Hindi Cinema: The Cooking of Nationalist Fantasies

The release of both Pathaan and Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh on Republic Day were also a part of the script, for the nationalist discourse is once again a handy political tool

Hindi Cinema: The Cooking of Nationalist Fantasies

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

I cannot recall another time when cinema and nationalistic sentiments intertwined so closely and recklessly as they have of late. Even as two new films— Pathaan and Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh —draw on testy contemporary socio-political narratives, the BBC documentary, ‘India: The Modi Question’, seems to be doing the impossible—shifting the conversation from Pathaan and its success.

And if sections of college students have gone against the government ban to organise screenings of the BBC’s files on the prime minister, trust the other side to do the same and bring The Kashmir Files out of the woodwork to screen it as counter-attack. No wonder Panna Shah said in 1950, “Cinema is an immense force which by the subtlety of its nature moulds the opinion of millions in the course of its apparently superficial business of merely providing entertainment.”

It goes without saying that these films, and Hindi cinema’s biggest contemporary star, got the timing just right. India just celebrated its 75th Republic Day, followed closely by Martyr’s Day (one of the seven in our calendar) on 30th January, commemorating the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The BBC documentary punctured the euphoria of a belligerent national government, increasingly positioning itself as a militant majoritarian superpower, all set to strut its glory with the Republic Day festivities.

Though I have not watched it, and as such cannot comment on it, the other two films are symbolic of the vacuous Hindi film that takes up ‘newsy’ material to weave fantastical narratives that beggar the imagination.

Coming in the wake of the ‘boycott Bollywood’ culture that has afflicted the industry, particularly those who are perceived to be antagonistic to the present regime, Pathaan does not lend itself to any kind of political reading at all. It is unabashedly driven by its agenda to perpetuate the cult of its star, Shah Rukh Khan. And that it does a fabulous job of. It is emblematic of almost all big-ticket films emanating from the Hindi film industry— all sound and fury signifying little.

However, when a film starring a ‘Khan’, someone who has been at the receiving end of the present dispensation’s malevolence (remember how his son was framed in a fake narcotics bust?), and has seemingly bested them with his dignified silence, incorporates contentious issues like the revocation of Article 370, calls its hero ‘Pathaan’, has a sympathetic former ISI agent as his ally, and ‘dares’ to have her gyrate to a song—rather mischievously called ‘Besharm Rang’—in a saffron bikini, it is calling attention to itself, particularly in the surcharged political atmosphere of our times. No wonder a screening in Faridabad was sought to be disrupted by too far gone far-right lunatics, vandalising posters and property. This despite the prime minister’s call prior to the film’s release condemning such disruptions (he was strangely silent when another superstar Khan, Aamir, faced the brunt of the cancel culture with Laal Singh Chaddha, while in the same breath going all out to ban the BBC film).

Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh would probably have raised a few more hackles if not for the tsunami called Pathaan monopolising all headlines, and the controversy over ‘India: The Modi Question’.

Despite incorporating two polarising views of nationalism, Gandhi Godse also makes a hash of the debate, coming across as didactic and plain silly. Of course, it’s ambit is purely hypothetical: what if Gandhi survived Godse’s bullets and the two came face-to-face to argue on aspects of religion, nationalism, truth and patriotism? Not only does it play fast and loose with facts (Gandhi’s final words, “Hey Ram”, are conspicuous by their absence when he is shot), there is the preposterous end sequence where both emerge from their incarceration to shouts of “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” and “Nathuram Godse ki jai” (the latter, in effect, legitimising a killer). That might be the other reason why the cancel brigade, otherwise too eager to take umbrage at the minutest ‘deviation’, real or imagined, from their narrative, have been uncharacteristically quiet about the film. That, and the ridiculous track involving a worker at Bapu’s ashram who falls in love with another worker only to be reprimanded by the great man who insists they call each other brother and sister.

Yes, Gandhi was puritanical to the extreme, with thoughts on love and sex that are hard to digest. However, the way the track plays out makes him look like a mirror image of anti-Valentine’s Day protestors, thus co-opting him to their world view. The discourse on nationalism in the movies is almost as old as the movies themselves. Some of the most telling early newsreels made in India before the advent of the fictional film, such as H.S. Bhatavdekar’s ‘The Return of Wrangler Paranjape to India’, ‘Great Bengal Partition Movement: Meeting and Procession’ (1905), T. Jansen’s ‘The Great Bonfire of Foreign Clothes’ (1915), addressed and stoked the average Indian’s pride in the nation.

Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, cemented this relationship between cinema and nationalism with films like Raja Harishchandra, Lanka Dahan and Shri Krishna Janam, harking back to India’s glorious mythological past whose values were espoused as superior to the Western values of the colonisers.

With each succeeding decade, films addressed this constituency, sometimes facing the wrath of the censors, like, for example, the Kanjibhai Rathod’s mythological Bhakta Vidura (1921), the first film to be banned in India, whose protagonist resembled Gandhi, cap and all. Ajanta Cinetone’s Mazdoor (1934), written by Munshi Premchand, too was banned, as it dealt with Gandhian principles, and was promoted as ‘the banned film’. Produced by Imperial Film Company and directed by R.S. Chaudhary, Wrath (1931) had a character called Garibdas who fights untouchability. The censors cut out many of its scenes and renamed it Khuda Ki Shaan. Bombay Talkies’ Kismet is now part of Hindi film folklore for its song ‘Door hato aye duniya walon, Hindustan hamara hai’.

For those who lament the illiberal attitudes that mark recent protests against films in India, here’s something to consider: the All-India Muslim League opposed Nanabhai Bhatt’s Chalis Karod (1947) and, in some theatres, cut the screen with blades only because it showed Hindu and Muslim protagonists opposing the vivisection of a map of India.

Hindi cinema in the 1950s co-opted the dreams of Nehruvian socialism in films like Mother India and Naya Daur. And in the triumvirate of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, it reflected the dreams and agonies of a newly independent nation trying to find its feet. There were also critics who mourned the country losing its way by the end of the decade, epitomised by films like Pyaasa and Phir Subah Hogi. But such critiques were nuanced and the political response to them dignified.

More recently we have witnessed cinema valorise a more militant nationalism and condone, even validate, the political establishment’s unremitting illiberalism in its response to anything that is unflattering to their nationalist vision. Filmmakers have also bought into the jingoistic narrative, with films like Border and Gadar. Contrast this with the depiction of the armed forces in the 1960s’ films like Haqeeqat and Upkar. It has only got worse with even dubious ‘historical’ films like Samrat Prithviraj unabashedly incorporating the majoritarian majoritarian. The Kashmir Files is perhaps the peak of the collusion between elements of the Hindi film industry and the ruling dispensation, in much the same way as Leni Riefenstahl’s films Triumph of the Will and Olympia in the Nazi Germany.

The discourse has hit new lows with the media highlighting the most ludicrous comments. Kangana Ranaut wants to rename Pathaan as ‘Indian Pathaan’ because “Indian Muslims are patriotic and different from Afghan Pathans”, claiming that “Pathaan is showing the enemy nation Pakistan, and ISIS, in good light, and does not reflect the sentiments of the Indian public”.

But why complain about a bull in a China shop when the nation’s prime minister tells young students that “criticism is a purifying and a root condition of a prospering democracy” in the same breath that he bans the BBC documentary. Or vigorously defending dissent in 2022 while promoting The Kashmir Files by saying: “Someone sees one thing, somebody sees something else. If someone thinks that the film is not correct, he can make his own film, who is stopping him?” A leeway that his government is not willing to allow the BBC film.

Sadly, in a nationalistic culture driven by hyperbole and pusillanimity, there is no one to play the prime minister a recording of what he says and show him the sheer inconsistency and chicanery of his position.

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