What Lies Behind Bollywood's Latest Desire to Fly the Flag

There is more than just cynical commercial calculations at play: filmmakers appear to be not just pandering to changing audience tastes here but also trimming their sails to keep with the nationalist exhortations of the establishment.

In the first flush of freedom after 1947, Bombay’s filmmakers set out to explore themes of identity and nationhood. The approach was both romantic and questioning. Where Raj Kapoor resolutely sang, “Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani”, Guru Dutt asked, “Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Kahan Hain”. It was a time of grand Nehruvian ideas—unity in diversity, secularism, scientific temper and social equality and filmmakers were quick to pick up the cues. But in those gentler times, patriotism was benign, tempered with humanity-“Insaaf ki dagar pe, bachon dikhao chalke, yeh desh hai tumhara, neta tumhi ho kal ke.”

How things have changed since then.

Two big movies released last week, each different from the other like chalk and cheese. Mohenjo Daro is set in 2016 BCE and tells the story of a humble farmer who fights tyranny in an ancient civilisation and finds his true destiny. Rustom is inspired from the infamous Nanavati murder case of 1959, when a naval officer shot dead his wife’s lover. Yet, both have something in common – each filmmaker has contrived to slip in a dose of nationalism in their respective movies.

Hindi films usually paint in broad-brush strokes, leaving nothing to the viewer’s imagination. They not just make a point, they hammer it in. Bollywood loves nationalistic and patriotic themes, because it allows for bombastic dialogues and flag-waving; if there is an armed forces angle, even better.

Rustom has all of that and more. To begin with, it was a crime passionnel – there was plenty of drama in the story of a man killing another in a fit of rage and then in the court trial that followed. Add to that the intervention of a high-profile journalist and his tabloid, which rooted for the accused and a public mesmerised by the goings on in high society, and it makes for an interesting cinematic story by itself. But in keeping with the rising mood of nationalism in the country, the filmmaker could not resist bringing in a totally gratuitous angle of espionage against the nation into the film.

Commander Rustom Pavri (Akshay Kumar) is now no longer just an angry, cuckolded husband – he is a patriot. He is almost always shown in his uniform; his unsmiling visage shows that he means business and there is always a fluttering flag handy when he makes his entrance. The actor, who began his career with masala films heavy on action and then moved on to comedies, has been refashioning his persona – he has played a deshbhakt in films such as Baby, Airlift and now Rustom.

In Mohenjo Daro Ashutosh Gowariker has been more insidious in projecting the greater glory of Bharatvarsh. Historians have long argued that there is no provable link between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the Vedic Age that are separated by 2000 years. Hindutva votaries, bent upon creating the notion of a grand Indic civilisation rooted in Hindu values, have worked hard to debunk that theory. Every now and then, some piece of dubious research will emerge that seeks to create the myth of Hinduism being the oldest civilisational force in the world – appropriating Mohenjo Daro and Harappa is part of that effort.

Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro invokes those claims in a way that will appeal to the ordinary film goer – the use of horses in the film (there is no evidence that horses existed in Mohenjo Daro) or a heavily Sanskritised language, all of which feed right into Hindutva myth-making. (This story in The Wire explains the issue in more detail.)

The story itself is humdrum: a poor boy falls in love with a rich girl who is engaged to the brutish son of the cruel ruler – but it is the setting that makes it different from the run-of-the-mill Hindi film. The boy, bronzed, buffed up and light-eyed, is the epitome of the idealised (Aryan) man, bursting with righteousness and with a trident in his hand. In the end, he not only gets the girl but also leads his people to safety from floods (pralaya?)

Gowariker’s earlier outings, such as Lagaan and Swades, were charmingly told tales – the first was about a village’s resistance to taxes imposed by British colonials, using the device of a cricket match, while the second explored the idealism of a successful NRI scientist who returns to his village to give back to the motherland. With Jodha Akbar he strayed into pop history territory and with Mohenjo Daro, he has created the film version of Amar Chitra Katha, albeit on a more impressive scale.

The prime consideration for every Hindi film producer is box office success – he is quick to spot trends and if nationalism works, he is happy to offer it to the viewers. Films that valorise our brave soldiers are made by the dozen. But lately, there is more than just cynical commercial calculations at play: filmmakers appear to be not just pandering to changing audience tastes here and especially among the jingoistic diaspora, but also trimming their sails to keep with the nationalist exhortations of the establishment. The ultra-nationalism being purveyed by not just the Sangh parivar but also the government – its fortnight-long celebration of deshbhakti to ‘inculcate the spirit of patriotism among citizens’ is the latest example), the constant invocation of Bharat mata, the condemnation of dissenters as anti-nationals; the media is already intoxicated by this heady brew and it was only a matter of time before it found its way into popular culture.

Whether it is out of conviction or expediency cannot be said for sure, but the signals emanating from the ruling dispensation have been clearly heard and understood. The appointment of a Pahlaj Nihalani to the Central Board of Film Certification and the problems faced by some filmmakers is a strong warning to not stray too far into controversial territory. Most will play safe, a handful will continue fighting the system but there will always be a few who will go that extra mile to incorporate messages that are pleasing to the ears of the current leadership.

Ultimately, however, it is the story telling that counts. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, in which Salman Khan played a Hanuman bhakt who ventures into Pakistan to take a Pakistani girl back to her family, brought humanity into the role; in lesser hands it could have descended into cheap patriotism. Audiences can see through sham and will not be impressed by a film simply because the flag is waved energetically or paeans are sung to the glory of ancient India. A big commercial flop or two and the industry will swerve back to making its masala films.