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Spirit and Ustad Hotel: What the State Wants to Say?

Spirit-Usthad-Hotel
Utharakalam Admin

M.H.Ilyas
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On deeper scrutiny,by supposedly giving out the ‘message’ about responsible drinking it can be seen that ‘SPIRIT’ is playing out  a covert state strategy. The film that is vocal about the increase in liquor consumption among ordinary workers, however keeps mum about the living conditions which pressurise them into such a situation.USTAD HOTEL by Anwar rasheed also belongs to this group of films. The film that doles out detailed instructions about family planning, it is not surprising that Ustad hotel scoffs at the pro-natal policy prevalent among Malabar Muslims.M.H. Ilias argues that the films ustad hotel and spirit put forth arguments acceptable for the governing state.
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In his work The Politics of Governed Partha Chaterjee interestingly narrates  how the residents of Gobindapur Rail Colony Gate Number One in Calcutta, which comprises of mainly refugees and landless people,  have effectively been ‘governmentalised’ through People’s welfare Association, an NGO floated by a civil society activist, Anadi Bera. Bera pushes his way through literacy programmes and an amateur theatre group.  The settlement was built almost 60 years ago with a group of peasants from South Bengal, who had lost their lands in the aftermath of the Great Famine of 1943 and who came to the city in search of a livelihood. The new wave of immigrants was composed of people from Eastern Bengal, as refugees produced by the partition of India and settled on a Railway property. The Railway authorities would carry out ‘ritual’ attempts to remove the squatters built by the residents and reclaim the land. But each attempt is foiled by stiff opposition and the railway authorities succumb to the collective resistance of the locals. The agitating people set up a human wall with the women in front, preventing the authorities from entering. All these attempts fail when the proposed displacement becomes an easy affair with the establishment of an NGO. The state could intrude into the settlement ‘decently’ as this NGO facilitated a smooth transition of the locals’ status from being ‘agitators’ to ‘responsible citizens’ acting in favour of ‘development’. People became a part of the ‘nation’s development by giving up the land ‘voluntarily’.

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Right from the beginning, Malayalam cinema has a long history of making such ‘responsible citizens (or people) keen on participating in the process of development and social welfare. It’s no surprise thus, why the early heroes of Malayalam films were doctors deeply committed to treating the ‘sick society’. As poetic justice has no mercy, poor villains ( anti-nationals) in all these films died of some serious illness. The main loci of these films were, quite interestingly, hospitals, sanatoriums or mental asylums.

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Right from the beginning, Malayalam cinema has a long history of making such ‘responsible citizens (or people) keen on participating in the process of development and social welfare. It’s no surprise thus, why the early heroes of Malayalam films were doctors deeply committed to treating the ‘sick society’. As poetic justice has no mercy, poor villains ( anti-nationals) in all these films died of some serious illness. The main loci of these films were, quite interestingly, hospitals, sanatoriums or mental asylums. The film makers made Malayalees feel the effects of modernity through these symbols which were otherwise alien to Malayali imagination. As tools of governmentalization, these institutions succeeded in bringing the Malayali audience close to the state and its various apparatuses.

The second phase starts with the Malayali migration to big cities such as Madras and Bombay, becoming the major plot for films. The talk of modernity in Malayalam films found expression through these upper-caste or upper-class migrant heroes looking at their old lives with new spectacles which they acquired during their stay in big cities. Through the perspective of these migrants who were stringent advocates of ‘modern medicine’, Malayalam cinema ridiculed all the alternative practices and institutions in our health system, ­­­­­­­which had prevailed for centuries. Importance of health consciousness and personal sanitation found an imminent place in many of the films.

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The second phase starts with the Malayali migration to big cities such as Madras and Bombay, becoming the major plot for films. The talk of modernity in Malayalam films found expression through these upper-caste or upper-class migrant heroes looking at their old lives with new spectacles which they acquired during their stay in big cities. Through the perspective of these migrants who were stringent advocates of ‘modern medicine’, Malayalam cinema ridiculed all the alternative practices and institutions in our health system, ­­­­­­­which had prevailed for centuries. Importance of health consciousness and personal sanitation found an imminent place in many of the films


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No considerable change happened to this orientation even with the films of late seventies, though the ‘angry young men’ of this period were misleadingly presented against the state. The disorientation between the frustrated heroes and the nation was deceptive as these films were more effective as tools for the state to institutionalize the forms of authority. As happened elsewhere in India, with popular slogans of progress, development, secularism and national security, emergency had subtly resonated in Malayalam Cinema.

This trend continued with Jayan’s cinema of 1980s which successfully attempted in govermentalizing the body through exercise and body building. From nation building shibboleths of 1960s and 70s Malayalam cinema eventually moved to individual body building. It was not just a mere coincidence that the character of Lalu Alex as doctor in many of the films was assigned with a job of introducing some new illness previously unheard of. Taking up the political mission, he taught us about diseases unknown by far. Watching these films closely, one can see that these films were the carefully formatted products of both the industry and the state with an apparent attempt to ‘administer the mass.’ The tool which has been used for this purpose was fear. To be more exact, fear of disease was made so appalling to a large section of population through these films.

These political tactics had parallels everywhere in the world. As Paul Virlio points out, in the 1990s with the images of ‘mass terrorism’, the fear of police as a civil deterrence was effectively replaced by visually administered fear. Virlio cites the example of Hollywood blockbuster of 2002 (an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1991 novel), The Sum of all Fears, sponsored by the US Department of Defence with the direct involvement of the CIA. This experience may not be quite foreign to our state where people celebrated the imaginary threat of Mulapperiyar Dam with the film Dam forecasting how an inevitable disaster would destroy a population. This does not mean that mass control is achieved only through fear. Sometimes welfare takes the role of it becoming an effective bio-political means of public management and the topmost priority of the state to gain control over population.

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So is the case with Ustad Hotel also. Emphasising the need of ‘charity’, the second part of this film blurs the border (always a porous one) between a Public Relations Department (PRD) news reel and a feature film. One can understand when film makers from the oil monarchies in the Gulf constrained by dynastic political sensibilities adopt the documentary genre to express their words and to overcome governmental measures aimed at censoring free expressions. There is something difficult to grasp when a feature film in Malayalam adopts the format of documentary. Does this genre serve any political function?
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The recent picks along this line are Spirit and Ustad Hotel; both appear to serve the function of cinema as a tool to administer the life of a ‘population.’ This cinema (Spirit), by taking the role of NGOs highlights the importance of ‘social concern’ against binge drinking by creating a public opinion or public emotion, against it. Making the ‘message’ more powerful and appealing, the hero in Spirit, speaks directly to the people through a television show. But, digging a bit deeper, one can understand that in the name of giving a ‘message’ of responsible drinking, what Spirit does is domesticating a serious social engineering scheme of the state in a subtle manner. And no wonder how a ‘statutory warning’ turns out to be the ‘message’ of a film and people happily subscribe to the same without much of ideological hassles. A film functions more effectively than an excise ministry promo and receives ‘due’ reward in the form of entertainment tax exemption from the Panchayath Ministry. While becoming very talkative of the social evil of binge drinking among the ordinary laborers, Spirit opts to ignore the issues of daily life that tempt them to drink excessively.

So is the case with Ustad Hotel also. Emphasising the need of ‘charity’, the second part of this film blurs the border (always a porous one) between a Public Relations Department (PRD) news reel and a feature film. One can understand when film makers from the oil monarchies in the Gulf constrained by dynastic political sensibilities adopt the documentary genre to express their words and to overcome governmental measures aimed at censoring free expressions. There is something difficult to grasp when a feature film in Malayalam adopts the format of documentary. Does this genre serve any political function? This of course revives a form that had extensively been used by the state to institutionalize the canons of nation-building in the early years of independence. It is not a mere coincidence that Ustad Hotel, subtly endorsing the state sponsored political indoctrination of family planning, also makes a mockery at the pro-natal policy among Muslims in Malabar.

There is perhaps no point in taking the issue of Muslim representation in Ustad Hotel in this context. For many it may seem to be a cliché. But when it comes to a film which claims to have overcome the general issues involved in portraying Muslim images, there is a necessity for initiating an enquiry from such a vantage point. Seemingly pro-Muslim, this film does not transport to the viewer the vexed issue of how images of Muslims are produced and viewed in the contemporary discourse. Ustad Hotel is otherwise is considered as a welcome attempt primarily for its braveness to choose a Muslim story and Muslim protagonists which of course is, at least for last two decades, being dubbed by the people in the industry as something that cannot click at box office.

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Muslim images, there is a necessity for initiating an enquiry from such a vantage point. Seemingly pro-Muslim, this film does not transport to the viewer the vexed issue of how images of Muslims are produced and viewed in the contemporary discourse. Ustad Hotel is otherwise is considered as a welcome attempt primarily for its braveness to choose a Muslim story and Muslim protagonists which of course is, at least for last two decades, being dubbed by the people in the industry as something that cannot click at box office.
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Second important thing that needs to be discussed in this context is its periodization of history in Ustad Hotel. Although serving no larger political purpose, accession of C.H. Mohamed Koya to power as the first Muslim Chief Minister of Kerala has been used as the major historical landmark to narrate the history of the male protagonist’s family. This is particularly significant when it happens amidst an overtly general trend to place an episode or a slice in history that invokes memories of our upper-caste or communist past for the family history to flourish. The recent ‘secular’ uproar over League’s fifth berth in the Oommen Chandy ministry shows how remote is the chance for Muslim community to get such a position in the future.

However, there may be some serious concerns to raise. With its instant realization of social issues, contemporary Malayalam cinema is a handbook to understand how a Muslim self is created in the new politico-economic context. Ustad Hotel is not an exception to that. This film in other words is the story of three generations of Mappila Muslims. In portraying the first generation Ustad Hotel follows the hegemonic narrative that continues to dominate in Malayalam cinema since 1960s. As in a MT novel, Muslims are “so innocent” or “lazy” or portrayed as honest friends, good mediators in quarrels, loyal soldiers, patriots, good policemen, friendly uncles and good traders. The first generation (the character of Thilakan) is an enthusiast patriotic Muslim who endorses a universal humanism and incorporates the values of secular modernity. As the Five-Year Plan Heroes of 1960s, he is deeply committed to romantic nationalism simultaneous to a nostalgic globality. His thoughts are that of ultra humanists and altruist Sufis that transcend all borders. This image construction has always remained far behind the real and of course has its own deep political context.

The images of Muslims moved along a different trajectory with the massive migration of Mappilas to the Gulf in 1980s. This period witnessed crude caricaturing of Muslims hinging mainly around the first generation of Muslims who made illegal migration to Gulf by country crafts or nouveaux rich gulf migrants often being discounted by the middle class for lack of ‘family history’. Portrayal of second generation in Ustad Hotel is a direct rendition from this tradition.

Second generation Muslim Gulf migrants’ vanities and pretensions are often the buttes of jokes or laughing stocks in this film. Even after long three decades of continuity Gulf migrant Muslim images are still vilified or often portrayed as an outsider who shatter otherwise smooth-flowing life in Kerala. He (often a rag-get rich prototype) comes with a purpose to destroy ‘otherwise’ peaceful upper-caste dominated pristine Malayali life as in this film his money is always being treated as the agent of destruction; social, economic and environmental. Ustad Hotel also perceives Gulf Muslim capital as a major cause of worry and moral degradation and looks askance at the same for these reasons.

Another factor which helps in mystifying Gulf Muslim wealth is its general dissociation with the institutions. The apprehension of public (non-Muslim) is regarding how this system is being operated with not-so-intelligent investments, seemingly foolish transactions, free flow and carefree handling of money and totally different spending pattern. Most ironically, there is a marked unwillingness to recognize the fact that Gulf Muslim finance capital in the film field is something that none can belittle. It’s the finance capital of Muslims which becomes the cultural capital of Malayalees through cinema and television serials.

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Purdah is something of this sort, blocking the female protagonist in this film to perform on the stage and the removal of which, brings freedom to her. What I found astonishing is the naïve celluloid logic that the film and the female protagonist firmly inculcate; purdah is the major stumbling block for Muslim women and a simple sartorial change would bring about ‘liberation.’ This subtle pronouncement relates to the way in which dominant social discourse constitutes ‘purdah-clad’ Muslim women by denying the autonomous agency of them to bring about any ‘change.’ More specifically, these discourses grudgingly accept the sharpest changes occurred in the lives of Muslim women which are more palpable among the middle class Muslim women. That trajectory has begun to manifest, as a changing situation prompts young purdah-clad Muslim women professional to leave home and leave on their own and slowly, perhaps unwittingly, nudges a ‘secular’ society to accept new freedoms for them.
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A large chunk of film producers are from this community and the Gulf countries are the most potential market for Malayalam films after Kerala. Nevertheless, in Malayalam cinema, there has been an often acerbic debate over the Muslim Gulf money, with a whole lot of guess games revolving around a volley of questions; where is it generated, where do they go and work. Their financial transactions are being presented as something that blurs the lines between legal and criminal transactions.

The third generation (both male and female) is far removed from the traditions and practices that often determined Muslim image constructions in Malayalam cinema. To be a Muslim is not largely a strict observance of the daily prayer and the fast of Ramadan and Islam as religion seldom becomes a major reference point for identification in their case. This is a major issue-perhaps the most critical of all- seeing Muslims culture-rigid and exclusivist,  stops the new generation from being fully integrated into the so called ‘mainstream.’ Purdah is something of this sort, blocking the female protagonist in this film to perform on the stage and the removal of which, brings freedom to her. What I found astonishing is the naïve celluloid logic that the film and the female protagonist firmly inculcate; purdah is the major stumbling block for Muslim women and a simple sartorial change would bring about ‘liberation.’ This subtle pronouncement relates to the way in which dominant social discourse constitutes ‘purdah-clad’ Muslim women by denying the autonomous agency of them to bring about any ‘change.’ More specifically, these discourses grudgingly accept the sharpest changes occurred in the lives of Muslim women which are more palpable among the middle class Muslim women. That trajectory has begun to manifest, as a changing situation prompts young purdah-clad Muslim women professional to leave home and leave on their own and slowly, perhaps unwittingly, nudges a ‘secular’ society to accept new freedoms for them.

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