GURGAON (Dir. Shanker Raman, 2017, India) – The Horrors of Economic Liberalization


Gurgaon is a vicious, nihilistic denunciation of India’s on going project of economic liberalization. I didn’t know much about Gurgaon but I soon discovered it is an emerging place for business and technology. This may not be important to our viewing pleasure but this film is very much about what Gurgaon symbolises in India right now – the question of economic progress. This vexing socio-economic question is articulated through the story of the landowner who is seduced by and concedes to capitalist overtures. In many ways, the story is a flipside to Bimal Roy’s pathbreaking Do Bigha Zamin, the definitive tale of capitalism vs. the worker, in which the peasant farmers go to extraordinary lengths to protect and hold on to land they have helped to cultivate over generations. The ending to Do Bigha Zamin sees the defeat of the farmer in the face of the inevitability of modernization, progress and capitalism. Whereas Bimal Roy suggested that resistance to industrialization was futile, the economic liberalization that we witness in Gurgaon is a corrosive phenomenon. The gambit of real estate development and exploitation has led to the creation of a new Indian elite that seems to be completely lost and vacant, unable to function at all other than as sociopaths.

Director Shanker Raman brings a chilling touch to the staging of the family scenes – a deadening paralysis, a result of infanticide and new elitist arrogance, conjures a family of sleepwalkers, notably the cruel men. Is this the new India that had been promised to the farmers, peasants and workers? Morally bankrupt, violent and bleak. The neo noir aesthetic and non-linear narrative of Gurgaon recalls recent films like Peddlers, Titli, Mantra, Moh Maya Money and The Hungry. But these are not the only tentative similarities shared by this cycle of films. Perhaps more significant is the ugly face of economic liberalization juxtaposed against the milieu of a new urban elite in which a betrayal of ancestry and the nation has led to the sadistic implosion of the family unit. There is also a grotesque quality to these films; the lecherous face of masculinity and wanton sadism is manifested in exhibitions of misogyny. Arguably, in Gurgaon, the only fully alive people are the women, although the mother and daughter are also unsurprising victims. And it is up to the mother to restore a grudging social order at the end as if to redress the fatalism of economic liberalization. In doing so, the ending to Gurgaon recalls Mother India (1957) but with a vehemently self-destructive twist.

Raman’s film has strong overtures of the horror genre, a satirical horror on capitalism perhaps. I have tried impressionistically to note a few of the more obvious characteristics of this loose cycle of films. But how do we label such films? The tropes of melodrama still prevail no matter how deftly Gurgaon fuses noir and horror. In some respects, this is why so much of Indian cinema has never been delineated along strict genre lines. It is a magnificently porous cinema that throws up a plethora of genre anomalies and delights. There is one overarching theme though. This is to do with the youth, expressly disenchantment with politics, family and society. But since this is largely a middle and upper class representation, sympathy for such youthful anxieties is partial. One fascinating sub-plot that lingered in my mind involves the character of Jonty (Yogi Singha), a destitute man from the slums, who is hired to kidnap the only daughter of Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). What this sub-plot points to is the static reality of socio-economic exploitation in which the people from the slums are instrumentalized to keep in check their own oppression. We come to discover real estate development, a corrupt enterprise, has meant the disappearance of the poorest people, their land swallowed up in the name of progress. The analogy between capitalism and the horror genre is not new – both Marx and Lenin made the equivocation. And it is a socio-political equation that marks the insidious ways, in which capitalism is a self-devouring force in Gurgaon, clearing a path in which greed, corruption and entitlement are vestiges of a new nation.

The spectre of classic Indian cinema resurfaces in one of the penultimate shots of a pathetic plaque that is erected to memorialize the death of Preeto (Ragini Khaana), the adopted daughter of Kheri Singh. But this is not a sacrifice for the good of the nation that is alluded to at the end of Mehboob’s Mother India when Radha is present for the opening of a new dam. After all, the imagery of blood at the end of Mother India remains a tangible afterthought in the name of progress. Just as the price of blood remains as fresh and vivid as the one spilt on the land and witnessed by Radha in Mother India, the blood, sweat and tears of the workers who helped to erect the new metropolises of India are invisible, there is no plague to memorialize their spirit and contribution. The land that once spoke of sacrifice, toil and labour, now reeks of an unchecked violence, corruption and murder. But capitalism, economic liberalization, hedonism, all seem to have forgotten about one thing which they are unable to corrupt or defile, which is the mother. Whereas Sukhilala’s defeat, the parasitic moneylender in Mother India, has won out over the course of time, as evidenced in the narrative of economic liberalization, the mother in Indian cinema remains indubitably visible and embedded as a symbol of resistance on many different fronts. Is it not safe to say then Radha’s gunshot that slays Birju still reverberates and finds a distant yet eerie echo in the contemporary imaginings of the nation in Indian cinema.

It is worth mentioning that Gurgaon is the directorial debut of award winning cinematographer Shanker Raman (Harud, Frozen, Peepli Live). Sadly, the film did not get a UK cinema release but is now on Netflix. I haven’t seen an amazing amount of Indian films of late but Gurgaon really stands out in terms of its terrifying political discourse.

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