Three Films and a Nation

The number of films on national figures like Gandhi, Ambedkar, Savarkar, and Bhagat Singh, as well as films like Lagaan and Gadar, in recent years point to an interest in revaluation and reinterpretation of history, especially that of the freedom struggle, in India. That this has happened in the last few years needs an explanation. No doubt, the calculations of the market, the perception of what will or will not work at the box office, largely determine trends in cinema. But also decisive are the dreams and fears, aspirations and anxieties of the people who are the consumers of these cinematic products. The last ten years have witnessed major changes in the economic and cultural landscape of the country, the changes that are likely to have influenced cinema in variety of ways. Here, I wish to discuss them with special attention to Lagaan, Gadar and The Legend of Bhagat Singh. Unlike some of the other films mentioned above, these belong to the popular mainstream. The usual trappings of songs, melodrama, and love interests are used not only in Lagaan and Gadar, which are after all purely fictional, but also in The Legend, which is an attempt to bring Bhagat Singh, a real historical figure, onto the big screen. The Legend was not a box office hit, but it still did better than the other Bhagat Singh films; Lagaan and Gadar were hugely successful, so much so that Lagaan became the third Indian film to be nominated at the Oscars.

The question is what accounts for this strange interest in the freedom struggle fifty years after the event. Is it possible to discover in today’s India a reason for the intense desire for films, fictional or otherwise, about patriotism? I suggest that we examine this phenomenon in the context of the new economic policies which ushered in the era of “liberalization” on one hand and the rise of Hindu majoritarian politics on the other, which has brought the nation to the brink of fascism.

The close link between Hindu majoritarian politics and the liberalization of the Indian economy is by now established. Indeed, the state’s gradual abandoning of social responsibility under the onslaught of global capital channeled popular discontent into an increasingly fascist direction, of which Gujarat became the latest victim. It is not surprising that this upheaval calls for reactions and responses in the cultural arena, especially in popular cinema.

Even before the colonial encounter became a common theme in Indian cinema, globalization had already begun to leave its imprint on it. For example, the West was visited like never before, not for the occasional “Love in Tokyo” but as a second home. Increasingly, characters lived and worked in London, New Zealand, and the United States. Clearly, this reflects the aspirations of the very few who stand to gain from the new economy and for whom going abroad, making a home there, is a necessary step in their scheme of upward mobility. As metropolitan countries opened their doors to welcome third-world labor in the form of technical experts, it became possible to almost define middle-class families as ones that have at least one member in the West. More importantly, this casual representation of the second home in the West also meant alienating thousands of viewers from their home, who, while never themselves stepping out of their country, would soon learn to look at their homes, their streets, their hospitals, and their schools with eyes trained to admire the clean, affluent, glass-and-concrete world of the Western metropolis. Indian towns and streets are conspicuous by their absence in a number of films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil To Pagal Hai, Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le jayenge, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, etc. Oddly, these films, while appropriating “Westerní lifestyle,” never fail to insist on what are considered “Indian values.” Thus, however much the hero and heroine gallivanted through Europe as in Dilwaale, the heroine would throw a fit at the very idea of having slept with him and the hero would not marry her without her father’s permission. If love had been the site of resistance in cinema before and had the power to fight against the establishment, it now begs and pleads to be accepted. It is almost as if, the more we opened our hearts to all that was materially Western, the more it was essential to close it around what was perceived as our “tradition,” our “khandaan [family],” our “man maryada [honor]”. Thus a new conservatism crept into cinema to balance, as it were, the Western (read modern) life style.

But just as the mixture of the “material West” and the “spiritual India” was becoming a norm in Indian cinema, a recent film Shakti broke new ground in playing up the East-West binary. Until now even when the “Western” was coveted, the “Indian” was still valorized for its family values, its traditions, its scenic villages and its simple and innocent folk. But in Shakti, the metropolitan West is all that is civilized, gentle, and uncorrupt, while India is Kipling’s barbaric and ruthless, patriarchal and bloodthirsty wilderness. The heroine of the film, born and brought up in Canada and coming home to her husband’s village, is not only repelled by its smells, crowd, and food but has to fight with her life to keep her son. India in this imagination is truly a place where only the cruel, the cunning, or the impossibly meek can survive, where reason has no place, where men will dance with swords and women have their place in only the dark recesses of the home. That is globalization’s greatest achievement: teaching a people to hate themselves. Shakti is not an Englishman’s or an American man’s India. It is a nightmare of an Indian who has internalized the ideology of Imperialism.

Gradually, however, there also emerged another trend: what were called “patriotic” films. Films like Border, Sarfarosh, and Roja all celebrated the valiant Indian solider — or a man who fights like one for his country against Pakistan or Pakistan-sponsored terrorists. The rise of Hindutva ideology with its virulent militarism that saw the Muslim and by extension Pakistan as its prime enemy created an atmosphere conducive to the reception of these films. Thus, when Lagaan and Gadar were almost simultaneously released and struck a chord with the audience, the soil had been prepared for them. And yet both these films are different in an important way from the earlier “patriotic” films. Lagaan and Gadar are set in the era of the freedom struggle, in contrast to the celebration of contemporary “patriotism” of a Roja or a Sarfarosh. Lagaan is a story of a group of farmers taking on the British over the payment of an unjust tax; Gadar is a love story situated in the immediate aftermath of the freedom struggle, i.e. the partition of India and the communal riots that ensued. The Legend, which was released a year later, also deals with the struggle for India’s freedom — only in this case the film is based on the life of a real historical figure, the revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.

What may be seen simply as nostalgia for past glory is perhaps an attempt to find a usable past to help solve present dilemmas. Thus just as the economic policies of globalization and the rise in fascist politics led to films depicting the life of the westward-looking but tradition-bound Hindu rich, so also the real anxiety and doubt experienced by ordinary people drive cinema to look at the moment when Indians first encountered global capital in the form of British Imperialism and resisted it mightily. The struggle against the British rule was after all the first “national” struggle Indians had waged against the brute force of foreign capital; it was the “original” moment of patriotic fervor. The comparison of today’s globalization with the British Imperialism of yesterday is clear and conscious in at least one film; but, in the others where it is not, it still articulates the collective angst felt by the people under this renewed offensive. At the same time, in these films we find an echo of positions representing different interests, either of class or ideology, which were present, indeed being formed, within the freedom movement. If we may classify the three strands present as centrist and liberal (the national congress), rightist (the Hindu or Muslim organizations), and leftist, then the three films, Lagaan, Gadar, and The Legend, are their cinematic approximates.

Lagaan received wide critical acclaim while also becoming popular among the audiences. Its new subject matter — the taking on of the British rulers over a match of cricket, as well as professional handling — was praised by reviewers and commentators alike. Gadar, although criticized for its loud, shrill, and frankly communal rhetoric, was equally, if not more, popular. Obviously the two films share some features, while being different in some other respects. Both the films posit an unjust enemy, the British in one case and Pakistan in the other. Both have one man, the hero, who takes charge of the situation and successfully overcomes it. The audiences, trained to appreciate the “lone-man-fighting-for justice” plot, got in Dara Singh of Gadar a superman for whom nothing was impossible. But even in Lagaan, where appears to focus on a team effort, the team only stands and fights because of the hero Bhuwan. Not only is he the inspiration, the main strategist, and the only interlocutor with the white woman who teaches them the game, he is also the only one on the field from start to finish, while the rest of the team is at best supportive of his endeavor. Perhaps, here we can also find one of the reasons for The Legend‘s failure at the box office. The film breaks with this norm of “heroism.” Right from the beginning, Bhagat Singh is a member of a group, albeit the one who gets the most attention of the camera. And although he may be the one with more understanding, his fellow comrades are his equals when it comes to revolutionary passion and willingness to sacrifice their lives. But if viewer habits to certain extend explain the successes of Lagaan and Gadar, it is also true that the ideologies that the two films articulate have held dominant positions in the Indian history since the time of freedom struggle.

When Bhuvan, the hero of Lagaan, takes up the challenge of defeating the British at their own game of cricket, it is suggestive of the non-violent resistance of Gandhi and the Congress. The “playful” atmosphere of Lagaan evokes the atmosphere of discussion, give and take, contracts and pacts, which were a major aspect of the ethos of the freedom struggle under the leadership of the Congress. This is not to belittle the actual hardship and sacrifice of the people who not only participated in demonstrations and hunger strikes, but also, along with their leaders, endured tough jail sentences. In the film, however, hardship and suffering are not a visible reality. Even Bhuvan’s village, apart from the cloud cast by the tax, is an idyllic place, almost out of a tourist’s brochure. The British in the film, like the “true gentlemen,” are honorable sportsmen. They cheer, clap, and appreciate the Indian team and, upon losing, leave the region to the more benevolent rule of the Indian King. The atrocities of the British rule are thus reduced to the sadism of one man, Captain Russell, who wants to impose an arbitrary tax. And finally the British authorities, acting like future bosses of multinational corporations, actually transfer Captain Russell for non-performance, i.e. for losing to a team of illiterate poor farmers.

Making a match of cricket central to the film achieved many things. Apart from the fact that the popularity of the game in India across classes ensured success, it also played upon certain available patriotic sentiments associated with the game, sentiments which are known to become jingoistic when the opposing team is from Pakistan. Patriotism always needs an “other,” the “enemy,” and in recent years in Hindi cinema as well as India, this other has been Pakistan. Although in Lagaan the enemy is the British, is it too farfetched to suggest that the match of cricket, while touching the patriotic chord, also makes subtle psychological use of Pakistan hatred, by implicitly suggesting that yesterday’s enemy was more honorable than today’s? But the match also has another more significant role to play. A game, any game for that matter, depends upon the value of sportsmanship, the attitude of “may the best player win.” In taking up the challenge of cricket, Bhuvan and his team learn the rules of a game played by the English. We might say that the film appeals to the Indians to play the game of capital and win or lose on merit. The new imperialism, like the old, is no doubt upsetting, but the way to deal with it is to play along with it. This is the unconscious message given by the film which has accepted the ideology of globalization with its claims of a truly free market, where all the players are on a level playing field and all you have to do is give your best shot. The Indian bourgeoisie, who succeeded to power after the British, are today more than willing to make another pact with the new imperialist. It is therefore not astounding to see the actor-director team of Lagaan is now producing ad films for Coke, selling the drink to disinherited farmers.   

Compared to Lagaan, Gadar is simple and its appeal crude. It tells a story of a truck driver Dara Singh who is actively violent in the riots that took place in the wake of the partition of India. His love of and subsequent marriage to a Muslim girl caught in the riots, her abduction by her family who have moved to Pakistan, her rescue, and the subsequent defeat of her father are what makes the rest of the film. Dara Singh’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is clamorous and yet oblique because it is directed against Pakistan. The people of Pakistan are called impotent, and proved impotent, when they are unable to stop Dara Singh from taking away their daughter, now his wife. He tells her father in no uncertain terms that Pakistan owes its existence to Indian benevolence. The film makes complete sense in today’s Hindu majoritarian climate. The Hindutva insistence on Muslim submission as a condition for tolerating their presence in India finds expression in the film’s politics of gender as when the Muslim girl says that she would willingly submit to a “loving” beating from her husband. In truth, even before Gadar, the equation of the Hindu with Man and that of the Muslim with woman has been noticed in a film like Bombay. Here too, the man, whose superiority is always assumed, is a Hindu, and the woman, who is not only inferior, but somebody to be owned, is a Muslim. Indeed, there is not one mainstream Hindi film in which a Hindu girl falls in love with or get married to a Muslim. Equally common has been the presence of a Muslim servant or underling who is loyal to the house or master in a number of films like Hum Sath Sath Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gum.

That Gadar‘s message was clear to all can be seen in the fact that its copies were distributed in Gujarat among potential rioters before the actual mayhem took place. Significantly, it is the backdrop of the Partition of India, against which Dara’s story unfolds, that has itself contributed to incitement. Hindu “commonsense” has been cultivated to perceive the partition as the root cause of communal tensions in India rather than as merely an expression of them. Since the Hindu right has always blamed the Muslims (and the liberal Congress) for the partition, going back to that point in history is a way of reminding the Hindu majority of their “enemy’s original sin.” In this ideology, the Hindu majority are the victims of history, at the hands of first Mughal kings and then Muslims who caused the partition. Indeed, the partition of India is like a festering sore, a constant reminder of Muslim arrogance. It is therefore the partition rather than the freedom struggle that is the site of Gadar’s action. After all, it is by now common knowledge that the Hindu right’s participation in the struggle for India’s freedom was negligible, since they believed Muslims were the greater evil than the British. Even today the real threat is not global capital, but the presence of the Muslim, the other, in and outside the country. For the Hindu right, as well for the macho hero of Gadar, real action, i.e. vengeance, begins on the eve of the partition after the struggle for freedom has been won by other men and women.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh is much more self-conscious than the other two films. For example, neither the actor-director team of Lagaan nor the audience would be able to account for the benign face of the British rulers. The Legend, lucid in its understanding of the relationship of the past to the present, gives cinematic expression to the struggle of Bhagat Singh and his comrades with the explicit purpose of articulating a politically progressive vision. Unsurprisingly, the British in The Legend come across with the full force of their brute power.

Popular imagination has been touched by Bhagat Singh’s extreme youth as well as his brave sacrifice even while it remained unaware of his politics. Cinema, which has been the medium of the “young,” found in Bhagat Singh a natural hero. It is perhaps thanks to black and white cinema that the image of Bhagat Singh with this tilted hat and face half in shadow became immortalized. Nevertheless, this cinema had failed to go beyond the glamour of the image and give expression to his ideology, his atheism and his steadily maturing communism. Thus, despite great music, Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed was only a sentimental melodrama lacking in political guts and clarity. Similarly, 23rd March 1931: Shaheed, a film released on the same day as The Legend and starring the Deol Brothers, is simply a vehicle to promote their macho image that has already found currency in earlier films like Soldier, Gadar and Indian while also making an attempt to co-opt Bhagat Singh for the Hindutava agenda (there is even a scene in the film in which Bhagat Singh consoles his heart-broken mother by assuring her that he will be “reborn” and that she can recognize him by the mark left around his neck by the hangman’s noose).

Unlike the other films on Bhagat Singh, The Legend effectively creates the world of the young revolutionaries. The marches, the songs, the red banners, and the references to Lenin and the Russian revolution bring to life the struggle and passion of young men driven by a dream of just world. Their ideas are not shortchanged by the film either. For instance, Bhagat Singh, while advocating to change the name of his party from Hindustan Republic Association to Hindustan Socialist Association, describes freedom as not only the freedom from British rule but freedom from want and exploitation. Likewise, while answering the British lawyers’ query regarding the meaning of revolution, Bhagat Singh and his friends, in a spontaneous outpouring, speak of it as freedom from every oppression, every exploitation, of the powerless by the powerful. The relevance today of such words on the big screen, in the face of our economic realities, cannot be overstressed. Even more unequivocally articulated is his fear of communal disharmony and its terrible fallout in the “future,” i.e. the present being experienced by the audience.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh

Although The Legend does not do complete justice to Bhagat Singh’s humanness — his predilection for childish pranks or his interest in literature — yet on the whole it is able to represent the choices of revolutionary young men involved in political activity with a degree of historical accuracy. Today, when we see cinema dishing out either the consumerist westward-looking lifestyle of the orthodox Hindu rich or the grandiose macho dreams of triumph and power while as a society we seem to be hurtling towards the abyss of communal suspicion and hatred, the film is a valiant attempt to reconstruct a past struggle against them in order to make possible a more humane present. Just before being hanged, Bhagat Singh says that he “is neither afraid of death, nor does he believe in god.” That statement is also a testament of the faith of a filmmaker who would, with the example of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, steer the youth of India away from killing in the name of god.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, The Legend has not been as successful at the box office as Lagaan or Gadar. It is indeed an unhappy experience to sit with an audience whose only enthusiastic response takes the form of catcalls when Gandhi appears on the screen. In the absence of a popular left culture and the prevalence of the rightís, the film’s message is in danger of being reduced to that of a battle between violence and non-violence, between manliness and effeminacy. To an audience who finds an echo of its own sentiments in Dara Singh’s callous Muslim-baiting, or who is happy to cheer Bhuvan’s team in their match against a Papier Mache enemy, the language of The Legend will mean nothing. Nevertheless, the very attempt to construct this language and speak it in otherwise conformist Hindi cinema is an essential step towards making it meaningful once again.

Aarti Wani is a lecturer in English at Symbiosis College of Arts, Commerce, & Computer Science, Pune. A member of AIDWA (All India Democratic Women’s Association), Wani is involved in many youth-, media-, and culture-related activities and projects in the city.