THERE WAS a time when ‘Jawaharlal Nehru’ was not a bad word and changing the course of rivers was considered the acme of development. When dams were big and dreams bigger. When Mumbai mills produced cotton and women who returned after studying abroad were considered novelties. Post-independent India, still in Nehruvian thrall, urging young Indians to collaborate in nation-building was never better embodied than in Ram Mukherjee’s Hum Hindustani (1960), the story of an old moneyed family getting used to the ways of diligent, meritocratic New India. Indian People’s Theatre Association poet Prem Dhawan’s immortal words summed up the promise and the potential of New India: ‘Chhodo kal ki baatein/Kal ki baat purani/Naye daur mein likhenge/hum milke nayi kahani/Hum Hindustani, hum Hindustani (Forget about yesterday, those stories are old/We will write new stories for the new age/We are Hindustani, we are Hindustani).’
At the same time, neither Nehru nor his India was above criticism. If movies such as Haqeeqat (1964) questioned his China policy but celebrated the brave soldier, then films such as Pyaasa (1957) openly taunted his vision of development. By all accounts, Guru Dutt asked poet Sahir Ludhianvi to work in a reference to Nehru’s speech saying, “I am proud of India”, by asking in the famous song Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai?: ‘Yeh kooche yeh neelam ghar dilkashi ke/yeh lutate hue kaaravan zindagi ke/kahaan hai? kahaan hai?/muhafiz khudi ke (These lanes, there whorehouses/these plundered caravans of life/where, O where are the preservers of pride?).’
This was a very different India, vastly apart from the shining, khadi-clad, spotlessly clean country promised by the freedom struggle.
That was the Mumbai film industry then, reflecting the reality of India, its multiplicity and its diversity; its ability to distinguish between the state and the country; and its edification of its poetry and its people. This was a movie nation that had place for everyone. For the ebullient tongaawala of Naya Daur (1957) who took on the evil buswala to the impoverished farmer facing a bleak future as a migrant in the city, a story so timeless that it is still relevant in Do Bigha Zamin (1953); from the young freedom fighter up against the Raj and his own father in Shaheed (1948) to the single mother as nation-builder in Mother India (1957).
There was no force-fed narrative, no chest-thumping, but when Radha, a worker at an irrigation canal, inaugurates it and water flows into the fields of her village in Mother India, it is a metaphor for an old, thirsty, starving rural India welcoming the virtues of industrialisation. As MK Raghavendra writes in The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium: Bollywood and the Anglophone Indian Nation: ‘A principal way in which the nation is inscribed in Hindi cinema after 1947 is by allegorising it as a community. In Mother India, the community is the village and in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994), Kailash Nath’s family gatherings represent the community. In Border (1998) the community is a battalion in the military while in Lagaan (2001) it is the cricket team.’ But in each of these, he points out, the community was constituted to include religious minorities, different castes and social classes.
As the country has moved to a more extreme form of displaying its love for the motherland, so has Hindi cinema
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There was the Indian abroad, who had to be educated about the greatness of Indian values, embodied in Purab Aur Paschim (1970) where Manoj Kumar converts the chain-smoking, drinking, mini-dress wearing blonde Saira Banu into a traditional wife, setting the template for films ranging from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) to Pardes (1997), which began to perceive Indianness as a civilisational ethos in opposition to the West, eventually celebrating the diaspora as true upholders of a national anthem-singing, paratha-eating, home-loving desi family in the turn of the millennium Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… (2001) and reborn as the Punjab-da-puttar-on-the-Thames Akshay Kumar in Namastey London (2007) extolling the virtues of a India where ‘a Catholic woman steps aside for a government to be headed by a Sikh, who is administered the oath of office by a Muslim, to run a country where 80 per cent people are Hindu’.
As Rajinder Dudrah, professor of cultural studies and creative industries at Birmingham University, puts it: ‘Bollywood’s dominant representation of the diaspora is most often a colourful and rich one. In it, middle and upper class Indians live an ideal existence in which attachments to the homeland are overly celebrated.’ There is also, he points out, sometimes a thin line that exists between patriotism and nationalism in this depiction, as often the main characters very rarely challenge or question nationalist interpretations of India.
Back home, in the turbulent ’70s, one man was emerging as the new notion of India, as he pitted himself against what was being perceived as an increasingly corrupt establishment, in corporate India, in government and even in society. He could be a construction worker who ends up with ‘building, property, bank balance, banglaa, gaadi’ in Deewaar (1975), or the suave builder seeking to destroy his own ‘naajayaz’ father in Trishul (1978), or the railway porter with the divine 786 bracelet in Coolie (1983). Suddenly the individual could be in confrontation with the state, and indeed, increasingly the politics did pit the small voices of freedom against the mighty power of the state during the Emergency. But even if for a brief while, the individual, whether it was Jayaprakash Narayan or Sunderlal Bahuguna, was recast as the citizen.
India after 1991 was never the same again. The three Ms of Mandir, Mandal and Market changed it forever. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) reflected that. Gyan Prakash, Princeton historian and writer of Bombay Velvet (2015), still recalls the scene in Bombay where Manisha Koirala flinches when she is faced with a crowd of aggressive, saffron-wearing obvious Hindus in a rath yatra with placards saying ‘Tala Kholo’, in a reference to Babri Masjid, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Vande Mataram’. “That was the first time we saw the point of view of the Muslim as a terrified minority,” he says. Not surprisingly, releasing Bombay was quite a task for the director as both Hindu and Muslim leaders tried to influence the Central Board of Film Certification—among the many cuts demanded were all references to Pakistan, as well as all the shots of the Babri Masjid being pulled down and any image of policemen shooting innocent bystanders.
If Ratnam’s 1992 film Roja looked at Kashmir as the land of Islamic terror and emblazoned forever the image of a patriot, a RAW cryptologist, no less, throwing himself on a burning tricolour to put out the fire, then Bombay, in highlighting the communal riots following the Babri Masjid demolition, showed the two communities viewing each other as the Enemy. The two movies will forever bookend the reimagining of the Indian nationalist: Roja showing a hardening of the ordinary, middle-class citizen against Muslim terrorism in Kashmir, and Bombay illustrating a more humane response to the rising communalism in the rest of India. According to Vamsee Juluri, professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, with Roja, Indian (1996) and Mission Kashmir (2000), patriotism seems to have moved towards a more aggressive form. “One of the corollaries of this trend,” he says, “seems to be the quiet silencing of traditional Hindu cultural/spiritual elements within the patriotism discourse, and its replacement with a more sterile and often jingoistic modern-nationalist element. The last such moment I can think of is the moving village-temple song, O Paalanhaare , in Lagaan.”
Lagaan was as much a triumph for Team India behind the scenes as it was on screen. Here was Team Lagaan, with every conceivable minority, from Dalit to Muslim to Sikh. And there was Team India behind O Paalanhare, one of Hindi cinema’s most powerful bhajans to Lord Krishna, asking for ‘bhakti and shakti’—with lyrics by a Muslim Javed Akhtar, set to music by a Hindu convert to Islam, AR Rahman. There was a powerful freshness to this renewed idea of India after the divisive ’90s, an epitome of a confident country boosted by its successes in IT and global business. Sadly, this sentiment was restricted to the sport epic, a genre that Hindi films have revelled in the new millennium. There was a federation of states in Team Hockey, led by a Muslim coach, in the thrilling Chak De! India (2007). Remember the immortal line, ‘Mujhe states ke naam na sunai dete hain na dikhai dete hain. Sirf ek mulk ka naam sunai deta hai: India (I can’t hear names of states. Only of one nation: India)’?
There was the biopic of the Flying Sikh who overcame the horrors of the Partition to run for India, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). There was the empowering story of a plucky mother from Manipur who became the gold-winning legend, Mary Kom (2014); and the joyous story of a ‘Haanikaarak bapu’ and his two medal-winning wrestler-daughters in Dangal (2016).
But as the country has moved to a more extreme form of displaying its love for the motherland, so has Hindi cinema. Say hello to the Indian as Supreme Warrior in Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) who goes into enemy territory and strikes at its heart; to the Indian as Concerned Citizen in a series of Akshay Kumar movies that exhort Indians to support government programmes, whether as participants, as in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), or as observers in the forthcoming Mission Mangal; and to the Indian as Revivalist and Vanquisher of Islam/Invaders in a series of historical epics conceptualised in the Sanjay Leela Bhansali style.
Sonoma State University professor Ajay Gehlawat calls it the ‘hyper-aestheticised and hyper-Hinduised nationalist (and anti-Muslim) ideology’ in movies such as Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018). He quotes scholar Sumita Chakravarty as saying, ‘The Bombay film has not so much addressed the Hindu-Muslim relationship as sublimated it by displacing it onto the canvas of history.’ In both epics, the difference between an explicit endorsement and an implicit critique (of Hindutva) is balanced on a razor’s edge, he notes, and can move in either direction.
Say hello to the Indian as Supreme Warrior; to the Indian as Concerned Citizen; and to the Indian as Revivalist and Vanquisher of Islam/Invaders
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The Indian as Supreme Warrior can be a soldier or a RAW agent or even an ordinary policeman fighting terrorists in the genre first popularised by Border and Sarfarosh (1999) and now kept alive, possibly singlehandedly by John Abraham, as in the forthcoming Batla House. Juluri sees this as the vanguard of the BJP’s emerging vision of nationalism, of young urban professionals doing their job, keeping India first, in every field, a cinematic version of the social media movement ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’.
The Indian as Concerned Citizen, says scholar Pallavi Rao of Indiana University, Bloomington, usually tends to argue for change but from a position within the acceptable traditional framework. So when Akshay Kumar attempts to initiate change in his village, he appeals to the logic of Brahminical scriptures rather than through recourse to notions of sanitation and hygiene.
As for the Indian as Revivalist, Krupa Shandilya, associate professor at Amherst College, argues that in a movie such as Padmaavat, ‘the fetishistic scopophilia underlying Khilji’s gaze is haunted by attendant fears of the Muslim man as a desirer of Hindu women’, which in contemporary India is considered to be part of the so-called love jihad. And there is more than a tinge of fascist spectacle to the jauhar at the end of the movie.
The Revivalist can be a woman too, as in Kangana Ranaut’s avatar in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019). Her war cry may well be that of the New India: ‘Hamari sanskriti mein pehle shanti phir kranti ko jagah di hai (In our culture, we first make way for peace and then revolution).’ Her iconography is also borrowed from popular culture in the retelling of ancient myths and epics. In her invoking of the sacred Om, set on fire at the end of the movie, and of Hanuman carrying the Sanjeevani mountain, there was much to gladden many swadeshi hearts. And if it isn’t such religious symbolism, there is always the conversation stopper: the tricolour of mere desh ki dharti, whose mere appearance can cause both a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye, even though a series of recent films, from Dangal to Salman Khan’s Bharat (2019), have made its mid-film appearance the contemporary equivalent of the item song.