Dibakar Banerjee and the rotten Indian Middle Class

Originally published on Passionforcinema.com

I am a big fan of Raag Darbaari by Srilal Shukla, perhaps the finest satire ever written in Hindi literature,  I would eve suggest in entire Indian literature.  I would rank it right alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch -22 in terms of sheer breadth and depth. The subject of Raag Darbari is Indian village life, the type portrayed by Shyam Benegal in Sajjanpur and Well Done Abba, except the tone is sharper and humor far more loopier.

I appreciate the genius involved in writing quality satire. But at least in the written form you have the luxury of enough words and space to build up situations and describe characters. Doing it on screen in a two hour film should require super human skills. That’s why it’s so uncommon to find good black comedy in Indian cinema. We had our Jane Bhi Do Yaaro in 1983 which remains unparalleled to this date but it had silly situations and mad cap comedy even though irony was fully alive throughout in the film.

However what Dibakar does through his films is completely beyond any comparison. He combines satire and realism with such devastating impact that you have no choice but salute the man’s brilliance. Dibakar’s films are well loved and celebrated on PFC  , all three of them almost developing a cult following, but I don’t think in our busy lives we have time to appreciate how difficult it is what Dibakar does in his films . His films portray a certain literary quality, with enough humor and masala at the surface, yet far more deeper and cutting edge in the satire when you look deeper. You can laugh at the situations or cry at the sad reality projected through the characters and situations, while the characters remain completely oblivious of it. His characters are too sure of themselves, too busy living their lives, unaware of the irony that surrounds them.

There was a subject called Machine Drawing in engineering college that used to bamboozle lots of good students, including the author of this post. It required some other type of quirky intelligence to ace the subject, asking you to see shapes and dimensions that were completely beyond some of us. What Dibakar does, cannot be taught or learned, it requires similar type of quirky genius, the domain of only rare human beings. The accuracy of his observations and their subsequent portrayals on screen without wasting reels after reels of screen space requires you to think in an unknown hidden dimension. It seems as if Dibakar was peeping through the gates, doors and windows into our lives holding his camera and just edited the film afterwards. Right from the first scene in Khosla Ka Ghosla, where his camera pans through the gate into a typical middle class home where Maruti 800 is parked and newspaper guy on bicycle throws morning newspaper, the tone is set, which he maintains relentlessly through all three films he has made, coolly upping the ante in OLLO and LSD, every time we think he is done startling us. In KKG, he enters through the gate and takes his seat right on the couch in our small drawing room, on a coffee table that serves as dining table and as a drinks table when we learn to make ‘on the rocks’ to befriend our grown up son who belongs to another generation and another class, out of the myriad subclasses existing within our class. KKG is not that severe on expose, and only focuses on the timidity of typical Indian middle class, shows us what a scared life we live afraid of everything and everybody around us. We are scared of the real estate agents, the police, the government, the real estate sharks and even our own kids. The film exposes the complete lack of backbone in us, chipped away piece by piece by the daily grind of life around us. Anupam Kher’s character could be any of us, is in all of us. He is the guy in checkered coat, in R K Laxman’s cartoons. But at the end of the day, KKG remains  a straightforward good versus evil tale, an underdog overcoming a goliath story. I think Jaideep Sahani was the major factor there. It was his script and he kept Dibakar under control.

In Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (OLLO) however, Dibakar’s camera doesn’t leave any corner unturned. He walks right into the by lanes of Delhi’s middle class life , places his tripod and zooms in through the attached walls of the multiple houses illegally constructed by violating all sorts of municipal laws and encroachment on the narrow gullies. He exposes the classes within classes that exist inside what is typically referred to as the Great Indian middle class. Very swiftly he shows that there is a different class on one side of the car’s windshield versus another. Dibakar shows complete lack of interest in the yuppistan typically portrayed by Ranbir Kappor in Yashraj or Karan Johar films, representing only 10 % of the India. The subject of Dibakar’s attention in OLLO is the bystander who watches yuppistan from the sidelines and belongs to the 50% in the middle. Remaining 30 % of Indians don’t count, not even among the bystanders. Dibakar is very cruel in exposing the complete hypocrisy and way of life of this bystander class.

ctvv bhi chaida mainu, lcd bhi chaida mainu
laal mercedes chaidi mainu, laal kila bhi chaida mainu
haa haa chaida ho ho chaida

mainu chaida chaida chaida chaida
(chaida chaida chaida chaida) – 3

Above lyrics from a song in OOLO sum up the film for me. The 50% class has been given a long shopping list by the top 10 %, the government and multinationals and their whole life they are busy filling up their small houses with crap from this list they don’t otherwise need. Dibakar is not interested in exploring a Deewar type heroic story of mother not accepting money earned by son’s paap ki kamai. He knows how we would go to any length to collect all this stuff we need or don’t need. He shows how we have problems with bad deeds of someone only until we don’t benefit from it ourselves.

Dibakar’s control on his medium is complete allowing him to zoom in any small yet complex aspect of his plot and say everything there is to be said about it within a scene or two. For example, Jagrata, a common nightly event in North India where bhajans are sung to the tune of vulgar filmi item numbers and scantily clad girls dance on the stage to keep the crowd going, blurring the lines between a jagrata and mujra. Ram Gopal Verma made an entire film in trying to get behind the breaking news channels. In one or two scenes in OLLO, Dibakar is able to say whatever he had to say and much more effectively than RGV. I can go on and on.

Just when you think Dibakar’s epic telling of the great Indian middle class has been done, he comes up with third part of his trilogy. This time he takes his hand held digital camera and plants the camera right ahead into the private moments of his characters. Even in KKG or OLLO, he seems to hold a hidden camera. Otherwise how do you explain the pitch perfect acting performance by each and every cast member?  It seems as if there wasn’t any camera visible to these people when they were performing, so damn natural they all are.

I would like to add this piece from Time magazine about the death of Indian dream.


The article talks about the class of people who work in malls and how they cannot afford pretty much anything from the glitzy shops they work in. It amazes me when I discuss this irony with my friends and they don’t seem concerned about the risk of instability this fact causes in the society. Their retort is there have always been class divide in India and people just accept it as a way of life. But the big difference to me is in the way the new found wealth of a small section of the society is not just dangled, but thrust from every direction in the face of the very people who cannot afford any of it. 30 years back, there were no civic amenities in the villages and life was pretty primitive compared to developed countries or even our own big cities. But back then, at least, there was no television with hundreds of channels each selling the illusion called India shining. I wonder how that villager feels today when his surroundings haven’t moved an inch in last 30 years, but he is told that somebody in the rest of India is catching with the rest of the world in terms of wealth and health. No wonder farmers commit suicide in villages that are not even 50 kilometers away from our big and successful cities.

It’s amazing how Bollywood chooses to completely ignore this class that looks through the glass doors of the multiplexes and shopping malls but cannot afford to go inside. Mumbai Meri Jan had one such character played by Irfan Khan. In Love Sex and Dhokha, Dibakar’s camera doesn’t spare anyone. From those who run the shops to those who work in them and the ones who do shopping in them, all of their worlds come alive and he shows their worlds collide. He wants to draw our attention to the fact that young India is not just the one existing in yuppistan, but also the one that makes and propagates MMS clips, the one that becomes the subject of it and the ones that dies in honor killing. The auteur himself maintains a completely neutral tone throughout. How cruel!


2 comments so far

  1. Shweta on

    KKG is my all time favorite. The point you mention about fear is very true. Hasn’t it become the very essence of a working middle class in India? I was once part of that class (well…if I go back, I still am) and I have experienced it myself. The fear, the timidity, the state of not being in control of your own life—it is pitiable. Coming from North India and esp having spent years in Delhi, I could immediately identify with the theme/characters of KKG. Dibakar has done a wonderful, but seemingly effortless job of capturing the ‘real’ moments of a middle class. I heard somewhere that seemingly effortless takes the most effort, but perhaps in Dibakar’s case, his ability to think from/in a different dimension helps him even further 🙂 I agree with you on that. And since having this kind of perspective is so rare, I’m really happy that film-makers like Dibakar are getting chance to showcase their work in Bollywood which was once a domain for only Chopras and Johars of the world.

    My theory– perhaps one reason, Bollywood ignores to portray the lives of 80% of Indian population is because, for the audience to like a film–they have to either identify with the theme/characters in some way or aspire to be like them. And since the movies (at least recently) have a strong profit-motive linked to them, the producers take the safe route of choosing themes appealing to their target audience–that audience who can afford to pay for movie tickets. They segment the audience based on what the audience might be looking for (or needs) and then create a movie to meet those needs. It is not surprising to me that, since big part of revenue comes from multiplex audience, more and more themes are directed towards them. Very few people might like the freshness and innocence of Welcome to Sajjanpur, but they are the minority and don’t count as far as movie marketing strategies are concerned. We might like to believe that movies are an art form but it would be naive to think that way. I think they aren’t anymore. It isn’t bad, a commercial motive behind cinema should ideally give us good products, but unfortunately everyone gets what the majority wants or worse- what the producers think the majority wants!

    But precisely in such scenario, artists like Dibakar come across as rare gems and even the producers who give them a break also are worthy of credit.

    • Wisedesi on

      Thanks for your comment. You raise all good points. But perhaps you are giving too much credit to Bollywood marketing geniuses about how they segment the market and make movies for a specific target. My belief is most of that process is unstructured and run as lala system where your film gets made not based on what segment it is for, but based on who you know . And since the people who matter don’t understand life outside the 10% class, most other projects that fall in there don’t get made. Only few stubborn people like Shyam Benegal or Dibakar stick to what they want to make or what their sensibilities would allow, rest everyone gives in to please the masters.
      I am sure Dibakar got multiple offers to make masala movies after KKG. But he stuck to what he wanted to make and did exactly that.
      So yes, more powers to people like him.

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