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Communal and ethnic politics could cripple Indian film industry

SAM SUNDAY FEATURE-ENG-24-10-2020 (1)
Vijay Sethupathi and Muttiah Muralitharan

Before independence and for the first three decades after independence, the Indian film industry was thought to be a unifying and progressive factor in nation-building. But since the liberalization of the Indian economy and the parallel rise of Hindutwa from the 1980s onwards, the industry began to retreat from the old values and pass into hyper-nationalism, ethnocentrism and communalism besides crass commercialism. 

Ethnic politics has now crept into the Tamil film industry as seen in the recent controversy surrounding the making of the film 800,a biopic on the Sri Lankan Tamil cricketing legend Muttiah Muralitharan. While this is a new phenomenon in the South Indian film industry, North India has been seeing caste one-upmanship and anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments finding expression in films and in audience approval over the last 20 years, largely due to the rise of Hindutwa in Indian politics. 

Films are now seen as an instrument of partisan politics rather than a medium of free expression to air new ideas, or as an instrument of social change, with tolerance and social justice as the goals. An emerging factor is the unofficial ethno-political censors interfering with film production and exhibition. 

Case of Murali Biopic 

“Murali”, as the world-renowned Sri Lankan Tamil bowler Muttiah Muralitharan is known, was trolled in the media for not siding with fellow Tamils of Sri Lanka when they were subjected to military action dubbed by pro-LTTE Tamils as “genocide”. A couple of his statements gave the impression that in his view the Tamils had no cause. Murali’s critics said that the film 800 should not be only about his cricketing career, his professional trials and tribulations, but about the larger struggle of the Tamils to come up in life in Sinhala-Buddhist-dominated Sri Lanka. More importantly, it should show the “genocide” at the end of the war and Murali’s insensitive and pro-Sinhala remarks about the end of the war!

A vicious campaign against the film, waged mainly in Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora rather than in Sri Lanka itself, led to Murali’s asking the star of the film Vijay Sethupathi to opt out of the film. Sethupathi opted out. The fate of the film is now hanging in the balance. 

Larger malaise 

The scuttling of 800 reflects a wide malaise afflicting the Indian film industry as such. The US$ 2.5 billion a year industry has been coming under political pressure because of its tremendous reach and ability to shape people’s minds on a large scale. Competing political forces, unleashed by democracy, have targeted films and film makers to suppress inconvenient thoughts, ideas and opinions. These forces often decide a fate of a film, whether it will be released or not, and whether it’s content (and it’s stars) will remain as intended by the film maker. As things stand, the film maker has virtually no right to choose the subject he wants and portray it as he wants. Neither can he leave the matter to the audience to judge. The audience has lost it’s right to see the film it wants. With the State machinery and the judiciary also going by the dictates of these political forces (or mobs), the film maker’s autonomy and his constitutional right of free expression are fictional.

Malaise in Bollywood

In his paper on Bollywood’s travails, Vishal Langthasa recounts cases of mob justice and State interference since 2006. Some of the bans betray anti-Muslim sentiments. In 2007, Gujarat State banned Parzania because it was about a Parsi boy who went missing during the infamous 2002 anti-Muslim riots in BJP-ruled Gujarat. Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday on the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai was banned nation-wide in 2005 because it named names. In 2008, Jodha-Akbar was banned in several North Indian States because the Rajput or Kshatriya community accused the producer of making Jodha, a Hindu Rajput princess, the wife of the Muslim emperor Akbar. Until lifted by courts, it was banned in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Padmavat came to the point of being banned as it showed a Muslim King Allauddin Khilji pining for a Hindu-Rajput princess, Padmavati. 

In his book Indian Muslim(s) After Liberalisation, Prof. Maidul Islam points to the constant vilification of Muslims in Hindi cinema and how it has produced the image of a “Muslim Other”. In recent times, Bollywood has played an immensely influential role in producing myths, prejudices and stereotypes about Indian Muslims, Prof. Islam says.

Pranav Kohli and Pranav Dhawan, writing in Frontline (March 27, 2020), say that Bollywood films have used historical Muslim characters to shape the dominant negative public perception of Muslims in North India today. “With the Hindu right wing’s growing hegemony over political and institutional power, these cinematic representations add to a vitriolic atmosphere wherein Muslims are demonized and brutalized,” they say. 

“Four key themes dominate the representational scheme of Muslims in Hindi films released in the 1990s and after: (a) the “Muslim Other” as an enemy of the nation; (b) an imaginary notion of a “Hinduized nation” where Muslims are relegated to a lower citizenship status; (c) Muslims as a source of terror within the nation state; and (d) a conflation of Muslim, terrorist and Pakistani.” 

“Anti-Pakistan movies have become a recent favorite of Bollywood directors who want to produce crowd-pleasing cinema. Packaging hyper-nationalism as entertainment, these films depict Pakistan as the villain in whose defeat rests Indian national pride. These anti-Pakistan movies use cinematic representations of Pakistanis to raise problematic questions about the citizenship and belonging of Muslims in India, implying that all Muslims living in India are either black sheep or Pakistani agents.”

Kohli and Dhawan point out that out of the top 12 Bollywood movies that crossed the INR 300-crore mark in box office collections (except Sultan and 3 Idiots), ten did not have a single Muslim protagonist based in India. All the Muslims shown were Pakistani, suggesting that only Hindus could be citizens of India. 

“In recent times, Bollywood has turned its attention to historical fiction. Since 2016, the industry has produced a number of historical epics such as Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat, Manikarnika, Panipat and Tanhaji. However, Bollywood’s turn to history is not a turn to history per se but a turn towards Hindu history,” the authors point out.

Hindutwa’s takeover bid 

In a recent article in New York Times, Pritish Nandy says that themes conducive to the promotion of community-based nationalism are being used repeatedly, largely to the advantage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutwa policy. “Some Bollywood actors and producers have cozied up to the Hindu nationalist establishment,” he says. 

Referring to the on-going controversy surrounding the death of young Bollywood star, Sushant Singh Rajput, and the alleged racketeering in drugs in Bollywood, Nandy said: “The Hindu nationalists are hoping this sudden and unexpected assault on Bollywood will force the film industry into complete submission to a government keen on wiping out dissent and liberal ideas. They want Bollywood at their command, an accessory to furthering their exclusivist, majoritarian politics.” 

“Rajput’s native state of Bihar, which sends 40 representatives to the Indian Parliament, is scheduled for state elections in October. Mr. Modi’s BJP, hoping to strengthen its grip on power in Bihar, positioned itself as fighting for justice for a son of the soil who was murdered,” Nandy noted. He pointed to a BJP election poster in Bihar which said: “We haven’t forgotten. We won’t let you forget.” 

Nandy stated that as per a study by Michigan University on online behavior, the “murder” of the actor was amplified by members the ruling BJP and TV networks that operate as extensions of the Hindu nationalist establishment. Leaders and allies of the BJP supported a demand by the deceased actor’s family that a federal agency probe his death. And according to the Mumbai police, in the campaign to vilify Bollywood for “drug trafficking”, 80,000 fake social media accounts were opened.

Currently spearheading the Hindutwa lobby in Bollywood is actor Kangana Ranaut. She is now facing a police case for allegedly fomenting Hindu-Muslim conflict.