Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Romantic hero, comic foil, mediator: a tribute to Shashi Kapoor

[Did this obituary for Scroll]
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In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, the self-pitying, drug-addled Faizal, upset about living in an elder brother’s shadow, mumbles these memorable words:

Hum toh sochte thay ki Sanjeev Kumar ke ghar mein Bachchan paida huwe hai, lekin jab aankh khuli to dekha ki hum Sasi Kapoor hai.” (“I thought I was a Bachchan, born in Sanjeev Kumar’s house, but later realized I was only Shashi Kapoor.”)

Yes, Faizal pronounces the name closer to “Sasi” than “Shashi”, making the sentence sound comically rustic. And the reference is, of course, to Trishul, which we have seen him watching in an earlier scene – one of many films in which “Sasi” was the clear second lead to Bachchan’s intense hero.

Many boys of my generation, growing up in the 1980s, would have understood why Faizal felt he had been let down by fate. As a Bachchan-worshipping child, I always thought of Shashi Kapoor as a pleasing screen personality, but he didn’t figure on my shortlist of favourite heroes – in fact, I probably didn’t think of him as one. He and his nephew Rishi occupied a very different niche from that of the action men, and it felt ludicrous when a film insisted on giving one of them a fight scene where they could trade punches with the heavyweights on equal terms. In a climactic dhishoom-dhishoom in Trishul, when Shekhar (Shashi) gives his half-brother Vijay (Bachchan) as good as he gets, it is not just implausible but also thematically flawed. (Surely part of this film’s point is that Shekhar, the mollycoddled legitimate son, would be much softer around the middle than Vijay the smouldering anti-hero, forged in the fires of abandonment and hard labour.)


My feelings about Kapoor would change somewhat over the years. As an adult watching those films again, I find myself more interested in his characters than I had been before, and more willing to embrace his special charms. Consider an old favourite, the 1980 comedy Do aur Do Paanch. The exuberant song sequence “Tune abhi dekha nahin” is part of a running series of gags in the film’s first half, where Kapoor’s Sunil and Bachchan’s Vijay – rival conmen – get the better of each other in turn; but watch the scene out of context and it feels like a commentary on Bachchan’s stature as a one-man industry, a magician who stayed several steps ahead of his rivals. (“Duniya deewani meri / Mere peechhe peechhe bhaagi / Kismein hai dum yahaan / Thehre jo mere aage.”)

And yet, its effect also depends on how well Kapoor plays sidekick and foil, standing by and watching the superstar perform to the gallery. Shashi gets tripped, takes pratfalls, is elbowed away when he tries to dance with his girlfriend, gets doused by a sprinkler… and in between all this he also holds the stage for a few seconds, not least during a little tap-dance where we see how nimble-footed and graceful he was even in his forties. It’s brief, but it’s as magical
as the little moment during the opening scene of Merchant-Ivory’s Bombay Talkie 10 years earlier, where Kapoor – playing a version of himself, a Hindi-movie star – dances on a giant typewriter while rehearsing a song.

My own viewing preferences as a child notwithstanding, Shashi Kapoor had a varied existence outside the Bachchan universe and the Hindi-film mainstream. Much has been said and written – notably in Aseem Chhabra’s Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star, and Madhu Jain’s The Kapoors – about his status as one of India’s first international stars, decades before Irrfan Khan or Priyanka Chopra, and this in an era when our film industry was largely cut off from the rest of the world and its dramatis personae didn’t get out very much. We have his work in a range of films, including the Merchant-Ivory productions (The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah and In Custody), Conrad Rooks’s Siddhartha, Stephen Frears’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and his own productions Kalyug, Junoon, Vijeta and Utsav, which – sometimes uneasily – bridged the divide between mainstream Hindi cinema and the “parallel film”.

In the mainstream itself – the medium where he did the bulk of his work as a star-actor – it’s astonishing how many films there are, and how integral his presence is to them, even if that isn’t how it might seem at first viewing. From the earnest 12-year-old boy of Awaara, preparing the ground for the adult version of the protagonist Raj, to the toothy swain in songs like “Likhe jo khat tujhe” (Kanyadaan), and the young chauffeur in Waqt, trying desperately to get his mother to the hospital while everyone else sways to “Aage bhi jaane na tu”. And then the 1970s, a decade spent under the shadow of two megastars. (Apart from playing second lead to Bachchan so often, Kapoor was a policeman in Prem Kahani who worries about his wife’s relationship with her ex-lover…played by the era’s biggest romantic star, Rajesh Khanna.)

Though Kapoor did the grinning, romantic-hero parts very well, showed an unexpected flair for comedy, and had a reassuring integrity in serious, dramatic scenes, he could seem a bit one-dimensional in commercial films. Was this because he was usually cast in certain types of roles, or because of a lack of discernment in choosing films, or because he couldn’t fully submit to the higher registers of emotion demanded by mainline Hindi cinema? (Other actors such as Waheeda Rehman and Balraj Sahni have admitted to struggling with this.) Or was it a combination of all these factors? He may have become sheepish about the reactions of his wife and children to some of his work; in the 1970s, he was shooting simultaneously for so many mediocre films that his brother Raj disparagingly called him a “taxi”.

Since he was almost never required to carry a major 1970s film on his own shoulders, one tends to remember him in multi-starrers: the Bachchan films, of course, but also others like Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, in which Kapoor was almost inevitably cast as the pampered, white-suited, colonial-era prince who joins the other, more rough-hewn heroes in their fight for independence. Kranti is an intriguing work in his filmography, though not many credit it as such. What we see over the course of this narrative is a character who is born to privilege but undergoes a reformation and realizes what the “right side” is. It is a reminder of Kapoor’s function as the Moral Hero, as Karan Johar puts it in the Foreword to Chhabra’s book.

The best-known avatar of that moral hero is Ravi the younger brother in Deewaar, an idealistic, well-scrubbed man in a police uniform, eyebrows raised and nostrils flaring with righteous zeal. It is easy, from a distance, to remember Deewaar as a film where Ravi remains untouched by darkness, a smugly goody-goody hero from beginning to end. Up close, though, it isn’t that simple. Kapoor’s most memorable scenes are the ones where Ravi has to look into the mirror and introspect after shooting and wounding a young boy who was stealing food for his starving parents. Or when one gets the sense that for all his righteous posturing, he feels a smidgen of resentment about his mother’s special affection for her errant older son.

A few years later, in one of his best-regarded roles in Kalyug, Kapoor would play a modern-day version of Karna, the Mahabharata’s tragic anti-hero. But good as he was in that part, it was a casting anomaly (Bachchan was the original choice!) and the image that suited Shashi Kapoor much better was the straight-arrow hero Arjuna, vanilla on the outside but capable of showing layers. In a revealing scene in Deewaar, Ravi tells his girlfriend, with a troubled look on his face, that the mythological hero Arjuna had Lord Krishna guiding him, but that he himself doesn’t feel strong enough to be a modern Arjuna. In moments like these, one sees a different sort of internal conflict playing itself out, a subtler, less dramatic one than that of the Angry Young Man.
Here’s another thing about Arjuna: he is comfortable with his feminine side, and he has a strong streak of pacifism: he could tell God “I will not fight”, and briefly at least hold his own in a conversation that ends with a call to arms. As a child, I may have chuckled when I saw Shashi Kapoor flamboyantly holding apart those uber-macho heroes Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha at the end of their fight scene in Kaala Patthar, ordering them to bury the hatchet. Today I think of it as one of the emblematic images of his career, and a reminder of why he was such an appealing hero in a testosterone-fuelled age.

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(And a sidenote: shortly after that Do aur Do Paanch sequence, the Shashi character gets his back on Bachchan and sings a version of the song himself. But the playback singing is done in a deliberately croaky style by Rajesh Roshan. While Bachchan had Kishore Kumar singing for him. Typical.)

21 comments:

  1. Yet another great column, Jai, and a fitting one for Shashi. I found myself more affected than I thought I would be by his death. He had great charm and authenticity on the screen, and truly is one of the mainstream Hindi eternals. Love him in Deewar, in Waqt, in Bombay Talkie, and so many others.

    We are fortunate to know Aseem Chhabra from his work with the New York Indian Film Festival and he was kind enough to be interviewed for the Bollywood 101 videos we put together some years ago. I loved his Shashi book! Thanks again for the column.

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  2. Just as Mike said, I too am finding it difficult to believe that Shashi Kapoor is no more. His face and smile on screen is impossible to forget. I didn't know that Bachchan was offered Karan's character in Kalyug. The number of good roles that Bachchan has given up is amazing. Coming back to Shashi Kapoor, I was quite bowled over to see his performance in 'In Custody' and only then could I really believe that he indeed was trained in theatre. His Urdu diction in the opening lines (thanks to Youtube that English subtitles were there) was really good and he really showed in that role how fat can be so ugly, so clumsy. Great actor.

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  3. "His Urdu diction in the opening lines (thanks to Youtube that English subtitles were there) was really good "

    It's interesting to note the infatuation with Urdu among the deracinated North Indian elites. Would you ever find it necessary to acknowledge someone's excellent Hindi diction? No. It is seldom done.

    In fact "shuddh" Hindi - the language spoken in North Indian villages, and the language which has greatly influenced even south indian languages like kannada, tamil, is always lampooned and made fun of as the language of the brahmin in hindi movies. I have lost count of the number of movies which have made fun of Shuddh hindi. One never sees such condescension extended to Urdu or Hindustani.

    The counter to what I am saying is - the masses actually speak Urdu. Which is just plain wrong. The small town villagers in our country still prefer "samapt" over "khatam", "kushal mangal" over "khairiyat", "kaaran" over "wajah", "vichitra" over "ajeeb".

    And the sanskrit words I mentioned are the ones which get used by south indians too. Vichitra is a very common word in kannada for instance.

    It is the Punjabi half Hindu elites of the North, who have nursed this myth that Hindustani is the true language of the masses. Far from it. The masses always speak Hindi. It is the elites of Delhi and Bombay who speak Urdu.

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  4. Simple thing Shrikanth. While praising one thing noone has a moral burden to praise other things as well. I have admired many people for their Hindi speaking skills. What's with Punjabis being half Hindus? And which village prefers vichitra over ajeeb? You are not just generalising in this comment. You are in fact absolutely wrong at several places.

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  5. "While praising one thing noone has a moral burden to praise other things as well."

    Haha. Let's not be so disingenuous. We all know the Delhi chatterati's love for Urdu and ofcourse lately English / French and whatever is "cool". Shayari love greatly exceeds love for kavitas or shlokas or vachans.

    "And which village prefers vichitra over ajeeb?"

    You haven't spoken to enough small town people. Vichitra is the norm in southern India (karnataka for instance) and very very common among small town people in the north. My Haryanvi Jaat maidservant always said "Samapt". Never Khatam! Vishwaas beats Yakeen and Aetbaar anyday. And Pratiksha beats Intezaar. You wouldn't know any of this in Delhi.

    The elites of Delhi and Lucknow speak Urdu. The further away you go from the major cities the more sanskritized the Hindi becomes.

    Ofcourse the "secular" establishment tries hard to deny this. I understand that.

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  6. Shrikanth, do u read whichever English novels you read because its 'cool', or do u read them because the pursuit gives you pleasure, and u admire the content and style of writing employed by the author? Do you think reading them makes you less Indian? Why lend a communal colour to everything and use pejorative terms such as 'deracinated' for people who like Urdu poetry? Urdu is also a part of the heritage of the country, and several of the most eminent north Indian writers of the 20th century felt very much at home with both Hindi and Urdu. Why does it have to be either/or and why adopt such a combative tone on the subject?

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  7. "Urdu is also a part of the heritage of the country"

    Sure, but so is Hindi. So is Sanskrit. I don't see much love for them. Let's be honest here. Sanskritized Hindi has always been made fun of in Bollywood. I think it started with the brahmin joker character in the Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar starrer Andaz in 1949. It continued in Padosan. And in several other films.

    Urdu is viewed as normal. Sanskritized Hindi as some form of aberration or pretension. Despite the fact that it is the language of the people. To this day.

    "Shrikanth, do u read whichever English novels you read because its 'cool', or do u read them because the pursuit gives you pleasure, and u admire the content and style of writing employed by the author?"

    I am a westerner myself despite growing up in India. I have grown up reading Wodehouse and Dickens, watching Hitchcock and Ford, discussing Hume and Hamilton. But have I read Sankara? Have I read Buddhaghosa? Have I read Anandavardhana? Have I read Shudraka? Have I read the plays and poems of Vedanta Desika? No. In other words I too am deracinated to a significant extent. Maybe all the names I mentioned are "crap" and don't have much to teach or inform us. But how can we even make that statement without reading them?

    And is this because English books are more "pleasurable"? No. I haven't read a book in my own mother tongue to this day, to even make an educated assessment!

    So if you ask me - why have I read so many English books and so few vernaculars (not even in translation)? I have to say it is because the prevailing cultural climate told me "English is cool". I suspect that's true for most of the people on this blog.

    Deracinated isn't a pejorative term. It is an accurate description of the state of mind of most of us.

    I'd like to know - how many English medium educated kids in India actually get around to reading atleast one book in their vernacular. It is a very very small percentage compared to the proportion of them who do get around to reading a book in English.

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  8. Nothing is stopping anyone from reading and writing about the books, poems and plays you allude to. If there are people who feel that Hindi or Sanskrit are neglected, then they should do something to rectify it; read the literature, analyse it, stage the plays etc. Make it 'cool'. Not even bothering to read a single text in your own native language, and then attacking other languages because you personally feel no affinity for them isn't the way.

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  9. I would personally love to see a biopic on Premchand. There have been film and television adaptations of his works, but nothing on his life that I'm aware of. Even though I haven't read that much indigenous literature (and a lot of what I have read is unfortunately in translation) there is still a lot of fertile material that Hindi cinema has yet to exploit.

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  10. "If there are people who feel that Hindi or Sanskrit are neglected, then they should do something to rectify it; read the literature, analyse it, stage the plays etc. Make it 'cool'"

    That's precisely what the Hindutva movement is about.

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  11. "Nothing is stopping anyone from reading and writing about the books, poems and plays you allude to."

    Ah. That's a convenient dodge. Ofcourse the establishment tries very hard to malign any effort to market traditional / local literature. The liberal onslaught on Gita Press is a very good example.

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  12. That's precisely what the Hindutva movement is about.

    Shrikanth: stop being an ass and kindly open your eyes just a little. The current “movement” is about a lot more than reading, analysing, staging or offering new perspectives; most of the people leading the “movement” have little or no interest in art except where they can make it a pretext to fulfil their violent agendas.

    Among many other things, the “movement” is about silencing anyone who disagrees with its very narrow vision of Hinduism or the “Hindu rashtra”. I think you ought to be very careful about blithely defending such people.

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  13. " I think you ought to be very careful about blithely defending such people"

    Sure. I don't defend all of them. But any movement is bound to throw up its share of moderates, loonies, uber-loonies, among others. In short the complete spectrum.

    Feminism for instance is an honorable movement. I am not a feminist. But I appreciate the feminist lens which attempts to mitigate or redress some of the handicaps that have followed women as an outcome of historical quirks and nature.

    But does that mean every feminist is reasonable? No. Yesterday I came across a bunch of feminists forming a group on the internet, who have started a campaign to disenfranchise men. Yes, DISENFRANCHISE men. Can you believe it? Does that mean every feminist should be locked up and gagged? No. Ofcourse not.

    Similarly Hindutva is a very broad global movement and its fringe political votaries (like Sakshi Maharaj) represent a fringe view. There are many other moderate Hindu voices who do make a sensible, nuanced case for cultural nationalism. Names like Konrad Elst, SN Balagangadhara, Michel Danino, Shatavadhani Ganesh, among others. You can add Rajiv Malhotra to the list, though I am apt to find him too shrill.

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  14. Shrikant: it is naïve or disingenuous to suggest that this ‘Hindutva’ movement is largely just a benign cultural revivalist or cultural-political movement. Many of its manifestations are not benign, and some of its key practitioners have a very poor track record on subjects such as communal harmony and maintaining the peace, whether it’s the PM or e.g. the CM of UP, whose chief qualification for the post was his well-known virulently anti-Muslim sentiments. Several of his incendiary hate speeches are in the public domain. He had not previously distinguished himself as an administrator, and we all know about the 70 children who died on his watch at the Gorakhpur hospital (an area which has been Yogi Adiyanath’s political turf for over 20 years). He was also once just one of the fringe loonies. In the UP elections earlier this year there wasn’t even the pretense of ‘vikas’ or ‘sab ka saath sab ka vikas’; it was a campaign clearly run on shamshan vs. khabristan lines and it appealed to people’s worst instincts. There is negative orientation to this political movement, and it seeks to extract as much political mileage by any fissures in society; those fissures are its lifeblood. How much u care about Sankrit or Hindi literature is made evident by the fact that u have never read any; you only about care about their position vis-à-vis Urdu (a language u view as ‘alien’ even though it also draws on Sanskrit) as made apparent by your terming its aficionados ‘half-hindu’ and ‘deracinated’.

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  15. Bhaiyya Shrikanth, or should Isay 'Bhaisaab', this column was about Shashi.. and you hijacked it made it about Hindutva!

    Great work man!
    Bahut achche aadmi!
    --The Alcoholic guy

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  16. "Many of its manifestations are not benign"

    Many of Marxism's manifestations haven't been benign either. Yet Marxism is taught in schools.

    "How much u care about Sankrit or Hindi literature is made evident by the fact that u have never read any; you only about care about their position vis-à-vis Urdu (a language u view as ‘alien’ even though it also draws on Sanskrit)"

    That's being presumptuous. At the moment, I am ploughing through Vishnu Purana and Valmiki Ramayana in the original, as well as Ramanuja's commentary on the Brahma Sutras.

    Sure. Urdu is an Indo Aryan language derived from Sanskrit. In which case, why is there such resistance to use Devanagari script for Urdu? Why use the Nastaliq script for an Indian language? Why not an Indian script?

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  17. "There is negative orientation to this political movement, and it seeks to extract as much political mileage by any fissures in society; those fissures are its lifeblood"

    Politics in essence is about fissures and differences of opinion. That's the essence of any democracy. It is only in a one party semi dictatorship that you will have uniformity of political opinion with no dissent. Nehruvian one party democracy is a good approximation of that

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  18. "It is only in a one party semi dictatorship that you will have uniformity of political opinion with no dissent Nehruvian one party democracy is a good approximation of that."

    I don’t know what you’re talking about here. The Congress party enjoyed the political dominance it did in the 15 years after independence through landslide electoral victories. It was the party that led the freedom struggle and strange as it may seem today, Nehru was a greatly loved and respected leader for most of those who actually lived under his tenure. Not only was there a great diversity of opinion on many policy areas within the Congress party, but Nehru also conducted himself with respect towards the opposition. It is ridiculous to suggest that he was some kind of fascist.

    'Politics in essence is about fissures and differences of opinion. That's the essence of any democracy'

    Surely the aim of any genuinely nationalist political movement, should be to build social cohesion, and not fracture it.

    Re Urdu and the nastaliq script: I think the devanagari script is already fairly commonly used in place of nastaliq; simply because fewer people can read the nastaliq script today, as compared to the numbers in preceding generations. I see nothing objectionable with using the nastaliq script in principle though. Sanskrit is one influence on the Urdu language but it is obviously not the only influence. I don't think seeking to divest it of all other influences is a worthy aim.

    'Many of Marxism's manifestations haven't been benign either. Yet Marxism is taught in schools.'

    This is not relevant to Hindutva and I am not a proponent of marxism.

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  19. "Not only was there a great diversity of opinion on many policy areas within the Congress party"

    Not true at all. The Congress party high command was consistently hostile to right wing / conservative opinion within it. Rajagopalachari's exit in the mid 50s was clearly an outcome of this hostile environment. And post Morarji's exit in 1969, the party was clearly cleansed from all centrist / center-right influences.

    "It is ridiculous to suggest that he was some kind of fascist."

    It is also ridiculous to suggest Modi is some kind of a fascist.

    "Surely the aim of any genuinely nationalist political movement, should be to build social cohesion"

    I guess the Nehruvian recipe of social cohesion is to snub majoritarian impulses and have a rule by the elite that is unmindful of the concerns of the majority. Hey. The people weren't happy with that recipe. Which is why things changed.

    "Nehru was a greatly loved and respected leader"

    Modi too is a greatly loved and respected leader. Sure you guys may hate him. But my family too hated Nehru back in the 50s/60s. There were enough people who hated Nehru back then. Not insignificant by any means.

    "I see nothing objectionable with using the nastaliq script in principle though. Sanskrit is one influence on the Urdu language"

    Not true. Sanskrit is not a mere influence on Urdu. Urdu is an Indo-European language and is a direct descendant of Sanskrit. The influence of Persian / Arabic is on nouns and vocabulary, not the basic sentence structures themselves. It is an Indian language. If it is Indian, then why this insistence on using Nastaliq script for it throughout history? It was always seen as the language of the Muslims, and yes, the islamized Hindu elites of the big cities. The establishment consciously, chose to project it as a non Indian language.

    If its users thought of it as Indian (which it is), they wouldn't have insisted on a foreign script. It's a bit like using the Roman script for writing Hindi.

    "This is not relevant to Hindutva"

    Well, you call something not relevant because the analogy discomfits you. The fact is ANY movement is bound to have non-benign manifestations. Fact. That doesn't invalidate everything the movement has to say.

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  20. I think Nehru was a statesman of tremendous stature, and it is very difficult for me to compare him with Modi. I don’t know what it is that u find so offensive about the things Nehru represented. U can carp about him sidelining Morarji Desai and Rajagopalachi within the Congress (I’m not say that it was correct), but ignore the fact that it was under his leadership that free and fair elections regularly took place in a fragile and newly independent India with universal adult suffrage (a monumental achievement in its own right).

    ‘He snubbed majoritian impulses’? What majoritarian impulses are u talking about? U keep going on about Hindutva as a largely benign movement with its negative effects only being peripheral. UP is the state I associate with; someone with Yogi Adityanath’s antecedents being appointed CM there, is not something small or merely peripheral in my view. Anyways, I did not intend to enter into a protracted debate on hindutva with u, and this will probably be my last comment on the thread. I just jumped in because someone’s praising Shashi’s Urdu diction generated such an indignant and combative reaction.

    On nastaliq/devanagari script for Urdu : I am open to what u are saying but would not support any measure mandating the eschewal of nastaliq. It has been the script used since Urdu evolved as a language and it has acquired certain cultural and also personal resonances; e.g. a lot of letters, family correspondence and so forth are in that script. Wherever Urdu goes from here should happen organically, and shouldn’t be state mandated. It is quite possible that devanagari will have a much larger role to play in the further evolution of the language.

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  21. Nehruvian one party democracy is so evident to Shrikanth and Narendra Modi's one man led political campaigning is not evident in all states of India. You then say Hindutva movement will revive Hindi and Sanskrit. This is totally incorrect. You say Nehruvian ideology was snubbing majoritarian impulses. I guess the same can be said of BJP as well. Else why would only 31 percent vote for this govt? Also Shrikanth's comments make you believe as if majority Hindus in India were desperate for someone to give them a political voice. This can be said of some people, yes. But for majority, I really don't know.

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