Reimagining India as a Hindu nation
UTTARAN DAS GUPTA
Sooryavanshi was the first big film to hit the screens as cinemas reopened in India in late-2021 after being closed for nearly a year and half because of the pandemic. Directed by Rohit Shetty, it starred Akshay Kumar in the titular role. In the film, Kumar is an officer of Mumbai Police’s Anti-Terror Squad and fights Pakistani terrorists menacing the city. This is the fourth film in Shetty’s highly successful series of interlinked cop dramas, including Singham (2011), Singham Returns (2014), and Simmba (2018). Sooryavanshi raked in INR 120.7 crore in the first week and went on become the most successful Hindi film of the year.
Film critics and other commentators, however, soon started calling out the film’s troubling Islamophobia. Journalist Rana Ayyub wrote in The Washington Post: ‘Sooryavanshi is dangerous. After watching it, it’s impossible not to think of Nazi Germany, where Hitler cultivated a film industry that paid obeisance to him and made propaganda against Jews.’ While others were more restrained in their hyperbole, the verdict was clear – Sooryavanshi was yet another propa-ganda film for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
There had been several of these in recent years – Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), Padman (2018), Sui Dhaaga (2018), Mission Mangal (2019), Batti Gul Meter Chalu (2018), and Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) to name a few. Sooryavanshi, however, marks a departure from the previous films. While the older films aimed to promote various schemes of the government, buttress Modi’s populism (PM Narendra Modi, 2019) or villainise his political opponents (Indu Sarkar, 2017; The Accidental Prime Minister, 2019; The Tashkent Files, 2019), Sooryavanshi actively villainises Muslims and tries to reimagine the Indian nation as a Hindu majoritarian country. This merits a closer analysis.
Critics have pointed out Sooryavanshi’s deep-seated Islamophobia, but none have interrogated the reasons for it. I believe the film is obsessed with the question of citizenship, especially of Indian Muslims, because of the conditions of its production. When the film was being shot in late-2019, the country was roiled by protests against The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, or the CAA. The new law was purportedly aimed at fast-tracking the citizenship applications of persecuted religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Ratified by the parliament on 11 December 2019, it linked religion to Indian citizenship for the first time in the country’s post-Independence history.
While the government repeatedly tried to assure that Indian Muslims would not be affected by it, the law’s critics pointed out that along with the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), it could deprive many of India’s 200 million Muslims of their citizenship. Spontaneous protests, often led by Muslim women, that broke out all over the country provoked a reassessment of what it meant to be an Indian.
Nations, as we know from the work of political scientists such as Benedict Anderson, are ‘imagined communities’, brought into existence and sustained as much by historical and geographical processes as the collective fantasies of its citizens. India is no exception to this rule. The most comprehensive account of how India imagined itself as a modern democracy is, perhaps, Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India (1997). Drawing upon the figure of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Khilnani asserts early in his book: ‘the period of Indian history since 1947 might be seen as the adventure of a political idea: democracy.’ He claims that contemporary India is a product of modern ideas such as nationalism, democracy, and economic development, and an ability to accommodate different – and often opposing – ideas.
This idea, however, has been challenged in recent years. ‘India is a civilization which is transforming into a “nation” through the instrumentality of a sovereign, democratic state,’ write investor Harsh Madhusudan and entrepreneur Rajeev Mantri in their book A New Idea of India (2020). This ‘civilizational’ idea of India is evidently opposed to the idea that Khilnani described. Naturally, Madhusudan and Mantri have chosen ‘elite intellectuals’ as their target: ‘As if a few people sitting together, often in the cafes of Washington DC’s K Street or London’s Piccadilly or New Delhi’s Khan Market can decide, once and for all, this is Indian and this is un-Indian… Using “a new” before “idea of India” in this book’s title is deliberate. In the long run, ideas matter and not momentary majorities.’
‘New India’, however, is no more a matter only of intellectual debate and has become official government policy. In his Independence Day speech in 2017, Modi the prime minister, announced a plan for achieving a new India by 2022 – the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. Mentioning ‘New India’ seven times in his speech, Modi identified the characteristics of the imagined future to be a ‘secure, prosperous and strong nation’, with equal opportunity for all and a robust democracy.
NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank, published a 232-page policy document titled ‘Strategy for New India@75’, in November 2018. In the Preface to the document, NITI Aayog’s vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar mentions that they have identified 41 different areas for a sharper focus to ensure a steady and inclusive growth of the Indian economy. The government has also started an online portal, https://newindia.mygov.in, where Indians can register themselves to take part in various activities to transform the nation. As of 31 March 2022, about 62,000 people had registered.
The idea of ‘New India’ is also supposed to be a certain kind of confident, even aggressive, attitude. Modi has frequently referred to it. For instance, in the highly publicized letter he wrote to M.S. Dhoni, former captain of Indian men’s cricket team, or while congratulating the Indian women’s hockey team for their performance in the Tokyo Olympics 2021. The phase has also found its way to popular Bollywood films. In Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), National Security Advisor (NSA) Govind Bharadwaj tells the prime minister: ‘Yeh naya Hindustan hai. Yeh Hindustan ghar mei ghusega bhi aur marega bhi. (This is a New India. This New India will enter their homes and kill as well.)’
The film dramatizes India’s retaliatory strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir following a terror attack on an army camp in the town of Uri in 2016. This is not a mere coincidence. The actor playing Bharadwaj is Paresh Rawal, a vocal supporter of Modi, and Bharadwaj’s character is loosely based on India’s NSA Ajit Doval. Also, barely 10 days after the release of the film, Modi quoted the popular dialogue from the film, ‘How’s the josh (energy)?’, at the inauguration of the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai. The film went on to become the biggest box office hit of the year.
How does Sooryavanshi imagine New India? The matrix of visual codes employed by the film can be decoded through a close analysis of two scenes.
In the first of these scenes, Sooryavanshi meets Kadar Usmani (Gulshan Grover), a suspected terrorist. On being confronted for encouraging young men to join the Islamic State, Usmani asks Sooryavanshi: ‘Do you even know the plight of Muslims in India?’ Sooryavanshi responds by pointing to his colleagues – retired cop Naeem Khan and his son Abbas Khan, also a police officer. The Khans are visually a striking contrast to Usmani: they wear western clothes and are nicely shaven, sporting only moustaches. Usmani, on the other hand, is dressed in traditional kurta-pyajama-jacket, with a cap. He sports a beard but his upper lip is cleanshaven. His forehead bears the mark of praying five times a day. ‘These are Hindustani Muslims,’ says Sooryavanshi pointing out the Khans.
The exact words he uses are ‘Hindustani Mussalman’ – also the title of a poem by Hindi/Urdu poet and screenwriter Hussain Haidry that went viral during the anti-CAA protests in 2019-20. The poem had been famous since at least 2017 and asks: ‘What kind of a Muslim am I, bhai? / I know I am an Indian Muslim.’ The poem drew upon Haidry’s experiences of living in India – such as taking a dip in the Ganga that is holy for Hindus or the shadow of the Babri Masjid demolition and frequent communal riots – to frame the identity of the Indian Muslim.
Sooryavanshi not only sets up a dichotomy between the good Muslim (demure or a collaborator of the Indian state) versus the bad Muslim (a terrorist like Usmani), but also obfuscates the real issues faced by Muslims in India. As the Sachar Committee had highlighted in 2006, Muslims in India lagged every other community in terms of human development indicators. Since 2014, the situation has taken a turn for the worse, with a dramatic rise of mob violence against Muslims. Former bureaucrat and social activist Harsh Mander described the situation in his book Partitions of the Heart (2018) as ‘a slow but lethal raising of temperatures.’
Recent policies of the government, such as rescinding the special status of the troubled Muslim majority region of Kashmir; banning of ‘triple talaq’; enactment of laws to curtail religious conversion or inter-religious marriages; a Supreme Court verdict in favour of the contentious Ram Mandir in the northern city of Ayodhya; and the CAA have been contentious.
In the other scene, Mumbai is under attack from Pakistani terrorists, who have planted car bombs in different parts of the city. One of these areas is the congested Minar Chowk, populated by both Muslims and Hindus. When it becomes evident that the area cannot be evacuated before the bombs go off, Sooryavanshi decides to drive the car away. At the same time, a group of devout Muslims, who were praying at a mosque nearby, enter a temple and rescue a statue of the elephant god Ganesha. All of this takes place with the background of a remixed version of the popular song ‘Hum Hindustani’ from the film Hum Hindustani (1960).
Written by the leftist lyricist and musician Prem Dhawan, the original song begins:
Chhodo kal ki baatein
Kal ki baat purani
Naye daur me linkhenge hum
Mil kar nayi kahani
(Forget what’s past
It’s too old
In this new era
We’ll write a story together)
It has been described as ‘the theme song of Nehru’s vision’ by Anand Vardhan of Newslaundry in his essay ‘Hindi cinema: Being political in the Nehruvian era’ (2017). The original song, set to music by Usha Khanna and sung by Mukesh, has an upbeat tune and is accompanied by visuals that embody a newly independent India’s hopes and dreams. There is Nehru at a session of the Indian National Congress, construction of hydroelectric dams, trains, factories, soaring fighter jets. Historian Nikhil Menon in his recent history of India’s Five-Year Plans, Planning Democracy (2022), writes: ‘(T)he song beseeched its listener to both take pride and take part in independent India’s economic progress. In this new India, work was worship.’
In Sooryavanshi, this socialist imagination of the nation is appropriated for a deeply Hindutva one. Tanul Thakur, the film reviewer of The Wire, finds this scene particularly noteworthy: ‘I sat in the theatre completely baffled and confused – and even – shed a tear.’ A little later he add: ‘By fashioning a sincere “middle path” in a jungle of many questionable trails, Shetty hasn’t made a good film by default. That is a much complex and arduous effort, but he has at least tried to stay clear from the cesspool that passes for political commentary in mainstream Bollywood.’
I disagree with this evaluation because of the images that accompany the song in Sooryavanshi. It is telling that a group of Muslims save a Hindu god, and not the other way round. This is also one of the subtle messages of how Muslims are supposed to live in India. Read in the larger context of the Babri Masjid movement, calls for tearing down other historical mosques in India, as well as the controversy over Muslims praying in public places, this scene is not an appeal or homage to India’s secular fabric but a warning to India’s minorities – you will be safe in this country only if you align with the majority.
Sooryavanshi is an important film not only because of its huge box office success or its sleek propaganda, but because it is a bridge of sorts in the Hindutva narratives of Bollywood. Before this film, the vehicle of Islamophobia in the Hindi film industry was the historical. Sooryavanshi also follows the structure of the historical. It has a Hindu soldier defending India from Muslim invaders/infiltrators. The invaders are often cunning and unethical in their conduct on and off the battlefield, whereas the Hindu soldiers display bravery and ethical conduct.
This broad formula can be applied to films such as Padmaavat (2018), Panipat: The Great Betrayal (2019), and Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020). Film critic Uday Bhatia, quoting cultural historian Katherine Schofield, explains in his column for The Mint that these historical films provided a ‘heterotopia’ – a different place – to resolve political and social crises of our contemporary times. However, with Sooryavanshi, the heterotopia becomes redundant.
The crises is now located in our contemporary times or in the near-past (The Kashmir Files, 2022). This means that Muslims are villains not only in India’s past but also in India’s present. This is an alarming development, especially in the context of red flags about a possible Muslim genocide raised by international organizations such as Genocide Watch and US Holocaust Memorial Museum. In Sooryavanshi, we can find a distinct turn in Bollywood towards a more aggressive Islamophobia.