For a large population of India, which is celebrating its 71 st Republic Day this Sunday, cinema is synonymous with Bollywood—the popular moniker for the Hindi cinema. If we look at our early films we realize that Hindi cinema has played a big part in helping Indians imagine an entity binding them together, i.e. the Indian nation. The National Award-winning film critic and scholar, M K Raghavendra, confirms this in his book, ‘The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium: Bollywood and the Anglophone Indian Nation’. He highlights how Hindi films made during the first couple of decades after independence show a strong influence of Nehruvian socialism which was deeply invested in the idea of a deep sense of nationalism that’s all inclusive.
Some important films from the era that come to mind are Andaz (1949), Naya Daur (1957), Mother India (1957), and Howrah Bridge (1958). These films are true to India’s first prime minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideals of modern India—developing cities, roads, dams, bridges, doctors, and engineers being the emblem of modernity. This trend continued as Hindi cinema never failed to capture the nerve of the important historical events in post-colonial India. However, there is no denying that the Hindi cinema experienced a metamorphosis of sorts around the ‘90s. But, has anyone ever tried to study or analyze this turnaround? Well, if we analyze Hindi cinema closely, we observe that the 1990s proved to be the tipping point with Nehruvian socialism making way for economic liberalization in India. As the Indian economy gradually opened up to the world, the Hindi cinema started catering to the growing influence of the Indian diaspora. Later on, filmmakers like Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, and Tigmanshu Dhulia made efforts to make films set in the Hindi heartland.
However, in the recent years, Hindi cinema is witnessing a new wave of nationalistic fervour. Now, how is this new brand of nationalism different in comparison to the kind of nationalism previously seen in the early Nehruvian films and the films that followed them over the decades? Well, one stark difference is that the majority of the nationalistic films made today tend to embrace an extreme form of patriotism that can best be describe as ‘jingoistic’ in nature. There are many troubling concerns with jingoism but none more worrisome than the fact that it can often lead to othering of certain communities. Some of the most prominent examples that come to mind are Padmaavat (2018), Kesari (2019), and Tanhaji (2020). These films celebrate the valor of the Sikhs, the Rajputs, and the Marathas, respectively. But the primary antagonists in all these films are either Muslims or Hindus serving Muslims. So, consciously or unconsciously, these films tend to alienate the Muslims by portraying them as the other (read evil). In fact, a lot of critics have accused these films of promoting Islamophobia. This is in great contrast to the nationalistic films featuring Manoj Kumar, Raj Kumar, and Nana Patekar.
Also, a lot of contemporary hyper-nationalistic films are accused of distorting history. In a recent interview, Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan acknowledged the historical inaccuracies in his latest film Tanhaji. “I was very excited to play the role because it’s a delicious role. But when people say this is history; I don’t think this is history. I am quite aware of what the history was,” averred Saif. “History would be in the realm of the intelligent. Someone being taught that in schools today should not quote it internationally. They will be corrected and told that they are wrong,” added Saif while opining that such distortion and polarization of the historical narrative is “dangerous”.
Jingoism maybe selling well for now but it’s certainly not a healthy routine to follow in the longer run. For, we don’t want our cinema to just have local and ephemeral relevance. We want our films to travel and travel well. But that will only happen if our subjects are objectively backed up by a strong historical research. There is no denying that watching a film like Tanhaji can be great fun but its lopsided politics and the misrepresentation of history isn’t something to be proud of. Just as Saif stated above one cannot really show a movie like Tanhaji to an international audience and call it history. Saif also acknowledged his failure to take a stand. “For some reason, I didn’t take a stand… maybe next time I would.” So, the onus is also on the stars to back the right projects. But if they do make mistakes then they should have the courage to acknowledge it as well. After all, the commercial success of a movie is only a temporary indicator of its success. The ultimate test is the test of time. And you can’t fool people for too long.