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Journey to Destination Cool

Govinda has decided to change tack. Could this be part of a bigger plan the comedian and director David Dhawan have thought of, wonders ACHAL PRABHALA.

"Aankhen" - A huge hit which established the David Dhawan-Govinda duo.

SOME WEEKS ago, Govinda was back in the news, telling an Indian newspaper that his long innings as a comedian was over. He said he was taking a break to get in shape. But this is dismaying: a lean, mean Govinda will be Hindi cinema's irreparable loss. Anyone who has enjoyed the razor-sharp accuracy of his comic timing in David Dhawan's classics will mourn his passing.

Chubby Govinda, with his manic, moronic heroism and impermeably insouciant charm was an inspired character. Yet, one imagines that David Dhawan and Govinda have a plan: and that the makeover — if it ever happens — is a signifier that at long last, after working the crowds to retain the title to a genre of B-movies and their presumed market, they have decided to fly first class.

Only a couple of years ago, David Dhawan was saying, ``the fact is, everyone likes the chime of the cash registers ringing.'' First class used to mean better food: since when did it become a better life? If the globalised South Asian film with its designer-clothed characters zipping around Europe created the juxtaposition that produced the current version of Govinda, so too did the earlier and continuing work of another B-movie icon: Mithun Chakraborty.

Entirely invisible in the urban market, the actor, who made a National Award winning debut in Mrinal Sen's "Mrigaya," now makes up to 12 films a year.

However, even at the peak of Mithun's mainstream popularity, his biggest film was B. Subhash's "Disco Dancer," and thus, in a sense, he had already slotted himself.

By all accounts, Mithun's films are hits, and earn everyone associated with it a handsome return. And as evidence, in an industry where official numbers are hard to come by, his visual presence, even in a place as large (yet out of the urban circuit) as Patna, is tremendous.

An article by Vishwas Kulkarni, a film student, describes the plot of his recent films: ``An honest cop is transferred from a small village to a city where `mafia raj' is the way of life. He tries to fix things only to see his mother choked to death and his wife raped. This cruel twist of kismet also explains why every Mithun lead actress looks like a dancer from a ladies bar at Saki Naka. They wear the type of frocks that Jaya Prada wore in 1983. They wear cheap gaudy lipstick. They die. Mithun freaks out and decides to take the law in his own hands. He kills the goonda and ends the mafia raj. In the midst of this simple plot, the usual suspects are thrown in. The town hooker and her mujra bit, the Muslim uncle to provide comic relief, the loud-mouthed widow who screams at the mafia don only to get burnt alive, the song near the same goddamn lake. All these are constants. The wonderful trick about a Mithun plot lies in the fact that it isn't what will happen next; but how it will happen next.''

Mithun's charisma, acknowledged by the Hindi film industry, rests on his ordinariness: but his second innings, and his continued popularity, can only reflect grit.

Mithun's life is a series of well known facts: the radical Naxalite beginnings, the training at FTII in Pune, and that he was the country's highest income-tax payer in 1986. He is well known and adulated in his home State of West Bengal, with which he maintains close ties.

He has signed a film with Rituparno Ghosh, the rising star of Indian parallel cinema. Yet, when he is mentioned out of the circuits he is known within, it is invariably in a disparaging tone, unmindful of the enormous influence of his body of work and the clones he has spawned.

Govinda began his acting career in 1985 and David Dhawan, his directing career, in 1988. Govinda's ascent to stardom, carefully detailed in film media over the years, is intimately linked to his `childhood in Virar,' a suburb of Bombay. From statements made by the actor in interviews, it is clear that the chawl spin is his own: a carefully constructed story that he never tires of repeating. It helps, of course, that his films are what they are: perceived to be enjoyed mainly by the urban underclass and their brethren beyond, in mofussil India.

Interviewers, readers and viewers instantly feel the sympathy such a story is designed to create. And yet, in the sympathy, is further reaffirmation that they were right. That Govinda, his films and their audiences are for others. That Govinda is an `other,' someone who came from somewhere `else,' and strangely, wants to stay there, for how else can one explain the content of his cinema?

It is equally interesting to examine the spin that unsympathetic critics of his cinema, style and person (of who there are many) might effect on his `true' audience. Is Govinda's dress sense (and by extension, David Dhawan's film sense) calculatedly designed to offend elite urban tastes? Probably not. In fashioning a mofussil aesthetic, and concertedly marketing it to an assumed mofussil audience, the marked lack of public relations within the English circuit is perhaps just a reminder of the irrelevancy of this elite in the larger space of the Hindi B-Movie.

Before Govinda, there was Govind Ahuja, son of a film producer father, and classical singer mother. A brother, Kirti Kumar, is a moderately successful director, and a less successful actor.

"Coolie No. 1" - A huge hit which established the David Dhawan-Govinda duo.

Govinda cites his years in Bombay as a key influence. Growing up, he admired the iconic Marathi comedian, Dada Kondke. While it is true that the family lived for a brief while in Virar, the poverty angle is vastly exaggerated. `Virar-ka-chokra' is a brand name. Brand equity, as advertising agencies will tell you, is an act of consistency. Sellers seem to find it the best way to operate: a consistent look and consistent behaviour have been constructed as the sure-fire route to repeated mass consumption.

Brand Govinda was test-launched from 1985 onwards to "Taaqatwar" in 1989. The characters played were inconsistent: what was clear from films like "Naach, Govinda, Naach" (1987) is that the actor had tremendous screen presence. "Taaqatwar" introduced a comic element to the Govinda character. "Swarg" (1990) defined his essential subaltern streak. "Shola aur Shabnam," the first real `Govinda' film (in the spirit of the character that has been defined and redefined over the years), cemented the persona in 1992.

"Aankhen" (1993), "Raja Babu" (1994) and "Coolie No.1" (1995) were huge hits and the David Dhawan-Govinda duo had been established.

David Dhawan is a graduate of the National Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), in Pune. He studied editing and was a contemporary of Om Puri. He describes his own career in the Hindi film industry as a struggle (which simply means that he spent some initial years in the industry earning less than he does now): today, however, he is a bankable, reputed director of Hindi cinema.

Within the David Dhawan-Govinda films are numerous references to other mainstream cinema, some nostalgic (evoking Raj Kapoor in "Swarg"), some contemporary (Sridevi and Amitabh). While references to Hindi films and its popular icons are commonplace within the cinema at large, the manner in which it is referred to within David Dhawan's films might lead us to safely conclude that he has a healthy respect for Hindi film `classics.' And while he continues to churn out money-spinning films with regularity, he says that what he would really like to do is slow down to two films a year. ``One will be the kind of film I would like to do which is breaking away from the star system. The second will be my regular brand of entertainment. That would keep both, my producers and me, happy,'' he says in an interview for a film journal, suggesting that some sort of system is forcing him to consider audience needs over his own.

It's a familiar refrain. In `Ideology of the Hindi Film,' a landmark study, Madhava Prasad writes: ``For people in the industry who were dissatisfied with the dominant form, the model to emulate was Hollywood: in periodicals like Filmfare and Screen, filmmakers would confess to a preference for films that were realistic and justify their own inability to make such films by blaming the poor taste of the audience.''

My first encounter with Govinda was when I stumbled into a Delhi theatre to watch "Dulhe Raja" in 1997. I couldn't stop laughing, and my stomach positively hurt by the end of that film. It was also something of a shock.

In large part, it seemed like I had been trained all along to reject just this aesthetic: resolutely sub-urban, rambunctious, unapologetic and unabashed.

Growing up as I did, in Bangalore, in the heart of a very southern India, it would seem odd that elements of "Dulhe Raja" — with its overtly North Indian theme — could have served as a reminder of something that had been forgotten. Did it ever exist? The answer does not lie in whether this aesthetic existed, but rather, in how it entered our consciousness.

Now, as Govinda transitions from proper noun to common noun ("But can he do a Govinda?" it was asked of Saif Ali Khan recently), and as Hindi cinema culture gets even more dense, it is astonishingly difficult to separate his fans into neat categories like `Natural' and `Deviant.'

If the city is a collection of slums, and the slum is but a repository of an imagined rural past, then even geographical distinctions fall between the cracks.

As an urban, English-speaking viewer of his cinema, I am not what distributors would call Govinda's core viewer. My position is further complicated by the knowledge that camp was briefly trendy as counter-culture: by a desire to root for the underdog. I would like to imagine that there is a space where I can consume this cinema naturally, but I'm not so sure it exists.

There is the fact that I am writing and thinking about Govinda instead of simply laughing, going home and falling asleep: I'm not sure what to make of that.

I am sure though, that the terrain of spectatorship is too contested to locate constituencies easily. In this space, if there is one form of consumption that defines itself by a celebration of spectatorship non-authenticity, it is the consumption of kitsch. Consider Govinda's trajectory in the English language press. On the strange journey to destination cool, his first stop was extreme derision. Soon — and it is already happening — Laloo Prasad Yadav will be transformed as well: from buffoonish rural despot to style icon for English-speaking urban types.

Switch on the television, and the ad-film world, ever a responsive instrument, is replete with cool rustics neatly packaged for the urban crowd. At its best, kitsch is laughing with a group it doesn't quite belong to — leading to interesting media events like Quick Gun Murugan — and at worst it is laughing at them, with incomplete understanding and a blithe condescension, for baffling pleasures that are best left unexplored.

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