(Spoiler Alert: This blog contains spoilers. Viewer discretion is advised)
The Post is a movie that celebrates the spirit of investigative journalism and the principle of speaking truth to power. It was an inspiring watch for a young reporter like me. Especially since I watched it in the same week as PM Modi’s “exclusive” interviews to Zee News and Times Now, those two stalwarts of journalistic ethics and integrity. The meekness of the interviews was as far removed as possible from the ideals of journalism eulogised in The Post.
A day after I saw The Post, I went to watch Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz. From reminding me about the prevailing menace of casteism (and most of Bollywood’s blindness to it) to assaults in the name of gau raksha and that horrific murder in Dadri, Mukkabaaz left me thinking as well.
Two very different films, one set in the United States and the other in Uttar Pradesh, served as a grim reminder of the sorry state of affairs in India – in our media, our politics and our nation.
Mukkabaaz and Mohammad Akhlaq
In September 2015, in the village of Bisada, Uttar Pradesh, a mob gathered at a temple where an announcement was made claiming that a Muslim resident of their village had consumed beef at home. Within minutes, the ruffians broke into his residence and snuffed the life out of 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq. All that Dadri’s lynch mob needed was a rumour, a cow and a Muslim.
In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, also set in Uttar Pradesh, a Rajput boxer Shravan Singh and his Dalit coach Sanjay Kumar return home from training one evening. As they await their dinner, there is a knock on the door.
They are greeted by a friendly neighbour who offers them a vessel full of gosht (tender, slow-cooked meat). But seconds later, there is a mob at their doorstep, raising raucous chants alleging that the boxer duo are eating beef at home. The mob launches itself on the two pugilists, beating them to pulp.
The setup, we learn, was orchestrated by Shravan’s nemesis and former coach Bhagwan Das Mishra. In a later scene, a senior cop tells Shravan that the mob had gathered outside a nearby temple where an announcement was made that beef was being consumed in the boxing coach’s house.
The similarities are unmissable. The details exact. Mukkabaaz’s cow vigilantism scene is a direct reference to the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq.
So when Shravan gets his opportunity to strike back at Bhagwan Das, he does so with an utterance of “Bharat mata ki jai” for every punch he lands. It is a blow directed at those who maim and kill in the name of religion, and faux nationalism.
Bollywood’s “Caste, What’s That?” Attitude
Watching how prominently caste is woven into the narrative in Mukkabaaz made me reflect on how Bollywood generally washes its hands off any reference to caste. It does not make Hindi films caste-neutral or casteless, it merely shows that the industry actively ignores the issue of caste.
After all, if ever there was a collective CV for all of India, and our billion plus population, the skill of pulling wool over our own eyes would feature prominently on it. It is an art we have mastered. It’s what makes adult upper caste men and women go around town proclaiming things like “caste discrimination is a thing of the past.”
Despite the reality being something like this.
The same can be said of our moviemakers too. Take for example once-threatened-twice-shy Karan Johar, who is reportedly set to remake the Marathi hit Sairat, but minus the caste equation. It’s like remaking Lagaan without the cricket. Because Bollywood biggies are more likely to open up about the casting couch in the industry than the caste divide in society.
On the plus side, he won’t have to deliver another cringeworthy apology begging for his film’s release. No caste, no problem.
But then there are the exceptions and thank God for them. Anurag Kashyap-directed Mukkabaaz wears caste right on its boxing gloves. Some of the hardest punches in the movie land on the systemic ways in which casteism in normalised, at work and at play.
It’s a welcome change from the usual Bollywood offering. It acknowledges how entrenched and naturalised caste discrimination is in India even today, much more than what most of Bollywood would have us believe.
From talking casteism to cow vigilantism, a film on boxing has shown us the mirror of what India in 2018 looks like, without attracting the ire of an unpredictable censor board.
After the world premiere of Mukkabaaz at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, director Anurag Kashyap admitted:
As a filmmaker, there are a lot of things I want to say. Through this larger-than-life story, we were trying to address social and political issues. But I didn’t want to fight the censors, so I had to figure out how to say everything I wanted to say and yet keep it safe (from censorship).
The Post in a Post-Truth World
If Mukkabaaz served as a commentary on the politics of caste and cows in today’s India, The Post was a reminder of all that is lacking in sections of the big Indian legacy media.
The allegiance of The Washington Post’s editor-publisher duo to reporting the truth, regardless of how ashen-faced it would leave the government, is a far cry from a powerful section of the Indian media that does not question, let alone speak truth to power, and acts more like an agent of government propaganda.
And not just in interviews, even daily reportage by some prominent media houses seem more like a mouthpiece than the fourth estate.
The Freedom of the Fourth Estate
From channels like Republic and Times Now parroting the government’s words on almost every issue, to openly mocking and ridiculing the opposition; from a respected newspaper like Hindustan Times deleting their Hate Tracker website – an initiative that aimed to become a “national database on crimes in the name of religion, caste and race” – to multiple instances of articles critical of the government being retracted by leading publishers, is the Indian media wilting under political pressure to toe the line?
Though there are heartening examples of stories still being published that dare question those in power, there is enough reason for concern about large sections of the Indian media and their editorial freedom and impartiality.
And like in The Post, the final call on whether a story will be published or killed often lies with the proprietor, or owner of the media house. With the increasing corporatisation of the Indian media, the commercial interests of their owners eclipsing non-partisan journalism has been a constant worry.
The Pentagon Papers may have never been seen in newsprint had it not been for The Post’s proprietor Kay Graham throwing caution to the winds.
Which is why I kept asking myself while watching The Post: How many Indian media houses would have shown the same courage in a similar situation?
Ending With Optimism
Yet forever the optimist, I reminded myself of the rays of hope amidst the gloom. Case in point, The Tribune’s bold investigation and expose on the ease of a breach into Aadhaar’s database, published just this month. And despite the FIR by UIDAI naming the newspaper, The Tribune did not back down on its story.
Furthermore, a couple of days after I watched the movie, I read a fascinating story on The Print on how The Indian Express had once passed on a story to their rivals The Hindu because circumstances prevented them from publishing it themselves. Express’ editor at the time, Shekhar Gupta, had been inspired by the story of the Pentagon Papers, which were published by The Washington Post even as a court injunction prevented The New York Times from doing so.
The Fight Must Go On
Just as Shravan Singh keeps punching back in Mukkabaaz, even as circumstances keep pulling him down, and The Post’s editor Ben Bradlee and proprietor Kay Graham stave off the pressures to not publish so that the Pentagon Papers see the light of day, the fight against the evils of Indian society must go on.
From acknowleding and attacking caste discrimination wherever it exists, to calling out the excesses of cow vigilantism and the violence carried out in its name, from battling to keep our media free from the pressures of the state to struggling to getting the story out to the public – the fight must go on.
Two movies, set in continents apart, reminded me of India’s plight today.
Yet, instead of giving in, they serve as inspiration to keep fighting.