Wednesday, August 15, 2018

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The art of nationalismNation first: Pushpamala N. Motherland — The Festive Tableau. Digital Print on Archival Paper Photo Courtesy: Gallery Latitude 28

The art of nationalism

Patriotism seems to be the flavour of the season, especially in Indian cinema. Other creative art forms, too, are exploring the theme11 Aug 2018 | 12:50 AM

“Hamare ghar mein inquilab zindabad pehle hota hai phir naashta hota hai”. That’s yet another freshly minted patriotic dialogue from Gold, another sports film which is all set to hit the screens this August 15.

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Nonika Singh


“Hamare ghar mein inquilab zindabad pehle hota hai phir naashta hota hai”.

That’s yet another freshly minted patriotic dialogue from Gold, another sports film which is all set to hit the screens this August 15. Come Independence Day and a film with the sentiment of nationalism comes as no surprise. Expectedly, Gold is no aberration. Its lead actor Akshay Kumar has already been leading the pack of patriots in one film after another —  Baby and Airlift to name a few.

Patriotism has been the perennial flavour of Bollywood. Only it has become more pronounced, if not nuanced lately. This year alone has seen a spate of such films. Raazi, Parmaanu and Mulk have already had a tryst with the silver screen. Each day Uri, Paltan and many more such films dripping with nationalism are being announced.

Anubhav Sinha, who has just redefined nationalism with a more inclusive version in Mulk, does not see a pattern in these films. But as Jammu & Kashmir-based director Rahat Kazmi says, “Even sports films come coated with thick swathes of patriotism.”

Nationalism is not exactly a new subject for Bollywood. The films of Manoj Kumar, aka Bharat Kumar, gave us many reasons to make our hearts swell with pride. Kazmi explains, “Such films appeal to the  patriot in us. It awakens sentiments which might be lying dormant but are like a raw nerve that can always be touched.”

Whether celluloid patriotism serves as cementing glue or connecting bond, Anurag Singh, director of Punjab 1984, is not sure. However, he and Kazmi see nothing wrong with the trend provided these are honestly told stories. Indeed, nation first, per se, isn’t a bad idea at all. As Anurag puts it, “When a civilisation is on the rise, it wants to reclaim its heroes.” That is exactly what his upcoming film Kesari, the tale of 21 valiant Sikh soldiers in the British times, is about. As more movies are being made on real-life incidents, these will automatically veer towards patriotism and filmmakers will be tempted to play the patriot card.

Indeed, instead of making nonsensical formula films, there is absolutely no harm in delving into a subject that has an all-time relevance and immense appeal. The problem arises when patriotism itself becomes a formula, or worse still, a tool for propaganda. Kazmi says, “Films like Raazi and Mulk with Muslim protagonists are welcome. But nothing, not even foregrounding Muslims as patriots, should become formulaic.”

According to Kazmi, he even refused to do a film project that depicted Muslim heroes because he felt the idea lacked both earnestness and sincerity. Of course, Bollywood and jingoism, too, go hand in hand. Some see patriotism as a convenient ploy, a subject unlikely to stir a hornet’s nest. Kannan Nayar, an actor of the Malayalam cinema, says, “It’s both safe and saleable. However, unless a film like say Chak De! India or Rang De Basanti passes the test of aesthetics, I see no reason to pepper each film with a dash of patriotism.” 

Besides, he feels that love for one’s country should not become an excuse for hatemongering. Did not Rabindranath Tagore say, “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity.”

The canvas gets bigger

Bharat Mata and the Father of the Nation have been iconic recurring images in the lexicon of visual artists. India’s most celebrated artist MF Husain’s depiction of his love for Mother India landed him in trouble. However, right from the days of Abanindranath Tagore, Nandlal Bose and Rabindranth Tagore, nationalism as a subject has fascinated artists. It may not have been the go-to theme each time they picked up their brush and dipped it in paint but every now and then, artists like late SH Raza turned to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy for inspiration. Though executed in his trademark bindu style, the series eternalised Gandhi’s favourite bhajans such as “Sabko sanmati de bhagwan” as well, his last words, Hey Ram.

In contemporary language, Gandhi has been an iconic and enduring image, celebrated both as an apostle of peace as well as harbinger of India’s freedom. Art installations inspired by the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi were the high point at India Art Fair in 2015. Mumbai-based artist Vivek Sharma’s painting Sons of Soil even drew a parallel between Gandhi and the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Gandhi’s Three Monkeys is yet another favourite theme of artists.

But in visual art, patriotism isn’t a linear equation or sloganeering. Performance artist Pushpamala N’s Mother India project was born out of her preoccupation with the idea of nation. But then, her oeuvre is rather complex and not a simple rendition of patriotic thoughts. In one work, along with poet Mamta Sagar, she explored the idea of freedom and captivity through the work of the first Kannada woman writer and Nationalist, Nanjangud Thirumalamba. In Motherland: The Great Sacrifice from her series on Mother India, the image of the martyr Bhagat Singh has been employed to make a larger point. Shweta Bhattad, for whom art is another word for social change, a catalyst as well as mirror of the times we live in, came up with a performance piece, Bharat Mata. Once again, it was enquiring in nature, all the while questioning the state of women in India. 

Bhavna Kakar, director and owner Gallery Latitude 28, feels, “Indianness is immanent in the vocabulary of Indian artists; invariably it is neither direct nor overt and rarely as an expression of exhibitionism. Visual artists hark back to their cultural roots and national identity to probe and question. Whether visible or not, the essence permeates their creativity just as when say an artist like Atul Dodiya reclaims Gujarati language and poetry or invokes the spirit of Gandhi.” 

On the small screen

Our television is best known for weepy conniving soap operas. 

But, every once in a while a series revolves around a patriotic theme. However, except for say a Bharat Ek Khoj based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s celebrated book The Discovery of India, very few shows have created 

a buzz or captured the imagination of the nation as a whole. On the digital medium, which has far greater freedom, one would expect more revolutionary material. Web series Bose: Dead or Alive did ask some discomfiting questions but achieved little success. 

Nikhil Advani’s POW — Bandi Yuddh Ke, made at `35 crore, though an official remake of Israeli TV drama Hatufim had a patriotic flavour, if not an overriding thread. Based on the Kargil War, it tells the 

tale of two soldiers, who return home after 17 years. The show opened to favourable reviews but soon lost the battle to TRP ratings.

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