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No shades of grey in Hindi films

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Jan 20, 2018, 12:42 am IST
Updated : Jan 20, 2018, 12:43 am IST

Today, one should not be surprised, however, if a Hindutva-inspired film portrays a Muslim or Mughal Indian as an out-and-out genocidal maniac.

A still from 'Padmaavat'.
 A still from 'Padmaavat'.

“Being a poet in her own right,
She refused to read my
verses
Being a creature of the night
She was immune to all my curses..”

From Dhoka Cola by Bachchoo

Britain’s screens today, small and big, are replete with British history. The Crown, the story of the Windsor dynasty, has the approval of the critics and a huge audience. The film Dunkirk, about Britain’s bleakest cliff-hanger episode of the Second World War, is a prize-winning hit.

And now Darkest Hour — a film which tells the story of Winston Churchill’s defiant and heroic stand against the threat of invasion by the Nazis and his wrestle with the Tory advocates of pacification. I won’t give the plot away but will limit my remarks to telling you, gentle reader, that it is about Churchill as the isolated decision-maker of defiance.

The film covers the early years of the war, before the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, which brought the United States’ ocean-moated powerhouse into the alliance against the Axis powers.

Britain is the last bastion, after France and Belgium have followed Poland, erstwhile Czechoslovakia and Holland in surrendering to the Nazi invaders. The dissension within the Tory Party as to who is to lead and how to deal with Hitler is the dramatic fulcrum of the film. Gary Oldman plays Churchill and will undoubtedly get an Oscar nomination for his performance, so we shall be hearing about this film and Churchill for some time.

Yes, Churchill is the film’s hero. As some biographical films classically do, it isolates a particular phase in his career and concentrates on the dramatic dilemma inherent in that narrative. He is not, however, a superperson who can do no wrong. His Tory opponents allude to the fact that he switched allegiance from the Tory to the Liberal Party and then opportunistically returned.

There is a verbal mention, not an expository argument, alluding to his responsibility for the slaughter of the British imperial armies at Gallipoli in the First World War. In that brief exchange, there is no mention of the Australian and Indian troops who died in thousands there.

Only in the brief captions, at the end of the film, are we told the outcome of the Second World War and Churchill’s role and subsequent electoral defeat. The film wasn’t conceived as covering Churchill’s life and pronouncements outside the dramatic arena of that particular dark hour.

Yet, in the chronicles of the Indian history of that period, Winston is cast as the villain of many a piece. Which Indian doesn’t know that he referred contemptuously to Mahatma Gandhi as a naked fakir? In Gurinder Chadha’s last film The Viceroy’s House, she propounds the theory that Churchill connived, before the Attlee government sent Lord Mountbatten out to settle Indian Independence, to partition the country. The plot of the film alleges that Churchill wanted to create Pakistan as a buffer in South Asia against the Soviet Union.

In another script, of a film which is in the making, Churchill is squarely blamed for bringing about the Bengal famine.

Whatever the truth of these allegations and how deep or shallow Churchill’s culpability was in either case, to Indians he will, justifiably, remain a non-benign-if-not-villainous figure.

British films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour and some American films like Lincoln or Apocalypse Now deal with classical or more contemporary historical people and phenomena and tell the stories, warts and all. Lincoln is not portrayed as a saint. He is capable of guile and guilty of it. The Vietnam War, as portrayed in Apocalypse Now, is a tragic betrayal of the common American soldier and acknowledges the brutality of the unwarranted invasion of a foreign land.

In Darkest Hour, there is no attempt to draw a veil over Churchill’s persistent smoking and drinking habit. It seems to define him. The film even makes a joke out of it. King George IV, lunching with Winston, asks him how he can drink constantly and even at midday. “Practice,” Churchill replies. And he addresses Parliament saying that even if Britain is invaded and subjugated the colonies, he is sure, will continue the fight and win.

The Western public wants shades-of-grey realism injected into films that deal with reality. That’s not to say that there aren’t Western myths. There’s Harry Potter and James Bond on the British side and Superman, Wonderwoman and box office smash Hitman in the USA.

Commercial Indian films, and even “art” ones, subscribe to the myth of absolute good and evil. Nuance is a Western luxury. We want our historical characters mythologised. Hence, the fuss over Padmaavat.

The film I wrote called The Rising: Mangal Pande (directed by Ketan Mehta with Aamir as Pande) was sued by some gentleman in court because the portrayal of Pande was more human than devta.

There are no exceptions. Figures from the past have to pass the immortal test. Even though the Oscar-Winning Gandhi was made by Dickie Attenborough, it followed the mythologising bent of Indian cinema. This is not a consequence of some diktat of nationalism. It is rather the inheritance India has distilled from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat during its nationalist phase, epics which have been ethical guides to Indians for thousands of generations.

Any reading of these epics will prove that the characters are not portrayed as faultless: Ram shoots Bali in the back and kills him. He manifests jealousy and forces Sita to voluntarily take the test of fire. Kunti is not blameless and her guilty secret causes the tragedy of brother killing brother. Arjun’s vanity demands the cruel self-mutilation of Eklavya... and a myriad other ambivalent characteristics in the nature of Gods and humans alike.

One doesn’t expect an Indian filmmaker to idealise any British colonial character. It’s improbable.

Today, one should not be surprised, however, if a Hindutva-inspired film portrays a Muslim or Mughal Indian as an out-and-out genocidal maniac.

And, of course, there’ll be protests from the opposing side but they won’t be demands for nuance or the subtler truth.

Tags: nazi, padmaavat, hindi films, british history