Bollywood: Song, Dance, and Worker Insurgency

Posted May 1, 2008

Almost two years ago, I met somebody at a club, and when he told me what he did for a living, I nearly dropped my frou-frou drink. I think it was a tequila sunrise. That or a margarita. Something brightly colored and with a lot of sugar.

He was in the Air Force. More, he was learning Pashto, and therefore pretty much directly participating in the war in Afghanistan. After I stopped laughing slightly hysterically for three minutes (I was laughing because it was ridiculous how much I liked this guy; he looked very confused by my reaction) I told him I could speak some Farsi (which is related) and recited: Kargarun jahun hambastand az dast heche bejoz zangiraton, which means “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” I learned that when I was thirteen. I used to know how to say it (thanks to international delegations who came to the Socialist Workers Party summer conventions in Oberlin) in: Spanish, French, Danish, German, Italian, and, well, Farsi. I only remember the Farsi for sure. If there are any Farsi speakers who want to correct my 13-year-old’s memory of this phrase, please, feel free. You can never know how to recite “Workers of the world…” in too many languages, that’s my credo. One of them.

Anyway, this guy is very smart, and my rattling off a classic socialist slogan in Farsi may have pointed the way to a potential mutual interest. He unwittingly turned the key to my heart by revealing to me the wonder that is Bollywood. I think, in fact, that because of the movie I am about to review for your pleasure, we ended up a couple for a long time.

Bollywood. You’d think that Bollywood wasn’t particularly political. It’s very glittery and gaudy (both things which, by themselves, recommend it to me anyway) and melodramatic and over-the-top. I’ve heard people who haven’t seen it describe it as soft core porn (without any kissing), and it’s true that there are a lot of tight saris, often drenched in monsoon rain. Also a lot of amorous rolling in conveniently ubiquitous hay. And it’s true that everything is a musical. I have with my own eyes seen musical numbers which use the Indian Army as the dance corps. Even the prolific ‘terrorist movie’ subgenre has plentiful “item numbers” — and the mandatory wedding sequence. So how can Bollywood be POLITICAL?

My expert informant told me about a movie that is a little hard to procure, these days. It is, however, worth it. Please try to get your hands on a copy of Coolie, with Amitabh Bachchan, from 1983.

Coolie is a convoluted tale of a father killed by rapacious capitalist lust and greed, a mother separated from her son and rendered amnesiac*, by that same embodied capitalist lust and greed, and a son who grows up as the protege of a unionized coolie, or train porter. The adult Iqbal Khan (Amitabh Bachchan, the most revered romantic and action hero of 1970s Bollywood film, and still a reigning actor and Star) is the leader of the train porters, with their jaunty red tunics and brass tie-on number plates. He leaps to the defense of a coolie who is knocked over and jeered at by the pampered son of a Railroad Board executive, and is arrested for his heroism.

The whole brotherhood of train porters do satyagraha for him and go on strike, leaving the helpless travellers to stagger along under their OWN luggage. The strike culminates with the coolies lying down, en masse, across the tracks. Iqbal is released for negotiations with the Railroad Board, and in a great scene, gatecrashes a party at the rich executive board member’s mansion, union mates in tow. The snotty son tries to eject him using force, and — wait for it — Iqbal picks up a hammer and sickle to fight him. It is a truly awesome piece of homage and fine, fine cinema.

Another bonus of the gatecrashing scene is the direct action looting that Iqbal leads the workers to. It is heartwarming to see him break apart a hideously tasteless “gold” chandelier so that its component parts can fit into the miniature model house that the executive’s son sneeringly offers him when Iqbal protests the impossibly priced new workers’ housing.

The movie also contains the regulation romantic subplot and comic relief (if the hammer and sickle was not comic enough for you), with one of my favorite scenes ever, of the rich executive’s niece, who has been kidnapped by Iqbal as negotiating leverage. She is handcuffed to his fold down bunk, in his trackside hovel, while he is whistling and preparing to make her an omelette on his butane one-burner stove. He’s listening to a radio cooking program and trying to follow the directions as he goes. Every time his back is turned, she switches the station, with her toes, I think — to a yoga program, whose instructions Iqbal continues to try and follow. It is brilliant comedy, and comedy does not always translate well.

Personally, I tend to recruit to Bollywood (more easily than I recruit to socialism, really), and agree with friends (and recruits) who tell me that a Bollywood blockbuster like the recent Om Shanti Om is analogous to an injection of liquid antidepressant. It IS. If you need some cheer and joy to put new heart in you for the struggle, watch a Bollywood film. It will do the trick, I promise you.

Also, I (think that I have) learned how to say “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains” in Hindi**:

Duniyake mazdoor ek ho! Khone ke liye zanjeeren hain

*This is actually the plot of 90% of Bollywood movies in the 1970s.

** I can also say it in Pashto now, as that was a Valentine’s Day present of a year ago.

Oh, and finally, another political plug for a much more recent movie: Rang de Basanti, which is a melodramatic indictment of corruption in modern India and a celebration of non-pacifist nationalism in 1930s India. Rang de Basanti, with Aamir Khan, shows Indian revolutionaries reading Lenin in their cells, while awaiting execution. Not Gandhi, not at all.


7 responses to “Bollywood: Song, Dance, and Worker Insurgency”

  1.  Avatar

    Thanks! That makes complete sense given the Farsi; I would feel like a right idiot to be standing on a street corner in Mumbai shouting the wrong thing. And I am always, always happy to learn more and better. I’ll edit it.

    maeve66 is a middle school teacher in a working class suburb of Oakland.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    you’ve got the Hindi a little wrong:
    janzeer isn’t really a word — you want zanjeer (and technically it should be zanjeeren)

  3.  Avatar

    My guess is your title is a riff on the book title “Race, Class, and Worker Insurgency”, written about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
    Am I right?

  4. Maeve66 Avatar

    I don’t know, but because of your Maoist fetish, I want to guess those Maoist Red Chinese ballets, some of which can still be seen on YouTube. And should be seen, on YouTube.

    maeve66 is a middle school teacher in a working class suburb of Oakland.

  5. Maeve66 Avatar

    You don’t need to tell me about Lagaan, which I also thought about reviewing. I own most of Aamir Khan’s films. Unlike most Bollywood stars, he only puts one out every few years, instead of four or five a year. I loved Lagaan. Rang de Basanti is with him, too. The Hindi-Muslim cooperate-to-overcome the legacy of partition theme is REALLY big in Bollywood movies, though most often it is accomplished through intermarriage — even in the current historical blockbuster Jodhaa Akbar. That film also seems to be making a subtle hint that Muslims should consider non-fundamentalist — or DIFFERENTLY fundamentalist — sects, e.g. the Sufis.

    maeve66 is a middle school teacher in a working class suburb of Oakland.

  6. Isaac Avatar

    Does anybody know what the title of this blog refers to…?

  7.  Avatar

    … you might have a tough time. My introduction to Bollywood movies was another good one starring Aamir Khan. I saw Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India at a local desi movie theater while in high school. Only later did I discover that (to me) this was a stand-out movie.

    Anyway, of course the subtitle is a reference to the good anti-imperialist Jet Li kung fu flick Once Upon a Time in China, except here the contest is cricket. Following a challenge by the local colonial governor, an Indian village must figure to beat the oppressive Brits at their own game. In the process, they overcome sectarian divisions, etc etc. Pretty entertaining with a lot of epic shots and some corny love songs. If I recall correctly, the fact that Khan, a Muslim, starred in and produced this runaway hit with a nationalist theme (filmed in Gujurat, the site of 2002 violence between Islamists and right wing Hindu nationalists) was also controversial in India.