It was a dull evening in Bhopal as I sat down in an old tea shop near Jinsi chowk, in front of Rambha talkies and ordered a chai. There was Pakistan versus Sri Lanka cricket match going on, on Ten Sports and I asked the waiter to switch to the other sports channel where India was playing. I was asked to go to India to watch the match. I thought Bhopal was in India but I did not know that Jehangirabad in Bhopal, or some parts of it were far away from being in India. This was the first chapter of nationalism that I had got there.
The waiter was a Muslim and it took me nothing less than ten seconds to stereotype him. Being a Brahmin 22-year-old, I had no option left but to think that if these Muslims don’t think India is their country then why are they earning their bread and butter here. Nobody told me that I had kneeled down to the fact that India is not a country for the Muslims, at least in the psyche of the upper, creamy layers of the Hindu community and this very thought that had created the gap between the two communities in these past so many years.
In Rangoon, when Nawab sees a mark on Julia’s back, he calls it the most beautiful thing on her body. A few scenes later, Russi sees the mark too. He has seen it every time Julia was naked in front of him and he never liked it. He called it ugly and suggested Julia to remove it through an operation. The same mark and its two different judgments. This mark symbolizes India, of that era and the present one. Julia says, it was there from her birth. It was always there. She did not get it from anyone else.
Rangoon is a love story in times of World War 2, and more importantly in times when India was preparing for a war with the British and also with its own idea of self. There was an India that Russi and Julia lived in, which believed that this freedom struggle was of no use and the fight to throw the British out was a bad idea as India as a nation is nothing without them. On other hand, there was an India which Captain Nawab had imagined. The one without the British rule. When he is countered by Julia, who also loves him, that how he is going against his own people, Nawab’s eyes answer her that he is fighting for them. The definition of ‘own people’ differs here. “They’ll kill you,” she says. Nawab answers, “You are already dead.” “Tumhari jaan tumhari jism mein dafn ho chuki hai.” “Your soul has been buried in your body already.”
It’s really difficult to understand Nawab here and the relevance of this dialogue. Vishal talks about the amount of ignorance the upper class of the Indian society had about independence then. They never knew who the enemy was. The one who had entered their territory or the one who was fighting against them.
This ignorance stays in our veins till date. Not that today we are fighting a war against the British but symbolically British army is the different forms of wrong present here today. The hooliganism, goondaraj, oppression, corruption and what not. Only if these wrongs were present in a physical form, like that of the Britishers in pre-1947 era, we had termed the fight against them as Nationalism. Alas, we don’t. Nationalism, in today’s form, stands for, ironically, standing for National Anthem.
Nationalism has varied definitions. Like the one the Chaiwala taught me in Bhopal and the one that the so-called-Chaiwala has been teaching the country since the last three years. We grow with our own. There, however, remains a thin line. Rangoon talks about the same thin line.
Country has always been first for everyone but the definition of country differs from person to person. The Nationalism which was at its peak in the pre-1947 era in India was due to the atrocities carried out on the poor and the innocent. The war was to get rid of those who were ridding the basic human rights of the countrymen. People represented country and not the national flag and national anthem. These two were just symbols of the people.
Captain Nawab is fighting for the same people in Rangoon, to save the innocent and the poor which were not there in the film from the atrocities of the British, and also the likes of Russi and Julia, who are enjoying those atrocities. The British have made them like that but they know their skin is not white.
That’s what the Major says to Russi when the latter points out that killing the traitor’s son is not right. The major says, “I am white and this is why I am always right.”
You put these words into the lips of any powerful leader today and irrespective of their skin colour, the tone of the sentence fits in perfectly. The arrogance of being right even when you are wrong. Only the right nationalism can answer this arrogance, even then and even now.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s theory of nationalism in Rangoon is like that bridge between India and Myanmar in the climax. The same bridge where Russi has to choose which side lays the benefit. The English have blown the half of the bridge. It is too fragile and can break anytime. The single ply on which he walks on to go to the other side, is that tough path of nationalism that we tend to run away from. The easy is always easy to apply in life, like standing for national anthem and be content of it.
In one scene in Rangoon, Captain Nawab sings the Indian National Army’s anthem as he walks into the frame, in front of the British Army, giving himself to them in order to save life of his soldier friend. You don’t expect such calls of nationalism in a Vishal Bhardwal film. You doubt Vishal here, who chose to speak a story like Haider in his last release where he, as per the right wing, showed Indian Army in bad light. But here, he gives a tribute to the original Indian National Army. Now, is the right wing going to give him his respect back or the left going to question his different shades of nationalism?
Lastly, how many of us are willing to see the thin line between these two ideas of nationalism? The one that Rangoon hangs on to.