interested in imparting messages and perhaps this is why his books suffer from such a stubborn unwillingness to be imaginative. His books read like op-ed pieces, each character a different Lego block in his argument. In 2 States, for example, the message smacks us on every page: it is not a big deal to marry a person from another state. Great but can we at least be treated to a more complex story along the way please?
Of all of Bhagat’s books, I was most intrigued to read The 3 Mistake of My Life because it is set in Ahmedabad during the 2001 Kutch earthquake and the 2002 Gujarat riots. In this book, Bhagat gives us characters with about as much depth as a cardboard cutout: business minded Govind who is uptight; a religious boy named Omi who is sensitive and impressionable; and an unruly jock named Ishaan who loves cricket.
In the book, Ishaan befriends a young Muslim boy named Ali with a remarkable talent for cricket. For a novel set in Ahmedabad—where Muslims are routinely vilified—I salute Bhagat for writing a book with a sympathetic, central Muslim character. And I commend Bhagat for weaving in the stories of the 2001 earthquake and the 2002 Gujarat riots even though he fails at rendering both events with much complexity.
However in trying to tear down stereotypes, Bhagat fortifies many others. When Australia comes knocking on Ali’s door, Ali refuses saying he loves India much more. We cheer for Ali not because of who he is (Bhagat has given us little clue on who Ali is as a person) but because Ali loves India so much. Hmm—is this the only reason to cheer for an Indian Muslim? Because the Indian Muslim loves India so much?
Ishaan is made to seem like a savior. Without Ishaan, Ali would just be a kid in a kurta pyjama wearing a topee. Does a Gujarati Muslim not have agency of his own? In Bhagat’s world, it appears not. They reach their goals through the help of very kind Hindus.
Thankfully the movie version of The 3 Mistakes of My Life does not suffer from these same faults. Bhagat co-wrote Kai Po Che and the movie follows the outline of his book. The movie gets many things right. The three main characters are rendered with greater depth, humor and compassion. Director Abhishek Kapoor has given them texture and contradictions, something often lacking in Bhagat’s books.
There are other redeeming things about the film. Kai Po Che lacks many of the stereotypes we often see in Hindi films about Gujarat and Gujaratis. The characters do not sit around and talk about how much they like dhokla and they do not dance to awful songs like “GUJJU”. The Gujarat landscape is also as much a character in the film and I appreciate how the director showed the varied, natural beauty of this state.
The lead female character, played by Armita Puri, is smart, funny and assertive. She is not made to do any item numbers and her relationship with her teacher shows the changing ways males and females interact in middle class Gujarat.
But where the movie fumbles is in showing the Gujarat riots of 2002. When the earthquake happens, we see the ground shaking, the roof crumbling down, and Omi running for cover. We see the personal loss of the earthquake on the three boys. The earthquake affects them directly and we watch them in tears counseling each other. It is hard not to be touched and the cut to intermission only intensifies this. After the intermission, we see shots of bodies being carried, a relief camp set up for the 2001 earthquake, and even the death toll flashing on a TV.
But the director—and Bhagat’s script—fails to show the same detail for the 2002 riots. The scene begins when we see Omi dropping off his parents at the train station in Ahmedabad. Moments later Omi learns his parents were in the fateful S6 coach that was tragically burnt on February 27, 2002 in Godhra.
Omi is shattered and as an audience we are too. He meets his uncle, a leader in a Hindu group, and they console each other over the train burning. As an audience it is easy to sympathize, maybe even support, their desire to seek revenge. We even see a shot of a TV report that shows the exact number of those killed in Godhra.
That evening, Omi and his uncle carry swords and guns and storm a Muslim locality. Using an old fashion style ram, they knock down the door to a Muslim locality—conveniently decorated with green and red crescent stars—and start killing Muslims. Caught up in the middle are Ali, Ishaan’s star cricket student, and Ali’s father.
There are several problems with this scene and the way the film portrays Muslims.
Every time we see a Muslim character, the males are wearing kurta pyjamas and topees and the females are wearing burkhas. The film only exacerbates a prevalent attitude that Muslims look and dress different. This may be true some of the time but it is not true all the time, as Kai Po Che would have us believe.
As the riots unfold we do not see the meticulous lists passed out on the evening of February 27, 2002 of all the Muslim businesses and homes the mobs attacked. The riots we see onscreen are shown as a reaction to the Godhra attack and not, as many have pointed out, a pre-planned attacked orchestrated by the Gujarat state.
What struck me about witnessing the 2002 riots were the number of places in upper class areas of Ahmedabad like CG road where businesses with ostensibly non-Muslim sounding names—Pantaloons and Metro Shoe Store—were burned by mobs driving the latest SUVs. The movie does not show this. The movie does not also show on a TV screen the number of those killed in the riots, as it did with the death toll for the Bhuj earthquake and the Godhra train attack.
In one scene in the movie, the riot is staged to make it seem like a fight between an equal number of Hindus and Muslims. This is not what happened. It was thousands of people gathering to attack often just one or two businesses on otherwise Hindu streets. It was, in short, not a riot as the film would have us believe. It was a state sponsored pogrom.
It is what we do not see in the film that is most troubling: we do not see police officers refusing to help; we do not see women being held down by mobs, raped, and then burned alive; we do not see entire families being thrown into bakery ovens; we do not see the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi meeting with police officers and instructing them not to intervene. In fact Modi is nowhere to be seen—not surprising, given Bhagat’s affinity for Tweeting pictures of him and Modi.
Yes—we watch Ali and his father being chased by the mob. But then the tension shifts when Ishaan reads one of Govind’s text messages and the sympathy quickly shifts away from the Muslims being attacked to the three boys. I will not ruin the final scene but we are left feeling a profound loss—again not for Ali or his family or for the Muslims attacked during the riots—but for one of the three boys.
There are no shots of the relief camps built for the survivors of 2002 riots (there were 85,000 displaced in Ahmedabad alone), nor are there shots of entire rows of homes burned down. The three characters are not seen crying in the aftermath of 2002 nor do we see what has happened to Ali, his family, or his neighborhood as a result of the riots.
The movie then cuts to the final scene where the film ends on an upbeat note. This is, after all, a Chetan Bhagat movie. He wants you to leave the theater as you entered: feeling comfortable.
I recognize the challenge of converting a book into a movie and I agree it is unfair to say the film did not show everything that happened in the riots. The film is not about the riots. It is about the three boys and Kai Po Che is an excellent film about how friendships change (and are tested) through time. The director does weave in many admirable things, including a relationship between Ishaan and Ali that is very endearing.
But it could have been so much more. Just as the film showed very poignantly the lives destroyed by the 2001 earthquake, a few more scenes—maybe even just one more minute of screen time—could have given a short glimpse into how 2002 destroyed so many lives. Bhagat said he wanted the film to be a tribute to Gujarat. And it is. But it also contains something more insidious: yet another reduction of the Gujarat riots of 2002.
(Zahir Janmohamed lives and writes in Ahmedabad. Email: zahirj at gmail dot com.)
Related post from Kafila archives:
Previously in Kafila by Zahir Janmohamed:
- Sanjay and me
- Prof VK Tripathi and the fight for schools in Juhapura
- Seeing Pakistan from Juhapura
- An open letter to Madhu Purnima Kishwar