Hindu Nationalism in Rotterdam
Hindu nationalism has been around in Indian politics at least since the late 19th century (Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist, for instance), but it has gained enormous prominence since the BJP and Narendra Modi came into power in 2014. In commercial cinema, this has mostly been reflected in propagandistic period pieces and historical epics with a lot of flag-waving and demonising of Muslim invaders. In the independent sphere, there have been more interesting explorations of the effect of Hindu nationalism on life in India today. At this year’s IFFR, this was the subject of two very different films from almost opposite parts of the country: the Bengali film The Home & The World Today and the Tamil film Nasir.
The Home & The World Today (2019)
The Home & The World Today is the latest film by Aparna Sen, no small potatoes in Indian cinema. She began her career as an actress in Satjyajit Ray’s classic Teen Kanya, and became a star of Bengali cinema in the late 60s and 70s. In the 80s she moved on to a venerable career as a director, mostly known now for films such as 36 Chowringhee Lane and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. Sen’s newest work is an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s 1916 novel Ghare Baire. She updated the century-old story for modern times, setting it in 2019 to tackle current issues. A very interesting concept, but sadly the execution isn’t as interesting.
The love triangle of the original story remains, but the landowner is now an online writer-editor investigating Hindu nationalism very critically (partly based on the assassination of female journalist-author Gauri Lankes), the wife is a much younger Dalit, and his childhood friend who comes to know her intimately has become a fierce Hindu nationalist instead of a (leftist) revolutionary. What was once a grand, almost melodramatic tale of emotional emancipation is now, for the most part, a vehicle for political debate and critique.
The nationalist’s hypocritical speeches make him resemble Modi or other luminaries of the BJP, whose languages condones violence against opponents through dog whistles, but remain silent when push comes to shove and others act violently and deadly on those words. Meanwhile, the intellectual journalist who criticises Hindu nationalism constantly refuses to believe the threat of violence, that is supposed to silence him, and views everything in terms of debate and reason. Both speak of ‘the common man’ as an abstract concept, to be talked down to.
This common man is more or less personified by the young wife, who is written as a Dalit to make her social standing itself political, and the intellectual rich man marrying her almost a political act. Or performative grandstanding, from the view of the nationalist. Putting her in between the two men, she’s attracted to the nationalist for his strong, easy to understand convictions and his accompanying manner and machismo, only realising her real love is the leftist intellectual when it’s too late.
The political message is clear here, and the subtext interesting. The text that conveys this, however, is not. Most of the drama is played and filmed very low-key, with a cheap digital look and similar acting by some. But when the affair heats up around the interval, all of a sudden there are expressionistic songs and melodramatic montages. These scenes both clash with the surrounding film, and fall flat dramatically because of it. The same goes for the tragedy that unfolds subsequently, which is oddly filmed, staged and acted in the same awkward, underplayed manner.
In itself, this already makes the film somewhat of a failure, at least in terms of storytelling (but also on a formal level). Especially when compared to Satyajit Ray’s 1984 adaptation of the same novel, The Home & The World, one of the masterpieces of his later period – full of expressionistic colours and breathtaking candlelit cinematography. Such lushness is nowhere to be found in The Home & The World Today. Perhaps it would be out of place and not fit the compelling subtext, but at least it would’ve livened up the drab text and feel of the film. There’s a good film hiding beneath the surface here somewhere, but it remains hidden.
Nasir is a much better film. Arun Karthick’s second feature does not resort to debate but makes palpable one of the more pernicious elements of Hindu nationalism. That is, how the propaganda espoused in India by the ruling party BJP and associates, can lead to sudden eruptions of violence. Mostly perpetrated by Hindu extremists, who take certain statements about non-Hindu’s to heart and decide to take it one step further, all on their own accord. In Nasir, Arun Karthick examines how this kind of thing happens, from the perspective of a common Muslim man living in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Who is subjected to both the propaganda and ultimately the violence.
Nasir is part of the Tiger competition at the festival, which awards a prize to a first or second feature. Karthick’s more abstract debut, The Strange Case of Shiva, also played at the festival a few years ago, in the Bright Future section. Very correct programming, because Nasir feels like a great leap forward from Karthick’s first, promising a very bright future indeed. The Tamil filmmaker based Nasir on Dilip Kumar’s short story The Story of a Clerk, which is set against the backdrop of communal riots in Coimbatore (where the director is also from).
Nasir‘s title character is a gentle, simple man struggling to keep his head above water in a harsh world. He sells clothes for a living, trying to scrape together enough to take care of his ailing mother and disabled adapted son, while sometimes not seeing his wife for weeks as she goes away to work as well. Nevertheless, he keeps a positive outlook towards life, which comes across through his recital of poetry, writing love letters to his wife and his daily prayers to Allah.
Financial woes are not his only problem. While he goes about his daily life and routines, all around him in the city Hindu nationalistic, or rather anti-non-Hindu propaganda is blasted through loudspeakers all the time (not staged for the film but just recorded while filming the streets). When he’s finally away from the loudspeakers in the textile shop, he has to listen to his boss spout contemptuous rhetoric against Muslims. Nasir starts to wonder if he and his family wouldn’t be better off as migrant workers in Abu Dhabi, where he could make more money and wouldn’t be mistreated by both employer and customers for his religious background. Where the toxic, violent language isn’t surrounding him every day, closing in on him until it erupts into real violence.
This closing in on him is made palpable by tight close-ups of faces and objects, carefully framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Karthick has said he chose to do this to ‘box the audience in with him’, and this conceit works remarkably well. Despite this stylisation, at times Nasir almost has a documentary feel to it, while daily life of Nasir is observed in his existence as a second-class citizen. For these observations, Karthick first moved into the small Muslim neighbourhood for a few months in order to get acquainted with the locals and their lives. After which he shot Nasir on location on the streets, houses and shops of Coimbatore in general and Nasir’s neighbourhood specifically. This gives the film an impressive intimacy and immediacy, which in turn makes its conclusion very powerful.