I've seen two Bollywood films during the past few weeks that really stood out – not only for their engaging quality, but also for the ways they each promoted Indian nationalism. I've been reading about the growing sense of national identity in that country during this century. I found that each promoted nationalism for India in many of the same ways I've seen Hollywood productions do the same for America.
The 2001 sports/historical/musical/romantic epic Lagaan is my favorite Bollywood film I've seen so far. Set in the late 19th Century, Lagaan pits a British overlord against the starving villagers he oversees. He agrees to a contest – if the villagers in his cantonment can beat his men in a game of cricket (which the Indians have never seen before), their land tax will be canceled. If the villagers lose, the tax will be doubled (later tripled, and raised even further).
The portrayal of the British in this film is hilarious. Virtually all of the depictions of English imperialists I've seen or read have come from British or American sources. Even when they're the baddies, as in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, they still get a three-dimensional and thoroughly un-exotic treatment. Lagaan was a chance to see the colonizers from the point-of-view of the formerly colonized. The Villain, Captain Andrew Russell (played by Paul Blackthorne, now of Arrow), is the English equivalent of a comic book Nazi. His manners are impeccable, his upper lip is as stiff as cardboard, and he sneers harder than anyone may have ever sneered before.
Captain Russell's sister, Elizabeth, is also an idea of the perfect European beauty. Tall, pale, and wide-eyed, in one scene she wears a Victorian dress while spinning to classical music around a marble-pillared room and falls on a satin-sheeted bed. The film contrasts her with the thoroughly Indian Gauri, who is short, dark-skinned, and dances in her village to a song celebrating the Hindu gods.
The contrast between the two women inverts the European ideal. Both women fall in love with the film's hero, Bhuvan, but Bhuvan takes no romantic interest in Elizabeth. He hardly even seems to realize she loves him. He only has eyes for Gauri.
Gauri and Bhuvan's number “Radha Kaise Na Jale” elevates Lagaan to a world few musicals venture. The two perform in front of their village in the guise of Lord Krishna and his lover Radha. “How can Radha not be jealous?” she sings, at once both Gauri and Radha. I entered a world of sublime mythology I can compare only to perhaps seeing a Cecil B. DeMille epic for the first time.
The cricket team Bhuvan puts together is deliberately pan-ethnic. One story arc concerns the integration of a Muslim character; another of a disabled untouchable. The pained consciousness of the arcs are all that stop the two from being tokenish in the way the African-American members of The Avengers can sometimes seem here in the U.S. The message is clear – national identity as Indian trumps all other differences within the state.
Rang De Basanti
The same conscious diversity is also present in 2006's Rang De Basanti. The film sets up a conflict between a Hindu nationalist character and a Muslim character. The nationalist is set up as a villain early on, and is part of a group that breaks up the rock-in-roll parties the rest of the teenagers enjoy. (OK, not just teenagers... 40-year-old Aamir Khan is inexplicably part of the group. Khan also started in Lagaan.) But as the film continues, both the nationalist and the Muslim characters are united in a common enemy – the corrupt government.
Like Lagaan, Rang De Basanti also builds nationalism by looking at a pan-ethnic past. The characters in our film are convinced to play as actors in a film about a group of Indian revolutionaries in the 1920's and early 1930's. Identity as an Indian is not dependent upon race or religion – rather, its identity is a group loyalty in favor of independence and common interests.
Rang De Basanti also features one of the most abrupt shifts in tone I've ever seen in a movie. The first hour or so plays like it's from the American Graffiti school of nostalgia and hip teenagers. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of depth. But by the film's violent end, it has taken on an extremely revolutionary, political tone. In the decade since its release, it has had to fend off accusations of fascism.
Rang De Basanti promotes nationalism and unity, but also makes the ruling politicians uncomfortable – a dynamic that exists within films emblematic of American nationalism. Famously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was denounced as communistic.
Unlike the two Indian films here, American films have largely stayed away from our Revolutionary period. It's impossible for a movie featuring George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to promote racial harmony – which is a large reason why the few recent successes have focused on anti-slavery figures like John Adams in the HBO miniseries and Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway show.
Instead, Hollywood sticks mostly with the present or the near-future. Independence Day and Saving Private Ryan are probably the two standout examples of popular American patriotism released in my lifetime. Both made an explicit point of our country's multi-religious and multi-ethnic nature, and both freely criticized the government. Likewise with 2016's big grosser, Captain America: Civil War.