The colours of language and legalities: reviewing Gulaal


The language barrier

One of the most important movies of last year went almost unnoticed. It is quite rare in India for movies to be made on sensitive issues without being preachy. That Gulaal is a gritty portrayal of campus politics, power struggle and anarchy in the heartlands of India is reason enough for it to be appreciated. But of course, that is not all the reason. There have been very few movies in recent past which had such a wide array of well scripted supporting characters like in Gulaal not to mention an ensemble cast which breathed life into them. A couple of movies which would come to your mind would be Maqbool and Omkara. Another thing which was common between these movies and some others like Dev D was the liberal use of ‘foul language’. This is a new development for Hindi movies because so far use of expletives or obscenities by actors on screen was a strict no-no. Some movies like Gangaajal chose to sidestep by using phonetically similar words (remember the famous inventive word madarjaat). It is a commendable change both on part of the movie makers and censors because finally we get to hear the language that is spoken on the streets, on the screen. The nonsensical sugar-coating of language was completely out of sync with the realistic portrayal that movies like these sought to achieve. Unfortunately, this change has not been received all that well. In fact, a number of people have come down hard on this trend. There are two directions from which criticism has come. One of course comes from the fact that the use of crude language makes it difficult to watch the movie with the ‘entire family’, thereby alienating a big chunk of audience. The only response to this can be that not every movie can be made for universal viewing. If all the movies were to be made keeping in mind the sensitive sensibilities of the ‘family audience’ movies like Requiem for a Dream or Fight Club could never have been made not to mention movies like Passion of the Christ or Irreversible. Some of the most path breaking Hollywood movies like Scarface and the Departed were also record breaking in terms of the number of times the F words were used. Another line of attack comes from people who say that use of such language is self defeating because the effect of some of the best scenes in these movies is lost as people are too busy laughing or snickering whenever an expletive is uttered on screen. This may be partially true but there is not much difference between this argument and the argument that was paddled around for years that our audience is not mature, it does not want to watch sensible movies but only ‘mindless, escapist and fun’ movies. It can’t be denied that for a sizable group of audience, use of such language may be a source of amusement in itself but there is no doubt that it will not be the case once the novelty factor wears out.

Plot and pluses of Gulaal

The best part about Gulaal is of course the script, that it also lets you down in some parts especially towards the end is another matter and that is also mostly because your expectations have been raised too high. The movie takes off with Dileep Singh (played by Raj Singh Choudhary) a naïve simpleton from Bikaner coming to the city of Rajpur (a fictional city which seems to have characteristics of both Jodhpur and Jaipur in equal proportions) to study law. He is welcomed to the college by a horrifying ragging experience. His sensible elder brother tells him to forget about it as he says its not worse than the ragging that he had to endure as a student. Mild mannered Dileep indeed would have let go had it not been for his brash, crude, fearless roommate Ranajay Singh (played by Abhimanyu Singh) who is later disclosed to be the heir prince. He literally forces Dileep to take revenge for his insult. From this point of time, he becomes a sidekick to Rananjay (or Ransa) and his fate also becomes entwined to his. Ransa catches the eye of Dukey Banna, a power lord who is heading an underground revolution of the erstwhile royalty to secede from India and establish an independent kingdom of Rajputana. Dukey Banna sees in Rannjay his opportunity of capturing power in campus and he persuades him to contest for elections for the post of General secretary. The only other strong contestant in the elections is Kiran (played by Ayesha Mohan). Kiran and her brother Karan (played by Aditya Srivastava) are the illegitimate children of his highness, the father of Ransa. There is only one ambition in the life of Karan Singh and that is to somehow attain legitimacy as the children of his highness. His aim seems to be motivated from a matter of pride than property. He believes the more powerful he becomes, the more difficult it will be to deny him legitimacy and for this he has no qualms in ruthlessly using his sister. He kidnaps Rananjay to force him to withdraw from the elections and eventually kills him in a fit of rage. This throws awry the plans of Dukey Banna but only momentarily. He realizes in Dileep the potential of becoming his puppet and soon a reluctant Dileep finds himself as the General secretary thanks to a rigged election. What follows is a further tussle between Dileep who tries to come to terms with his recently acquired power and tries to resist the schemes of Dukey Banna even as he himself being infatuated with Kiran gets manipulated by her. The movie ends a bit abruptly with Dileep somewhat redeeming himself in a confused misguided rage of retribution where he kills Dukey Banna holding him responsible for the murder of Ransa and corrupting Kiran. This of course clears the way for Karan Singh who after killing Bhati, the lieutenant of Dukey Banna becomes the leader of the covert secessionist movement.

The dialogues written by Piyush Mishra are the heart of the movie. The language captures the flavour of the region and the lines are extremely witty. Mishra has also written the lyrics and given music for the movie, both of which are again quite brilliant. Some of the most impactful scenes in the movie owe a great deal to the background music. Whether it be Aarambh hai prachand, (which is a brilliant war cry in poetry) during election campaigning, Jis raat gagan se¸ during the murder of Ransa or Wo kitabon ki thi duniya, during the rage fury of Dileep in the climax, all make the scenes quite haunting. Having said that, some of the other songs despite their highly amusing and creative lyrics hamper the pace of the movie and could have been done away with. Editing is also not up to the scratch and some parts seem totally irrelevant, not to mention the wasted and bewildering character played by Jesse Randhwa. This I guess could be blamed on the fact that the movie was in the making for a long time and was shelved at least thrice. It finally saw the light of the day following the success of Dev D which was also the reason why it had to be finished and released in a hurry soon after that. As mentioned above, it is one of those few movies in which almost each and every one of the actors is brilliant and it would be impossible to single out one performance which overshadows the others. If however, one name has to be taken before all the others it would be that of Abhimanyu Singh, a debutant who is brilliant in the role of brash, flamboyant and crude Ranajay. The role of mercurial, temperamental Dukey Banna seems to be tailor made for Kay Kay Menon who simmers in the role as only he can. Ayesha Mohan, another debutant is quite good as Kiran who is vulnerable and manipulative, a player and a pawn at the same time. Of course, it would be criminal to leave out Deepak Dobriyal who plays a small role as Bhati, the right hand man of Dukey Banna and gives some of the best scenes in the movie. After Omkara, Shaurya, Delhi - 6 and Gulaal, Deepak has definitely emerged as one of the most talented actors in the country. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he can acquire the same position in this generation which Om Puri and Nasserudin Shah had in the previous one. His style of acting is so natural and effortless that it does not dawn immediately upon the viewer how good an actor he is. Piyush Mishra himself plays an interesting character that of the elder brother of Dukey Banna, a foreign educated, John Lenon devout, who is disillusioned with the real world and is declared insane by it in turn. He breaks into a song at the most inappropriate of occasions to sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragical consequences. However, in the mad cap world of Gulaal his is probably the only voice of sanity.

Colours of inter-legality

According to Santos (1), our legal life is constituted by an intersection of different legal orders which he calls, interlegality. In other words his conception of the legal field is of different legal spaces superimposed, interpenetrated and mixed in our minds, as much as in our actions, either on occasions of qualitative leaps or sweeping crises in our life trajectories, or in the dull routine of eventless everyday life. Interlegality is encountered as a result of the legal orders of the state and non state actors affecting and modifying each other. Clearly, it will be more defined in areas where the order of the state actors is comparatively weaker. These are the areas that Santos would refer to as the margins. In Gulaal, the margins are the hinterland of Rajputana, where the feudal and aristocratic orders survive along with the rule of law of the democratic government. It appears to be a fictional setting where the royalty has refused to hang its boots and the tide of time seems to have passed by it, failing to notice it completely. People still use titles like Raja Sahaab and Banna and it is mandatory to end every sentence with the servitude of ‘Sa’. The word of Dukey Banna seems to be a law unto itself. Quite apparently he has scant respect for the law of the state as his henchman Bhati and others have no problem in bumping off whoever and whenever they want. They seem to not only be modifying the state order but also destroying it to the extent that they kill a policeman, an agent of the state without any fear and even without any coherent reason or provocation. Of course, this is not enough and Dukey Banna is planning a revolution to completely overthrow the state order by snatching independence from the Indian state and establishing an independent kingdom of Rajputana. It seems to be the second wave of attempt by the royalty to alter the state order. The first one was not as an explicit challenge but by becoming a part of the formulation of the state order. Through a series of flashbacks we are shown the glorious days when the royalty managed to maintain its status by winning democratic elections. It was quick to adapt to the change of the fall of the colonial order and managed to maintain its equation on somewhat similar terms with the Indian government by becoming part of its order, just like it had tried to become a part of the British colonial order. Of course, this equilibrium came crashing down during Emergency when Indira Gandhi took away the privileges of the royalty and threw most of them in prisons. This explains the disillusionment of Dukey Banna with the Indian state and his immense desire to wrench away from it.

The college campuses as depicted in Gulaal seem to be fiefdoms in themselves. They are pretty much insulated from the outside world and the state order fails to penetrate into their boundaries. Ragging goes on grotesque levels without any fear of the law of the state. The battle lines are perpetually drawn between groups often on the basis of caste, which means your side is already chosen for you. One of the few signs of interaction between the law of the state and the feudal order and their musclemen inside and outside the campus is the elections in the college. Elections in college are an exercise which is conducted by the state actors and ostensibly in accordance with the law of the state. The feudal order understands the power and money that can be gained by using the post of general secretary, an institution created and sustained no doubt by the state actors. They do not try to undermine this position; instead they try to manipulate it to their own advantage by rigging the elections and getting their own stooge appointed to the post of general secretary. Clearly, the state order to appoint an elected representative as general secretary is modified by the non state actors by rigging the counting of the votes.

Of course in the vivid landscape of Gulaal, feudal order is not the only legality overlapping with the state legality, even the ‘weak’ have a voice. The illegitimate children of his highness are outside the circle of legitimacy in the royal order. This does not however mean that the siblings are mere passive recipients of the state and the feudal order. Instead they play an active role in resisting and modifying these legalities. For them it’s a constant struggle to become accepted as the legitimate children of his highness not so much in the eyes of the state law but in the royal circles. Murder of Rananjay Singh, Bhati and manipulation of Dileep by Kiran seem to be steps in the same direction. In the end they seem to have achieved success with Karan becoming the ‘Senapati, leader of the secessionist movement. The last shot of the movie shows Karan being crowned Senapati while tears roll down the eyes of his sister Kiran. It is difficult to be sure if those are the tears of joy or of regret.

It is now widely coming to be accepted that law can no longer be understood as a uniform concept; instead, the legal theory has to be seen as dealing with many different normative systems. In case of Gulaal, the feudal and state normative orders interact and conflict with each other and even as they affect the lives of the many characters, they themselves get modified by the actions of their subjects. Something similar (although not as drastic which would only be at the margins and lets be thankful for that) happens in the everyday lives of people like us (mango people, anyone ?!). Usually we see that there is difference between the letter of the law and the ground reality but perhaps a better way of understanding it would be to see our lives being governed by a set of overlapping and conflicting legalities: law of the state, word of the local policeman, systemized corruption at the RTO/ Passport office, sweet will of the auto driver, autocratic cell phone companies, irritating banks and so on.


  1. Santos, B. de Sousa, (1995) Toward a New Common Sense: Law, Science and Politics in the Paradigmatic Transition, London, Routledge.

PS: This has been published in Silhouette Vol. VII.

Top 10 All Time Favourite 'Feel Good' Movies


It is often said that its not fair to compare movies of one genre with those of the other. A 2012 can perhaps be as good as a Jurassic Park but it can’t really be better or worse than a Revolutionary Road. But if one has to make a list of one’s favourite movies across the genres I guess the ‘feel good’ or ‘uplifting’ movies do end up on top more often than not. Most importantly I do not want to watch a Donnie Darko or an American Psycho if I am lying on a hospital bed. Not that a hospital bed is the ideal place for watching movies, but all of us do end up there some time or the other, anyways coming directly to the point here’s a list of my top ten all time favourite ‘feel good’ (for lack of a better word encompassing the genre) movies (not in any order of preference). These are not great love stories or mad cap comedies or inspirational sagas of human struggle but simple, amusing, pleasing, cheerful and entertaining movies.

Scope and Limitation: Since its only been six years since I watched my first English movie (Matchstick Men it was) on Saluja’s desktop (the one before the TV!), I am still at the beginner’s level in terms of number of movies watched and hence this list is far from exhaustive and limited to the few movies I've watched.

1. Before Sunrise & Before Sunset

Richard Linklater creates what can only be described as magic along with actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in these two movies. Before Sunset came nine years after Before Sunrise and as the actors grew older so did their characters. Considering they also wrote their own dialogues, both of them do become quite indistinguishable from the characters that they portray. What are the movies about? Two people walking around and talking. But as far as walking and talking goes it has never been this engrossing and the dialogues have rarely been better.

2. Big Fish

A man tells fantastic and unbelievable stories all the time so much so that his son becomes sick of him and his stories. Of course, he does not believe any of them. Who would in a witch with a magical glass eye and a man eating giant? Even when the father (played earnestly by Albert Finney) is on the deathbed the son wants to know what kind of person he really was. Of course slowly he learns that his father’s stories were not entirely false and that faith is the only thing separating fantasy from reality. Big Fish is amusing to a large extent because of Tim Burton’s visual imagery and some very likable actors. It’s a story that’s funny and sad, fantastic and realistic at the same time. Ideal for ending an irritating day (unless one has access to better utilities!).

3. Americano

An American student is at the threshold of starting corporate drudgery. Before that he backpacks on a holiday across Europe with a couple of friends. The movie catches up with them in Spain. It has quite minimalist dialogues but captivating and at times stunning visuals. Of course, as it tries to answer ‘the meaning of life’ question, too many dialogues would have made it cheesy or preachy. Thankfully, it’s subtle and enigmatic. Perfect for a dead afternoon.

4. Garden State

Zach Braff who stars along with Natalie Portman in this very underrated movie is also its writer and director. He plays a small time actor, part time waiter who is leading his life sedated, drugged or otherwise zonked out of the boredom of mundane existence. He returns to his small town home to attend his mother’s funeral and encounters an array of quirky but mostly likeable characters and of course the pretty girl. It’s a love story of sorts and also a ‘coming of age’ story but avoids the clichés of both. A beautiful soundtrack and peaceful visuals make for a perfect watch in the time between a couple of drinks and being sloshed.

5. Mumford

A psychologist called Mickey Mumford (played quite endearingly by Loren Dean) comes to the quaint little town of Mumford and sets up his shop. Soon he becomes the most successful shrink in the town due to his rather different methods. His patients are an interesting lot and the doc himself has a remarkable back story. A bit like Garden State what makes Mumford a relish is an array of small town characters with their simplicity and mild eccentricities!

6. Rushmore

This Wes Anderson flick is about a 15 year old school kid who is too mature for his age and a business tycoon (played superbly by Bill Murray) who is too immature for his age. Its actually a pretty funny reminder of the child in all of us and how we never really outgrow him. Not that its something bad though!

7. Groundhog Day

This Bill Murray and Andie McDowell starer is about a guy caught in a time warp who lives over the same day again and again. It is surprisingly witty and has a kind of endearing humour which grows on you every time you watch the movie. If you watch it enough number of times you’ll probably get the subtle message also; how to live your life!

8. Keeping the Faith

Edward Norton’s directorial debut stars him as a priest who has a rabbi (played by Ben Stiller) and a suave business woman (played by Jenna Elfman) for friends. The three were childhood friends before Jenna moved away. They bond again when she returns years later as a smart and successful corporate executive and as always happens, both guys fall in love with the pretty girl. What makes this a very pleasant movie is that it doesn’t try to be a comedy. Instead it comes across as a funny yet heart warming story about friends, love, religion, faith and…life.

9. Lost in Translation

Bill Murray (once again) playing an actor in his 50s and Scarlett Johansson playing a newly married twenty something meet during their stay in Japan. Surrounded by an alien culture and customs; frustrated of the boredom of an unknown language and people, they get closer. Its quite difficult to call it a love story but more difficult to call it anything else. Its about how two almost strangers can understand and communicate with each other better than they can with the people they’ve spent their lives with. Its also about how sometimes its better to ignore the bleak big picture and enjoy the interludes while they last. That and the deadpan humour of Bill Murray make sure that Lost in Translation leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

10. Ed Wood

This Tim Burton biopic stars Johnny Depp as Edward D Wood who acquired unexpected fame posthumously when he was voted as the worst director ever for his outlandish movies about monsters and alien terrors made on shoe string budgets in the 1950s. Ed Wood is obviously funny but it never makes fun of the actor/director/writer/editor/producer who had a fetish for cross dressing. Instead it pays a loving tribute to a guy who was passionate and sincere about making movies even if he was ill equipped for it and perhaps despite being aware of it.

And a few more..

I’ve already listed 11 movies instead of 10 so how does it matter if I list a few more. Should always take advantage of economies of scale.

11. Beautiful Girls

A deceptively ordinary name for a brilliant and funny movie with an ensemble cast, vaguely about men chasing illusions of women. This is a perfect example of a movie which is not trying to say anything but is still absolutely fascinating to watch not to mention hilarious, sensible and sweet. Its definitely not a ‘date movie’ even though the poster might say so, although on second thoughts I am not very sure what exactly is a ‘date movie’. A superb soundtrack, likeable (and competent) actors and soothing visuals. Seriously, what more?

12. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

One of the best films ever. There’s no point in me trying to explain what its about. Anyone who hasn’t yet, should watch it. And while you are at it check this out as well:

13. Vicky Christina Barcelona

This is definitely not Woody Allen’s best movie but it’s a better one in recent times. It is also one of his most stylish and good looking films.

14. Into the Wild

A brilliant film by Sean Penn based on a true story about the journey of a guy into wilderness in search for purity. Its one of those movies which affects you immensely the first time you watch it. Breathtaking visuals and Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack make this almost a perfect film. The only minus is that it can be a touch depressing at times. I guess it depends how your general mood is when you are watching it. So probably its not exactly a ‘feel good’ movie but still a great one.