Surely Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos has been one of the most enthusiastically received films in the recent times, especially among the urban, English educated audience who otherwise consider Bollywood films somewhat beneath their taste, ‘catering mindless entertainment’. The film’s reception has been especially heartfelt in Bengal, among Bengali audience. One of the prime reasons for this reaction is the fact that apparently the film resonates with an earnest sense of Bangaliyana (a homogeneous cultural Bengali identity). It triggers an entire world of imagination, in terms of stories, comics, adventures, locations, names, jokes where Bengali children seem to have basked for generations. Also, contrary to the much despised ‘mindless entertainment’ of Bollywood, this film comes across as socially aware and pours that awareness into the minds of children. It seemingly makes the children conscious about the ‘problems of the world’ and while doing so never strays a bit from the ‘Nirmol Anondo’ (uncorrupted delight).
— kaahon (@kaahonwall) July 13, 2017
Given the film and its reception, it almost becomes an obligation to raise certain questions regarding this overwhelming response to Jagga Jasoos.
When it comes to building a children’s world, does it necessarily have to be simplistic with all sorts of offensive content shoved beneath a layer of laughter and colours? The very discourse of the so-called Bangaliyana which has succeeded in appealing to a large section of audience, is extremely problematic to say the least. The pastoral and picturesque location of Jagga’s residence, his boarding school adventures and his overall upbringing are all reeling with a colonial hangover and consequently posits a highly exclusive identity. In other words, to trigger a nostalgia regarding an ideal romanticised childhood, the film resorts to an array of codes and conventions which resonate with colonial influence. This also draws attention to the problems of representation in the film. Much of Jagga’s adolescent life and adventures unfold in the town of Ukhrul, the state of Manipur and the surrounding regions. In that sense, the film is strangely oblivious about the local realities, its people, its customs, its problems and its daily life. Instead, the film builds wild exotica out of the region and its people. The sheer Orientalist gaze of the film will even make Rudyard Kipling seem sensitive and objective. Besides a romantic landscape of forests and mountains, all the usual elements of an Oriental imagination are present including elephants, tribal people with strange rituals and mysterious knife throwing assassins with turban and covered faces. Only the snake charmer was missing! And amid everything, what sticks out like a sore thumb is the pair of Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif with their fair skin and the so-called ‘ideal’ body type. The pair has been compared to Satyajit Ray’s Goopy-Bagha but Ray was highly conscious of this body politics and its ramifications when making his film. It is evident both in his casting of the unknown Tapen Chaterjee over more popular actors and also writing and directing scenes where Goopy is interacting with his space and people, thus locating him. Jaaga merely remains a celebrity waving hand at a faceless crowd in a nameless location.
The film actually makes a mockery of the very idea of awareness. The much talked about song titled ‘Nimbu Mirchi’ is a blatant commodification of pressing issues ranging from inflation to farmer suicides. As for the rest of the film where it ‘addresses’ historical incidents and realities, it is nothing short of pandering to the State’s educational policies which seeks to replace Mughal era in history books with detailed accounts of Ramayana! The narrative takes off with the much publicized Purulia Arms Drop Case of 1995, and the film connects this event to an international arms-smuggling racket with ties to the leftist factions in the North-eastern region of India. It conveniently overlooks the fact that in the real life case, the arms were intended for the socio-spiritual organization ‘Ananda Marga’ and it has been alleged to be a conspiracy of the Congress government together with RAW and MI5 to overthrow the leftist government in West Bengal and the chief accused “Kim Davy” (real name Niels Holck, alias Niels Christian Nielsen) was given assurances from the central government regarding his safe return to Denmark.
The film’s pro-State and anti-left stance becomes even more naked in its imagination and portrayal of Manipur and the people’s struggles in the region. Manipur has been a cite of violent disturbances for decades and the film conveniently exploits it in an outlandish plot of a collaboration between International arms smuggling racket and Naxalite insurgents, deeming them responsible for the violence. The film is happily unmindful of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act passed in 1958, which applies to just the seven North-eastern states and grants security forces the power to search properties without a warrant, and to arrest people, and to use deadly force if there is “reasonable suspicion” that a person is acting against the state. It is gladly unaware of human rights abuses in Manipur such as the “Malom Massacre” where, on 2 November 2000, ten civilians were shot and killed by the Assam Rifles, while waiting at a bus stop. It is equally oblivious of Thangjam Manorama who was extra-judicially executed by the Indian paramilitary unit, 17th Assam Rifles on 11th July 2004. Investigations revealed that she was tortured and raped before being shot several times. Exploiting history of a region and its people, the way Jagga Jasoos does it in the name of ‘educational entertainment’ is an indecent act against the people as well the children in its target audience.
Much of the film’s comic elements stem out of racism and mocking disabilities. A major section of the film in its second half unfolds in fictitious locations in Africa. These sequences can probably be again traced back to a pair of sources dear to a Bengali childhood; Hemendra Kumar Roy’s adventure stories and the Tintin Comic books. While there is no denying that these are among the staple reads in the urban middle-class households, especially the latter, why can’t a film exorcise the racist intonations of the source while adapting it in the 21st century? To argue that the comic books of Tintin had funny, ridiculous and stereotypical portrayal of Black people is hardly an argument. It cannot be considered as a license to ridicule a population of Black people and make fun of their language. It is offensive. Period. And for a film which comes across so self-righteous and high-handed, talking about the ‘tragedies’ and ‘problems’ of Africa, the film or its protagonist is never concerned with the causal factors. It never once utters the uncomfortable phrases such as ‘Corporate greed’ or ‘Foreign policies of First World Countries’, etc.
Making a children’s film or creating a children’s world doesn’t have to be simplistic, detached from history, apolitical, non-violent or even a spectacular exercise. There are no shortages of examples in film history itself of content which were charged with social, historical and political consciousness and were at times even violent and at times didn’t require the urge to spectacular, in order to be heartfelt, appealing or entertaining. One can think of Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948) or Where is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987) among countless other instances. The filmmakers could have shown some honest intent, taken the right cues and engaged seriously instead of deceiving the audience with bright shimmering colours and painting the entire world with them.
Arup Ratan Samajdar