Safdar Hashmi described street theatre as a militant political theatre of protest whose function is to agitate the people and to mobilize them behind fighting organizations. It was during the performance of a street play Halla Bol, on January 1, 1989 at Sahibabad, that Safdar was fatally attacked by Congress-backed goons. Halla Bol, or ‘attack’, is a slogan that the Left in the country has used to define the thrust of people’s attack: against imperialist and colonial forces. Hence when a film called Halla Bol, is released in the month that marks the beginning of the twentieth anniversary of Safdar’s murder and holds out the promise of having drawn from various contemporary events that have shaken the public consciousness, one does go to watch the film with much anticipation. Besides, when was it that a Bollywood film was promoted through a street play?
There have been quite a few films that the Hindi film industry has churned out which have reflected the miseries and concerns of the middle classes or, as the media says, the opinion classes’ outrage. However in this era of NRI-oriented films, even this middle class outrage has got sidelined in the advertising hurry to promote consumption and mansion-car ambitions. But there was a change with Rang de Basanti (RDB) presenting the picture of college kids turning into crusaders of middle class outrage. While over there it was the process of making a play on Bhagat Singh and the death of their friend in an air crash caused by army corruption that motivates the consciousness of the boys, in the film Halla Bol it is street theatre that is called upon to bring on track the soul of a Bombay star gone astray. No doubt, even the very commercial Hindi cinema calls upon the symbols of Left and the radical movements to speak about a change from the rut. The question then is, what is the change they recommend?
In an interview to a newspaper, Halla Bol’s director Rajkumar Santoshi said the film was an “effort to…bring change in one’s surroundings.” So then how is it done? Ashfaque who was once associated with a street theatre group called Jan Natya Mandali (a name very similar to Safdar’s Jan Natya Manch), turns into a Bollywood star and in the process metamorphoses into ‘Samir Khan’. With that he sheds not only his name but also his values, willing to go to any lengths for money, be it selling toothpastes or bingeing at parties. He cheerfully goes through ‘casting couch’ scandals and has for all purposes no morals qualms. But then he becomes a witness to the killing of a girl at party (much like Jessica Lal) by sons of criminal politicians. He clams up like other celebrities unwilling to jeopardize their careers but eventually a Sikh street theatre activist (a figure reminiscent of the real-life Gursharan Singh), his earlier mentor, acts as his conscience-keeper. He returns to act in a street play on the issue, is attacked and injured, and becomes a real hero in people’s eyes, who are agitated by this act of courage and ready to act.
Street theatre does mean taking the play to the everyday life setting of the people rather than getting people to come and watch theatre. Lately recognizing the potent strength of street theatre, various groups have adopted it to speak on single issues and some advertisers have even put it to use for selling multinational products at shopping malls or use it for selling “social concepts”. But it cannot be forgotten that street theatre has developed, grown and expanded in our country through the activities of the Left groups. And its contents are ideologically grounded and rooted in politics and moored in the struggle against Bengal famine of the 40s, in the Naxalbari movement and the struggle against the terror of the Emergency of the 70s. Despite being dismissed as ‘propagandist’ and ‘agit-prop’, street theatre continues to be popular form; highly political, very sharp, unforgiving on satire and identified with Left politics. Safdar’s Halla Bol also was performed in solidarity with workers’ political assertion– and his murder was an attempt to terrorise the workers’ struggle.
Street theatre thus has never been about star casts, but about common people acting out their destinies in ‘rehearsals for revolution’. In Santoshi’s Halla Bol, by contrast, street theatre has nothing to do with politics; like the mall-based street theatre, it merely provides a suitable backdrop for ‘do good to feel good and be good’ philosophy of ‘selling social concepts’.
In this genre change is not political, it is not systemic, does not recognize structures of disparity, crime and corruption but rests on doing ‘good’. It ascribes greater moral value and integrity to so-called ‘non-political’ actions over political activism. Unappealing solutions and even dangerous, if one remembers the shape some such ‘non-political’ actions have taken. For instance, one such “idealistic”, “apolitical” campaign that the RDB director Rakeysh Mehra joined in was the anti-reservation agitation of Youth for Equality, YFE, which invoked Bhagat Singh’s images on their posters, and held candle light vigils with songs from RDB. When images or forms of the Left are deployed in this manner, the images are not invested with the same meaning; it is more often a case of cooption. In RDB, the boys on the verge of dying, broadcast on the radio that for the youth of today, Bhagat Singh and his companions’ lives could also mean becoming good police officers, bureaucrats and so on!! The common people in that film witness this reality radio and are stirred. In HB it takes a star and stereotypes to descend on the streets (not quite tare zameen par!) to move the common people.
In an interview, Raj Kumar Santoshi speaks of the awareness and change brought about when the public speaks out against injustice, but castigates the “so-called activists” as the “biggest hypocrites…who enjoy the best of luxuries and make others dance to their tunes.” So, it seems that individual courage of conscience is pitted against ‘activism’ and politics. Such acts of courage are said to be of value only when their protagonists do it as an exception; sustained political activism is somehow suspect. The commonplace middle-class stereotypes of activists as basically armchair hypocrites who live in luxury are reinforced.
In yet another stereotype, two Muslim politicians are shown to approach the hero Samir Khan, asking him to say that he has been implicated in the casting couch controversy because he is a Muslim. He replies, “In a country where President Abdul Kalam is a Muslim and the PM Manmohan Singh too is from a minority community, I have full faith in the Constitution.” So, in spite of the film’s conscious attack on Hindutva-type politicians through various images, it also implies that anyone who says minorities face discrimination in ‘secular’ India is self-serving and lacks faith in the nation.
The radical posturing ends and once again we have off-the-shelf solutions.