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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Munnabhai and Obama - Uday Dandavate


Barak Obama, the recently elected President of United States and Munnabhai, a fictional character from a Bollywood movie, Lage Raho Munnabhai, have both in the recent past inspired popular imagination in a manner that is unprecedented. In referring them together in the title of this article I am not suggesting that Munnabhai and Barak Obama share common characteristics. On the contrary, they are very different from each other; yet, I am proposing that they can be put in a category by virtue of the similarity of circumstances within which each of them became an icon in popular imagination.

The movie Lage Raho Munna Bhai, (Carry on Munna Bhai) is a Indian comedy produced in the year 2006. The character Munna Bhai is an underworld don who begins to see the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and starts practicing Gandhigiri, (Gandhian philosophy, represented in the colloquial language from the streets of Mumbai). This movie brought into focus Mahatma Gandhi‘s philosophy on non-violence, and inspired youth around the country (and some outside of India) to emulate Munnabhai’s style of Gandhigiri by sending flowers to their adversaries as a protest. For example, Indian Greenpeace activists delivered thousands of roses to Ratan Tata, Chairman of Tata Motors, to reconsider his plans of building a port at the nesting grounds of Olive Ridley sea turtles. In the United States during July 2007, flower bouquets were sent to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office by individuals who were legally in the U.S. but were caught in a green card backlog. The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, announced the creation of a new Public Services Bill to combat corruption in a press release dated 17 November 2006, and cited Lage Raho Munna Bhai as one of its influences. The impact of this movie on the imagination of Indian people can be gauged from the editorial comment by Shastri Ramachandran in The Tribune, a newspaper published from Chandigarh,

“In an increasingly unfeeling and uncaring society seething with violence, corruption and oppression of the weak, where the dadagiri (bullying) of a benevolent goonda (criminal) is often the only refuge for the deprived and the dispossessed, Munnabhai proposes Gandhigiri as a practicable panacea. Doubtless, this is simplistic and, perhaps, romantic, too, in the filmi tradition of heroes who single-handedly achieve a revolutionary breakthrough as if foundational rot and structural inequalities can be remedied by individual intervention alone. But such a line of criticism and deconstruction, for all its validity, would be to deny both the logic and effect of Lage Raho Munnabhai, which is a bold and beautiful effort even if Gandhigiri is a PUF-packed pulp rendering of what is truly Gandhian.” (Ramachandran 2006)

Munnabhai revived Gandhi’s message of non-violence and provided people a simplistic alternative- you can win your adversary over with empathy, love and positive thinking. The message Munnabhai gave to his audience is similar to Obama’s message to America, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Obama’s portrayal of the state of American mind today resembles what the youth in India are thinking about, “People are very hungry for something new. I think they are interested in being called to be a part of something larger than the sort of small, petty, slash-and-burn politics that we have been seeing over the last several years.”

The success of Munnabhai and Obama reflects people’s frustration at the failure of establishment and the desire to reverse the moral, political and economic decline in public life. It also mirrors their craving for “change” and a renewed sense of hope that new solutions will emerge if people applied their minds to finding unconventional solutions rather than turning cynical.

To understand the significance of Obama it is important to recognize that during 2008 election American people were ready to depart from the old ideologies and dogmas. Obama’s opponents tried every trick in the bag to associate him with people and ideologies that have traditionally created divisions amongst people. His opponents suggested, sometimes explicitly and other times implicitely, that Obama was associated with terrorists , (for his past association with Bill Ayers a former Weather Underground leader), that he was a racist (for his long term association with and Reverend Jeremiah Wright) , a socialist (for suggesting equitable redistribution of wealth), an extreme liberal (because of his support for gay rights and abortion), anti women (for defeating Hilary Clinton in democratic primaries) and above all anti-national (for suggesting that he would like to establish communication with Kim Jong-il, Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro). None of the attempts to archetype him worked because the American people saw in him an opportunity to step away from issues that divided its communities and isolated the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world. In Obama America found an opportunity to take a fresh view of the future. Americans and the people of many other nations believed in Obama’s sincerity of purpose.

During his appearance on Oprah Winfrey show Hollywood actor Will Smith suggested that Obama’s victory heralds a new beginning in race relations in the U.S.. He said,

“I love that all of our excuses have been removed. African-American excuses have been removed. There's no white man trying to keep you down, because if he were really trying to keep you down, he would have done everything he could to keep Obama down. Yes, there are racist people who live here, absolutely. But they're not the majority anymore…. I don't think we are African Americans, Irish Americans or Japanese Americans anymore. I think Americans are a new race of people. We are Americans of African decent. We are Americans of Irish decent. It's a whole new world.” (Smith 2008)

Will Smith’s reference to the psychological environment that lead to Obama’s victory as “a whole new world” as opposed to the achievement of a single leader, underscores the point of this article which is that the world is embracing a new mindset and is ready to rid itself of old and divisive ways of thinking.

The significance of both Munnabhai and Obama is that they both provided their respective audiences an opportunity to open their minds to fresh ideas and transformed the popular mood from cynicism, anger and despair to hope. Despite the fact that one of them is a real person and the other a movie character, they are both a reflection of popular aspiration.

Sixty years after achieving independence, Indians feel frustrated by a political class that is self-serving and devoid of new ideas. People have grown tired of the social tensions being deliberately stoked by opportunitistic politicians. Especially after the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai, people in the street have become disdainful of the divisive designs of politicians. On January 31st, 2009 Amir Khan, a popular Bollywood movie star, echoed the frustrations of the Indian youth when he said, “A leader like Barack Obama is yet to appear on the horizon of Indian politics.”

As India gets ready to elect a new parliament and a new leader for the next five years, there is already a race amongst those interested in becoming the next Prime Minister of India to project themselves in the mould of Obama. Even Sanjay Dutt, who played the role of Munnabhai has secured a nomination from the Socialist Party to run for the Parliamentary election as its candidate, though he can at best set his eyes on becoming a member of parliament. As the elections campaign begins, there is no doubt that imitations of the sound bytes from Obama’s speeches will reverberate the dusty roads of India. While creating illusory resemblance to Obama’s message, these leaders will continue to lure voters with castist, religious or dynastic appeal. While the circumstances for an Indian Obama to emerge on the scene and articulate Indian voters’ frustrations and aspirations for change already exists, there is very little possibility for such a personality to emerge during the next campaign. It is time for those not tainted by the old game of divisive politics to enter the electoral politics and hope that Indian voters will send a message by sending the largest contingent of first timers to the Parliament. India too needs freedom from the divisive politics. Though India is ready for its own icon like Obama, the best it has got until now is the fictional character of Munnabhai.

The significance of Munnabhai and Obama is that they have both provoked people into working together and taking responsibility for solving problems, rather than depend on leaders to do it for them.

Uday Dandavate is Founder and CEO, SonicRim Ltd.

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