Leo Tolstoy not only gave the world great novels, but his philosophy also influenced world politics. Tolstoy’s epic novel War and peace suggests that history is not created by kings, rulers or conquerors; rather, it is an inexorable process determined by historical forces. Tolstoy is also the progenitor of an interesting idea that later came to be called “non-resistance to evil.” The idea grew out of Christ’s advice to his disciples not to resist an evil person and that “if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him also”.
Young Mohandas Gandhi exchanged a series of letters with Tolstoy and apparently Gandhi’s philosophy of Ahimsah (non-violence) was inspired by Tolstoy. Interestingly, the first ashram initiated by Gandhi during his South African movement was also called “Tolstoy Farm”. Ironically, Gandhi’s philosophy was hardly reflected in modern Indian history and in the affairs of that party, the Indian National Congress. But Gandhi’s romance with Tolstoy’s philosophy shows India’s desire to embrace foreign ideas.
However, India often misunderstands these ideas and distorts them – during the process of adaptation – by adding its own masala chat for them. This is why Nehru distorted socialism and why Modi creates a strange amalgamation of capitalism and fascist religiosity.
India’s desire to adapt and copy foreign ideas is becoming an obsession for its entertainment industry. Bollywood – the world’s largest film industry by number of productions – is known for its reliance on Hollywood themes and stories. And like political ideologies, it often also distorts creative ideas. While dozens of examples can be cited of Indian films disfiguring their Hollywood originals, we will limit ourselves, for the moment, to just one film – Flight over a cuckoo’s nest. Directed by Miloš Forman and starring Jack Nicolson and Louise Fletcher, this 1975 film won five Oscars.
Based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, the film introduced the character of McMurphy, a petty criminal who decides to have himself declared insane in order to be transferred to a mental institution, where he plans to serve out the rest of his time in comfortable and a relative luxury. .
This mental institution serves as the backdrop for the tragic story that poses a question mark over the entire society. McMurphy is a criminal. He’s cunning – he feigns madness – but he still has a human heart. This criminal refuses to consider the other patients of the mental institution as crazy. He tells the other inmates that they’re “no crazier than the average a**hole walking the streets” and begins to treat them like normal people. This approach works wonders and patients begin to recover. However, Nurse Ratched – who represents the management of the mental institution – does not accept this revolution and ends up “silence” the rebellious McMurphy by having him undergo a controversial lobotomy procedure.
The film posits that mental health facilities or psychiatric hospitals are not there to treat or cure a patient. Their goal is to keep a group of people captive by declaring them insane.
It also asserts that society and its institutions rely on the status quo and they crush anyone who challenges this status quo, usually by asking fundamental questions. Interestingly, Kesey did not portray McMurphy as a messiah or a divine figure. He is a criminal who can resort to violence. He can even commit rape — in fact, McMurphy is charged with statutory rape. However, he cannot tolerate oppression committed against a group of people. But when McMurphy reaches India, he undergoes strange and grotesque transformations. This Ken Kesey hero has appeared in four Bollywood films so far – Kyon Ki by Priyadarshan and three films by Rajkumar Hirani – Munna Bhai MBBS, Lage Raho Munna Bhai and three idiots.
we won’t discuss Kyon Ki because the director of this 2005 film completely misunderstood the protagonist of Ken Kesey. Hirani’s films are very good films on their own, but they are poor adaptations of Kesey’s idea.
In the Munna Bhai series, the hero is a criminal – like McMurphey – but his criminality is portrayed in such a humorous light that it ceases to look like deviant behavior; rather, this criminality adds to his charm as a flamboyant, childish, and innocent-at-heart hero. First Munna Bhai film, the hero confronts the dean of a medical school to settle a personal score and this confrontation turns into his fight with the status quo in the field of medicine. But the symbol of this status quo, Dr. Asthana, is only superficially evil. Basically, he is a “capital man”. In the second Munna Bhai movie, the hero begins to study Gandhi’s philosophy in order to impress his love. Now the ghost of Gandhi starts preaching him and his ideas turn the rogue.
Munna wants to do every act in light of Gandhi’s philosophy and this obsession leads her to confront her former partner in crime, Lucky Singh. But Lucky Singh is also only superficially bad and deep down he’s also a good guy – as Lucky’s daughter often tells him. In Rajkumar Hirani’s third film, McMurphy ceases to be a criminal. Now he is a student extraordinaire Ranchordas Chanchad aka Rancho. Hirani’s hero clashes with the status quo in the world of education but the villain is once again just a tough disciplinarian with his heart in the right place.
In all three films, the conflict between originally good people is resolved amicably: evil undergoes a metamorphosis and yields to good. However, in Flight over a cuckoo’s nest, McMurphy was not engaged in a conflict with a kind but strict disciplinary like Dr. JC Asthana or Viru Sahastrabudhhe. He was fighting evil incarnate which finally destroyed him. But McMurphy had also tried to break the neck of the status quo; he couldn’t succeed but he at least tried and thus gave motivation to his friend Chief.
Ken Kesey was not a romantic. That’s why McMurphy was a human being. He was not transformed into a divine figure and no one told him that “Munna, you are a god!” Kesey’s McMurphy has been shattered in his fight against the status quo, but India’s McMurphys are battling a jaundiced evil that recovers from its ailment during the conflict and finally embraces the good.
Poet Saleem Ahmed aptly said:
Dewta Bannay Ki Hasrat Mein Mu-allaq Hogaye;
Ab Zara Neechay Utarye, Admi Ban Jaye you
(You have been suspended in the air in the desire to become a God;
Now come down [to the ground] and become a man again)
Dr. Farhan Kamrani is Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology – University of Karachi. He writes on politics, culture, literature and cinema.