Popular cinema may be deepening cultural fault lines
There are signs of a palpable thematic shift underway in popular Hindi cinema: period films are coming up at regular intervals, and some of them seem to be replete with a skewed cultural representation of Muslims, India’s largest religious minority.
Just a day ago, I happened to see the trailer of an upcoming period film to be released with much fanfare.
The film is Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat. And it is about the third battle of Panipat, fought in 1761, in which the army of Ahmed Shah Abdali defeated the Maratha forces led by Sadashiv Rao Bhau, the cousin of the Peshwa.
But the trailer brought with it a sense of déjà vu. The character of Abdali, played by Sanjay Dutt, bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji, played by Ranveer Singh, in Padmawat.
Both representations – those of well-known medieval Muslim warriors – are beastly in form. The hero of Panipat, without a doubt, is Bhau, played by Arjun Kapoor, just like that of Padmawat was Rana Ratan Singh of Mewar, played by Shahid Kapoor.
The two historical movies are examples of a palpable thematic shift underway in popular Hindi cinema: period films are coming up at regular intervals, and some of them seem to be replete with a skewed cultural representation of Muslims, India’s largest religious minority.
The third battle of Panipat, on which Panipat seems to be based, signalled the decline of the Maratha power over India after a heady rise after the death of Mughal emperor Aurungzeb in 1707.
Padmawat, on the other hand, was based on the legend of Padmini, the “queen of Mewar”, who -- as per Malik Mohammad Jayasi’s Padmawat, penned centuries after the purported event in faraway Awadh -- was supposedly coveted by the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji. Padmini, the legend goes on, committed jauhar to save her honour when Mewar was laid waste by Khalji’s forces.
Historians have rejected the story of Padmini as a myth, as it isn’t mentioned in any contemporary source at the time of Alauddin Khalji and Rana Ratan Singh. Yet, it survived in the legend and was made the subject of this movie.
Padmawat’s Khalji was a brute in every sense, willing to womanise just before his marriage and setting his eyes on Padmini soon after he got to hear that she was very beautiful. The historical Alauddin Khalji, who was credited with keeping the Mongols at bay, for his price control measures and also for his architectural legacy, is lost in the beast-like representation.
Abdali in Panipat is also beastly in form, as the trailer makes clear, and Bhau is seen as the legitimate defender of the motherland from this alien invader.
The Muslim warrior is the Other in both cinematic representations and the Hindu warrior is “our own” as a nation.
This runs counter to most nationalist historiography constructed from the 1920s, which claimed that the medieval times were days of deep and complex interaction between Hindus and Muslims, leading to a composite culture. Rajput kings, it was pointed out, became commanders of Mughal armies and also fought on their behalf against other Rajput kings, Mughal emperors from Akbar onwards married Rajput princesses, and signs of a composite culture in architecture, language and cuisines are difficult to miss.
This representation of India – which found its way into history textbooks in times when the Congress was in power – also came across in cinema for decades on end.
Not that this representation is historically the only one possible. There can be alternative histories that can highlight alternative facts – like the destruction of some temples by Muslim kings rather than grants to temples that they sometimes gave – to weave alternative narratives of cultural strife. The point, however, is that the history of cooperation and syncretism constructed since the days of the freedom struggle was politically aimed at sending the message that each community living in India was equally “Indian” and that no community was the foundation of the nation more than others, as it were.
This hegemonic political pitch in the days of the Congress was reflected for decades by mainstream Hindi cinema. Not just by period films but also by other movies. For decades, inclusive cultural representations of minorities were central to mainstream Hindi cinema of all kinds.
Hrithik Roshan’s Jodha Akbar saw Akbar as a conscientious warrior in love with his Rajput wife and also saw the Rajput prince played by Sonu Sood as heroic. It seemed that none was alien to India.
Among movies on contemporary themes, Amitabh Bachchan as Sikandar and his lawyer friend Vishal are the best of friends in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, so much so that Sikandar’s sister considers Vishal as her brother. Similarly, in the mega-hit Sholay, the village Maulvi, played by AK Hangal, at a time of much unease in the village Ramgarh when a resident, the Maulvi’s son, is killed by dacoits -- to warn the village to expel the two petty-criminals-turned-saviours Veeru and Jai -- inspires the village to stand for justice and fear just God.
In Aamir Khan’s Sarfarosh, which was on Pakistan-sponsored crime, there is the character of the Muslim policeman, played by Mukesh Rishi, which ensures that the movie does not end up Othering the minority community.
There is clear evidence that this is becoming a thing of the past, and popular cinema is not averse to painting historical figures in black and white, thus constructing the binary of the “good Hindu” and the “bad Muslim”. How such representations are received by viewers remains to be seen, but there isn’t a doubt that these were considered avoidable in the past.
Cinema was once seen as a vehicle for promoting harmony and syncretism. Now, it seems to be willing to become a vehicle for deepening cultural fault lines through skewed cultural and community representations.
A recent movie of Akshay Kumar, on the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi, also highlighted a battle where a handful of Sikhs purportedly took on a large force of Afghans. It is a different matter that a battle fought on behalf of the East India Company also lends itself with ease to a saga of “indigenous” valour, pertaining to the Sikhs here, vis-à-vis the Other.
These representations, it needs to be noted, are apart from movies on terror and also those where government policies are feted. Some recent Akshay Kumar movies fall in this category – movies celebrating government policies are beyond the scope of this piece -- and are often seen as representations that instil a sense of pride among Indians.
Popular cinema is indeed coming a long way not just from inclusive representations of communities but also from the 1970s’ days of the Angry Young Man, played with élan by Amitabh Bachchan, where the protagonist could take on the authorities and the system without his credentials as someone who loves his country being for once doubted.