Cinegoers, Indians, countrymen, there is no simple way to show how we love our country.
Twenty years ago, two iconic Bollywood films tried it.
At the turn of the millenium, Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha exploded onto the Indian movie screens and the Bollywood box office, and rooted themselves in the soil of pop culture history.
While Lagaan swept up eight national awards and an Oscar nod, Gadar almost broke Sholay’s record for the most number of tickets sold, with a footfall of 50.6 million. It was also the first-ever film to get an early 6 a.m. screening on audience demand.
As period films about a righteous fight, Gadar and Lagaan stood apart from the surfeit of modern, globalised, and glamorous romances of the day – they gave us more than just a love story.
Lagaan, a sports film with lots of songs interspersed, is set in 1893 in the village of Champaner in colonial India, languishing under the tyranny of steep British taxes and drought. The hero, Bhuvan (played by Aamir Khan), is challenged by the cruel British army officer Captain Russel to a cricket match. If Bhuvan and the villagers were to win, the province would be exempted from paying tax for three years. But if they’d lose, they would have to pay three times the tax to the British.
On the other hand, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, an action film, starts in 1947 (the year India won independence), with the bloodshed and chaos of the Partition of India serving as the backdrop. The plot revolves around the life of a Sikh truck driver in India, Tara Singh, who falls in love with a Muslim girl, Sakeena, who comes from an aristocratic family with political connections in Pakistan.
Such was the influence of these films that today, a sprinkle of a similar brand of nationalism in your average Hindi film is a run-of-the-mill affair. Today, so many sub-genres like the social reform, women empowerment and sport films come under the “patriotic” film banner, and they are all anatomically similar in the way they construct Indian society and identity.
The “patriotic” film is typically hero-centric. “Films that give us an exaggerated idea of patriotism are nothing but a celebration of masculinity. We call the country our motherland but the patriotic land is actually a fatherland,” screenwriter and filmmaker Bikas Mishra told VICE.
Both Gadar and Lagaan put a generous amount of agency on the hero. Gadar’s hero, Tara Singh, is macho and promotes values of aggression, raw power and violence. In the scene that arguably makes Gadar – the hand pump scene – Singh fights off various platoons of the Pakistani army singlehandedly. He doesn’t have weapons like the enemy does, so he fashions one out of a hand pump!
He symbolises “Hindu” masculinity, an image that author and gender studies professor at the University of Victoria, Sikata Banerjee, contends is the consequence of the interaction between the British and Indian colonial elite in 19th- and early 20th-century India.
“The British had categorised Indian men as the ‘effeminate other’ by using a gender hierarchy rooted in a specific Anglo-Protestant interpretation of manhood – Christian manliness – defined by values of martial prowess, muscular strength, rationality, and individualism,” Banerjee says in her book Make Me A Man!. “Some Indian elite resisted this categorisation by forging an oppositional masculine identity that I term masculine Hinduism.”
This Hindu masculinity is constantly evoked by the right-wing even today. It is shrill and angry. It demands that the hero shout the famous dialogue from Gadar, “Hindustan zindabad hai, Hindustan zindabad tha aur Hindustan zindabad rahega!” (India lives long, has lived long and will always live long!)
With the suspense of an overdeveloping polaroid, Gadar effectively tugs at our heartstrings with heightened drama and non-diegetic sound. Singh protects the heroine, Sakeena, by smearing his own blood on her forehead in a symbolic gesture of marriage.
The echo of the siren song “Udja Kale Kawa (fly away black crow)” is heard throughout the film in scenes both sad and happy. It begs the Muslim woman (the signifier) and us “Indians” (the signified) to come back home.
“These are films that prescribe how men should behave,” said Mishra. “They should be brave and take on disproportionately strong enemies. For commercially entertaining films, the ‘stakes,’ as it is called in screenwriting parlance, are always high. In Lagaan, if Bhuvan does not win the cricket match, it means the end of Champaner. They will all die of starvation. In Gadar, Tara Singh has to rescue the love of his life and bring her back to restore their way of life. The heightened drama and the high stakes are what make these characters memorable.”
For women in these films, there must be nothing beyond the provincial life. “The moment you start demonstrating the virtues of masculinity, you have to start by showing women their place,” noted Mishra. “In a film that celebrates masculinity, women will be love interests, whose job is to look beautiful and serve the hero.”
Lagaan’s heroine, Gauri (played by Gracy Singh), is spunky and a thinking individual but without ever being given the opportunity to assert herself. Along with the other women in the village, it’s Gauri’s lot in life to darn shin guards and prepare lunch for the male cricketers. Unfortunately, to cling to the balm of anachronism to justify such character choices is to disregard the women of the Independence movement from all walks of life who truly deserve to become our patriotic ideal.
Ameesha Patel’s character in Gadar, Sakeena, is your garden-variety damsel-in-distress needing to be rescued from the clutches of a religion that is brutal and dehumanising to women.
According to Banerjee, women in the masculine Hindu culture are one of three archetypes: the heroic mother, the chaste wife, or the celibate masculinised warrior.
“Why is it never a Hindu woman marrying a Muslim hero? It’s because women are the custodians of cultural national identity and men are the preservers of it,” said film studies student Smita Dakhore, who has watched Lagaan and Gadar several times since their release. “It’s on the men to induct women from other religions into their religious fold while actively stopping women from their own religion from defecting. Look at how the 2018 film Raazi is framed. No one can imagine a Hindu woman being married to a Pakistani man even if it is for the service of the nation, but it is acceptable when it is a Muslim woman, because the idea is that she anyway doesn’t belong to us. Sehmat (the lead played by Alia Bhatt) becomes a celibate warrior for the nation. She never gets married again and contributes her only son to the Indian Army to legitimise his Pakistani provenance.”
The India of a “patriotic” film is homogeneous and traditional, moral and great. It is something to be inherited by “proud Indians.” In Lagaan, the “Gori ma’am’s” (Elizabeth, the opponent-ally character, is often called the “White Madam” by the villagers) desire for the Hindu male hero exemplifies our need to feel superior about our own culture. In an obvious scene, where Elizabeth is seen wearing a tikka on her forehead and a sari in the arms of Bhuvan, it’s the tedious playing out of the grand fantasy that even the white-skinned colonial master can be inducted into the Hindu fold. In the film, India is largely equated to Hindu culture, particularly as practised in the Hindi belt.
The slip-up in Gadar is unbelievably ironic. Antagonist Ashraf Ali, who has been in Punjab all his life, still calls the obviously Sikh Tara Singh a Hindu. He accidentally conflates all religions and ethnicities that are not Muslim under the general banner of “Hindustani,” whereas his background would have made him keenly aware of the distinctions.
Lagaan ignores its own polyphonic village community to give us token Muslim and Sikh characters, but its gravest sin is the representation of its only Dalit character. A name like “Kachra” (which literally means “garbage”) is offensive – even if the actor who played him speaks fondly of how fans still call him by that name.
Kachra is shown as docile, submissive and grateful. It is his disability that grants him access into the village team. In him, we find the depiction not of a Dalit man but of a Harijan – a word rejected by Dalits because it comes from a place of sympathy and condescension, where political and cultural agency is granted instead of asserted in the public sphere. (The term Harijan, meaning “Children of God” but now considered offensive, was popularised by Gandhi as a euphemism to avoid calling Dalits “untouchables” or other names that had a derogatory connotation.) The “patriotic” film ignores pluralism because cultural diversity is a threat to a single homogenous identity.
These films act as a conscription call for angry young men to resort to violence for any cause they deem just or even for exacting cold revenge.
“The voiceover at the end of Lagaan irks me,” said Samvartha, who teaches screenplay writing at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India. “Halfway through the film, we know the consequences of losing the match for Captain Russel. He is given a warning by his higher-ups and told that he would have to pay the tax amount from his own pocket and relocate to Africa upon defeat. The voiceover unnecessarily repeats all this even when the film had already had its natural closure when the people of Champaner won the match. But the voiceover, which narrates Russel’s consequent misfortunes, proves that this wasn’t enough, and we needed to know that the British had suffered to quench our blood thirst. It adds an element of revenge.”
It wasn’t always like this though.
Early Hindi Cinema produced films like Boot Polish and Shree 420, with a tendency toward civic nationalism. They appealed to all kinds of Indians to be tolerant of one another. The Outsider was absent in these movies.
Banerjee, in her book Make Me A Man!, points to two differing concepts of nationalism: cultural nationalism (a view of the nation defined by religion, language or ethnicity) and civic nationalism (which rejects cultural markers and favours a definition based on ideology such as democracy and legal rights). Cultural nationalism requires an outsider to define and justify what the culture of a nation isn’t, whereas civic nationalism is a loyalty to ideas such as equality, liberty and fraternity.
So, when did the meaning of patriotism shift from civic to cultural nationalism?
You could say it happened when several Indians started migrating abroad and an incipient fear took hold of us that the Hindu “Indian” culture might be diluted. The art-imitates-life approach might even convince us that jingoistic films are triggered by real-life circumstances like the Bangladesh War and, later, the Kargil War. Perhaps it’s political factors like the dominance of the right-wing National Democratic Alliance that encourages them.
Whatever the reason, as cultural nationalism in films is conspicuously trending today, the public space for individuality and diversity is steadily getting narrower. Rather than proving our Indianness, we are more often left trying to disprove our otherness. And once we implicate ourselves, we can never implicate ourselves enough.
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