Bajirao Mastani (2015)

By Meenakshi Shedde / Outlook India

The DNA of Bollywood, India’s mainstream Hindi cinema, is to peddle fiction, fantasy and dreams. So, when Bollywood dabbles in history, politics and religion, it is a given that the result will be stamped with its DNA—fiction, fantasy and dreams. Bollywood is entirely entitled to its fictions, but because of its tremendous impact, when it makes ‘historical’ or ‘political’ films with a right-wing, nationalist agenda, the results can be inflammatory and explosive, with the potential to communally divide and destroy the nation.

It is challenging to level charges of inauthenticity to a fundamentally fiction medium. Would you ask Shakespeare, was Romeo a Montague and Juliet really a Capulet? If you want authenticity, go read a history book, or watch a documentary. But documentaries can be fiction too, and docu-fiction is an increasingly popular, legitimate artistic genre.

Revivalism, looking to a so-called glorious and distant past, was the standard brainwashing formula of Nazi Germany, among others. To persuade people in difficult circumstances to believe that they, the majority, are being victimised by the minority, and to demonise the minority. Hindi cinema has a range of recent films dealing with history, politics and religion or a mix of these genres. A few examples being Padmaavat, Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi, Samrat Prithviraj, Uri, The Kashmir Files—all relating to ‘historical facts,’ but usually, facts have been shoe-horned to fit a prior agenda, or are mixed with fiction. The one-point formula is: brave Hindu defeats savage Muslim enemy via communal jingoism; the rest are past glories that may or may not be entirely true.

Padmaavat is a fiction to begin with, based on the poem Padmavat by 16th-century poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, who ends it with the words, “I have made up the story and related it.” Yet, the fringe group Karni Sena vandalised the film’s set in Jaipur for “distorting history”—before the film was even shot. Silly chaps, they could have laid down their lives for Bhansali if they had actually watched the film, whose deeply regressive climax had Rajput women commit mass jauhar (self-immolation), rather than fall into the hands of Alauddin Khilji’s men (Hindu fights Muslim enemy, check).

Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi was more a platform for Kangana Ranaut to show off her battle swagger, than about Jhansi ki Rani (be warned when heroine shares director credit), and there are clear Hindu nationalistic undercurrents: a calf is saved from slaughter, and there is dialoguebaazi about Bharat Mata and its betis. Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Samrat Prithviraj is about Prithviraj Chauhan, 12th-century ruler of the tiny kingdom of Ajmer—not even Rajasthan—who fought Mohammad Ghori (Hindu fights Muslim enemy, check), is partly based on Prithviraj Raso, a story by Chand Bardai, said to be Prithviraj’s court poet. Now what authenticity can you expect from a court poet, who earns his salary for praising the king? Still, there were reports the Akshay Kumar starrer’s first week shows were being cancelled because of low sales.

The Kashmir Files, which shows Kashmiri Pandits as victims of Muslim attacks (both sides saw horrific savagery and victims), is being backed by the government and declared tax-free in several BJP-ruled states. Cinema halls saw right-­wingers in the audience encouraging Hindus to crush Muslims and send them to Pakistan. Following the film’s release, there has been a further rise in attacks on Muslims nationwide. Therefore, given the majoritarian right-wing atmosphere in India, it is courageous of Sanjay Leela Bhansali to have made Bajirao Mastani (2015) celebrating an actual historical Hindu-Muslim union. The 18th-century ruler Peshwa Bajirao was Hindu, and his second wife, Mastani, was the daughter of a Hindu-Muslim marriage. But Bhansali followed it up with the right-wing Padmaavat in 2018, sending mixed signals.

Nor is the right-wing, nationalistic trend limited to Hindi cinema. SS Rajamouli’s RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) has a spectacular, inclusive, all-India appeal, that makes Bollywood’s right-wing films like The Kashmir Files and Uri look modest. It celebrates a fictionalised freedom fighter story, based on two real-life Andhra Pradesh political activists, Komaram Bheem (Jr NT Rama Rao ‘Tarak’) and Alluri Sitarama Raju ‘Ram’ (Ram Charan), set in 1920s India, with an explicitly glorifying right-wing tone. Yet, it is a cleverly inclusive film that also celebrates Muslims, a pretty Christian and tribals—but ends up with muddled political signals. Komaram Bheem (Jr NTR), a Gond leader from Telangana, goes to Delhi and runs into Alluri Sitarama Raju ‘Ram’ (Ram Charan), a police officer loyal to the Crown. They have a Sholay-style bromance as buddies-turn-foes-turn-buddies, before it becomes a Ramayana story with Ram and Sita. The film glorifies the right-wing—Ram the cop wears a janeu (sacred thread); transformed into Lord Rama, he wears a saffron dhoti, and people wave nationalist Vande Mataram flags with BJP-style lotus buds. But its hero Bheem also plays Akhtar, a good, brave, loyal Muslim, who reunites Rama and Sita. However, there are lots of mixed signals: Bheem the Gond pretends to be Akhtar the Muslim, who prays at a Shiva temple while making a snakebite cure for Ram. While checking all the boxes thus, the film falls between many stools—but the audience going for the big action doesn’t care about its politics. Ironically, this is V. Vijayendra Prasad’s story, who earlier wrote the pacifist Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and does a complete switcheroo here. Rajamouli’s previous actioner Baahubali the Beginning also had religious references to Shiva and Krishna.

What is authentic in cinema is debatable, depending on which side of the fence you are on. For instance, Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), is about how the British overthrew Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh in 1856. The British saw the Nawab as an effete man with 400 concubines, who whiled away his time dancing and singing. But Ray proposes a post-colonial view of the Nawab as a secular and generous patron of the arts, who is also a poet and dancer.

Bollywood appears to have no politics of its own, other than aligning with those in power—at the Centre or state. But equally, not many prime ministers have taken such an active interest in Bollywood as the current regime, and played passive-aggressive, throwing Bollywood off-centre. On the one hand, there’s the famous selfie that Bollywood stars and directors took with the prime minister in 2019. On the other hand, the regime appears determined to bring Bollywood to its knees. The Censor Board has become more right-wing, banning and chopping anything that it does not agree with. Additionally, anyone, it appears, can insist that its permission is required for “clearance” even after a film is cleared by censors, making Bollywood deeply uncertain of the future. Further, anybody can slap a lawsuit claiming hurt sentiments, stall a big film just before release, and blackmail the filmmakers. Muslims stars have been intimidated or sidelined, and even independent filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap have not been spared. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has already had informal meetings with Netflix, Amazon and other OTT platforms in an attempt to control what it calls “anti-India anti-Hindu content” (such as Leila) and show “real Indian culture and ethos”. That’s the next battle. So, no chance of a Bajrangi Bhaijaan today.

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