Off-Screen Actors

Hindutva’s growing hold over Indian popular culture

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement appropriated imagery from the television shows Ramayan and Mahabharat, which aired in the late 1980s. Anil Kumr Shakya/Pacific Press/Lightrocket/Getty Images
01 March, 2017

On the morning of 27 January, while the filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali was shooting for his upcoming period drama Padmavati at the Jaigarh Fort in Jaipur, members of Shri Rajput Karni Sena—a caste organisation of Rajputs—barged into the fort. The horde ran amok, some smashing expensive film equipment, others breaking anything within reach and yet others forming a ruthless, agitated scrum around Bhansali. Footage shows them grabbing him by his hair and slapping him around, as the rest of the gang continued to vandalise the set.

Though the entire episode was caught on camera, and was repeatedly played across television news channels, not a single miscreant was arrested in the aftermath. In fact, there was no condemnation from the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled governments in the state of Rajasthan and at the centre. Instead, union minister Giriraj Singh showed support for the Karni Sena’s cited reason for the attack—the claim that the Hindu princess Padmavati’s story was being distorted. In parliament, a BJP MP from Rajasthan, CP Joshi, demanded legal action against the filmmakers. Prominent Hindutva groups such as the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad also threatened to block the film’s release.

The grouse that the facts of Padmavati’s story have been distorted is ridiculous, since the story itself is fictional. The tale originates from an Awadhi-language poem, Padmavat, composed over 200 years after the reign of the fourteenth-century ruler Alauddin Khilji—who, according to the poem, heard about the beauty of the Rajput princess and attacked the kingdom of Chittor to obtain her. The legend goes that the virtuous Hindu wife committed jauhar—immolated herself—because she did not want to be violated by the invading Muslim man. However, there is absolutely no evidence that Padmavati even existed. The agenda of Karni Sena, though, is not to undertake a reasoned examination of the past in good faith, but to promote a vision of that past which aligns with their political agenda. The BJP’s own Hindutva origins explain its support for such attacks on artistic and civil liberties.

Over the past three decades, the political ascent of the BJP, and thus Hindutva, has been coupled with the Hindu right’s insidious exploitation of popular culture to create a base for their ideology. While there has been an increase in content that aligns with Hindu nationalism, the influence of reactionary rabble-rousers within the Sangh Parivar and fringe groups has risen simultaneously. A number of films, particularly historical dramas featuring inter-religious romances, such as Jodhaa Akbar, Bajirao Mastani and Veer, have had their releases stalled by right-wing groups that often trash cinemas screening them. At the same time, Hindutva’s political control of the state machinery has bolstered its attempts to gain ideological control over films and television, turning the media into a cultural battleground.

The late 1980s saw a significant moment in the relationship between Hindutva and popular media when television serials such as Ramayan and Mahabharat were broadcast immediately after the Babri Masjid was opened to Hindu worship. These mythological narratives from a pre-Islamic past helped consolidate a particular kind of Hindu identity in an atmosphere of communal tension. Both these shows circulated highly charged religious imagery that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement appropriated to argue for bringing back a vision of a Hindu utopia, or Ram rajya. According to the media scholar Arvind Rajagopal, nuclear weapons were now comparable to the various astras from these epics. During the campaign to take back the land where the mosque stood, Rajagopal writes, karsevaks, or volunteers, dressed like Ram and Lakshman from Ramayan. Furthermore, the television show took some liberties with the source material that Hindu nationalist groups never objected to: in one scene, Ram worships a clump of earth while reciting a prayer dedicated to his janmabhoomi, or homeland. One can’t overlook the impact of these mythological serials on the public psyche in that decade.

Between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, according to the film historian Nandana Bose, right-wing fundamentalism grew alongside unconstitutional censorship practices. Bose argues that through the decade, due to pressure from right-wing groups, as well as the BJP’s film cell, the state became increasingly involved in monitoring content of films and television. Initially, the Central Board of Film Certification, or CBFC, issued diktats against violence and “vulgar” portrayals of sex deemed un-Indian by saffron groups. Later, it illegally ceded control to politicians and policemen—this was most apparent in the case of Bombay (1995), produced in the aftermath of communal riots triggered by the Babri Masjid demolition. Bombay was perhaps the first film since Independence to show Hindu-Muslim romance, and attracted controversy for several other reasons. The CBFC, instead of working as an autonomous institution, consulted the home ministry, the Mumbai Crime Branch and the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, who was widely held responsible for engineering the riots. The right-wing groups were allowed to set the terms for the film’s release.

The trend of policing cinema became disturbingly overt and dangerous during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Demcratic Alliance government between 1998 and 2002, during which the activity of these forces became more regular. Among the highest profile examples, Fire (1996) was banned before release during the BJP years, while Water (2005) was not allowed to be made in India, and was finally shot in Sri Lanka. In both these cases, the issue at stake was the depiction of Hindu culture, and the CBFC colluded with the centre to permit fundamentalists to determine what gets made and shown in India. During the ongoing second innings of the BJP at the centre, illiberal attitudes towards the arts receive silent support from the ruling party, and one can only assume, since it does not condemn these attacks, so do the repeated instances of mob censorship.

State-sanctioned hooliganism seems to be gradually replacing the work of the official film certification body to deliberate on the content of films. I spoke to the film scholar Ira Bhaskar, one of the former members of the CBFC committee who resigned in 2015 citing government interference in the board’s decisions. Bhaskar sees a strong link between violent censorship demands and majoritarian politics. “Historical films like Padmavati provoke controversy because they counter certain political agendas,” she told me. “For organisations like the Karni Sena and the RSS, there is an extreme and aggressive sense of India as belonging to the Hindus and the presence of Muslims in the country is seen as illegitimate. Any text that suggests otherwise becomes unacceptable.”

It is no surprise, then, that films and television have become increasingly saffronised. A spate of explicitly Hindu television serials hit the screen in the run-up to the 2014 elections and have dominated airwaves thereafter in a period of hostility against minorities and intolerance for fair-mindedness about a shared past. Apart from mythological shows such as the wildly popular Devon ke Dev… Mahadev (2011), a revival of Mahabharat (2013) and Suryaputra Karn (2016), there are serials glorifying ancient heroes pitted against evil Europeans—Chandragupta Maurya (2011) and Chakravartin Ashok Samrat (2015)—and those eulogising the triumphs of worthy Hindu rulers over Muslim invaders and tyrants: Veer Shivaji (2011), Bharat ka Veer Putra—Maharana Pratap (2013) and Dharti Ka Veer Yodha Prithviraj Chauhan (2009). All of these shows, based on hagiographic accounts long proven to be full of inaccuracies or propagandistic oral narratives, valorise an image of Hindu machismo, whether divine or mortal, as the antidote to ambitious foreign conquerors keen to occupy a Hindu motherland. In a recent episode of the show Chandra Nandini (2016), Porus anachronistically echoes the sentiment of many rabid nationalists who emerged during the year by adopting “Bharat mata ki jai” as his war cry.

Though the Karni Sena complains of its community being misrepresented, its real problem seems to be a kind of sexual paranoia, underlying several similar protests. Among the litany of historical serials, the only one to have attracted any controversy was Zee TV’s Jodha Akbar (2013), with the Karni Sena once again leading protests against the show for presenting an erroneous version of history, protesting against producer Ekta Kapoor at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2014, and wrecking the Zee Media office in Jaipur. Earlier, in 2008, they had objected to Ashutosh Gowarikar’s film of the same name, and had it banned in Rajasthan. In 2010, they trashed Jaipur multiplexes screening the Salman Khan vehicle Veer (2010). In the same year, the Shiv Sena clamoured for a ban on Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan (2010). Bajrang Dal activists created ruckuses in Ahmedabad theatres during the release of the Aamir Khan-starrer PK (2015), overwhelmed by the hurt they felt upon seeing Hindu deities mocked. In Pune, shows of Bhansali’s last film Bajirao Mastani (2015) were cancelled after BJP workers marched for their impugned Maratha honour. Though other films have also come under fire for reasons that broadly remain in the realm of showing Hinduism in a bad light, it is difficult not to see a common thread specific to these recent cases—they all feature inter-religious romances.

With the shrill rhetoric of love jihad renting the air, the Sangh’s fixation with fixing historical representations rivals Khilji’s storied obsession with Padmavati. In its demands of “accurate” portrayal of history, its agenda to purge inter-faith couples from our screens is clear. Since the nineteenth century, the nation has been rendered in the form of a gendered figure—Bharat Mata, a chaste, visibly Hindu woman whose honour her sons must protect. In cinema, this image is incarnated as the Hindu female character who becomes the signifier of the nation and all its values, endowed with notions of morality and righteousness.

The parallel between the body of the nation and that of the good Hindu heroine is entrenched in the imagination of the religious nationalist. The Partition drama Pinjar (2005), for example, is only acceptable because it shows the Hindu female protagonist, now converted and tainted, returning to her Muslim husband in Pakistan, there being no place for her in Hindustan. In Mission Kashmir (2000), the Hindu wife dies in a bomb blast meant for her Muslim husband, almost as punishment for having married him. Scholars have pointed out how even in a film like Jodhaa Akbar, which appears to promote harmony, it is the taming and “Hinduisation” of the menacing Muslim man with the love of the “indigenous” Rajput woman that brings about peace and order in the Mughal realm.

Nowhere is the threat to the Hindu woman and, by extension, Bharat Mata, more pronounced than in the story of Padmavati. In her book on the legend, Ramya Sreenivasan follows the trail of the medieval myth and tracks its evolution over a period of about 500 years. One of the points she makes is how Padmavat allowed the Rajputs to self-fashion a caste identity, against the backdrop of nationalist struggles and decline of an Islamicate world. With such investment in the plot, the lore has achieved the status of historical fact. But another way to read the jauhar of Padmavati would be to grasp how harsh the age must have been to women. Today, the insistence on a singular reading of Padmavati is a symptom of a disturbingly misogynistic identitarian pride.