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Displaced Nationalism: Popular Indian Film’s Disconnect with the Nation

November 10, 2008 | By

In trying to demonstrate how the nationalist zeal declined post independence, these films re-evoke the patriotic ideals of nation building, because that is a viable location of pride in the nation, and possibly more attractive to liberal educated classes of Indians than the rhetoric of warfare.

In the introduction to her recent book Cinematic Imagination, Jyotika Virdi says:

“A scandal in cinema studies of the last few decades has been the lack of attention paid to Indian popular cinema, the world’s largest film industry. At a recent Society for Cinema Studies’ plenary a panelist’s speculations about the vanishing 1970s’ style energy in film studies initiated an animated debate. The discussion failed to acknowledge that underlying this stagnation is the field’s saturation with Hollywood and western cinema—that film studies stands at the brink of a sea change if we “unthink” Eurocentricism, decenter Hollywood/western cinema, and explore nonwestern film cultures, and that multicultural comparative film studies curricula will provide the sorely needed disciplinary reinvigoration.”

Displaced Nationalism: Popular Indian Film’s Disconnect with the Nation

The lack of critical attention towards the cultural presence of Indian cinema that Jyotika Virdi bemoans here is hardly the only problem that seems to plague recent Indian filmmaking. Like most films made in the Third World, Indian films have long suffered, along with the lack of attention from historians, a simultaneous disinterest from theorists of film. In a global scenario where most films are judged primarily by the accolades of the West, it has been difficult to emphasize the distinctive nature of postcolonial Indian films, let alone establish a theoretical basis for them. The most ironic factor in any current assessment of Indian films, however, is the two-pronged effect of the presence of a globalized economy and communications. Just as the means for generating an interest in and reaping revenue from postcolonial/third world films are getting enhanced, the content of such films is also increasingly being dictated by the dominant economic and cultural presence of the Anglo-American world. In India specifically, with the trend in the past few years being the self-congratulatory attitude towards a growing economy, it is no surprise that the popularity of Indian films is being understood as a reflection of India’s growing cultural impact on the Western world. However, as a number of film critics have been quick to point out, the films themselves have undergone transformations more intrinsic than ever before. Interestingly, the majority of such transformations seem to reflect colonial tropes, in the sense that much in the same way that India as a colonial space perceived by colonizers was not particularly focused on the native people, a globalized India has completed the metaphorical cycle, where once again, Indian films are not about India. Part of this change has been that the nationalist sentiments have undergone a detachment from the native population; given the current economic clout of the diasporic population, Indian nationalism has been displaced from the nation, and must now be defined with reference not to the actual population in India, but to people and spaces outside the nation.

Even though popular Indian film has been traditionally associated with the term ‘formula’, the implication often being that such films work from a set of rules with slight variations, Indian cinema has undeniably undergone a gradual change over the decades. I will discuss the evolution of Indian film in the past two decades, especially after India adopts the free-market economy in 1991. Vital shifts in current political thinking of Indians (and people of Indian origin) has led to a change in the portrayal of nationalist sentiments and Indian patriotism, and hence of postcolonial sentiments, on film. I have come to believe that the recent patriotic films produced in Bollywood, including Lagaan (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006) and Swades (2004), strive to create a particular brand of patriotism that addresses many of the problematic issues specific to India from a global point of view. In this paper, I wish to outline a theory for the changing nature of patriotism in Indian film, and its relationship to both the nature of the market in India, and the diasporic presence of the Indian population in the current century.

Tejaswini Ganti refers to unprecedented developments in the economics of the Indian film industry after India opens up the market in 1991:

While Hindi films have been circulating internationally since the 1930s, and have been popular among African, eastern European, Arab, and central Asian audiences for many decades, only recently have Bombay filmmakers been able to reap revenues from the international circulation of their films. Hindi filmmakers are now consciously seeking wider audiences outside India by opening distribution offices in New York, New Jersey, and London, creating websites to promote their films, dubbing films into English, Spanish, and French, and subtitling them in English, Hebrew, and Japanese… (37-8)

Displaced Nationalism: Popular Indian Film’s Disconnect with the Nation    Such immense changes have no doubt come to affect the attitude of Indian people about a number of things, including self-perception. The most noticeable aspect of recent Indian film, however, has been the change in their portrayal of nationalist sentiments and Indian patriotism, and hence of postcolonial sentiments. Even though patriotism has been a popular subject of Indian films, many such films would typically either celebrate martyrs of the Indian freedom movement (The Legend of Bhagat Singh, 2002) or merely utilize a strong anti-Pakistan rhetoric in order to fire up the kind of patriotic fervor that would fizzle out in the absence of an identifiable adversary (Gadar, 2001). Only recently do we discern a parallel trend in representing a brand of patriotism that would appeal to a wider range of Indian audiences irrespective of their location.

As far as the films go, recent Bollywood cinema, along with catering to the needs of Indians based in India, must also keep the five million diasporic Indians in mind. Popular Hindi films earn more money abroad than at home, and non-resident audiences are quite invested in the ideas of patriotism, because it helps create identity in a foreign space. Empowered primarily by their economic potential, they are playing such vital roles in the shaping of patriotism in Hindi film, that the very nature of that patriotism is being defined according to their tastes.

Kenneth Thompson says[i]:

The Indian film and television industry…, is a major exporter to countries with significant populations from the Indian subcontinent—notably to the UK, which constitutes over half the global market for Indian films, but also increasingly the U.S…It is significant that the high level of family-based video watching appears to be central to the reproduction of Indian culture abroad. (413)

It is evident, therefore, that in order to be successful, Indian films dealing with nationhood or similar ideas must provide viewers with a brand of patriotism that has a broader appeal. I am trying to suggest that the recent patriotic films produced by Bollywood are dealing out a specific kind of patriotism, a pattern that can address the various complexities regarding Indian nationhood—questions of language, pride and belonging are provided with possible solutions with regard to a global Indian population. In fact, many such attempts at representing this pan-Indian sensibility has been criticized in India for what it often is, a ploy to pander to the tastes of the diaspora, rather than to that of the native population. In the case of Indian films set outside India (like DDLJ), Ganti mentions how “The Indian press castigated Bombay filmmakers for their lack of initiative and imagination and diasporic audiences for their nostalgic and narrow taste in Indian cinema”(40). If we are to accept the argument of such critiques, it is possible to see how categories like nationalism and patriotism, traditionally tied to the very concept of nation, can actually be shaped by factors from outside the nation.

For many nations, the very concept of nationhood is grounded on a pride in the indigenous culture, be it for language or religion. Since none of these aspects are clearly identifiable as one or the other in India, the source of the pride becomes ambiguous. Indian patriotism is therefore characterized by a difficulty, on the part of whoever claims to have patriotic feelings, in identifying a clear-cut, single source for a sense of pride, except maybe a pride for the diversity of the nation. In other words, an ‘Indian’ identity is an imagined entity, complicated further by the colonial influence on the already variant cultures. The newest mode of patriotic films in Bollywood strives to create a sense of pride by appealing to pan-Indian sensibilities and by creating sub-categories that can at least go beyond the narrower boundaries of regional culture. It might be kept in mind that the sense of patriotism became necessary to India at the historical moment of demanding independence from the British colonizers. Partha Chatterjee’s critique[ii] of Benedict Anderson’s theory[iii] that nationalism is a concept borrowed from Europe, an essay titled “Whose Imagined Community”, mentions how “In India…nationalism proper began in 1885 with the formation of the Indian National Congress”(407). Logically therefore, once the period of extreme need was over, India had no practical use for patriotism; she could go back to being a collection of culturally diverse populations. However, patriotism has proven to be quite popular, and attempts to recapture it or to redefine on film it were inevitable. The task at hand for the contemporary Indian filmmaker is to salvage the post-independence ideal, to attempt to rejuvenate a waylaid nation, which, especially in the wake of globalization, has apparently neglected its history of patriotism. Of the two primary modes of dealing with patriotism in Indian films— sustaining the rhetoric of resistance and attack, and following the Nehruvian decorum of nation building— the latter has come to influence the newer brand of patriotism much more strongly; in the new patriotism that Hindi film seems to be creating for its audience, hostility towards an adversary receives less attention than organization and positive action. The entire rhetoric of postcolonial resistance in Indian film, therefore, seems to have undergone a transformation in the sixty years after independence, a gradual evolution occasioned primarily by the shifting position of the nation state with respect to a global economy. The distribution of economic power being as it right now, the creation of new nationalist principles does not rest with the native population any more.

Displaced Nationalism: Popular Indian Film’s Disconnect with the Nation

Two of Asutosh Gowarikar’s films, Lagaan and Swades might be said to represent the two different facets of Indian patriotism—pre-independence resistance to colonizers, and post-independence concerns with nation building. However, a closer look at Lagaan demonstrates that it is, like Swades, more involved with the rhetoric of organization than with offence or attack. Lagaan has been viewed and understood as a patriotic film, primarily because Gowariker’s inherent argument is that the patriotic metaphor was at work in India even before the rhetoric was. If we remember, the crisis in Lagaan is as follows: the villagers of Champaner, faced by a draught and an order to pay double their usual tax, decide to take up the challenge of playing a game of cricket with the officers of the British Cantonment. The challenge comes because Captain Russell thinks Bhuvan insults the game by comparing it to its native counterpart. There is no doubt that the contest that ensues is very inspiring in its use depiction of coming together in the face of opposition, dealing with internal factions and organization of the down-trodden. It might be noted, however, that the impulse behind such opposition has very little to do with resistance and attack. From the villagers’ point of view, nation as a concept is distant and vague. The adversary that the villagers must face is not representative, at least to them, of a power that has occupied their land. They must put up a fight because there has been a lack in the usual routine of payment of taxes through the claim for the double payment by. When Bhuvan and his mates come together ‘like a fist’, as they call it, the film-maker makes sure that there is sufficient diversity within the team—we have Ishmail, the Muslim potter, Deva, the Sikh and Kachra, the untouchable. This composition (a device that is well tested in earlier Hindi film) is indicative of the patriotic construct of diversity whereby the filmmaker creates an environment of patriotism even under circumstances where there is no conceptual understanding of the ideal. Therefore, Lagaan is more a metaphor for organization and strengthening from within at a moment of crisis than attack or resistance directed at a colonial adversary.

In trying to demonstrate how the nationalist zeal declined post independence, these films re-evoke the patriotic ideals of nation building, because that is a viable location of pride in the nation, and possibly more attractive to liberal educated classes of Indians than the rhetoric of warfare. This is a way to question what went wrong in keeping up the patriotic spirit, and re-establishing the pride in the nation through positive contributions to the rebuilding. This might be done by taking up responsibilities individually, be it for rural development in (Swades) or for the restructuring of corrupted political systems in (Rang De Basanti). It is interesting that in both of these films, protagonists stumble upon their responsibilities—they are not implicated in these developmental or revolutionary activities out of their own accord initially, but arrive at a situation where it becomes their moral responsibility to do so. In Swades, Mohan Bhargav is apparently satisfied with his life as a scientist at NASA, and his decision to pay a visit to his village in India to bring back his nanny with him takes an unexpected turn when he decides that he has a role to play in the uplift of this village. In Rang De Basanti, a group of youngsters are inspired by acting in a film on Bhagat Singh, the legendary freedom fighter, and subsequently decide to speak out against an incident of injustice. Now, the fact that both films choose such accidental involvement of protagonists in the act of improving the nation implies that any person, however insignificant or nonchalant, can be drawn similarly into the task of nation- building. This sentiment would obviously appeal to the audience, because it draws on unconditional inclusion of individuals within the field of patriotic duties. It is also possible to argue that this toned down version of patriotism is actually a function of the role diasporic audiences are comfortable assuming within another nation, where their expression of feelings for India must be controlled by their status as minorities.

Both of these films are also clearly sensitive to the tastes of the diasporic population and their concern with nationalistic feelings. Swades has a non-resident Indian as its protagonist, not only because Indians in the diaspora will identify with him, but also because he is apparently an unlikely candidate for exhibiting strong patriotic feelings. So when he is moved by the plight of his country and offers to ‘light his bulb’, the action is much more moving to millions in the diaspora, for whom this might be an assertion of potential roles of immigrants in the uplift of India. Both Swades and Rang De Basanti use an outsider’s view to shed light on the dire state of affairs within India—both Mohan and Sue were practically unaffected by these conditions in their ordinary lives, but once they become involved in it, they are drawn into the events. They are both outsiders looking in, albeit in different ways— Mohan wishes to maintain a certain distance with Charanpur, as his arrival in an RV indicates; Sue slips into the ordinary existence of Delhi from the moment she arrives. However, as outsiders, they are able to see what ordinary Indian citizens fail to see, and can therefore act as a force that helps to bring internal agencies together. Theirs is the vision of the diasporic audiences, who are similarly outsiders looking in to what they essentially identify with, but also possess the objective distancing that allows them (they think) a certain self-critique or evaluation. Mohan is the typical disillusioned non-resident who initially expresses his lack of belief in the system, when Geeta points out that she is at least offering to help by working at the grass-root level, while he simply chooses to be dismissive of any positive action. The filmmaker is reaching out to his diasporic audience by challenging them to reassess their critique of India, and replace it with a more positive ideal of rebuilding. Indian patriotism is therefore endowed with more palpable and positive sensibilities thorough the portrayal of Mohan’s involvement in the fate of his village.

Displaced Nationalism: Popular Indian Film’s Disconnect with the Nation It might also be noted that foreign locales are no longer intended to add to the glamour of films; except for a few glimpses of Mohan Bhargav’s life in the United States, Swades seems little concerned with natural locations and glamorous cityscapes from outside India, elements that were key selling factors for Hindi film till quite recent times. Similarly, when Rang De Basanti offers flashbacks of Sue’s life in London, it is through unimpressive indoor shots of her workplace. In other words, these locations are not important because they are exotic or impressive any more, but because they create familiar backdrops for a large part of the audience. Conversely, India becomes a glamorous location, a place romantic and beautiful enough to evoke nationalistic feelings. The squalor of rural India magically transforms into a set of exquisite visuals in Swades—romantic and artistic huts, beautiful swaying fields of paddy or mustard, and vibrant religious festivals. The Ramleela, for example, is typical of the Indian exotica that apparently appeal to a global audience and is therefore a reason for making Indians proud. Similarly, Jantar Mantar transforms into a romantic fire-lit hub for trendy youngsters in Rang De Basanti, a club-like atmosphere that simultaneously proclaims its ancient heritage. Contrary to the earlier confusions regarding the location of pride, there is now a new and exotic India that, visually at least, appeals to a global audience, which, by virtue of their displaced status, unwittingly assumes the gaze of the outsider/Westerner. The obvious parallel, once again, is the colonial gaze; it is as if the nation has been displaced from itself, and must now look upon itself from an outsider’s perspective.

Displaced Nationalism: Popular Indian Film’s Disconnect with the Nation

It might not be correct to assume that this displaced nationalism is the only form of nationalism available to India now. As always, the complexity of the Indian nation makes other forms simultaneously available. Hindu fundamentalism, whether we like it or not, has attempted to redefine India as a nation on the basis of religion, and regional cultures continue to create newer forms of nationalism and patriotism. Given the cultural presence of popular films, however, it is impossible to deny how the diaspora now seems to have the capacity to redefine Indian patriotism by displacing it from the nation itself, turning it into something that is at least unfamiliar to Indian audiences so far. We must admit that by taking into account the new kinds of desires in the audience, popular films are gradually shaping Indian nationalism to a version that is potentially more suave than earlier, and by moving away from the rhetoric of attack, it is slowly projecting a celebratory attitude that helps to underscore the elements of pride in Indian culture, not simply in terms of the content, but in the very manner of presentation. The concern, if indeed there is one, is created by the apparent detachment of the sentiments from the actual native population, and an ironic reflection of Western attitudes of looking at India in diasporic Indian populations. Even as this new form of nationalism seems to provide a more sophisticated and positive outlook on the future of Indian patriotism than was possible earlier, as a postcolonial nation, we must be aware of its connection to a global economy still driven by hegemonic Western nations before celebrating such a form of nationalism.

[i]Thompson, Kenneth. “Border Crossings and Diasporic Identities: Media Use and Leisure Practices of an Ethnic Minority”. Quantitative Sociology, Vol 25.3,2002.

[ii]Chatterjee, Partha. “Whose Imagined Community”. Journal of International Studies, Vol 20.3, 1991.

[iii] Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1991.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Aparajita Sengupta has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Kentucky. She worked on postcolonial elements in Indian Cinema. She taught postgraduate college in India for some time, and is now a full-time organic farmer.
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