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The Colours of Language and Legalities: Reviewing Gulaal

November 10, 2009 | By

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 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 colours of language and legalities: reviewing Gulaal 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 colours of language and legalities: reviewing Gulaal 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.

Note: Notes 2 and 3 are not referenced anywhere specifically in the essay but are used as general references.

  1. Santos, B. de Sousa, (1995) Toward a New Common Sense: Law, Science and Politics in the Paradigmatic Transition, London, Routledge..
  2. Mauricio García Villegas, “Contexts Of Law And Justice In Colombia” sourced from (visited on 15/7/2009).
  3. Veena Das, Deborah Poole, “State and its margins: Comparative Ethnographies” c.f. Anthropologies at the margins of the State (Veena Das, Deborah Poole eds., New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.
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Mukul Sharma grew up in Jaipur, graduated from National Law School, Bangalore. Works with a corporate law firm to pay for books and movie tickets. Idolises Tony Stark and emulates Dogbert.
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