What is patriotism to South Asian cinema?
In India, films with a patriotic theme seems to bind the whole nation together. It portrays nationalistic sentiments, love for one’s nation, and in a sentimental albeit heroic way. Patriotic Indian films also have the power to liven up spirits, teach new thoughts to people irrespective of the class they belong to, their religious or socio-economic background, and these Hindi movies appeal to both the educated and the illiterate.
On another train of thought, since the early seventies, leaving out films with an obvious Pakistani (or Pakistani-minded) slant, Bangladeshi films have often made the Bangladeshi film industry an important one. On the subject of patriotism, in internationally acclaimed director Zahir Raihan’s Jibon Theke Neya (1970), for example, which fictionally depicted the atrocities committed by Pakistan against Bangladesh, pre-independence, the story plays out like a tale of struggle for freedom for a husband, two boys, who are brothers, and some servants, from the clutches of an oppressive woman controlling her family.
In the landscape of the film, it is shown that protests erupt in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) against oppressive Pakistani rule, which signifies the days of Bangladesh’s language movement but the portrayal of the oppression was more symbolic than anything else, imprinted into a family drama. The turmoil of the oppression reflects in the lives of this family who begin to protest against the oppressive woman and her brand of family-regime by speaking loudly against her. The home front then gets more tangled inside a protest-theme, when a marital angle is thrown into the narrative: the two boys bring home two wives, who plot to snatch away sovereignty of their new family from this oppressive woman in power by obtaining the keys to the house – it symbolises gaining control of the house.
What was also rather interesting about the movie was the specific, symbolic caricature of former Pakistani President Ayub Khan’s autocratic rule in East Pakistan as a despotic female head of the house, with an ill-tempered nature – marriages and schemes for control tragically follows in the lives of the Bangladeshi family for it. Meanwhile, patriotism in Indian filmmaking is often proclaimed through the tense subject of Kashmir. Since 1947, a dispute has been happening at the shared border between India and Pakistan which has spelled out into three separate wars to claim Kashmir.
At the moment, India controls a majority of Kashmir, and I have always felt Kashmir as an entire state belonged to India, not Pakistan. In Hindi films, such as Mission Kashmir (2000) and Roja (1992) the theme of the Kashmir conflict is woven together with a major love story. It’s hard to picturise a romantic angle to a story in the theatre of war but that is what the narrative is often like for South Asian cinema – if it’s not romantic, it must be a family drama of all things, heavily reliant on symbolism to depict patriotism rising in the face of oppression.
Bollywood seems to be getting it’s head out of the vivid blue clouds and closer and closer to a rich but truer Indian story
The recent change of pace for storylines in Bollywood films seem like a breath of fresh air. Earlier on there use to be too much of melodrama for comfort: there is always a little bit of a hypocrisy at play there because why not always make a film that you know sells. Why not always play it safe? Arguably, the films are worth the investment of a cinema ticket for the audience because people do like to see movies which are entertaining. I think when you see a masala film built of the same mould over and over again it earns criticism from film critics, and I do somehwat like to agree with the criticism there.
I think there is a fine balance between ‘doing too much of the same kind of films’ sometimes even by one director alone, and ‘never revisiting the same kind of masala environment’ and that balance should be maintained. I feel that it would be a good idea if a director visited their body of work, occasionally. If a film loses it’s flavour because it is overdone then it’s a film that’s gone to waste and who likes to see that? I mean, nobody likes to see that.
A film released earlier this year, Ki & Ka, which was directed, produced and written by R. Balki, is a good example of a movie which showcases a change in narration for Hindi cinema. In the film, Arjun Kapoor portrays a househusband Ka – not a pretty sight, and Arjun emotes the look for the character so flawlessly it almost becomes something like second skin for the young actor. Kareena Kapoor, interestingly, plays a female protagonist, Kia, who is a stark contrast to Ka – she loathes having to only be there for her husband following a marriage, and Kia also likes to have a job.
In the film, the character Kia very nicely cuts through the typical Indian mentality often exhibited on-screen of only existing to dust after a husband in her tiny home filled with love. It is a very primitive way to look at a marriage because a marriage is supposed to be a give-and-take sort of a relationship. A woman isn’t meant to slave for her husband, isn’t supposed to exist only to run her home because there are a lot of things that a woman can do with her time that are far more important to invest in.
In the film, Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan also make special appearances and it is implied that Jaya grows fond of the gender-bender speeches that Ka is becoming well-known for. Jaya even goes so far as to meet Ka for it – the meeting is arranged by her husband, Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya also gives Ka a present to take to his wife. I have to remark, Jaya is not a very common sight in films and her film career is littered with very long absences.
It’s good when she goes by only one year without any film project (2010) but Jaya actually previously wasn’t there on-screen for three long years (2004-2006). In retrospect, I have to say that it has been great to see Jaya Bachchan out and about because like the past, she again hasn’t been on-screen for the last two years. I think even when a film soaks for star-value these days, like for special appearances in Ki & Ka it is demonstrating a greater sense of depth than totally unnecessary over-the-top gloss.
In colour-drenched Bollywood, there is Shah Rukh Khan
Bollywood seems like a place where a thousand films get made everyday. As a child, I had never avidly watched Bollywood movies. I have always been a big fan of Hollywood films, from I think, the moment I came to know what films were: one of my childhood recollections roaming around the subject of favourite films include Home Alone and Maculay Culkin; I remember finding the family film a hilarious experience as a little girl and soon it grew into one of my all-time favourites.
Bollywood movies around me meant Indian films, at first. They were melodramatic more often than not, which didn’t really grow on me with time as much as it probably would have had for others, and then they began to mean a lot of colour, humid environments and plenty of romance. I was naturally more exposed to the whole masala film environment, more than an art environment because I was always an independent kid, who loved to have her regular dose of television-watching around, inbetween an intensive school environment.
I mean, it’s hard preparing for O and A Levels and being a go-getter for extracurriculars. There isn’t always a lot of time to watch Bollywood films, especially since Hollywood has always been my favourite place in the whole world to turn to when watching a good film. Is it really worth that much when you aren’t familiar with Bollywood? I would like to think not. How can I be expected to forsake Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) that has Johnny Depp in it, for Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) that proved to be one of Shah Rukh Khan’s rare Bollywood hits. I cannot. And so I did not.
Shah Rukh is a mysterious actor to me on some days – he has been a major villain (and a terrifying one) on-screen, a romantic hero for soon-to-be-legendary directors making their debut or establishing themselves in the industry, he also co-founded his very own production house and continues to dominate masala films in Bollywood in the 21st Century. To me, he is a very good symbol of fun Indian cinema because of the varied range of roles he always does, and Shah Rukh does have a pretty good comic timing that makes the whole experience of watching him on-screen all the more enjoyable.
I have never been a big fan of the formulaic approach to filmmaking in Bollywood really: throw in a woman in a saree in the Swiss Alps + snow + a young Indian boy falling hard for her = a great masala film. I think it’s alright when you see it the one time, but the second time when you see that kind of a scene in a different film, it just get’s far too boring. I think when I do want to watch a Bollywood film, I like to see if Shah Rukh is in it: maybe in the colour-drenched world of Indian filmmaking, where it’s always the Swiss Alps and a saree (?) I can find something pretty (for the eye) and comedic, too for a change.