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Trajectory of the Indian Nation State through the Figure of the ‘Tapori’

November 10, 2010 | By

Ye kaisi zindagi hai Lala?, Nafrat ki? Tod-fod ki? Kachare ke dibbe se aayya tha, kachare ke dibbe mein chala jaunga. Aapun marega to log khush honge. Lala marne se pehle aapun bhi kuch karna chahta hai.

Ashis Nandy speaks about the ‘other’ or ‘unintended city’ within the ‘official city’ in his essay, ‘Indian Popular Cinema as a Slum’s Eye View of Politics’. This unintended city has its cultural practices which can be called sub-cultural. The character of the ‘tapori’, which is largely a cinematic invention, inhabits this ‘sub-urban’ space. Where did this character, which came to be called as ‘tapori’ come from? The tapori stands for an unemployed adolescent youth. He had his precursor in Raj Kapoor’s tramp who was one of the first vagabonds to appear in Indian cinema. Locating this character of a lower class male protagonist in the postcolonial narrative forms a genealogy that sketches the dominant phases in the history of Hindi cinema. I will first talk about the politics involved in the formation of the iconic figure of the tapori. In the later part, I will focus on the tapori popularised by Munna Bhai films.

The concept of Habitus is central to understanding the politics of the tapori that he articulates through his appearance. Lawler writes,

Habitus is a ‘socialized subjectivity’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2002:126)…. Habitus is manifest in styles of standing and moving, taking up space, in ways of speaking (idioms as well as accent), in styles of dress and so on (Bourdieu, 1986, 1990) (Lawler nd).



Munna in Rangeela dressed up for a party in yellow shirt

Munna in Rangeela dressed up for a party in yellow shirt and yellow trousers, coupled with red rimmed sun glasses tells his girl friend Mili, “Ye style hai style, late minute fashion, tere film ke hero log se bhi achchha, kya?” (“This is style, latest fashion, better than the heroes in your films!”). The ‘hero’ is the central male character in Hindi cinema admired for his performance of masculinity. Munna draws his ideas of style and masculinity from the ‘hero’. Teasing the girls and involving in small scale terrorising activities in his locality are his main occupations. It is his effort to claim power if not the respect and dignity in society that he is denied. His lawlessness is his defiance. The tapori’s challenge to disciplining institutions of the society, in Foucauldian sense is channelised through petty rebellious activities. Police, lawyers, university professors, doctors represent the disciplining mechanisms of the society to him and they often suffer at his hand making them powerless.

The tapori’s politics can also be phrased as the self imposed otherness to subvert the norms of civilization. His politics can be paralleled with the punks in Los Angeles although the punk sub-culture is far better codified and has developed in a different political context. Punks use their bodies to voice an anti-establishment ideology. Similarly it is a part of the tapori’s politics to alarm people by his presence. ‘Loitering’ is the tapori’s dissent against the notion that ‘lower class men are … a threat on the streets.’ (Phadke, Ranade, Khan 2009). The tapori is a child of the street. The responsibility of ‘moral corruptibility’ of the street dwellers is often displaced onto the culture of poverty that breeds on the streets. Culture becomes the corrupting agent, ultimately blaming the poor for their cultural practices and their way of life. The tapori is a victim of this wrongly placed responsibility. Often the cinema’s resolution lies in reforming him to maintain the status quo of the society.

His aspirations are sometimes expressed such as when in Rangeela Pakya tells Munna that he proposed marriage to a girl and told her he would buy a house and their children would study in an English medium school. Ranjani Mazumdar looks at this instance as the tapori’s celebration of ordinariness of being in the world. But intrinsic to this ordinariness is the aspiration for a class position higher than his.

The journey of Raj Kapoor’s films is a journey of gradual disappointment with the Indian nationalism. With the use of the metaphor of Ganga for India, Raj Kapoor began with Jis Desh Mein Ganaga Behti Hai produced in 1961and concluded with Ram Teri Ganga Maili in 1985. This journey is a ‘story of the girl’s journey down the course of the river… and of a descent from innocence and purity’ (Bakshi 1998). At the beginning of Ram Teri… is an ageing Gandhian in a beleaguered state. In the three decades after independence a lot of upheavals had happened in the Indian politics including the internal emergency instituted by Indira Gandhi. Bakshi argues, by showing the aging Gandhian, ‘… the director wants to establish that honest, loyal and patriotic men have either died or are living in … dire straits…’ (Bakshi 1998).

Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh played the vigilante hero in Deewar

In this descent of nation-state came the second saviour, the Angry young man. He played the vigilante hero in Deewar, Coolie, Kalia and so on. Amitabh played the vigilante hero showing his loss of faith in all the social institutions. By the 1980s the figure of angry young man was replaced by a similar figure played by Anil Kapoor. He popularized the idea of the tapori through films such as Ram Lakhan, Awaargi, Loafer. He still was the courageous fighter that angry young man was but he was a lonely figure in the midst of the city of Mumbai with not too many believers or friends. Neither was he absolutely self reliant nor sure about his future. In Awaargi, in a conversation with his guardian, Azaad says, “Ye kaisi zindagi hai Lala?, Nafrat ki? Tod-fod ki? Kachare ke dibbe se aayya tha, kachare ke dibbe mein chala jaunga. Aapun marega to log khush honge. Lala marne se pehle aapun bhi kuch karna chahta hai. Dil bolta hai apne ko bhi koi yaad kare. Apne se dare nahi, apne se pyaar kare.” (“What is my life all about Lala? Hatred? Violence? I had come from a dust bin and will go back to the dust bin. People will be happy when I die. I want to do some good before I die. I want to be remembered, I don’t want to be a source of danger, I want to be loved.”)


Munna being the child of the streets has no family

The tapori played by Amir Khan in Rangeela and Ghulam is a continuation of this insecure lumped element on the city streets. This gradual shift is, in a crude way, a journey from ‘pastoral innocence’ to modernity signifying ‘moral corruptibility’. In this journey ‘an individual is being increasingly left stranded, with only his or her own tattered moral self …’ (Nandy 1998). The tapori in 90’s films, Rangeela and Ghulam, represent this phase of city life when the city life was perceived to be lacking the love of family and friends in the pursuit of individual interests. In Rangeela, Munna being the child of the streets has no family, no memory of any previous secured and better life. The experience of rough life in the city has led him to believe that the only way to earn respect in the society is through earning money. But he is also aware of the codes of respectability and he never deviates too far from them. In Ghulam, after a long period of dilemma, Siddhu succumbs to the codes of respectable individual of society.

The tapori never becomes the amoral being under the pressure of modernising forces. This optimism is persistent in the Hindi cinema all through its past. In this possibility of gradual moral degradation an important role is allotted to the family of the protagonist. The family of the ‘hero’ is identified as the central institution capable of countering the moral corruptibility. Often in cinema the family of the ‘hero’ is either missing in the narrative or has a certain history of violence. E.g. in Shree 420, there is no reference to the family, in Awara, the father has deserted the wife and the child, that finally leads the child to grow up in the poor locality of Mumbai. Similarly in Deewar, Amitabh’s father deserts the family after being humiliated for being a trade unionist. This trend continues in the Anil Kapoor phase and the Amir Khan phase. In Ghulam, Siddhu’s mother is missing in the narrative but his father appears in a memory. His father, formerly a freedom fighter turns against his companions and saves his own life. He continues to live and starts a family. One day one of his old companions suddenly visits him and reminds him of his past in front of his children. Not being able to stand this humiliation, the father commits suicide, orphaning his children at a young age. Once deserted by the father, the hero grows up on the streets acquiring value system of the ‘street culture’. His affiliation to a local goon initiates him into violence, crime etc.

Within the family a hierarchy operates, as

… The mother… is always shown to uphold law and order and all cultural values against which the hero was shown to rebel. Thus by surrendering himself to the mother, the hero in effect accepts and upholds the societal status quo and all its attendant cultural values. (Kazmi 1999).

This assignment of roles in the family is according to the hierarchy between nature and culture as explained by Sherry Ortner (1974). The idea that ‘female is to male as nature is to culture’ is accepted uncritically and applied to all the narratives. The male is the culture giver and the female is the culture bearer. So the missing father in the family is essentially the root cause of the son’s ‘uncultured’ being.

Having established this, how do we see the meeting of the ‘father of the nation’ with a tapori in Lage Raho Munna Bhai? The trajectory, beginning with the honest Gandhian represented by Raj Kapoor in Jis Desh mein… to the ailing Gandhian in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, to the meeting of Bapu and the tapori in Lage Raho…, tells us a story of the nation, perceived as one community or referred to metaphorically as a family.

In the political trajectory of India, the tapori is the representative of the new generation or newly born nation state. He is the confused youth, pulled between the faith and the nationalism promoted by Gandhi and Nehru and the materialistic world around him. His future is synonymous to the future of ‘young India’. His confusion is a result of the two references, one that of the freedom struggle which was the ‘moral epitome’ and the other that of the businessmen turned politicians and mafia dons appropriating him in their agenda. The tapori’s confusion is also a result of the missing father. It is a result of the lack of proper parental guidance. The missing father is also a metaphor for the nation forgetting Gandhian principles. He needs the ‘father figure’ to guide him and remind him of all the values lost in the journey till today after independence. So he meets the ‘father of the nation’, who understands Munna perfectly, he knows his confusion. Gandhi is after all the perfect father figure for our nation!

The lonely tapori in Rangeela finds a community in Lage Raho Munna Bhai. He has a sense of belonging to a dhobi community in dhobi ghat. To what do we attribute the sense of belonging to a community in dhobi ghaat and memories of secured family life in Lage Raho … then? There is an instance when Munna Bhai has completely lost faith in the nicety and truth. He tells Circuit, “Apun ko nahi rehna abhi idhar. Apun ko gaon jane ka hai” (“I don’t want to stay here. I want to go to my village”). The early postcolonial cinema was marked by the urban-rural divide. Nostalgia of country life of a migrant often presented itself in the lives on footpath or slums. Country life came with the privilege of community bonding and a sense of nationalism as opposed to individuation in the class conflict in city life. Although we see the traces of this city-country binary in later films, it is most prominent in Raj Kapoor era. While Munna Bhai wants to ‘return to the village’ simultaneously we see the aspirations of the globalised city featuring in Lage Raho Munna Bhai. Lucky Singh, a builder in Mumbai likes to put up his pictures with the who’s who of all the fields. On one of the walls of his house he also has a picture (fabricated) with George Bush. Roadside Romeo is the latest tapori film (animated). It shows a central character, a dog, teaching the street smart tapori characters the new lifestyle. He introduces his friends to pizza. One of his friends tells Romeo thanking him, “Itali ki roti pehli bar kisi ne khilai hai” (“For the first time someone has treated me to Italian food.”) In the journey towards modernity, globalised India is the next desirable society. Nandy comments on this tendency of popular cinema to go back to the village setting and simultaneously wanting to go global: ‘… the popular cinema represents the low-brow version of the values, ambitions and anxieties of Indians who are caught between two cultures, two lifestyles, and two versions of a desirable society.’ (Nandy 1998).

Using the iconic figure of the tapori this reading of Hindi cinema thus reveals the country – to city – to globalised India narrative as constructed in popular Hindi cinema of Mumbai.


[1] Bakshi Rajni, ‘Raj Kapoor : From Jis desh main Ganga behti hai to Ram teri Ganga Maili’, Ashis Nandy (ed.): The Secret Politics of Our Desires, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998

[2] Babu Tapan, Ghosh Arunabha ‘Lage raho Munna Bhai: Unravelling the brand ‘Gandhigiri’, Economic Political Weekly, 2006 Vol 41, No 51

[3] Harvey David and Reed Michael, ‘The Culture of Poverty: An Ideological Analysis’, in Sociological Perspectives, Pacific Sociological Association, 1996, Vol. 39

[4] Kazmi Fareed, ‘Analysing Conventional Films: Sholay, Coolie, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, in ‘The Politics of India’s Conventional Cinema’: Imaging A Universe, Subverting A Multiverse, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1999

[5] Lawler Steph, nd., ‘Rules of engagement: Habitus, power and resistance’, The Sociaological Review, Vol 52, pp 110-128

[6] Madhav Prasad, 2004, ‘Realism and fantasy in representations of metropolitan life in Indian cinema’, in City Flicks, Preben Kaarsholm (ed.) Seagull Books, Calcutta revised volume of Occasional Paper Number 22, 2002

[7] Mazumdar Ranjani, ‘Figure of the ‘Tapori’, Language, Gestur and Cinematic city’, Economic Political Weekly, 2001

[8] Nandy Ashis, ‘Indian Popular Cinema as a Slum’s Eye View of Politics’, Ashis Nandy (ed.): The Secret Politics of Our Desires, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998

[9] Ortner, Sherry B. 1974. ‘Is female to male as nature is to culture?’ In M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds), Woman culture, and society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 68-87.

[10] Phadke Shilpa, Ranade Shilpa, Khan Sameera, 2009. ‘Why Loiter? Radical Possibilities in Gendered Dissent’, in Melissa Bitcher and Selvaraj Velayutham (eds.), ‘Dissent and Cultural Resistance in Asia City’, London Routledge

[11] Traber Daniel, 2001. ‘L.A.’s white Minority: Punk and the Contradictions of Self Marginalisation’, in Cultural Critique, Regents of The University of Minnesota

[12] Wagle Jatin, ‘Gendering the ‘Hero’ of the Mumbai Film: Notes towards a Genealogy of Postcolonial Hindi Cinema’, unpublished

(Pictures used in this article are taken from the Internet)

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Ashwini Falnikar has a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media and then an M.A. degree in Media and Cultural Studies from TISS, Mumbai. Bollywood opened the doors to her into the world of films. Currently she is working as a video editor for a video blogging project for women's empowerment and teaching ‘Understanding Cinema’ in B.M.M. course.
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