India at the box office

Aug 15, 2013, 00:47 IST | Subhash K Jha

It is THE END for the traditional patriotic film, while nationalism gets a new, contemporary and sometimes jingoistic spin

At a time when there is a lot of cross-border tension, it seems cinema has become a mirror for reality. Gone are those old, traditional ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’ chest-thumping movies. In some cases, Pak-bashing has become the new signature tune of patriotism. This needn’t be so.

MILKHA WAY: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Farhan Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor and Prakash Raj at the success party of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag Pic/Satyajit Desai

Says Rakeysh Mehra, “Cinema and politics should be kept completely separate from one another. Cinema should have its own point of view. Mumbai became the centre of filmmaking after azaadi. There was Prabhat Theatres in Pune and the Marathi film industry was very evolved. Then, immigrants like Prithviraj Kapoor, P C Baruah, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Manoj Kumar made Mumbai their homes and built studios here. The entire film fraternity was in Mumbai. Nowadays, it’s very difficult for a small-town filmmaker to get a foothold in Mumbai. Circumstances in Mumbai are also not conducive to encouraging their creativity. It’s time colleges and universities across the country introduced courses in cinema and filmmaking. A sense of nationalistic pride will emerge from there.”

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Mehra sees a palpable absence of history in today’s cinema. Even when there is, it is through the prism of romance. Pakistan-bashing, says Rakeysh, is a festering phenomenon in our films. “For a very long time we have nurtured a hatred for our neighbours, and they did the same for us. We need to grow more confident about individual talent and about the millions of Indian stories that wait to be told.”

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Bedabrata Pain whose recent patriotic film Chittagong garnered good reviews feels Pak-bashing in films is symptomatic of a larger sickness. “It is an accepted cliché that art imitates life. Sometimes, we fail to recognize just how much. The portrayal of patriotism in terms of chauvinism -- that chest-thumping-flag-waving-neighbour-cursing variety -- happens for a reason. After 66 years of independence, when the question of nation-building has appeared in a most acute way, it is this endeavour that has taken a back seat. The expediency of chauvinism has taken firm root, because after all chauvinism is an easy refuge for every scoundrel.”

Manoj Kumar, who made so many of Bollywood’s most popular patriotic films in the past, feels that Pak-bashing is perhaps a sign of a growing intolerance within the country against external aggression. “When the common man feel his freedom is being attacked from the outside he is bound to react aggressively. I feel cinema can go a long way in inducing nationalistic passion in civilians. And that would motivate them to join the army. Civilians have stopped joining the army in large numbers because they have forgotten to be good citizens. In order to be a true Indian you must first learn to be a good family man, then a good neighbour in your locality, then a good member of your city and then a good countryman.”

Cinema today, feels Manoj Kumar, does not reflect any nationalistic fervour. “There are some efforts like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Milkha Singh represents a golden chapter in our heritage history. He may have lost the gold medal at the Rome Olympics. But I feel he has won it now through this film.”

Manoj Kumar would love to make another patriotic film. “But whom will I cast in the lead? The biggest asset for the writer-director Manoj Kumar was the actor Manoj Kumar. I played the lead in all my patriotic films, Upkar, Purab Aur Paschim, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Kalyug Aur Ramayan. I didn’t need to pay the lead star. Today stars control the film industry and its economics. And you can’t blame them. Producers voluntarily pay them their staggering fees. One of the corporate houses approached me to make a film for them, praised my music sense and storytelling, and then asked which actors I can get them. I said Ram Mohan and Prem Chopra. Instead of focusing on what I’ve achieved and what I can do, they want to know what stars I can bring in. Do stars even listen to scripts?”

Filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan thinks the Manoj Kumar brand of patriotism is no longer relevant. “I guess the atmosphere of the ’60s and ’70s no longer exists. Manoj Kumar’s themes and treatment were more palatable to audiences then. But Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se or Bedabrata Pain’s Chittagong doesn’t find the same enthusiasm among the new generation. Is patriotism on the wane? I can’t really say. But filmmakers feel it is too dry a subject for ‘students of the year’. Hence the understated approach in my forthcoming biopic, Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File, which tells the story of a freedom fighter’s struggle for identity in a country he fought to free. The film is directed towards the disillusionment of today’s youth and a new socio-political awareness that hits them. Not every common man can become Anna Hazare or Arvind Kejriwal. Their wars are silent. No sloganeering, fasts or fist-raising pontification.”

Rensil d’Silva, whose film on terrorism, Kurbaan, couldn’t crack the box office, thinks patriotic films are passé. “They are thought to be more serious in content. Right now mindless entertainers are the flavour.”

Rahul Dholakia, who made the vivid film Lamha on Kashmir militancy, says, “We can’t have patriotic films because they can’t have item numbers, double-meaning dialogues and jokes about every race and community. Such films rake in Rs 100 crore. We are more fascinated by Dawood than by Sardar Patel.”

Says Bedabrata Pain, “It is a fine sentiment to say ‘mera bharaat mahan’. Who does not want his own countrymen to be lifted out of their morass and prosper and become shining examples in the world? But it takes real courage to recognize and admit what we haven’t achieved, and jump in to solve the problem. Patriotism is not just about the national anthem, not just about painting your face in tri-colours, it is first and foremost about the deep and unflinching love for your country-people. It is easy to rouse people by looking outward, by proclaiming one’s real or supposed supremacy over the other, by denouncing the real or imagined ‘foreign enemy’. But nation-building is a difficult, arduous and often thankless task. It requires patience, forgiveness, and hard work. It doesn’t come with quick gratification or publicity blitzes.”

Pain feels patriotic films require an excess of dedication on the part of the filmmaker. “It is actually a serious challenge to our creativity -- artists, film-makers or whatever have you -- to make these honest stories attractive to the audience. Yes, it is far easier to tell a story of a gangster or of two lovers, but it takes real craftsmanship to tell the story of mother India.”

Filmmaker-thinker Muzaffar Ali says cinema has the clout to generate a sense of collective amity in people. “The power of our nationalism lies in the healthy evolution of a secular democracy, which in today’s context is possible through the language of moving images as has happened in the US.”

Ali blames the anti-Pakistan brand of Bollywood patriotism on our political bankruptcy. “In the absence of an internal agenda we keep falling into Pak-bashing which helps them more than it helps our image and self-esteem. This task has been left half-baked since 1947, when we got freedom at the cost of a deep communal divide. Our nationalism lies in understanding and strengthening the principles of those values of independence and delving into the cause and effect of the colonial rule that the country witnessed from 1857 till 1947, which should have been explored through cinema.”

Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha, which opens this month, features Amitabh Bachchan as a Gandhian crusader battling contemporary corruption. Says Jha, “It is a film about national awakening. Satyagraha is my most patriotic film to date. Some people think it’s about Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption. But why should I model my hero on a contemporary crusader when Mahatma Gandhi’s image and ideology are so vividly etched in the nation’s collective conscience? The fight in my film is to revive the values that the Mahatma left behind. But we can no longer fight corruption passively. The fight needs muscle and strength. Today’s patriot needs to rise in revolt and say, ‘Enough’ to corruption.”

Also see: ‘Freedom, Inherited’ in Hitlist 

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