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Aisa Desh Hai Mera: Bollywood’s preoccupation with North India

By Pritha Mahanti and Shreya Bhowmik

In an amusing scene from the movie Chak De! India (2007), two hockey players from Jharkhand are initially dismissed by the man at the registration desk, first as runaway inmates from a mental asylum and then as actors from a Ramleela troupe. It is on checking the letter they bear that the man is assured of these girls in cotton blouses and skirts as state-level hockey players. Next comes a player whose surname, Reddy, makes him ask if she is ‘madrasi’. She says she speaks Telegu to which he confidently retorts that she is Tamil. Irked by his ridiculous statement about there not being much difference between a Telegu and a Tamil, she points out the difference is as much as that between a Punjabi and a Bihari. There is also an interesting moment when two players from the North East lament being considered guests in their own country. In a way, Chak De! India did what is rare in a mainstream Bollywood movie. It avoided falling into painful regional clichés and banal humour still dished out in the name of India’s incredible diversity.

By an almost natural progression, however, the characters that stand out as prominent players in the team and on whom the drama rests are all largely from the northern states of India. Natural because the Hindi film industry has always located Indian-ness in this territorial belt. Its claim to national cinema has been despite the fact that its idea of the nation rarely involves the southern, eastern or north-eastern parts of the country. The sheer popularity of Bollywood and its cultural significance in Indian life is something of a wonder. In a country where with every few kilometers the territory and the idea of the nation changes, the strong links that Bollywood forges is not without its own share of weakness. The following discussion attempts to explore Bollywood’s portrayal of nationalism vis-à-vis this fixation with geopolitical centrality.

A nation is not a static entity. It is always in flux and in the process of being built. The idea of India as a nation-state was born out of the colonial condition and the parochial attempts to lay claim to its glorious, homogeneous past ignores its complex reality. India has always been a palimpsest, bearing within it traces of identities, cultures, and traditions, which remain irreconcilable. The idea of a nation grafted on the subcontinent makes it a fragile concept to sustain, especially in times like these when a majoritarian assertion of nationality is bringing into sharp relief the conflict amongst different identity groups. The prominence of Bollywood in articulating this notion owes to its hegemony in the cultural life of India. We argue that Bollywood cannot be reflective of the diversity that marks this nation. Yet the fantasyland of Bombay has attributed a rather ambivalent relationship between Bollywood and the nation. Despite being peopled by aspiring artists from various parts of the country, the industry continues to peddle an Indian-ness largely centered on the Hindi-speaking, middle or upper middle class, predominantly masculine, Hindu bourgeoisie.

In a newly liberalized India, movies like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Pardes (1997), and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), reached out to the global audience, especially the diaspora, by propitiating a strange fusion of romance and patriotism. Later, films such as Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), and Namastey London (2007) similarly portrayed a larger-than-life image of India as a nation. We see that the characters in all these movies are largely from the North. The picture of India painted in these movies is hinged on the ‘sarson ka khet’, epitomizing the verdant Punjab of the Green Revolution. In these narratives of romance and a rising and shining India trying to make a place for itself in the world, this geography of excess is a fit objective correlative. Romance has been Bollywood’s favourite genre and its manifestation has hardly been imagined in the coarser hinterlands of Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand. This specificity of location is a natural corollary to the fixed markers within which the concepts of beauty and romance have been determined as well as propagated. Nothing captures this better than Shah Rukh as Veer Pratap Singh singing ‘Aisa desh hai mera’ atop a bus as it winds its way through an overly romanticized Punjab.

Moving away from the genre of romance, in movies like Swades (2004) and Lakshya (2004), the spirit of nationalism is articulated through characters who are predominantly Hindi-speaking and from Delhi. Another film that caught the imagination of the nation was Rang De Basanti (2006), which portrayed the rebellious spirit of a carefree group of university students in Delhi. The choice of characters was fairly predictable with Aslam (the Muslim guy from Chandni Chowk) acting as a necessary foil to Laxman, the dedicated worker of a right-wing Hindutva group. Daljit aka DJ is a Punjabi, who seems to be the de facto leader of the gang and Karan, a cynical and disillusioned young man at odds with his powerful and corrupt father. It is when Ajay Rathod, their friend serving in the Indian Air Force, dies on duty, that ‘a generation awakens’. This ‘awakening’ is, however, brought about by a group of people, none of whom are from outside the national capital. Delhi assumes a character of its own, dictating the action in the film. It comes out remarkably in the image of the ‘young guns’ driving around the Amar Jawan Jyoti, saluting it, a stance that comes across as an enforced statement. Delhi has often been used as a geography of power and violence and the issues that make it to the candle light march at India Gate is more often than not a reflection of the selective amnesia that plagues us as a nation.

The cultural nationalism that Bollywood claims to uphold is one that is its own construct and becomes a part of the dominant discourse of nationalism further popularized by the people in power. It becomes part of the larger schema through which popular culture operates. The national consciousness that is manifest in these movies is often restricted to the boundaries of the silver screen, which often falls short of presenting a balanced articulation. The critical conflicts, whether of class, caste, ideology, religion or region are forced into easy polarities. The attempt by the movie Aarakshan (2011) to address the issue of caste spirals into a disarray of a sub-plot dealing with the private tuition network in India. The debate on reservation is confined to the naïve rhetoric that coalesces the question of class and caste. To add to the misery, the finer nuances of caste identities and the politics of the same is diluted in a convenient clash of male ego. The entire drama pans out, once again, in an urban setting and the idea of representation as ‘standing for the other’ is reinforced throughout. It receives a special emphasis when Deepak (a Dalit character played by Saif Ali Khan) refers to Ambedkar’s drafting of the Constitution for the ‘nation as a whole’. It is also imperative to consider that the redeemer-figure is the character played by Amitabh Bachchan, a figure in the Hindi film industry whose portrayal of the archetypal ‘angry young man’, articulating the nation’s discontent, remains iconic in cinematic history. Yet another film that endeavors to address a cause only to lose it in the quagmire of family feuds and personality-disorders is Gulaal (2009). The struggle for a separate Rajput state becomes merely a necessary prop for the dynamics of machismo.

The manufacture of nationalism as a popular sentiment happens through various institutions and in the case of India multiple nationalisms exist, thereby making any single standard narrative untenable. In this situation, Bollywood weaves out a homogenized fabric of nationalism that paradoxically resonates in the collective conscience and rings hollow in the corridors of cultural diversity. For a long time, regional idiosyncrasies were the hallmark of popular humour and suspicion. The fumbling awkwardness of the Gujaratis, the rigidness of the monolithic South Indians, the intellectual quirkiness of the Bengalis, the pensive grievances of the Kashmiris are a few of the worn-out tropes utilized in popular film narratives. The language and geography of the centre dictated by a North Indian culture, as and when it tries to incorporate regional elements does so in a half-baked manner that reeks of political, social, and cultural myopia.

Pritha Mahanti
& Shreya Bhowmik are pursuing MA in English from Presidency University, Kolkata.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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