Of Cultural Nationalism, Media and Cinema: Contesting Baahubali

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“The shifts in the Indian film Industry from soft love and social stories to Nationalist Movies have significantly harmed the ethos of cultural and religious harmony in society.”

Nation and Nationalism are and has always remained a foremost discourse in Hindi films. In fact, from 1950 onwards Hindi cinema has played a significant role in stimulating a sense of nationalism. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that no other cultural medium in the post-1947 era portrays the wonderful image of the Indian nation as efficiently as by the Hindi cinema. Most of the films produced in the first two decades after independence such as Shaheed, Jagriti, Naya Daur, Mother India, Hum Hindustani, Haqeeqat, Upkar to name a few, induced a sense of nationalism.

Cinema plays a crucial role in the lives of people; it acts as a mirror of the people. Cinema constructs the socio-political identities and is, in fact, one of the active agent/tools through which public opinions are constructed and deconstructed. The communal development in India in post-1980’s period has significantly impacted the film industry also. The Babri Masjid demolition and communal riots have reshaped the political discourses in India. These developments have often been associated with the rise of Hindu fascist forces or Hindutva. Media and Hindi cinema have been playing an important role in reshaping the communal tension and narratives in India. Media and Hindi Cinema have failed in bridging the gap between Hindus and Muslims and restoring trust and amity. Instead, cinema has appeared as the mediocre through which the amalgamation of Hindu culture has been achieved, not the Indian culture which was recognized by the intellectuals of the society. It has turned a political and cultural entity which has created more problems than it has solved. There is famous saying, “you are not the story; you are the chroniclers of that story. You are not at the Centre of the action; you are observers on the sidelines”.

After watching the recently released movie, Baahubali, I find it appropriate to clear some air about its sensation. Like so many other epics in the Indian-Subcontinent, Baahubali takes place in and upholds a socio-religious order that serves a particular politics. The movie is a 2015 Indian Epic Historical Fiction Directed by S. S. Rajamouli. The film was produced by two famous personalities Shobu Yarlagadda and Devineni. The film is divided into two parts; both parts were jointly produced on a budget of Rs. 250 crore and the movie was theatrically released over seven thousand (7000) screens worldwide on 28 April 2017. On the 9th day, Baahubali (2) “The Conclusion” became the first Indian film ever worldwide to earn gross Rs.1000 crore in all languages and broke all records of earlier movies. “Why Kattappa Killed Baahubali?” was the central question which remains unanswered in part first of the film. The second part of the movie revolves around the character of Kattappa. The image of the younger Prabhas as Sivudu lifting the massive Shiva linga to place under the waterfall for ‘jal abhisekham’ is perhaps the most striking image of the first part that stays with you. It reinforced the image of a religion that is both majestic and masculine. What it has resulted in is a desire to go back to mythology and storytelling to recall a certain sense of religious dominance that flow’s larger than life images of Baahubali, a case of cinematic fairytale driving the idea of an imposing civilization of a past era. Use of symbols like traditional flags, the weaponry and dress code with particular language in the movie makes it much easier, in the consumption of well-constructed images of “Indian-ness” or “Hindutva.”

Kailash Kher discloses that “The film has successfully established Indian cinema on the world map, and this is the only movie, which talks about Indian culture accurately. There’s a lot of Sanskrit in the film that makes it so rich in Indian culture. The strange words have given me the feelings of ancient “Bharat” which a lay person assumes will boost “Hindu pride.” Baahubali, if in the Imaginary world, spilled blood in the kingdoms of Mahishmati and Kuntala. However, in digital universe and social networking sites, the movie has served as tools and weapons for the particular political groups to beat the opponents. T.M. Krishna one of the famous Indian voices remarked that, “I am not surprised that it is being hijacked. The movie is politically contextual to our times. And the timing of the film regarding its political consciousness is aiding and abetting a virulent engine in operation.” Many other prominent persons who work in an industry such as Telugu filmmaker Mahesh Kathi puts his words “As far as the BJP is concerned, it is their film as well, why else would you give half a movie, as in just the first part of Baahubali, the National award for the best feature film? This is not to say that Rajamouli had a Hindutva agenda while performing in the movie.” In many cinemas of the India, the movie was greeted with chants of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram.” The massive structures, many cultural festivals and Temples in the movie are evidently the representation of the ‘glorious past.’

In fact, Minister for Information and Broadcasting M. Venkaiah Naidu has called Baahubali: The Conclusion a “shining example of Make in India” and he goes to the extent of saying that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the “real Baahubali.” (Indian Express, editorial by Aakash Joshi, May 10, 2017).  Therefore, the shifts in the Indian film Industry from soft love and social stories to Nationalist Movies have significantly harmed the ethos of cultural and religious harmony in society. The new form of Nationalism as depicted in film industry and media seems stronger because of its cultural domination and by giving references to the ‘glorious past.’ As the post-colonial country, Indian intellectuals, authors, social activists and social scientists had a significant role to play when it comes to the question of the hegemony of the new political discourses and grand narratives which have harmed the Indian society from its root. The current state has turned India into a state of intense cultural Nationalism fully reinforced by the propaganda missionary of film Industry and media. It is time to act from liberal voices in India to put the state of secularism in the proper narrative. The sooner, the better.