Secular surge

Print edition : November 19, 2004

A scene from Lagaan, a success story with a secular theme. -

Some recent movies produced by the Mumbai film industry project secular values, in a welcome change from the formula movies made earlier.


JUST when one had given up Mumbai cinema as a lost cause, all of a sudden, secularism has made a comeback - in big budget films such as Main Hoon Na, Lakshya and Dev, with the leading stars of today. While these films vary immensely in style and content, what unites them is that they all stand, in their own ways, for secularism.

Main Hoon Na is an unabashed fantasy, a popcorn romance, all froth. Yet, what the film does is quite remarkable: it shows a terrorist who is not a Muslim. And he is not a Pakistani either. He is totally anti-Pakistan, and argues for a strong, militarist Indian state. He does not wear saffron, nor does he mouth Hindutva rhetoric, but there is little to separate him from our friendly neighbourhood Bajrang Dal stormtrooper.

Lakshya is set on the backdrop of the Kargil War, but, remarkably, it does not indulge in Pakistan or Muslim bashing. It is an action-adventure film, which tells a fairly straightforward tale of how a boy becomes a man. Dev is more problematic. On the one hand, it captures quite well the trauma and the confusion of a Muslim youth caught in communally tense situations such as the Mumbai riots of 1992 - 93 and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. It also makes the point that if the police and the state wish to intervene, they are capable of doing so, and if violence does not stop, it is because the state does not wish it to stop. However, in order to make these points, the film depicts a police officer hero who cares nothing for procedures or for human rights - the opening sequence has him shooting a student who makes an obscene gesture, and later, faced with a demonstration that has turned violent, he orders a firing without any warning. However, in spite of its drawbacks, it remains an anti-communal film, even if it is not a progressive one.

That this is a significant trend will become clear if one recalls some Hindi films. In 1988, as the campaign for the temple at Ayodhya was hotting up, came N. Chandra's Tezaab. The villain in this film, Lotiya Khan, rules over a vast, teeming urban slum. In Hindi cinema, the Pathan is traditionally a `good guy' (Balraj Sahni in Kabuliwala and Pran in Zanjeer). Yet, the Pathan also evoked another, contradictory memory. In Mumbai, when the working class was coming into being, the Pathan was the moneylender and often also the thug, who worked at the behest of the factory owners to `discipline' recalcitrant workers. Tezaab refers back to that historic memory of the urban poor. However, the hero in the film does not have a self-conscious Hindu identity.

In Rajkumar Santoshi's Ghatak, the hero (Sunny Deol), is a Brahmin from Varanasi. He takes on the villains, a gang of nine brothers, led by the eldest (Danny). The villains, supposed to be Muslim, look outlandish - the leader appears in a fur cap and overcoat, and keeps a pet leopard. By the side of the hero, there is a young Brahmin boy, always dressed in a saffron dhoti, with tonsured head and `sacred' thread. When the entire basti (slum) trembles at the appearance of the villains, this young boy takes them on. In the film, the triumph of good over evil is the triumph of Hindu over Muslim. Similar is the depiction in Shool, where the good guys are Thakurs and Brahmins who overcome the villains, who are Muslims and members of the other backward classes.

An interesting film in this context is Priyadarshan's Virasat. A non-resident Indian son of a landlord comes home for a holiday with his girlfriend. Circumstances force him to assume leadership of the family after his father's death, and he has to marry a village girl. He finds himself embroiled in a dispute with his own cousin that partitions the village. After all efforts fail to make the `evil' cousin see reason, the hero kills him. The story may appear to be ordinary. Interestingly, however, for a film entirely located in a village, we never see a Muslim character. However, the family of the cousin is depicted in a manner that conforms to the communal stereotype of the Muslim. The conflict between the families, moreover, centres on a temple. Both claim they have a right over it, sanctioned by tradition and history. The conflict escalates after the hero opens the lock of the temple. The essence of his argument is: the temple belongs to us, why are we prevented from going into it? The viewers are simply expected to believe, and accede to, the hero's natural right.

A Gadar poster. Both films were released on the same day, but Lagaan, unlike the latter, found no imitations.-

Gadar Lagaan

THEN there are the war/terrorism films: Roja, Border, Sarfarosh, Pukar, Maa Tujhe Salaam, Indian, Hero, LOC, and so on. In all war films, the enemy country is the aggressor and the motherland the victim. However, there is now a new aggressiveness in these films, and it feeds on the fantasy that India's military superiority over Pakistan will result in the latter's annihilation. In this fantasy, a new, macho India flexes its nuclear muscles.

These films also reinforce the identification of terrorism with Islam. In Roja, the hero hurls himself onto a burning India flag to save it even as the villain, a Muslim terrorist, remains unmoved, deep in prayer; meanwhile, a patriotic song is belted out in the background.

Some of these films do, however, show a patriotic Indian Muslim character as a token. But more often than not, the terms on which this character appears in the films are often problematic. Recall Sarfarosh. Here, the hero, a Rajput police officer, has a Muslim subordinate who, early in the film, refuses to fight for India, saying that the country has given them (Muslims) nothing. To which, the hero says: "I don't need the help of any Salim to save my country."

Many of these films had started mouthing the rhetoric of the proponents of Hindutva. The Sunny Deol-starrer Maa Tujhe Salaam coined a slogan, which was picked up by the Hindutva brigade: Doodh mangoge to kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge to cheer denge (Ask us for milk, and we will give you kheer, but we will dismember you if you ask for Kashmir).

And then, of course, there is Gadar, the biggest hit of recent times. Gadar says some nasty things about Muslims, about Partition, about the relationship between India and Pakistan and between Hindus and Sikhs and so on. Take, for instance, the sequence where the hero converts to Islam in a desperate attempt to get back his wife. He is told by his father-in-law, as part of the conversion ritual, to say, "Islam zindabad" (Long live Islam). The hero does so. He is then asked to say, "Pakistan zindabad". This is a bitter pill to swallow, but the hero does so. He is then ordered to say "Hindustan murdabad" (Death to India) - which, of course, the hero refuses to say. Islam equals Pakistan equals hatred of India. Millions of people in India have seen, and liked, Gadar. Profit-making is the only logic that seems to underpin the Mumbai film industry, and it appears that there is profit in communalism.

On the same Friday that Gadar was released in June 2001, Lagaan was also released. Lagaan has an audacious plot, great music, a tight screenplay and excellent performances. Yet, what is significant about Lagaan is that the hero of the film, and all his associates, are poor, rural folk.

In the movie, one sees `Team Champaner', which has the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh triad, as well as people from various occupations and social standings, and a Dalit as well. There are three performances that turn the cricket match: the leg-spinner's hat-trick, which engineers a middle-order collapse of the rampaging English batsmen, the injured batsman's heroic innings, and the captain's century, capped by the last ball six. These feats are performed by the handicapped Dalit, Kachra, the Muslim Ismail, and the peasant hero Bhuvan.

Now, Lagaan was a big hit, but unlike many hits, it did not get picked up and turned to formula. Neither cricket, nor the rural poor, nor indeed Dalits, are any more visible in Hindi cinema than they were a decade ago. Even so, the film is actually quite remarkable in imagining a peasant-Dalit-Muslim combine leading India to victory.

It is quite interesting, and instructive, to see how one hit, Gadar, spawns formulae, while the other, Lagaan, though released on the same day, and full of elements that could help build a formula, goes virtually unimitated. What Lagaan did was to demonstrate that secularism could also make money at the box office, and it is on the back of Lagaan's success that films like Main Hoon Na, Lakshya and Dev have become possible.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor, director and playwright, and is a member of Jana Natya Manch, best known for its radical street theatre. He works as editor in LeftWord Books, New Delhi.

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