How blockbuster films are aiding the Hindutva nationalism project

The fact that films promoting a certain narrative are becoming money-spinners is a huge encouragement for filmmakers to persist with the trend.
How blockbuster films are aiding the Hindutva nationalism project
How blockbuster films are aiding the Hindutva nationalism project
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SS Rajamouli’s pan-Indian film RRR is currently minting gold at the box-office. The film, which was released in five Indian languages, is a fictional tale based on real life heroes Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem who fought for adivasi rights and stood up to the might of the British empire. While there is no historical record of the two of them fighting together, the film explores the idea of them meeting and uniting for a cause.

Soon after the film hit theatres though, it came under criticism from a section of the audience for casting the two activists in the mould of Hindu mythological characters. In the final sequence, Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), who took to wearing saffron robes as a sanyasin and indulged in guerrilla warfare against the British in real life, transforms into Lord Ram of the Ramayana, accompanied by the chanting of Sanskrit verses. Komaram Bheem (Junior NTR), a Gond tribal activist who fought against the Nizam of Hyderabad and British rule in real life, is depicted as both Hanuman, Lord Ram’s faithful devotee, and Bheem of the Mahabharata, who is known for his physical strength. In doing so, the film combines religion with nationalistic fervour, thereby misrepresenting the legacy of the two men. The depiction has been welcomed by the audience in many theatres with cries of ‘Jai Shree Ram’.

Speaking to TNM, Srinivas SV, Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Azim Premji University, says that historical distortion aside, the intention behind such a reimagination may have been to make a film that appeals across the country. 

“Since Rajinikanth's Enthiran in 2010, there has been a renewed interest in making pan-Indian films in the south. It was a large-scale production aimed at the national market. You cannot make such a huge film unless you crack the language barrier. There have been films since then like Baahubali, 2.0, KGF, Pushpa and so on. Different industries are trying this out and drawing in talent from multiple industries to target audiences across the country. Hindi is obviously a big part of it. RRR is among these films, and the question you may want to ask is if such a representation was done under the pressure of having to address the Hindi market which seems to have a preference for very aggressive nationalism,” he says. 

Film critic Sankeertana Dantuluri says that she found the dynamic between Ram and Bheem to be unequal: “As far as the first half goes, the fictionalised characters stay fictional. Bheem pretending to be a Muslim man also felt like a nice touch—one minority [Bheem being an adivasi man] can trust another, but the way Bheem interacts with Ram is dubious. Ram sits comfortably in a chair and Bheem comes with his plate and sits down at his feet—the intention could be to show that an adivasi man is more comfortable with the ground. I am not sure if it's just me, but Ram is positioned above Bheem is what I felt it looked like.”

She goes on to add that she found the recasting of the activists as Hindu mythological figures to be “confusing”: “The mythological turn in the second half is so confusing. I understand a Telugu commercial filmmaker's inclination to bring Hindu mythology into the mix. Even a filmmaker like Sekhar Kammula couldn't resist naming his lead pair Ram-Sita in Godavari. It could be just as harmless here, but a sloka-esque bit plays when Ram Charan comes out dressed as Alluri Sitarama Raju—all accessorised, I might add—and it's about god and not the freedom fighter. The same happens when Bheem comes out of the water. Rajamouli is probably trying to amp up the moment, but it translates to him taking the populist route.  He said in an interview that he wanted the country to know about these Telugu freedom fighters, but RRR tells the viewer nothing about them. If anything, they are crammed to suit the film's narrative.”

RRR comes close on the heels of another blockbuster, Vivek Agnihotri’s Hindi film The Kashmir Files, which was released in theatres on March 11. The only well-known actor in the lead cast of the film is Anupam Kher, but it became a massive hit, earning Rs 100 crore in just eight days. The film is a fictional story inspired by real events surrounding the forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from their homeland in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. While several Kashmiri Pandits have applauded the film for portraying their real life trauma, others from the community have distanced themselves from its factual inaccuracies and palpable anti-Muslim propaganda (as Dr Nitasha Kaul wrote for TNM, “This movie emphasises the exceptionalism of Kashmiri Pandit suffering and the ubiquity of Kashmiri Muslim barbarity.”)

The BJP has been promoting the film aggressively; just a day after its release, director Vivek Agnihotri, actor Pallavi Joshi (who is married to Vivek and has acted in the film), and producer Abhishek Agarwal met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who appreciated the team for making the film. That the PM should meet the team so promptly, and a few days later use it to attack his political opponents, speaks volumes about the importance given to the film by the ruling party. Following this, several states with BJP-led governments made the film tax-free. 

However, nobody from the BJP has so far condemned the open calls for violence against Muslims that have been made in theatres across the country.

Professor Srinivas points out that the cries for ‘Jai Shree Ram’ during RRR are probably influenced by the trend prevailing in theatres after the release of The Kashmir Files. “RRR was conceived years ago, and these cries of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ in theatres were not happening at that time. This sloganeering is happening on a massive scale with The Kashmir Files and it’s possible that it will die out. If irrespective of what Rajamouli thinks the film becomes an object of mobilisation, we have to accept that,” says Srinivas.

The brave Hindu and the brutal Muslim

The success of The Kashmir Files shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has closely followed the saffronisation of Bollywood after the BJP came to power in 2014. Nationalism, Hindu honour, historical Hindu icons, Hindu suffering in the past and contemporary military strength have all become popular subjects for filmmakers in Bollywood. Simultaneously, there has been a subtle and increasingly not-so-subtle othering of the Muslim community through a rhetoric that emphasises the brutality of Islamic invaders and their zeal for forcibly converting the native population. 

‘Ghar Wapsi’ (Returning home) is a pet project of the Sangh Parivar (the family of Hindu nationalist organisations that came out of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; the BJP represents the Sangh in politics) that was openly advertised soon after Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014. The focus of the project is to ‘reconvert’ people from other faiths to Hinduism on an assumption that their ancestors had left the Hindu fold either by force or devious tactics. 

In an article titled ‘Bollywood: ‘Othering’ the Muslim on screen’ published in Frontline magazine, authors Pranav Kohli and Prannv Dhawan write, “Since 2016, the [Hindi] industry has produced a number of historical epics such as Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat, Manikarnika, Panipat and Tanhaji. However, Bollywood’s turn to history is not a turn to history per se but a turn towards Hindu history. The recent wave of historical fiction in Bollywood focuses on highlighting stories that have “never been seen before” but are actually just Hindutva versions of familiar histories. In their rhetoric and packaging, the Hindutva gloss on history is presented as a kind of exclusive scoop—sensationalist historiography for the masses, as it were. These supposedly forgotten epics are ‘revived’ for celluloid and used to retrospectively construct the Hindu fold. Erasing the complexity of medieval politics as exemplified in constant internecine conflict between medieval monarchs, these films homogenise Hindu monarchs by juxtaposing them against Muslim ‘invaders’.”

In The Kashmir Files, the protagonist, a Kashmiri Pandit student, delivers a rousing speech towards the end about the suffering of his people — and this includes a reference to Sikander Shah Miri, a Muslim king who invaded Kashmir in the 1300s, and is said to have destroyed temples and shrines. The film artfully links medieval history, from a time when the geographical contours of what we now identify as one nation was ruled by various kings, to modern history where the political and social contexts are completely different. In the cinematic rendering of history, the brutal, destructive rulers are always Muslim while the benevolent, brave kings are always Hindu. The trend has caught on in the Marathi film industry too. Marathi filmmaker Digpal Lanjekar’s popular historical films, the latest being Pawankhind, are on the same premise. The teaser of upcoming Marathi film Har Har Mahadev, directed by Abhijeet Deshpande, hails Chhatrapati Shivaji as the king who stood up against injustice at a time when the dishonour of women and the destruction of temples were not considered to be crimes. The voiceover in the trailer is by far right wing MNS leader Raj Thackeray. 

Watch: Teaser of Har Har Mahadev

In the south Indian film industries, however, historical dramas haven’t followed the Hindu-Muslim binary corressponding to Good and Bad that has become the norm in Bollywood in the last decade. These films tend to include a ‘good’ Muslim character even if it is a tokenistic gesture - like Baba Khan in Sye Raa, which is based on the resistance led by Narasimha Reddy against the British in 1856. Malayalam cinema, which caters to a demographic that has a higher percentage of Muslims in the population when compared to other states, has produced historical dramas that have Muslims in the lead. Mohanlal’s Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham has the actor playing a Muslim character, Kunjali Marakkar, who fought against the Portuguese in the 16th century. Nivin Pauly’s Kayamkulam Kochunni is based on a Muslim highwayman who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor in the early 19th century. However, a film on Variyankunnath, a prominent leader of the Malabar Rebellion of 1921, ran into controversy after right wing groups objected to it. Though director Aashiq Abu and actor Prithviraj withdrew from the film, the production company has said that it intends to go ahead with it.

Nationalism, fascism and cinema

The authorship of We or our Nationhood Defined, published in 1939, has been controversial as the book itself. It was said to have been written by MS Golwalkar, the second chief of the RSS, and the book reportedly made him an influential figure in the organisation since it was the first text that laid out the Sangh’s ideology in great detail. The book, which envisions the building of a Hindu Rashtra and calls Hindus a ‘race’ while calling people belonging to other religions as ‘foreigners’, also glorifies Germany for its anti-Semitism, fascism and treatment of minorities. Golwakar later claimed that the book was actually authored by Ganesh Damodar Savarkar, one of the five founders of the RSS and older brother of VD Savarkar, and that he’d only translated it from the original Marathi. In 2006, the RSS disowned the book. However, the core ideology of the RSS stems from this text and the Islamophobic, Hindu pride rhetoric that has become mainstream and normalised now can be easily traced back to the book. 

The RSS’s open admiration for German dictator Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in its early years is no secret. Interestingly, both these leaders extensively used cinema as a means to control the masses. 

In an email interview with TNM, Dr Frank P Tomasulo, Core Certified Professor of Graduate Film Studies, National University (San Diego), lays out several characteristics that defined the fascist films from Germany: “The Nazi cinema of Germany, as distinguished somewhat from the fascist cinema of Italy, was very much involved with (1) a cult of personality around Adolf Hitler (especially in the documentaries), (2) the use of German tropes – the eagle, flags and banners, buildings from the First Reich, the Holy Roman Empire – as well as mythological references to Germany’s Nordic heritage to instill patriotism for the Fatherland, (3) lines of organised masses in parades (Cf. Triumph of the Will, (4) displays of the inferiority of other races (especially in Jeu Seuss) – including comparisons to rats and other vermin, (5) stereotypical representations of Jews as cunning, unclean, and deceitful; Gypsies as thieves; Communists as subversive and unpatriotic, and (6) cinematic techniques that glorify Der Fuehrer and the new German state (post-Weimar): moving camera to show that Deutschland is “on the move again,” low camera angles on Hitler and other Nazi leaders to make them appear powerful, backlighting to lighten the hair colour of dark-haired Nazis to make them appear more Nordic and fair-haired, and use of the telephoto lens in crowd scenes to suggest that admiring gatherings of das Volk [common people] were solidly close together in their support of the Third Reich.”

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph of the Will, which was commissioned by Adolf Hitler and released in March 1935, is till date cited as a prominent example in any discussion on fascist propaganda films. The director, who was considered to be a ‘cinematic genius’ for her film techniques, was a favourite of Adolf Hitler. Triumph of the Will is on the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than seven lakh Nazi party sympathizers. The previous year, Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany, and the first concentration camp for communists and his political opponents was set up in Dachau. By the end of his reign in 1945, there were over a thousand concentration camps in Germany and other parts of German-occupied Europe. 

Though Leni later distanced herself from Hitler and claimed that she was “apolitical” and was not a Nazi herself, it’s impossible not to view her work in the political climate in which her films were made.Tirumph of the Will begins with the following text [translated to English from German]: “20 years after the outbreak of the World War/ 16 years after the beginning of German suffering/ 19 months after the beginning of the German rebirth/ Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremberg to hold a miltary display over his stalwarts.”

Describing the film in his essay ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascist Cinema: Triumph of the Will’, Dr Tomasulo says, “...Hitler repeatedly stressed that one could not sway the masses with arguments, logic or knowledge, only with feelings and beliefs. True to form, the documentary establishes a “cult of personality” around its “star”, a mystical aura associated with Nature, religion, and a “folkish” family-based patriotism.” Dr Tomasulo goes on to discuss how the film projected Hitler as a messiah of the masses, mixing religious imagery with patriotic fervour and nationalistic ideals. 

These films found ready resonance with the audience because the “German national character” (as writer, cultural critic and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer put it) was conditioned by decades of “education, rituals (saluting the flag, the Sieg Heil salute) customs, symbols (the swastika), geography (i.e., the Heimat) and, especially, the nations’ history (wars, unification, military conquests and defeats), books (Goethe), music and popular song (the Horst Wesel song), opera (Wagner), theatre, art and, finally, cinema (Riefenstahl). Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels ensured that German culture was Nazi culture and relied on the nation’s glorious mythic past to demonstrate the ongoing greatness of Deutschland (“Deutschland Uber Alles”),” Dr Tomasulo points out.  In Nazi Germany, only films that were in line with the state's ideology could be released.

In 1930s Italy, Mussolini established a gigantic film studio, Cinecittà, which produced numerous fictional films called “white telephone films” because the presence of white telephones indicated a bourgeois household. Unlike Nazi Germany, which specialised in dramas and horror movies, Dr Tomasulo says, the films that came out of fascist Italy were mostly comedies. 

“In this case, the propaganda value was not in direct support of the fascist regime but, rather, as a distraction for the mass audience – akin to the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome, which took the public’s awareness away from politics. Another fictional genre was the Roman Empire and gladiator epics, which depicted the “glory of Rome” so as to extend that ancient grandeur (and military success) to the contemporary rule of Mussolini,” he says.

 Italy, too, produced films that glorified masculinity and violence in the guise of nationalism. 

 "On the documentary side, Italian cinema churned out numerous films that glorified Italian youth (especially boys) and how they might improve their physiques and conditioning. They extolled the many beachfront health camps set up by the regime, supposedly to get the youth in shape – but mainly used to train them for future military service, under the guise of physical well-being. More noxious and propagandistic was the epic Scipione l'africano, which was commissioned by Mussolini shortly before Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. Benito Mussolini commissioned an epic film depicting the exploits of the ancient general Scipio. Not surprisingly, the movie won the Mussolini Cup as the greatest Italian film at the 1937 Venice Film Festival, which also became a venue for fascist-sponsored cinema,” Dr Tomasulo says. 

Cinema as a canvas for propaganda

In India, where the Hindi film industry is the largest, the BJP has been cognizant of the power that cinema has over the people. In December 2018, PM Modi met with a delegation ‘from the film and entertainment industry’ – though this was an all male, all Bollywood delegation – and followed it up with two more meetings with Bollywood within a space of a month. After the first meeting, a reduction on Goods and Services Tax (GST) for film tickets was announced, a move that was highly appreciated by the film industry. In January 2019, the PM met several A-list stars and filmmakers from Bollywood to discuss how the industry could contribute to “nation building”. 

Several stars like Akshay Kumar and Kangana Ranaut, who have publicly praised the PM and are known to amplify the BJP’s political stances and ideology through their choice of films, interviews and social media interactions, have reaped the benefits too. In April 2019, just days before the fourth phase of the General Elections, PM Modi gave Akshay Kumar a ‘non-political’ exclusive interview —the ‘tough’ questions included how the PM liked to eat mangoes. The interview happened after the Election Commission refused to allow the release of PM Narendra Modi, a biopic, before the elections were concluded. Kangana Ranaut was permanently suspended from Twitter in May 2021 for hate speech and violating Twitter’s policies repeatedly. Later that year, she received her fourth National Award from Vice President Venkaiah Naidu. Director Vivek Agnihotri, who made The Kashmir Files and received a warm welcome from the PM, is known to have coined the term “urban naxals” to refer to anyone who expresses “anti-national” opinions (meaning, questioning the government). 

The fact that films promoting a certain narrative are becoming money-spinners is a huge encouragement for Bollywood filmmakers to persist with the trend. In January 2019, Uri: The Surgical Strike became a massive hit, earning over Rs 300 crore at the worldwide box-office.The film, which presents a fictionally dramatised account of India’s response to the attack carried out by Pakistani insurgents in 2016, was released three months before the General Elections were set to begin in India. Uri underlines the idea that India under the current leadership is a ‘new India’ which will not put up with such insults.The film’s release was also around the same time that PM Modi revealed what he had told the soldiers going in for the strike. While the Opposition attacked the PM for politicising an army operation for votes, many of his supporters were exultant to see how India had responded “effectively” to the attack on the big screen. 

In contrast, films like Mulk [2018] which deal with the widely prevalent Islamophobia in the country are rare in Bollywood. Films like Raazi [2018] and Sardar Udham [2021] that have handled complex subjects without devolving into chest-thumping hypernationalism are also too few and far between. 

Meanwhile, Adipurush, an adaptation of the Ramayana and a mega budget film directed by Om Raut who made Tanhaji, is expected to release in 2023. The pan-Indian film, made on a budget of Rs 500 crore, will come out the same year that the long disputed Ram temple in Ayodhya is expected to be inaugurated. The temple has been the RSS’s dream project for over 30 years, and has had a constant presence in the BJP’s manifesto

The next General Elections in India will be held in 2024. 

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