Recently, high on the success of Gadar 2 (2023), actor Sunny Deol appeared for an interview with BBC’s Haroon Rashid. Deol spoke with his characteristic lack of eloquence about feeling overwhelmed by the response to Gadar 2, admitted to not having watched either Gadar 2 or Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani (2023), and indulged in a little critic bashing (“Everybody is questioning too many things,” Deol grumbled at one point). Rashid told Deol that while he’d enjoyed a lot of Gadar 2, there were some parts of the film that felt uncomfortable, like the Kalima being part of the background score whenever the Pakistani villain unleashes himself. (Unfortunately, Rashid doesn’t ask why Tara Singh casually conflates Sikhism and Hinduism. If Deol or someone from the Gadar 2 team deigns to grant an interview in India, perhaps we’ll get an answer.) Deol’s response to Rashid: “Don’t take this film so seriously.”
Maybe if Deol had actually watched his own film, he’d have had a better comeback because as it turns out, Gadar 2 is not a 170-minute campaign of bigotry. If anything, it’s blunt about its humanism. Standing up to the crazed Major General Hamid Iqbal — who, incidentally, has been turned into this epitome of evil because he’s witnessed terrible anti-Muslim violence in his youth — Tara Singh tells his arch nemesis that India is unlike the state that the Pakistani army man champions. India is not just a home for Hindus. “Hindustan Mussalmanon ka hai,” roars Tara Singh, and adds for good measure, “Hindustan Christianon ka hai (Hindustan belongs to Muslims, Hindustan belongs to Christians).”
Occasionally jingoistic and relentlessly patriotic, Gadar 2 is also unabashedly progressive where it counts. All its sloganeering is done using the Urdu word “zindabad”, and the controversial “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” isn’t uttered by anyone on screen. Even the film’s depiction of Pakistanis is significantly better than what we’ve seen of late (remember the wonder that was Mission Majnu, for instance?). While Hamid Iqbal is loathsome and poisonously anti-Hindu, other Pakistanis are not. There are instances of rabble, who have clearly been roused to go on a rampage by power-hungry moulvis, but all it takes to have them scrambling in the opposite direction is the sight of Tara Singh reaching for a hand pump. (Those concerned about Pakistan’s civil infrastructure will be happy to know that this time, the handpump survives its encounter with Tara Singh.)
Countering the hatred embodied by mobs and the Pakistani Army are regular Pakistanis. The woman that Tara Singh’s son falls in love with is not an exception. From her family to the nameless aunty who helps Tara Singh’s son when he’s on the run, there are more instances of brave and kind Pakistanis than there are examples of the Pakistanis as the villainous other in Gadar 2. “Pakistan toh mera naunihaal hai,” says Tara Singh’s son at one point, reminding the audience that this hero’s mother is Pakistani, and linking to Pakistan the tenderness traditionally associated with the maternal grandparents’ home. For Gadar 2 to hold forth such sentiments in the current climate is unexpectedly brave.
And this is the film that has broken the record for the fastest Rs. 450 crore earned by a Hindi film (in just 17 days).
Conventional wisdom tends to suggest that the ‘masses’ of India are conservative in their thinking and this guides their spending at the box office. The failure of films like Bheed (2023) and Afwaah (2023) are considered to be indicative of the cinema-goers’ unwillingness to engage with anything progressive. Yet the Hindi films that have done well in 2023 suggest Bollywood’s audience deserves more credit than it’s being given. Take a look at the year’s biggest hits so far and see how The Kerala Story (2023) stands out as an exception (both for its vile bigotry and for how inept its filmmaking is).
So far, the year’s biggest commercial failures include Adipurush (2023), which was a blatant attempt at cashing in on the politically-backed craze for Ramayana; Gandhi Godse - Ek Yudh (2023), which took a sympathetic view of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse; and Bholaa(2023), a remake of the Tamil filmKaithi (2019), but with some dashes of Shiva-related imagery.
Meanwhile, the year’s surprise hits include Satyaprem Ki Katha (2023), starring Kartik Aaryan and Kiara Advani (coming on the heels of Shehzada (2023), which flopped despite being formulaic). In Satyaprem Ki Katha, Advani played a rape survivor and Aaryan’s male lead is elevated to heroism because he stands by her, rejecting the notion that she should feel any shame for having been raped. (Sure, there’s mansplaining, but it’s for a good cause.) The film even ends with a mention of marital rape and the need to criminalise it.
Also wearing its feminist heart on its bedazzled sleeve and dancing to box office success was Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, in which the conservative traditions of the Randhawa family get a reality check when the scion falls in love with an unsuitable Bengali spitfire. Against all odds — by which we mean competition like Gadar 2 and Jailer (2023) — Ayushmann Khurrana’s Dream Girl 2 (2023) and OMG 2 (2023) are seeing good collections at the box office. Dream Girl 2 — which imagines an India where inter-religious couples are normal and urges audiences to be less homophobic — has had a better opening than any of Khurrana’s previous films, despite being far less funny than the first Dream Girl (2019). OMG 2, with its (slightly misguided) attempts at being sex positive, has made more than Rs. 100 crore even though it was saddled with an ‘A’ rating by the Central Board of Film Certification. According to Koimoi, it is also the fourth-highest grossing ‘A’-rated Hindi film. And of course, the cherry on the progressive cake is the stupendous success of Pathaan (2023), which had Shah Rukh Khan playing a hero who, when asked if he’s Hindu or Muslim, says he’s a foundling left behind at a cinema hall.
It’s beyond the wisdom of mere mortals — let alone hapless film critics — to figure out the mysterious alchemy of what makes a film box office gold. Also, as toxic conservatism floods our social media and wraps its tentacles around our socio-political discourse in India, it’s possible that some of us are grasping at straws as we look for silver linings. Still, it’s worth remembering that the audiences of commercial Hindi cinema have a long tradition of being (relatively) more open-minded than those of many other Indian cinemas. These audiences made the Angry Young Man an icon, seeing in him the everyman worker that the rich establishment tried to crush. These audiences fell in love with women who demanded the spotlight for themselves, sometimes through transgressive means like in Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) and NH10 (2015); sometimes through unusual stories like Chandni (1989) and Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022).
Bollywood may be a contested term today, but it stands for a Hindi cinema that has commanded audiences across regional and linguistic divides because of a distinctive kind of storytelling, one that has been proud of being progressive. And its audiences have generally supported these values — as long as the filmmakers ensure that their messaging is packaged as entertaining. Deol may not be a man of words (or insight), but he was on to something when he told Rashid, “Cinema is entertainment.” Whether or not he’s interested in what else cinema can be, we’ll never know, but it’s comforting to know that in a country where incidents of Islamophobia are becoming normalised, one of the biggest commercial successes of the year comes for a film that insists India’s religious minorities have a place in this country. And if anyone disagrees, Tara Singh will throw a hand pump at you.