Bollywood, the name that has been
given to India’s Hindi cinema, is a film industry that produces the
largest number of films in a year. As the leading film market in the world, 2.2
billion 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 this
industry 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 cinema
is marked by the complexities of decolonization and how this context is often
ignored by theorists. She states how the emerging literature in this
field emphasizes the “cinema’s role in creating the imagined
community, 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 to
affect the formation of their identity or communities. Their interpretation of
films would also be impacted by their prior assumptions and beliefs about
certain concepts, such as their understanding of nationalism in this
case. In order to understand the ideologies historical films in Bollywood
represent, it would be helpful to define the term ideology. Despite
contestations about the exact definition of ideology, Graeme Turner (1999)
defines it as “the system of beliefs and practices that is produced by
this theory of reality” which he states is something that is found in
every culture (p.155). Turner (1999) also explains that
even though ideology has no physical form, it’s substantial effects can be
noticed in every sphere of life, social or political. For the purpose of this
essay, I focus on the concept of nationalism which affects the political
aspects of certain ideologies that are represented by historical
films. 

 

As an ideology portrayed in a film,
nationalism can be seen and understood amongst a range of contexts. The films
I analyze in this essay, Lagaan (meaning Taxation) and Airlift
both portray different ideas of nationalism. While Lagaan is situated in the context of
colonization, it contains elements of anti-colonial struggles, identity and
racism, power and domination as well as a very significant contribution of
elements of sport. In Airlift, on the other hand, nationalism can be seen
through components such as the after-effects of war, power as well as some
elements of loyalty towards one’s nation. Both films depict nationalism as a
top-down approach that focuses on the role of the government and the
film-makers in an attempt to instill nationalistic sentiments in
the minds of the audiences. Within the representation of this ideology in these
films, nationalism is used as a tool to give the viewers a sense of identity
and community as members of their nation. In this essay, within the broader
concept of nationalism, I will focus on the aspect of a ‘national hero’ that
rescues and saves the people and their nation. The films do
this by overemphasizing and over-dramatizing the hero, either by
embellishing facts about the event or by adding national symbols such as sport,
in an attempt to make these historical films commercially successful and as a
medium that reinforces a strong
nationalistic sentiment amongst audiences that consume
them.  

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In addition to the concept of nationalism,
another ideological discourse that both these films show is the
notion of self and the other. In the case of Lagaan, the Indian villagers are portrayed as
the other in comparison to the British. In addition to this othering
on the basis of race, we also observe an othering on the basis of caste, gender
and ability. Khushwaha and Jain (2014) discuss Lagaan in the framework of subaltern
studies and how the voices of the subaltern are represented in the film. They
illustrate how the subalterns in the film are the others but also how even
within those others, there was othering based on other characteristics, which
they 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. In
the case of Airlift, there is a clear sense of othering that is based mainly on
nationality and political agendas. In reference to the kind of history both
these films represent, Khushwaha and Jain (2014) state that Lagaan depicts bottom-up history or history
from below as it represents the voice of the subalterns and
their anti-colonial struggles against the British. Airlift, on the other
hand, shows a mainly top-down history as it represents the historical
perspective from the government officials’ point of view rather than of the
people who experienced the event.  

 

Both the films analyzed in this essay were
considered to be commercial films. Despite the different clarifications
of a commercial film, a definition of commercial that fits this essay and
the films studied is that of Virdi (2003). She describes a commercial film as one that offers
pleasures to the audiences, that creates a certain desire and one that makes
the film an important work of cultural interpretation (Virdi, 2003, p.2). Amongst viewers and
film-makers, the term commercial film is often synonymously
used to those that are popular and labelled as box-office hits or
successes. From a monetary point of view, a big-budget film that invests a
large sum of money in an attempt to make huge profits can be considered a
commercial film. Both Lagaan and Airlift were films that fit this above framework, both were
popular, box-office hits with big budgets and were films that offered pleasure
to the audiences and created feelings of national sentiment and
identity. In the following detailed analysis of the two historical films,
with an underlying understanding of nationalism, I argue that these films
misrepresent historical facts and use the ‘national hero’ to emphasize a
stronger nationalistic ideology as a means of gaining commercial success.  

 

Lagaan which means taxation, was a film
made in 2001. The plot of the film is placed in Victorian India in the year
1893 which was during the British Raj (Ebert, 2002). According to this
review, Lagaan was one of the most successful Bollywood films ever made and
was also a commercial hit globally. This “colonial-era nationalist
film” (Budha cited in Bharat & Nirmal Kumar, 2008, p.11)1 is about the fight of a group of
villagers, led by a rebellious farmer, against the exploitative policies of the
British. In order to avoid a tripled tax that is demanded by the
British, 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 sport
that originated and was mastered in England, the British captain expects to win
the challenge and get the villagers to pay the taxes (Ebert, 2002). As this
cricket match, which is the major portion of the film, ends, the villagers
under the supervision and guidance of their ‘hero’ Bhuvan (played by Aamir Khan) win the match and celebrate
their victory against their colonizers. The film is seen as one “depicting
colonial history and resistance” (Singh cited in Bharat & Nirmal
Kumar, 2008, p.123) where the resistance is mainly brought about by the strong
nationalistic hero who saves the entire village from the cruelties of the
British. Through this resistance, the film shows us “a utopian
pre-independence arena in which a nationalist message had the power to unify
people across class, gender, caste and religion” (Banaji cited in Bharat & Nirmal
Kumar, 2008, p.162). This is portrayed in the film in the way
that the Indian cricket team consists of a member from the lower
caste (untouchable), a player who cannot speak, players from different
occupations as well as players from different religions such as Muslim and
Sikh. Thus, the hero uses nationalism to unify everyone in the village,
bringing them together irrespective of their backgrounds all against the
British, who can be identified as the other in this case. This helps awaken a
strong sense of self and a national identity, both for the village members in
the film as well as for the audiences consuming the film as they relate to the
characters in it.  

 

The awakening of this national identity is
done in Lagaan through the use of cricket. While most sources that discuss this
film in relation to its history claim that there is no evidence that cricket
was played between Indians and the British, there is one source that argues for
such cross-racial playing of the sport. Boria Majumdar (2001) argues that Lagaan attempts to bring back the lost
history of the sport. He provides evidence that in the 1850s and onwards,
several Parsi cricket clubs were formed and cricket was being played regularly
in Bombay (Majumdar, 2001). The cricket match played in Lagaan set in the year 1893, was allegedly
just a few years after the Parsis defeated the British in a match that was seen by over 12000
spectators in Bombay (Majumdar, 2001). His analysis also shows several
similarities between instances from the match that was played historically and
in the one shown in the film. In contrast to this one source which claims that
cricket was played between Indians and the British in the period the film is
set in, several others argue the opposite. Chandrima Chakraborty (2003) argues that,
while the element of cricket is fictional to the plot, resistance and rebellion
was observed due to historical exploitation that villagers suffered at that
time. There were several instances of peasant exploitation and in Awadh in the
1890s, the situation of villagers and peasants was similar to that as portrayed
in 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 took
place in the same year. Willoughby (2013) describes the event of 1893 when
Gandhi was forced to leave a train in South Africa on racist grounds,
and recounts Gandhi’s statement that his non-violence movement
began after that incident. Gandhi was and remains to be a national hero for
many and this can be paralleled to Bhuvan’s non-violent act of disobedience and
rebellion against the White superior and how he
then became a national hero. Another event that took place in 1893
was when the Indian Congress proposed a bill to end agricultural taxes
and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who approved of this, encouraged people to
refuse 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 some
historical truth to it, there is evidence of other instances that took place in
that time period that could be linked to the film in different ways.  

 

However, I focus on the element of the
sport in the film, questionably fictional or historical, due to its
importance as a national symbol in India. “It is the defining cultural
practice, the Indian national obsession, the Indian national pathology, and
contains within it the national poetic” (Farred, 2004, p.94). Cricket in the film is used
as the medium that brings together an entire village of people, no matter what
their background is. This demonstrates a certain nationalistic ideology that is
understood by the audience accordingly. Nevertheless, if the cricket match
is 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 population
and using a national symbol like cricket to make the film seem more
nationalistic is thus problematic. “It questions the ‘universality’ and
‘authenticity’ of official versions of Indian national history, the erasures
and silences in it and raises doubts in the minds of the spectators about its
claim to ‘knowledge’ of the Indian past” (Chakraborty, 2003, p.1880). Due
to this, we as audiences end up idolizing not just the national hero who saves
the day, but also the national sport that was used as a tool to bring the whole
nation together.  

 

The second film analyzed in this essay,
Airlift was made in 2016. The film is set in Kuwait in the year 1990 which was
during the Gulf War. Iraq invaded Kuwait, led by Saddam Hussein and in addition
to all the destruction and chaos caused to Kuwaitis and others living there at
the time, thousands of Indians in Kuwait were also left homeless (Pareek, 2015). The film starts with the invasion
and proceeds to present how one Indian businessman Ranjit (played by Akshay Kumar) organizes and carries out
the evacuation of 170,000 Indians who were stranded in Kuwait. The film begins
by portraying Ranjit as someone who sees himself as a Kuwaiti citizen and has
no national feelings or sentiments towards India (Menon, 2016). He comes
across as a person who is completely loyal towards Kuwait and doesn’t seem to
have any emotional regard to India. However, after the invasion, we see his
character entirely transform into this ‘national hero’ who risks his
life, his family and all his earnings in order to protect the Indians in Kuwait
and 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 government
officials in India until they take charge to help the people stuck there. Throughout
the movie, we see a character transformation of Ranjit from a person who was
more loyal to Kuwait and didn’t even see himself as Indian, to the person who
fought with his own loved ones in order to save those from his
nation (Menon, 2016). The film ends with the evacuation being successful
after weeks of risks and struggles, the Indian flag waving high in slow
motion and Indian national songs playing in the background. As viewers, just
watching this part of the movie makes one feel patriotic and arises a strong
national sentiment. The way in which Akshay Kumar’s character is depicted, no
matter 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 way
single-handedly rescues the nation from this conflict.  

 

Although the film was very successful and
received a lot of appreciation for its work, the film’s narrative does not
entirely coincide with the historical evidence of these events. An article in
the Hindustan Times, written by an Indian who was in Kuwait at the time of the
event and was a part of the evacuation mission discusses the historical
inaccuracies of this film and how certain details and statistics
were overestimated in order to make the film and the film’s hero
appear more nationalistic (Cherian, 2016). The author even refers to
Ranjit’s character as a “Moses-like figure” which adds
emphasis to the hero image that is created in the film (Cherian,
2016). McCahill (2016) argues that Airlift “simplifies this incredibly
complex operation to become little more than a vehicle for one man’s
redemption” wherein the entire film becomes about Ranjit, his previous
ignorance towards his nation and thereafter his struggle to rescue his fellow
Indians from the after-effects of the war. The film poster itself states
“170,000 refugees, 488 flights, 59 days, 1 man” – which is
misleading and makes it seem as though one man made this entire mission happen
which was not the case at all. News reports have stated that Ranjit is a fictional
character in the movie and that there were more people involved in
this massive mission (India TV News Desk, 2016). While the film narrative shows
us one hero, in reality, 3-4 businessmen and several government officials were
responsible for the success of this evacuation. Statements from Indians who
experienced this themselves also added how the film portrays the Indian
government officials as lazy and inefficient when in reality it was some
members of the Indian government in the ministry of external affairs in Delhi
who were the real heroes (Cherian, 2016).  Using one national Indian
hero who saves everyone strengthens the emotions of the Indian audiences as
they feel a sense of pride and national belonging when the film portrays history
and its heroes in such a way.  

 

“Commercial Hindi cinema has long
played the role of popular historian and narrator for the country, constructing
images that affirm, challenge and subvert hegemonistic discourses offered by the state, the
majority 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 are
depicted in them, and use the element of one national hero that fights
against all odds to save the people of his nation. While
in Lagaan, the hero Bhuvan does this through the use of a national symbol such as cricket, in
Airlift, Ranjit does the same through the sudden awakening of his nationalistic
sentiment. The concept of nationalism and both the ways in
which different elements of nationalism are used in these two
commercial films that claim to represent history, affect the way in which
audiences view and understand not just the history of India but also end up
being convinced by the nationalistic ideologies that the films present. The
viewers tend to idolize the hero or in the case of Lagaan, the hero and the sport, which leads to
them believing an ideology that isn’t entirely convincing. The films’ attempt
to over-exaggerate and over-dramatize the roles of the heroes to make the
film seem more nationalistic and appealing to the audiences may result in
their commercial success but it comes at the cost of
inaccurate historical representations. Thus, the link between nationalism
and the representation of history through commercial films forms a certain
ideological image of the nation that is then distributed to large populations
that consume these films.  

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