Agneepath: The Hritik Puppet Show

Greek gods don’t walk the path of fire; it takes an angry, never-old man, sore and coarse from a long, rocky life of raw deals. And muscles might look ‘pretty’ and ‘sexy’ — whatever that means — and ‘pretty sexy’, but they don’t necessarily look menacing or dangerous, particularly when all ‘chocolate boys and men’ of Bollywood now wear muscles like there was a dress code demanding it.

So, when Hritik Roshan is introduced biceps-first, the regular Bollywood melodrama instantly kicks in sending the bare-knuckle realism of the original out of the window, flying. Soon enough we have a Vijay Chauhan that is not just unlike the original — “Vijay Deenanath Chauhan, poora naam” — but is also several shades less imposing and a lot more foolhardy. Hritik Roshan does not look the part in the least and completely fails to carry it despite the unmistakable ‘echo effect’ used to assist his unfitting dialogue delivery.

The first thing that every actor needs to overcome is the limitations imposed by his or her looks allowing the character to emerge effectively, which Hritik Roshan has completely failed to do over the years. The intense scenes in Agneepath (2012) remind one of Hritik’s performance in ‘Fiza’, particularly the expression he wears while being shot by Karishma Kapoor towards the end. The anger, sadness, frustration, helplessness and the sense of ending are all conveyed by Hritik through the same cheek-shivering, nose-flaring expression, which is irritatingly repetitive. Hritik’s portrayal of anguish in ‘Fiza’ looked impressive due to the freshness of the expression, but over a decade thence the expression seems to be the only ‘intense expression’ in Hritik’s repertoire, which might be indicative of Hritik’s disappointingly sluggish growth as an ‘actor’; star, of course, he has always been since ‘Kaho Na Pyar Hai‘.

Hritik’s limitations as an actor come to the surface, boiling and frothing, despite the heavily watered down version of the original character he plays in the movie. The sense of rejection by the world (“Main goonda nahin hoon, nahin hoon main goonda.“), his deeply troubled relationship with his mother and Commissioner Gaitonde, who intensely disapprove of his ways, and the consequent emotional turmoil that make Vijay volcanic are completely missing in this new, adulterated version of Vijay, who is driven only by vengeance alone making the character a helluva lot easier to play.

Vijay Chauhan is far more complex than Hritik Roshan could have handled. The man is not ruled, run and defined just by the burning desire to avenge his father’s disgraced death or to get back Mandwa. Although central, the vengefulness is still just an aspect of the character. What defines Vijay is the fact that he is deeply and completely steeped in the acute sense of injustice. He sees the world as necessarily unjust, evil and driven by power alone. He not only resents his rejection at the hands of the world simply on the grounds that he got his power and influence through improper means, but also sees the rejection as another instance of continuing ‘injustice’ [the hotel sequence in Agneepath (1990)].

The hotel sequence does not have a parallel in Agneepath (2012), which is apparently to downplay a sharp streak and a simmering layer in the original character. This particular sequence brings out Vijay’s deep anguish at social rejection without betraying even the slightest hankering for acceptance. It’s rejection rejected, and paid back by rejection with equal disgust because Vijay wants ‘justice’, not just ‘acceptance’. Emoting such multiplicity of internal and external conflicts without compromising on the depiction of the suffocating unease from failing to verbally express the anguish was no mean feat for any actor. Hritik couldn’t have managed it. So, the complete layer was shaved off the character.

To Vijay Chauhan, the end justifies the means. And the principle of ‘right means’ makes one weak like his father. He considers his father noble, and also ‘right’, but certainly not ‘strong’, which, to him is a lot more important than being right or virtuous [the family dinner sequence in Agneepath (1990)]. He considers weakness a blot, a blemish that can only be washed away by power (“Kamjori ka maiel sachchai se nahin dhul sakta…wo dhulta hai taaqat se…”). Annoyed, he leaves the dinner table, storms out and goes away. He does not grab food to walk out and eat on the stairs breaking down and sobbing in the arms of his beloved like a sad little girl. Vijay is not someone who would whine a helpless ‘what could I?’. He roars a defiant ‘why should I!!!’.

Unlike the new muscled Vijay, he doesn’t look or ask for approval but maintains that he is no hooligan and states, dying, “Bura aadmi nahin hai main; goonda nahin hai main”, and thus forces his mother to finally make peace with her dead son – “Mera beta goonda nahin hai.” Vijay never asks a question that he does not himself answer instantly. He is as assured of his path as his father was of his own. He makes a choice and remains unapologetic about his ways and beliefs till the end. His version of the truth remains unaltered. He is at war with the world, but not with himself. He rejects the world the way it rejects him, and every bit as completely. But he sees the world’s rejection as necessarily unjust while his own rejection of the world as a just consequence of an unjust beginning.

The disgust, disdain, insult and avoidance that he suffers at the hands of the world hits home the hardest when Vijay walks out of Commissioner Gaitonde’s house after informing him of the possible attempt at Gaitonde’s life, and on being informed that the man was ‘Vijay Chauhan’, Gaitonde’s little son involuntarily blurts out – “Wo gunda?” The confused but acute look of sharp surprise mixed with a peculiarly sad anger that quickly surfaces and flits away speaks volumes about what Vijay goes through in that brief moment. This seething agony is an essential side of Vijay’s complex character. And in less able hands the character might have simply lost the essential rough edges of this highly layered character.

Any serious critic of Indian cinema wouldn’t fail to notice that Agneepath, 2012 does not have the hotel sequence. In the family dinner sequence, Vijay (Hritik Roshan) does not walk away, but sits on the stairs, eats and cries. In the original, Vijay (Bachchan) goes to his love interest and boils over at the injustice, and declares defiantly that he would never be Master Deenanath even if his mother does not let him eat her food (“Na de mujhe roti… utha de mukhe khane ke table per se, par main maaster Deenanath nahin banega, nahin banega main maaster Deenanath!”) The sequence of Vijay’s visit to Commissioner Gaitonde’s house to alert him is retained without the son’s calling him ‘goonda’. And there is a reason for these clever changes.

To gloss over Hritik’s serious limitations as an actor, the director chose to replace the internal emotional unrest with external physical conflicts because the latter are far easier to portray. An actor can easily wear a deadpan, dry expression to display coldness and cunning both. To add to the diversion, the director managed to rope in Sanjay Dutt to play a very different Kancha, and kudos to Dutt for pulling it off so remarkably well and shutting those up who would have otherwise jumped to argue the natural constraints of a remake by extending the utterly pointless argument of the copy never matching the original. Kancha of Agneepath, 2012 is a far more powerful character than his counterpart in the original despite Danny’s fabulous performance. To further offset a weak Vijay the director has Rishi Kapoor deftly playing Rauf Lala, an out-and-out negative character. With two heavyweight villains, played extraordinarily well by two very competent actors, Vijay looks naturally week and wobbly against the odds. So, the strategy is simple: if you don’t have a lion, bring in two dinosaurs, and the house kitten would do.

Agneepath, 1990 was massive flop. People sat gawking at the screen. They had come to an Amitabh Bachchan movie, and there was no Amitabh Bachchan. There was this Vijay Chauhan who had the brotherly resemblance with the star, but no Amitabh! The fans and the critics trashed the movie without thinking twice. The movie was history the second day, but as the months went by the some of the more serious critics realized that it was indeed ‘history’ in quite another way. It was a monumental performance by an actor who, after 17 years of unchallenged reign, had simply taken off his superstardom like a raincoat and slipped into Vijay Chauhan like it was his night suit.

Having spent all his life fighting his way up in the dingy underbelly of Bombay, Vijay Chauhan is a coarse man with a hoarse voice, bad diction and major difficulties with constructing proper sentences. He doesn’t deliver sleek dialogues impressively. There is nothing ‘glamourous’ about Vijay.

But the 2012 version of Vijay has no such issues. His diction is perfect, speech slick and ways elegant. He never fumbles for the right word, doesn’t falter once. Even the famous ‘Vijay Deenanath Chauhan’ dialogue, well-supported by echo-effect, is delivered with such panache that he could have as well said “Bond, Vijay Bond”.

What’s more, he also seems to have a well-quipped, private gym stacked away in his chawl. In short, he is breathtakingly impressive. So, the young females go cooing, shrieking and whistling in joyous abandon. And that’s precisely because it’s not Vijay Chauhan on the screen; it’s Hritik Roshan. Ironically, the feminine ‘wows’ are the indubitable proof of Hritik’s failure at playing Vijay Chauhan.

The kind of popular critics who rubbished the original, oohed and aahed about the 2012 version, and Hritik’s ‘performance’. What consistency!

Originally published as part of my Legal Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER in LAWYERS UPDATE [April, 2012 Issue; Vol. XVIII, Part 4]

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Facebook and the Law: Nothing ‘Private’ About It

Sharing is life. Enter Facebook. No, I am not beginning to run it down for the simple reason that for all its flaws and ill-effects – if ‘it’ has any of those and not the users – it is a remarkable tool to connect and answers to our most basic need at all times since the Stone Age – collaboration. Yes, ‘collaboration’ is indeed a big, heavy and perplexing word compared to the lightness, breeziness and flippancy we attach to ‘Facebook’. But the desire to connect and stay connected is basically an urge that has its roots in the existential need to stay in groups to improve chances of survival against natural enemies. Of course, we have come a long way from there, but we still exist and live best within the ambit of human societies, howsoever big, small, crude or cultured they might be. Therefore, staying connected is not so much a choice; it’s hardwired in us. So, if the world is drawn to Facebook and Twitter the way it is, it shouldn’t surprise anybody. However, what must be borne in mind at all times is that social networking tools are not a substitute but only an extension of our lives. One’s Facebook personality may be slightly different from one’s real life personality, but it’s not an ‘alternative personality’. It’s just another dimension of your own self. Treating your online personality as different from your real-life persona may not only create social and psychological issues, but also incur legal consequences. And, apparently, people don’t realize the seriousness of any of these.

One of my students – a teenager under 18 years of age – remarked that he did not take his Facebook comments ‘seriously’, and I couldn’t help taking that remark ‘seriously’. And then there was Kapil Sibal trying to shackle and regulate online media drawing considerable criticism from all quarters in the process. I abhor the idea of pre-censorship as much as anybody else, but for all the inappropriateness of approach and motive, what Sibal was asking in principle was for the social media websites to be more ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ for the content they hosted. To paraphrase, Mr. Sibal wanted the social networking websites to take what they publish ‘seriously’. Just that he was holding the wrong man by the collar. Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like don’t ‘publish’ the content they display; we do. And if somebody has to be blamed, made accountable and told to take things ‘seriously’, it’s the users and not the hosts.

Certainly, online speech is not free of all restrictions, but is subject to all reasonable restriction imposed by the same laws and regulations that regulate speech and expression in the normal course. It’s also nobody’s case that the social media websites should not act promptly and take the offensive material down forthwith after such a content is brought to its notice without insisting on procedural niceties. However, this is not the last of possible consequences, and is certainly not the fixing of accountability because website might be held accountable for not promptly taking the material off, but cannot be held accountable for the material itself. Therefore, the accountability of the website with respect to objectionable user-generated content is very limited, but is complete and absolute with the original ‘publisher’ of the content. All substantive and procedural laws operating under the constitutional umbrella of Article 19 (2) apply with full force with respect to any material posted on the Internet as much as they apply to any violation outside cyberspace. There is no protection worth the name afforded by the much hyped concept of ‘online privacy’. It is no special right or privilege, but only an extension of the right to privacy as it otherwise exists. Being in cyberspace neither dilutes, nor enhances any of the rights enjoyed by the citizens and non-citizens under the Indian law with all concomitant limitations and restrictions. So, to cut a long story short, if you violate the law in the virtual world, you might be headed to the prison in the real world.

With over 845 million (84.5 crore) active users worldwide and some 43 million (4 crore, 30 lac) in India alone, Facebook is at the center of the social networking talk followed closely by Twitter with over 500 million active users (in June 2011) across the world.

Although both Facebook and Twitter are considered tools for online social networking, the two are considerably different in many ways including the way the users approach these sites. While Facebook is like a massive drawing room housing a get-together of friends, acquaintances and some friends-of-friends, who can overhear parts of the conversation you have with your friends, Twitter is more like your conversation with the external world, which your friends and acquaintances are also a very small part of. And the users carry this distinction in the back of their minds subconsciously, which is why they behave differently on Facebook than on Twitter. Twitter, as we all know, is a microblogging website, whereas Facebook is more of a sharing platform for friends and acquaintances to connect.

Therefore, unlike Twitter, Facebook is treated as ‘personal space’ by most of the users, which, legally speaking, is a myth. For the most part, the content one posts on Facebook stands on the same footing as the content one publishes on Twitter the moment it is visible to anybody other than the one publishing the content. So, unless you made your post visible to yourself only, you are accountable to the law for all that you ‘say’ on the Facebook. So, you can ‘not’ take your comments ‘seriously’ only at your own peril. If your posts and comments can offend people, they can also offend the law; and while people might fume and curse as you giggle away merrily, the law can turn the burner on.

Recently, websites like Facebook, Yahoo! and Google found themselves in the dock facing criminal charges for hosting user-generated ‘objectionable content’. And this time it was not the government crying hoarse; it was a citizen who chose to initiate criminal proceedings against the websites. And there was no legal challenge to the person’s right to invoke criminal jurisdiction of the courts in the matter.

Websites like Facebook, Yahoo! and Google fall within the definition of “intermediary” under Section 2 (1)(w) of The Information Technology Act, 2000, according to which “”intermediary” with respect to any particular electronic message means any person who on behalf of another person receives, stores or transmits that message or provides any service with respect to that message.”

The Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011 enacted in exercise of the powers conferred by the IT Act, 2000, makes it mandatory for the “intemediaries” to inform the users by clearly stating under “rules and regulations, privacy policy and user agreement” published on the website that they are not supposed to “host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share” any such content that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.” [Section 3 (2)(b)]

Once a violation within the description of any of the provision under Section 3 (2) is noticed by or is brought to the notice of an “intermediary” by any “affected person” through a written communication by e-mail or otherwise, Section 3 (4) of the Rules requires the ‘intermediaries’ to take down the objectionable material within thirty six (36) hours.

This means that any ‘objectionable content’ that falls within the description of Section 3 (2) not only violates the relevant laws of the land, but also violates the basic ‘Terms and Conditions’ that you agreed to when you joined the social networking site in question. Therefore, if the “intermediary” is taken to the court and has to pay damages or suffer any losses due to one’s posting the ‘objectionable content’, nothing stops the “intermediary” (Facebook or any other) from suing one to recover the damages arising out of the breach of the express ‘Terms and Conditions’. At the same time, the “affected person” might also initiate a criminal action or a civil suit, or both against the violator.

So, if ‘X’ posts defamatory remarks against ‘Y’ or impersonates him or her [Section 3 (2)(g) of the IT Rules, 2011], ‘X’ might be sued both by the concerned “intermediary” for the violation of the ‘Terms and Conditions’, and also by ‘Y’ for defamation. Additionally, ‘Y’ might also choose to initiate criminal proceedings against ‘X’, and sue the “intermediary” for failing to take down the objectionable content within the stipulated period of thirty six (36) hours, if the “intermediary” failed to act after having been notified of the offending material by ‘Y’. And if the “intermediary” had to compensate ‘Y’, the amount paid might be recoverable from ‘X’. In short, ‘X’ is neck deep in boiling soup.

However, it might be difficult for ‘Y’ to have the “intermediary” prosecuted under criminal provisions because of the obvious difficulties involved in establishing criminal intent on the intermediary’s part.

Furthermore, offenses like posting obscene or pornographic material don’t even need an “affected person”. The State can prosecute the offender on its own for the crime without anybody’s turning up with a complaint.

And it might be heartbreaking for those who breathe easy under the myth of ‘internet anonymity’ that it’s less than a cakewalk for the authorities to turn your IP address into a knock on your door.

So, there is absolutely no reason for you to ‘not take’ your posts and comments on Facebook and your tweets on Twitter ‘seriously’.

Originally written for and published as Cover Story in LAWYERS UPDATE [April 2012 Issue; Vol. XVIII, Part 4]

Rushdie Controversy: Silencing the ‘Substandard’

On October 5, 1988 we banned a book called ‘The Satanic Verses‘ without reading it just nine days after it was published in the United Kingdom. Nine days? Shouldn’t it take much longer to import, ‘decipher’ the ‘unreadable’, and make a decision? It wasn’t published in India and was yet to be formally marketed in this country. So, what did we ban? It’s import under Section 11 of the Customs Act, 1962.

Cut to the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2012. We disallowed the author of the book – Sir Salman Rushdie – from participating in the event, not even through video conferencing.

What’s ‘banned’, again? The book or the author? The ban under the Customs Act bars the book from entering the country, alright. Does it also bar people? Under the Customs Act, 1962, are people ‘importable commodities’ that can be ‘barred’?

Yes, I know the standard ‘public order’ argument. Can a person be prohibited from speaking in public just because what he ‘might’ speak ‘might’ be ‘hurtful’ to a section of people? If a person is so stopped, is it not – technically speaking – pre-censorship? Therefore, is it not the violation of the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution?

There is no reason for us to believe that Mr. Rushdie was about to deliver an inflammatory speech because he has not said anything even remotely offensive on any of the earlier occasions when he was in India or when he participated in the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2007. And nothing has really changed on that front.

It might also be noted that the Jaipur Literature Festival came to the attention of the world because of Rushdie’s participation in the first place. Furthermore, Rushdie is a writer of international repute and not a politician. As a writer what he needs is ‘readers’ and not ‘voters’ or ‘supporters’. So, making inflammatory speeches doesn’t really work for him irrespective of its efficacy for the politicians.

Besides, Rushdie has already had truckloads of such negative attention, which got him fatwas and attempts on his life. With the nightmare still fresh in his memory, he is very unlikely to invite more trouble by infuriating people at the Jaipur Festival for no good reason. In all likelihood, he wanted to ‘participate’, and in denying entry to him we certainly refused to defend his right to speak and our right to hear him, and also ended up offending the Constitution in the process in more ways than one.

Now, assuming that Rushdie’s presence could cause some unrest; may be more than ‘some’. But then, is the possibility of a law and order problem alone a valid ground to restrict or deny right to freedom of speech and expression? The answer quite obviously is ‘no’ because if such a ground was allowed, it would be the end of all peaceful, democratic protests, and, by extension, the end of democracy as well. Therefore, in absence of any valid reason, the decision to bar Rushdie – whichever way it was done – from participating in the Jaipur Festival was clearly “unreasonable and arbitrary” and thus offended Article 14 as well.

And this has nothing to do with Rushdie’s literary merit as an author or the social utility of his work. He might be ‘substandard’, ‘unreadable’ or ‘overrated’, but that does not diminish his right to be treated fairly.

If ‘utility’ of any kind is the parameter, let’s start by burning Monalisa because her inscrutable smile surely doesn’t alleviate poverty or crime or AIDS, and then we can move on to Khajuraho with a sledgehammer because at 123 million and counting, we surely don’t need temples with erotic statues to tell us how to do ‘it’.

And if ‘quality’ is a criterion, all but the today’s Shakespeares, Joyces, Kalidases, Kants, Picassos, Miltons, Premchands and the like must be decreed to stop work at once. Those who can’t speak as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. must be told to shut up. And the farmers would stop committing suicide, hopefully.

If being ‘inoffensive’ is a necessary precondition, Mirza Ghalib was offensive enough to border on blasphemy. And in his day and time, he was considered ‘substandard’ by his contemporary poets like Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq. Publishers did not find him ‘publishable’ for a long time. And his poetry did not stir up a revolution then, nor can it do so now. So, he was a socially ‘ineffective’, ‘substandard’, ‘almost blasphemous’ poet. Imagine the literary consequences of silencing Ghalib for those reasons, shall we?

Originally written for and published as Opinion in LAWYERS UPDATE [March 2012 Issue; Vol. XVIII, Part 5]