Art binds people to each other but sometimes when prejudice starts informing the craft, cinema becomes a tool to shape hostile propaganda against a community. Some are blunt, others are sharp. In the last couple of weeks, we watched two varieties in the form of The Kashmir Files: Unreported and the much-anticipated sequel to Sunny Deol’s Gadar. The former is a docu-series by Vivek Agnihotri that follows up on his contentious The Kashmir Files which argues that the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits was a genocide committed by the Kashmiri Muslims who wanted to usurp the land and women of the minorities. With little tangible growth in conversation and tonality, it is more like Mr. Agnihotri patting his back by putting out ‘his research material’ for the moving but manipulative feature film that stirred the box office after the pandemic.
The Anil Sharma film has one filter as he once again indulges in Pakistan bashing ostensibly to send Indian Muslims a message. Like the original, the sequel is also creating a jingoistic atmosphere in theatres. The sequel feels more puerile than provocative because, in the last two decades, the social media space and newscape have become a lot shriller and dog whistle politics has become an everyday reality.
By chance or design, the narrative feels manufactured to build on the goodwill of the original to perhaps create an atmosphere ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. Sunny Deol is a BJP Member of Parliament and has a strong influence on the farmer community who have protested against the policies of the ruling party. It goes without saying that it will be in the interest of the party if farmers vote as Hindus.
Both films generate a fear of sexual aggression, an important element in propaganda films, to put their point across. One of the potent and provocative tactics to create hate for a group of people is by forming a narrative that the ‘other is after our women.’ It has been effectively used in creating a social narrative against African Americans and Jews at different points of time in cinematic history. Of late, it is finding ground in Hindi cinema. It is pretty straightforward in The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story — which deals with the issue of influencing young girls to convert to Islam and using them as fodder in terror activities but also finds reflection in a little more nuanced and better-crafted films like Padmavat where the Muslim aggressor is creatively demonised. In these films, there is not even a token good Muslim and it is not just the writing even the camera’s gaze and light design generate a barbaric and atavistic image of Muslim characters.
It reminds of D.W. Griffith’s racist drama The Birth of a Nation where some African Americans are shown to be worthy of being lynched for they keep eyeing white women. Similarly, German films The Rothschilds, Jew Suss, and The Eternal Jew painted Jews as immoral and despicable parasites who needed to be wiped out. They helped in spurring an anti-Semitic sentiment in Germany in the 1940s.
In the Gadar series, the idea is inverted. The film blurs the line between Hindu and Hindustan. Here an impression is formed that we can demolish the opponent and win over their women with love and compassion. In the original, Tara Singh, a truck driver, saves Sakina, a Muslim girl who hails from a privileged background and gets left behind when her family migrates to Pakistan after Partition, from a Hindu mob and eventually marries her but only after she gives her hand. When her thankless father takes her away to Pakistan, Tara brings her back after pummelling the opposition. In the sequel, Tara’s son travels to the neighbourhood in search of his father but along the way wins the heart of Muskaan, a Pakistani girl whose father seems to be a sympathiser of the Baloch movement.
In the subcontinent, women are still seen as the custodian of the honour of the family and community and it is one of the reasons that a section of Muslims is wary of the underlying politics of the Gadar series.
It reminds them of a real-life imagery where efforts to free Muslim women of hijab, polygamous men, and instant Triple Talaq and bulldozing of their homes and lynching of their men form a common disturbing montage.
The one-sided narratives, built on half-truths and the pain of real-life victims of terror, seem to have the backing of the dominant political ideology. It calls it course correction from the leftist narratives of the 1960s and 1970s that allegedly appeased one community by presenting a romanticised secular picture. For them, there is no space for Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb (syncretic culture) in this latest clash of civilisations and seek to inject the audience with rage and revenge.
More than what they tell us about the past, these films are relevant to what they say about the present. Curiously, in the last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mentioned only two films in his speeches: The Kashmir Files and the other is The Kerala Story. He used them to whip the opposition and suggested more such films should be made. Bestowing the Nargis Dutt Award for National Integration to The Kashmir Files in the 69th National Film Awards announced on Thursday underlines how the present dispensation sees the moral character of the film. In a way, the award carries forward the narrative that reading down Article 370 is helping in better integration of Kashmir with India.
The fact that management of Delite Cinema, situated at the cusp of Old and New Delhi, had to shift The Kerala Story from its boutique Diamond theatre with a capacity of just around 200 seats to its main theatre that could accommodate at least four times more audience within in a week of its release tells us that deeply prejudiced narratives are also finding traction on the ground.
So much so that it is threatening to create a mass that can bite the hand that is feeding it for it detests any kind of tempering or dilution of the venom. It was apparent when the makers and writer of Adipurush were aggressively slammed on social media and taken to court despite the fact that they seemed very much part of the course correction team in the run-up to the release.
Similarly, the purveyors of hate, which includes some self-styled film critics as well, restrained their support to 72 Hoorain and Ajmer 92 when they discovered that the films are not at all rabid as the title and synopsis or for that matter their imagination suggested. They just came out of the can for there is a demand for such titles.
For all its bombast, we find in Gadar 2, Sakeena continues to follow her religion after her marriage with Tara. It talks about how locals who support the sons-in-law of Pakistan could find sanctuary in Balochistan. It refrains from generalisation as it shows General Hamid Iqbal who carries a personal grudge against Tara Singh as a cigar-smoking monster who loves his wine to showcase that he is not a true Muslim. Even the Pakistani soldiers lose respect for Iqbal in the climax.
However, when one came out of the screening, one could see many who didn’t find this ‘balance’ mazedaar (exciting) enough for the film’s calls for embracing both the Quran and the Gita. “Aur khatarnak (deadly) expected tha,” exclaimed a young fan. The cinema ticket doesn’t come with a feedback form. Once a ticket is sold, it is taken as a yes for the content for posterity. The Kashmir Files: Unreported is comparatively less divisive in presenting its point of view than the feature film. It talks of what pushed the Muslim Kashmiri youth towards extremism. At one point, it says a handful of people were responsible for the situation.
It could not find even a single talking head to put across a Kashmiri Muslim’s perspective of the situation. The testimonies of Kashmiri Pandits are indeed heart-wrenching but the film only indulges in a blame game.
Perhaps, that’s why Zee5, the platform where the docu-series is streaming, doesn’t take responsibility for what is said across seven episodes. The platform has also realised that it can’t give unqualified support to a one-sided narrative of a complex problem.
Meanwhile, there is another film, OMG-2, that hit the theatres the same week that gives hope. It proves that the audience is not a monolith and that art still binds people. Director Amit Rai draws from the riches of Santana Dharma to build an entertaining yet educative conversation on sex education. There is a scene in the film where Zaheer, a teenager tells a secret of his and his friend to the friend’s father, a Shiv bhakt, and requests him to keep it a secret. When the father says yes, Zaheer asks, ‘Mahakaal Ki kasam?’
But this time, the system, represented by the Censor Board of Film Certification that found the message of peace in all the violence of Gadar -2 chose to put the film, which talks to teenagers and their parents about the importance of sex education in schools, in the adult’s category. Is there a fear? A cursory glance at theatres, however, reveals that teenagers are lining up at ticket windows and managers, who have faced a long draught, are preferring to look the other way.