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Friday, October 26, 2012

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(Published in, on 26 October, 2012, retrieved from

A lot has happened this week – high profile politicians have been accused of graft, one of India’s biggest Wall Street success stories has ended with the conviction and sentencing of Rajat Gupta, Naveen Jindal has filed an extortion case against Zee News. But this is a week that will be remembered for its deaths.
It began with legendary director Yash Chopra, claimed legendary writer Sunil Gangopadhyaya, and ended with legendary comedian Jaspal Bhatti. And it appears suddenly that all three of them had one thing in common – they were all activists, each through a unique medium of his choice.
It’s easy now for us to roll our eyes at Yash Chopra’s movies, and laugh at the cloyingly sentimental songs and dialogues that populated them. But Chopra was the director who cornered a place for love in the box office. Hell, he even made a poet out of the Angry Young Man in Kabhi Kabhie, just a year after making him rage in Deewar.
Yash Chopra in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties allowed us to be escapist while feeling grounded in reality. His films were musicals, their songs imprinted in the memories of those who saw them, and finding their way into the collections of generations who would hum music that was made before they were born.
Many of his films hinged on the conflict between conscience and desire, with melodrama that can only be forged through dark secrets, pragmatic women, understanding friends, and desperate lovers. But in his repertoire, there was place for dangerously obsessive love too, and he had the skill to let Darr end the way it did.
Looking back at his work from a time when most of us have independence, money, and access to a much larger world than people did in the Nineties, it’s easy to forget that it was a time when people wanted to lose themselves in drama for four hours a week. They would do so again and again, if they could come out smiling and starry-eyed, waiting for their own Big Love Stories – stories the films had made them believe could happen.
Standing in contrast to escapism through film was a man who sought to portray realities through literature.
Sunil Gangopadhyaya’s pioneering work in form and rhythm of Bengali poetry and prose will likely remain inaccessible to those of us who can’t read them in the original, even with excellent translators. But the concerns in his writing alone allow us to see the evolution of our country, and its workings, over more than a century.
He himself was immersed in political activism through literature. He volunteered to testify at the trial of Hungryalist writers arrested on charges of obscene writing, in 1964. He was among the first to write about the Marichjhanpi Massacre, an incident that was detailed in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.
His engagement with the things that affected the youth of his generation reached out to a larger audience through Satyajit Ray’s iconic films based on his books, Aranyer Din Ratri and Pratidwandi. The first deals with various aspects of the hypocrisy of the educated city-bred youth, through four friends who head out to escape civilisation. The second deals with the haplessness of a young man in Calcutta, at a time when the city’s economy was collapsing as an influx of refugees weighed down on a city with a paucity of jobs, and when the Maoist movement headed by Charu Mazumdar was gaining popularity among students and unemployed youth in the city.
Gangopadhyaya’s historical novels give us an insight into some of the most crucial events that occurred in the subcontinent. Purba-Paschim (translated into English as East-West), tells the story of Bangladesh, and what it did to West Bengal, through three generations.Pratham Alo (translated into English as First Light) and Shei Shomoy (translated into English as Those Days) give us a fictionalised imagining of history, grounded in research, and recasting the lives of icons such as Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and others in a dreamy narrative voice, flitting between real people and fictional characters.
Perhaps the only thing Jaspal Bhatti had in common with either Yash Chopra or Sunil Gangopadhyaya was that most of us first accessed him through television.
His Flop Show was a welcome relief from the epic serials that spawned sub-plots every time they threatened to end. It was with some surprise that I read that only ten episodes of the hit show were made. And I find that I remember all of them. 
Who can forget the wannabe Michael Jackson, or the eye-patch sporting bandmaster Bhatti, or the three girls with big hair and huge loop earrings, or the opening spoof on Samay from Mahabharat that heralded the first episode of that crazy show that Bhatti declared he “misdirected”?
And who can forget Jaspal Bhatti playing a chief guest whose punctuality brought him grief? Or the episode where an entire department went hunting for a cherished pet? Or the dead telephone that merited a funeral, and contemplation from Bhatti that one should marry a linesman, and not an official from the telephone department, if one wanted phones to work?
He introduced us to subtle humour, for arguably the first time on Indian television, and sold it to us by ingeniously weaving it in with slapstick. He would carry this style all his life, off-screen as much as on-screen, whether it was through riding a horse to work when the government increased petrol prices, whether it was through setting up a hoopla stall with vegetables for prizes when food inflation soared, or whether it was with his last idea – distributing pirated DVDs of his own film Power Cut on the day of its release, October 26 – that a close friend told the media about.
It’s been an eventful week – but to India, it will be the week we said goodbye to love, literature, and laughter.


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