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Almost universally in the postcolonial world, the patriotic film genre is loved and makes money. Nationalism, indeed, is an entertainment favourite – featuring a gratuitous nostalgia of violence, a fervent love for the nation-state, and celebrity power – fashioned by [real or imagined] digital technology in an arms race. 

In India, cinema is one of the centres of community life. Storytelling in general – in bioscopes, transistor radios, television, and the cinema – is a respite from the everyday mundane. Bollywood, India’s largest film industry, based in the western metropolis of Mumbai, offers a 2 billion populated nation where two-thirds live in poverty1, a taste of glitz and glamour most of its citizens will never be able to afford. Post freedom from British colonisation in 1947, Bollywood has offered Indians a share of captivating love stories, a sprinkle of [hetero] sexual desire, and a chance at building a collective consciousness on shared truths about our history of fighting the British Empire.

1942: A Love Story

Movies depicting the Indian struggle for freedom, such as 1942: A Love Story (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1994) and The Legend of Bhagat Singh (Rajkumar Santoshi, 2002) have always been immensely popular, and despite being decades old, continue to be popular watches, especially on Independence Day and Republic Day in India. Since 2014, when the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, Bollywood cinema has taken a sharp turn to religious fanaticism and Islamophobia that is subtly [yet coercively] shaping a violent, exclusionary national public consciousness.2

LOVE AND THE NATION-STATE

The national borders of India were drawn in tandem with religious separatism. During India’s Independence from British colonisation in 1947, the British Empire drew the borders of India as a nation-state, separating the Dominion into three different nation-states – East Pakistan [Pakistan, since 1971] and West Pakistan [now Bangladesh, since 1971], separated in the middle by India. Pakistan and Bangladesh were both meant to be theocratically Muslim nation-states, and India the Hindu one, although India constitutionally chose to remain secular since it became a republic in 1951. The Partition of India (1947-48) was a mass displacement of nearly 14 million refugees who moved across territories drawn to fit their religious identities, under fear of persecution and loss of life.3 Families were separated, love stories left incomplete, and people fled and resettled in the hope of easier lives. Millions were killed in the exodus.

Veer Zara

These love stories, the ones torn apart by the violence of the border, make for good cinema. Bollywood has a long history of movies where a Hindu and a Muslim person fall in love with each other under abusive circumstances from families, communities, and the India-Pakistan border. Veer Zaara (Aditya Chopra, 2004), is synonymous with the ultimate star-crossed lovers story – where Indian Air Force pilot Veer falls in love with a lively Pakistani woman, Zaara, and separated by decades, accidents, and borders with sad songs and intense dialogues à la Bollywood, finally reunite and live together. Veer Zaara was a groundbreaking film in Bollywood’s archive of secular cinema, where love is tasked with serving the political purpose in reuniting people displaced and divided by the border. Unlike in war, you don’t root for India or Pakistan in the movie, you root for the lovers.

In Filming the Line of Control: The Indo-Pak Relationship through the Cinematic Lens, Meenakshi Bharat and Nirmal Kumar (2012)4 position Veer Zaara as a film that is secular, and is able to “overcome a phobia of Pakistan”, and move beyond a lens of war, death and separation that is more common in India-Pakistan stories. Veer Zaara stands out in a long line of films where “love finds a way” in Bollywood, and where the violence of the Partition is a hurdle that is overcome, by love. For a country whose borders were drawn along religious lines, India’s constitutional guarantee of secularism was more of a dream – the fulfilment of which was designed to be a national duty. People line up to watch movies in India, cinema unites us – we cheer for characters and root for them as though they were one of our own. Our duty of secular projection thus came to be fulfilled by ambitious Bollywood cinema – love story and all. 

Historian Ernest Renan (2011)5 defines a nation as a spiritual principle of solidarity, that exists as long as the people within it are perpetuating it. Postcolonial nation-states are often multi-ethnic and diverse, and people’s principles of solidarity with their own community is often inspired and strengthened by antagonism and animosity with ‘other’ communities. Groups within a nation-state are bound to have conflicting recollections of their pasts that they hold on to and hand down to their descendants, and culturally achieving a homogenous principle of solidarity becomes nearly impossible without coercion and violence. 

Bollywood, post-Independence, took it upon themselves to build the collective memory of the Indian national consciousness as secular. It is profoundly beautiful [and a little naive] to believe that love solves everything in a country plagued by religious violence. Especially post-9/11, progressive filmmakers within Bollywood responsibly made movies like My Name Is Khan (Karan Johar, 2010) , which is a heartbreaking depiction of the suspicions that a Muslim man was subject to at work, education, and border security, in the aftermath of 9/11. The film is held together by a single, desperate refrain from its protagonist, Rizwan Khan – an autistic, Muslim man:

My name is Khan, and I’m not a terrorist. 

Rizwan is played by Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s most globally famous stars, and Bollywood’s favourite success story of a Muslim man who started without nepotism and glamour, and made it big as one of the cinema’s biggest heroes of all time. Of My Name is Khan, SRK said, most articulately, “It’s about a relationship between two people, and between an individual and a country. It has three components: a love story, Islam, and [..] autism”.6

My Name is Khan

To an extent, Bollywood’s love stories were successful in positing a secular teleology for India, nurturing our collective memories to take pride in our diversity and to cinematically develop a collective consciousness that is more progressive and accepting than the violent past that was handed down to us. For an industry most famous for its affinity for romance, Bollywood’s progressive film houses, like Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions, led to many, many films that romanticised love stories from different religious and ethnic backgrounds where love makes it, against all odds. It is interesting to note that the sentiment in these films are often “They are in love, and that’s all that matters”, rather than – we should reckon with our political history, and not harm marginalised people. It’s almost as though a successful, heterosexual love story is an uncompromisable part of India’s projection of religious harmony. 

In PK (Rajkumar Hirani, 2013), the titular character is an extraterrestrial alien from a different planet, who comes to India and gets lost – and loses a dear friend to religious violence. He seeks to find the truth behind India’s various religious groups, leading to comically sad moments of confusion and revelations about deep theological questions such as this line from one of the songs in the film:

Jo bhi rasmein hain wo saari main nibhata hoon
in karodon ki tarah main sar jhukaata hoon
Bhagwan hai kahaan re tu?

Translation:
I fulfil all the rituals,
And bow down to you, like millions,
[But] God, where are you?

The focal point of this film, too, apart from theological reckonings of India’s religious diversity, is a misunderstanding between a Pakistani Muslim man and an Indian Hindu woman, who find each other in the end, and live happily ever after. Repeatedly, secular storytellings of Bollywood revolve around successful love stories of heterosexual characters – dead or alive, although over time, the industry’s depiction of religious turmoil got more, and more courageous. The songs, which are the biggest parts of the Bollywood experience, are released as albums, and are sung and danced to at Independence Day and Republic Day parades and festivals, and in progressive circles, there remained constant a celebration of India’s harmony despite it all. 

Films like Veer Zaara, and My Name Is Khan, gained international popularity, with screenings worldwide grossing millions of dollars. Grappling with difficult themes did not take away from their global commercial popularity, but also worked to position postcolonial India as a harmonious, secular place where research, art, and business thrived. A secular film industry spoke on panels in Cannes and Paris, and globally, Bollywood came to be known as a powerhouse industry with romance at its centre, even from a country that is generally considered quite conservative.

THE PIVOT AWAY FROM SECULARISM

Since 2014, after the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – under Prime Minister Narendra Modi – was elected to power in the Indian Federal Government, there has been a new wave of Hindu supremacism and Islamophobia, popularly known as the ‘saffron wave’. Saffron is a sacred colour for Hindus – and efforts to Hindu-ise India’s barely secular consciousness, the saffron wave, is creating ripple effects that extend to all facets of India’s political economy and society. Bollywood’s saffron wave comes in the wake of the Modi Government’s inimitable efforts of ethnic cleansing, characterised by media censorship, nationalist concentration camps, and silencing of even Bollywood’s most powerful celebrities, should they be critical of the government.

Lagaan

PK’s protagonist is played by Aamir Khan, whose filmography often grapples with political sentiments about marginalised people – like disability in Taare Zameen Par (2007), colonisation and race in Lagaan (2001), and religious harmony in PK (2013). Just after PK’s release and commercial and critical success, Khan, who is culturally Muslim, and was the face of Incredible India! – India’s national tourism campaign, said in an interview that he was alarmed by the ‘rising intolerance’ in the country post the election of the BJP government, and that his wife had suggested moving away to raise their child. The interview was about a movement of progressive filmmakers, writers, and academics returning national awards to the state after killing of rational thinkers MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare, and mob-lynchings of people suspected to have consumed beef (popular for Muslim people, and immoral in Hinduism). There was national furore about Khan’s comments, with many BJP spokespeople openly calling for Khan and his family, all Indian citizens, to be deported to [the Islamic Republic of] Pakistan.7 

Indian cinema personalities have an incredible amount of power over our public consciousness, higher than most politicians. Two-thirds of the Indian population lives in poverty, and the glamour in the lives of celebrities provides a passive respite to the people – an escapade of romance and splendour most of us never get to experience in real life. The character assassination of cinema personalities, therefore, occur in tandem with large, carefully planned, grotesque national campaigning, similar to that of a political personality. 

Other filmmakers/actors who have commented on the rising religious intolerance in India have faced public vilification, bounties placed over their heads8, and national outcry and threats of rape and death to their friends and family. There is now, obviously, more fear in the film industry for their lives and livelihoods, leading to an increasing uptake of movies that now glorify war and nation-building in not so secular ways. Bollywood, after all, is one of India’s biggest global industries, with a 139 billion rupees revenue reported per year (as of 2020)9. To understand the impact of the rising saffron wave washing over the thematic aesthetics of Bollywood cinema, it is imperative to evaluate Bollywood as a political economy that governs the industry’s production and critical episteme. 

Bollywood, studied as an industry, is just another culture industry, producing and (re)producing content for profit. In The Dialectics of Enlightenment, post-war critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944)10 posited upon analysing mass culture in contemporary society, that the culture industry works to extinguish the revolutionary potential of the masses, and offer them brief, superficial respites from the stresses of life [under capitalism]. Bollywood as an entertainment industry works as this respite to a country that is grappling with postcolonial grief, food insecurity and economic injustice. Like any other industry, Bollywood is centred on churning profit, and hence (re)produces a lot of similar movies with predictable plots that make good respite watches. Like most cultural (re)production, as Pierre Bourdieu recalls in Distinction, the Bollywood cinema is produced in tandem with the tastes of the dominant class of society. Reflective of the dominant class in Indian society as how the average Joe [but this is India, so an average Rahul] thinks, Modi-era Bollywood is increasingly producing hypernationalist machismo to suit the tastes of the country’s viewership and netizens – partly in fear of BJP-supported vitriol, and partly to keep turning around revenue. 

The celebration of national pride as a motif works to create what Adorno and Horkheimer theorised as ‘passive, homogenised audiences’ that consume media uncritically – and idealise the respites depicted with cinematic splendour. Biopics come with a promise of being ‘based on true events’, and with some truths and many lies, paint a picture of the ideal man as a patriot who sacrifices himself for the country, and the ideal woman a submissive woman who mourns him dutifully, forever. The national consciousness is renewed and built on these ideals – like in the recent Shershaah (Vishnuvardhan, 2021), a biopic on Captain Vikram Batra who dies in the Indo-Pak Kargil War, and his love story with his girlfriend, Dimple, who never married after his martyrdom. This is a real story, yes, but the cinematic retelling must unmistakably be read within India’s current political climate of fervent nationalism. Any ordinary viewer would empathise with the late Captain and his girlfriend, but instead of blaming the violence of the border for the war, martyrdom, and romantic grief, will be lauded by the visuals to focus their hatred on Pakistani soldiers. Most viewers watch movies for entertainment, for a respite from their everyday slog – and the passive consumption leads to an uncritical fortification of empathy with nationalists/patriots, and a desire to vilify any “other”. Usually, this “other” is Muslim.11

THE AESTHETICS OF NATIONALISM IN THE BJP ERA

Since 2014, an overwhelming number of films with similar nationalist aesthetics have been produced. In 2016, India’s favourite patriotic actor, Akshay Kumar, starred in Airlift, depicting a Kuwait-based businessman’s journey of evacuating Indians during the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. Airlift was the pivotal start of a fleet of movies that placed Hindu Indians as ‘goodwill ambassador-esque’ characters that save people from bad circumstances, usually caused by Muslim perpetrators.

Airlift

An interesting study in this teleology of BJP-era patriotism, is Anurag Singh’s Kesari (2019), based on true events. Apart from its title literally meaning ‘saffron’, a signal to the sacred colour for Hinduism symbolising purity, its pivotal characters are actually Sikh people – a minority religious group that have faced genocide under the Indian state (in 1984),12 and were significantly defamed as a group by the Indian state during the farmer’s protests in 2020-21. The valour of Sikh people is often romanticised in Bollywood’s retelling of Indian history as a projection of some semblance of religious unity – but the antagonist of the films remain Muslim people.

Kesari

Notably, in Kesari, even the British colonisers are portrayed with positive validation – a sharp antithesis from Bollywood’s usual nation-building sentiments of the Indian freedom struggle, which all at least universally agree on British colonisers as the antagonists. Kesari also still has a heterosexual affair at its centre, but the ultimate love is of the nation-state and its paraphernalia – romantic love is easily sacrificed to the country, and love no longer finds a way, amidst fervently patriotic song lyrics:

Aye meri zameen afsos nahi

Jo tere liye sau dard sahe

Mehfooz rahe teri aan sada

Chaahe jaan meri yeh rahe na rahe

Translation:
Oh country, I have no regrets,

For suffering that is for you,

I hope your honours lives on,

Whether my life does, or not. 

Slowly, and steadily, whether the films are about the past or the present, whether they are biopic or fictional, mainstream Bollywood’s vilification of Islam and Muslim people, is getting bolder. Crucial in this episteme is Aditya Dhar’s Uri: A Surgical Strike (2019), a film that in five chapters tells the story of Pakistan’s attacks on Indian military camps on the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and India’s subsequent revenge. The chapter that depicts Pakistan’s attack is titled Bleed India With A Thousand Cuts, and the subsequent revenge is titled Naya Hindustan (A New India). Striking is the use of Hindustan (the land of the Hindus) as India’s Hindi name, rather than the more common, and the nationally formal name: Bharat. The ‘new India’ is a progressive heuristic – soldiers are planning and training for a covert operation, showing that their valour and machismo is not to be ‘underestimated’. Based on true events of a surgical strike that was front and centre of Modi’s successful re-election campaign in 2019,13 this movie’s purpose is to position India as an army to be reckoned with. Shortly after, the BJP government passed an overnight bill to take away autonomous protections from India’s only Muslim-majority state – Jammu and Kashmir, and effectively occupy the autonomous territory with coercive internet shutdowns and military violence.14 Frequently, young people are arrested in the Kashmir Valley under suspicions of ‘supportive Pakistan’ – even in cricket matches.15 You are no longer rooting for love, you are rooting for a side, and you had better root for India.

Uri: A Surgical Strike

In 2022, Hindu-nationalist director Vivek Agnihotri made Kashmir Files, a fictional drama that incorrectly presents the exodus of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits as a genocide, recasts established history, and vilifies young journalists and student union activists that are fighting the Indian nation-state’s Islamophobia. Despite drawing widespread criticism for promoting conspiracy theories, as of only April 2022, the film grossed US $45 million worldwide, and became India’s highest grossing film of 2022 [yet].16 In theatres across India, showings of Kashmir Files incited Islamophobic hate speech, including calls for genocide against Muslim people.17 Prime Minister Modi, of course, praised the movie for ‘highlighting history’ – an attempt to create the spiritual principle of solidarity of the Indian collective consciousness as not just “India loving”, but actively Muslim hating.

WHERE’S THE TREND GOING, AND WHAT DOES IT SAY?

Bollywood is one of the world’s biggest film industries, and enjoys a wide global viewership. A sharp pivot from the secular nature of many of our inter-religious love stories, religious difference is mostly depicted as antagonistic now – positioning us as a country that is deeply Islamophobic in its global image and foreign policy. Antithetically to the erudite, secular image our postcolonial cinema tried to project, Bollywood’s renewed obsession with war, arms-based superiority, and patriotic carnage is intentionally projecting an image that India is an intolerant nation: almost like a warning. 

The Bollywood industry[-al complex?] is not lying anymore. It is not even trying to project a progressive, secular image, or even being subtle about India’s Hindu-supremacist tendencies. Bollywood is one of the instruments loudly proclaiming to the world that India is drawing inspiration from Hindu-nationalist traditions, and is also motivated towards an ethno-religious future that is marked by technology, innovation and scientific progress that will leave behind and decimate our religious minorities.

Kashmir Files

It is a bit of a loop – the Indian nation-state is trying to go back to the past and rewrite it, and also simultaneously writing a present that is innovative and futuristic, and development that is technocratic and arms-based. Similar, very, to the 1980s American strategy of soft-power depictions of war and carnage as the USA’s arms race flex, India’s image is being choreographed by mainstream Bollywood to position India as no longer a country characterised by slums, poverty, and sexual violence. Instead, India’s image is being actively shown as grenades and fighter planes, to inspire a foreign policy characterised by fear. Desperate refrains from Muslim people are no longer featured in Bollywood cinema, and go unheard [or voyeuristically mocked] during mob lynchings on streets.18

As the Modi Government targets Muslim refugees and builds concentration camps and detention facilities, Bollywood glitter and glamour is being washed over by the Saffron Wave. In turn, it is washing over the real and bitter truth of India’s Hindu-nationalist [public and foreign] policy with a patriotic machismo that is tasked to build a nation whose collective memory erases and forgets its “others” – in film, and then in real.

Out of sight, out of mind, in detention, in graves. 

Endnotes

  1. Poverty in India Statistics 2021-2022, The Global Statistics
  2. Sikata, Banerjee, Gender, Nation and Popular Film in India (London: Routledge, 2017).
  3. Romila Thapar, A History of India (Melbourne: Penguin Books Australia, 1990)
  4. Meenakshi Bharat and Nirmal Kumar, Filming the Line of Control: The Indo-Pak Relationship through the Cinematic Lens (New Delhi: Routledge India, 2007)
  5. Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation?” in The Collective Memory Reader, in J K Olick, V Vinitzky-Seroussi, and D Levy, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 80-83.
  6. Shah Rukh Khan, Interview with Afsana Ahmed (Mumbai, 9 August 2009)
  7. Aamir Khan: India Bollywood actor stands by intolerance remark’, BBC News, 25 November 2015
  8. DH Web Desk, ‘I am receiving death threats, says actor Siddharth alleging Tamil Nadu BJP leaked his phone number’, Deccan Herald, April 29, 2021
  9. Tanushree Basuroy, ‘Box office revenue for the Indian film industry from financial year 2010 to 2020, with estimates until 2022’, Statista, Mar 14, 2022
  10. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (California: Stanford University Press, 1944)
  11. Farhat Basir Khan, ‘Pigeons and Painters: Othering of Muslim Identity in Hindi Cinema’, International Journal of Advanced Research in Science and Engineering, Issue 11 (November 2017), p. 2217- 2225.
  12. India: No Justice for 1984 Anti-Sikh Bloodshed’, Human Rights Watch, October 29, 2014
  13. Balakot: India Airstrikes target militants in Pakistan’, BBC News, 26 February 2019
  14. Jon Lunn, ‘Insights: Kashmir: The effects of revoking Article 370’, House of Commons, United Kingdom Parliament, 8 August 2019
  15. Kashmir men spend over 100 days in jail for cheering Pakistan win, AlJazeera, 16 February 2022
  16. Bollywood Hungama, The Kashmir Files Box Office, 2022.
  17. The Kashmir Files: Videos of Anti-Muslim Hate, Slogans in Theatres Go Viral, TheQuint, 21 March 2022
  18. Muslim Man dies after beaten for hours, forced to chant Hindu slogans’, ABC News, 25 Jun 2019

About The Author

Srishti Chatterjee is a Narrm-based writer and political organiser, currently writing a thesis at the School of Culture and Communications, The University of Melbourne. They research and write about liberation, citizenship, and technology, and can be found listening to Mitski, reading, and cooking big batches of food in their spare time.

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