Sahir Recycled for Netflix Age: Vir Das Rant on India is Old Chai in New Cup
Turns out that Vir Das, like Javed Akhtar, maybe only recycling left-liberalism for 21st Century Indians.
I have some good news and bad news for stand-up comedian Vir Das, who stirred a political storm this week with a short video based on his gig at Washington DC's Kennedy Center by contrasting "two Indias" as he mixed good and bad statements about his country in a prosaic monologue.
The good news is that he does not deserve the blame for what he said because the same or similar things have been said in the past about India in equally popular/unpopular ways. There is nothing really new in what the not-so-funny video says.
The bad news for him is that for precisely the same reason, he should not be getting much of the cheer that he is getting – unless you count a South Bombay re-packaging of old chai in a new cup at a landmark venue in the capital of the United States of America.
So what really seems to matter to Das's right-leaning, not necessarily right-thinking, critics is: "Chee chee! Why he is talking like this only in front of Amreekans. They are our Quad ally as we seek that Official Superpower tag, no?"
This chee-chee bit it is also not new, as we shall see. At any point in the history of Independent India, it seems, the ruling elite do not like anything that lowers the "image" of India – never mind what the reality is, never mind the name of the ruling party, never mind the name of the dissident spoilsports.
Recycling History for 21st Century Audience
As for India, it remains what it has been for a long time – a violent land of non-violent virtues, where the people are noisy and argumentative while yogis export meditation and the power of silence to the rest of the planet.
Sample this: John Kenneth Galbraith, former US ambassador to India, once described the country as a "functioning anarchy." That dovetails well with a popular saying attributed to British economist Joan Robinson: “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”
But we need to look closer home for lasting words that have touched average Indian hearts. Last year, when Bollywood rap movie Gully Boy saw a hit in "Apna Time Aayega" (Our time will come) I wrote a longish piece to say that Javed Akhtar was only repeating in street lingo what lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi wrote as "Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi"(That dawn shall arrive) in the 1950s classic, 'Phir Subah Hogi."
It turns out that Vir Das, like Javed Akhtar, maybe only recycling Sahir Ludhianvi's compassionate Left-liberalism for 21st Century Indians being brought up on a diet of Netflix originals and stand-up acts amid much better economic conditions than those of their grandparents.
Sahir's hit in 'Pyaasa' went "Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Woh Kahan Hai" (Where are those who are so proud of India?) as the poet spoke of poverty and forced prostitution in Nehru's aspirational India of the 1950s. I have read the late film critic Iqbal Masud write that Guru Dutt's movies rattled the "Pax Nehruviana" and upset the powers-that-be.
Yeh pur-paich galiyaan yeh badnaam baazaar,
Yeh gumnaam raahein yeh sikko ki jhankaar
Yeh ismat ki saudayee yeh saudon pe takraar
Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai
(These tortuous lanes, this infamous bazaar
This unknown traveller, this jingling of coins
These deals of 'honour', this haggling over the price
Where-oh-where are those who are proud of India?)
Vir Das, Not The First 'Rebel' Artist
Sahir wrote unpopular songs in several films questioning either pseudo-philosophy that preached against materialism or against empty pride in a poverty-struck India dangling its ambitions in a hubris of sorts.
About 25 years later, Indira Gandhi's government was upset when India Today magazine published photos and reports on the Nellie Massacre of minorities in Assam even as the imperious prime minister hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government and Non-Aligned Movement summit meetings in 1983.
The story goes that government's agents bought up copies of the controversial issue of India Today from newstands to prevent foreign dignitaries from seeing the gory details of Assam.
About five years later, Rajiv Gandhi popularised the slogan, "Mera Bharat Mahan" (My India Is Great) only to find autorickshaw graffiti that said "Mera Bharat Pareshan" (My India is Troubled) written on their back covers. These were popular memes in an age when there was no stand-up comedy or Instagram. But they were catchy and popular enough.
In fact, if you google "Phir Bhi Mera Bharat Mahan" (Still my India is great - in a sarcastic vein) you will find numerous parodies on the theme mocking the underbelly of modern India.
One verse described ancient Sita as "fireproof" because she passed the agnipariksha and the Pushpak vimaan of Ramayana as the original global aircraft and hence India was great.
And so on and so forth.
Ruling parties are not amused but dissidence, comic ripoffs, satire, cartoons and mockery are a common way of showing up a mirror to the powers-that-be in India. We are like that only.
Sorry Vir Das, you are late for the party.
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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