“If curses were conveyances
I’d be in hell
If wishes were appliances
I’d be the bell
Of truth — let it be heard
The call to view the reflection of reality in the Word”
From Khali Pili Bombastic by Bachchoo
I happen to be in India a few days ago when a friend pointed out a vitriolic trail of posts all over the social media about a seemingly uncontroversial matter. The controversy, whose meaning and import will probably pass any non-Indian by, is over the box-office collections of two Indian films. A film called Dangal, produced and directed by Aamir Khan, who also stars in it, is said to have accumulated Rs 2,000 crores at the box office, having become a sensation in India and then in China and Taiwan. It is the first time an Indian film enters the league of the world’s highest-grossing cinematic hits such as the Pirates of the Caribbean and Beauty and the Beast — surely a matter for national pride? Alas, not!
Why? Because another popular film S.S. Rajamouli’s Bahubali 2 has collected a little less than Rs 1,700 crores. Films are not created to, but inevitably, compete. Their competition is formalised in awards. Different competitions have various criteria. Sometimes, it appears, as with the hit film La La Land, popularity may be a factor. Even so, there has never been a vindictive controversy over the relative financial success of the two films.
Until now. Contributors to this controversy, without providing any evidence for their contentions, call the box-office figures for Dangal fraudulent and clearly hinted that the published figures are somehow anti-national. The record-breaking figures for Dangal are never questioned by themselves. Bahubali 2’s lower figures are always in contention.
One might ask “what’s a few hundred crores to film producers?” But that would be the wrong question. The right one is “what is this all about?” The answer is larger than the generating figures of the controversy. This contrived battle and these nasty tweets are about the definition of India.
Our forefathers drafted a vision of India that was democratic and secular. There would be complete freedom to follow our religion, whose doctrines and beliefs would be free to thrive in our souls and communities. It would not flow into, affect, ennoble or pollute the political constitution of the nation, nor would it curtail the rights of any Indian citizen.
Such a pledge was redeemed in part by previous administrations, despite the fact that in the era in which it was made the separatist movement for a Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan was demanded, grew in numbers and was realised.
Pakistan subsequently declared itself not a Muslim-majority country but an Islamic state. The present Indian government, which came to power by promising an agenda of development and material progress for all, keeping the blatant Hindutva ambitions under wraps, seems to have faltered. The ruling party’s stance may plausibly be interpreted now as a subliminal movement to gradually define India not as a Hindu-majority secular country, but as the Hindu republic of Bharat.
There are those in spheres of influence in the government who openly espouse such a drift, even willing it to be an imposition. The unpronounced ambition is, though apparent in the appointment of politicians and true-believers to posts of political and civil authority, becoming evident in the unease created in the minority communities by these appointments, by pronouncements of politicians, by laws passed by states and by incidents of blatant intimidation and murder of Muslims.
And that, dear reader, is the context in which the controversy over Dangal’s takings has to be placed. Dangal was made by an Indian Muslim. It’s the very realistic story (or as realistic and shorn of wishful thinking, mythical values and melodrama as any Indian film can be) of a retired wrestler who is disappointed with not having a son to train as his successor and decides to do that with his daughters instead. His seemingly absurd resolve generates tensions but results in triumphs of all sorts.
The film champions the victory and future of women and, though I know nothing about the feminist consciousness in China, I am willing to sell my house and bet the proceeds on the fact that its success was fuelled by overwhelming female audiences. (You’ve started this nonsense again! You don’t own a house anywhere, you idiot — Ed. Arrey, just a figure of speech, yaar!- fd.)
It is an admirable advance in film’s contribution to the modernisation of the general Indian consciousness. Bahubali 2 is in the traditional genre of myth. It doesn’t tell the stories of the Ramayan or the Mahabharat but strikes out in the mythical terrain of new Indian heroics set in an epic period with an attempt at the scope and tricks of contemporary, illusionary film drama such as the screen depiction of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
Nothing wrong with epic-myth as entertainment or even as a passionately-held personal belief. I’d welcome a well-paid commission to write some of it myself! When it is used, though absolutely blameless in itself, as a Gandiva against — let’s not tip-toe around the fact — Aamir Khan the Indian Muslim, it is cowardly and vile.
Controversies on the social media are piffle and symptoms of idleness, but this one is the tiniest indication that a battle if not a war — and not only of words — for the definition of India is in progress.
If I were to be a partisan, I would take serious heed of the consequences of ending up as the Hindu equivalent of the Islamic states of Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, ISIS, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran. Do we need it? Hey Bhagwan help us, leave politics alone!...