What Does It Mean To Be Patriotic In Bollywood Films Today?

We love a good film brimming with patriotism, but this Republic Day we must ask, what differentiates a patriotic film from a jingoistic one — a Swades from a Parmanu? A Gunjan Saxena from an Uri?
What Does It Mean To Be Patriotic In Bollywood Films Today?

Jingoism, or aggressive patriotism, has, it seems, become a genre inseparable from patriotism itself; to be proud of our country has become indistinguishable from  spewing hatred towards other countries; an acidic love. The two tenets — to love India is to hate Pakistan or China; to question India is to hate India — are foundational to this genre. 

This isn't a new phenomenon. We have always had facile propaganda in the movies. Manoj Kumar's Upkar (1965) was made on the request of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri who wanted to popularize his wartime slogan 'Jai Jawan Jai Kisan'. In another of his films, Clerk (1989), a former Indian National Army soldier's heart attack is solved when he listens to 'Qadam Qadam Badhaye Ja', a marching song used by Subhash Chandra Bose, and later the Indian Army.

We have, however, also made moving patriotic films. In the 50s, it was woven into Raj Kapoor's characters and Shailendra's lyrics as bricks of nation building, and later on, in the 60s, there was Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964), which despite its heavy state patronage was willing to look at war for what it is — destructive, debilitating, disastrous. More recently, we have had Lagaan, Lakshya, Chak De! India, Swades, Rang De Basanti, Raazi, and even last year's Gunjan Saxena which fashioned Indian pride as sincere, kind, and regenerative. 

In Gunjan Saxena, Gunjan (Janhvi Kapoor) is worried that she is joining the Air Force only because she has a passion for flying. She doesn't have "desh bhakti", and wonders if she is being a traitor to her country for joining the Air Force only because of a personal pet-passion. 

Her father, Lieutenant Colonel Anup Saxena (Pankaj Tripathi) lovingly asks her, "Tumhe kya lagta hai, Air Force ko 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai' chillane wale chahiye?" He reasons with her that the Air Force needs people who are knowledgeable, passionate, and forceful on the job, "Tum sincerity se, hardwork se, imandari se ek behtar pilot ban jao. Desh bhakti apne aap ho jayegi." And as far the conceits of the genre does, towards the end, after her rescue missions, evacuating over 900 casualties in the Kargil War, Amit Trivedi's song christens her 'Bharat Ki Beti'. 

But the recent slew of films thrown at us are telling us, screaming at us —  sometimes with cutting-edge filmmaking that guilds this message —  that to love your country is to harbour hate for "the other". Take the Independence Day release Bhuj: The Pride Of India, now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar — a feral concoction of bad cinema and shrill messaging, whose entire second half is not just a depiction of, but an invitation to shed blood, "Goliyon ki lori sunkar, lambi neend so jayenge." 

This visible shift can be tracked to January 2019 when Uri: The Surgical Strike released. This dramatized, imagined account of the Indian Army's retaliation to the 2016 Uri Attack is one of the most commercially successful films of this decade — a box office return of over 340 crores against a budget of 25 crores. 

Neither actor Vicky Kaushal, who was just finding his footing, nor debutante director Aditya Dhar, nor cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani — responsible for the fresh, pulsating look of the film — were established figures in the industry. To raise the stakes even more, there wasn't any love track in the film that was being promoted by song. Instead, the war-cry from the trailer "How's The Josh" got picked up, becoming the film's anthem and promotion — everyone from the Finance Minister to the Prime Minister (the general elections were in April-May 2019), to CEOs of startups were using it in speeches, rallying public sentiment. 

Uri by no means invented the genre of muscular, jingoistic dramas. Just the previous year we had Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran (2018), which valorized the nuclear bomb testing that took place in 1998, and played out like a BJP mouthpiece — the party in power in 1998 and 2018. John Abraham played Ashwat Rana, an IAS officer who tries to convince us that India needed to be a nuclear state, without providing any counter assertion — that nuclear war, unlike any other kind of war, does not promise pride, but only total annihilation, that if Pakistan drops its nuclear arsenal on India, there won't be an India to counter it with a nuclear bomb. 

But the success of Uri, did something the success of any watershed movie does — it emboldened producers to make replicas of that movie, spinning the film into a genre itself. SonyLIV produced Avrodh: The Siege Within (2020), another fictionalized retelling of the surgical strike following the Uri attack, this time with Amit Sadh as the lead hero. Then there is Zee5's Jeet Ki Zid (2021), based on the life of Major Deependra Singh Sengar during the Kargil War, portrayed by Sadh. Here, the conceit is simple — Deependra wants to join the army to gun down militants, because when he was a child, the militants massacred his brother. The similar arc of revenge is given to Nora Fatehi's character as the Indian spy in Pakistan in Bhuj: The Pride Of India. What propels the character here is heady revenge, that after rolling in the sandbox of patriotism, stings — because that is all it can do. Disney+ Hotstar's 1962: The War In The Hills, and Voot's Crackdown all rolled down the streaming balustrade, not to mention Zee5's State Of Siege, which is now spun into a franchise

Film announcements have also been made — Kangana Ranaut-starrer Tejas, Varun Dhawan-starrer Ekkis, a biopic of Second Lieutenant Arun Kheterpal helmed by Sriram Raghavan, and Kartik Aaryan-starrer Captain India helmed by Hansal Mehta. There is also the untitled film, a "tribute" to the Balakot air strikes, produced by Bhushan Kumar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, helmed by Abhishek Kapoor, whose initial announcement tagged the Prime Minister, Defense Minister of India, and Indian Air Force on Twitter. When art seeks validation from the powers that be, the rot is too far gone. The day following Bhuj's release, Ajay Devgn roped in the Defense Minister Rajnath Singh for a PR photoshoot. Or is it the other way round? 

War is clearly in fashion, and so is an extreme, shrill celebration of it. Sometimes, a sweet, moving film like Gunjan Saxena or a tensile and textured Raazi slips through. Even in a bland film like Shershaah, there are traces of this kindness — when the Indian army buried Pakistani soldiers that their government was unwilling to accept by inviting a maulvi to oversee it per custom, and Captain Vikram Batra, briefing his team, noting, "Chilla chilla ke desh bhakti ki baatein nahin karni hai aap logon se. Aap log desh bhakt ho. Isiliye yahan ho." 

How, then, to differentiate a jingoistic film from a patriotic one, because not all patriotic films are jingoistic, but all jingoistic films are promoted under the garb of patriotism? How to differentiate a Swades from a Pokhran? A Gunjan Saxena from an Uri?

The Primary Emotional Track: Between Character And Country

Bhuj: The Pride of India, like Uri: The Surgical Strike, like Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran is a tribute, a shraddhanjali to the Indian Armed Forces — where the stories' primary emotional track is between country and character. 

In Bhuj, Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik (Devgn) has a wife, Usha (Pranitha Subhash), barely hanging on by the fraying thread of the narrative. Just to make sure we haven't forgotten her, she keeps popping up in her pink sari — sometimes driving a tractor, sometimes just jutting her head out behind Vijay's shoulder. Even the one song she is given, the voice is entirely of Jubin Nautiyal — forget a single line of dialogue, the poor thing isn't even given a playback singer. This isn't surprising given Vijay Karnik's Maratha Pride is devoted entirely to the country. In the final concluding song, when Vijay holds Usha's hands, it is not a romantic but a patriotic song that plays in the background, serenading the motherland. 

In Parmanu Ashwat Raina (John Abraham) is an IAS officer from the Research and Analysis Wing, pushing for India to become a nuclear state. He declares, "We need to show the world our power. Ab ham darke shaant nahin baithenge. Karke shaant baithenge." He has a wife and child whose existence are peripheral to the emotional core, though while promoting the film, the makers released a song that misled the audience thinking there is a love triangle buried somewhere under a Jeet Ganngulli song. The film pursues no such thread, keeping its razor sharp focus on Ashwat's emotional graph joined at the hip with India's nuclear program. 

Similarly in Uri, Major Vihaan (Vicky Kaushal) has no love track, which is both refreshing and intriguing. Yami Gautam's presence toes the boundary of the film, never entering its emotional center. Even at the very end, when Vihaan arrives after successfully implementing the surgical strike, she congratulates him, and then congratulates his pilot, and that is it. It is a narratively mature decision, but one that leaves space for the main character to submit himself to the country, like one would to a lover. It's no surprise then, that among all the war film announcements, it is only the main lead's casting that is announced. The love-interest is the country. 

No Sympathetic Pakistani Character

Even if you take a shrill production like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), the primary emotional track is between Tara Singh, a Sikh, and Sakina Ali, a Muslim who needs to be reunited with her family in Pakistan. What this does is, it creates a Pakistani character we, and the rabid, screeching nationalists are sympathetic towards. 

Bhuj: The Pride Of India begins with Pakistani General Yahya Khan asking, "Kul-jamah kitne aadmi?", an Urdu spin on Gabbar's "Kitne aadmi the". When he finds out that 3 million died in the 1971 Bangladesh War Of Independence, he complains, "Tum sirf tees lakh laashein juta paye?" Pakistan is established blood-thirst-first, as a medieval barbaric people who stone people to death. 

There is certainly a religious anxiety when such lines are drawn clearly, which is why such films tend to overcorrect — a recognition by the makers that their anti-Pakistan venom can be very easily interpreted by their audience as anti-Muslim. For example, in the thumping, rousing pre-strike preparation song in Uri, the makers take a second to show a few officers doing namaz as Vihaan walks by. Similarly, in Voot's Crackdown, when RP (Saqib Saleem's Riyaaz Pathan, whose Muslimness is axed by making it RP) remarks, "Musalmaan sirf Quran se nahin, apne iman se bhi banta hai. Aur uski misaal main dikhaunga," the model Minority complex is in full swing.  Similarly, in Bhuj, Nora Fatehi's character is entirely built to absorb the Islamophobia that girds the film. She tells a Pakistani general that it is Pakistan that Islam's greatest enemy, even as Indo-Muslim iconography — ittar, Muharram, Mughals — is villainized through the film. 

Avrodh: The Siege Within wants us to not just cheer the bloodbath, but wag our lusting tongues at Videep (Amit Sadh), who, while plotting his mission using Google maps, feels a flush of heat, and removes his shirt, leaving the camera, and thus us, staring at the sculpted abs. It narratively contrives such an awful villain, you would find yourself morally questionable if you even extend a shred of sympathy — Abu Hafez (Anil George), with his rosary and kohl-eyed ill-intentions, sends young children strapped with bomb vests, promising them Heaven. In one scene he asks one of the new recruits to gun down his own mother who is standing between him and shahadat. Abu Hafez not only wants Kashmir, but also Gujarat and Rajasthan, and so this strike is framed as something not just necessary but urgent. Part of the frustration of seeing such movies and shows is to hold oneself back because the writing, if compelling, makes it so easy to not just harbour hate, but hem into it, be proud of it, and rewrite the rules of patriotism as hate-mongering.  

If we have narratively graduated from the Nirpua Roy-like mother, why are we still stuck on the Bharat Mata figure to whom we pay allegiance in the similar, cloying, patronizing fashion.

This makes one ask if there is a way to cheer the Indian military in a war without necessarily demonizing the "other", where we can also describe war as depleting. Gunjan Saxena does not have a single Pakistani militant shown spewing venom — no scene where their generals plot to kill Indians, no kohl eyed halal-haraam-jannat character to stake our vicarious hatred on. And yet, when Gunjan succeeds, our emotions rev up. In Raazi, Meghna Gulzar takes this one step forward, creating a Pakistani character we are almost sympathetic towards, and in the end even mourn for, complicating the idea of patriotism. 

The Perfect Indian State

At the end of Romeo Akbar Walter (2019), even though John Abraham, playing Romeo, a banker who becomes a RAW agent, is unable to turn up at his own mother's funeral, he is proud that the motherland — battered but not beaten by the Indo-Pakistan and Bangladesh Liberation War — is safe. When all is lost, we have our Tigers, we have our Bell Bottoms who pronounces in the trailer, "Ab Hindustan nahin jhukega." Protector of reputations, reminder of greatness, resurrector of lost pride, the hero in the war film must insist on protecting the country as mother. 

This isn't unusual because from the 19th Century the Indian state has often been described, in words and iconography, as the mother — Tamil Thai, Bharat Mata. When MF Husain wanted to paint India as the wounded country, he folded the mother figure into the map in a painting, writing out the names of towns where riots took place as bruises on her body. But this realism was too much for us, and that very year we made MF Husain flee the country. 

The thing is, if we have narratively graduated from the Nirpua Roy-like mother, why are we still stuck on the Bharat Mata figure to whom we pay allegiance in the similar, cloying, patronizing fashion. In such a framing, war — to protect and resurrect the mother's pride — feels like devotion. It makes war, a temporary madness, feel like a permanent, necessary condition. In Bhuj: The Pride Of India, Ajay Devgn performs a poem by Manoj Muntashir about the destiny of a soldier, "Mere marne ka maatam mat manana. Mein jeeta hoon marne ke liye. Mera naam sipahi hai." 

But war is costly — not just eating into the budget of a country where hunger and education are still election issues, but also in terms of lives lost. When Vikram Batra mourns a fallen comrade in Shershaah, he moans, "Yeh war badi kutti cheez hai yaar." 

In Dhoop Ki Deewar, a Pakistani web-show on Zee5 that shows the budding friendship and romance between the son of an Indian Colonel (Ahad Raza Mir) and the daughter of a Pakistani Colonel (Sajal Aly) who killed each in the battlefield, a profound question is brought up — after war, what next? The colonels died, and the government bequeathed on their families property, pensions, and posthumous glory. What next? What about the wife who is slowly sliding into depression, or the relatives who hover like hawks, or the suddenness of being orphaned, or the collective amnesia the news cycle has about the wars months after it is over? The Indian orphaned son, Vishal, on a call to the Pakistani orphaned daughter, Sara, notes, "Yeh shahadat ek glory hoti hai… Glory ki bohut badi price hoti hai." 

And that's the problem with jingoism. To tell the story of glory without the price of it, is to tell an incomplete story, which is exactly what these war-mongering, blood thirsty, jingoistic films are — incomplete stories.  

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