Of Chachas and Chamchas

Criticising the production qualities of propaganda videos is not the point. Their reactionary, jingoistic message is what should offend us.

POP

 

The Internet has not been kind to Pahlaj Nihalani. As chief of the censor board, Nihalani has been at the center of controversy after controversy. First, it was his very appointment to that position, which was seen as one of the first volleys in the BJP offensive to saffronise national cultural institutions. Many speculated that he was awarded this post as a sign of gratitude for his hero-worshiping viral video in support of Modi’s prime ministerial campaign, “Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi.”

But that video was just the first sign of Nihalani’s propaganda prowess. More recently, Nihalani was in the news for the gloriously low-fi video he produced, “Mera Desh Hai Mahaan,” which played during the intermission of the Salman Khan film Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo. Nihalani’s video reeks of sycophancy; it starts with Modi in saffron pouring offerings on a Shiva lingam, then moves to shots of schoolchildren waving Indian flags cheering for “Modi Kaka”, Nihalani’s answer to “Nehru Chacha”. It only gets worse from there. But the film was ridiculed not so much for its jingoism and its skewed views of secularism (it’s guiding principle seems to be “all religions are equal, but some are more equal than others”), as for its unbelievably low production values. Garish colors, amateurish use of Photoshop, outdated graphics, bizarre fashion sense—the film was tragically unhip. In various media sources, it was described as “tacky,” “a cringe-fest,” “C-grade,” and “embarrassing.”

Even more embarrassing was Nihalani’s next move: reducing the length of kissing scenes in the newest James Bond film, Spectre. Reveling in the controversy, Nihalani gave an interview that provided his critics with even more ammunition, revealing both his prudishness and his assumption that India is a Hindu nation; he first said that those criticising the cuts “want to do sex” with their “doors open,” and then added that a “few thousand people on Twitter don’t know what India is. India is a land where people put Gangajal on their face.”

He may very well keep his job; after all, this government is loath to admit that it’s ever made a mistake. But Nihalani is clearly an embarrassment.

In the wake of all these swirling controversies have come rumors that Nihalani is on the verge of being fired. These rumors first emerged in late November, soon after the release of “Mera Desh Hai Mahaan”, and they were still floating around in mid-December. He may very well keep his job; after all, this government is loath to admit that it’s ever made a mistake. But Nihalani is clearly an embarrassment. Even Nihalani’s BJP-leaning colleague on the Censor Board, Ashoke Pandit, distanced himself from the Spectre cuts.

 

But Nihalani is not the only famous person making jingoistic right-wing short films; he’s just the one getting the most media attention. Take, for instance, the six-minute video Jai Hind, starring Manoj Bajpai and Raveena Tandon. The film got relatively little media attention when it was released back in August, just in time for Independence Day. Even though it has 1.68 million views on YouTube, far exceeding the 104,000 views for “Mera Desh Hai Mahaan”, the film has not attracted the scorn of social and mainstream media, even if responses to the film have been a bit tepid.

For those who have not seen the film, here’s a recap (warning: spoilers ahead): Bajpai and Tandon are a couple (Hindu, but less obviously so than the ones in Nihilani’s films) riding on a scooter through contemporary Bombay. A car driven by a “foreigner” (who looks suspiciously Indian) hits their scooter, knocking them to the ground; the driver shouts out “Bloody Indians!” then speeds away. None of the onlookers help, so Bajpai carries the wounded Tandon into a posh restaurant, which (we later see) has a sign on the door “Indians and Dogs Not Allowed.” The restaurant, full of Indian staff and white diners, refuse to help the couple; when Bajpai persists, he is beaten up and thrown out of the restaurant. Then the punchline, a voice-over intoning, “Maybe something like this would have happened if our country didn’t win its freedom.”

One gets the sense that, for online critics, artistic sins are more unforgivable than political ones—this theme unites the otherwise varied responses to “Mera Desh Hai Mahaan” and Jai Hind.

The film was hardly mentioned in the mainstream media, but when it was, reactions were mixed. The criticisms of Jai Hind were in many ways similar to the criticism of “Mera Desh Hai Mahaan”, but they were far more muted. Again, style was targeted much more than substance. Firstpost, a site that is generally sympathetic to the BJP, panned the short film for its melodrama, hammy performances and superficiality, but clarified that the theme of the film wasn’t the problem: “the message, thanking Indian freedom fighters for our Independence, could have been put forward in a meaningful and even patriotic way.” The Huffington Post gets a little closer to real criticism, lambasting the film’s “barely-concealed xenophobia,” but its emphasis is still on the film’s style, which is mired in “amateurishness,” “hamming it up,” and “unintentionally hilarious melodrama.” Even the right-wing India Today, while praising the film for evoking national pride and reminding us “of the value of Independence our great leaders fought for,” notes that the second half is “slightly melodramatic.”

One gets the sense that, for online critics, artistic sins are more unforgivable than political ones—this theme unites the otherwise varied responses to “Mera Desh Hai Mahaan” and Jai Hind. Both films are reactionary and jingoistic, but both were criticised largely for their amateurish aesthetics and their over-the-top absurdity. But this line of criticism only reinforces the idea that Modi’s detractors are simply an out-of-touch cultural elite. “Mera Desh Hai Mahaan” only attracted more hate because so it was much more garish than Jai Hind. Would it be better, then, to have more subtle nationalist propaganda? More slickly produced jingoism?

Thankfully, at least one reviewer has addressed the substance of Jai Hind. In a piece on Youth Ki Awaaz, the short film is, admittedly, dismissed for its “absurd histrionics,” which are described as “quintessential Bollywood melodrama,” but the focus of the review is on the film’s flawed content. The crux of the review is this bit of spot-on sarcasm: “Our current democracy does not let callous drivers get away with killing pedestrians or other motorists with a lower social or economic stature. You only have to ask Salman Khan.”

There’s something a bit unsettling about big Bollywood actors criticising an imaginary Brit for a hit-and-run incident, while at the same time the Bollywood fraternity is united in its defense of its very own real-life hit-and-run perpetrator.

Indeed. There’s something a bit unsettling about big Bollywood actors criticising an imaginary Brit for a hit-and-run incident, while at the same time the Bollywood fraternity is united in its defense of its very own real-life hit-and-run perpetrator. And meanwhile, “Mera Desh Hai Mahaan” plays during the intermission of Salman Khan’s latest hit. In such a tragically absurd situation, the low production value of Nihalani’s video is the least of our problems.

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