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From McMurphy to Munna Bhai

Published 09 Feb, 2022 11:35am
Why Bollywood fails to understand the essence in Ken Kesey’s harrowing novel.

Leo Tolstoy not only gave the world some great novels, but his philosophy also influenced world politics. Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace suggests that history is not created by kings, rulers or conquerors; rather it is an inexorable process determined by historical forces. Tolstoy is also the progenitor of an interesting idea that was later tagged as ‘non-resistance to evil.’ The idea sprung from Christ’s advice to his followers to not resist an evil person and that “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also.”

Young Mohandas Gandhi exchanged a series of letters with Tolstoy and apparently Gandhi’s philosophy of Ahimsa (non-violence) was inspired by Tolstoy. Interestingly, the first ashram initiated by Gandhi during his South African movement was also called “Tolstoy Farm.” Ironically, Gandhi’s philosophy was hardly reflected in the modern Indian history and the affairs of this party, the Indian National Congress. But Gandhi’s romance with Tolstoy’s philosophy does show India’s desire to embrace foreign ideas.

However, many times India fails to understand these ideas properly and disfigures them – during the process of adaptation – by adding its own chat masala to them. That is why Nehru distorted socialism and why Modi is creating a strange amalgamation of capitalism and a fascist religiosity.

India’s desire to adapt and copy foreign ideas becomes an obsession with its entertainment industry. Bollywood – the world’s biggest film industry in terms of number of productions – is notorious for its reliance on themes and stories from Hollywood. And like political ideologies, it often distorts the creative ideas as well. While dozens of examples may be cited of Indian movies disfiguring their Hollywood originals, we will, at present, limit ourselves to a single movie – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Directed by Miloš Forman and starring Jack Nicolson and Louise Fletcher, this 1975 movie won five Academy Awards.

Based on Ken Kesey’s eponymous novel, the film presented the character of McMurphy, a petty criminal who decides to have himself declared insane in order to be transferred to a mental institution, where he expects to serve the rest of his time in comparative comfort and luxury.

This mental institution provides the backdrop for the tragic story that puts a question mark on the entire society. McMurphy is a criminal. He is cunning – he feigns madness – but he still has a human heart. This criminal refuses to regard other patients in the mental institution as mad. He tells the other inmates that they are “no crazier than the average a**hole walking around on the streets” and starts treating them like normal people. This approach does miracles and the patients begin to recover. However, Nurse Ratched – who represents management of the mental institution – does not accept this revolution and ultimately “silences” the rebellious McMurphy by having a controversial lobotomy procedure performed on him.

The film posits that mental health institutions or psychiatric hospitals are not there to heal or cure a patient. Their purpose is to keep a group of people in captivity by declaring them mad.

It also asserts that society and its institutions rely on status quo and they crush all those who challenge this status quo, usually by posing some fundamental questions. Interestingly, Kesey has not portrayed McMurphy as a messiah or a godlike figure. He is a criminal who may resort to violence. He may even commit rape – in fact, McMurphy is accused of statutory rape. However, he cannot tolerate oppression committed against a group of people. But when McMurphy reaches India, he undergoes some strange and grotesque transformations. This hero of Ken Kesey has so far appeared in four Bollywood flicks – Kyon Ki by Priyadarshan and three movies of Rajkumar Hirani – Munna Bhai MBBS, Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Three Idiots.

We won’t discuss Kyon Ki because the director of this 2005 movie completely failed to understand Ken Kesey’s protagonist. The films by Hirani are very good movies on their own but they are poor adaptations of Kesey’s idea.

In the Munna Bhai series, the hero is a criminal – like McMurphey – but his criminality is portrayed in such a humorous light that it stops looking like deviant behavior; rather this criminality adds to his charm as a flamboyant hero who is childlike and innocent at heart. In the first Munna Bhai movie, the hero confronts the dean of a medical college to settle a personal score and this confrontation turns into his fight with the status quo in the field of medicine. But the symbol of this status quo, Dr Asthana, is only superficially evil. Deep down, he is a “capital fellow.” In the second Munna Bhai film, the hero starts studying Gandhi’s philosophy in order to impress his love interest. Now Gandhi’s ghost starts preaching him and his ideas transform the ruffian.

Munna wants to do every act in the light of Gandhi’s philosophy and this obsession leads him to take on his former crime partner, Lucky Singh. But Lucky Singh is also only superficially bad and deep down, he is also good guy – as Lucky’s daughter often tells him. In the third film by Rajkumar Hirani, McMurphy ceases to be a criminal. Now he is an extraordinary student Ranchordas Chanchad aka Rancho. Hirani’s hero goes up against the status quo in the world of education but the villain is once again only a harsh disciplinarian with his heart in the right place.

In all three movies, the conflict between originally good people resolves amicably: the evil undergoes a metamorphosis and it surrenders to the good. However, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy was not engaged in a conflict with a kind but strict disciplinarian like Dr J.C. Asthana or Viru Sahastrabudhhe. He was fighting evil incarnate which ultimately destroyed him. But McMurphy had also attempted to break the neck of the status quo; he could not succeed but he at least gave it a try and thereby gave motivation to his friend Chief.

Ken Kesey was not a romantic. That is why McMurphy was a human being. He was not turned into a godlike figure and nobody told him that “Munna, you are god!” Kesey’s McMurphy annihilated in his fight with the status quo but the McMurphys of India fight with a jaundiced evil which recovers from its ailment during the conflict and ultimately embraces the good.

Poet Saleem Ahmed aptly said:
Dewta Bannay Ki Hasrat Mein Mu-allaq Hogaye;
Ab Zara Neechay Utarye, Admi Ban Jaye ye

(You got suspended in the air in the desire to become a God;
Now descend [to the ground] and become a man once again)

Dr Farhan Kamrani is Assistant Professor, Psychology Department - University of Karachi. He writes on politics, culture, literature and films.