Recently while watching a short film on YouTube, I came across a comment about the video which puts many things in perspective for me. “So cute! I thought its gonna end up being a psycho short film,” was a comment some anonymous viewer had made, and it made me reflect on the growing binary nature of our society. It made the stark reality apparent leading me to ponder upon the reasons for this development. Culturally speaking, though I am no anthropologist, I can see many factors pointing to this phenomenon and the all-pervasive nature of these factors only points to how deeply this has begun to take hold of us as individuals.
The seedling of this binary is placed in the clear-cut definitions as demonstrated by Indian stories, mythologies and heroes. There never has been the space for a grey character to assume full shape. Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana in Ramayana do not at any point take center stage. Their ideology belongs to the fringes with their personalities exalted only as a devotee of the God. This representation was further reinforced by the Indian movies of the time placing their firm belief in Hindu mythology and this polarity of choices to define the characters.
First, there is the historical perspective of partition. It is a wound we have never bothered to treat. It has festered and formed the menace we are seeing today in our country in terms of the various religious and regional hyperboles. The division of a country bound by a culture which dissected these very lines in times of slavery led to its unraveling during times of difficulty of the most inhumane kind. With the violence that followed in its wake, that generation grew up making their choices in clear cut and definitive terms. This split reinforced the idea of good and evil in their pure form leaving very little space for the grey. These were people driven by a very simple understanding of gaining back what they had lost as property, dignity and status, and armed with that they went forth to conquer the frontiers of this new world unfolding in front of them.
Second, the subsequent generation of this country, with its ideas placed in the newly-developing nation and its maturing structures, began displacing their father’s earlier dreams of survival and establishment with dreams of taking deeper roots in the society, providing security to its next generation and chasing power (sub-consciously, I think this was a direct reflection of the people’s perception that those in power are rarely hurt in turbulent times) in corridors of bureaucracy. With this thought at the centre of their activity, we saw that generation of Indians vying for spots in government, administration and politics. Those were the times when none of these were considered dirty. This sense of not wanting to be dislodged became the centre of all industries as well. The senior most authorities are not looking for dissent or challenges from the society. They feel threatened and turn vicious. The evolution of our culture guardians could be seen in this. Once their position as the sole compass of the society was challenged their rhetoric became more confrontational, poisonous and vociferous. Once again this is reflected in the cinema of the time. The emergence of the “Angry Young Man” meltin
g into a common man fighting against a system so rotten that its veins also pump poison is not a coincidence. Once again it was a question of a larger evil growing with its roots still absorbing the hurt, pain and anger from the past wounds and the struggles of a single man in this storm. The good v/s evil equation continued. The parallel cinema movement tried to present the middle ground but it could not sustain itself in the face of major lack of funding for cinema as an industry during the eighties and nineties.
Newer dreams came to reflect Indian reality with the Generation X questioning the sensibilities of their predecessors. The middle ground was growing. However, the inability to deal with our past always drives us in directions which are not of our choosing. The fact that we never addressed partition as a wound came to impact us in many parts of this country. The hero was rebelling against the system, still but the systems were becoming internal. He was fighting now the family, the friends, and the lovers and in that sense these smaller units came to represent the society in general. The struggle remained between good and evil however in social interactions these lines could not contain themselves. It was OK to let go of young boys teasing girls as frivolous and childish. After all there were bigger things to worry about. Patronage from these smaller units has stoked the fire for grey characteristics to emerge. In these interactions, our society continued to struggle with the larger image of good v/s evil while not clearly understanding the definitions of what it meant in real life. Ideological positions became the centre of all our discussions. We were seen busy discussing politics, religions, community life, morality, philosophies in cafes, streets, paan shops and public transport. We had an opinion on everything in terms of what is right and what is wrong. Our real lives, on the other hand, were fraught will contradictions. We professed that politicians should be clean, while as bureaucrats we pocketed money, we spoke about how Babus do not let any file pass through unless something exchanges hands under the table while we gave small bills to policemen for not giving us chalans for breaking the signal.
Our on screen heroes came to reflect this subtle change in the attitude of the protagonist towards good and bad. His definitions were fluid till a time of extreme crisis presented itself. He would be frivolous in classrooms, cheap and masochistic towards his women, however, faithful to a fault in his friendships. This bond came to represent the new hope that Indians were extending towards each other for finding the trust they had lost at the time of partition. Barriers were broken and friendships forged across caste, creed, political beliefs and religion. However, the Indian collective was shaken badly by the events of 90s. While the economy was opening up, throwing up choices for consumers the country was closing its doors towards the bonhomie it was pushing itself to create. Newer rifts were seen emerging, and newer areas of dominance for smaller groups became the norm. The hero was turning his anger towards these cliques forming on the edge of the society and threatening to engulf the peace of the neighbourhood. This neighbourhood hero came to fight smaller injustices hurled at him. His was no longer a fight with the family, as he was the antagonist of the goons, the fighter for justice at that level.
The newer generation is disconnected from politics, religion, traditions, and rooted only in consumerism. This is not a critique of the society we have created but a mirror to reflect upon. In the wake of economic choices being created we have turned into binary creatures. This is good to eat that is bad to watch, this must be discussed that cannot be named and so on. The internet revolution with Facebook offering choices of reactions that have come to represent the range of human emotions and so many platforms that make up for the variety in our life has only turned our imaginations to futility. We refuse to create new ideas impacting a large chunk of our population, we fail to acknowledge the power that lies within the bounds of our urban imaginations and we ignore the population that works silently in turning the wheels of this country.
This binary has come to represent the news we consume today and also the opinions we form. That there are more than two sides to an argument, something that has been part of our shashtratha tradition and the culture of debate we have in this country, is something we fail to see today. A Bihari has come to represent certain slang in many cities no matter how many honest taxi drivers we meet coming from that region. A Punjabi has come to represent a loud, boisterous, masochistic, ruffian no matter how many mild mannered gentlemen we meet during our travels across the country. We have examples aplenty in the films we make, in the stories we tell and in the art we create pointing to the ill of the society if only we wake up to take notice. The stereotypes in movies point to how we view people, cultures, regions, religions and almost everything else in binaries. It is this restriction we have placed upon ourselves based in our evolving culture that forces us to break out in places where there are no fears of reprimands. On such occasions we go to the extremes and become the worst of us.
In these cultural misappropriations and the binaries they throw up we have lost the space for the middle ground. If you are not seen taking a stand you have no backbone and are only worried about analysis and if you do take a stance which is counter majority you end up being sidelined no matter how pointed your intentions are to encourage debate on the topic. That someone can be a Hindu believing in the divinity of Ram and Sita and be equally enamoured by the idea of multiple narratives of Ramayana (more than 300) is a contradiction most people find difficult to reconcile. That someone can be a loving caring daughter and still not want to visit her parents more than once a year is not understood by people.
We have to check our existence and define why binaries have become so necessary. If we are brought up like this and I am certain that forms part of the problem we become rigid structures unable to explore new ground and forced to repeat our cycles of existence over and over again. We are not given a chance to commit our own mistakes and are told in clear terms by our parents about what we must choose and what me must learn to keep aside. We are left tottering in these circumstances and never end up growing up really even though we settle down in quicker numbers compared to may be rabbits. We continue the binary approach and end up spouting, “I get all my entertainment from news channels (as in actually since they also end up giving recaps of saas bahu serials)”, “I am not interested in politics, since it is a dirty world (and so dirtier and dirtier people keep getting attracted to that world and clean, efficient people keep running away from it)”, or “So cute! I thought its gonna end up being a psycho short film (since that would end up making me face my realities).”