In the penultimate episode of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s new series, Garmi (on SonyLIV), we see the show’s protagonist and designated “angry young man”, Arvind Shukla (Vyom Yadav), hiding at his parents’ house. Throughout the series, we have seen him getting more and more involved in the brutal, caste-driven campus politics of “Trivenipur University” (a proxy for Prayagraj; Triveni is an old/alternative name for the city) and now the police are after him. Yet Arvind makes his friends swear not to tell his middle-class parents the truth about his sudden visit home. The prospect of his father finding out about his involvement in campus politics is clearly a bigger problem than a literal manhunt.
Garmi is, on the whole, a competently mounted, well-performed series with plenty of action. It even has some chuckle-inducing intertextual gambits, like Arvind rehearsing for the role of Hamlet (a Mughal Hamlet, no less) even as his stakes in Trivenipur University’s game of thrones increase by the day. However, Garmi does amplify what is already a widespread prejudice against student politics among the middle class, especially in Hindi-speaking states.
Consider the two films Garmi owes the largest debts to: Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal (2009) and Dhulia’s own barnstorming campus politics potboiler, Haasil (2003). In the former, we see candidates for student body elections being abducted, beaten, blackmailed. A female adjunct professor is abducted and sexually assaulted by the student cronies of the local “baahubali”. In Haasil, Irrfan Khan’s character, Ranvijay Singh, is the embodiment of everything ugly Indian parents associate with student politics—he’s rowdy, uncouth, intimidates people for fun and has no compunctions about killing for electoral gain.
The spectre of caste, too, plays a part in the middle-class revulsion to student politics. In Garmi, this aspect is helmed by the character Mrityunjay Singh (the lively Jatin Goswami from Dhulia’s 2022 show, The Great Indian Murder), the cop in charge of the local police station. Singh is essentially a caste supremacy-driven insurrectionist playing the long game. He wants his fellow Rajputs to dominate India’s police and military forces so that when the time is right, they can pull off a takhta-palat (coup). He sternly advises Arvind against joining the Indian Police Service because Arvind is a Brahmin and in Mrityunjay’s plan, Brahmins have to be kept firmly within academic and bureaucratic circles, not near weapons or military command.
One can’t help but be reminded of Kay Kay Menon’s character in Gulaal, Dukey Banna, who wants to establish the sovereign state of “Rajputana”. Given today’s political landscape, a character like Mrityunjay Singh feels all too believable.
Both Dukey Banna and Mrityunjay Singh have been presented as fanatics—and inevitable elements of their political ecosystems. This inevitability is a big part of the design. We are nudged into accepting that all student politics necessarily involves men like Mrityunjay Singh.
In contrast, films like Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Master (2021) appear to be far more radical and subversive than they are. This Tamil film’s protagonist, John Durairaj (“JD”), played by the charismatic “Thalapathy” Vijay, is a conscientious, popular teacher who also happens to be an incorrigible alcoholic. The college where he’s dean of student affairs is reluctant to allow student body elections because the principal and senior teachers feel “it’s a waste of time” and the students “are not mature enough to hold elections”. This is a familiar narrative. But then something remarkable happens. JD launches into a calm yet coruscating speech, demolishing this point of view.
Remember, though, that Tamil film-makers have always been ahead of the curve in this context. Mani Ratnam’s Hindi film Yuva (2004) saw Ajay Devgn and Vivek Oberoi playing idealistic student leaders who eventually become lawmakers in the film’s rousing climax. Significantly, Devgn’s character, Michael, is also presented as a model student, counteracting the image of student leaders being disinterested in academics.
Popular entertainment, especially Bollywood, takes its cues from recent history and public sentiment. Over the last decade, we have seen student leaders demonised by the media, implicated in specious cases and charged under draconian laws. It’s no surprise, then, that multidimensional, humanistic portraits of student leaders are difficult to come by today.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.