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Name, Place, Religion, Thing: Understanding Kai Po Che’s Gujarat
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Raj Kumar Yadav, Sushant Singh Rajput and Amit Sadh in Kai Po Che
ai Po Che, Abhishek Kapoor's film about three young men coming of age in Ahmedabad circa 2002, has become the subject of an avid debate that seems to centre on how it adapts Chetan Bhagat's 2008 novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life. But somehow the fascinating questions of what the film version leaves out, adds or changes have been subjugated to the seemingly all-important one of how these decisions relate to Bhagat's changing political agenda with respect to Gujarat.
Bhagat's alleged attempts to curry favour with Narendra Modi, though thoroughly depressing if true, seem unworthy of the attention they're getting. I have written elsewhere about why I think the changes from book to film (Bhagat is just one of four scriptwriters) make Kai Po Che a more powerful indictment of Gujarat's polarised society than the book was. By having one of the central characters actually enter into the madness of communal murder, the film forces us to engage with the possibility of violence as something within ourselves — rather than something that only certified villains are capable of.
It also seems clear to me that this film is more effective in reaching out to its audience—and potentially changing people's minds—than an imagined filmic naming and shaming of Modi could ever be. Why this is so is a complex question, and I shall return to it. But allow me first to speculate a little about a related question: why does the film feel so much better-etched than the book?
Perhaps his dialogue for his characters is based not on how they might actually speak, but on his astute sense of how they – and his readers – might want to?
Many critics, including myself, have felt that Bhagat's characters – Govind Patel, Ishaan Bhat and Omi Shastri – seem more fleshed-out and well... characterful in the film than in his book. Of course, this is partly about wonderful actors, but might it also be because the film allows these people to be who they are at the most fundamental level – that of language? In The 3 Mistakes of My Life, these very middling middle class young men from Ahmedabad — one the son of a single mother who runs a small khakra-dhokla business, another the son of a local purohit — are made to speak in a slangy, American-inflected English that seems completely off-kilter: "Screw that, you were out of form, man," says Omi to Ish; "F**k your statistics, man," says Ish to Govind. And when the characters speak plain, unembellished prose, they sound unidiomatic to the point of being jarring: "No marble player ever became great," says Ishaan to the young Ali. Compare the flat dull thud of that sentence to the marvelously resonant version of it in the film: "Goti khel ke tu kya ukhaad lega?".
y point is not that the mixed-up, polyglot universe of our cities cannot be translated—after all, the film gives us these conversations in Hindi, where they might in the real world take place largely in Gujarati – but that it takes a special talent to be able to recreate it in English. That talent is not one Bhagat seems to have. Or perhaps his decision is a deliberate attempt to fuse identification with aspiration. Perhaps his dialogue for his characters is based not on how they might actually speak, but on his astute sense of how they — and his readers — might want to? Whichever it is, watching Kai Po Che, it is hard not to feel (as someone once said about Gopal Gandhi's translation of A Suitable Boy into Hindi) that it has been translated back into the original.
There are other changes that ground the narrative more firmly in its locale. The film does away with a free trip to Australia that felt more like a cricket fan's wish-fulfilment than any possible reality for three guys running a local sports shop. It excises political conversations that seem too wordy and too sensitive to actually be conducted. It replaces the Govind-Vidya romantic birthday-with-fancy-cake with a garba moment that has both sexual frisson and charming gawkiness.
The film also does away with the somewhat artifical gambit of having Govind be an agnostic, through whose narratorial voice religiosity is questioned and clunkily debated. Instead it lays out a world whose everyday Hinduness is remarkable for being unremarked, just as it often is in Indian life: the Ganesh statue on the dashboard, the instinctive gesture of touching new ground to one's forehead, or writing Om to inaugurate a new blackboard.
But this last might also be the most profound expression of the Hindu matrix within which Kai Po Che operates. Unlike a Firaaq or a Parzania (one superbly elegant, the other hamhanded), this is a Gujarat through Hindu eyes: the friends set up their coaching-centre-cum-shop in a temple complex, knowing that non-Hindu customers are unlikely; Ali, the cricketing prodigy whom Ishaan befriends, is their only window into a Muslim milieu. But — and here I return to why it might reach out to its audience — the film does not judge them for it. They are creatures of their milieu. If Kai Po Che's segregated universe has a message for us, it is not to applaud the fractured society it mirrors. It is to force us to see what exists – and grieve for how it came to be.