Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Robin-Hood syndrome

Glancing back at the year 2010, a few characters keep on coming to my mind. And these characters seem to be bound together by an eerie similarity. Eerie because at first sight these characters do not seem to have the remotest connection to each other and yet all of them seem reincarnations of a particular person.

Before talking about the similarity itself, I must introduce people with those characters itself. Not that 2010 is limiting factor to this list of characters, because some characters who share this similarity are from distant eras too.

Since we have to start somewhere, why not with an easily recognisable figure like Julian Assange. He created probably the largest ripples in international diplomacy and the international media by becoming the defiant face of Wikileaks – a website that has become a milestone achievement in exposing the internal machinery of governments. In the eyes of law though, he is guilty of “espionage”. (I’m keeping the Sweden cases out of picture here because they are not relevant in my piece).

Another international character who figures in my list is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. The Zuckerberg I’m talking about here is the one we can see in the film The Social Network, the guy who begins with a plan of taking revenge on his girlfriend and ends up creating the world’s most popular website in a single night, that too when he was totally drunk. The real Zuckerberg as far I know is not totally like it has been portrayed in the film, but not too different as well.

Prabhakaran also is another character from my list. For those who don’t know, he was the founder and face of LTTE. The LTTE, although militant in it’s way of operation and thus termed as “a terrorist organisation” in international forums, was basically founded with the objective of getting Tamils their deserved rights.

A person with similar objectives inside India itself is Kishenji, who can be termed as a leader of all “naxalites” and “mao-badi” people in central and east India. He and his people are responsible for deaths of innumerable people but their fight also initially sprouted out from a demand for rights, opportunities and economic support which the state took too lightly then and now is paying heavily for. Kishenji has been has stated on the national media that he himself condemns such killings and that it is not that he ever directs his people to take innocent lives.

Talking about Kishenji brings me to Beera Munda. Didn’t click?? Arre yaar, Abhishek Bachchan’s character in the movie Raavan. The film of course is no great piece of art, but it brings to us Beera, who is certainly an outlaw but one who cares for his people. My list of characters also contains another person played by Abhishek Bachchan, Guru Kant Desai, from the film Guru. (oh, did it strike you that both have same directors and same co-stars too?? But Guru certainly scores more than Raavan as a film). Guru is a fictional character but is heavily based on the life of a great industrial pioneer and entrepreneur of India – Dhirubhai Ambani. Guru Kant Desai does rub the government the wrong way (by cheating the national exchequer millions of rupees) but ends up making a whole family of shareholders richer by a gold mine.
Bollywood films are often based on lives of such legends. Once upon a time in MUMBAI is another such film. Sultan Mirza, the character played by Ajay Devgn, is an almost perfect portrayal of Hazi Mastan on screen. The defining dialogue of Sultan Mirza in the film i.e. “I only smuggle goods banned by the government not those banned by my conscience” sums up his character in a single sentence – the antagonist with a conscience. (The film does not have a protagonist at all).

Vivek Oberio plays another such “based on real life” character, Pratap Ravindra / Paritala Ravindra, in Rakht Charitra. (albeit with much more blood and gore). Another villain with conscience, and very much like Sultan Mirza, is slain by the other villain who does not have that conscience.

This year’s biggest (probably biggest ever) commercial success was Dabangg, a full on “masala” flick, with the typical ‘hero’ (yes hero and not protagonist. Such roles are called ‘hero’ roles. Protagonist is just not the right word for it). Chulbul Pandey is a funny man indeed. He finishes off the bad guys, but he himself is no Miss Goody two shoes. He takes bribes, dances with a ‘chokri and a botal’ and does not know how to respect his father, but he is the ‘good guy’ of the film no doubt.

Lalit Modi. So where from does he jump in?? Well, you see, the names in my list have no relation with each other except that ‘eerie similarity’ they share (about which I’m going to say just a bit later). But anyways, wherever he jumped in from, he certainly gave us IPL – a brand with which the world recognizes Indian sports industry. It took sports related entertainment to totally new heights. On the way though, Modi misplaced a few thousand crores here and there as if he were carelessly arranging his wardrobe and misplaced his shirts here and there.

Other people who happen to be included in my little list are Bhagat Singh, and his contemporary reincarnation Daljit a.k.a DJ (from the film Rang De Basanti), who ends up assassinating the corrupt defence minister of the country.

So is this similarity that I’m talking about?? On asking it to one of my classmates, he said “They all were corrupt, they all did wrong things.” Now that is an extremely negative approach to it. The fact is that all these people are protagonists rather than antagonists. These are those people who have certainly flirted with the wrong side of the law, but have been on the right side of their conscience. And most importantly, they did not break the law only for personal gain, but for the gain of community at large, and that is what that makes them stand out from other ‘outlaws’.

I had started thinking about this from the last few weeks. In fact this similarity between these varied characters actually struck me while watching a film last month – Robin Hood. After watching the film, these characters, not even remotely related to each other in any way, suddenly started to make sense as a collection of very similar people. And the common factor in them is what I call “the RobbinHood syndrome”.

I’d read Robin Hood long back, at a time when I didn’t know most of these characters I just talked about. This time around, watching the film, all those names kept coming into my mind all the time. These are just reincarnations of Robin Hood, some fictional, some real. The outlaw who works for the people, the guy who breaks rules only for the good of all, but ultimately he is the good guy only, the protagonist, the hero no doubt.

If you have any doubts on them being the good guys, then contrast Gurkuant Desai with someone like Ramalingam Raju of Satyam, or compare Sultan Mirza with his successor Shoaib Khan (modelled on master gangster Dawood Ibrahim), or try to see the difference between someone like Beera Munda and someone like Veerappan, or see how Mark Zuckerberg is different from some petty cyber-thief or hacker.

It is very important to understand that doing something good while staying totally within the system is often not possible. The system and the law after all have been created by humans only, and what is right and what is wrong may have different definitions in different laws, but remaining true to the conscience is the most important characteristic of the protagonist. Often someone has to break free from the shackles of the system and take steps in order to save the system itself from collapsing.

What gives birth to a “RobinHood personality”, we can never say. It might be extreme oppression, poverty or even a strong desire of revenge, and sometimes just a crazy streak. But people with the “robinhood-syndrome” can be found on every page of history, and everytime a need arises, a robinhood-personality will be born I the future too. For that matter, even Yudhishthira, famous for his impeccable integrity, had to lie to Dronacharya about the death of his son just in order to win the battle of Kurekshetra.

I highly doubt the existence of the ever virtuous hero who takes the straight path to his goal. Often shortcuts have to adopted, so called ‘unethical’ manoeuvres have to be executed, but why should we worry if the ultimate result is in for the good of all? Breaking out of the system for personal gain might be the trait of the antagonist, but if the gain is for the society as a whole, then certainly it is a virtue of the protagonist instead.

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