There was, some time ago, an interesting rhetorical exchange between President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India. Musharraf, responding to the possibility of escalated hostilities with India, displayed his machismo by declaring that he was not wearing bangles. Vajpayee responded that neither was he, and that Indians had a tradition of wearing the kada (a thick metal band). The reference to the kada is derived from the image of the macho ultra-patriotic Jat, a character played often by movie star Sunny Deol in a series of ultra-violent, ultra-nationalist Bollywood movies in the past few years. Is Sunny, the all-time macho hero in his new patriot avatar, drawing inspiration from these gentlemen; or is Sunny's on-screen bravado rubbing off them? The line between reel and real is fast disappearing, with political speeches seeming like dialogues from films, and films increasingly mimicking the postures of a jingoistic political discourse.
The revisionist writing of Indian history by Bollywood's peddlers of ultra-nationalism reached an apotheosis of sorts with the June 2002 release of Shaheed, 23rd March, 1931, one of a spate of recent films on Bhagat Singh, the martyred socialist revolutionary. In this movie, Sunny Deol, in the company of his brother Bobby, continues to bulldoze this violent brand of patriotism. In the hype surrounding the release, movie-jingoism reached new levels. Shaheed director Guddu Dhanoa denounced a rival Bhagat Singh film because it had a "Madrassi music director" (A.R. Rehman) and what would he know of the folk music of Punjab, which was necessary for the film's soundtrack. From comments like this it might appear that Bhagat Singh was a Punjabi folk hero rather than the communist revolutionary that he was.
The problem with making an ultra-nationalist movie on Bhagat Singh is that the character of Singh is simply unamenable to manipulation on a variety of fronts. For one, he was very articulate about his ideas, and wrote copiously while on death row. In addition, he was an avowed atheist, something that is unlikely to find favor with Hindutva votaries. Finally, he was a committed socialist, influenced deeply by the Bolshevik revolution, which was an inspirational event in the late 1920s, when he was an activist. The technique used in Shaheed 23 March, 1931 to deal with the uncomfortable issue of Bhagat Singh's politics is simple -- exorcise all references to Socialism; ignore the delineation of the political beliefs laid out in precise detail by Bhagat Singh and his comrades in their various documents; transform Bhagat Singh into a modern day action hero. The final result is that the man seems to be on a personal crusade or vendetta, rather than a quest for a socialist brand of freedom. Of course, the director was ably assisted by the Indian Censor Board in his task of bowdlerizing Bhagat Singh. The Censor Board demanded that all references to the Russian revolution be cut because even though it might be true that Bhagat Singh was influenced by the Russian Revolution, "why should we glorify Russia?" Indeed, it is painful to watch the filmi Bhagat Singh mouthing dialogues like "God is everywhere including inside us." Meanwhile the image of Mother India on the jail walls suspiciously resembles the Bharat Mata of the Sangh calendar. All complexities are ironed out to create a cardboard hero for uncritical consumption. How are we to remind ourselves that this is the same man who at the age of 22, while on death row, wrote a book titled Why I am an Atheist?
Shaheed follows in the tradition of a number of movies that were released in India in the past two years with ultra-nationalist themes. In 2001 the biggest blockbuster of the year was a movie called Gadar, with a similar patriotic (read anti-Pakistan) line. In addition, two recent movies, Indian and Maa Tujhe Salaam (MTS), were released that mimick Shaheed's anti-Pak hyperbole while seeking enemies from within the nation as a "natural" corollary. These films' very definition of the nation-state is premised on these "threats" to its existence. Both films make use of an identical slogan -- "Agar doodh mangoge, to kheer denge, agar Kashmir mangoge, to cheer denge." Ask for milk, and we will even give you kheer. Ask for Kashmir, and we will tear you apart.
The story of Indian is of a Police Officer, DCP Raj Shekhar Azad, who captures the dreaded Pakistani terrorist Waseem Khan. Here the hero's name allows him to stake a claim to the lineage of the "militant" freedom fighter Chandra Shekhar Azad and indeed, in the climactic moment of the film, as DCP Azad advances towards Waseem Khan to shoot him, he is transformed into Chandrashekhar himself. MTS is apparently a tale of cross-border terrorism set in mythical Jaunabad in Kashmir. Here the tyrannical feudal lord Lala is simultaneously terrorizing the locals and warring with the Indian army in his bid to declare Jaunabad "azad" (free), with a little help from his masters across the border. Of course, the reference to azad is a shorthand that many Indians understand. It stands in as a representation of Azad Kashmir, the name given by Pakistan to the part of Kashmir that is in their command. (The Indian side refers to it as Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir). The film thus offers simple solution to a crisis that is the dominant border dispute in India. The "Kashmir problem" is a result of evil men like Lala -- eliminate them and voila the problem is resolved! What MTS manages to do is to completely and magically occlude any reference to a movement -- even violent or unjustified -- of the Kashmiris. It could have been set in Shangri-La, so obscured is Kashmir in it, except as a stretch of land or territory.
The figure of the hero in both of the films symbolizes at once the nation and the national citizen. He is the 'The Indian' and embodies the qualities of the nation. The nation is like the hero -- trusting and naive, and has therefore been betrayed repeatedly. But there are no doubts that this Indian is a male subject. "Shall a son look on passively while his mother is being raped, will he seek permission from his father?" asks an impassioned Sunny Deol while beating a captive Waseem Khan in the police cell. Yet again, in MTS, Major Pratap Singh (Sunny Deol) "saves" the "honor" of a girl by covering her body with his shawl when the villain's men attempt to violate her. So what is new, one may ask. Hindi films have always depicted heroes rescuing women from the villainy of rapists. But this filmic rescue has the soundtrack of Vande Matram and Saare Jahan Se Acchha in the background. By employing this masculinist ideology of rape and retribution, it foregrounds the urgency of using extreme measures to combat the rapists who are defiling the virtue of mother/sister/nation.
Traditionally, mainstream Bollywood has reserved normalcy for the Hindu Hero while encoding minorities with signs of cultural exaggeration -- the drunken Goan, the God-fearing Muslim tailor, qawwaal or bawarchi, the comical Sikh taxi driver and so on. These characters are essential to complete the cinematic tableau of national integration -- much like the spectacle of happy dances from all over the country in the Republic Day parade. But a perceptible shift has occurred in films from the late 1980s through the turbulent 1990s and beyond -- that of deploying aggression as one of the defining characteristics of the minority community. So while earlier Muslims usually appeared in "character" roles such as the hero's friend or a childless man who had adopted the orphaned hero when he was young (Vidhaata, Amar Akbar Anthony) etc., by the 90s they were wearing the villain's boots -- underworld dons being a particular favorite. It is perhaps ironic that the silver screen, which seems at the moment obsessed by the theme of terrorism (invariably of the Islamic variety), is swamped by Muslim characters like never before. The casting of Muslims as terrorists is often balanced by the presence of a "nationalist Muslim" whose blood must be expiated as proof of his patriotism, for instance the character of Rahim in Indian, who dies while aiding the hero in his mission.
These Bollywood films establish the "war against terror" as a dharamyudh, or holy war. For instance, in Indian, Sunny Deol precedes the killing of Waseem Khan by murdering his father in-law, who had become the terrorist's accomplice. This slaughter is described and legitimated through the image of the killing of Kauravas by Arjun (it is not hatya but vadh). Al-Baksh the obligatory good-Muslim character in MTS perpetrates another stereotype by wearing the dress of a Rajput warrior going to the battlefield. He wears the tilak and proclaims, "Hindustan se gaddari karne walo ka rastaa seedhe kabristan jaata hai." (The path of those who betray India goes straight to the graveyard). Again, this is no innocent statement, and it is particularly ironic that a Muslim character is made to say it, for it recalls the chilling slogan that accompanied the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, "Musalmanon ke do hi sthan, Ya Pakistan ya Kabristan." (Only two places for the Muslims, Either Pakistan or the Graveyard). The real danger of these ultranationalist films lies precisely in their defense and legitimization of a brute police state, already a part of mainstream political commonsense. It makes laws like the recent Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA in India, and modeled after the Homeland Security Bill in the USA) "normal," and all dissent blasphemous.
Fortunately it appears that all is not totally lost with Bollywood. Pop patriotism might have been milked dry -- the disastrous run of some recent jingoistic films at the box office does not portend well for the spate of similar movies lined up for release. And Shaheed 23rd<$b$f"BodoniBE-Italic"> March, 1931 was not the only movie made on the life of Bhagat Singh. The Legend of Bhagat Singh, released on the same day as the Deol film, attempts a faithful recreation of the revolutionary's ideas. It traces the journey from his staunch Gandhian childhood, his disillusionment with Gandhi and Congress following the unilateral withdrawal of non-Cooperation, his move to anarchism, and gradually his commitment to building a Socialist party. The debate between the Congress and the Socialists about the concept of freedom is posited as a debate between two contending ideas of nation building. The film shows Bhagat Singh delineating his reasons for changing the name of his Party from the Hindustan Republican Army to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. The reasons are fleshed out in detail with Ajay Devgan playing Bhagat Singh and persuading his comrades that the transfer of power from the whites to the brown sahibs is not their goal: their aim is to end the exploitation of man by man through establishing Socialism. This depiction offers a stark contrast to the manufactured specter of "foreign" terrorism that lies at the heart of Bollywood's jingoistic drive.