There are very few things that unite Indians across all states in emotion and devotion. One strong contender is our love for movies—not just the art form itself, but the excitement of cheering for Shah Rukh’s open-arm pose or Rajini’s dishoom-dishoom. The other is sport. Whether it’s cricket or the Olympics, there is unequivocal support for the country and its torch bearers.
Dangal, Aamir Khan’s most recent biopic on international wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat, is a perfect mix of both.
The best part about this kind of united fervour—and I’m not saying there aren’t problems with it, but that’s a conversation for another article—is that it is voluntary. That sense of pride has evolved organically, and people choose to partake in it.
I’ve always liked when they played the national anthem at the beginning of a match, or on Friday mornings in school. It is a gorgeous, gorgeous tune with beautifully descriptive lyrics. It definitely trumps most other national anthems; I would argue with my American- and British-born relatives about this incessantly. I sang it loud and proud, not just because my teachers would give me the stink eye if I didn’t, but because I genuinely am grateful to have been born in this wonderfully paradoxical country.
Which is what makes what I am about to write doubly difficult.
The order has since been praised and criticized, deemed both “necessary” and “unconstitutional” by either side of centre. A large portion of the reaction was also nonchalance—“It’s not ideal, but hey, can 52 seconds of standing kill you?”
We discussed it in our office, too, and I added my distracted two cents. But I didn’t really give it much thought until I found my way to the theatre for the first time post the controversial SC decision, to watch Dangal.
Now, going by my habit of being late for almost every life event, I should have missed the ordeal. But for Dangal, it turned out, I was nice and early, got myself a big tub of popcorn and settled down to watch Mukesh ruin his life with cigarette tar. After that and a couple of Pothys-Joyalukkas-type ads (I was in Chennai, go figure), it was time.
I got pretty shifty.
Now, from being a source of patriotic goosebumps, the national anthem was being forced down my throat like march-past practice on blazing summer days. It didn’t help that this movie-theatre rendition was set in marching band style. (I silently practiced my side drum routine in my head, with the sound of my coach yelling orders in the background)
The audience sprung up dutifully.
I shuffled a little. I considered not standing. Why should I prove my pride for this country? No, why should I prove it 5 minutes before I watch Aamir Khan slave-drive his kids for “national pride”? (Or as Mrs. Funnybones puts it, before watching Ranveer Singh in his tight red underwear.)
And then I thought of all those incidents of violence against non-followers of the order. The man in the wheelchair, the students in Chennai. Bad idea, Drishya. Just stand up. It’s 52 seconds. It will pass.
Not pride, not a sense of camaraderie, not even herd mentality. Fear drove me to stand up for the anthem this time.
And so I went on to watch the movie, which—again, surprise!—had strong nationalistic undertones and tried very hard to squeeze that tear of pride from your bharatiya eyes.
Here I must add a disclaimer: I did enjoy Dangal as a viewing experience. Great performances, superbly choreographed wrestling matches, A1-type Bollywood masala, ekdum mast. But I also watched a different film.
One that told me that it is okay for these two courageous, persistent, strong-willed women to have been pushed beyond their limits, without their consent, “taaki desh ka naam roshan kar sakein." That Geeta Phogat was distracted by her own petty needs—like discovering her love for DDLJ, colourful nail polish, or long hair—when, in fact, her only duty was to listen to her father and do her country proud. (Never mind that the real Ms Phogat actually grew her hair out.)
Sexy AF long hair on Geeta Phogat, sexy AF short hair on Babita Phogat. #Choice #SonakshiWho?
So in the end, when she won the gold (is it a spoiler if it’s based on true events?), forgive me if I wasn’t swelling with pride for the nation. Forgive me if I was, instead, so incredibly awed by the 22-year-old girl from Haryana who survived a lifetime of discrimination, near-inhuman training, and a string of failures to win an international gold medal.
But that’s just me. Many of my friends, like me, stood up for the pre-movie anthem out of fear, and then stood for the Dangal anthem out of genuine pride. Some protested by sitting through the first, but the movie actually inspired them to stand up the second time around. One friend thought it was nbd to stand up for a few seconds, and did so, but he didn’t feel particularly patriotic.
How do we decide who among these to brand a patriot and who an anti-national?
So here we are, with the anthem being played for the second time in 3 hours. (Though honestly, it seemed more like 10.)
I don’t know how it went down in your theatre hall, but in mine, there was a nervous wave of bodies rising. It wasn’t so much spontaneous as it was unsure and jerky. There was that one dude, and then a few others, and then some mothers nudging their sons and daughters. It took a good 10 seconds before the entire audience was standing up in attention.
My dad was among the last few, and he shrugged his shoulders and signalled to me like “Come on, better safe than sorry.” But this time, there was no legal obligation for me to stand.
So I did what I had to do. I sat.
And it was the most harrowing 42 seconds. I broke into some serious sweat.
What was I so scared of? That I might be attacked, sure, but there was something else. It was the fear of being excluded from this country; one that I most definitely identify with, that I am proud to call my own, that I will work for tirelessly. All because I choose to respect it without blindly worshipping it.
But it’s easy for me to express my views on perceived nationalism here in one of my articles, or over a beer with open-minded individuals. In that moment, I faced the very real possibility of being branded anti-national by fellow Indians, with no chance of articulating my defence. The usual confidence and conviction with which I lay down my principles were missing, somewhere amidst the frenzy of my pounding heart and the pounding lyrics of “Jana Gana Mana”.
At the end, I got out alive and well. I was back to looking like a law-abiding citizen. I could breathe again.
A few days later, I felt the sudden impulse to listen to Rahman’s multi-artist version of the anthem, a piece of music that never fails to touch me in some way or the other. I must have first watched it when I was in high school.
Years later, after my sense of national belonging has changed quite a bit, I still feel feelings when I hear this. It makes me want to stand up and salute. Maybe it’s just my unconditional love for Rahman, idk.
Either way, that’s how I choose to indulge in national pride. I’d like to think that I respect my country by endorsing our artistes. By choosing Indian brands over multi-national chains. By standing up for and writing about the rights of our women and other minorities.
Salil Chaturvedi, the wheelchair-user who was attacked, has chosen to dedicate his time to actively fight for disability rights.
But none of that matters. What matters is standing up when you are expected to, saying the things you are supposed to, and, don’t forget BOL DIYA NA SOLDIER?
HEY SOLJUH SOLJUH MEETHI BAATEIN BOOOOLKAR #DeshBhakti #TrueIndian
Because the Supreme Court, the highest judicial authority, has stated that clearly:
“It (the judgement) does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space (sic). The idea is constitutionally impermissible.”
Translation: There is only one way to express patriotic respect.
Well, that’s that, then. So long, individual thought!
If this isn’t proof enough that our country is becoming increasingly authoritarian (and therefore, by definition, less democratic), I don’t know what is. In fact, when Aamir Khan himself hinted at this growing intolerance, he was faced with venomous backlash like never before.
I guess the only thing left to do is to make a mera-Bharat-mahaan film to redeem myself.