Reel change: Hindutva’s widening film catalogue
Senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader Indresh Kumar’s security detail was in for a surprise last week when actor Annu Kapoor, along with the producer and the director of the upcoming film Main Deendayal Hoon, reached his house in Delhi’s Paharganj to seek his blessings.
“We are seeking his inputs for the script, but I am putting my own money,” says Ranjeet Sharma, the producer of the film based on the life of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, an ideologue of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh — the forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He says the new generation should know about Pandit Upadhyaya as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies are mostly rooted in his ideas. It is directed by Pawan Nagpal who last year helmed Bal Naren. The story of a 14-year-old is inspired by Mr. Modi’s pet Swachch Bharat Scheme and how the young Naren uses the cleanliness drive to stop the spread of Coronavirus in his village. Incidentally, Naren draws his name from Swami Vivekananda and sells tea when he is not in school.
Main Deendayal Hoon is among several productions in the works that align with the ruling dispensation’s narrative of Hindutva nationalism. SwatantryaVeer Savarkar, a biopic on Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar, which marks the directorial debut of actor Randeep Hooda, also playing the titular role, is in the production stage, while Main Atal Hoon, starring Pankaj Tripathi as BJP stalwart and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, will be released in theatres in December.
Dr. Hedgewar, a biopic on RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar, whose muhurat clap was given by Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, is scheduled to hit theatres this Dasara and then screened in villages to prepare the ground for the beginning of the centenary celebrations of the RSS in 2024.
Among the most talked about projects is Bhagwa Dhwaj, a big-budget period drama tracing the roots of the RSS, penned by director S.S. Rajamouli’s father and screenwriter V. Vijayendra Prasad, who has worked on blockbusters like Baahubali and the Oscar-nominated RRR, and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the current BJP regime . Mr. Rajamouli had recently said he was moved to tears after reading the script.
Filmmakers are no longer pursuing straightforward propaganda movies like PM Narendra Modi (2019), which traced Mr. Modi’s journey from chaiwala to Prime Minister, but are looking for a more nuanced narrative as witnessed in director Rajkumar Santoshi’s recent film, Gandhi Godse – Ek Yudh, which explored an imagined reality in which Mahatma Gandhi survives the assassination attempt by Nathuram Godse and engages in a discussion with him in jail.
Sunny Mandavarra, director of Dr. Hedgewar, says the film will answer the oft-asked question: what was the role of the RSS and Dr. Hedgewar in the freedom movement? “The film will capture Dr. Hedgewar’s days in the Anushilan Samiti [an early 20th-century underground revolutionary organisation], his tryst with the Congress, disillusionment with the party after the Khilafat Movement and the formation of the RSS. We have depicted his meetings with Mahatma Gandhi and how the top RSS leadership helped [freedom fighter Shivaram] Rajguru when he went into hiding in Nagpur.”
Big production houses are also creating space for films that suit the Hindutva narrative. While Yash Raj Films produced the Akshay Kumar-starrer Samrat Prithviraj, which sought to revive cultural nationalism, Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions is researching for Takht, which will showcase Dara Shikoh — the eldest son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan who lost the war of succession and was killed on the orders of his brother Aurangzeb in 1659 — as the rightful heir to the throne.
‘Drawing a bigger line’
RSS leaders are not against using cinema as a tool of communication as long as it promotes the country’s cultural ethos, says Atul Gangwar, secretary of the Bharatiya Chitra Sadhna (BCS). The independent body draws its inspiration from Sanskar Bharti, an ancillary unit of the RSS that works to promote Indian art, fine arts, and culture. One of the unsaid objectives of the unit was to counter the influence of the Left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association.
BCS aims to use the audiovisual medium to present Bharat (India) with its cultural ethos and values through documentaries, feature films, holding film festivals, and establishing film clubs in educational institutions, says Mr. Gangwar. “A significant section of Hindi cinema either ignores Indian ethos and values or presents them in a distorted or derogatory manner. We are not into boycotting films, but we do want to draw a bigger line,” he says.
Citing the example of Chak De! India, Mr. Gangwar says, the character played by Shah Rukh Khan in the 2007 sports drama was inspired by former Indian hockey goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi, but was turned into a Muslim, Kabir Khan, who gets ostracised after he misses a penalty stroke, leading to India’s defeat to Pakistan in a World Cup match.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, the film industry received a lot of money from the underworld, which started reflecting in the stories. Our festivals and ethos gradually faded away,” Mr. Gangwar says. He also attributes the success of Mr. Khan’s latest film Pathaan to “people who were perturbed by the mass booking of theatres screening The Kashmir Files, a movie depicting the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in the ’90s. “They wanted to show that they could also do it,” he says.
Sandeep Singh, who is co-producing SwantyraVeer Savarakar, told The Hindu at the time of the poster launch that “Savarkar was a misunderstood freedom fighter who could have saved the Partition of the country and was kept out of the cultural narrative by a political party.” The prolific producer has backed PM Narendra Modi and is also co-producing Main Atal Hoon.
Vishnu Sharma, film critic and member of the 53 rd International Film Festival of India’s jury, says the BJP-led Central government’s rule has emboldened actors and filmmakers who share the party’s nationalist ideology. “Earlier, they chose to remain silent, ostensibly because they wanted to remain in circulation. Few know that actor Amrish Puri was a lifelong swayamsevak [RSS worker]. Anupam Kher has opened up only in recent years and now a section of the media has brought out the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad background of Pankaj Tripathi.”
Some of the latest projects on Hindutva icons are driven by the success of The Kashmir Files, one of the highest-grossing films in the country last year.
“Some producers see it as an opportunity to get close to the ruling dispensation. I don’t know what will come of their efforts,” says Chandraprakash Dwivedi, director of Samrat Prithviraj, who has been associated with Sanskar Bharti . The film didn’t succeed at the box office. “My film suffered partly because it was released after The Kashmir Files. People expected Prithviraj to be another Baahubali and [Muhammad] Ghori an absolute monster,” he says.
In a polarised society, people want their own version of history that they have learnt from social media, says Mr. Dwivedi, adding that his film was true to Prithviraj Raso, an epic poem composed by the king’s court poet, Chand Bardai. “I am in a strange position. Those who were against my ideas were busy digging my grave, now those who seemed to share my view are also against me,” says Mr. Dwivedi, who is part of the committee set up by the Ram Temple Trust to make a docu-drama on the history of Ram Janmabhoomi.
The BJP leadership has come out in support of films such as Samrat Prithviraj, which was offered tax exemptions by two BJP-ruled States: Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and The Kashmir Files, which was made tax-free in six BJP-ruled States, and government staff were given holidays and free tickets to watch the film.
Mr. Dwivedi says there is a history of political leaders watching and endorsing films. “[BJP patriarch] Lal Krishna Advani was present during the screening of [his 2003 film] Pinjar.”
Author and film historian Ajay Brahmatamaj says there is no doubt that there was a Leftist influence on Indian cinema for decades after Independence. “Now the BJP and the RSS want to use this soft power of the cinema to their advantage in a more direct fashion by creating narratives around their icons before the 2024 polls.”
The problem, he says, is right now they don’t have engineers who could use this effective tool to build bridges with society. “To think that those who vote for them will necessarily watch such films is far-fetched.” The senior member of the Film Critics Guild reminds that during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government there was a surge in films that propagated communal agenda in the guise of nationalism. “It was the time of the Kargil war and Gadar (2001) successfully made use of the ‘betrayal of the neighbour’ sentiment. It was followed by more rabid narratives with dialogues like Doodh Mango To Kheer Denge… ( Maa Tujhe Salam, 2002) but such films didn’t find much traction. This time The Kashmir Files’ success will result in more clones that will push the cultural and political agenda,” says Mr. Bhramatmaj, citing the example of The Vaccine War, Vivek Agnithotri’s next that is scheduled to release on Independence Day.
RSS spokesperson Sunil Ambekar also downplayed the organisation’s role behind the rising number of movies based on Hindutva icons. “Creative people move amid the general public and pick their stories from society. They must be sensing some change, which is being reflected in their stories. There is no need to see politics in everything.”