Bewarchi: Insidious Classism

Bewarchi! Look at that, I watched a classic! And a Rajesh Khanna movie. All kinds of expanding horizons. Also, watch out! I go off on classism in this review and I didn’t enjoy the movie.

Oh dear. On the one hand, I can see objectively that this is a well-constructed movie with clever little touches, a solid narrative, and good performances. On the other hand, I am coming to it with an awareness of the current world and my place in it that, and with the experience of having watched many other movies dealing with similar themes, and that poisons it for me.

RARE BOLLYWOOD POSTER, BAWARCHI, 1972, INDIA | eBay

In 2013, the US Attorney’s office arrested and processed an Indian diplomat who was abusing her homecare worker. It was an open and shut case. The worker was in America on a work Visa, her employer had signed multiple legal documents promising to follow American labor laws, and had flouted them. Knowingly flouted them, she made her worker sign two separate work contracts, one to be filed in America, and a “real” one that she was told to keep secret during her Visa interview. The worker fled the house and went to stay at a Sikh temple and other places of sanctuary, at which point her employer filed a police report to force the police to find “her” servant. The American police said basically “are you crazy? She’s an adult person, she has the right to walk away from her job”. The employer then had her father back in India call her worker’s family in India and threatened them if she did not return to work, at which point they filed a case from their side for human trafficking. And in response to this whole story, a large part of the Indian media was SHOCKED at the insult to their noble Indian person. No, not the homecare worker, the employer. The middle class of India who run the media, the government, and the English language internet, cared deeply about this story and were up in arms in defense of an employers’ right to do as she wished with her employee. And were horrified at the idea of a middle-class Indian woman being arrested in America (while thousands of lower classes are arrested every day and no one cares). No one contested the facts of the case. To the eyes of the Indian middle-class, so far as I can see, there is nothing wrong in hiring a maid in India, flying her to your house in America, lying to the American authorities about her labor status, hiring the police to go find her when she leaves, and being personally insulted when she has the temerity to file a case.

And now I am watching this movie about a “magical” servant who fixes the problems of a middle-class household, and I can’t stop thinking about that story. This movie says that the middle-classes are the most importantly people In the World, and the other classes are put on this earth to serve them. That the most saintly good thing you can do is work dawn to dusk, for almost no money, in order to make their life easier and keep the household happy. I can’t relax and enjoy this very pleasant film because there is a little bit of grit in my mind that keeps saying “but, what message is this reinforcing for the audience?”

Here’s another statement that I have heard so many times, and bothers me more and more each time I hear it: “Everyone in India has servants”. Do you see the logical flaw with that statement? “Everyone” can’t have servants, because some people have to be servants. Do you understand? To say that statement, or to hear that statement, and not hear anything wrong with it, means that you yourself are guilty of classism. That in your mind “everyone” does not include the working classes.

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This is the problem with anecdotal evidence. For Indian film habits, for instance, if you say “everyone I know still sees movies in theaters”, ask yourself if that “everyone” includes working class people. Do you know working class people? If so, have you ever seen them at the same movie theaters you frequent? Perhaps your anecdotal evidence is limited by your own privilage.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee films are beloved because they tell “middle-class” stories. Not the fabulous fantastical rich, or the criminal struggling lowerclasses, but the boring middle-classes. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, middle-class people are people, and there are stories to be told about them. The issue is when it veers from “all people deserve to have stories told” to “these people deserve it more”.

This film definitely does that veer. First, because there is no real “conflict”. I should say because there is no real conflict, and because it is not pure farce. Mukherjee’s pure farces are delightful, he knows this is not an important story about important people, there is no lesson to be learned, it is just to laugh at and enjoy. This film has no conflict, but we are still supposed to care about what is happening to the characters in their conflict-less heaven.

Second, because there is no tragedy. Mukherjee’s middle-class tragedies are the most tragic, because they are middle-class. These are not dramatic desperate hopeless tragedies of the lower classes, or beautiful fantasy tragedies of the rich. It’s just every day sadness, a particular kind of bitterness at life.

And now we have this film. Not totally funny enough to be a farce, still with a lesson in it. But certainly not tragic enough to be a tragedy. So I am supposed to care about these characters learning a lesson, not just laugh at them, and yet there is no particular reason for me to care. And on top of that, the lesson and solution and magic dust on their situation comes from a servant! Part of the underclasses! It 100% crosses the line at this point, now I am supposed to worship middle-class values and life style above all else and care about the sustaining of this life style just because it is The Best.

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Another thing I’ve heard without it being questioned is “I like Mukherjee films because they show real life”. Well, that may be your real life, but it’s not real life for everybody.

I can almost forget that little bit of grit in my mind and just enjoy the film for itself because this is such a well-made enjoyable film. A large cast, 9 people in our central family plus Rajesh Khanna as the Magic Servant. Jaya Bhadhuri at the top of her charm offensive as the ingenue. Rajesh Khanna at the top of his charm offensive half smiling all over the place. The usual Mukherjee cast of regulars filling out the rest of the family. Lovely songs too, there’s a running gag about how film music now is just remixes of popular Western songs (another middle-class jibe, the Better people enjoy classical music not popular music), and the songs in this movie are melodic and timeless in contrast. The narrative is very tight as well, a series of incidents loosely tied together by a running theme of family learning to love each other and pull their own weight.

And yet, that ugly spot in my mind remains and I can’t fully enjoy the film, can’t make myself blind to the underlying assumptions it makes about who are the people that matter and who are not.

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There is a middle-class combined family of 9 people. Grandpa Haridrinath Chattopadhyay, who is retired and elderly. The oldest son A.K. Hangal, who is about to retire from his office job. The oldest daughter-in-law Durga Khote who struggles with foot pain. Their teenage daughter Manisha who is studying dance. Then the orphaned daughter of the second oldest son, Jaya, who is in college. The third son who married for love, is a teacher, and has a small son and a wife Usha Kiran who complains. And the fourth son Asrani who is a bachelor and writes film music by turning Western songs into Indian film music. They can’t keep a cook because they refuse to pay the market rate, and they have 9 people at home who do not help with the house work in any way (except for Jaya). And then the Perfect Cook appears, Rajesh Khanna. He takes below market rate, works from morning to night, manages to make delicious food with no supplies, and also gives helpful wisdom to the household. He reconciles the bickering daughters-in-law, and makes the brothers appreciate each other. He brings breakfast on time so the oldest son can get to the office early and have his job extended past retirement so he can keep bringing in money. The only problem left is that Jaya wants to marry her college boyfriend and the family isn’t ready to approve. Rajesh arranges for them to be caught flirting and a big family fight that makes everyone remember how much they love Jaya. And then he steals the family jewels from under Grandpa’s bed just so the boyfriend can “rescue” them and be a hero. The family learns the truth of this plot when the boyfriend confesses. And they also learn that Rajesh Khanna is an educated professor, and an orphan, who has decided to roam the world teaching lessons to middle-class households so they learn happiness.

There is a tease of a slightly different plot here. Early on, we learn that a prisoner has escaped jail, an educated man who tricks his way into households by pretending to be a servant and then stealing their wealth. It seems as though that is who Rajesh will be, the educated thief. And I kind of loved that idea! Here is a guy being kind and helping the family, but still keeping an eye on his own goals. We get to see a middle-class family learning to love each other thanks to lessons from a Magical Servant, with the ultimate lesson that no one exists purely to serve others, and they were blinded by their own classism to accept without thought his willingness to serve them without regard to his own happiness.

But instead, we learn that Rajesh is a college professor who quit his job to travel around being a servant and helping people just from the goodness of his heart. Two problems with that. First, the idea that “of course” he couldn’t just be a servant and be that wise and knowledgeable and saintly. He had to be part of the educated classes to have any kind of goodness in him. And second, that his backstory is “I realized true joy comes from serving others”, and his reaction to that was to go out and find middle-class families to help be slightly happier. Is the best way to serve humanity bringing morning tea to rich men in their beds as they sit on a chest full of gold?

Let’s go back to that chest full of gold. It is used as a convenient plot device, Rajesh is suspected of stealing it, the “bad” children stay around in hopes of getting part of it. But no one ever questions the reality of what it means. Wealth isn’t just something to be hoarded and kept, or desired. It can also be used. If the problem of this household is that they can’t keep a good servant so everyone is hungry and over-worked and tired, perhaps the solution is to use some of that wealth that is hoarded and pay more money for a better servant. This film never thinks to ask that. Ancestral wealth is there to be kept and locked up. The worst thing someone can do is steal that wealth. It should never be used to spread around and make life better in the moment.

Over and over again, this film goes up to a line of questioning and instead pulls back and says “no, the old unquestioning way is the best way”. For example, part of the reason the household is unhappy is that there is simply not enough money, or manpower, to keep the large combined household going. Rather than a Magical Servant showing up, they could split the household. AK and Durga could move to a smaller place, he could retire, she wouldn’t have to run up and down stairs and hurt her feet. Kali and Usha could move out too, she could have time to take care of their household and also spend time with her son, and she wouldn’t worry about her son seeing AK drinking at night (one of the causes of the family fights). With all those people gone, Jaya could enjoy going too and from college without being asked to help with chores, Asrani the youngest wouldn’t feel the need to hide in his room so much, and everyone would have more time for Grandpa. But instead of this solution, everyone has to learn to “adjust” and forgive each other. Happy ending is AK getting another three year contract instead of retirement, Usha taking on the job of caring for Durga, and Jaya just expecting a little bit less out of life because she is an “orphan” and therefore should be less indulged.

Jaya wins a dance contest instead of her cousin, and her cousin stands up for her which is delightful. But she doesn’t do it out of anger or a sense that she deserves better, she is still humbly accepting whatever scraps are given to her as is right for a woman and an orphan.

I guess my problem is that I can only accept a film in which the servant is the title character if it is a revolutionary film. The happy ending for the lower classes is not to continue being part of the lower classes and serving the higher. The happy ending is a revolution, the low to become high and the high to become low. Avoiding that, and yet making our main character a cook, has no logic to it.

7 thoughts on “Bewarchi: Insidious Classism

    • Oh yeah, there’s the flute playing and stuff that gives that implication. But I think I still run into the same road block. If Krishna is going to come to earth, why the heck is he helping these people instead of other more needy folks?

      Krishna coming to earth to help them and then steal their money in order to teach them a lesson about wealth hoarding, THAT is a movie I could get behind!

      On Thu, May 14, 2020 at 1:40 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yeah, I already thought he was a god when I watched the movie, but didn’t know anything else, and found that out later.

        I don’t know enough about Krishna to answer why he’d do stuff, but he’s like Mary Poppins, going from family to family, and this is just the one shown.

        Anyway, I like that about it. Like in the Govinda movies, where the family assumes he’s beneath them but he always ends up being above them in some way. I don’t know how Bewarchi was received at the time or what the intentions were, but I just listened to a thing about Hatty McDaniel, and it said this “servant teaching masters a lesson/talking back” type of thing is a way the people from that group live out a fantasy of being able to take the control in that relationship. It seems kind of counterintuitive from the outside because the role is still very subservient but that’s how it works. In the Govinda movies, he literally does take control, so that’s kind of different, but then that’s 20 years after this and with a different class background.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, the class background! If Rajesh truly was a thief, or truly was a cook, that would feel powerful. But since he was “really” one of them, it’s just a whole heap of middle class folks in together.

          There are other Hrishikesh movies where I feel that “talking back” more. In Anand and in Aradhana, the “servant” is considered the elder of the household and respected, and speaks up when he thinks folks are doing the wrong thing. But he is also actually a “servant”, not a college professor pretending for funsies.

          On Thu, May 14, 2020 at 3:11 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yeah, the servant in Anand is more of the Hatty McDaniel type. You do see that sometimes.

            For me it works because he is above them, not their equal. Now he’s a god, righting the wrongs of society and showing up the hypocrisy and prejudice of the family who think he is nothing and treat him badly while also pretending to venerate him. The Govinda movies are way heavier on the revenge element because you do not have that aspect.

            Liked by 1 person

      • There is actually a sivaji ganesan song picturised on a song by freedom fighter & revolutionary poet Subramanya Bharathi where the Sivaji acting as a servant is compared to god Krishna

        ( Padikkadha Medhai (transl. The uneducated genius) is a 1960 Tamil-language drama film starring Sivaji Ganesan and Sowcar Janaki. The film, directed by A. Bhimsingh, had musical score by K. V. Mahadevan and was released on 25 June 1960. It is a remake of 1953 Bengali film Jog Biyog [2] based on the novel of same name by Ashapoorna Devi.[3] The film was remade in Telugu in 1962 as Aathmabandhuvu, in Kannada in 1971 as Baala Bandana , [4] and in Hindi in 1967 as Meherbaan. This movie was also an inspiration for 1987 Tamil movie Per Sollum Pillai [5] and the 1990 Hindi movie Swarg.)

        http://www.lyricaldelights.com/2016/08/29/padikkatha-methai-engirundho-vandhaan-lyrics-and-translation/

        Bharathi considered as the Shelly of south india was an upper caste but can be considered marxist in his thoughts. His poems have vivid metaphors. In this poem he compares Krishna the dark skinned lower caste goatherd to a servant who invokes a feeling of devotion/bhakti in the Master where the Master ends up saying what did I do to deserve the service of such a great soul

        (On a side note, that is exactly how I feel when I watch Bumrah bowling in cricket for India. While our neighbour Pakistan had an assembly line of great fast bowlers, only very recently we got the freakish genius Bumrah & everytime I watch him bowl a good spell, I get the same emotions:
        What did we Indians do to deserve such a genius bowler ☺️ )

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  1. This review reminds me of a fanatic who criticized the Tanishq ad by randomly quoting an incident in which a woman was murdered by her Muslim family,but provides no background on how the two were related,except for his skewed view of the world.The fanatic used this same logic,this same rhetoric of “I like this,but cannot stop thinking about the woman who was murdered”and instead of calling it an opinion,basically says “watch out!”as if an opinion is a fact.
    Either you have not seen Mary Poppins,or have not watched Cinderella.Why did fairy Godmother want to help Cinderella,living in a particularly rich household,and not the people enslaved on the other side of the Atlantic in the same Victorian era.She was a scullery maid,but with her hourglass figure and perfectly manicured fingers she looked more well fed than the surviving picture of malnourished slaves.Middle class is superior-when does the film say that?Just because it has a middle class family in its backdrop.Then doesn’t KKKG say that upper class is superior because they can live outside but remain rooted to their Indian “culture”.It had far more references to a narrow idea of culture and references to Rama about leaving the kingdom to keep his father happy,than Bawarchi does in its entire runtime.The same can be said about action movies that show expensive racecars.Are they implying that only rich people can be active and lively,is that also classism.We can quote a single incident about a man who had to sell his farm to afford a bike for his son and then bicker about movies casually showing burning cars,wastage of money and pollution with all the smoke.Does it warrant a “watch out!” that Hrithik Roshan is going to cause unprecedented levels of global warming with his hotness in War?.How stupid would that sound.How is bickering about Bawarchi because of its middle class backdrop any better than people calling KJo movies bad because they centre on rich people with no care for the money?Barring a few films,don’t
    most of his films have people celebrating and enjoying at home or summer camps for the rich without thinking about their job,as if their bank balance is magically taken care of.Suspension of disbelief is something,especially when something bothers only you and as a blogger,you cannot claim “watch out” solely because it bothers you.Compare your tone with Swara’s open letter to Padmaavat and how she framed her opinion with “I feel” and how she validated her claim by pointing out flaws in the narrative structure and dialogues of the film itself, not just taken two vague concepts and judges a film for this.Your review smacks of American privilege to be honest,repulsing at the sight of anything not rich enough to resemble a well to do American household.Mary Poppins had no reason to be helping a white household in a period of casual racism.Is that white privilege?Are all the fairy tales classist and racist fairy godmother comes to help only a beautiful white girl?Say that,and wonder how crazily wannabe woke it sounds.Even I cannot watch Om Shanti Om and not scoff at reincarnation theme,but if I say that Godmen lure unsuspecting people and teach them about reincarnation,asking them to sacrifice themselves for a better next life,and the film also shows the protagonist succeeding in second birth,does it enforce regressive concepts of reincarnation and mislead the audience?But it is just a movie.A movie.Your opinion should technically not matter to me,but your blog is seen by people who are new to Hindi cinema and it matters that you review films without personal biases.Even other non Indians who watched the film seem to disagree,and for the pre 90s stuff they are undoubtedly better informed than you(but your post 90s knowledge is commendable).When we question why didn’t fairy godmother not give Cinderella some money so that she could run away and live an independent life instead of relying on a Prince Charming,the problem is not the tale,but the person literally overthinking a fairy tale,made for kids(we might hate the tulle frocks that we loved as a kid,but do we have to complain about something not directed at us),and judging something from the 70s with an incident that happened fairly recently.If we talk about servant dynamics,why does Dadi keep on pandering Hrithik in KKKG?And it is seen as normal,not even mentioned unlike in Bawarchi where the dysfunction in the family is addressed AND they change for the better.Asking why God helps them not anybody else won’t make sense in the context of the film-poor people cannot afford a bawarchi(cook)and won’t keep one in their homes.Maybe we would get a one time Godmother scene but do fairy Godmothers ever get a film for themselves?If you want to see Rajesh helping needy people,there is Dushmun,about Rajesh working for impoverished farmers who cannot afford to even harvest their farms.But he doesn’t do it by choice but as a punishment for killing the sole earning man of that family.Imagine how uncomfortably dark the film becomes of realism is brought in,and the film becomes devoid of fairy tale charm.Personal opinions should not be framed as a review,even if you have stopped reviewing classics for the better.

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