The Dark Side of a Beloved Industry

Nishanth Araveti

                  photo by Mandy Aw

With the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 11, 2019 came the first time that religion had been used as criteria for citizenship under Indian law. Just a month earlier, the highest court in India passed the motion for the construction of a massive and grand Hindu temple at the site of the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque purportedly built on the grounds of Ayodhya (the mythical birthplace of the Hindu god Rama) and illegally destroyed by right-wing Hindu nationalists. Both of these monumental events are part of a rising tide of Hindu nationalism that is sweeping the country under the ruling BJP party and Modi. Both also occurred just a month before the release of the latest hypernationalistic Bollywood movie; a multicrore star-studded release reinforcing the dichotomy of Hindu and Muslim, Good and Evil, the latest in a long line of jingoistic films pandering to the Hindutva agenda of the BJP affirming the national identity of India as primarily upper-caste and Hindu. Traditionally seen as one of the main cultural exports of India, Bollywood has risen to function as the thing that has come to define much of Indian identity and culture as well as an exercise in soft power given the large non-resident Indian (NRI) population. As such, Bollywood has come to function as a reflection of Indian society and national identity, as it both shows and furthers different agendas within India such as the Hindu nationalist movement.

One of the most prominent forms of ideological pandering present in Bollywood films has been the conflation of nationalism and religion. Best expressed in Manikarnika: Queen of Jhansi, a recent biopic centered on Queen Laxmibai of Jhansi (a famous freedom fighter), such conflation necessarily excludes the Islamic faith to ascertain that India is first and foremost, a Hindu nation. The story focuses on the queen of Jhansi (the titular Manikarnika) in her war to defend Jhansi against the British as part of the Hindu Maratha Empire. Despite the historical grounding, the film inserts certain creative liberties that shift the meaning of the movie from a patriotic tale to one that is intensely nationalist and pro-Hindu. 

Manikarnika’s war cry is in Sanskrit and her flag bears the likeness of Hanuman, a Hindu god despite being part of the Maratha Empire, whose flags were commonly either left plain or with a lion sigil. In another scene, when a spy is found to be the queen's confidante, he is told that he has betrayed not just the country but also their religion, gratuitously interlacing the two freely in the same way as the movie does. However, the same repercussions do not befall another Hindu spy. Nor is Manikarnika an isolated incident.

The conflation of nationalism and faith present not only in the films but also in BJP rhetoric thus defines the ideal Indian as one who is Hindu which then necessitates the othering of the Muslim community. One of the main ways that this occurs in India is through the creation of a false dichotomy between meat-eating and the concept of being Hindu. One recent speech by Prime Minister Modi referenced something called the “Pink Revolution,” the Prime Minister’s term for the rising wave of riots over meat-eating. The concept of Meat vs Vegetarianism reflecting Muslim and Hindu differences is echoed in the movies as well. In a popular and viral scene from Manikarnika, the queen rescues a goat from the British Invaders and lectures them on knowing the values of the land they stand on, a needless redefinition of the values of the land as Hindu values.

The concept of meat-eating as a supposed personal affront to the country ties into a larger narrative used by Bollywood stereotyping Muslim characters by showing them as prone to supposed “perversions”. In Padmaavat, the film recounts a centuries-old epic depicting the sack of the Hindu Rajput kingdom of Chittoor by the Muslim king Alauddin Khilji and the sacrifice of the queen of Chittoor. In contrast to the Hindu king whose dainty and prim bites from a classic Indian thali indicate a more vegetarian fare, the Muslim king is seen throughout the movie baring his teeth as he rends the flesh from bone on a massive chunk of meat. Additionally, in the climax scene, as the Hindu king defending the fort of Chittor and the invading Khilji go head to head in single combat, we see the defining nature of Khilji's brutality. Not only is he soaked in blood and rancid furs against the prim and proper Hindu Rajput king dressed in bronzed armour, but his fighting style is entirely different: repeated and barbaric swings punctuated with grunts as opposed to the traditional swordsmanship of his opponent. As the scene comes to a close and the Hindu King is about to win, he authorizes the archers to fire and thus violates the rules of single combat - something the Hindu Rajput side is shown as never even thinking of doing. Khilji's brutality, but more so his dishonesty is put on display here as the two archetypes of the Hindutva movement face off against one another: the barbaric and dishonest Muslim against the honorable and proper Hindu. 

The distortion of history in favour of one particular narrative becomes clear when compared against written history. In contrast to all the historical records existing of Alauddin Khilji, the historical king of Delhi in the 14th century, the movie presents him as a barbarian covered in scars, dirty black furs, unkempt shoulder-length hair and eyes drenched in kohl. His "lusty chomping of huge chunks of meat" and heavily implied sexual relationship with his male slave general only stokes the negative imagery surrounding him. Despite not actually being as the movie portrays him, Khilji is vilified and scapegoated for the Hindu nationalist narrative - his food habits and falsified sexuality are put on display to create a common enemy.

Although it has become clear that Bollywood cinema is inherently political in that it is affected by current events and governmental shifts, one might argue that it truly has no effect on the subsequent policy or national identity of India being a byproduct of the two. While this is true in that there stands no record of Bollywood ever directly influencing policy, its intense effect on both youth movements as well as common populace through endorsements and overt themes ensure the furthering of policy in a vicious cycle. For example, a well known Bollywood actor's interview with Modi on the eve of one of India's most pivotal elections was not about anything political as it was expressly stated not to be, but about things like "Mangoes, movies, and jokes" as one writer puts it, a propaganda fest for Modi and his party with one of the most influential men in the nation - and it's not the prime minister. Bollywood and its biggest stars have historically been compliant to ruling parties from helping clean Modi's image following the 2002 Gujarat riots to clamoring for photos with Indira Gandhi following her controversial state of emergency declaration where she took control of the government to rule by decree. Currently, Bollywood has grown increasingly compliant to Modi and the BJP with many of the most well-known actors supporting the political party and their platform. Those that have not kowtowed the BJP have been the victims not only of industry-wide shunning but also public outrage. The BJP’s active hand in promoting their views in movies is visible in things like the riots surrounding the movie Padmaavat where the paramilitary wing of the BJP party and a number of other right-wing Hindu nationalist groups campaigned against the movie to have a more filtered view of history. Not only have filmmakers been harassed to match their movies to this vision but so too have roads been renamed and architecture criticised. By influencing the main forms of media consumption as well as physical markers to effectively rewrite history in their favour, the Hindutva movement both achieves their goal of portraying India as first and foremost a Hindu nation as well as cheapening the rich Muslim heritage of the nation as well. As such, the government effectively minimizes Muslim Identity as part of the national identity and thus uses Bollywood as a tool of propaganda. Indeed a recent movie with an interesting subject matter highlights the shady affair that exists between the two entities of state and media. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, centers around the struggles of a married man to bring a toilet into his house despite opposition from his traditional father, a direct throwback to Modi's policy to make India free from open defecation, a necessity in many villages. Although the movie does not expressly show any of the more controversial platforms of the BJP and instead focuses on the program for common good. But it is an example of the relationship that exists between India's ruling party and its biggest form of media consumption.

Perhaps the one policy that has been influenced the most by this shift to support the Hindutva program in mass media has been India’s Citizenship Amendment Act. The act itself concerns an expedited citizenship process for non-muslims that sought refuge before 2014. Widely perceived as an affront to the Muslim community and discriminatory, to say the least, it launched a period of protests and a discussion of India’s status as a secular nation. Indeed, the government of India has recently hosted a dinner for some of the industry's most prominent stars about the Citizenship Amendment Act presumably to pitch the future of the act and drum up support. Although it is easy to question just how much of an impact Bollywood has on the political beliefs of the nation, the truth is it does play an impact in movements and in the form of soft power around the globe.

According to prominent and celebrated director Mahesh Bhatt, one of Bollywood's greatest impacts is that it furthers the illusion of support for the ideals expressed in the film and thus creates a conducive environment for the rise of such ideology. And so, with the passing of this bill and predicted wave of more hypernationalistic flicks, India finds itself at a crossroads as a nation - choosing between becoming first and foremost a Hindu nation or maintaining its historical tolerance. As a nation built on diversity and color, the upcoming local elections deciding members of the government decide just how much diversity the nation is willing to accept. In a world, where product and idea placement insidiously have hands in everything, it becomes all too important to recognize sources of implicit bias.