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On Bhujchered Patriotism
Bhuj: The Pride Of India strolls down the balustrade of jingoism — an aggressive, acidic love for the nation predicated on hate, buoyed by a masculine patronizing of Mother India
A feral howl, that is how Arundhati Roy describes her political essays. It comes from a space of deep immediacy, desperation, and despair. Facts usually pepper the periphery — but it is the anger that is the point, and to be honest, it is this anger, articulated with the most visual, impressionable metaphors, that makes her such a compelling essayist. Who doesn’t visualize the pandemic as a portal, an idea stamped on fresh concrete? Even if you ignore the rhetorical excesses, the core stings — anger by literary osmosis.
I was re-reading An End Of Imagination this week, her essay on India’s nuclear program in 1998, less than a year after she won the Booker Prize for God Of Small Things. (A novel which taught me a few things — that a book can have a messy construction, middling at the beginning, ending at the middle; that if your school teachers are worried that you are reading a certain book, you must most-definitely read it; that a book can use English and abuse English; that metaphors, written well can be taken very literally i.e. for the longest time I thought sex had something to do with bottles and mangoes, given how in her book, during acts of sex or sexual assault, people grab mangoes, and grasp bottles, and you can only imagine my surprise at knowing that sex needed neither, just willing, tending bodies.) It was the timing of the essay that is excellent — India wanted to appropriate her literary victory as theirs, while she was head over heels bursting with anger at the nuclear tests done in May 1998. The essay was a culmination of her articulate rage.
“If only, if only, nuclear war was just another kind of war. If only it was about the usual things - nations and territories, gods and histories. If only those of us who dread it are just worthless moral cowards who are not prepared to die in defence of our beliefs. If only nuclear war was the kind of war in which countries battle countries and men battle men. But it isn't. If there is a nuclear war, our foes will not be China or America or even each other. Our foe will be the earth herself. The very elements - the sky, the air, the land, the wind and water - will all turn against us. Their wrath will be terrible. Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. Rivers will turn to poison. The air will become fire.” — Arundhati Roy
She was the first essayist I knew of — I read Algebra Of Infinite Justice, her only book in our school library, did not understand what the title meant, even in the context of the essay, but named my blog Algebra/Alchemy after it anyway. (I used to love Paulo Coelho too, the margins of The Alchemist dotted with my teenage doubt. But I guess everyone used to love Paulo Coelho, even if you never read Paulo Coelho, sometimes, especially if you didn’t) I bought a copy and committed to memory paragraphs from Listening To Grasshoppers: Field Notes On Democracy while preparing for my MUN conferences. Before you ask, my verbatim quotations were a hit. We were all so ridiculous, so righteous. And so, while writing a piece on patriotism in Hindi cinema in times for India’s Independence Day, I wanted to revisit her essays, because I thought there wasn’t enough rage in my prose — something I am fine with usually, but felt was lacking in this case, something that would, elevate the collection of facts. To be clear, I didn’t want to manufacture the rage — it is something I felt while watching movies peddling hate as love, acidic, corrosive chest thumping as patriotism. But something about the act of writing, for me, is centering. It pokes doubts at my incomplete assertions, raises an eyebrow at an adverb, sighs at the excessive build-up of emotion. I thought I could short-circuit my instincts with some world-class rage. I couldn’t, let it slide, and returned to Roy’s descriptions of the Narmada valley being destroyed. (She had given all her Booker winnings to the movement fighting against the Narmada dam that got built anyways, that displaced people anyway.)
This brings me to Bhuj: The Pride Of India, an Independence Day release. The piece on nationalism in Hindi cinema was already in its second draft, and Bhuj was supposed to merely be a film that would provide some additional ammunition to the arguments already made.
On the outset I was quite excited for the film, more than most people, more than most critics definitely. While I am certainly not a fan of Ajay Devgn, he has, with Shivaay, with Tanhaaji, and now with Bhuj, brought a sleek, green screened, video game aesthetic into our action films. We generally have awful CGI in our movies, mostly because filmmakers think of it like photoshop, and that we revere a matchbox production like Bahubali says everything about how we don’t care for scale to feel like scale — to look like it is enough. Devgn runs with this and in the three films I noted he quickens the frames per second, unapologetically uses video game aesthetics of quick swerves and tailing perspective, punctuates it with top shots and wide shots. It doesn’t look real, it doesn’t even feel real, but it produces that exasperating adrenaline that comes from having seen something real. It’s unlike anything we have. Bhuj has a lot of that, too, but with the fizz of an “item song” — ‘Zaalima Coca Cola’ is exactly the kind of music we need to diffuse the self-serious patriotism of men talking of country as mother; at least this way we know they are capable of getting a hard-on, however sloppy the context, however dated the coca-cola-bottle-as-penis metaphor (God Of Small Things!), at least Shreya Goshal’s voice is there to make the raunch naach sound like a devotional alaap — and awful dialogue delivery. I was hoping it would be a camp splendour. But instead I felt anger throughout, the kind that I was hoping I would feel while writing the piece. Worse, they axed ‘Zaalima Coca Cola’ from the film.
Anger, first, because I had no fucking clue what was going on — the helpless anger where you feel stupid for being unable to toe along the plot, but also impatient, unwilling to rewind because the proceedings are ghastly. The film keeps shifting its timeline, its focus, its pursuit, sometimes without warning, mostly without taste. Anger, second, because they have the audacity to make such unfinished films today — where craft is not even a consideration, under the blinding influence of astrologically conspired star power (I am sorry but it is really hard to take someone whose production house misspells Films as Ffilms seriously — an additional F for us, the audience. Fuck us, honestly, for caring, for hoping) . The entirely film looks concocted on the editing and VFX table, which seems like the rational explanation for its disjointed, reckless pace. I am not sure if the jump cuts of time and place and motive were there on paper or were later pieced together to create a dizzying film that replaces basic narrative logic with the whiplash speed of proceedings. Anger, third, because the message was so loose, so crass, so tired, so compensatory.
You can see through the tropes. Like Uri, like Avrodh, like Shershaah, honestly, like any patriotic film, the moment you have a kind soldier discussing his family, his life back home, you know he will die, and you know his fellow soldiers will hold onto death like vengeful ammunition. Again, like Uri, like Crackdown, the existence of the virtuous Muslim Indian character is to soak up all the Islamophobic vitriol being injected like drip-feed. As I noted in my piece:
“There is certainly a religious anxiety when such [India-Pakistan] lines are drawn clearly, which is why such films tend to overcorrect — a recognition by the makers that their anti-Pakistan venom can be very easily interpreted by their audience as anti-Muslim. For example, in the thumping, rousing pre-strike preparation song in Uri, the makers take a second to show a few officers doing namaz as Vihaan (Vicky Kaushal) walks by. Similarly, in Voot’s Crackdown, when RP (Saqib Saleem’s Riyaaz Pathan, whose Muslimness is axed by making it RP) remarks, “Musalmaan sirf Quran se nahin, apne iman se bhi banta hai. Aur uski misaal main dikhaunga,” (One’s Muslimness is not just about reading the Quran but about one’s faith too. I will become the shining example of this) the model Minority complex is in full swing. Similarly, in Bhuj, Nora Fatehi’s character is entirely built to absorb the Islamophobia that girds the film. She tells a Pakistani general that it is Pakistan that is Islam’s greatest enemy, even as Indo-Muslim iconography — ittar, Muharram, Mughals — is villainized through the film.
Bhuj distances itself from the idea that Mughals were Indians, and instead places the fountainhead of Indian-ness on the Marathas, on Chhatrapati Shivaji who “wrote India’s history with blood.” This masculine outrage finds the feminine Bharat Mata, Mother India, to protect and patronize. This isn’t a contemporary overcorrection — since the 19th Century the ideas of Bharat Mata or Tamil Thai has found its way into textbooks, anthems, and iconography.
In my piece I wonder if as cinema, we have graduated from the trope of the helpless, ever-loving mother, why do we still stick to this abstract notion of the mother nation as ever-nurturing? Does it make it easier to submit one’s life to an abstract idea? Does it make it more honorable? What happens when you trade honour with your life? The state refuses euthanasia because human life is sacred, but will perform PR somersolts pushing men into wars with minimal funding, and thin canvas clothes to brave the cold, and then platform films that celebrate this madness? How to react to a background score hammering, “Insaan bankar aaye the, shahid bankar jayenge. Goliyon ki lori sunkar lambi neend so jayenge” (Entering the world as humans, exiting it as martyrs, listening to the lullaby of gunshots, the long sleep awaits).
But at this point I must also mention how there is something broken about the way we talk about patriotism and war. There is an expectation of nuance in the battlefield, which is not just odd but unreasonable. That war is violent, and war needs adrenaline, and war is madness can all be true. Madness needs sloganeering. My issue with the “How’s The Josh” slogan from Uri was not that it was jingoistic, but that it was co-opted, replicated so many times — from the Prime Minister, to the CEO of a startup — that it became cloying, annoying.
When reading this year’s International Booker Prize-winner At Night All Blood Is Black, which I reviewed for The Hindu, I was suddenly confronted by the fact that the moment soldiers are thrust into the battlefield, they need to be elevated in barbaric spirit, in gushing hormones that makes them forget the probabilities of death and the possibilities of murder, and the inevitability that both will be described as patriotism.
“On the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness. Madmen of rage, madmen of pain, furious madmen, but temporary ones…. You will content yourself with killing them, not mutilating them. The civilities of war forbid it.”
Can we talk of war as madness and war as necessary in the same breath? A lot of the criticism of patriotic films have this odd language, where any assertion of patriotism is off-limits, any shrill proclamation of pride before the bullet barter is melodramatic and unnecessary. There is this odd impulse to pass off criticisms of the bigger rotting systems as criticism of the films that are shackled by the very systems. The same impulse was there when criticizing The Family Man — criticizing it for not being political, when its apolitics was its express intent.
Can we talk of love, even to an abstract entity such as a nation, as regenerative, doubtful, withholding now and then, overflowing now and then? Can we speak of doubt in love?
Take the scene from Swades where Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan), a NASA scientist who comes back to India, and over lunch, debates India’s destiny with his childhood friend Gita (Gayatri Joshi), the local school teacher — she believes that change comes from the grassroots; he believes that “parampara and sanskar”, customs and traditions, has shackled us into poverty and illiteracy; Gita retorts that the government is trying, that policies are being made; Mohan is dismissive; Gita clinches, “Sarkar ko tum samajhte kya ho? Sarkar ek system hai jiska janta bhi ek hissa hai.” To solve systemic issues is as much a government’s job as it is ours — an invitation for civil civic consciousness. That to love your country is to mend it. That to mend it is to acknowledge that it is broken.