Duplicate [1998] and the promise and failure of the ID Card

Tuesday January 10

Babloo [Shah Rukh Khan], with his police identity card, from Duplicate [1998]

Before I go further, I want to begin to lay out some preliminary thoughts on the question of the duplicate I broached in the last post.

The film I start with is called, fittingly, Duplicate.  It came out in 1998, and stars the reigning Hindi film hero of that time (and arguably since), Shah Rukh Kahn, in a double role.

The telltale signs of the villager

Babloo, the hero, is portrayed as an unworldly and initially childlike figure who is trying to make a break from his mother (“Bebe”) and his family heritage of professional wrestling in order to be a five-star chef catering to urban and foreign tastes. His limit, and as we will see his charm and strength, is his inability to rid himself fully of the telltale signs of a villager to become the modern man without qualities.

Babloo makes his way in the world, both aided and delayed by Bebe’s village, unmodern ways. He gets a position as a chef in a five-star hotel. He begins a relationship with the banquet manager, Sonia [Juhi Chawla], who prefers him to her more disciplined and modern colleague in the hotel, Ravi [Mohnish Behl].

The man of any form

Manu, the villain, is Babloo’s physical “duplicate.”  After his daring escape from jail, the police begin a manhunt for Manu: he is described as a master of disguise who can take on any rup [form]. In a wonderful scene, the lead police officer shows his men a slide show of photographs of all of Manu’s known disguises: a Catholic priest, a Marwari businessman, and so forth. It would seem that Manu, unlike Babloo, is quintessentially modern: not easily identifiable. And yet he describes himself as a man of certain persistent values: he did not betray his former gang members in prison.

These three gangsters, who used the money Manu helped them steal to start a legitimate and clean [sharif] business as a front, lacked such values: they had double-crossed Manu to put him in jail. They now decide he is a threat and must be killed. The worst of these, Shalakho [Gulshan Grover], calls him a behrupiya, a mimic or impressionist. The subtitles on my DVD copy translate this simply as “scoundrel”: the question of form is lost.

So Manu is a bit more complex: he can erase identifiable traces, perhaps like a modern. But he carries certain values with him that seem the antithesis of a modernity often marked in the world of popular culture as selfishness. He can pass as anything, and yet these roles and forms are all transient. Unlike the other gangsters, he has no sharif exterior.

What the body reveals

Shakhalo is not worried about a confrontation with this shape-shifter: he shows his fellow gangsters that his own palm lacks a line of death.

Mano evades Sakhalo’s trap and kills the latter’s hit man Tony.

The police mistakenly arrest Babloo, until Bebe shows up at the station and berates Inspector Thakur [Tilu Talsania], the low-ranking officer who found him. Bebe brings proof of her son’s identity: a series of family photographs.

Identification papers

This, the second series of photographs in the film, is quite different from the earlier slide show. Each photo is keyed in to family events and, as religious devotion is central to the identity of Babloo and his family (from the film’s first scene onward), some show him in relation to the deity, for example on a pilgrimage.

This officer, who we are led to see as being like Babloo and Bebe a good and simple person, similarly values kinship: he is the brother-in-law of the lead officer, and continually brings this affinity up in the police station in ways the more professional senior man finds inappropriate. This pairing of more modern versus more simple officer is similar to that between Babloo and Ravi, and the film is suggesting that the good man is he who can maintain some relation both to tradition and more global, “five star,” modernity. The theme is repeated in a scene where Babloo successfully cooks a Japanese dinner for a large Japanese group at the hotel, only to have Bebe show up, find the food too bland, and “helps” her son by adding a lot of spices. Babloo and Sonia expect disaster. But the Japanese guests [who Eric Glassgold informs me are speaking Mandarin] are delighted.

If the protestations of a mother’s love and photos linking his face to his family’s and to the image of the deity were enough to identity Babloo and get him released after his first arrest, things get more difficult the second time. Manu, disguised as a television repairman, disarms and kills the first of his three enemies. Shalakho visits the lead officer, having heard that the police let a man go who matched Manu’s description, and reminds him that Manu is a master of disguise. Both men, the modern professional police officer and the apparently sharif gangster, put pressure on Inspector Thakur.  Babloo is rearrested. Bebe has gone off on a great pilgrimage, seeking divine favor to fix the problem of duplication haunting her son, not that her photos would have been enough the second time. Babloo, as Mano, is now notorious: his photo appears in every paper.  The real Mano, in a conversation with his image in a mirror, decides he must use the fact of his duplicate—the ultimate disguise—to his advantage.

But Baloo is in prison and so Manu uses tried and true methods. He kills the second of his enemies by dressing as a beautiful woman and seducing the man to his death. The police now recognize that Babloo, in custody, must be innocent. The senior officer declares him, authoritatively, a duplicate. All the other officers look at each other incredulously, each repeating the English word “Duplicate? Duplicate?” as if it carried specific and technical forensic meaning. Thakur marvels that God [upparwala] must have an amazing “Xerox machine” to have created two such similar men.

How then to tell the two men apart? The senior officer seems to have an insight: his face lights up. He tells Thakur to create an “ID card” for Babloo.  In the film the card is treated as a novelty, unlike Bebe’s photos earlier. Inspector Thakur gives it to Babaloo in a scene underscoring the friendly kin-based sociality of both men (“Dekh bete yeh tera ID card hai”—look son, this is your ID card). The card is a passport-sized red book. Thakur explains its function. “This ID card,” he tells Babloo, is the only thing that can differentiate him from his double: he is told to secure it and keep it safe.

The loss and gain of identity

Babloo now feels secure in his possession of the document. He goes home: Bebe should be back by now from her pilgrimage. The camera shows the insecurity of his ID card: the bright red juts out of his rear pants pocket. Mano, not Bebe, is waiting, along with his henchmen. Babaloo tells Manu that the police have given him an “identity card” to prevent them from being confused in the future. He grabs the card from Babloo and assumes his identity.

The real Babloo, however, tries to reason his way out of the situation. He tells Manu that stealing his ID card will have no effect. The document has his thumb print: the one sign (nishan) that Manu cannot copy as it is inextricably part of the other’s body. Manu takes a lighter and burns off both of their thumb prints, and then goes to meet and woo Sonia and to assume Babloo’s identity with its privilege (that is, Sonia). Babloo must respond by becoming Manu, convincing both his henchmen and his girlfriend Lily that he is the real thing. The main difference between the men now turns out not to be the moveable ID card but their relationship and behavior to women. Mano does not respect women, either as lovers or as kin. It is Babloo’s respect for Lily that will ultimately turn her away from the path of crime she has taken, leading her to rescue Babloo, Bebe, and Sonia from Manu’s clutches in the final scene by killing her lover.

Both sides now

The last scene of the movie shows Babloo and Sonia in their bedroom on their wedding night: the presumption is that now, as a sexually active husband, Babloo can be a little bit of Babloo and Manu. Or conversely, as a wife, Sonia is no longer simply that which must be guarded and protected, like an ID card, to secure Babloo’s identity as the innocent.

3 thoughts

1) Failure: Here the ID card is framed as a radical innovation, requiring a pedagogy of use. If it fails, the film moves between the sense of its failure as residing in Babloo’s unworldly and childish innocence, on the one hand, or the sense that such a form of ID (linked to the rationality of the modern senior officer) can never stand in for the traces of kinship and a relation to the deity.

2) Body: The card works through its biometrics: the thumb print. But Manu works around the problem by violently destroying both Babloo’s thumb’s skin and his own. Identity is only as secure as the flesh, and the film suggests that the destruction of flesh is a mode both of criminal action and its accompanying asceticism.

3) Duality: the film alludes to a rich, complex life of the duplicate within the scene of identification. Scholars like Sudhir Kakar have offered national character accounts of the centrality of the film double to a foundational split in the Indian psyche; postcolonial theorists have drawn on many resources to argue instead for the split as the double consciousness of racialized colonialism. In this film, the police are charged with stabilizing such doubledness: marriage, and its claims on women, seems ultmately to do the trick.