Bollywood has always looked to the newspaper headlines for ideas. Anything in the news is fair game and if it is buzzy enough, finds its way into films – it is an easy way to use a contemporary reference to connect with the audience.
For the most part, the films picked up on cues generated by the news environment – in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was about nation building, with several stories on the construction of dams etc. but also about cement hoarders. In the 1970s, the nation’s anger was articulated by Amitabh Bachchan’s on-screen persona. The 1980s saw vigilantism against corrupt politicians, and in the post-liberalisation phase, filmmakers realised they needed to appeal to NRIs and to the middle-classes who were getting seduced by consumerism – hence, designer clothes, designer holidays and designer emotions.
Now a new element has been introduced into films – a jingoistic fervour that coincides with not just the frenzied nationalism seen on social media and in certain sections of society but also synchronises well with the agenda of the government of the day.
There are many examples of this, but nothing as gratuitous – obscenely so – than the scene in Baaghi 2 in which our brave hero ties a Kashmiri to the bonnet of his jeep and uses him as a human shield. He does this because he is angry at the alleged desecration of the Indian flag. This, of course, references the notorious incident when Farooq Ahmad Dar was tied to an army jeep by an Indian army major. That incident was criticised widely, but once the Indian army gave a commendation card to Major Leetul Gogoi, who had committed the act, it got a quasi official endorsement, even praise.
For the story writers of Baaghi 2, this must have been enough to write that scene into the film – it would please the film-going public, the army and perhaps the people higher up. It would be good for box office prospects and most of all, they would be fulfilling their national duty.
Neo-nationalism Bollywood style takes several forms and shapes. At one end is the triumphalist narrative, showing bravery in the face of adversity, whether on the sports field – Sultan – or the battle ground, such as the forthcoming Parmanu, about the nuclear test by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1998.
There is also the historical film, a genre that in the past was always considered a costume drama and thus fell in the B-grade category. Now, stars are tripping over themselves to portray the great Indian heroes of the past who fought foreign rulers valiantly – for all its pretensions of being about the bravery of Rajput men, in the end Padmavaat was about the supreme sacrifice of Rajput women who jumped into the fire rather than submit to a crude Muslim ruler who naturally was shown as a man with perverse tastes.
Soon, Kangana Ranaut, brave warrior against Bollywood nepotism, will transform into Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and ride into battle against the East India Company’s troops. To get the blessings of the Rani, Ranaut visited the Manikarnika Ghat at Varanasi for photo ops that showed her praying in the river. Yet another photo op was a meeting with the prime minister. We await the film eagerly, but it is a safe bet that the flag of Hindustan will be waved most enthusiastically in the film.
The flag, of course, shows up in recent Hindi films in all kinds of situations – it even provided the rationale for Commander Rustom (Akshay Kumar) to kill his wife’s paramour, because the latter was actually a spy. Akshay Kumar is turning out to be the one-man do-gooder who promotes toilets (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha) and cheap, homemade sanitary pads for women (Padman), when he is not rescuing stranded Indians in Kuwait (Airlift). He will soon be seen in Gold, about India’s incredible hockey victory in the first post-independence Olympics in 1948.
Equally a model citizen is Ajay Devgn, who, as an IT officer, is so honest that he will not accept a drink or a meal from anyone, let alone a bribe. Naturally this angers the villain and he sends out a team to kill Devgn, who is saved by a special police team sent by the prime minister.
No surprises that both Kumar and Devgn have met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who would no doubt be quite impressed by their dedication to the national cause.
There are films that have a somewhat different take on current events too, such as Newton, about a bemused election official who goes to an area where Maoists operate. But they remain the ‘small’ films, indie projects that the high-wattage stars don’t work in. The star’s presence in a film does not just improve its commercial prospects and salability but also lends weight to the messaging. Few stars will want to be in a film that takes an off-centre or dissident view of national issues. Anything that smacks of politics in its widest sense, is off-limits for the big stars – the risks are too great. As for satire – forget it.
A new kind of ideal Indian is being created by mainstream, big budget Hindi cinema – one who is honest, patriotic, righteous to the point of sanctimony, concerned about social issues (which are in step with the government’s missions) and against anyone who is inimical to India that is Hindustan. He, and occasionally she, must bring home the medal, kill the enemy and fight all outsiders, whether they be Muslims or white-skinned colonialists.
Films like these were made in the past too, but either they were layered – such as the excellent Chak De! India, which explored the inner demons of a Muslim coach – or so full of commercial masala that they could not be taken seriously, like Mard, in which Bachchan fought the Englishman. Today, there is no room for angst or irony.
Not all films do well commercially, and the main objective of a producer is to make a lot of money; but it is disturbing to think that some of these ventures may actually reflect what the filmmakers believe in. The main character’s patriotism in Baaghi 2 could have well been shown without the scene of the Kashmiri being used as a human shield – the fact that it was, indicates that the writers and the director saw nothing wrong with it. More worryingly, the fact that the film has done well at the box office shows that the audience finds nothing wrong with it either.