Preity Zinta, the one time cute-as-a-button star of many romcoms, was in the news some time ago for getting a young moviegoer thrown out of a multiplex for not standing up for the national anthem at the end of a movie screening. Zinta later clarified that she had not initiated but only supported the move to remove the alleged offender, declaring that as the child of an Army man who had fought for his country, she couldn’t countenance this act of defiance. (The law does not insist on every person standing, but she may not have known that.)
She also claimed that while some twitterati had criticised her for being over-enthusiastic and a busybody, she had received a lot of support from fellow patriots. She must be right because now comes the news of another cinemagoer who got roughed up for the same “offence”; her protestations that she was a South African did not cut much ice with the mob — when in India you better be an Indian patriot.
Patriotism is in the air and one now no longer must be a patriot but also demonstrate it publicly in every way possible. The optics of proclaiming one’s patriotism are very important — simply painting a national flag on one’s cheek for a cricket match will not do. Besides, it is also imperative to ensure that the general “patriotism quotient” in society is maintained at a high level; those who bring down the average have no place in India. That invites the riposte — “what, you don’t like this about your country? Why don’t you go to Pakistan?” Except that “country” easily gets conflated with ideology, religion and individuals, who may be seen to represent patriotism more than others. For those who need further clarification, a few days on Twitter will be very educative.
Nor is patriotism the prerogative of those who live in India. In fact, the further you are from India the more patriotic you become. Indians living in the country at least are given the allowance to crib about quality of life — potholes, traffic jams, corruption. From the safe distance of America or Australia, India acquires an amber glow and thus must be loved and worshipped. The patriotism of those who left India many years ago — presumably because they were so patriotic that they couldn’t stand it — is boundless. We can learn a thing or two from them.
Now, this patriotism, like all commodities, is being monetised too. Marketers and advertisers routinely now wave the flag to promote their products and the irony that a soft-drink, mobile phone or car made by a multi-national is being sold with the help of the Tricolour seems to escape all of us. Or if we notice it, we don’t seem to care. Perhaps drinking as many colas as we can is our patriotic duty after all.
Mumbai’s filmmakers too have cannily sussed out that there are commercial possibilities in packaging and selling it to the punters. Whether it is a film on Mary Kom, which ends with a rousing rendition of the national anthem or even Haider, which thanks the Army for its role in the rescue operations during the floods, filmmakers are leaving nothing to chance. The irony is that Haider, a far more truthful film than many others, which has been attacked for showing the Army rounding up Kashmiris and torturing them, had to tag that at the end. Was that an attempt by Vishal Bharadwaj to buy some insurance from ultra-patriots who may go after him or just a straightforward way of redressing the balance? And what would he have done had there been no floods? The bigger question is — is it a filmmaker’s (or novelist’s or artist’s) job to wave the patriotic flag or should he tell a story as honestly as he can?
Mumbai’s film industry has always been sharp and quickly incorporates the prevailing national mood in its films. Whether it is the Angry Young Man of the 1970s or the post-liberalisation consumerism-cum-conservatism of the 1990s and beyond, “Bollywood” has shown a fine understanding of what India is thinking and how best it can be woven into their next film so that it scores a hit with the audiences. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But patriotism is a staple, which can be trotted out at any time. Rare is the filmmaker who questions national narratives or approaches them with nuance — Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat was no less patriotic than say Manoj Kumar’s various outings about Bharat, but whereas the latter was in your face, Anand stayed away from propaganda. Today, anything less than a glowing account will not do — there are enough people who would declare that their sentiments had been hurt and before you know it, you will be fighting PILs in every corner of the country. That is if the government hasn’t stepped in by then and banned your film.
So, one might well ask, what is wrong with all this? Patriotism is a good thing, isn’t it? Shouldn’t one love one’s country? These questions are valid, but only up to a point. The issue here is not patriotism per say, but unbridled and unquestioning uber-nationalism that allows no room for dissent of any kind. Rah-rah patriotism, one that demands that everyone wears it on their sleeves all the time and terms anyone who has legitimate apprehensions about the nation as “unpatriotic” is dangerous. History offers us many instances — Nazi Germany is just one — of the ill-effects of hyper-patriotism. Frenzied flag-waving that drowns out any and every contrarian voice can only lead to an intolerant society, which in a multi-religious, multi-cultural nation such as ours will invariably result in serious turbulence. There is much in India to be patriotic about — our remarkable unity despite so much diversity is just one of them — but equally there are concerns that must be expressed. Most of all, every Indian must be allowed to have a point of view, even if it goes against the consensus. Throwing people out of the theatre is not the way to deal with it....