Open Essay

Imagining the Idea of Indianness in Hindi cinema

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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The national scene

I SAID I WOULD not dare to speak on Satyajit Ray in Kolkata, the city in which he lived and which many of us know through his work. I reiterated that I wouldn’t be comfortable to work on Ray, given his deep roots in Bengali culture, in particular in its literature, of which I know little and that only in translation. Ray is an important figure to me personally as his films were the first Indian cinema I saw. I appreciated them even then, when I knew so relatively little about him and his art, other than some understanding of his ‘plurality of selves’ (Ashis Nandy). I have read more about Ray by Marie Seton, Andrew Robinson, and others, and enjoyed Shyam Benegal’s wonderful documentary on him.

I spoke instead [at the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture] about my interest in the collective imaginaries of Hindi cinema, using the work of Charles Taylor and Arjun Appadurai, as I’m not one of those people for whom cinema represents or reflects the society from which it emerges. I am interested in narratives, sounds, images, and how meanings are made in films. It is a two-way dynamic where cinema also shapes the way that people see the world.

A recurring theme in Hindi films is the idea of Indianness. This is not just about citizenship, but ranges across a wide range of themes that define Indian history and culture. It is no exaggeration to say that the broadcast of the two serialised versions of the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were transformational to popular understandings of India’s history. Broadcast on national television over many weeks, these serials portrayed the epics as a mixture of history and mythology. Their impact has been much discussed; they mobilised Hindu nationalism as the mythological and ancient histories of the nation displaced ideas of the modern nation. The viewing of the serials simultaneously across the country added to their impact.

The historical film draws on a range of sources to tell stories that are meaningful in the present. This is an unofficial history, or popular or bazaar history, which uses stories from epics, poems, theatre, and folktales. It is not so concerned with facts and truth, but is rumour and gossip. The story has to fit the requirements of the mainstream Hindi film where the concern is its plot, not events. History becomes a monumental spectacle using images from sculpture and painting as well as chromolithography and photography. The melodramatic mode of the Hindi cinema stirs up emotions due to crises and conflicts, mostly on topics to do with struggle, sacrifice, and patriotism. Film stars often embody current values so the historical allows these to be projected onto the past.

Indian cinema tells a history of India, but, like historical films made elsewhere, they often reveal as much about the time in which they were made as about history itself. They tell a commonsensical view of history. The film form and its requirements dominate over the concerns of the professional historian.

The Hindi historical film is any film set in the past. It is as much about present concerns as the past itself, forming a bridge between the present and the past and allowing viewers the pleasure of nostalgia.

The early 2000s saw the revival of the historical genre. Santosh Sivan’s Asoka (2001) featured Shah Rukh Khan as Asoka (or Ashoka) the Great, the emperor who united much of India in the third century BCE and whose chakra (‘wheel’) features on the flag of India, to represent the turning of the wheel of dharma—that is law and virtue. The film says little about this unification, his conversion to Buddhism, or his edicts, inscribed on pillars and rocks, but focuses on the warrior prince and his romance, taken from folktales. The film was not well received as audiences felt it was disrespectful to a national hero, and of little historical interest.

Bollywood has a problem showing nationalist leaders in films as they are too revered, too saintly, and can’t sing and dance

The devotional genre of biopics of religious devotees, or bhaktas, from the medieval period has not been popular in recent years and Medieval India is usually represented by the Mughal film. This shows Muslims as part of Indian history, rather than as outsiders, as they aim to promote a composite culture. The most popular figure is Akbar, as with K Asif’s magnificent Mughal-e-Azam (1960), whose narrator is India personified, telling the story of the new nation. This film also focuses on romance and family drama. More recently, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008) took the other famous story of Akbar, namely his marriage to a Rajput princess, Jodhaa, focusing on the inter-communal marriage and his respect for Hinduism. The song-and-dance number Marhaba, performed by Akbar’s grateful subjects on the occasion of his lifting of the jazia tax on Hindu pilgrims at Jodhaa’s suggestion, has a display of national diversity and unity and show of weaponry and power in the format of present Republic Day parades.

Sohrab Modi’s films were always nationalist portrayals of heroic figures of freedom, such as Porus, who fought Alexander the Great (Sikandar, 1941), Emperor Jehangir (Pukar, 1939), and Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi (Jhansi ki Rani, 1952), also released in English as The Tiger and the Flame.

The revival of the historical film in the 2000s began with Gowariker’s costume drama Lagaan: One Upon a Time In India (2001), which was shortlisted for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film. The struggle against the British is presented as a cricket match between peasants and imperialists. The film has no reference to bourgeois and Western values, having a subaltern viewpoint and upholding the peasant perspective rather than that of the merchant or businessman so popular in the 1990s film. One of the great differences is that Lagaan upholds inclusive community values, rejecting divisions of caste, region and religion, rather than focusing on family values or tub-thumping patriotism. There are villains among the British, but the villain’s sister teaches the Indians how to play cricket. It also pays less lip-service to religiosity and ritual, except for the folk songs and dances with their religious references, while the temple is seen as a public space rather than a place of worship.

WHILE ‘MIDDLE’ OR ‘parallel’ Indian cinema has produced biopics on several leaders, this genre has not been popular in mainstream Hindi cinema. Bollywood has a problem in showing nationalist leaders in films as they are too revered, too saintly, uncontroversial, and cannot sing and dance. The only leader of the anti-British freedom struggle who has been a popular subject for the biopic is ‘Shaheed’ Bhagat Singh. A leader regarded by some in his time as more popular than Gandhi, Bhagat Singh is barely mentioned in official histories, though he is still much in the public imagination, his image present all over India.

Bhagat Singh fulfils the requirements of a popular hero in real life as much as the Hindi film. A romantic figure who was martyred at a young age, he can sing and dance like a Hindi film hero, although as he is revered as an unmarried martyr, he does not usually romance a heroine. However, these versions of his life play down his role as an intellectual, a writer, an atheist, Marxist; instead, they concentrate on his short, heroic life, his fearless and valiant nature, and his use of violence, casting him as a romantic hero who appeals to the young.

The year 2002 saw the release of several films and a television biopic of Bhagat Singh, while Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang de Basanti, which took on anti-corruption and the politicised youth as themes in parallel with the freedom fighter’s story, was one of the biggest hits of 2006 and was selected as India’s entry to the Oscars. However, Ketan Mehta’s Aamir Khan starrer The Rising: the Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005), the story of an Indian sepoy who is a semi-legendary hero of the 1857 Uprising, was not successful and was again controversial.

Indians now see India as a major global player, a modern country which has not forgotten its ancient roots and culture

The most famous biopic made in India was the Indo-British production, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), which won eight Oscars. Gandhi is not suitable hero material for a mainstream commercial film, but many films have featured him, the most popular being Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), in which Munna is a loveable rogue, a petty gangster who aspires to a middle-class education and falls in love with upper-class girls. He lacks authority in his life and the father of the nation comes to fulfil this role. Munna adopts satyagraha, which he calls ‘Gandhigiri’, a practice imitated outside the film. His desire to do good and his ability to suffer are seen to be more valuable than education. His understanding of Gandhi is superior to that of a history professor. His hallucinations of Gandhi are a manifestation of the inner conscience of this Indian Everyman. This is a new mythology of Gandhi, a presentation of morality rather than of history.

Along with independence, Partition was a defining moment in India’s history, marking tragedy at the beginning of the new nation with forced migration and war between the new states. Relatively few films mention it. Some filmmakers try to show that the differences between Hindus and Muslims are ‘really the same’, so a Hindu extremist has to come to terms with the fact that he was born a Muslim (as in Yash Chopra’s 1961 Dharamputra), or how other bonds are broken in the upsurge of violence of this time (Govind Nihalani’s 1986 Tamas). Much use has been made of documentary footage, notably of migrations, which is spliced into the main film.

Little was said about Partition in public life until its fiftieth anniversary in 1997. Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), which is a Punjabi film in all but language, has a Sikh rescue a Muslim woman during the Partition riots in Delhi, and when her family which has migrated to Pakistan tries to keep her there, he more or less single-handedly takes on the Pakistani army and brings his family back to India. It was popular for its self-sacrificing and decent hero, played by Sunny Deol, who was brave, strong and gentle, never asking his wife to convert, allowing her to travel to Pakistan, willing to take on the role of protector of his neighbours and his family, but not willing to dishonour his country. This allows a way of looking back at Partition with a sense of loss but also with one of pride in the honourable behaviour of one’s own community and the mixed behaviour of Muslims, with the ‘good female Muslim’ staying in India and the ‘wicked male Muslim’ migrating to Pakistan.

Several war films, often calculated to raise nationalist sentiments, were made following the Kargil encounter between India and Pakistan in the late 1990s, from Lakshya to Deewaar, at a time of growing tensions between the two countries. Indo- Pak themes became a regular feature in films over the decade, including John Matthew Matthan’s Sarfarosh (1998) and JP Dutta’s Border (1997), set during the 1965 war with Pakistan.

Other films engaged with the Kashmir conflict, presenting issues from many perspectives of this area which has a special status in the Constitution, whose inhabitants may be shown as pro-Pakistan, pro-independence or loyal to India. These include, notably, Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir (1998), Kunal Kohli’s Fanaa (2006), and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014).

Some of the big hit films of the last few years have engaged with ideas of Indianness through religion and in particular Indo-Pakistan relations, notably Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014) and Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). The former has an alien, PK, questioning ideas of religion, an Indo-Pak love story framing the plot, while the latter has a Hindu nationalist transformed by his love for a mute Pakistani child. She is lost in India and his mission is to take her home to her family across the border. The wonderful film Dangal (2016), directed by Nitish Tiwari, also has Indianness as a key theme in its story of Indian female champion wrestlers.

Yet, it is two historicals which have again attracted controversy. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, yet to be released, is proving particularly contentious. The director’s earlier film Bajirao Mastani (2015), a love story between a Brahmin Peshwa and the daughter of a Rajput king and a Muslim courtesan, shows a martial Hindu culture of epic splendour, during which the Brahmin, Bajirao, leads his forces to war with a massive saffron flag over the map of India, ‘Hindmahasamrat’, talking of Hindu self-rule and fighting Muslims in Bundelkhand and Hyderabad. Some see the film as an inter-communal love story, while others focus on the glamour of the Brahminical court and battles with Muslim rulers.

While Hindi cinema has not had much in the way of sci-fi genres or fantasy films, the hugely popular fantasy novels set in a mythological or historical past by writers such as Amish and the influx of Western fare ranging from The Lord of The Rings to Game of Thrones have given rise to an amalgam of past and future in SS Rajamouli’s stupendously successful Baahubali films.

Recent films have drawn attention to different notions of the sacredness of India— from the Nehruvian vision celebrated in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) to trouble on the western border and ideas of an alternate history, the Brahminical court of the Peshwas or the muscular past of Baahubali’s Mahishmati. These films display a hyper-masculinity and focus on the heroic nature of the male lead.

There is an undeniable shift in the concept of Indianness, the ways in which India sees itself and how Indians see India in the world today. This is what the films show that is hard to access elsewhere. Before the 1990s, India saw itself as a poor country with a glorious past, out of which Indians were often cheated. This view of history shown in the films by and large remains, but how India sees the present has shifted enormously. Indians sometimes felt ashamed and slighted, despite India’s moral high ground and non-aligned status, and they lacked the opportunities to be consumerist and stylish. Indians now see India as a major global player, a modern country which has not forgotten its ancient roots and culture. In my view, these films remain our most reliable guide to understanding this changing imaginary.

(This is an essay drawn from the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture that she delivered in mid-November at the Kolkata International Film Festival 2017)