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How nationalism took over Hindi cinema

In the sports film, the period drama, and the heist, India has been coming first. The possibilities for Hindi film nationalism now seem endless

Farhan Akhtar as runner Milkha Singh in ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’.
Farhan Akhtar as runner Milkha Singh in ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’.

I can neither see the names of the states, nor hear them. I can see only one name—I-n-d-i-a," Shah Rukh Khan says in Chak De! India (2007). A character in the film has just told Khan’s protagonist, coach Kabir Khan, that she captained the women’s hockey team of Chandigarh. His response sums up Shimit Amin’s film, the story of how a hockey team comes together in spite of sports bureaucracy and internal differences. It is also the story of how a disgraced Muslim player comes to a kind of closure with coaching the Indian women’s hockey team to an international victory.

There is a chapter we studied in civics or history in school; sometimes it was part of sociology too. It was called “Unity in diversity". Celebrate the differences across the vast Indian nation but come together for I-n-d-i-a. This film, Chak De! India, is a nice summation of this chapter.

Eleven years later, in Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (2018), this narrative is inverted. The hero, Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh), roars: “Mike Tyson hain Uttar Pradesh ke (I am the Mike Tyson of Uttar Pradesh)." The film, one of Kashyap’s strongest, is about the struggle of a talented pugilist from Bareilly to make it in the “sports quota" so that he can get a government job. Shravan doesn’t speak of representing India—the dream in nearly every sports film made in Hindi in recent years. He seems to be far more clear-eyed about the rotten sports bureaucracy in the country—he wants a job so he can marry his love, shut up his nagging father and live his own life.

Like any Kashyap film, Mukkabaaz is about a whole lot of things—it is a love story, a political commentary, but, most of all, it is about caste. Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Sheirgill), a Brahmin and the president of the Bareilly boxing association, decides that Shravan, a Rajput, will never play for the district because he talked back to Mishra and fell in love with his Brahmin niece. Shut out of the selection system, Shravan finds a Dalit coach, Ravi Kishan, who dares to take on the Brahmin might of Mishra. There are no lofty sentiments about setting aside caste differences for the sake of the country. Caste is everything here. This is your India, Kashyap is saying.

the poster for ‘Gold’, in which Akshay Kumar plays hockey legend Dhyan Chand.

This is an astonishing statement in Hindi cinema. Consider the recent sports dramas we have seen: Iqbal (2005), Chak De! India, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Mary Kom (2014), Dangal (2016), M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), Saala Khadoos (2016), Sultan (2016)—even the one that sparked Hindi cinema’s affair with the sports drama, Lagaan (2001). Each one of these involves securing the nation’s glory in an international context, even if it comes wrapped in more personal stories. In Sultan, it was a love story; in Dangal, it was the relationship between a father and his daughters; in Saala Khadoos, it was about personal redemption. But the narrative of nationalism, of rising above difficulties for India, is always there.

The tricolour invariably gets a few seconds of screen time. In Mary Kom, a subtitle during Priyanka Chopra’s final bout specifically requests viewers to stand up in honour of the national anthem. Only Lagaan does not feature the national flag; it is, after all, set in the pre-independence period. But with its direct anti-colonial narrative, it is, perhaps, the most nationalistic story of all—a ragtag desi cricket team beating a skilled British team kitted out in cricket whites.

The most pointed of these is perhaps Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which recalled Partition from the perspective of athlete Milkha Singh witnessing his family being murdered in present-day Pakistan. Singh is traumatized by his past, but when prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru calls on him, he does the true sportsman thing and travels to Pakistan to run a race. And when he runs, he wins Pakistan over with his performance, earning the sobriquet The Flying Sikh.

It is not only the ‘sport film’ and the ‘army film’—every genre of Hindi film today is marinated in national importance-

The relationship between sport and nationalism goes back to the days of India’s national movement. Thinkers like Sri Aurobindo, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and the Tagore family urged physical fitness, an idea that likely arose in response to the colonial taunt that the Bengali was effete, and the colonized native in general was lazy. This was the thinking that gave rise to the culture of sports clubs in Kolkata and organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, known for its emphasis on fitness and combat training. In 1911, sport offered one of the first significant moments of national pride when the Mohun Bagan football club defeated the East Yorkshire Regiment, an English team, to win the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield.

You see an Indian on the prize blocks holding the flag, the anthem playing in the background, and it feels like a part of you is standing on the podium too. This is the thrill that these recent Hindi sports dramas, many of them enjoyable, evoke. Mukkabaaz eschews this easy call to nationalism entirely; it deals only in the private dreams of a feisty man.

What’s interesting is that it is not only the sports film and the army film—every genre of Hindi film today is marinated in national importance. Consider the big-budget Hindi films released this year. Even though Padmaavat (2018) is set in the 16th century, when there was no nation called India, the film spoke of the foreign threat to a Hindu kingdom (this is the latest in a line of period films made on nationalist subjects over the past 20-odd years—Hey Ram (2000), the Bhagat Singh films, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Veer (2010), Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se (2010), last year’s Rangoon).

This year also saw another kind of period film—R. Balki’s PadMan—ending with Akshay Kumar’s low-cost sanitary napkin-maker making a speech about how important women are to the nation’s development. The possibilities for Hindi film nationalism are now endless. Towards the end of Mohit Suri’s Half Girlfriend (2017), hero Arjun Kapoor gives a presentation at the UN on his ambition to educate girl children in India, and references the prime minister’s “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" programme. Akshay Kumar’s 2017 film Toilet—Ek Prem Katha takes up another favourite project of the prime minister—the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s next is tentatively titled “Mere Pyare Prime Minister" (Mehra also made the Milkha Singh biopic.)

These films appear to have a particular crush on the current government, but a number of love stories since the mid-1990s have invoked a general love for India. The first appearance of such national love is probably Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), where the plot repeatedly referenced the “soil of the land" and Indian values. We saw another version of this in Pardes (1997), another Shah Rukh Khan film, where an NRI, or non-resident Indian, family comes to India to look for a true Indian bride and sings “I Love My India". Karan Johar’s films have repeatedly referenced this India love, almost always with reference to NRIs. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (2001), there is a sequence where the national anthem is sung at a British school function and the tricolour is raised.

Consider also the big films in the making. In Reema Kagti’s Gold, Akshay Kumar plays a member of India’s first Olympic gold-winning hockey team in 1948. Aamir Khan has reportedly passed on a biopic on Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian man in space, to Shah Rukh Khan. Salman Khan’s next is a film called Bharat, a love story set across 70 years of Indian history. Kangana Ranaut is making Manikarnika, a biopic on the Rani of Jhansi, who took on the British after the death of her husband. And Ranveer Singh plays Kapil Dev in Kabir Khan’s 83, on India’s first cricket World Cup-winning team.

Why this compulsive nation-gazing? Is it becoming difficult to tell stories without inscribing them with some national meaning? Why now? The Hindi films of the 1950s also had a vein of nationalism running through them—notably, Mother India (1957), Naya Daur (1957), and several Raj Kapoor films—but we were still a new republic then, still taken with a new identity. The Bollywood cinema that has taken shape over the past 20 years feels more anxious.

A film like Mukkabaaz, with its tart pride in the Uttar Pradesh identity and equally tart critique of caste, taps into another impulse now unfolding through various moments of resistance and political protest. Karnataka has designed a flag for itself. Last year, Tamil Nadu combusted with protests against the Supreme Court ban on jallikattu, a local tradition of bull racing. Observers interpreted the protests as a fight for the state’s cultural identity. Also in Tamil Nadu, there has been a defacing of road signage in Hindi. In West Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee granted official status to the Kurukh and Rajbanshi-Kamtapuri languages in 2017, and launched her party’s election manifesto in the Santhali language (Ol Chiki script) in 2016. Like our hero of Mukkabaaz, not everyone today is thinking of I-n-d-i-a.

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