14 Years of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi: Why Sudhir Mishra’s Emergency Drama is the Definitive Political Film of Our Generation

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14 Years of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi: Why Sudhir Mishra’s Emergency Drama is the Definitive Political Film of Our Generation

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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oughly 30 minutes into Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, its protagonist Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon) – a revolutionary student leader who is inspired by the global surge in leftist politics of the 1960’s and 70’s – writes a letter to his girlfriend Geeta (Chitrangada Singh). In it, he describes the political struggle and caste dynamics of a remote village in Bihar. The story goes like this: A group of enraged lower-caste peasants protesting against their oppressive rulers find empathy for their Thakur landlord when he suddenly suffers a cardiac arrest. Their internalised sense of servitude instantly forces them into finding him the necessary medical aid and in that moment, all their grievances take a backseat. Narrating this story, Siddharth writes, “Delhi and Bhojpur are not merely separated by a thousand miles but also by five thousand years”.

Few cinematic moments describe India’s urban-rural divide and all its glorious contradictions more scathingly than this statement. It’s the point where Siddharth – and the viewer – realise why revolutionary ideas take so long to transcend socio-cultural barriers. This scene encapsulates how the loaded Marxist ideals of the leftist academia carry little weight among the people it is actually meant to uplift. For their realities are different. It’s the distinction that Mishra eloquently makes in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi: That the language of revolution is not universal and demands to be recalibrated and localised. Yet this is also where the Indian left – in the film and in real life – fails.

Set against the backdrop of the Emergency, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi follows Siddharth over a course of events that force him to acknowledge the futility of a revolution and ultimately abandon the rigged and helpless fight against the state. The shallowness of Siddharth’s sanctimonious sermons on courage and commitment is laid bare when he flees for a life of comfort in London the minute his defeat looks imminent. His “cause” no longer feels sacrosanct when he grasps the gravity of the state’s power. Being born to an influential father helps Siddharth escape in the end, although it’s a luxury that many of his comrades can’t afford.

In fact, according to his friend, Vikram (Shiney Ahuja), Siddharth was always a bourgeois – a recreational – revolutionary, pretending to fight the system that fed him. Even though, Vikram had his own reasons to regard Siddharth as an adversary, his cynicism toward student politics is actually rooted in his working-class upbringing. Unlike Siddharth, his life existed at the mercy of the Indian class system and was never a privilege, so Vikram is unable to accept Siddharth’s ideas of a classless, democratic society. In the film, both Siddharth and Vikram, represent a diametrically opposite outlook of politics and the country, which still manages to explicitly capture the minds of the youth today, nearly 50 years from the time the film was set in. Even now, it essentially boils down to how the youth sees the world they live in: It’s a clash between those wanting to topple the social order against those exploiting it to their advantage; an empathetic worldview against a ruthless one; and more reductively, socialism against capitalism.

Mishra brings out the disconnect between leftist politics and the people it is meant to serve, in another scene, where a communist leader addresses a rally of farmers and makes a reference to Hitler’s party. On hearing his grand proclamation, a befuddled man in the crowd sincerely asks another, who Hitler is, to which the latter replies, “Definitely not from my village!” It’s a quiet indictment on the cluelessness of the Indian Left, who’re still lost in the romance of the ideologies of Lenin, Pol Pot, and Mao – failing to admit their lack of relevance in today’s discourse.

It’s extraordinary how a film made in 2005 managed to foreshadow a reality that the Left is waking up to, only now.

At the moment, the Left occupy a peculiar standing in the country: In principle, the leftist ideology still holds a significant appeal across the country and yet it has failed to yield any electoral dividends outside the states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Kerala. Even though these states have seen strong communist ideals of agrarian, industrial, and administrative reforms implemented over the years, the Left is still perceived as a regional force for its inability to conquer the North. On the other hand, parties like the SP, BSP, and RJD in the Hindi heartland – without explicitly declaring themselves leftist – have achieved considerable results on the fronts of social justice and equality.

In fact, among the urban, aspirational middle class, the Left has long lost the battle of perceptions. The moralist ideas that the Left espouses end up harming the middle class, who are made to concede their share to those who haven’t “earned it”. And moreover, the state machinery – particularly the current right leaning one – has managed to successfully other the Left. It continues being seen as an entity that provides the necessary apparatus to forces that are pledged enemies of the state. And the Left’s history of leaders like Kanu Sanyal and Charu Majumdar, who have been advocates of violence against the state, doesn’t help bust these assumptions.

Yet what the Indian Left is yet to realise, is that the trouble with waging a war against the state is that public opinion will inevitably side with the state. In the film for instance, Siddharth realises that his fight against the established social order has eventually transformed into an extended armed struggle against the state. The pointlessness of that struggle dawns on him when he realises just how easily the state can quash it. It’s this eternal debate between the Left’s “cause” and its ability to propagate “change” that Mishra critiques in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. The film points out how this extending fight against the state renders the Indian Left incapable of fulfilling their commitment to deliver social justice. It’s extraordinary how a film made in 2005 managed to foreshadow a reality that the Left is waking up to, only now.

Perhaps, it’s a silver lining then, that in 2019, young leftist leaders like Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar have avoided endorsing a violent struggle against the state. Mevani is already a member of the Gujarat state assembly while Kumar is all set to contest the elections. Their decision to find ways of revolting within the structures instead of trying to topple them from the outside, feels like an antidote to the Indian Left’s misguided and continued romanticisation of their “cause” – their moral high ground.

It’s apt then, that as the country entered the second phase of elections this week, Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi – a film that also rebels against an industry that has embraced the idea of being “apolitical”– completes 14 years. The film’s title is borrowed from a famous poem by Mirza Ghalib, that translates to “A Thousand Desires Such As These”. For a political struggle nearly junked into oblivion and yet clawing its way back to relevance, it’s indeed about hanging onto a thousand desires.

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