In October 2014, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation, Haider, hit screens across India. A sharply-written visual delight of a film, it displayed a more mature dimension of Bhardwaj’s love for Shakespeare. In many ways, purely in terms of narrative flow, it almost seemed to ‘fix’ the original. (Think of when the ‘ghost’ first makes an entrance, in the play and in the film; the impact made by the film is so much greater.)
A curious common criticism of Haider was about how it was an anti-India film. The film was driven by beautifully-etched characters, used a real world socio-political setting and was based on a stellar Shakespearean tragedy. If anything, it should have been hailed as a film India could be proud of globally.
Yet, the reaction to it pointed to the fact that the definition of patriotism and nationalism in our cultural discourse was beginning go askew. Making a great piece of art is no service to the nation, it began to seem, if the art even marginally appeared to criticise the nation.
Cut to 2016, and you might notice how so many commercial films play on the patriotism card in some way or the other today. This is especially a difficult conversation to have on Independence Day, when the patriotic fervour is at its maximum.
Love for one’s countrymen was the primary message of Airlift, for instance. When I wrote about Airlift, the most significant kind of comment on that piece was about how Akshay Kumar is a ‘patriotic Hindu superstar’ who is going to ‘teach the Saudi-funded Khans a lesson’.
(Of course, that kind of vitriol descends from nationalism to outright lunacy; but it gave a clear indicator of the direction in which the populist thought was headed.)
More recently, Super Star Rajinikanth graced us with his presence in Kabali — a film whose core message is about the plight of migrant workers abroad. Again, the nationalist sentiment recurred through the film, depicting Kabali as the saviour of Indian pride. (The main villain in the film? A Chinese man named Tony Lee. Go figure.)
Not that Thalaiva would ever do anything in a manner that isn’t high-octane, but even by those standards, the chest-thumping nationalism of Kabali was a tad much. In Neruppa Da, that soul-searing song glorifying Kabali, a significant portion of the song is spent inspiring, nay, exhorting people to borderline violence, to ensure the nation’s pride spreads the world over. (It is this violent streak that is coming to be associated with ‘patriotism’, which truly seems to be the problem.)
Recent action films like Baaghi and Dishoom attempted to blend in a patriotic message where they could. Baaghi had Tiger Shroff get into elaborate physical combat with a Chinese character, the last link in a long chain leading up to the main villain. When he decimates him eventually, Tiger quips about how Indians are better than Chinese ‘maal’ or something to that effect. (China is a softer target these days than Pakistan, it seems; until they get wind of this.)
Dishoom, on the other hand, actually opened with a song that had the lyrics ‘mere India ko bura kaha, toh dishoom’. (If you abuse my India, I’ll beat you up). Not to mention how the film keeps showing John Abraham and Varun Dhawan consistently twist or disregard the law in a foreign land as per their convenience, on their mission to save Bharat’s pride, cricketer Viraj Sharma. (Basically, if you love your country and can wear it on your sleeve, then it’s alright to be a law-breaking moron. Sound familiar?)
In fact, this facet — of violence being the best form of proving how much you love your country — manifested itself into at least three films in the last couple of years with pretty much the same plot: D-Day, Baby and Phantom. All three films spoke about defying another country’s sovereignty and teaching ‘enemies of India’ a lesson.
Operation Neptune Spear, in which US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden, clearly led to Indian storytellers fantasising about such a possibility; even while so many drawing room conversations in India have revolved around the hope that India will do the same to its enemies. This new brand of patriotism is just the latest American import into India’s subconscious, it seems.
This emerging nationalist rhetoric is also the reason an unsellable (and mediocre) film like Buddha in a Traffic Jam finally managed to get a release, after so many years of being held up. With its paranoid declaration that any English-speaking liberal is a potential Naxalite, the film seemed to have the intention to fan a certain kind of flame or movement to weed out the anti-nationals. (It’s a different matter altogether that the film in question just didn’t have the logical, emotional or cinematic heft to do so.)
Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with being patriotic and loving your country, but it’s sad if good films get sidelined or attacked because they mirror what truly happens in society. For example, while Baaghi, Dishoom and Kabali may have tried to use the nationalist angle to score brownie points with the audience, the most patriotic film of the year has to be Udta Punjab, because it opened the country’s eyes to a genuine problem truly plaguing one of our great states.
Punjab’s drug problem is serious and widespread, and there could be no greater service to the country than showcasing something like this using the most popular medium of mass communication and entertainment in the country.
It’s alright to satiate our love for India with self-aggrandising discourse, but it’s time we learned that making a great film is an infinitely more useful thing for the country than making a film that cashes in on mindless sentiment of faux-patriotism to milk economic returns.
And if a film can constructively critique and talk about issues that need the nation’s urgent attention, then that is an infinitely greater sign of being in love with your country.
Needless to say, Jai Hind!