Pradeep Mehra and the Art of Fetishizing the Underdog

Social Commentary

Pradeep Mehra and the Art of Fetishizing the Underdog

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

A couple of days ago a candid conversation filmmaker Vinod Kapri had with a 19-year-old boy on the streets of Noida went viral. Pradeep Mehra, who runs 10 kms every night from his workplace in Noida Sec 16 to Barola, to stay fit for his Army trials has since become a social media star. The darling of corporate gurus on Linkedin, who probably take elevators from floor two to four in their respective spaces, the boy has become of symbol of earnest commitment. It’s inspirational, of course, to see a kid, so young, so disadvantaged by life and yet so full of life and the desire to live.

Mehra’s two-minute conversation has spread, including to my Whatsapp inbox where it was sent to me by who else, my mother. His is after all an underdog story that has all the characteristics of an epic, and yet it can’t only be looked at for what it can be translated to, but also what it illustrates. Why must a 19-year-old man work for his dream and dream for work at the same time? Underdog stories are universally liked, not just because they inspire but also because they absolve us of complicity. Because as long as one Mehra is on the street literally chasing his dream, what could the other Mehras be complaining about?

Underdog stories are universally liked, not just because they inspire but also because they absolve us of complicity.

Let me first say that Kapri’s intentions here – despite what has been said about privacy and a seemingly creepy approach at night – are largely noble. He has most recently documented perhaps the most important event of our times – the migrant crisis. His intent and sensitivity given the situation can thus be trusted for he is at heart a documentarian who knows the art of a tender approach. Moving on, this 2-minute clip has two aspects. One that plays out in front of us: the kid’s valour, his honesty, his shattering clarity about everyday goals. And then there is the aspect of the film that is hidden, which plays out behind the bewitching kinetics of a young boy literally running after his dream. It’s where class, access and privilege quietly whisper into your year the broader canvas of an anecdote from a mesmerizing boy’s life. Why must he sacrifice the recklessness of youth we take for granted to endear burdens that ideally shouldn’t be his or anybody’s to shoulder?

Mehra’s story isn’t about the magnanimity of human ambition but the oppressiveness of life in this country.

The nobility of Mehra’s pursuit – that he wishes to join the army – shouldn’t overshadow the fact that though Mehra sounds mature beyond his years, he really ought to be allowed the messiness of youth. For a moment let’s not summarise this little video as a snappy profile of heroism, but let’s also deconstruct it for what it says about us as a country. We love fetishizing the underdog.

From the media to reality tv shows we love rags-to-somewhat-riches stories that make us choke, because not only are they moving, but they also serve as momentary bridges between the elite and the underprivileged. Every time that make-believe bridge of access and opportunity is constructed, by way of sheer will, talent and determination, the elites celebrate as if it is them, where in fact it is despite them. It’s the kind of olive branch our politicians and bureaucrats would love to hang onto for the rest of their lives, for it is harder to get everyone across that bridge compared to framing the one who made it past, on his own, as ‘the one’.

It’s inspirational, of course, to see a kid, so young, so disadvantaged by life and yet so full of life and the desire to live.

Even the law of averages dictates that not everyone has the mental or physical capacity to be a Mehra, not to mention that without this sudden attention he himself might have remained anonymous, consigned to everyday struggles that to the entitled feel like feats of glory. Such a story feeds into the manipulative worldview the privileged create for themselves where stories of grit and survival are celebrated rather than dissected for the many socio-political burdens that make them imminent in the first place. Mehra’s story, his ill mother, his brother who works the night shift, isn’t about the magnanimity of human ambition but the oppressiveness of life in this country. Celebrating survival is like rewarding a drowning man’s ability to swim to the shore. Yes, there is honour in doing it yourself, but anyone would take the lifeboat – not the one-night lift that the Director offered mind you.

Everyone deserves the liberty of not having to hustle however righteous the goal.

There is obviously a lot that is endearing about Mehra’s story, the de-stigmatisation of drudgery and work for one, because not once does this humble kid sound like he is embarrassed about his circumstances. It is what makes this country hard to love but impossible to dislike. But the generalisation of struggle, the wrenching of dignity from the jaws of lifelong humiliation and suffering shouldn’t be celebrated to the point that it obscures everything, including what it says about inequality.

The fact that while hundreds of influencers make millions bench-pressing metal balls on the gym floors, a teenager treats the journey between work he is probably forced to do to the home where he probably rather not live, as a conquest says something of far greater importance. Because it’s the story of the millions of Mehras who won’t be seen, heard or acknowledged. Their runs, maybe harder, maybe even in vain. Everyone deserves the liberty of not having to hustle however righteous the goal. Even the likes of Mehra who make encounters with struggle look so simple and effortless. It’s anything but.

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