Hindi cinema feeds the mass imagination of most of South Asia, so what are we in for when Bombay’s production houses start feeding lightweight Indian nationalism to this mass?
Once upon a time there was a Hollywood film director named John Ford who wisecracked, “Whenever in doubt, I make a Western.” Since Ford directed a phenomenal 150 pictures, both silent and talkie, it is no surprise that the horse opera became the staple diet of the American film audience. And once the film industry migrated from cloudy New York to sunny California, its horses could easily gallop through cacti-speckled photogenic deserts, its guns could roar along the Mesa Valley, and its baddies could bite the colourful red dust. Then the Americans fought the first and second world wars on foreign soil, on the winning side, so horse operas were soon and easily enough supplemented by the other obvious addition to the Hollywood stable—the war movie. It was the same stew, only the garnishing was different. And Ford’s wisecrack holds good even today, when we see a celebrated cult director like Terence Malik return to filmmaking after 18 years, with the war movie The Thin Red Line.
War movies and horse operas, cowboys and Red Indians, soldier against soldier, man against man. This is the right stuff for drama, because drama is conflict, and what better conflict than war, always so readily available? Heroes are created easily, myth built simplistically, life shown to be larger than life. Though they had witnessed the horrors of war at their own doorstep, the Europeans took a lesson from the American film industry in their own productions. The Soviet and East bloc countries produced war movies using almost the same recipe as Hollywood’s. War movies became an important product in the worldwide film market.
Interestingly, the copycat Indian film industry could not, did not duplicate the war movie for a long time. The horse opera they successfully copied, though, with a plethora of films about dacoits, or bhagis, that earned the dubious sobriquet ‘dal-roti western’, akin to the Italian spaghetti western. But war movies eluded their grasp for two reasons. One, the Indian audience had no experience of war, and therefore the filmmakers had no great nationalist hype to profit from. Second, Hindi film directors, unlike their American and European colleagues had no direct personal acquaintance with war, since they had never been conscripted. The Punjabis and Bengalis among them may have had some experience of the civil war that came with Partition, but that was hardly the stuff to make heroes out of—only villains all around. With both Hindus and Muslims in the audience, Partition could not deliver the right cowboys and injuns. Nationalist fervour is difficult to rouse when the story is about your own burning house, especially when the fire is always smouldering.
And so, Hindi war movies never really took off, neither did civil war movies on Hindu-Muslim clashes, the events of Partition, and the matter of refugees and mass migrations along paths defined by blood. It was also true that Partition was not a lived experience and meant almost nothing to Indians other than the Bengalis and Punjabis. There was no significant Punjabi film industry in the 1950s and Punjabi directors and writers working in the Hindi film world gave conflict a wide berth. Barring exceptions like Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamool and the films of Ritwick Ghatak, the Bengali film industry also avoided conflict as a theme to be explored. Even with Ghatak, the experience of Partition remained imprisoned in nostalgia, never a noble emotion, however painful its portrayal may be.
For decades, reflections of the major social-political crises of the Subcontinent, such as the conflict in Kashmir, or the clash of Indian and Pakistani arms, never appeared on the popular screen. Ofcourse, Kashmir did appear regularly, but strictly for is exotic locales, allowing moments for the lead male and female characters to yodel, and cavort amidst the glades and snowfields. Kashmir also had its belles, and the Kashmir ki Kali was the only admissible representative of a state that remained continuously a battlefront. Like the very real undercurrents in the Valley, every other potential subject for a war script was blocked out, as for example the takeover of Hyderabad Deccan or Junagadh. Popular cinema took an unshakeable position of studied silence towards events that could provide a backdrop for war, even civil war. Harsh censorship laws on films certainly helped to maintain the silence.
The pursuit of the Nehruvian dream of development created an anticipatory euphoria that also helped drive other important issues out of the story frame. The first jolt to that dream came in with the Sino-Indian border clash in 1962, and the second during the limited armed conflict between India and Pakistan in 1965. Nationalist fervour certainly came into play, with Hindi popular cinema responding with a few feeble jingoistic efforts like Hindustan ki Kasam and Haqeeqat. But they were doomed to disaster at the box office. Even the Bangladesh war of liberation of 1971 could not revive the stillborn war movie genre.
After Hindustan ki Kasam and Haqqeeqat bombed in the 1960s, Hindi cinema did not attempt to reanimate the war movie during the 70s and 80s. In the 90s, however, the genre was exhumed, dusted off, and presented in technically slick packaging. It was the turn of political events in the Subcontinent which dictated this renewed interest of the production houses. The simmering situation in Kashmir came to a boil. After Operation Bluestar, Punjab erupted in turmoil. Civil war ignited in Assam, and fighting consumed the Northeast. The call for Tamil liberation in neighbouring Sri Lanka reverberated in the Indian mainland.
But these events remained localised occurrences in the periphery of interest, sending only small ripples into the Indian heartland where the Hindi film audience was concentrated. Popular cinema therefore ignored them all, for a long time. Meanwhile, state controlled radio and television churned out standard platitudes about India’s ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’. Yet, all the while hawks were on the rise in the Indian body politic, and so was the upsurge of Hindu fanaticism and militancy, leading to the razing of the Babri mosque in 1992. The political ground had shifted by the mid-1990s, and finally cinema too responded with vehemence.
War movies now found a niche in the Indian market, including films about ‘civil war’, focusing on the tensions within. An impressive list of productions hit the popular screen: Dill Se, Bombay, Maachis, Border, Refugee, Terrorist, Sarfarosh, Fiza, Mission Kashmir. Each of these films was expensively produced, lavishly mounted, and made by talented directors—ranging from Mani Ratnam and Santosh Sivan from the South, to J.P. Datta and John Mathew Mathan from Bombay.
These big-budget productions, which raked in sizeable profit from the great Indian Film Bazaar, marked a quantum shift in market conditions. War movies that peddled unabashed nationalism became suddenly acceptable. How did these happen so suddenly, and why not earlier during the five decades following independence? What nexus does this phenomenon have with the rise of religious fanaticism and militancy? These are important questions to ask today, and whose answers extend far beyond the confines of popular cinema and mass entertainment.
Civil war movies
Broadly, the answers emerge at two different levels. One is the macro social-political situation and the other the micro situation within media itself. Within the world of media, the opening up of satellite television and the broadening of competitive telecasts has introduced heavy competition for the motion picture market. Producers have been forced to look for new subjects and treatments to wean audiences who had all-too-quickly defected to the small screen, as well as innovative techniques offering a grandeur that the television screen cannot provide, and new ideas that have necessarily to be explosive and controversial.
There was no need for innovation as long as the audience was captive, and you could simply rehash the tried and tested formulas, nicely packaged with songs and dances. But now war movies, even civil war movies, with hitherto untouched themes like insurgency and cross-border terrorism, emerged from the production houses. These films provide the possibilities of competing with television, bringing together as they do conflict in the storyboard, action/fighting, and the pyrotechnics possible with new celluloid technology.
While all this was happening on the media front, Hindu fundamentalism was flexing its muscles in the Ganga heartland. The destruction of the Babri Masjid was its first explosive expression, and for the first time competing TV channels brought such events to homes throughout the Subcontinent, on the hour, every hour. These events could no longer be ignored as isolated incidents in the border regions. Both Hindus and Muslims were confronted with the blatant expression of antagonism that had long remained below the surface. Meanwhile, the onslaught of TV news did not allow apathy, nor ignorance. The big screen, already under pressure, had no option but to respond. And it responded, by going all the way.
However, by its very nature, popular cinema is unconcerned about either analysing or depicting the truth. This was purely commercial material—unadulterated nationalism makes the cash register ring. In the flock of films that used insurgency or cross-border terrorism to sell tickets at the box office, there are a few which have more serious intent, probably to provide what the directors think is ‘meaningful’ entertainment. Two such are Gulzar’s Maachis and John Mathew Mathan’s Sarfarosh. Let’s take a hard look at them.
Love and gore
Maachis traces the conversion of the young male protagonist into a terrorist in Indian Punjab. A young man encounters human rights violations by the state and the most affected victim is a member of his own family, very predictably innocent. The protagonist is soon inducted into the cloak-and-dagger world of a terrorist outfit. But this is popular cinema, so he escapes into some breathtaking mountain locations for training, and there is time for some haunting melodies. Enter the love interest, the female protagonist sent undercover to eliminate the leader of the outfit. Expectedly, mayhem ensues and there is much letting of blood and gore. The hero ends up in jail, and the girl comes to his cell. Her ultimate act of love is the cyanide pill that she passes to him through her last kiss.
There it was—no mention of the issues behind the Punjab crisis, no recurrence of human rights violations after that one time, no seeking to explore political questions. All that we are left with is the hint, or subtle innuendo, that the mountain location is in POK, or ‘Pakistan Occupied Kashmir’. The visual clues are scattered about to indicate that it is the ‘foreign hand’ that corrupts innocent Indian youth. All said, Gulzar has used the situation in Punjab to give us a drama, but he does not scratch the surface of society.
The foreign devil is presented much more violently, blatantly and malevolently in Sarfarosh. Here, he is a Pakistani ghazal singer who carries arms into India for ISI, the dark Inter Services Intelligence agency. John Mathew Mathan—neither Hindu nor Muslim, neither Punjabi nor Kashmiri, but an extremely capable Malayali maker of ad-films—could have brought a more detached and, therefore, daring perspective to bear on the subject. Instead, his film openly subverts some of the very basic democratic and liberal-minded answers to the challenge posed by Hindu fundamentalism.
The ‘Hindutva’ leadership ma-intains that Muslims in India support a culture foreign to the soil, and the only way they can become loyal Indians is if they surrender, severing their links with pan-Islamic culture (read ISI). So absurd a contention can only be repudiated by a democratic-liberal response based on facts, and history, and the reality that Islam is inextricably a part of the mix that is today’s Indian culture, everything from the graphic arts, to architecture, and of course to Hindustani music.
Sarfarosh as a film consciously and openly subverts all the democratic-liberal implications of the mixed heritage of Indian art and culture. The villain uses the cover of his popularity as a ghazal singer to smuggle arms into India. See this in the light of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s refusal to allow the Ghulam Alis and the Mehndi Hassans to perform in his sacred Mumbai, and the subtle reac-tionary political-cultural position of Sarfarosh becomes amply clear.
The portrayal of the ghazal-singer-as-villain, ironically played by the Naseerudin Shah, very skillfully blends great artistic sensibility with mindless brutality. When he rips off a ear of a little goat with his teeth he reminds us of a Benvenuto Cellini, the Italian Renaissance artist whose diaries tell us of his double life as a brutal professional hitman.
It seems indeed a travesty that the script chooses a singer of the ghazal, which is the most popular form of Hindustani classical music, and the one form most accessible to the masses. This is where the travesty of Sarfarosh lies—carrying what must be construed as an anti-Islamic message through the very medium that catches the largest audience in India.
It is easy to dismiss mainstream commercial cinema as mindless nonsense, and that is precisely the way India’s intelligentsia and press treats it. This is why the insidious advance of cinema as ultra-nationalist propaganda has not been flagged as a most dangerous trend, one which is bound to lead to more Indian and South Asian instability.
The commercial visual medium manipulates images and situations to create and amplify enemity. It did not do so for decades, but now, responding to market dicates and political transformation, it has begun to. Yet the impact of ultra-nationalist cinema on the masses, and the depth and dimensions of its influence right down to the grassroots should never be underestimated.
Even more dangerous are the films that claim to be ‘different’—like Terrorist, which tells the story of a Tamil Eelam woman guerrilla who volunteers as a human bomb. She crosses over the thin strip of sea from Sri Lanka to the Subcontinental mainland. However, she is unable to proceed with her destined role because she finds herself pregnant. Here again, terrorism is shown to be imported. Once again, the political issues relating to the Eelam struggle never surface.
Popular cinema, and often its ‘serious’ counterparts, never try to reach for the fundamental ideological or moral questions behind political movements. And when you take that away from a portrayal of war, or civil war, what do you have left? Dangerous sensationalism, and the easy opportunity to subvert a democratic and liberal consciousness.
Good popular films are made either from fact or fantasy. That has been true from the very genesis of the fiction film form—either a movie belongs to the genre of Edwin Porter’s Great Train Robbery or Georges Melies’ Fantastic Journey. But today the best popular films are being crafted using a dangerous cocktail of both fact and fantasy, which confuses the mass audience and easily leads it astray. Thus, with the rise of the hawks in the Indian political scene, one must be alert to how much of a destablising and war-mongering role the commercial film industry has begun to take on recently. No longer is it possible for the educated and sensible to ignore or vacantly enjoy Bombay’s commercial output and say it is merely harmless opium for the masses. For the masses can get high on this stuff.
In which Lollywood gives Bollywood those ones
After fighting over Kashmir on the diplomatic front for decades, Pakistan and India have taken their disputes into the cinema hall, which can only fuel further animosity. Even as Bollywood learns to demonise Pakistan, a series of films released in the past few months by the Pakistani film industry, popularly called Lollywood for being centred in Lahore, have Indian human rights abuse in Kashmir as their themes.
“These movies are our rejoinder to a number of Indian films that linked Pakistani forces and intelligence agencies to subversive activities on Indian soil, particularly the insurgency in disputed Kashmir,” says film critic Shahid Naqvi in the Urdu-language newspaper Ausaf. But not all associated with Pakistan’s film industry agree that the medium should be used for political purposes. “We should be using the popular medium of films to reduce rifts and differences among people,” says Ejaz Gul, managing director of the governmentrun National Film Development Corporation.
Gul believes that films do have the potential to create wars: “Since the people of India and Pakistan have access to each other’s movies and television programmes, the producers should seize the opportunity to promote peace and harmony instead of promoting themes that fuel hatred.” Pakistani journalist Najeem Haider Zaidi, who works with a domestic news agency, agrees, “Peace is not an isolated effort made by governments.”
However, a large number of cinema viewers in Pakistan who have been put off by portrayals of geopolitics in Hindi films think that Lollywood’s new productions, Terey Piyar Mein and Musalman are a fitting response. “They have put down Pakistan and its forces over the last few years, (presenting) a bunch of lies,” protests one cine-goer, a student at a girls college in Lahore.
Still going strong in the cinema halls after its release in December, Terey Piyar Mein is about an Indian Sikh girl who falls in love with a young Pakistani man during a visit to some of the Sikh holy shrines in Pakistan. The boy follows her to India, where he is caught by an Indian Army officer who himself happens to be in love with the girl. Terey Piyar Mein ends with Kashmiri militants helping the Pakistani boy escape jail and cross the border into Pakistan, Sikh girl firmly in hand. In keeping with the government’s allegations about Indian atrocities in Kashmir, the film shows the Indian officer torturing the Pakistani man in jail. “I am glad that we have finally started using cinema for rousing feelings of nationalism in our young people,” said one elderly woman watching the film in Islamabad. “India has made many movies against freedom fighters in Kashmir that are viewed by our young.”
She was referring to the popularity of Indian films Roja, Border, Mission Kashmir and Refugee in the Pakistani home video market. These films, which depict the Indian view of the Kashmir issue, are being secretly rented after a ban by the government, which of course dubs them all as Indian propaganda. Video rental stores in Islamabad report brisk demand for Bollywood films, including the ‘anti-Pakistan’ ones. Terey Piyar Mein is not the first effort by producer Shahzad Gul to cash in on the ‘anti-India’ sentiment in Pakistan, quite naturally exacerbated by the rash of ‘anti-Pakistan’ films out of Bombay. A year ago, Gul produced the highly successful Char Kab Aao Gey, which centered on subversive activities of Indian intelligence agencies in Pakistan.
“It was the success of that movie which has made me work on such themes, as I realised how a majority in this country thinks,” Gul confesses. What Gul does not mention is the help he got from the Pakistani Army’s Inter Services Press Relations Department in shooting many of the scenes. Terey Piyar Mein, too, was made with technical support from the military’s public relations wallahs.
The military has provided financial and technical support to the state-run Pakistan Television in preparing the popular drama series Angar Wadi (The Valley of Flames), also dealing with the Indian military operations in Kashmir.
Critics and peace activists, however, are concerned that by exploiting and cashing in on nationalist sentiments the producers of these films and serials are hurting efforts to build trust between the people of Pakistan and India. “What are we trying to achieve through these movies? Simply, indoctrinating people with the idea that we cannot live in harmony with those across the border,” says Lahore journalist Najeem Haider Zaidi. (IPS)