Times of India (Mumbai), Consumer Edge, 18 November 2006

Long ago, Yagnavalkya, the greatest sage of the Upanishadic era, was asked, “Is the world governed by fate or free will?” He replied, “Both. They are like the two wheels on either side of the chariot. If you depend on one too much you go around in circles.”

In mythology, fate and free will take the form of two gods that are never worshipped: Yama and Kama. Yama is the god of death, who keeps an account of one’s life and hence determines one’s destiny. He is dispassionate in his dealings and inflexible in his judgments. Kama, on the other hand, is the god of desire, who makes you want things, do things, hence makes you challenge and change destiny. He fills you with ambition and expectations, and hence is cause of both exhilaration as well as frustration. Yama binds man with his noose and uses his hook to ensure everyone repays his karmic debt. Kama strikes man with his arrow and leaves behind the sweet festering wound of hope and desire. Before Yama, one is helpless. With Kama, one is hopeful.

The most successful films of Bollywood this year, Rang De Basanti (RDB) and Lage Raho Munnabhai (LRM) brilliantly articulate these two timeless principles of life – fate and free will, helplessness and hopefulness, Yama and Kama.

In RDB, we find a group of friends watching in horror as the corrupt politicians actually get away with murder. Their most grounded and patriotic of friends who joins the airforce dies in an MiG crash and the government holds him responsible, rather than the faulty spare parts purchased through nefarious deals. The friends protest and cry out for justice. No one hears them. No one wants to hear them. A peaceful demand for justice is ruthlessly crushed. What do the friends do? In rage, in helplessness, they turn to violence just like the extremist revolutionaries of the freedom struggle. This time, the enemy is not the Raj but corrupt politicians elected by the people. And like the freedom fighters, these friends know that their chosen path is not the best way. They embrace it as there is little choice, and with it they embrace death. Yama rules supreme in RDB. There is death and a system that is inflexible and insensitive. An overarching sense of helplessness with a little hope in the end.

By contrast, LRM is a sweet film. It makes you laugh as the lovable goon with the help of his delightful sidekick ‘Circuit’ tries to impress a pretty Radio Jockey by answering questions on Gandhiji. Here, as in RDB, corruption is the demon that must be vanquished. But there is no sense of helplessness here. There is hope. Gandhiji lacks the intensity of the gun-totting revolutionaries. He is not a ‘cool’ guy. He is an affectionate, indulgent and endearing granduncle who shows our hero that it is possible to defeat the enemy with love. It is possible to shame the opponent into submission by standing upright in truth. This film is anything but cynical. There is no rage. There is no angst. This is about Kama, lovable, adorable Kama. It tells us that the world out there is not so bad. There is love out there. There are nice people out there. Bad people are bad because they yearn for love, affection and validation. Give them that and they will transform. The film overflows with hope. And yet, as we leave the cinema hall with a lump on the throat and general feeling of well being, one feels the inevitable rush of cynicism. This can only happen in fantasy, we tell ourselves. Yet we recommend the film to others.

Indians are generally said to be a fatalistic race. We submit very easily to the system. We are comfortable with what destiny has in store for us. Our mythology reminds us constantly that whatever will be will be. What goes around comes around. Serenity lies in stillness and acceptance and letting go. Unlike the West which is obsessed with making the world a better place, we Indians by and large tend to let things be. That is what makes us a tolerant race. We tolerate everything, even corrupt politicians, bad roads, garbage dumps, terrible infrastructure. This is the land of Yama, where Kama is destroyed by the third eye of Shiva.

But that does not mean Kama is dead. He returns as Ananga, the invisible one, in ways so subtle that we often don’t even recognize him. We refuse to accept the fate laid out before us by Yama. That is why we have jyotish-shastra or astrology which provides us gemstones that can influence the future. That is why we have vastu-shastra or geomancy that promises to change our life if we change our dwelling. That is why we have rituals known as vrata whereby fasting and keeping all-night vigils and walking barefoot to the temples can change destiny and give the assurance of a better life. Even the Veda says, to create things you must first want it; before the gods came Kama.

The swing between Yama and Kama, destiny and free will, helplessness and hopefulness, is an eternal swing in India. RDB and LRM are its latest articulations. Both films reflect the soul of India. Its inherent contradictions. In both films, the problem is Indian. The solution is Indian too. Both films are highly emotional and talk to the heart. Both films have characters who sing songs and respect elders. Both films are brilliant in execution. Both stoke patriotism but neither is jingoistic. The characters seem believable. Both films do not insult the intelligence of the audience and generally provide a relief from shallow, mindless, entertainment that has plagued the silver screen in recent times. As we are overwhelmed with despair at what the media offers us day in and day out, these two films tell us there is hope even in Bollywood – beyond marriage monstrosities, item numbers, sex comedies, remakes and sequels.