By Anahad Madhav Mohapatra
“Do samanaantar rekhayein agar kabhi nahin milti, toh infinity pe jaake kaise mil sakti hain? (How can two parallel lines converge at infinity?),” an agitated Bauji asks an unsuspecting Mathematics professor, who is caught on the wrong foot, like a politician asked about India’s falling employment rates. After all, we’ve been conditioned to trust blindly and never question anything that is taught to us — like Bhai fans before an Eid release or BJP trolls downvoting Microsoft Excel, we’re just dragging ourselves through life’s maze, rather merrily yet painfully blindly. But to what end? Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi (2014) seeks to answer this question.
Bauji, played by the tenacious Sanjay Mishra, works as a travel agent and is the patriarch of a tightly knit family from Old Delhi. “Tight” is the operative word here, purely because the family’s interpersonal tensions are bottled into their haveli like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. When Bauji’s daughter Rita is rumoured to be having an affair with a ruffian from the neighbourhood, his old-world values are offended and the men of his family accost the boy and rough him up. When the supposed ruffian turns out to be a timid, docile boy, Bauji feels like he’s losing his moorings.
That night, he wonders how easily the family had trusted the word of someone from the streets over their daughter’s. This shakes his perception of what “truth” truly is. Bauji decides that from now on, he is going to let go of all acquired knowledge (newspapers, books, and the internet) and only believe in what he experiences first-hand. “Mera sach, mere anubhav ka sach hoga,” he proclaims, without realising the problems that lie ahead.
As a millennial launda who’s just learning how to adult – and to conform to rules and structures at workplaces, dating apps, and shared cabs – I can tell you that I’d behave like fellow Odia Sambit Patra on crack and rant about everything from chai to China if I had to let go of the internet for a day. Perhaps because the internet is our primary source of information, and the flood of fake news on social media has made our judgement of the information we consume weaker than ever before. But imagine going through the ordeal of questioning your beliefs very late in life, like Bauji, who decides that the only way to arrive at this fable-like idea of “truth” is by questioning the very pillars we base our lives on.
The first drastic step Bauji takes is that he stops praying and visiting the temple. He’s offered prasad by the neighbourhood priest who he politely corrects by calling it “mithai”. It might seem like a mere shift in semantics, but it conveys the fact that the process of questioning things starts with unlearning them in the first place.
Make no mistake, Bauji is no superhero, in fact he’s more the village idiot. To the outside world, he’s a laughing stock. To the family, a major source of embarrassment. Bauji is surrounded by a handful of men from the neighbourhood who ridicule as well as adore his eccentricities in equal parts.
Most of the ridicule that Bauji faces from the outside is unwarranted, because people seem to think that there are things like politics, religion, and morality that are beyond the realm of questioning. This reminds me of the UGC protests, the protest against the Delhi University Vice Chancellor, and the protests in JNU, most of which stemmed from the fact that one was not being allowed to question or critique the establishment. The popular slogan at the time was, “Humne suna hai, ke jinko chuna hai, unhone kaha hai, ki poochna mana hai!” This is pretty much the crossroads at which Bauji finds himself. When the world is full of half-truths and misconceptions, the answer actually lies in looking within.
Bauji ups his game and stops talking altogether, communicating only in gestures with one and all. He believes that silent retrospection is the only way to find rhythm in the cacophony that surrounds him. Bauji’s silence is a welcome change in today’s world where IT cells of political parties, news outlets, and lobbyists engage their considerable resources in trying to mislead our sense of judgement. We live in times of President Trump and our own Chowkidars, and maybe sometimes silence is the only way to distance oneself from the hate emanating from the echo chambers all around us.
Ankhon Dekhi is Rajat Kapoor’s ode to his teachers Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, who are stalwarts at creating characters that live, breathe, and in many ways resist their environment. Bauji is a product as well as an embodiment of his environment. At an early point in the film, he references the fable of the frog in the well, saying, “Bhale hi main kuein ka maindhak hoon, main apne kuein ka maindhak hoon, apne kuein se parichit hoon.” But as soon as the “maindhak” is taken out of his well, he can see himself and his world clearly.
As Bauji’s story draws to a close, he realises that the misplaced idea of “truth” he was chasing was actually a mirage; what truly exists is the harsh reality of the present and not the assumptions and half-truths that accompany it. Perhaps what we can take away from Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi is that the truth is all around us, but you won’t find it unless you have the courage to look for it with your own eyes.
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