Migrant Laborers & Mob Justice: New Formula for Box Office Success

Johny ML
20/02/2016

The box office success of `Amar Akbar Anthony’ (released in October 2015), directed by Nadirshah, underscores the cathartic effects a film provides to the people in general who are disillusioned with the disbursement of justice by our judicial system that is famous for its deferment of deliverance. People in our country have a very ambivalent relationship with judiciary. This relationship, which oscillates between total respect and absolute abhorrence, is caused by the apparent vagaries this system shows in pronounced forms. Hence, when Nisham, the beedi king, is imprisoned for life for killing Chandrabose, the security guard, they rejoice, and at the same time when they see the one-armed rapist, Govindachamy, still living a cushy life inside jail they feel utter disgust.

In ‘Amar Akbar Anthony,’ we see a pedophile prowling surreptitiously in the streets, donning the garb of both social and linguistic otherness, and remaining absolutely unsuspected within the larger native community, which is quite oblivious and negligent about the existence of such 'alien' elements. Nadirshah, perhaps for the first time in the history of Malayalam cinema, takes this bold step of making pedophilia as the central theme of a film. He has done it commendably without ever showing a single instance of children being sexually abused. The familiarity of something unsaid, yet expressed in veiled terms, should be seen as the symptom of the deeper existence and awareness of the issue of child abuse in our society. None amongst the viewers throughout the film ever wonder why and where the director is taking them. The 'you-know-what-I-mean-by' kind of understanding pervades in the locations of watching this movie, which in a way gives a chance to many to relive the horror in much lighter environs, so that the cathartic effect could be felt without too much of visible physical or mental spasms.

The villain of the movie is a Bengali migrant worker. Our deliberate attempts to keep the migrant laborers out of the mainstream society or to see them as the potential villains in the drama of any social crime including theft and rape, automatically provides them a set scenario to act upon. Such villain-izing of a community would eventually result in retaliation and revolution; though their integration would thwart such developments. As we are now in a hurry to find the 'other' or the 'villain', the easiest way for an 'egalitarian' community like Malayalees is to posit the 'Bengali' (who is not really Bengali in terms of his origin) as the villain of the social narratives. Hence, throughout the film, despite the cool and happening nature of the three heroes (Prithviraj, Indrajith and Jayasurya), we are kept at the edge of anxiety by the glimpses of the 'Bengali' who predates children. It almost becomes a foregone conclusion that he is 'the' villain. And Nadirshah does not fail the viewer.

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However, like the shared heroism, the villainy is also presented as a shared one here by the suspense mongering Nadirshah, who keeps the character Kalabhavan Shajone’s ambulance driver, Sabu, out of the narrative toward the end of the film (to cash in on the villainy of Shajone in Drishyam), finds the old and respectable artist enacted by Sreeraman a befitting participant in the complex web of child abuse. The responsibility of child abuse comes directly on two dispossessed people: one, the Bengali migrant worker; two, the single, old, artist and community elder. In a way, the Bengali’s outside status is reflected on the old man’s eventual outside status. He could be a community leader, but as he is single and old, he also is seen as an outsider. Both these parties are attacked and decimated by the affected parties along with the members of the larger society. Interestingly, the law and order, by making itself absent by deliberate choice, allows the mob justice to take place.

People feel good about such instant delivery of justice. But I believe there is a very grave problem involved in such cinematic solutions. Perhaps, films have always reconfirmed their allegiance to the ideology of state, society, religion and family (Ideological state apparatuses, as put by Louis Althusser), thereby making the catharsis very palatable. But generally such deliverance of justice is done by corporal punishments or accidental deaths; and the pleasure of punishment is prolonged in the stunt sequences which are orgasmic. The final cleaning up is always done by the presence of the state with the arrival of police. Viewers could leave the theatre exactly the way they have come in, almost with the same belief in state and its apparatuses. But in ‘Amar Akbar Anthony,’ the state lampoons the people for not taking the responsibility (law) in their hands. Siddique, the police officer, mocks the heroes who are called for questioning. He says that had they been a bit more alert, things would have been different. It is a provocation, a covert way of the state telling the male citizens to take law in their hands, which is ironic and anarchist at the same time.

The problem of ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ lies in its very underlining of mob justice as something resulted from suppressed anger. Everyone wants to do it, they say. But the message of the film, despite all the sincere intentions of Nadirshah, could go absolutely wrong. Remember the absence of state or the deliberate withdrawal of the state in 2002 in Gujarat, which let the mob take 'revenge' (justice in another form) on the 'other' community. The moral policing in Kerala and elsewhere also could be seen as the disbursal of mob justice, which the film celebrates for an honorable cause. In Meghalaya, a person was lynched for his alleged involvement in a rape case. But it turned out to be a tiff between him and his girlfriend. In Dadri, Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched for allegedly keeping beef in his fridge, which turned out to be mutton. In YouTube, one could see people delivering 'justice' instantly (lovers are caught and thrashed, people involved in extramarital affairs and consensual sex are beaten up and so on) in several videos. Justice delivered without trial cannot be justice in democracy. Justice disbursed the way ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ shows could be instantly gratifying, but it can never be justice. Perhaps, we need to speed up the judicial process through several interventions including political, legal, academic and social. But it is never through lynching. But people like the film and the academic should take that fact with a smile.