Rise of ‘Hindutva’ cinema

Indian cinema hardly yields space to Dalit, Adivasi, or Bahujan protagonists. It continues to be an elitist, casteist project.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

A poster of the movie Swatantra Veer Savarkar outside a cinema hall in Mumbai.

A poster of the movie Swatantra Veer Savarkar outside a cinema hall in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: Rajanish Kakade

We know all too well that cinema can be an artistic enterprise that connects with audiences aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally. India’s popular cinema has largely preferred to stay away from intellectual ambitions, and using an intellectual lens to review cinema has been considered a niche and elite occupation.

The argument is that intellectual cinema is far removed from the concerns of the masses as people enter cinema halls not to be educated but to be entertained. A large proportion of popular cinema has therefore stuck faithfully to hyper-dramatic representations, song-and-dance routines, mythology, action, and the rest of the masala formula. This prevents audiences from engaging with cinema as a critical, aesthetic, and creative art form that can also enlighten. But a new genre that has become popular in recent times is centred around the ideology of hyper-communalism and hyper-nationalism. This entertains the masses but also serves the political agenda of the ruling class. There has been a sudden spurt of films that overtly represent right-wing political messages and endorse the policies of the BJP-led government.

Also Read | Movie trailers: The unofficial manifestos of our time

In 2023, films such as Gadar 2, Adipurush, Tejas, The Kerala Story, Mission Majnu, Ajmer 92, 72 Hoorain, and The Vaccine War were released; they unapologetically endorsed the communal stereotyping of Muslims, popularised hyper-nationalist characters, and built narratives around the centrality of Pakistan as a terrorist state.

Eve of the election

This year, a series of films was released with a potential to build communal tension and propagate the militant vision of Hindutva. Films such as Article 370, Main Atal Hoon, Conspiracy Godhra, and Bastar: The Naxal Story added an extra layer to the national debate: they were not quite fantasy or fiction but were promoted as quasi-documentaries, leading many to believe that they were factual.

Fans of the actor Prabhas celebrate the release of the mythological film ‘Adipurush’ outside a cinema theatre in Vijayawada.

Fans of the actor Prabhas celebrate the release of the mythological film ‘Adipurush’ outside a cinema theatre in Vijayawada. | Photo Credit: G.N. RAO

On the eve of the general election, the line-up includes more films with similar intent: Swatantra Veer Savarkar, JNU, The Sabarmati Report, and Emergency. These films are not only dramatic and engaged in propagating a particular political ideology but they also play fast and loose with facts.

In their defence, it could be argued that artists and filmmakers have the creative licence to showcase their talent and political expression. An ultranationalist film can also be seen as the legitimate expression of a filmmaker.

The relationship between politics and cinema is not new; the film industry has always served the political class. Post-Independence cinema overtly endorsed Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideological values and, on occasion, also played with narratives close to the ideological leanings of the Left. The important difference, however, is that none of these films rewrote history or misrepresented facts.

But to take the argument further, while acknowledging cinema’s deep linkage with political processes, it is a matter of concern that it has, on the whole, relegated all concerns related to Dalit-Adivasi and Bahujan masses to the sidelines.

The recent rise of right-wing political cinema only intensifies this tendency. Films of this genre celebrate Hindutva’s ideological slogans, and legitimise the leadership of the social elites. They divert audiences from engaging with the social and economic crises that plague the poor.

Early cinema and communal harmony

Indian cinema has always engaged with Hindu myths, the country’s superior cultural past, and its legendary heroes, the idea being to bolster cultural nationalism. Dadasaheb Phalke’s films were deeply engaged in endorsing this idea and directed audiences to celebrate India’s cultural distinction from the West.

Early cinema portrayed India as an example of communal harmony, multiculturalism, and secularism, which served the objective of the political elite of the time. While it can be critiqued as naive propaganda and for viewing India’s communal reality through rose-tinted glasses, what stood in its favour was that at the very least it did not tear apart the social fabric. Secular nationalists and the Left curated a cinema that they could instrumentalise to educate the masses about social harmony, social crises, and class-based inequalities.

A poster of the movie ‘The Kerala Story’ outside a cinema in Mumbai.

A poster of the movie ‘The Kerala Story’ outside a cinema in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: FRANCIS MASCARENHAS

In the 1960s, films such as Do Bigha Zamin, Jagte Raho, Mother India, Naya Daur, and Do Aankhen Barah Hath supplemented Nehruvian-Gandhian values to imagine the future prospects of new India. Popular artists and filmmakers such as Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, and B.R. Chopra showcased socialist-secular values. In the 1970s, the arrival of art-house cinema further strengthened Marxist ideological values, especially in films such as Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahi, Damul, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Garm Hava, and Nishant, which portrayed social and political realities without flinching while sharply criticising the feudal and capitalist order. Even in the 1980s, filmmakers did not hesitate to take on the ruling class: Kissa Kursi Ka, Pratighat, New Delhi Times, and Aaghat took a bold political stand against the then-powerful Indira Gandhi-led Congress.

In regional cinema, especially in the Tamil and Telugu film industry, narratives, characters, and artists were used as key resources to build political movements such as the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. Cinema elevated the stature of political leaders, such as M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, and was instrumental in mobilising the masses in favour of a particular political party. The film star Chiranjeevi used his popularity and fan base to launch a political party.

The ruling elite has always used cinema as a key medium for propaganda. In the period after the First World War, the Nazi publicity department, under the guidance of Joseph Goebbels, directed filmmakers to produce cinema that would evoke sensational emotions and nationalistic rhetoric and energise audiences about the greatness of Germany under Hitler.

The current communal-nationalist genre in Hindi cinema is following this narrative. Deeply infatuated with the ideological concerns of the ruling class, it has surrendered the creative acumen needed to make good entertaining or even meaningful films. Recent popular flicks overwhelmingly endorse the political language of the BJP and celebrate the government’s policies. Take, for example, the film star Akshay Kumar’s recent outings: Kesari and Samrat Prithviraj are hyper-national; Ram Setu echoes the BJP’s views on history; Toilet Ek Prem Katha and Mission Mangal celebrate central government programmes.

Other films in this genre, such as The Kashmir Files, claim to be authentic but are one-sided and embroider facts. Others stereotype Muslims either as terrorists (72 Hoorain), patriarchal conspirators (The Kerala Story), or anti-national (Hindutva). Sincere criticality or artistic excellence is set aside in favour of melodrama, illogicality, and overwhelmingly poor cinematic values. One can see the commercial motives behind the making of these films, given the guarantee of financing, tax breaks, and the additional hope of using the films to mobilise filmgoers who support communalism.

The Muslim antagonist

However, if we label this new genre as “Hindutva” cinema, the fact is that despite its claims to represent the concerns of all Hindus, the films hardly allow Dalit, Adivasi, or Bahujan characters to be the protagonists. All characters, symbols, and sociocultural representations on screen overtly endorse the ideas and values of the socially elite classes and castes and ignore the problems and crises of marginalised social groups.

A man works on the pavement in front of a wall painted with scenes from the movie ‘Gadar 2’ in Mumbai.

A man works on the pavement in front of a wall painted with scenes from the movie ‘Gadar 2’ in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: PUNIT PARANJPE

Equally, the perpetuity of the dominant-caste hero and the Muslim antagonist in the Hindutva genre entirely neglects the fact that a new educated Dalit class has also entered the corridors of power. In electoral politics, especially in Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh, Dalits have emerged as influential political actors and challenge Hindutva politics. They have a valuable voice in intellectual and artistic arenas and offer meaningful leadership to social and political causes. Importantly, in the recent past, there is a visible Dalit presence in right-wing organisations and political institutions as well. Despite this, there is no mention of caste questions, social inequalities, or atrocities against Dalits in these Hindutva-genre films that claim to represent the sentiments of all Hindus.

Earlier, too, Hindi cinema often invisibilised Dalits. When they did appear on screen, they were shown as powerless, wretched, or dependent upon the patronage of the social elite. The famous parallel cinema films of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Damul, Nishant, Chakra, Paar, and Sadgati presented heart-wrenching narratives of the exploitation and marginalisation of Dalits. While the Dalit representation here was admittedly stereotypical, the fact remains that these films were at least interested in presenting the world of subaltern masses. A similar possibility cannot be expected from Hindutva filmmakers.

Also Read | Editor’s Note: When cinema becomes a tool for propaganda

Admittedly, cinema is a commercial profit-seeking enterprise, and it inevitably serves the cultural and political interests of the social elite and ruling classes. The Hindutva genre appears to be a natural corollary to this truism, but it is distinct from left-liberal cinema in that the latter used the cinematic tool to inspire secular values, a critical outlook, and to highlight social issues such as caste atrocities and class-based exploitation. The Hindutva genre claims to represent historical events but ignores all histories except those that can be presented with a communal or hyper-national angle. Its cinematic expressions are of poor quality, lacking in creative appeal, and toying with facts to an extent that the very art of cinema is compromised; all it does is impress the government.

Filmmakers and filmgoers must understand this threat to cinematic art. Cinema, at the very least, is expected to authentically represent the social and political crises of the times and also narrate stories from the margins. Much of the cinema produced today is crippled by commercial logic; when it is also weighed down by political propaganda, it ceases be an agent of art.

Harish S. Wankhede is assistant professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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