It’s been a month since 2019 shone on us, and I find it extremely disturbing that all the prominent releases were somehow related to India, patriotism, or the idea of India.
There was The Accidental Prime Minister, a terrible film that was as successful in hiding its intentions as in hiding Akshaye Khanna’s receding hairline. There was Uri – The Surgical Strike – which was about Indian forces attacking the evil people in PoK.
Then there was Thackeray – a film so ironic that it would have made the late leader choke on his beer. That Nawazuddin Siddiqui – a Muslim from UP – would play him in a biopic would make even the gods chuckle. Then there was ‘Cheat India’ whose title, in a stroke of Vedic genius, was changed to ‘Why Cheat India’. It’s like the Censor Board is run by four children deciding the annual play for an apartment complex. The only saving grace amidst this barrage of patriotism was Govinda’s Rangeela Raja – a throwback to the days when it was okay to pinch a woman’s bottom on screen.
Personally, I also had the misfortune of watching NTR: Kathanayakudu – a film so bad, it made me want to go back to my 10th standard, study well, choose Science, become an engineer, and avoid journalism altogether. (Read my review of the film here).
Among the films that released this month, I got to watch Uri and Manikarnika, I liked them both for completely different, extremely selfish reasons.
I actually like Uri more than the other releases this month. Most reviews lambasted the film for being a jingoistic exercise and that was the mindset I’d walked in with.
I wanted to watch a film with army men who were efficient, effective, incisive. I am tired of films portraying Indian men in uniform as emotionally charged, jingoistic men who will hug a bomb for their nation. If you watched Border, for example, you’d think Indians won the war not not on the basis of military superiority, but because they loved their motherland more than the Pakistanis.
However, the critics were doing the film a disservice by painting it in jingoistic colours. If jingoism is really the issue, one needs to look at American war films and how embarrassingly jingoistic they can get – think of the US President flying in a warcraft to fight off aliens!
Raazi which released last year was praised for showing Pakistanis as human beings – something is commendable, but also quite easy. In Uri, Pakistanis are all shown as evil buffoons, but probably I was expecting too much. When was the last time you saw a sensitive Russian man in a Hollywood film?
The film is slickly shot, and succeeds while operating within the parameters of the Hindi film.
We Indians do not just want an action film. We need some maa ka pyar, behen ko vaada, bhai ka badla. We are not content with the hero shooting the baddies, we need him to wield his arms and smash them to pulp. We also need a plot-hook that allows us to return to the movie post interval – once we have gorged on samosas and Coca-Cola.
Manikarnika was the worse of the two movies.
In fact, strike that out. It was quite terrible. I have always maintained that I’d rather watch an average film that’s trying something different, rather than a successful film that plays safe.
Manikarnika has every trope in Bollywood – including the Amitabh Bachchan voiceover. Ever since Lagaan, Bollywood has used the Amitabh Bachchan voiceover for historicals to such an extent that if Amitabh Bachchan doesn’t give a voiceover, it probably didn’t happen.
We are so used to Zeeshan Ayub getting shoddy characters that you don’t really expect too much from him, and he doesn’t disappoint. Then there are the foreigners! Like most Bollywood Britishers, they are permanently evil, spouting lines in broken Hindi, and planning one saazissh after the other.
Manikarnika is one of those movies in which you can predict everything – if there’s a sword-fighting contest, you know Kangana is going to win it. If there’s an elephant, you know she’s going to get on top of it.
The real problem with the movie though, is that you know the story. You know that the British army is larger, more technologically advanced, and that Rani Lakshmi Bai will finally die in battle. With that in mind, the film fails as a narrative – it is basically Border with Kangana playing both Sunny Deol and Suneil Shetty.
One common problem with both the films is that I knew exactly what would happen well into the intervals of both the movies.
There is a fundamental problem in the way we cut our trailers in Indian cinema. Our trailers reveal the entire plot, leaving only the final conflict for viewers to watch in the cinema halls. In recent times, only Andhadhun managed to cut a trailer that kept its cards close to its chest.
I liked Uri more than I liked Manikarnika – but I liked both of them for two completely different reasons.
I wanted Uri to succeed so that filmmakers realise it is possible to make an action film that isn’t overtly jingoistic. That we can move beyond the Maa Tujhe Salaam and LoC template of army films.
I want Manikarnika to break box-office records because it is helmed by Kangana Ranaut. In this cesspool of nepotism, it is an outsider who is starring in, directing and carrying the entire film on her own shoulders. It is commendable, and if this encourages more women to helm their own projects, we could get to see lesser and lesser of zombie-hippopotamuses like Arjun Kapoor and Sooraj Pancholi.
The only real worry though, is the rising nationalism in our films.
There is a film on Modi coming up, apart from films on Manmohan Singh and Bal Thackeray. Down south, there are films on NTR and YSR releasing in the coming months. The stupid trend of playing the National Anthem before a movie begins still continues unabated, even though the Supreme Court has ruled it unnecessary.
Films have always exploited the emotions running through the masses. Amitabh Bachchan’s blockbusters from the 70s did the same, as did Manoj Kumar’s films in the 1960s.
But to have nearly each and every film releasing in a month talking about India, how great India is, and what it means to be Indian – is a bit too much to stomach.
I won’t be surprised if in the coming years we have films like Golmaal Tujhe Salaam, Sacred Patriotic Games, and Sonu Ke Titty Ki Freedom Fighter!