Indian Cinema shows unmistakable signs of being influenced by Hitler's statecraft
Indian cinema is not apolotical, says Fareed Kazmi tells Namrata Joshi in an interview on his latest book which shows stark parallels between Hitler's statecraft and Indian conventional cinema
With his third book, Lag Ja Gale: Indian Conventional Cinema’s Tryst With Hitler, political scientist and film theorist, Fareed Kazmi draws parallels between Hitler’s statecraft and the narrative tropes, themes, conventions and characters of popular Hindi cinema.
The link is not as far-fetched as the title might suggest. Writing in The Guardian last year British historian Alex Von Tunzelmann noted that ‘a first-time Indian director, Rakesh Ranjan Kumar, has announced that he will . Dear Friend Hitler stars Indian actors Anupam Kher and Neha Dhupia as Hitler and Eva Braun, and will focus on what the director claims was "Hitler's love for India and how he indirectly contributed to Indian independence".
Tunzelmann scathingly wrote, “Hitler never supported Indian self-rule. He advised British politicians to shoot Gandhi and hundreds of other leaders of the freedom struggle. Repeatedly, he expressed support for British imperialism. He only regretted that it was not harsh enough. "If we took India," he once threatened, the Indian people would soon long for "the good old days of English rule". In fact, the Nazi regime's disgust when Bose became romantically involved with a German woman revealed its true feelings.”
Even as The Great Dictator—Charlie Chaplin’s masterful satire of Adolf Hitler—began filming in September 1939, right at the start of World War II and was released in 1940, the Nazis were busy promoting propaganda films. As Germany suffered reverses and bombs were raining in Berlin, Nazis encouraged Germans to watch entertaining films to distract them.
Grounded on extensive research, in this third book of his on cinema, Kazmi deconstructs several films and spells out their interconnectedness with the politics of Hitler and the Nazis. In a freewheeling conversation with Namrata Joshi, he goes beyond the obvious. Excerpts:
The timing of the book is uncanny… just when fascism is being hotly debated across the world. Did things just fall into place on their own?
After doing BA/MA [political science] and then MPhil from JNU, I was wondering what to do next and decided to pursue PhD abroad. I applied in America, got admission in a university and went for the visa interview with my wife [late film critic Nikhat Kazmi].
But the counsellor said that since both our brothers were settled in America, we were potential immigrants. ‘Why would you ever come back to India?’, she said. So, we were not given the visa. Ironically, we were later invited by the US government to visit the US.
So, then I applied under ICSSR (Indian Council of Social Science Research) to Lucknow, Allahabad and CSDS (The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies). Then there was the question of what topic to work on? I didn’t want to get into typical political science. Filmein to dekhte hi the. So, I quickly wrote a synopsis sitting in CSDS lawns and submitted it.
Those days not much academic work was being done on films. I remember there was a semiotic analysis of Sholay done for an India International Centre journal, but not much else. So, I got selected but needed affiliation from Delhi University for the degree.
There was this whole faculty of DU asking me what had cinema got to do with political science? Do something on political cinema, Shyam Benegal and filmmakers like him, they said. I said no, I had to do this with Amitabh Bachchan. My logic was to focus on cinema that reached the people, cinema that people consumed the most. We argued for an hour.
Popular Hindi cinema was regarded as escapist. I showed that escapist is what it is not. That it is very very political. To say that it is apolitical is a myth. So, this [book] is the culmination of all my earlier writings. Here I am linking it straight to Hitler, the connect between massively romantic films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge and Hitler. I deliberately joined one dialogue of the film and one sentence of Hitler. There is a massive overlap. What could be more political?
So, all the years of having watched movies has resulted in the book…
In my first book I made the political connect [The Politics of India’s Conventional Cinema: Imaging a Universe, Subverting a Multiverse]. In the second I focused on gender and sexuality [Sex in Cinema: A History of Female Sexuality in Hindi Films]. This third one, given the times we are living in, the talk about democracy, dictatorship etc, I thought there was conjunction between them and cinema.
Your identity, personality, worldview, are all constructed through your own concept of reality. Politics explores this—your relationships, agenda, representation of people, power politics, the power relations. Cinema does exactly the same thing.
You begin with the assumption that there is massive hierarchy among people. If there is hierarchy, there is power, if there is power there is control. If there is control, there are villains and heroes. For all this you need inert masses. Domination is the key.
If there were no hierarchy, then [instead of domination] the concept of cooperation will come into play. The idea that people all over the world are same, just different colours. You have one life to live, so much to give and so much to share.
What political philosophers are talking about, cinema is also showing the very same thing, be it at the level of family or state.
One often gets criticised for reducing cinema to ideologies rather than focusing on its aesthetics. What’s your view?
“Reducing cinema to ideology” is itself an ideological statement. To say that something is political, is itself a political statement. Your choice to be apolitical is also a political stance.
“To see the film only like a film”: well, this is open to debate. And it’s a matter of choice. Some may want to go there, just as some may not. There is politics in everything. There is nothing that is non-political. There is no option.
There is a whole culture of silence in films, filmmaking, film journalism these days with reference to politics of the times…
It is not silence; it is being complicit. To compensate you become complicit in that. Silence is making a statement, a very loud statement.
You have written about how political forces are riding on the support of the masses, majoritarianism, how democracy and dissent are being dismissed…
Hitler is the person who started it all. That democracy must be destroyed with the instruments of democracy. I am amazed by Hitler. He was the ultimate psychologist. He writes a book, spells out everything in black and white and then he does exactly the same thing. He literally walked the talk, he did everything he set out to do. People call him mad. I think he was a very intelligent man.
With end of Hitler, it was believed to be the end of fascism. But it hasn’t quite gone. In fact, there are people these days intent on discrediting Gandhi-Nehru…
Fascism is not some disease that came and went away. Not some person who came and went away. It stems from your blind spot about something. 99.9% of us have it. Every individual is a potential Hitler. There are little Hitlers sitting everywhere amongst most of us. Fascism exists in each one of us.
Jews aise hote hain, Musalmaan waise hote hain, Angrez aise hote hain, Amreeki waise hote hain, Gore aise hote hain, Kaale aise hote hain, Sharaabi aise hote hain, Juaari aise hote hain… These blind spots exist in everyone.
Hitler regarded the masses as stupid. The idea was to simplify everything for them, turn everything into black and white—this is hero, that is villain; this is good, that is bad; keep one enemy; don’t confuse people; never ever admit that you were wrong…and people will follow you blindly.
It’s happening across the world, replicating Hitler’s tactics which are so organic and natural. Have you ever seen a movement in which people have fought for roti, kapda, makaan? It’s always for race, dharam or desh.
Faiz said, “Na unki haar hai, na apni jeet”. I would say, "Apni haar nayi nahin hai, na unki jeet. Hamesha se wo jeet-te aa rahe hain."
However, we might want to delude ourselves. What is easy? To be with the establishment. You will then get everything on a silver platter. This is happening the world over. A little dissent and people land in jails.
We have this romanticised notion of Hindi film industry being a very secular space…
That is why it was so difficult for me back then to convince the intellectual elite that there is politics in it.
So, you didn’t subscribe to this view?
There is this generalisation that this is good or that is bad. I wanted to show that the same film would be very progressive in some areas while being terribly regressive elsewhere.
Mother India is very progressive at one level. She is a most extraordinary woman and yet also the most regressive. Rather than talk about tradition and modernity, what is important is to talk about the notion of tradition being invoked. Just put the word Indian and everything gets absolved. Everything will become perfect. As opposed to that is [the phrase] anti-Indian. Massive generalisations se hi to bachna hai.
You have compared Hitler’s Vienna with the evocation of Bombay in 'Zara hatke, zara bachke ye hai Bombay meri jaan'… a song and film backed by the most liberal, progressive minds of the day…
Exactly. Awara at one level is an incredibly progressive film. But it shifts in its essence somewhere. It begins by attacking the socio-economic conditions. Then it becomes all about morality—jhooth nahin bolna, sahi raaste pe chalna and stuff like that. Not the carte blanche; we need to get to the specifics. Detailing is important.
What about the hero-villain binary?
Who is a hero and who is a villain? For some, probably, Hitler was a hero. There is a blurring of lines as it were, as it is in the political class.
In cinema of late, villainy has become associated with Muslim characters, who are all supposed to be terrorists…
It all started with Roja. You have shown the South to be beautiful, chhoti si asha. As opposed to that is Kashmir. The [fearful] imaging of people with their flowing beards etc. This is representation of people, politics of cinema. Those days everyone was talking about the film. Middle class hero was Mani Rathnam.
Fanaa, Kurbaan are love jihad.
Gabbar ke baad koi villain aaya hai kya? Or Mogambo. They were non-threatening. Now it’s about villains being right in the midst of us. It could be your cigarette shop owner, anyone.
Any film where you have found Muslims to be normal? Where there have been no stereotypes?
Pyaasa of course. Then there is 3 Idiots. One of them is Muslim but his religious identity is not foregrounded. It happens usually with Muslims and Christians, their religious identity gets foregrounded. He is an IT guy who drinks. The caps, sherwanis, garara, sharara, the aadabs. Who does that?
Coming back to Hitler, one is told that he was a great film buff…
He had massive connect with cinema. He understood the role of mass media back then. It was both at political and personal levels. He had a thirst for films, used to ask for them, keep viewing them. He saw King Kong lifting the white woman and found that unacceptable. He liked Mickey Mouse kind of characters. These are supposed to be apolitical films. But he realised their potential.
He used to watch Hollywood and commented on what German films should imbibe from them. That they should be subtle, not preachy. He exploited radio to the hilt. When I started my study, I had never realised his tremendous affinity towards films. Now I do.
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)