On Friday morning, I was racking my brain for a withering opening line to dismiss Kabir Khan’s latest offering Phantom for pandering to the excruciatingly familiar stereotype of the ‘good’ Muslim who must kill the ‘bad’ Muslims – this time they happen to be across the border – to prove his allegiance to the nation. But as the day inched to a close, I started feeling more charitable towards the filmmaker, in spite of his clumsy effort to uproot himself from the no-man’s land of seamless humanity in Bajrangi Bhaijaan and pitch his tent on the hard soil of ‘national pride’ for the sake of a sapless thriller.
No apparition here
It seemed to me that I ought not to pillory him for showing prejudicial stereotypes that seem to have become the anointed staple of ‘national’ debate, especially on matters concerning the past and the present. For by Friday night it was all over the news that the New Delhi Municipal Council in its infinite wisdom had decided to rename Aurangzeb Road in Lutyens’ Delhi as Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam Road, in the memory of the former President. What was left unsaid was so very clear: Here was a ‘bad’ Muslim as perceived in the Hindutva narrative being vanquished by the ‘good’. In the ideological universe of the current dispensation, Kalam, with his knowledge of Sanskrit, Hindu texts and vegetarianism, is the perfect role model for Muslims in a country where we are told all Indians are — or should be — Hindus.
My thoughts flew back to Phantom. How the character Daniyal Khan follows a certain tradition established in Bollywood where the true patriot is invariably a Hindu who has to give lessons in nationalism to the Muslim character, no matter that Daniyal has been wrongfully accused of desertion. This aspect was brought out strikingly in the 1999 hit Sarfarosh (with a plotline revolving around cross-border arms smuggling) in which the upright Inspector Salim becomes the victim of a vicious communal campaign that he ‘allowed’ a notorious criminal to escape because he was a Muslim. It falls upon the short-in-height but tall-in-stature ACP Ajay Rathod to tell a smarting Salim scornfully that he does not need a Salim to defend ‘my’ country — he can do it himself.
Similarly, in Phantom, the people who awaken Daniyal to a sense of duty, in the process offering him a way to clear his name, is an all-male, noticeably Hindu gang seated behind crowded desks at the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Moreover, there is never any doubt that the real patriot is the clean-cut RAW recruit Mishra, with not a hint of down on his face, who clenches and unclenches his fist in sheer frustration at the way state-supported terrorists from across the border can create mayhem with impunity in India while a ‘weak’ and ‘vacillating’ government is unable to bring the perpetrators to justice – the maximum they can do is ‘stop playing cricket’ with the nation next door.
Needless to say, the gang is automatically nationalist for isn’t being a Hindu just another way of referring to a patriot; just as Hindus are born into the caste system, they are born patriots. Mishra the kid is the biggest nationalist for it is his clenched hands — a sign of repressed aggression, say those who read body language — that makes him conceive a plan in which an off-grid, Phantom-like figure can enter Pakistan and finish off the crown figures of terror who are protected by the state.
Daniyal is just the instrument — just as well that he is at the nadir of his life and one of the motivating factors for him saying yes to the mission is his desire to win back the respect of his junior Dilawar Singh, who stopped saluting him the day he was dishonourably discharged. For that he is ready to do this black op mission. As for the promise of getting back the respect he had lost, that is funny indeed — do invisible people ever get acknowledged? No, they just fade away, pawns in a larger game. The certificate of approval is always ‘provisional’.
Tyranny of gaze
To not have your patriotism questioned, you have to be fortunate enough to be born into the majority community. For those who lovingly develop a majoritarian instinct it becomes easy to sink back into the stereotypical binaries of ‘we’ are good and ‘they’ are bad without being unencumbered by facts of any kind, historical or otherwise.
It was precisely to counter the tyranny of this gaze and the cycles of violence it perpetuates that Gandhi spoke of the need for introspection at the collective and individual level at a time when a newly independent and partitioned India was on the communal boil. He spoke of the need for keeping hearts from getting partitioned even if the territory had been divided — knowing that the only practical way to control communal violence was to change people’s way of thinking. From one who wanted to be everybody’s trustee, not just one community’s, it was a plea for self-introspection on the part of humans to save their humanity, not see the world through a perennially distorted gaze. How else could conditions be created for a civic existence as befitting a civilised democracy?
The extent to which the majoritarian instinct has indulged in collective introspection in Sarfarosh Rathod’s proud country, demanding continual proof of fidelity from a Daniyal or Salim, is there for everybody to see. Sikhs across the country still find it hard to talk about the manner in which the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards in 1984 opened the floodgates for brutal violence against the community as a whole. In 2002, Muslims across Gujarat were caught in the maelstrom of violence unleashed in the wake of the burning of the Sabarmati Express which claimed 58 Hindu lives. The stereotypes have just kept hardening, paving the way not for introspection but for collective retribution during flashpoints over the years.
As for the majoritarian instinct, it has performed the ultimate sleight of hand by lauding the one who was assassinated – the ‘father of the nation’ – as well as his assassin. It has neutralised the energy of Gandhi’s historical presence through a ritualised and safe stereotype, in the process virtually converting him into a Phantom-like figure, there but not there. That is the power of the majoritarian instinct.
So, coming back to the reel Phantom, the filmmaker may or may not return to the Bajrangi Bhaijaan project of gently unpeeling the layers of prejudicial stereotypes within the self and vis-à-vis the other in an India-Pakistan context. However, what is certain is that many ‘roads’ have opened up for these stereotypes to travel in the political domain for a considerable time. These phantoms – spectres — are for real.