Independence Day 2019: Kohram and the evolution of propaganda in Bollywood
Bollywood has always been keen to hop onto the propaganda gravy train, whether it’s with slickly-shot, crisply-edited products like Uri, or the relatively slapdash incompetence of a Kohram
By the time you’re reading this, Lata Mangeshkar will have been slicing through the air in your mohalla, loudspeakers blaring out ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’ even as a pair of hapless local netas figure the final pieces of the protocol puzzle before the inevitable jhandottolan (hoisting of the flag) brings traffic to a standstill at the chowk. As for your TV screens, expect, at various points of the day, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Border, or even Rang De Basanti these last few years (diffuse anarchy, it seems, is A-okay messaging, as long as nationalism envelopes it in the flimsiest of tortilla wraps).
This is because 15 August is the day when TV channels like to bring out the big guns — the cinema of jingoism/nationalism, of which the aforementioned films are prime examples. An important subset of this group is propaganda Bollywood, like the filmography of the Gujarati and Hindi-language director Mehul Kumar, who delivered three such hits (all starring Nana Patekar) in the 1990s —Tirangaa (1992), Krantiveer (1994) and his magnum opus, Kohram, which released exactly 20 years ago, on Independence Day 1999. Adjusted for inflation, these films earned close to 70, 120, and 100 crores on the box office, respectively.
Kohram, which starred both Nana Patekar and Amitabh Bachchan as super-soldiers, essentially, represents peak propaganda Bollywood. And if you look closely at just what was going on in this shrill 90s potboiler, you’ll understand the various mechanisms at the disposal of Propaganda Bollywood.
The sons of Genghis Khan
Kohram begins by informing you that the film is dedicated to the martyrs of Kargil — circa August 1999, of course, we were just one month into India and Pakistan calling time on that particular conflict. The disclaimer (or public service announcement), however, was not just about the timing. It also served to clearly demarcate the heroes and the villains. The film’s opening scene sees Colonel Balbir Singh Sodhi (Bachchan) carrying out an unsuccessful assassination attempt on a bigwig politician Virbhadra Singh aka Raja Saheb (Danny Denzongpa), who we later learn is part of the PM’s Cabinet. Col. Sodhi supposedly dies while being chased by security forces. Now there are two reasons why this scene, despite its unintentionally hilarious air of high intrigue, cannot be taken at face value — first, we know that a Bachchan character cannot die this early in the piece and second, circa 1999 we knew that a Bachchan character cannot — will not — be a common assassin, or worse, a deshdrohi, a traitorous soldier. Ergo, Raja Saheb must be the evil, soul-sucking, corrupt-as-hell neta — in other words, the standard pantomime politician-villain of Mehul Kumar movies (both Tirangaa and Krantiveer had, by then, already set the tone on this).
In just the second scene, we are introduced to the film’s other Big Bad — Gafoor Changezi (Mukesh Rishi), the leader of an unspecified terrorist cell planning a series of brutal attacks across Kashmir and the Indian mainland. This scene is to be savoured, for although 90s Bollywood is strewn with exposition-as-dialogue, where else will you find terrorists referring to themselves as ‘terrorists’, loudly and repeatedly? Or indeed, supposedly Kashmir-based terrorists wearing headdresses that look…distinctly Arab? The reason, of course, is to push the idea of a unified, global ‘Islamic terrorism’ spreading its tentacles in Kashmir — also, the falsehood that ‘Taliban elements’ ie well-funded outsiders (from Pakistan, Afghanistan etc) are the ones taking up arms against the Indian state (as opposed to the Kashmiri people themselves, who’re presumably busy serving Roohafza to a foreign army that has occupied their homeland for a zillion years)
The terrorist-in-chief, of course, had to be ‘Changezi’, ie a descendant of Genghis or Changez Khan, ancestor of the Mughals, the primordial Darth Vader figure of Hindutva narratives everywhere — with this simple act of nomenclature, Mehul Kumar draws a straight line of Muslim barbarism throughout Indian history. Changez Khan begets Mughals begets Islam-in-India begets terrorism in Kashmir — this is a simple, concise, WhatsApp-friendly story. Oh, and just in case the connection is unclear, Changezi ends this scene with a typically bombastic proclamation: “Shehnaaiyon ke sur is Changez Khan ki aulaad ko acchhe nahi lagte!” (“This spawn-of-Changez-Khan hates the sound of shehnais!”), following which his cohorts gun down scores of people at a Hindu wedding.
Masked face/warrior race
To fight the marauding Mughals, veritable spawn-of-Changez-Khan, who better than the Rajputs and the Sikhs? Both were prominent inclusions on the ‘warrior races’ list prepared by the British after 1857. And so we have Major Ajit Arya (Nana Patekar) declaring, before as he executes a terrorist who’s begging for his life, “Rajput kabhi dushman ko bakshtaa nahi hai” (A Rajput never spares his enemy). His Sikh counterpart is, of course, Col. Balbir Singh Sodhi (Bachchan) and their superior officer, General Bedi (Kabir Bedi, who has a lot of fun with his Punjabi lines here).
As we learn soon enough, the Rajput and the Sikh warriors have alter egos. Following the botched assassination of Raja Saheb, Col. Sodhi is on the run and suspected to have taken on the persona of Devinder ‘Hathaudaa’ (the Hindi word for ‘hammer’) aka ‘Dada Bhai’, a loud, buffoonish but also Robin Hood-like figure originally hailing from Uttar Pradesh — Bachchan, of course, slips into his native Awadhi here with gusto. Major Arya, meanwhile, has been tasked with bringing Dada Bhai/Col. Sodhi to justice. He disguises himself as a Bengali journalist called — wait for it — ‘BBC’, which stands for Basu Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya (after Jyoti Basu and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya, presumably the two most famous Bengalis Mehul Kumar had heard of, excluding Sourav Ganguly, of course). BBC is longhaired, sways nonstop while talking, and has the stereotypically ‘effeminate’ hand gestures that every 90s Bollywood aficionado has seen before.
These caricatures are instructive because of what they reveal about the makers’ worldview. The Bengali man is effeminate and a coward. He is, therefore, unfit for combat or other manly work, and is relegated to the arts, things deemed fit only for women — painting, music or as in BBC’s case, writing/photography. The man from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar is loud, has no manners or etiquette (much is made of Dada Bhai loudly slurping tea from a saucer, even as BBC/Arya watches in bhadraloki horror) and is a bit of an oaf in general.
It’s ironic that in doing so, Mehul Kumar is actually following the coloniser’s logic — reducing entire communities to a kind of dehumanizing eugenics shorthand. The British, after all, were the ones who came up with the effeminate-Bengali-man trope.
Denzongpa’s politician-villain here, Raja Saheb, is a kind of composite character, intended to feature bits and pieces of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi — 2 out of the 3 members of the Nehru-Gandhi family to hold the highest office in the country. We learn that he had orchestrated the fake kidnapping of his daughter in order to pressure the PM into releasing four of Changezi’s men, including his brother. We also learn that this and the murder of an army officer called Rathod (Jackie Shroff in a cameo) is why Col. Sodhi is after his blood.
The aforementioned political pressure is applied via Raja Saheb’s 30 MPs (members of Parliament) who can topple the narrow-majority coalition if his daughter doesn’t make it home alive. We see the PM appealing to Raja Saheb’s sense of patriotism, mentioning casually, “You come from an illustrious family of freedom fighters” a clear allusion to the Nehru-Gandhis. When his daughter finds out about the charade and threatens to expose him, Raja Saheb shoots her dead — a dog-whistle towards the conspiracy theory that Indira had her own son, Sanjay Gandhi, murdered. Finally, Raja Saheb is explicitly depicted as an incurable womaniser, surrounded by young women in skimpy clothes — this drew from the Sangh’s longstanding smear campaign about Jawaharlal Nehru being a ‘womaniser’.
It’s all about the timing
What lessons, then, did Mehul Kumar and Kohram teach the propaganda Bollywood films of the future? For starters, you can see the movie’s handprints in a modern-day propaganda film like Jai Ho (2014), the Salman Khan movie that basically steals Kohram’s plot wholesale. Jai Ho, too, features a corrupt Cabinet Minister orchestrating terrorists attacks for political leverage — once again played by Danny Denzongpa. Here, too, it’s a disillusioned ex-army man (Khan) who eventually brings him down. You can also see Kohram’s handprints in the Muslim-baiting rhetoric of films like A Wednesday, where Bad Muslims ™ are alluded to in the language of vermin and ethnic cleansing (“main apnaa ghar saaf karnaa chahta hoon” ie “I want to clean my house”, the righteous hero says).
But the most important lesson that Kohram taught these films was the language of immediacy — the importance of telling the right lie at the right moment in time. Consider August 1999, when Kohram was released. Militaristic chest-thumping was at an all-time high in India, following Kargil. Also, before Vajpayee became PM in March 1998, India had seen two consecutive Janata Dal/United Front governments led by HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujaral, respectively. These were basically coalitions controlled by several smaller parties across the nation, as opposed to Congress or BJP-dominated units. This development is alluded to and criticized in Kohram — because Raja Saheb can topple the government with a relatively small number of MPs (30), this ‘khichdi sarkaar’ (‘mash-up government’) is shown as the main reason why the politician-terrorist nexus thrives.
It doesn’t matter, for a propaganda film, whether this is actually true — the recentness of the ‘khichdi sarkaar’ phenomenon gives this scene a ‘surely-this-is-true’ halo. Modern-day films like Uri, for instance, have learnt this lesson well. Because it released so soon after the so-called ‘surgical strikes’, Uri could afford to tell its (fictional) story with one crucial advantage — because the real-world ‘surgical strikes’ allegedly happened so recently, even a fictional story around these events acquired the righteous glow of documented ‘truth’. It helped that the scaffolding was realistic — the actors playing Rajnath Singh, Manohar Parrikar et al are dead ringers.
All of which should convince you of one undeniable truth — Bollywood has always been keen to hop onto the propaganda gravy train, whether it’s with slickly-shot, crisply-edited products like Uri, or the relatively slapdash incompetence of a Kohram. The basic impulse remains the same, which is to make bucketfuls of money riding a wave of populist sentiment (adjusted for inflation, Kohram earned close to Rs 100 crore).
Beware, then, for last week it was confirmed that the movie title ‘Article 370’ has been quietly purchased by an enterprising Bollywood producer. One waits in shock and awe.
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