In every theatre showing Adipurush, said to be based on the Ramayana, one seat has been kept reserved for Hanuman. No news yet whether he has flown down and made an appearance at any of these cinemas, but the general audience certainly stayed away. By all accounts, the film, meant to be a grand spectacle, has flopped.
Adipurush is just one more of those films that aim to fit in with the Hindutva narrative. Saffron flags, invocation of ‘enemies of the nation’ and so on are common themes in such productions. Whether they tell contemporary stories (The Kashmir Files) or historical ones (Samrat Prithviraj, Tanhaji), some features are common — twisting the facts to victimise or valorise Hindus and show all Muslims as villainous. Some mangling of history is part of the mix. The Kerala Story shamelessly used a fictitious figure, stating that 32,000 women from the state were brainwashed into joining Islamic State, till the filmmaker was challenged, upon which he quietly reduced the number to three! The same tendency to be economical with the truth applies to the so-called ‘historical’ stories, where the vanquished become the victors, no matter what the history books say. They either do this out of conviction or, more likely, are exploiting what they see as a market trend.
While the film industry always likes to cash in on a trend, it really recognises only one metric to measure if a film works or not — box office results. Many of these Hindutva-oriented films have raked it in, which no doubt has prompted other filmmakers to jump in. But for every The Kashmir Files that scored big time, there are many more that just collapsed, leaving the public underwhelmed. Samrat Prithviraj was a complete disaster, adding to the string of flops delivered by Akshay Kumar, who has been trying to showcase his nationalistic chops.
And now, Adipurush, which should have been a hit in a country where everyone is familiar with the Ramayana, has proved to be a flop. Taran Adarsh, a box office analyst, tweeted that it was an “an EPIC DISAPPOINTMENT”. Turns out that while Indians know the epic and while the ruling dispensation has done its best to turn Rama into an all-India deity, filmgoers do not want to see tacky special effects, cheap dialogues and a story told badly.
Not only did word get out that it is a poorly made film, it also annoyed all manner of people. Nepal was angry that Sita was called a daughter of India, while they claim she hails from Nepal, and the film was banned in the country. The chief priest of Ayodhya demanded that it be banned because it did not represent Ram and others correctly. And audiences in general have found the dialogues cheesy. Barely one week into the film’s release, the writer Manoj Muntashir Shukla said he would change some lines. Clearly, far from pleasing Hindutva loyalists, it has annoyed not just viewers but also Hindu priests. It takes a special skill to put off exactly the target group you want to please.
Ironies apart, what this shows that joining the herd does not work for everyone. At some stage, the law of diminishing returns sets in. At the end of it all, audiences want an entertainer and they rush to see their favourite stars on the screen, whatever their religion. Shah Rukh Khan’s film Pathaan was subjected to all kinds of propaganda, subtle and blatant. Dipika Padukone’s saffron outfit, which she wore for sexy and provocative dances, was criticised for being an affront to Hindu tradition. The filmmakers stood their ground and the film went on to become the biggest commercial hit ever. Samrat Prithviraj was advertised as a saga of the last Hindu Samrat. What could be more in-your-face? It crashed and burned.
Adipurush is crude and tacky and its villain, Lankesh, a version of Ravan, happens to be played by a Muslim, Saif Ali Khan. And yet, the viewers haven’t bothered to see this crass symbolism and rejected it. Hindutva signalling has not saved the film, and nor has Hanuman.