If Bollywood has its way, Akshay Kumar could find himself unanimously voted as the model Indian of the century. In his films, he never betrays the nation, always wearing the uniform and the flag on his sleeves proudly. That he is a rumoured Canadian citizen shouldn’t matter, since Canada is, as one popular joke goes, a part of Punjab! When not doing brain-dead comedies, Kumar, aka The Patriot, has been single-handedly responsible for amping up our collective national pride. Most of the action star’s recent hits, including Airlift, Rustom, Toilet – Ek Prem Katha and Gold have tapped into the growing patriotic mood sweeping across new India.
In 2016 alone, Kumar appeared twice at the cinemas, first with Airlift – well-timed with the Republic Day weekend – and Rustom on Independence Day. In August 2018, Kumar returned to his favourite hunting ground with Reema Kagti’s Gold, this time hoping to put hockey back in the spotlight. But Kumar wasn’t alone in riding the jingoistic wave. John Abraham squared off against Kumar with his very own Satyameva Jayate.
As Bollywood continues to probe and promote patriotic sentiments, here’s a look at how Hindi film heroes have kept up with the changing meaning of patriotism and the different ways in which love for the motherland has been expressed on the screen.
The Patriot – Akshay Kumar
With the Khans monopolising all festive weekends, it left the poster boy of new-age patriotism with national days. And look how he turned these drab history lessons holidays into lucrative machines. In Rustom, the son of the soil plays a naval officer accused of murdering his wife’s lover, an “honourable murderer” as one sympathetic banner announces. The story writers cannily subverted it into a spy drama, justifying the crime of passion into a matter of national honour. In Khiladi Kumar’s Airlift , the burden of bringing back the Indians stranded in the Gulf War falls on Akki’s broad shoulders. The heroism goes well with chants of Vande Mataram and there’s always Akshay Kumar to save the day.
“I am also an Indian” – Alia Bhatt And Raazi
Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi presents a nuanced meaning of nationalism in an age where chest-thumping passes off as love for your motherland. An Indian spy in a Pakistani family, Sehmat (Bhatt) has to prove her patriotism as a Muslim in India, and more troublingly, one born in Kashmir. So, it’s a careful juggling of the Kashmiri identity with the Indo-Pak dynamic. While the film takes care not to pin any blame on Pakistan, making it a rarity in Bollywood, it does not resort to the usual “I love Hindustan” rhetoric. As Sehmat says, “Main bhi toh Hindustan hun.” Taking a balanced approach, director Meghna Gulzar seems to be suggesting that loving your country does not mean hating another even as dad Gulzar’s Aye Watan plays as a constant reminder of deep-rooted national pride. Anubhav Sinha tackles a similar dilemma in the recent Mulk. As he put it in a recent interview, “Mulk is a love story between Hindus and Muslims. You get together, you live together, you fight, one makes a mistake, you separate and you get back together. I don’t know why this love scares some people.”
Newton’s Stubborn Idealism
Patriotism isn’t just about war heroes. It’s also about the small touches and flourishes. Morally upright, Amit V. Masurkar’s Newton (Rajkummar Rao) is one of the officers responsible for conducting a fair election in a Maoist-infected region of Chhattisgarh. Masurkar contrasts his by-the-book hero’s stubborn idealism with Aatma Singh’s (Pankaj Tripathi) aggression who, handing his rifle to Newton, reminds the young election officer that “this is the weight of the nation and it’s on us.” Who is this us? It’s the armed forces that keeps India safe. But the national duty is equally celebrated in the ordinary. Newton diverts the narrative of nationalism.
Patriotism On The Pitch
The diminutive Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and his team of oddballs turned the tables on the British – beating them at their own game. Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) combined cricket with nationalism to produce box-office fireworks. Aamir Khan went on to become the face of patriotism in Mangal Pandey: The Rising and later, Rang De Basanti that redefined social activism, fight for justice and youth revolution. By the time Dangal arrived, the 51-year-old star had moved from the deliverer of pyrrhic victories to enabler. It is the girls who the steal the show, under the watchful eye of their “haanikarak bapu.” Another coach (Shah Rukh Khan), at the centre of Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India, takes the lead in an all-girls hockey underdog team and gets to win the day as well as closure to a deeply-felt personal conflict.
Bharat Kumar Versus Nehru’s Hero
Immersed in the nation-building project, Raj Kapoor’s Raj or Raju was the fabled Nehruvian hero – the honest-to-a-fault low-life who sang his way into people’s heart. His shoes were Japanese, pants English but heart always belonged to India. So much of Kapoor’s patriotic message came via Shailendra’s socialist lyrics. (As opposed to Sahir Ludhianvi’s piercing and questioning Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Woh Kahan Hai.) The title song of Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai talks about the Indian virtues of honesty and the Indian as the truth-speaker. By the time Manoj Kumar came on the scene with Upkar, Purab Aur Paschim and Kranti, the versions of who is a screen patriot changed radically reflecting, perhaps, the social changes around us. An Akshay Kumar of his day, Manoj Kumar’s cinema consistently reminded us that Indians are better than the West extolling our centuries-old “sabhyata” to bolster that argument home. Kumar has long retired. But every Independence Day, his enduring songs – Hai Preet Jahan Ki – still blare from the radio and street flag-hoisting programmes.
Trust Sunny Deol and his ‘dhaai kilo ka haath’ to simultaneously raise the levels of noise pollution and patriotic rhetoric. In Gadar, Citizen Sunny crosses the border to give the Pakis a mouthful. What use is patriotism if it fails to tear into the conscience of the mortal enemy? Recently, Tiger Shroff’s Baaghi 2 would make Citizen Sunny proud. The snarling Shroff, playing an army officer in the film, ties a man to the jeep for allegedly insulting the national flag. In a Bollywood film, when the villain isn’t Pakistan, it’s usually the British or the invaders. For example, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat depicts the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji as an uncivilised, power-hungry despot. As far as the British go, Amitabh Bachchan’s repeated lashings (not to forget, dog piss) on Bob Christo in Mard is a reminder that those hanging the “Dogs and Indians are not allowed” boards outside public places, inevitably, shall face the music. If Mard weren’t by the showman Manmohan Desai you’d be easily accused of making half of that stuff up. You can watch the full film on YouTube. Happy Republic Day!
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)