Anurag Kashyap is Bollywood’s enfant terrible. The release of his first film Paanch (2003) was prevented by the Indian censors owing to its violent content. The film, loosely based on serial killings that happened in the Indian city of Pune, was banned for its explicit portrayal of violence. His second film Black Friday (2004), a gripping and candid take on the events that led to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 1993 and their aftermath, also ran into trouble with the censors, and was only released in India three years later. Kashyap’s critically acclaimed films have zoomed into certain periods and events in post-colonial Indian history, lighting up certain dark and uncomfortable narratives on the way. 

Gulaal (2009) is a political thriller set in the north Indian state of Rajasthan in the fictitious town of Rajpur. It revolves around a fictitious movement for a free Rajputana, literally, the land of Rajputs. The Rajputs are a politically dominant land-owning caste in the state, who lay claim to a martial history. The film opens with a fiery speech by Dukey Bana (Kay Kay Menon) invoking this history, accusing independent India of betraying the interests of the Rajputs, and calling for a struggle for a free Rajputana, a state of, for and by the Rajputs. Dukey is the leader of the Rajputana movement and is an influential bigshot in town. He has the support of the other Rajput princes and has a private militia at his disposal. His competitor is Karan (Aditya Srivastava), the bastard son of the local king (referred to as ‘Highness’), who wants legitimacy and acceptance in the Rajput circles. Intersecting with this tussle for power are the lives of students in a university campus, who are cynically drawn into a bloody imbroglio that leaves many dead. The film ends with Dukey being killed by his own protégé, owing to a series of misunderstandings of which Dukey himself was the author, and the Rajputana movement passing over to the leadership of Karan. 


Dilip Singh (Raj Singh Chaudhury) joins Deshraj College to study law but is bullied and beaten by his seniors. The seniors are led by Jadwal (Pankaj Jha) and are the henchmen of Karan. Dilip is lodged with Ransa (Abhimanyu Singh), a reckless young man, who compels him to retaliate against his bullies. After a few scuffles, Dukey steps in and throws his weight behind Ransa and Dilip, scaring away Jadwal’s posse. Dukey convinces both to contest the elections in their college, with an ulterior motive. Ransa is actually the sole legitimate heir of Highness but has no interest in politics. Ransa reluctantly agrees. His competition is Kiran (Ayesha Mohan), Karan’s sister, who is supported by the Jadwal gang. In between the elections, Ransa is kidnapped and murdered by Karan. It falls on Dilip to contest the elections. Dukey rigs the election to ensure Dilip wins. Following this, Karan changes strategy and sends Kiran to seduce Dilip. She succeeds and makes him infatuated with her. Then she attempts to seduce Dukey, to make it look like they are having an affair. An angered Dilip fatally shoots Dukey, who reveals to him that he has been taken for a ride all along by Kiran. Dilip confronts Kiran and she accepts without remorse that she used him. Karan’s men arrive and shoot Dilip, who bleeds to death. In the absence of a charismatic leader like Dukey, the other princes hand over the Rajputana movement to Karan. 

Gulaal revolves around two thematic binaries that India as a country continues to grapple with – modernity-change/tradition-continuity and pluralism/communalism. Dukey, Highness, and the other princes clearly stand for tradition. They want to restore Rajput supremacy since they feel threatened by democracy. Dukey laments that throughout history the Rajputs have been cheated. But in history, the Rajputs were largely a favored caste-class of land-owning aristocrats, whether under the Mughals or the British. They formed a bulk of administrators under the Mughals and were favored in recruitment in the British colonial army. Dukey is more traumatized by how the Rajputs lost their privileges in independent India, referring to the abolition of privy purses, a sum paid by the Indian government to various local monarchs. The privy purse was an obscene injustice. In a country where peasants died of hunger by the thousands, the local monarchs were paid a huge sum by the Indian state for agreeing to merge their territories with the union. This practice was abolished by a constitutional amendment in 1971. However, the accumulated wealth of the princes was largely left intact, and they continued to hold considerable power in society. Dukey and his fellow princes, who are so powerful as to constitute a parallel law, still claim victimhood. Many of their concepts of tradition-continuity are modern concepts, even as they revolt against modernity. Karan, the bastard son and thus out of tradition, does not want to challenge tradition, but be a part of it. His coup brings a change, but this is change within continuity. This is Kashyap’s hint that palace coups do not revolutions make.  


  Ransa and Dilip become victims of a politics that they had no interest in. Ransa is estranged from his father and lives in a pub with a neon board that reads “Hell(o) (T)here! Democracy beer”. The walls of his house are adorned not with images of gods, kings and ancestors, but Bob Marley. He accuses his father of hypocrisy by claiming to uphold tradition while at the same time converting his palaces to resorts to serve foreigners. He speaks mockingly about his father, “The world has gone places. There’s no democracy left to speak of here, and he’s seeing visions of aristocracy.” When Highness asks him to take more responsibility, he replies acerbically that he does not want to live in a history book and wants to move on to a better place. He tries to flee to modernity but is brought down by tradition. 

Ransa also spots Dukey’s manipulations early on and warns Dilip about this. Dilip, who has been elected as general secretary after Ransa’s death, learns later that Dukey has been misappropriating funds allocated to the college’s cultural festival. When he confronts Dukey, the latter tells him that this is for the larger cause of Rajputana. A shocked Dilip tells him that Rajasthan cannot be imagined for the Rajputs alone. Dukey shuts him down, as his communalist worldview has no space for an acknowledgment of social pluralism.

Kashyap brilliantly brings out the vulnerability of the pluralist ethos in India through the characters of Prithvi Bana (Piyush Mishra) and his friend/partner (Teddy Maurya), a possibly queer character, representing Ardhanareeshwar. The Ardhanareeshwar concept in the Hindu imagination symbolizes the oneness in body of the male and female principle. In the film, Prithvi and his friend are the most harmless characters. Prithvi, who is Dukey’s brother, is in a sense like Ransa, in that he cares little about the politics of pride or uniformity. If Ransa admires Bob Marley, Prithvi admires John Lennon. Unlike Ransa however, he does not seek to fully escape to modernity. He is a poet who tries to be conscience keeper for Dukey, and often invokes the plurality of Indian tradition. But Dukey has patience neither for poetry nor plurality. When Prithvi contests the immorality of Dukey’s vision through provocative poetry, Dukey shoots at Prithvi, killing ‘Ardhanareeshwar’ in the process, a metaphoric representation of the potential violence that a communalist vision of uniformity could wreak on a diverse society. One could also say that the apolitical escapism represented by Ransa and the liberal pluralism represented by Prithvi are weak in front of a powerful communalism. 

The opening credits of Gulaal state that the film is dedicated to “all those poets of pre-independent India who wrote songs of freedom and had a vision of free India, which we could not put together”. Further, the film also claims to be inspired by the song “Yeh Mahlon, Yeh Takhton” from the 1957 film Pyaasa (Guru Dutt). The song was written by Sahir Ludhianvi, a poet and lyricist from the Punjab region. Ludhianvi was born in a Muslim family, but grew up with strong left-leaning views, which are reflected in his poetry. He had to flee to India from Pakistan for his pro-communist views, and he made Mumbai his home. “Yeh Mahlon, Yeh Takhton” is one of his best songs, and arguably one of the best songs from Bollywood, lamenting the fate of the individual in the cold materialist world of capitalism. The lyricist for the songs in Gulaal is Piyush Mishra, who played the character of Prithvi Bana on screen. The climactic song laments a fate that has no more space for such poets.

About The Author

Karthick Ram Manoharan is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author of Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism (2022) and Frantz Fanon: Identity and Resistance (2019).

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