By Shyaonti Talwar
My son and I love playing the guessing game. It is called 20 questions. I am supposed to think of a person and he has to guess the name of the person I have thought of by asking me yes/no questions. He wins the round if he is able to guess the name of the figure I have thought of within 20 questions. Then it is his turn to guess and my turn to ask questions. The other day, after we had played a few rounds, he said, “Mamma I have guessed the person.” Some of the questions that I asked and his responses to them were:
Is he a man? Yes.
Is he a celebrity? Yes.
Is he an actor? Yes.
Is he Indian? No.
As I kept asking the questions, I started to wonder who this figure was who my son had guessed. He and I watched Mr Bean so I thought it might be Rowan Atkinson to which he jubilantly said ‘no’. I kept racking my head but no other actor who was not of Indian origin came to my mind who my son may have thought of. I mentally ran over what he generally watched: some random Bollywood movies if I or my husband happened to watch them, Mr. Bean and some cartoon series. Needless to say, my 20 questions were exhausted and I had still not been able to guess the name of the actor. I gave in and he beamed at me, “It is Shahrukh Khan.” “Oh!” I said in dismay but immediately recalled: “How is that possible? You said the person you guessed is not Indian. Shahrukh Khan is Indian.”
“No Mamma,” said my son with an air of finality and infinite wisdom. “He is not Indian. He is Muslim. He is Pakistani. You don’t know.” And then he added with the same certainty and show of infinite wisdom as he sensed me doubting his statement, “All Muslims are Pakistanis.”
I was absolutely taken aback not so much by the response as by the conviction with which it was uttered. I tried to make him understand that all Muslims are not necessarily Pakistanis but his 7-year-old mind was firm in its opinion. Finally he asked me, “Didn’t you see Kesari?” to which I kept quiet and started thinking.
My son was referring to the recently released movie Kesari based on the historic Battle of Saragarhi between soldiers of the 36th (Sikh) regiment of the Bengal Infantry of the British Indian Army and Pashtun Orakzai tribesmen. This battle has been recorded by historians as one of history’s greatest ‘last stands’ where one side is absurdly outnumbered by another. Notwithstanding this absurdity, the outnumbered side puts up an unbelievably valiant fight till the last man standing.
Objective historical accounts talk about the valiant fight put up by 21 Sikh soldiers to resist almost 10000 – 12000 Afghan men from different tribes in the North West Frontier Province. Several historical sources indicate that the British had infiltrated into Afghan territory while others give accounts of regular skirmishes and clashes between the British Indian Army and the tribals. The 36th Sikh regiment was raised in 1887 especially to curb tribal agitation and as put by Captain Jay Singh Sohal, the author of Saragarhi: The forgotten Battle who talks about the timing of the battle being ‘crucial’:
It occurred during the period of the 19th century known as the ‘Great Game’, the name given to the heightened tensions between Britain and Russia as they battled over Afghanistan and other territories in central Asia.
The filmic retelling of the Saragarhi battle varies from the historical account of the events that took place on one of the bloodiest days in world history. Anyone will argue that retellings and legends are bound to surface around and in relation to these kinds of epic battles. It is however the legends and the reconstruction that remains etched in the collective conscious of a people and not actual history. History is brought to life and in the realm of the social through retellings. For instance, no viewer who watched the film can ever forget or forgive the sadistic and malicious Muslim cleric in the movie who started it all and oversaw the ruthless massacre of the men on both sides. Prior to that no one will ever forget the helpless Afghan woman bound in chains being dragged by the cleric across the rugged terrain to be punished for having tried to run away from her husband. The characterisation imparts a certain subjectivity to the film and determines viewer empathy. This article attempts to understand the affective impact the intertwining of the fictive and the historic could have on an audience with the film as an improvised narrative turning into a strong vehicle of cultural nationalism.
The filmic retelling of the historical battle of Saragarhi literalises two phases of the nationalist movement in India which witnessed two reigning sentiments: resistance to and disdain for colonial power or anticolonial nationalism and a sentiment of Hindu-Muslim dualism or religious nationalism which bred on the idea of a permanently antagonistic and dichotomous relation between the two religious communities. Interestingly, as has been pointed out by several modern historians including the likes of Romilla Thapar and Ramchandra Guha, the anticolonial sentiment characterised the first wave of nationalism was indigenous, rising from the Indian middle class which was also the class in which the Indian independence movement can be located, whereas the sentiment of communal or religious divide was introduced in the Indian collective conscious by the carefully constructed and bigoted theories on British India by political theorists and historians like James Mill who justified the need for British rule over India in order to quell Hindu-Muslim animosity. This colonial view was gradually internalised by the masses too through dominant discourse and political rhetoric. In other words, the initial sentiments that culminated in the two-nation theory and resulted in fault lines along religion across the people of India leading to the partition, was a British construct, a colonial theory injected by the British in the Indian consciousness.
This second sentiment gained phenomenal ground in India especially in the first quarter of the 20th century. It dipped in the Nehruvian era and then later, with the resurgence of right-wing politics, peaked in the 80s with the right coming into power. Over the decades, this sentiment has led to a steady and increasing polarisation of Indian society and a growing hostility among the Hindus and Muslims which found a palpable visibility and space in Bollywood cinema, especially the cinema of the 21st century. The Indian cinematic space had largely been a secular space as discussed by many critics like Ruth Vanita and Vamsi Julluri which played out the fantasy of an India and Pakistan that were not hostile or inimical to each other and the Hindu-Muslim unity, brotherhood, friendship and bonding representing the spirit of secularism espoused by nationalism prevalent in the years after India became independent. The early years of the millennium however saw a spate of movies charged with patriotic fervour that expressed itself as unconditional love for the nation, a surge of Hindu national pride and most importantly the othering of the Muslim subject which could range from an ambivalent or suspicions towards it to an utter demonization of it.
Kesari is another such movie in the tradition of 21st century Bollywood movies that adequately essays this second type of nationalistic sentiment through the retelling of a historic event from a definite subject position. Masculinities and metaphoric representations are interestingly constructed to interact with these different nationalistic sentiments which are integral to India’s nationalist discourse and organic to any nationalist narrative. Undoubtedly the colonial force is villainised in the film, but not adequately. The supremacy of the white man manifests as scorn for the native (Sikh subject) laced with a certain amount of malice. The representation of colonial hegemony though, has hues of good and bad as the British superiors of the 36th Sikh regiment are a mix of malevolence and benevolence, spite and concern. They are even shown to be filled with remorse at the plight of their soldiers.
It is the Muslim subject however, represented through the murderous and barbaric symbolic collective of the Afghan tribe which is completely dehumanised and entirely unidimensional. Fiction is cleverly intertwined with history to have the desired effect and becomes a vehicle of cultural nationalism through the use of effective narrative devices and tropes. In her essay, “Reinventing Men and Women Within the Belarusian Nationalistic Project”, Elena Gapova in discussing the mythicising of a historical figure Ragneda talks about how Ragneda becomes “one of the figures in the national pantheon….the subject of paintings, books…is woven into the cultural battle…about today’s sovereignty and nation state” (85). In a similar way, the attacking Afghans metamorphose, conflate and diffuse with the Turks, the Arabs, the Mughals, and the Pakistanis. All these subjects have a shared religious identity and converge in the monstrous ‘other’, the invading force which we need to thwart, overpower, and defeat in this ‘cultural battle’.
This demonization of the Muslim subject begins within the first couple of minutes of the film. The camera takes the angle of vision of the soldiers of the Sikh regiment who can see robed tribals in the distance dragging a tribal woman and on the verge of slaying her because she has had the nerve to exercise her will and flee her husband for which she has to pay with her life. Hawildar Ishar Singh, who is also the protagonist of the movie, unable to let this inhuman act happen, plunges into the scene and saves the woman by fighting almost singlehandedly with the tribals much to the consternation of an irked British superior. The embedding of this dramatic incident in the narrative to set the context for a long chain of events attains multiple ends: by attributing a Taliban-like identity to the tribals, it sets them off as essentially evil as opposed to the just Sikh soldiers.
The element of the foreign subject is retained in the saved tribal woman who speaks in a foreign tongue with Ishar Singh, while we are made to follow the interaction through subtitles in English. The tribal men however are seen to converse at a later stage in Hindi when they plan an attack on the three forts of Saragarhi, Gulistan, and Lockhart. The use of Hindi diffuses the element of the foreign in the tribals, while the Muslim cleric’s presence and his religious fundamentalism shifts the focus from a war for territorial occupation between Afghan tribals and the British in India to a cleric’s vengeance for an attack on his authority and consequently on his religion. Even as the insidious intentions of the cleric are articulated in Hindi which is in sharp contrast to the earlier articulation of the tribesmen among themselves and with the Afghan woman in their tongue with subtitles for the viewer, the historicity and the tribal identity of the Orakzai is lost and conflated with the contemporary Muslim subject who masterminds attacks on a sovereign and forgiving India – a very common and recurrent plot in Bollywood films on terrorism.
The narrative thus unfolds from a subject position which will have a definite affective appeal on the endangered Hindu whose religion is under imminent threat by Islam which is also in agreement with the current political climate of the country. Just as the Afghan/Muslim side is demonised through episodes like its inhuman treatment and slaying of the woman or through the portrayal of unimaginable ruthlessness and violence in the adolescent boy who deals the death blow to Ishar Singh and through many other similar tropes, the Sikh/Indian/Hindu side is humanised and their generosity and goodness magnified through the portrayal of the Sikh soldiers and especially the character of Ishar Singh who initiates the restoration of the village mosque, saves the tribal woman by risking his own life, desists from killing the adolescent youth who later deals an unflinching death blow to him and who also instructs his cook Dadh to serve water to every dying soldier regardless of whether he is from their regiment or a tribal attacker. The Sikh soldiers are also humanised as the camera captures their casual banter and frolicking amongst themselves and their interaction with their family members through letters. Thus the film establishes a firm binary attributing all positive, redeeming, admirable and humane qualities to the Sikh regiment and all negative, deplorable, inhuman qualities to the tribals which is a direct representation of the ideology of communalism and religious nationalism which has polarised groups.
Undoubtedly the central plot of the film revolves around an authentic historic battle in which 21 Sikh soldiers showed unbelievable valour unprecedented in history. However, historic accounts that are available are objective. While they certainly valorise and eulogise the Sikh soldiers, there is no attempt to paint the Afghan side in abominable shades. The Afghans were like any other indigenous group agitating against colonial forces just as the Sikhs were fighting for the colonial forces. The need to villainise the Muslim subject is an enterprise of cultural nationalism which is used to hegemonize a certain identity which is monolithic in nature and privileges one religion, one language, one culture over others conflating it with national identity.
The figure of the tribal woman in chains being dragged across the rugged terrain by a group of primitive and barbaric looking men has a symbolic purpose and serves as a trope invoking the mutilated and pathetic state of the motherland which is in wrong hands and needs to be saved. Ishar Singh, saving the woman, represents the armed rebel who is a prominent archetype of the freedom fighter rising for his motherland (Ishar Singh, here is a rebel in a sense since he does not heed the orders of his British superior). It is a narrative requirement that Ishar Singh, the ethical Havildar needs to save this ill-fated woman in chains who epitomises the passive motherland fettered and bound by forces that have violated her.
Gender and nation, both are social constructs and very closely connected. In the notion of nationalism, the women symbolise the nation, the motherland or the territorial space while men enact the struggle to invade, occupy, possess and capture this space. Space is feminised whereas movement across it is masculinised. There is a perpetual anxiety with the feminised nation as with the feminine because she is at once chaste and vulnerable to losing her chastity. The nation is at once an absolute, perfect entity but vulnerable to being defiled through infiltration.
The eventual capture and beheading of the woman by the cleric in the presence of the tribals and Ishar Singh can be seen as inflicting punishment on the woman for shifting her loyalties and going against the wishes of the individual husband and the collective clan and thus in a metaphysical sense losing her chastity. The incident thus symbolises the obsession with conflating female chastity and passivity with the honour of the motherland.
A disturbing fictitious presence is the queer subject who inflicts surreptitious attacks on Saragarhi from the side of the Afghans. The narrative by situating the transgender subject on the side of the enemy extends the villainising project to encompass the transgender subject. The positioning of the transgender subject at a strategic distance from the attacking Afghan tribals but at a vantage point to attack the Sikh soldiers emblematises transphobia along with Islamophobia. The transgender’s ambiguous role thus becomes reflective of the ambivalence surrounding their identity and subjectivity by the standards of popular perception. The queer subject interestingly is also positioned in no man’s land between the Sikh men and the Afghan men. Whichever side wins, the trans subject has to perish like the Afghan woman. The inevitable deaths of the Afghan woman and the queer subject go on to reinforce the fact about all nation states and wars fought to gain control over territory: marginalised communities have no stake in a nation. They are only part of the collateral damage and not that of mainstream discourse.
The frames in the film objectify the attacking Afghans swarming like insects from all sides and falling like nine pins as they are shot at. There are no close up shots to capture the emotions on an Afghan face except on that of the chiefs, no interaction between them otherwise or during the moments before they die which devalues and dehumanises their deaths and contributes to the sufficient ‘othering’ of the Muslim subject. On the other hand, the savagery with which they kill, especially the frame which captures a mere youth dealing the death blow to Ishar Singh attempts at essentialising and fixing violence as the defining and singularly overwhelming quality of the Muslim subject. The Afghan youth is the archetypal young terrorist religiously indoctrinated into a mission of destruction and militancy, insurgency has produced in the valley over decades. What adds to the poignancy of this trope is the suggestion of total absence of any humanity in the youth who is earlier spared by Ishar Singh. Ishar Singh’s earlier act of kindness in not killing the Afghan youth becomes symbolic of the Indian large-heartedness and magnanimity that fails to recognise the innocent face of violence and terror and suffers at its hands.
The filmic narrative also includes a mosque-building episode undertaken by the Sikh soldiers in the village of Saragarhi when Ishar Singh takes over the post of Saragarhi. The fact that the civic and welfare work undertaken by the soldiers of the Sikh regiment under the aegis of Ishar Singh is building a mosque and not something less suggestive like cleaning up a village or constructing some other building which does not have the symbolic and political resonance of a mosque points to a deeper political objective at work here. The mosque-building activity creates dramatic irony accentuating our sympathy for the soldiers and apathy for the tribals even as the viewer has full knowledge of the fact that very soon the soldiers are going to be attacked and butchered. The film inverses the real life demolition of the Babri Masjid through the filmic restoration of a mosque. Whether this is to efface real events in history through onscreen hyperreal reconstructions or the filmic depiction of an act symbolic of atonement of a community or the suggestion of an alternate possibility of reconstruction instead of destruction of a mosque remains open to interpretation and speculation.
However, in the attack that follows and all the brutality and savagery that ensues the mosque building episode becomes instrumental in reinforcing the barbarity of the ‘other’, echoing a popular mainstream Indian sentiment lamenting the futility of a secular gesture towards the radicalised ‘other’. So, besides serving the purpose of dramatic irony and flaming nationalist sentiment bordering on belligerence and communal apathy, the mosque building episode is practically irrelevant to the plot and the narrative.
The title of the film Kesari is an enterprise in appropriating and uniting the Sikh and the Hindu sentiment into an anti-Islamic sentiment. Kesari which means saffron has an overwhelming symbolic, religious, political and cultural relevance and is a prominent marker of the Hindutva movement. Though the significance of Kesari in Sikhism is explained by Ishar Singh in one out of several of his long patriotic speeches, this relevance justifies the larger Hindutva agenda of protecting Hinduism against the invasion of Islam as Ishar Singh consistently reiterates the main objective of fighting this impossible war which is to show the British officer who has wronged him that ‘Hindustan’ is a land of the bravest of men and not cowards. He repeatedly evokes the idea of a nation though the year is 1897 and an idea of a unified political entity like a nation-state – ‘Hindustan’. Though it is true that the first attempts of a unified attack to overthrow colonial rule took place 40 years ago in 1857 in the Sepoy Uprising, the invocation of a ‘Hindustan’ integrates the Sikh subject in the contemporary political rhetoric and psycho-social fabric of the Indian nation state.
After all, what is the impact of a film on an unsuspecting viewer? The impact is that a film which is essentially a cultural product meant for consumption undergoes politicisation to become a symbolic artefact with cultural codes. It can infuse certain emotions and sentiments on a large scale through the affective appeal which a historical account given through a documentary retelling will not be able to achieve. Films that reimagine history without necessarily being unfaithful to the central plot are powerful carriers of cultural nationalism precisely because of the historicity which they depict through a clever integration of fiction. The genre enjoys a certain ambivalence by the very virtue of being part authentic and part imagined, both of which interact with each other and unfold seamlessly as a contained ambiguity is observed by leaving it on the viewer to imagine or decide the proportion of authenticity and imagination.
Films in contemporary times are one of the most influential mass media. They are produced with the objective of gratifying and validating certain repressed desires in an expectant audience and in turn are also agents in the production of certain desires and consequently the production of a certain culture. Films as very powerful and influential cultural artefacts are being used as a medium to sustain cultural nationalism through the production of a particular genre of movies that become an active field on which hegemonic nationalism, cultural chauvinism, religious activism, patriotism and many such ideologies are anchored. While the intention of bringing the forgotten battle which has been given the status by the UNESCO of “one of the five most significant events of its kind in the world” and the uncompromising heroism of the Sikh soldiers from the annals of history into public consciousness is laudable, the mythicising of the martyrs and the stereotyping of an entire community is precisely the kind of cultural project one needs to be wary of in today’s political climate.
Dr. Shyaonti Talwar is an Assistant Professor of English. Her areas of academic and research interest are Gender Studies, Cultural Studies and Contemporary Critical Theories. She has published and presented several papers in these areas during her years as a researcher. Her works focus on issues like the politics of representation of women in mythology, oppressed black masculinities in Toni Morrison’s work, hegemonical institutions and unnatural subversions in Mahashweta Devi’s work, the transgressive poetry of Mirabai, and a contrapuntal reading of canonical texts.
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