Since everyone on the internet and their mothers are talking about Siddharth Malhotra’s newest contribution to Netflix as well as to the long tradition of India’s propaganda films against Pakistan, a glaring opportunity has presented itself for an out-of-school literature student to uncover the underlying discourse of Mission Majnu’s trailer and such media in general.
Across-the-border films like Main Hoon Na, where a charming Shahrukh Khan speaks of a peaceful future for our children forged through collaboration and negotiations are now regarded as a relic from an abandoned past. The replacement, however, could not be more abhorrent.
Take the appearance of Malhotra in the film, for instance. While the stereotypical garb, exaggerated expressions and forced accent appear blatantly ridiculous and cringe to many for their marvellous inaccuracy, it could be argued that they are a result of deliberate efforts (rather than a lack of research) to distinguish one group of people from another. This reduction of Muslims in Bollywood to mere caricatures who are rarely ever humanised, creates room for justifying any harm done to them.
That is not to say that Pakistanis and Indians are all alike. Regardless of differences dictated by religious choices, Pakistanis, except for those from areas directly bordering India, often struggle to find similarities with mainstream Indian culture. However, that diversity does not take away from our human capacity to connect and resolve issues at a discussion table. It just puts the added onus on media houses to create accurate and meaningful stories to develop better understanding between communities that may lead to a sense of harmony.
But therein lies the rub — while art can be a powerful medium to create harmony, it can also be an awesome tool for the dissemination of hatred. Based on who calls the shots at any given time, art gets reduced to propaganda and chocolaty heroes turn into jingoistic nationals. Despite this, to the amazement of many, these films supposedly appeal to people’s sense of justice. How is this achieved? How do you seem humane and just while you indulge in the opposite?
Here, framing is everything. American gender theorist Judith Butler coined the phrase ‘‘grieveability of life’’ in her book Frames of War and the concept can easily be applied here to understand how people are placed on the edges of a big picture to justify the crimes against them. “One way of posing the question who ‘we’ are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable…..an ungrievable life is not counted as a life at all,’ she says. This takes us back to Malhotra’s film.
’’Dunya main hum hi akele hain jo matti ko maa kehte hain [we are the only ones in the world who refer to their soil as a mother]“ is a particularly interesting line that appears in the trailer during a fight scene for two reasons. The first is more obvious — it encourages a sense of exceptionalism. As the tale goes, there is nothing like the titillating opium of self-righteous patriotism to sedate the conscience of a viewer, barring them from questioning any dubious actions of the main character so long as they are aligned with national interest, which is always synonymous to the greater good.
Secondly, the importance of the phrase and song Vande Mataram (I bow to thee, mother) in the Indian national sphere is immense. While policies have been made in the past to cut it short in national events to accommodate the monotheist belief system of Islam, Muslims have lately been getting a lot of heat from Hindutva goons for their refusal to sing the whole song. When the line is reconsidered in this light, the implication remains equally dangerous — Bollywood is now obligated to reflect and appeal to Hindutva sensibilities to make successful films, and it is willing to achieve that result even at the expense of the safety of Indian Muslims.
While, as a pacifist, this contributor struggles to argue for the merits of nuclear programmes apart from perhaps evening out the regional power imbalances in South Asia, it appears to be a good time to reiterate that India and Pakistan could not be more careful with keeping the jingoist sentiments in their pants. Academic Owen Brian Toon famously quoted a study by Luke Oman and Alan Robock in his TedTalk which holds that 90% of the world population would starve to death as an unintended consequence of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. This information becomes scarier when coupled with his warning that the world could erupt into a nuclear war due to the smallest of conflicts if we do not tether to reason.
Speaking for those who like their propaganda subtle, Pakistan too has had its fair share of embarrassment in recent times in the form of films like Kaaf Kangana. The reduction of a once beloved (albeit eternally problematic) film industry to mere propaganda-churning machinery is a stark reminder for us to open up to stories from the margins before it is too late. As far as producing a counter-narrative is concerned, our state could not employ a more effective strategy for countering propaganda than the one it is already afforded — the uniquely Pakistani sense of humour that flourishes in the face of hostility. It is a thought-provoking exercise in challenging any spiteful discourse with playfulness and memes that strikingly differ from the hateful nationalism that dictates the majority of the neighbouring online spaces. If only we saw the same spirit reflected in our mainstream media.
Without needing to reexamine, one can safely state that our collective history is marred with mutual strife. Grievances are so immense that talks of peaceful resolutions to our problems come out to many as useless, even insensitive and at times, for lack of a better word, cringe. But rationality must trump emotional responses when billions of lives remain on the line. Hateful narratives need to be discarded in the memory of all the lives that have been lost on both sides in hopes of a better future because time stopped in Hiroshima in 1945 when conflicts could not be resolved through talks and negotiations.
It is also crucial to remember why films such as Mission Majnu keep being made. To put it simply, for elections to be won, sometimes people must find something more sacred than their own well-being, and the sanctity of human life across the border, sometimes within it too. So, the Joylands won’t make the cut and the Main Hoon Nas must become a thing of the past. Soft and genteel men in rom-coms will have to make a switch to stepping on flags to be heroes because films perpetuating and nurturing a pro-war narrative are perfect.
They are arousing enough to justify the cost and lives lost to militarism, galvanising enough to keep young minds who should be otherwise holding you accountable occupied in mongering for these forever wars, and generally ever so impressive a technique, in the sense that it makes you the awardee of national credence every time without fail for being the hateful warmongering person you are. Because you contorted the definition of what it means to be a patriot to the contorted hate-mongering agenda that serves you.
If we are to get inspired by true events, we must not give in to this bleakness. We must use art to spread peace and harmony by telling meaningful stories about our personal histories, traumas, and struggles that inspire connection. For that to happen, rational minds must resist, question, and reject these hateful discourses and make it a point to understand that our mutual struggles with poverty, education inequality, and extremism definitely won’t end just because Mr Modi from New Dehli is ready to go to war.