The Bollywood War Movie And The Indian Popular Imagination  

In 1947, even as India attained independence from colonial subjugation, war broke out in Kashmir as guerrillas backed by Pakistan sought to bring it into the Pakistani fold. That war ended in stalemate after intervention by the UN. Since then, the fledgling nation of India has gone to war four more times: first, in 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru’s darkest hour, against China, a war that ended in a humiliating loss of territory and self-esteem, which left Nehru a broken man, and ultimately finished him off; then, in 1965, India and Pakistan fought their way to another inconclusive stalemate over Kashmir; in 1971, India fought a just war to bring freedom to the erstwhile East Pakistan, producing the new nation of Bangladesh in the process (war broke out on the western and eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly as the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later); finally, in 1999, India forced its old nemesis, Pakistan, back from the brink of nuclear war by pushing them off the occupied heights of Kargil. War is part of the story of the Indian nation; it continues to shape its present and the future. India, and its understanding of itself, has changed over the years; Bollywood has tried to keep track of these changes through its movies, in its own inimitable style. In a book project that I am working on, and for which I have just signed a contract with HarperCollins (India), I will examine how well it has succeeded in this task.  (I have begun making notes for this book and anticipate a completion date of May 31st 2018; the book will come to a compact sixty thousand words.)

In my book, I will take a close look at the depiction of war and Indian military history in Bollywood movies. I will do this by examining some selected ‘classics’ of the Bollywood war movie genre; by closely ‘reading’ these movies, I will inquire into what they say about the Indian cinematic imagination with regards to—among other things—patriotism, militarism, and nationalism, and how they act to reinforce supposed ‘Indian values’ in the process. Because Bollywood both reflects and constructs India and Indians’ self-image, this examination will reveal too the Indian popular imagination in these domains; how can Indians come to understand themselves and their nation through the Bollywood representation of war?

Surprisingly enough, despite India having waged these four wars in the space of merely fifty-one years, the Bollywood war movie genre is a relatively unpopulated one, and moreover, few of its movie have been commercial or critical successes. The Bollywood war movie is not necessarily an exemplary example of the Bollywood production; some of these movies did not rise to the level of cinematic or popular classics though their songs often did. This puzzling anomaly is matched correspondingly by the poor state of military history scholarship in India. My book aims to address this imbalance in two ways. First, by examining the Bollywood war movie itself as a movie critic might, it will show how these movies succeed or fail as movies qua movies and as war movies in particular. (Not all Bollywood war movies feature war as a central aspect, as opposed to offering a backdrop for the central character’s heroics, sometimes captured in typical Bollywood formulas of the romantic musical. This is in stark contrast to the specialized Hollywood war movie, of which there are many stellar examples in its history.) Second, by paying attention to the place of these wars in Indian popular culture, I will contribute to a broader history of these wars and their role in the construction of the idea of India. Nations are sustained by dreams and concrete achievement alike.

After a brief historical introduction to Bollywood, I will critically analyze selected movies–(Haqeeqat, 1971, Aakraman, Lalkaar, Border, Hindustan Ki Kasam, Hum Dono, Lakshya, LOC Kargil, Deewar (2004 version), Shaurya, Tango Charlie, and Vijeta)–beginning with post-WWII classics and chronologically moving on to more contemporary offerings. Along the way, I hope to uncover–in a non-academic idiom–changing ideas of the Indian nation, its peoples, and the Indian understanding of war and its relationship to Indian politics and culture as Bollywood has seen it. This book will blend cinematic and cultural criticism with military history; the wars depicted in these movies serve as factual backdrop for their critical analysis. I will read these movies like texts, examining their form and content to explore what they teach us about Bollywood’s attitudes about war, the effects of its violence on human beings, on the role of violence in human lives, on how romantic love finds expression in times of war, how bravery, cowardice, and loyalty are depicted on the screen. I will explore questions like: What does Bollywood (India) think war is? What does it think happens on a battlefield? Why is war important to India? What does Bollywood think India is, and why does it need defending from external enemies? Who are these ‘external enemies’ and why do they threaten India? How does Bollywood understand the military’s role in India and in the Indian imagination? And so on.


The Supposed Heritability Of Religion And Nationality

I am, supposedly, ‘Hindu’; my wife is similarly ‘Muslim.’ The scare quotes are there because we both regard our supposed ‘religious identities’ as ambiguous; we are not observant, but we were born into Hindu and Muslim families, and thus raised and acculturated into certain norms and cultural rites of passage–and their associated loyalties. (Such loose identification comes a little easier to me as the supposed object of my affiliation is, at best, quite idiosyncratically defined.) Moreover, most importantly, this is how the ‘rest of the world’ identifies us; bureaucratic form-filling forces into certain templates; our names seem to proclaim, quite loudly, our religious affiliations. This identification proceeds, inexorably, by its own inner logic to the small matter of our child, our four-year old daughter: sometimes we are asked, in tones that indicate the appropriate grave import of the query, how we will ‘raise’ her, by the dictates of which religion. And sometimes, she will be referred to as ‘half-Muslim, half-Hindu.’

This past week, I met an old friend of mine from graduate school; he is Australian, his wife is English; they have two teen-aged sons, born and brought up in England, but raised as passionate supporters of Australia in all matters sporting, cricketing or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, they love bantering with their mother about their unambiguous dislike for the English in those same domains. During my conversation with them, as we discussed their favorite cricket players, their mother protested–only semi-seriously–that they were ‘half-English’ and thus, not appropriately loyal to one of their ‘homelands.’ Her boys said they were ‘all Australian.’

Religion and nationality are too easily supposed heritable, natural kinds of sorts. As these descriptions–serious and semi-serious alike–indicate, so definitive of our identities, so fundamental, so constitutive, are these affiliations supposed to be that we inherit them, along with our genomic codes from our parents. The query, ‘what are you?’ can only be answered in two ways: you indicate your religion or your indicate your nationality. If you are an atheist or a Palestinian, you are out of luck in answering this query. (The related query, ‘where are you from,’ does not literally inquire into place of residence or place of birth; it means, instead, ‘what is your ethnic background–whether you claim it as your identity or not’?) We do not imagine other kinds of affiliations to be similarly heritable; the children of anarchist or libertarian couples are not considered to have inherited their parents’ political inclinations in quite the same way; the children of couples with differing political beliefs are not considered hybrids. I would love for this to be the case; it would certainly ease one of my many irrational parenting anxieties.

It is part of the success of the ideology of religion and nationalism that they have elevated themselves to the status of heritable qualities and attributes; the branding begins early and it is facilitated and supported at life’s many stages and turns by an elaborate infrastructure of language and description and social behavioral response. We all comply; we are conditioned to.


Fascism And The Problems With A ‘Glorious Past’

I grew up in India, a land of considerable antiquity with a long and rich history. All around me, there were monuments to this past; sometimes they were physical, tangible ones, like buildings built many years ago, or books that recounted tales of magnificent civilizations and fantastically accomplished cultures with their philosophy, art, music, sculpture. These tales of glory were disconcerting; I did not understand what my relationship to them was supposed to be. Should I be proud of them, even though I had done nothing to bring them about? Why was I, a spectator, and consumer of history, supposed to be ‘proud’ of this glorious past? Was there a causal relationship between past glory and present states of affairs? If there was, it hadn’t been demonstrated to me. Of course, as the implicit theory behind the recountings of the histories seemed to go, I was supposed to take ‘inspiration’ from these tales, and use them to sustain my imagination going forward; they would be the wind beneath my wings, raising me to further heights in my life, reassuring me I somehow had the right pedigree for any endeavor I chose to participate in. Somehow, mysteriously, that history was supposed to have suffused me with a sense of my self-worth, equipping me with the confidence I needed to venture forth.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t quite work that way. Talk of a ‘glorious past’ seemed to produce instead, too much retrospective vision, and not enough attention to the here and now. It rendered the present ersatz and worthless; all that was good was already gone; the best we could do was look over our shoulders again and again, pining for times gone by. A magician who chanced upon us and sold us tickets on a time-machine would have found many eager buyers for his sales pitch. Away, away, from this cursed present; away to that land, whose contours, even if only partially visible, seemed so much more wondrous and beautiful than those to be found here. We have no time for present cares; our fates lie in the past.

These are symptoms of a disease no less pernicious than the one that Nietzsche diagnosed in religions that speak of deliverance in another world: they induce a nausea for this world, the one we have now. Religion enables priests who claim to offer us the keys to this magical realm; a glorious past enables fascists who promise they will take us back to that time, that place, stepping over all the bodies and principles that get in the way. We should not be surprised; nationalism has a great deal to answer for, and this endless nonsense about the provenance of the nation makes it especially dangerous.

Perhaps we should treat glorious pasts like we treat elapsed time. Gone, never to return, never to be revisited, lacking in any form of substantial reality when compared to the moment at present.

The Supposed Sacral Status Of ‘National’ Symbols

Yesterday, a Facebook friend–in the course of a discussion stemming from my post criticizing David Brooks‘ claim that protests by high school football players a la Colin Kaepernick were ‘counterproductive’–pointed me to the following quote by Saul Alinsky:

Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. (from Rules for Radicals)

Brooks’ original thesis can now piggyback on the ‘authority’ that a respected ‘radical’ organizer like Alinsky provides: respect the ‘sacral status of ‘national’ symbols; protest the establishment, do not make the symbol the focus of your protest, or you risk, ‘counterproductively,’ losing the support of the rest of the social group. (As my friend suggested, the sacralization of the ‘national’ symbol serves a kind of ‘social utility’–protesting in a manner that suggests ‘disrespecting’ this sacral status results in a loss of this ‘social utility’; it is this loss we should be worried about when we choose such a tactic of protest, and not whether the symbol is intrinsically sacred. Indeed, Alinsky does not, above, ascribe any such sacral status to the flag, calling it instead, a ‘glorious symbol.’ That glory is presumably at risk of being tarnished.) So, the current protests and their tactics, their rhetorical stance, stand indicted of poor tactical and strategic sense.

Here is my response, drawn and culled from the various replies and comments I wrote in yesterday’s brief debate:

First, what is truly ‘counterproductive’ about the current situation–the one being protested by Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick, and others–is the following:  Systemic racism; a nationalism which views itself as a religion and therefore, as the issuer of categorical demands; failures of empathy on the part of the dominant class; a lack of moral imagination in those who regulate and police. In the hierarchy of counterproductive actions, these occupy the top-most rung. Protests–in whatever shape or form–by members of a systematically oppressed class are quite distant. Indeed, they are genuinely productive of a new national sensibility precisely because they ask new questions and may cause redefinitions of the supposed national project. Indeed, the more ‘sacred’ the symbol, the greater its vulnerability and susceptibility to the radical protest, to its utilization in activism which seeks to impress upon spectators its seriousness and urgency.

Second, speaking of tactical sense, in the current state of affairs, critiques of the football players’ actions have made a fight over the national anthem’s standing the main event, and in the process not only highlighted the national anthem’s foundational glorification of slavery but also led to a vigorous debate about what the American ideal really is. The diversity of responses to the football players’ protests suggests enough Americans a) support the right of the players to protest this way and b) have welcomed a closer look at the national anthem’s provenance and its possible malignancies.  To suggest that most Americans will despise political gestures like this and that it will have the predicted unhealthily disruptive outcomes is to indulge in a little too much prophecy for my taste. I’m perfectly willing to bide my time and let public discourse about this gesture take us into unexplored domains of political debate.

Third, (here, perhaps I explicitly part with Alinsky): sacrilege is a good thing; smashing idols is a good thing. Erecting temples and false religions is a fool’s game. The original political sin is turning rhetorical symbols into icons beyond human reproach. To place these symbols beyond protest is to concede a political weapon–the language of quasi-theistic categoricity–to the opposition, an act of political surrender. Nice try.

Democracy, The ‘Anti-National,’ And The Seditionist

In my essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books on the Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, currently serving a fifty-five year jail term in Federal prison for seditious conspiracy, I had written:

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 remain a blot on American democracy; John Adams deeply regretted — till the day of his death — being their prime mover. The crimes they charge citizens with — and the notion of a political dissident imprisoned for holding political beliefs supposedly dangerous — are an embarrassment for democracies. The very idea of sedition induces puzzlement in a student of politics: how can a liberal democracy punish the entertainment of beliefs?

Recent events in India–the crackdown on student protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in particular–suggest that this lesson has not yet been learned by democracies everywhere. (A pair of articles by Ruchir JoshiA Rash of Fascisms” and Mukul KesavanRepublic vs. Nation” makes this point in the Indian context quite eloquently.)

What is it that those who seek to crack down on the slogans, claims, and activities of the alleged seditionist fear? Because a nation is an idea, an abstract entity, and not a piece of land or a group of people, this question becomes a little more puzzling.

The nationalist has, of course, conflated himself with the nation; he perceives the attack on the nation as an attack on himself. The arch-nationalist thus reveals himself as a deeply paranoid, insecure type. Rather than seeing the fulminations of the political radical as an opening salvo in a debate, he perceives it as a material attack upon himself and his life’s projects; he has dedicated himself to the unblinking service of something whose provenance, dimensions, and nature he does not fully understand and now finds himself all at sea, unable to coherently defend, without descending into inarticulate rage, this mysterious notion. He is, as I noted in another context, “all unsatisfied Id, no Ego.”

I went on to note:

The accusation of seditious conspiracy is political: nothing enrages the patriot like the seditionist. He is a fifth columnist, a cancer on the body politic. The seditionist assaults the idea of the nation and offends our sensibilities by proclaiming that our idols have feet of clay. Sedition incites rebellions by encouraging citizens to rise up against their state; the existence of the seditionist is a threat to the public and psychic order underwritten by nationalist sentiment. In the old days, those who spoke against dominant paradigms, who placed the earth at the center of the universe and the like, were tortured, torn apart by mobs, burnt at the stake.

Unsurprisingly, we find religious fervor in the prosecution of this variant of political heresy. Nietzsche described the punishment felt suitable for this kind of citizen as:

A declaration of war and a war measure against an enemy of peace, law, order, authority, who is fought as dangerous to the life of the community, in breach of the contract on which the community is founded, as a rebel, a traitor and breaker of the peace, with all the means war can provide.

As might be expected, this rhetoric has shown up in the discourse surrounding the arrest and physical abuse of the students arrested in India.

Democracy is a young thing, a mere fledgling; it places a fairly onerous responsibility upon those charged with its care. Many, it seems, are simply not up to the task.

Reflections On ‘Imagined Communities’ – II: Newspaper Reading As Modern Prayer

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, New York, 2006, pp. 34-35), Benedict Anderson writes:

[T]he newspaper is merely an ‘extreme form’ of the book, a book sold on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity. Might we say: one-day best-sellers? The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing….creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (‘imagining’) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only this day, not that. The significance of this mass ceremony–Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers–is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by…others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion….the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.

The modern version of ‘mass ceremony’ that Hegel terms a ‘substitute for morning prayer’ is–I suspect, from my vantage, privileged viewpoint–the morning email/social media check-in. Coffee mug in hand, we head over to our desktops, our laptops, our smartphones, hit space bars or tap screens, and get to reattaching the umbilical cord. (Some folks have no time and energy for this ritual and never have had, even in the times that Anderson is referring to above; reading newspapers has always been a luxury of sorts.) The sense of shared community is similar to those of newspapers: as I read shared links, I’m aware that many others have done the same. I sense, of course, that there are many overlapping communities here, just because each of our social media ‘contacts’ is a node in many other social networks besides ours. (This makes for an interesting contrast from the readership of a newspaper.)

Still, my sense of participating in a common, widely dispersed ritual as I interact with my social media feed grows: interactions and notifications are soon forthcoming, informing me that my social media ‘community’ is attentive and engaged. And if a variety of links on some topic of interest soon becomes visible, presenting the varied facets and dimensions of a hotly debated issue, this feeling becomes ever more entrenched. Indeed, I might want to participate in this ‘conversation’ – a possibility not available in the older model of readers reading their newspapers in their personal spaces. Through these interactions, I am reassured my ‘imagined community’ does not just exist and participate in the ritual of the modern morning prayer like I do, but it also engages with itself, with its constituents, about the meaning and significance of the liturgies performed and the prayers chanted.

Social media interactions such as the ones I describe are often not quite as local, provincial, or national, as in Anderson’s formulation of the shared newspaper experience: my ‘imagined communities’ straddle nations.  And yet, no global community, no ‘global village,’ despite the feverish imaginings and speculations of the early net-enthusiasts has emerged; news and issues on social media still bear a distinct national imprint and are still intended, primarily, for ‘local’ consumption. The nation still reigns supreme.