Bollywood, the name that has beengiven to India’s Hindi cinema, is a film industry that produces thelargest number of films in a year.
As the leading film market in the world, 2.2billion movie tickets were sold in India in the year 2016 (Statista, 2017).These numbers are an indication of the reach of the films produced by thisindustry and the wide appeal that this national cinema has to its people.Within India’s specific social and historical context, Jyotika Virdi (2003) discusses how Indian cinemais marked by the complexities of decolonization and how this context is oftenignored by theorists. She states how the emerging literature in thisfield emphasizes the “cinema’s role in creating the imaginedcommunity, a nation” (Virdi, 2003, p. 7). Based on the ideologies these films represent,the consumption and understanding of the films by audiences is then likely toaffect the formation of their identity or communities.
Their interpretation offilms would also be impacted by their prior assumptions and beliefs aboutcertain concepts, such as their understanding of nationalism in thiscase. In order to understand the ideologies historical films in Bollywoodrepresent, it would be helpful to define the term ideology. Despitecontestations about the exact definition of ideology, Graeme Turner (1999)defines it as “the system of beliefs and practices that is produced bythis theory of reality” which he states is something that is found inevery culture (p.155). Turner (1999) also explains thateven though ideology has no physical form, it’s substantial effects can benoticed in every sphere of life, social or political. For the purpose of thisessay, I focus on the concept of nationalism which affects the politicalaspects of certain ideologies that are represented by historicalfilms. As an ideology portrayed in a film,nationalism can be seen and understood amongst a range of contexts.
The filmsI analyze in this essay, Lagaan (meaning Taxation) and Airliftboth portray different ideas of nationalism. While Lagaan is situated in the context ofcolonization, it contains elements of anti-colonial struggles, identity andracism, power and domination as well as a very significant contribution ofelements of sport. In Airlift, on the other hand, nationalism can be seenthrough components such as the after-effects of war, power as well as someelements of loyalty towards one’s nation. Both films depict nationalism as atop-down approach that focuses on the role of the government and thefilm-makers in an attempt to instill nationalistic sentiments inthe minds of the audiences.
Within the representation of this ideology in thesefilms, nationalism is used as a tool to give the viewers a sense of identityand community as members of their nation. In this essay, within the broaderconcept of nationalism, I will focus on the aspect of a ‘national hero’ thatrescues and saves the people and their nation. The films dothis by overemphasizing and over-dramatizing the hero, either byembellishing facts about the event or by adding national symbols such as sport,in an attempt to make these historical films commercially successful and as amedium that reinforces a strongnationalistic sentiment amongst audiences that consumethem. In addition to the concept of nationalism,another ideological discourse that both these films show is thenotion of self and the other. In the case of Lagaan, the Indian villagers are portrayed asthe other in comparison to the British. In addition to this otheringon the basis of race, we also observe an othering on the basis of caste, genderand ability. Khushwaha and Jain (2014) discuss Lagaan in the framework of subalternstudies and how the voices of the subaltern are represented in the film.
Theyillustrate how the subalterns in the film are the others but also how evenwithin those others, there was othering based on other characteristics, whichthey argue is also the problem that subalterns in India face within the nation.They conclude that the film was made in order to build a national identity. Inthe case of Airlift, there is a clear sense of othering that is based mainly onnationality and political agendas.
In reference to the kind of history boththese films represent, Khushwaha and Jain (2014) state that Lagaan depicts bottom-up history or historyfrom below as it represents the voice of the subalterns andtheir anti-colonial struggles against the British. Airlift, on the otherhand, shows a mainly top-down history as it represents the historicalperspective from the government officials’ point of view rather than of thepeople who experienced the event. Both the films analyzed in this essay wereconsidered to be commercial films. Despite the different clarificationsof a commercial film, a definition of commercial that fits this essay andthe films studied is that of Virdi (2003). She describes a commercial film as one that offerspleasures to the audiences, that creates a certain desire and one that makesthe film an important work of cultural interpretation (Virdi, 2003, p.2).
Amongst viewers andfilm-makers, the term commercial film is often synonymouslyused to those that are popular and labelled as box-office hits orsuccesses. From a monetary point of view, a big-budget film that invests alarge sum of money in an attempt to make huge profits can be considered acommercial film. Both Lagaan and Airlift were films that fit this above framework, both werepopular, box-office hits with big budgets and were films that offered pleasureto the audiences and created feelings of national sentiment andidentity. In the following detailed analysis of the two historical films,with an underlying understanding of nationalism, I argue that these filmsmisrepresent historical facts and use the ‘national hero’ to emphasize astronger nationalistic ideology as a means of gaining commercial success. Lagaan which means taxation, was a filmmade in 2001.
The plot of the film is placed in Victorian India in the year1893 which was during the British Raj (Ebert, 2002). According to thisreview, Lagaan was one of the most successful Bollywood films ever made andwas also a commercial hit globally. This “colonial-era nationalistfilm” (Budha cited in Bharat & Nirmal Kumar, 2008, p.11)1 is about the fight of a group ofvillagers, led by a rebellious farmer, against the exploitative policies of theBritish. In order to avoid a tripled tax that is demanded by theBritish, the village is challenged to a match of cricket by a British captain.Under the impression that the Indians would never be able to play the sportthat originated and was mastered in England, the British captain expects to winthe challenge and get the villagers to pay the taxes (Ebert, 2002). As thiscricket match, which is the major portion of the film, ends, the villagersunder the supervision and guidance of their ‘hero’ Bhuvan (played by Aamir Khan) win the match and celebratetheir victory against their colonizers.
The film is seen as one “depictingcolonial history and resistance” (Singh cited in Bharat & NirmalKumar, 2008, p.123) where the resistance is mainly brought about by the strongnationalistic hero who saves the entire village from the cruelties of theBritish. Through this resistance, the film shows us “a utopianpre-independence arena in which a nationalist message had the power to unifypeople across class, gender, caste and religion” (Banaji cited in Bharat & NirmalKumar, 2008, p.162). This is portrayed in the film in the waythat the Indian cricket team consists of a member from the lowercaste (untouchable), a player who cannot speak, players from differentoccupations as well as players from different religions such as Muslim andSikh. Thus, the hero uses nationalism to unify everyone in the village,bringing them together irrespective of their backgrounds all against theBritish, who can be identified as the other in this case.
This helps awaken astrong sense of self and a national identity, both for the village members inthe film as well as for the audiences consuming the film as they relate to thecharacters in it. The awakening of this national identity isdone in Lagaan through the use of cricket. While most sources that discuss thisfilm in relation to its history claim that there is no evidence that cricketwas played between Indians and the British, there is one source that argues forsuch cross-racial playing of the sport. Boria Majumdar (2001) argues that Lagaan attempts to bring back the losthistory of the sport. He provides evidence that in the 1850s and onwards,several Parsi cricket clubs were formed and cricket was being played regularlyin Bombay (Majumdar, 2001). The cricket match played in Lagaan set in the year 1893, was allegedlyjust a few years after the Parsis defeated the British in a match that was seen by over 12000spectators in Bombay (Majumdar, 2001). His analysis also shows severalsimilarities between instances from the match that was played historically andin the one shown in the film.
In contrast to this one source which claims thatcricket was played between Indians and the British in the period the film isset in, several others argue the opposite. Chandrima Chakraborty (2003) argues that,while the element of cricket is fictional to the plot, resistance and rebellionwas observed due to historical exploitation that villagers suffered at thattime. There were several instances of peasant exploitation and in Awadh in the1890s, the situation of villagers and peasants was similar to that as portrayedin Lagaan (Mannathukkaren, 2001). In addition to the situation of peasants in India at that time,Mahatma Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience in South Africa tookplace in the same year. Willoughby (2013) describes the event of 1893 whenGandhi was forced to leave a train in South Africa on racist grounds,and recounts Gandhi’s statement that his non-violence movementbegan after that incident.
Gandhi was and remains to be a national hero formany and this can be paralleled to Bhuvan’s non-violent act of disobedience andrebellion against the White superior and how hethen became a national hero. Another event that took place in 1893was when the Indian Congress proposed a bill to end agricultural taxesand Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who approved of this, encouraged people torefuse to pay taxes and disobey the laws of the British (Mukherjee, 2017).While there is a debate about whether the cricket match in Lagaan was a fictional element or had somehistorical truth to it, there is evidence of other instances that took place inthat time period that could be linked to the film in different ways. However, I focus on the element of thesport in the film, questionably fictional or historical, due to itsimportance as a national symbol in India. “It is the defining culturalpractice, the Indian national obsession, the Indian national pathology, andcontains within it the national poetic” (Farred, 2004, p.94). Cricket in the film is usedas the medium that brings together an entire village of people, no matter whattheir background is.
This demonstrates a certain nationalistic ideology that isunderstood by the audience accordingly. Nevertheless, if the cricket matchis fictional and does not represent an actual event in history,then as a film that claims to represent history, the viewers are being misled.Embellishing facts in order to make the film more appealing to the populationand using a national symbol like cricket to make the film seem morenationalistic is thus problematic. “It questions the ‘universality’ and’authenticity’ of official versions of Indian national history, the erasuresand silences in it and raises doubts in the minds of the spectators about itsclaim to ‘knowledge’ of the Indian past” (Chakraborty, 2003, p.1880). Dueto this, we as audiences end up idolizing not just the national hero who savesthe day, but also the national sport that was used as a tool to bring the wholenation together.
The second film analyzed in this essay,Airlift was made in 2016. The film is set in Kuwait in the year 1990 which wasduring the Gulf War. Iraq invaded Kuwait, led by Saddam Hussein and in additionto all the destruction and chaos caused to Kuwaitis and others living there atthe time, thousands of Indians in Kuwait were also left homeless (Pareek, 2015). The film starts with the invasionand proceeds to present how one Indian businessman Ranjit (played by Akshay Kumar) organizes and carries outthe evacuation of 170,000 Indians who were stranded in Kuwait. The film beginsby portraying Ranjit as someone who sees himself as a Kuwaiti citizen and hasno national feelings or sentiments towards India (Menon, 2016). He comesacross as a person who is completely loyal towards Kuwait and doesn’t seem tohave any emotional regard to India.
However, after the invasion, we see hischaracter entirely transform into this ‘national hero’ who risks hislife, his family and all his earnings in order to protect the Indians in Kuwaitand to ensure that no stone is left unturned in taking them back home to India.He goes against his family, friends and even ends up arguing with governmentofficials in India until they take charge to help the people stuck there. Throughoutthe movie, we see a character transformation of Ranjit from a person who wasmore loyal to Kuwait and didn’t even see himself as Indian, to the person whofought with his own loved ones in order to save those from hisnation (Menon, 2016). The film ends with the evacuation being successfulafter weeks of risks and struggles, the Indian flag waving high in slowmotion and Indian national songs playing in the background. As viewers, justwatching this part of the movie makes one feel patriotic and arises a strongnational sentiment. The way in which Akshay Kumar’s character is depicted, nomatter how much viewers dislike him in the beginning of the film, by the end,he is the hero and the savior of thousands of people, and in a waysingle-handedly rescues the nation from this conflict.
Although the film was very successful andreceived a lot of appreciation for its work, the film’s narrative does notentirely coincide with the historical evidence of these events. An article inthe Hindustan Times, written by an Indian who was in Kuwait at the time of theevent and was a part of the evacuation mission discusses the historicalinaccuracies of this film and how certain details and statisticswere overestimated in order to make the film and the film’s heroappear more nationalistic (Cherian, 2016). The author even refers toRanjit’s character as a “Moses-like figure” which addsemphasis to the hero image that is created in the film (Cherian,2016). McCahill (2016) argues that Airlift “simplifies this incrediblycomplex operation to become little more than a vehicle for one man’sredemption” wherein the entire film becomes about Ranjit, his previousignorance towards his nation and thereafter his struggle to rescue his fellowIndians from the after-effects of the war. The film poster itself states”170,000 refugees, 488 flights, 59 days, 1 man” – which ismisleading and makes it seem as though one man made this entire mission happenwhich was not the case at all. News reports have stated that Ranjit is a fictionalcharacter in the movie and that there were more people involved inthis massive mission (India TV News Desk, 2016).
While the film narrative showsus one hero, in reality, 3-4 businessmen and several government officials wereresponsible for the success of this evacuation. Statements from Indians whoexperienced this themselves also added how the film portrays the Indiangovernment officials as lazy and inefficient when in reality it was somemembers of the Indian government in the ministry of external affairs in Delhiwho were the real heroes (Cherian, 2016). Using one national Indianhero who saves everyone strengthens the emotions of the Indian audiences asthey feel a sense of pride and national belonging when the film portrays historyand its heroes in such a way. “Commercial Hindi cinema has longplayed the role of popular historian and narrator for the country, constructingimages that affirm, challenge and subvert hegemonistic discourses offered by the state, themajority community and the socioeconomic-political elite”(Singh cited in Bharat & Nirmal Kumar, 2008,p.
126). Both the films, Lagaan and Airlift alter facts about the historical events that aredepicted in them, and use the element of one national hero that fightsagainst all odds to save the people of his nation. Whilein Lagaan, the hero Bhuvan does this through the use of a national symbol such as cricket, inAirlift, Ranjit does the same through the sudden awakening of his nationalisticsentiment. The concept of nationalism and both the ways inwhich different elements of nationalism are used in these twocommercial films that claim to represent history, affect the way in whichaudiences view and understand not just the history of India but also end upbeing convinced by the nationalistic ideologies that the films present. Theviewers tend to idolize the hero or in the case of Lagaan, the hero and the sport, which leads tothem believing an ideology that isn’t entirely convincing. The films’ attemptto over-exaggerate and over-dramatize the roles of the heroes to make thefilm seem more nationalistic and appealing to the audiences may result intheir commercial success but it comes at the cost ofinaccurate historical representations.
Thus, the link between nationalismand the representation of history through commercial films forms a certainideological image of the nation that is then distributed to large populationsthat consume these films.