Modi’s McLuhan moment

Ashish Mehta

Modi’s McLuhan moment

Thrills and perils of mixing politics with virtual reality

First, a bit of theory. Marshall McLuhan (Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan, a Canadian expert on communication, coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ in the 1960s. Simply put, his theory was that how you say something is more important that whatever you say. An advertisement or an election campaign will have a different effect if it is delivered through TV instead of a post-card.

Though Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi may not have heard of him, he has discovered McLuhan as he aims to win Gujarat for the third
consecutive time. We are of course talking about his 3D campaign. Modi is a very effective orator. He does not talk the clichéd language of politics that can put even insomniacs to sleep. He prefers simple, plain language, switching to even the colloquial register for effects and jokes. He connects with the audience within moments. He has penchant for dramatics, and his barbs aimed the Congress get claps. He has probably modeled himself on the supremely popular Ramayan kathakar, Morari Bapu. In short, a Modi rally is an entertainment item. Three youngsters going home after a 3D projection rally at Chhota Udepur in Vadodara district actually told me so: “Maja aavi (had fun).

Thus, point one: Modi the orator as the vote-catcher. Point two is that there’s nobody else in the party. The 11 years of the Modi rule are also the period when one after the other, all other BJP stalwarts have called it a day. They have either launched a new party (Keshubhai Patel, Suresh Mehta), or have withdrawn from party politics (Rajendrasinh Rana), or gone to a better world due to reasons natural or otherwise (Ashok Bhatt, Haren Pandya, Kashiram Rana). Does anybody know who is the current state BJP president? Now if Modi alone has to carry the burden, how can he be everywhere, the way Lord Krishna was seen by every gopi? Live telecasts of speeches won’t bring crowds. So, live cast of 3D projection was a technology very much waiting for Modi. McLuhan was right.

Now add to that the fact that, whether bringing fresh faces (like so far) or repeating MLAs (like this time), Modi seeks votes in his own name, not in the name of the candidate. Parliamentary democracy, as envisioned by the framers of our constitution, might be slightly different, but Modi repeatedly has been telling people that it is the vote to select the person you would give the key of Gujarat to. The candidate might be a lamppost for all I know, but vote for kamal. For this brand of parliamentary democracy, where 182 Modis are in contest, you need the right medium to deliver the message.

The first time he used it was on November 17, in Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot. There were crowds. It was a hit – largely, though there were technical snags much highlighted by the Gujarati newspapers. The next day he addressed 26 rallies simultaneously and on December 5, as many as 52 towns heard him. People are impressed. “It looks like Modi himself,” you hear in the crowd. But Modi himself is the most impressed. Forget what I have to say, first look at how I am saying it. So he goes paying tribute to this marvel of technology, lest it has failed to impress you: “Gujarat once again sets a new trend. Never before in the history of the world has anybody [correction follows] any political party has used this 3D technology. It is my good fortune (saubhagya) to bring it to Gujarat [though the firm doing it is based in the Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh, but what’s a little detail between friends]. This dream has been realized on the land of Gujarat. Now a Gujarati youth can take pride and see eye to eye with anybody in the world.” In short, vote for me because I am campaigning hi-tech. That’s what McLuhan meant when he said ‘the medium is the message’.

As for creating a buzz, the technology has done its job. Now, as every Facebook user knows (I don’t know as I don’t use it, but you get the point), technology has its limitations. Modi, as it happens, knows this truth. So, he has to underline and emphasise that he is virtually right there, among people. “Brothers and sisters, I can see the smile on your faces here in the screens before me.” Hard to believe. “I can hear your claps.” From 52 places. Would you believe or the Congress' lies?

He knows the problem, so he cracks jokes. “Yesterday I went to Bhavnagar. One fellow refused to believe it was me. I had to tell him I am Modi, not that 3D-wala Modi.” Here are some more problems that the “tech-savvy chief minister” (as the background voice before his speech described him  twice) would certainly be aware of:

It was a major rally for the party, and yet the local candidate was nowhere in sight. It’s just this 3D show, you listen to Modi and then go home.

For the same reason, technicians were more visible than party workers. Technicians shouted instructions, they made the arrangements. Not only the candidate is redundant, so are the party workers. Talk of wonders of technology.

BJP workers from the village where I am spending the election month arranged for a bus and went to listen to ‘Modisaheb’ in Pavagarh, about one and a half hour’s rough road, when he came there to conclude his pre-election Vivekanand Yuva Yatra. I kept looking for them in Chhota Udepur, less than 45 minutes (actually 15 km). None turned up for this ‘padada-wali sabha” (the rally with curtains – a huge curtained box frame is the stage for the 3D projection). Their complaint: as the Hindi film song goes, jo baat tujh mein hai, teri (3D) tasvir mein nahi.

Region specifically, Modi spoke about Saurashtra, referring to what all he was doing for the Narmada dam and what all the Congress was doing to prevent him from doing. Stray references to a couple of places (like Bhavnagar in the joke above). Folks in this tribal belt on the eastern border of Gujarat did not have any take-home. Effectively, once the wonder wears out, 2D or 3D, it is like a simultaneous telecast.

Since Modi knows this, he is putting this up only as a sideshow, running to storm every constituency.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

His face averted from the rest of the workers,an old man was digging earth at the drought relief work.The general deportment indicated he must have been a man from a well-placed rural family that had fallen on bad days because of the failure of the monsoon,but that did not prevent him from working like a fury.

As his pick hit the land with gusto,he sang in Gujarati: "Khandaniya Ma Mathan Ram, Zinko Ram Zinko Ram, Dukale Pidhan Lohida Ram" ( We are like the grains being pounded in the mortar.O God, go on pounding us with as much force as you like in this famine which is sucking our blood.)

A visitor who was at the site to distribute buttermilk among the workers was overhearing it,as if petrified by the sorrow and pain the old man,as alsothousands and thousands like him,were suffering,uncomplaining and yet with dignity facing miseries inflicted by the vagaries of the rain God.

"It sort of sent a flashlight through my head",said Upendra Trivedi,noted Gujarati thespian,whose depiction on the celluloid of the terrible famine in Gujarat nearly a hundred years ago,done on paper with great mastery by the late author Pannalal Patel,Manvini Bhavai,had bagged a silver lotus award for a regional film at the 41st national film festival.

Basically, Upendra is a show man in the genre of  Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. After a life time in films, he had a stint in politics and found out that the real life is far more complicated than the reel life. For some time now he has been in wilderness and was almost in the oblivion. Politicians, cricketers and denizens of the filmdom cannot afford to remain out of public limelight.Perhaps , Upendra Trivedi had perceived it to be a clear danger. His friends and well-wishers rallied round with a volume containing the actor’s own life statement and writings by others and released it on July 9, 2009 at Gandhinagar. Among those who were present was Morari Bapu, a noted Ramayan preacher.  An exhibition of cartoons  and caricatures on Upendra by Nirmish Thaker, whose cartoons appear in a number of publications, including Opinion was another hightlight of the programme. Nirmish said later his was the first solo exhibition of cartoons on a single actor.

Rahul Gandhi notwithstanding, aged people rule the political arena, but perpetual youth is expected of sport persons and show people.So it is difficult to make whether Upendra’s political career blooms once more or  his screen life, his real life or his reel life! Whichever it is, it remains true that had he not done anything else but the film on Pannalal’s novel, Upendra Trivedi’s name would always deserve respect.

The novel,on which the film is based,itself had won laurels for Pannalal, eversince he wrote it in 1947,capping it with a Jnanpith award for 1985,given in 1986.The late poet Umashankar Joshi had hailed Pannalal as a writer no less than Shakespeare.Upendra Trivedi would compare him with Chekhov;others have drawn parallel between Pannalal and Maxim Gorky.Like Gorky,Pannalal had graduated from the university of life,portraying life around him powerfully, graphically and beautifully.Man was at the centre of the best produced by Pannalal,and yet it was no fanciful flight of imagination in individualism totally delinked from the society around him.In the struggles of ordinary people he portrayed,Pannnalal never came out as an escapist." Man ," he once said," is not evil as such.Hunger is.And a worse evil than poverty is begging."

Upendra Trivedi,who has been a leading light of the Gujarati silver screen and stage for years,had acquired film rights of Manvini Bhavai even before it got the Jnanpith award to Pannalal.The story,its social relevance,its pathos,its immediacy all appealed to him as something that would lend for a powerful movie.But,said Upendra Trivedi later," I could not clarify in my own mind as to what I wanted to do with the story. That day when I saw the old man on the drought relief work,heard his song,and later spoke to him to find out details of his life,it all clarified in an instant-- as if like a flash."

He said that almost every Gujarati who can read has either heard of or read Pannalal's Manvini Bhavai.What kind of treatment should be given to it in  picturising it was the million rupee question that had been exercising his thought-process. "When I saw the old man and his dignified struggle,learnt of the fact that although he had a rich son in law,he was loathe asking for help,that during lunch time,he would go running home to look up his cattle,all touched my heart,and gave me a cinema idiom,so to say."

He could as if fathom the suffering of the old man at the relief work,and strove to transform that suffering in filming Manvini Bhavai."It was not a story of Kalu and Raju,or of any of the characters portrayed in the novel only. It was during a famine that most of the established demarcations of behaviour disappear.Famliy ties became strenuous; man and animal both would be compelled to drink dirty water from the same source.It was a timeless tale of the rural folks pitted against hard times, the story of a drought, a famine,whether it is is in Bhiloda,my constituency,north Gujarat,Saurashtra or Kutch,or entire Gujarat.It transcended boundaries; it could be the tale of farmers in Somalia or Ethiopia."

"Time is the hero,the nature its leading lady,and the famine the villain. Man's battle against the drought,the shortage of food and water,the miseries all around are enough to defeat him,crush his spirit.But man,fights on,often on the strength of fragile threads of non-existent hope.I made the film on this concept",Upendra Trivedi said."I realised how magnificent this epic struggle of human beings against the vagaries of nature has been.I have tried to celebrate it,eulogise his fighting spirit,pay tribute to his ingenuity. Look at Kalu,one shower of rain and he revives as if Shiv has returned with the Ganga in his hairlock." He also felt that a paucity of water -- for drinking,for farming, for animals-- was at the root of most of his miseries. "Water is life."

In filming the novel, Upendra made a few changes ; " I have dropped a few charaacters,added some,added some descriptive scenes to make it all the more focused. For instance, to drive home the real face of the famine of the 1890,which Pannalal wrote about in the book,I have added a pre-drought scene of charming rural scenery.But I have remained faithful to the basic purpose of Manvini Bhavai."

In a way,this is the graduation of Upendra Trivedi,successful actor,from the days he used to play varied roles such as Veer Mangdawalo,Malavpati Munj,to Kalu,the famine-ravaged rustic from rural Gujarat.If he began with Veer Mangdawalo, a beautiful story of history,in which a newly-married man goes out from the marriage pandal to save cows. He remembered,with visible signs of pain,how the literati in Gujarat used to scoff at his such roles in historical movies made on low budget in Gujarati in the 1970s and early 80s.They made him a household name in the villages,but did not earn him respect among the elite. "The literati",he recalled as if to comfort himseflf, " had found fault even with Zaverchand Meghani half a century ago,when the poet and writer had roamed all over Saurashtra,collecting folk tales and songs.These had been the rich heritage of our people but the elite pooh-poohed it all.The same happened to me too."

But,this has been an education for Upendra Trivedi and has helped him in transformation from a popular screen figure into a producer ith some social insight and politician with some commitment. Born at Indore ,Madhya Pradesh,on July 14,1937,Upendra has seen many ups and downs. "For some time,we used to live at Ujjain and I did not even know much of Gujarati",he recalled.Then,he went to college in Mumbai,got a diploma in dramatics,studied Hindi,even as he pursued a career of acting on the stage. The exposure to the theatre gave him an abundant love for literature,an ability to put his finger on the popular pulse and courage to strive on and on. He remembered he had done an earlier picture in Gujarati just for a fat fee of Rs.500. Those were the days when one could be happy earning as little as Rs.125 a month.He got a break when he got a job as a producer on the All India Radio,but his first love,acting,made him gave it up."I was told I could not act at will if I was in the service.I chose not to be in service."

His search for the self had begun. One of Upendra's early works was a highly-successful play called Abhinay Samrat, a title that  was soometimes applied to him in sniggering and derogatory reference.He played seven roles in the play,and yet the real identity of the heor was a mystery till the end; he was Radheshyam Maharaj,Haiderali Habib,Captain Rajesh Thakur,Rev.Johnny Walker,a tobacco trader from Talod,Pashabhai Patel. The story was that of a conman par excellence who could assume a different idenitity everytime he needed to cheat someone,and get away by pleading that "Hun te nathi (he was not that person)."

From "Hun te nathi",Upendra progressed to the silver screen,becoming the archetypal of Mangdawalo.But ,he has also made films like Zer To Pidhan Jani Jani,based on the literary work of the same name by Manubhai Pancholi,Darshak.He has some 125 films,and many plays,to his credit by now.He speaks almost regrtfully of the stunted growth of the Gujarati film industry; "It was beginning to blosom into its own after the inception of Gujarat as a separate state in 1960 and the formulation of a film policy later. But the video invasion,quickly followed by the satellite TV,aggression,dashed its hopes."

He said that despite this,it was his ambition to make a film version of Manvni Bhavai.He has directed the film,in addition to playing the main role,written the script,the dialogue and chosen the locations himself.While Upendra plays the role of Kalu,whose struggle against the drought and pining for his lost love for Raju are at the centre of the theme,Anuradha Patel plays the female lead role.Among others in the supporting cast are Chandrakant Pandya,Bhairavi Vyas,Anang Desai ,Kalpana Deewan and Ramesh Mehta.

The only fault some people have found in the film is a reference to the Narmada project at the end of the movie.While it is true that water is very important,and so is the Narmada project,the mention of the Narmada super-imposed thus,lends a touch of propaganda to the effort.

For a person who is a household name in countless village homes,Upendra is a very low profile person.He has an easy amiability, a presence and a good voice,but lacks the showbiz fizz.He had represented Bhiloda constituency in the backward Sabarkantha district for two terms,is very popular."I am not in politics for politicking", said Upendra,as if defending his place in it."I want to help the people; I am a people's artist and thought I could help them by working as their representative."He has an asset that may come handy in months ahead; he has a face that gets recognised by the crowds.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches