Many a debate has happened in the last few years on the issue whether artists should comment on politics or not. Recently, Kangana Ranaut called out many film stars for their timidity in expressing their political opinion. However, there are some filmmakers who have actually been making political statements through their work. Vishal Bhardwaj is one of them where he has never shied away from expressing his political beliefs in his films. In an interview, he said, "Whatever I feel about politics, society, and religion, I say through my films because that’s the best way to do it. It’s easier to do that in these films. If I make a film only on the Babri Masjid, no one will come to watch it. It is better you camouflage these things under the guise of entertainment." If we examine his films, the political elements in his oeuvre are quite discernible.
In 7 Khoon Maaf, Vishal Bhardwaj adapted Ruskin Bond's short story Susanna's Seven Husbands. The film is the tragicomical story of Susanna Anna-Marie Johannes (Priyanka Chopra) who kills all her husbands as they turn out to be atrocious men of character. Death is the punishment that she deems her husbands deserved for hurting her. The story is personal but there is a political element included here. The film shows Susanna's life across decades and the narrative uses political events to depict the shift in time. There is the mention of some of the epochal events in contemporary history, such as the fall of the Berlin wall, the downfall of the V.P. Singh government, the nuclear tests at Pokhran, and the 26/11 Mumbai attack. This technique was also recently seen in Netflix's adaptation of Vikram Chandra's novel Sacred Games.
7 Khoon Maaf is one of the rare films to depict the visuals of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, an event which almost ruptured the delicate faultlines of India's communal harmony and led to violent sectarian aftermath. In the film, Susanna changes her name to Sultana and converts to Islam post her marriage to poet Mohammad Wasiullah Khan (Irrfan Khan). She moves to Kashmir around the time when the Babri Masjid was demolished by Kar Sevaks. At one stage, Wasiullah Khan is seen watching the visuals of the demolition on the television. At a later point, he renders a poetic critique of religious fanaticism (written by Gulzar) at a mushaira. Men of religious faith have become animals, fighting over a mound of earth unable to decide whether there existed a temple or a mosque.
Roz uthte dhuyein ki kalikh se, us taraf aasman ka ek tukda, sara din ab syah rehta hai.
Uske neeche na koi sajdah kare, sar jhuka ke zameen par rakhne se, ab khuda paon kheench leta hai.
Kude karkat ki dherion mein abhi, thandi laashon ke sar sulagte hain.
Taango bhaon ki haddiyon ke liye, ladte rehte hain bhukhe chopaye.
Aur jisne bhi pehle daant mare hain, haddi boti ka haq usi ka hai.
Mazhabon waale poochte hain ab, kisne pehle kudal mari thi.
Koi kehta ki ek masjid thi, koi kehta hai ek mandir tha.
Sar jhuka ke zameen par rakhne se, sar jhuka ke zameen par rakhne se,
ab khuda paon khinch leta hai, ab khuda paon kheench leta hai.
Usko bhi ab yakeen nahi aata, usko bhi ab yakeen nahi aata,
iss zameen par usi ka ek ghar tha.
From the soot of everyday spiraling smoke, a patch of the sky, now remains blackened all day long.
Do not bow your head beneath it, for now when you do so, God yanks His feet away.
In the mounds of rotting rubbish, heads of bodies gone cold still smolder.
Hungry four-legged animals, fight over the bones of arms and legs.
The flesh and the bone belongs to the one, who first digs its teeth into the flesh.
The men of faith now ask, who first dug his spade into this earth.
Some say a mosque stood there once, some say a temple stood there once.
When you touch your forehead to the ground, God yanks His feet away.
He cannot bring Himself to believe that He once called this place, His home.
Films mentioning the events associated with the Babri Masjid usually run into trouble with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar were also prepared for cuts before 7 Khoon Maaf was released. However, the film was passed with an 'A' certificate and without any cuts.
At some other stage in 7 Khoon Maaf, Sultana and Wasiullah Khan walk through the streets of Kashmir surrounded by barbed wires. Sultana feels intimidated by the armed soldiers of the Indian Army. Here, again, the situation is relating to another long-drawn political conflict in the Kashmir Valley on which both India and Pakistan lay a claim. Vishal Bhardwaj expands on the Kashmir situation in a fully-fledged film in Haider. Adapted as Shakespeare's Hamlet in an Indian setting with material taken from Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir, Haider narrates the story of Haider Meer (Shahid Kapoor) looking for his missing father in Kashmir. The film is set in the nineties when the situation in Kashmir was marred by violence and terrorism.
Haider shows the torture and atrocities committed by the Indian Army on the people of Kashmir. It touches upon the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a draconian measure whereby any soldier of the Indian Army can, "fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death not only in cases of self-defense, but against any person contravening laws or orders." The film depicts the Ikhwan-Ul-Mukhbireen, a counterinsurgency force comprising mainly militants, who were armed and funded by the Indian security forces. At one point in the film, a signpost reads, "When You've Got Them By The Balls, Their Hearts And Minds Will Follow." The source of the quote is unclear, but it was used most often in the Vietnam war. The presence of the quote in Haider points to the ideology of the Indian Army towards the Kashmiri people. As a standalone film, Haider is one of Bhardwaj's finest and brilliant works. However, its politics mirrors the conventional Leftist narrative that believes the Indian State is a demon exercising control over hapless Kashmiris who are clamoring for azaadi. The film ignores the religious nature of the struggle as well as the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits who were forced out from their own homes. It received criticism for showing only one side of the struggle.
In Kaminey, there are two twin brothers, Charlie and Guddu, played by Shahid Kapoor, whose lives are caught in a gang fight related to drugs in Mumbai. Charlie works as a small-time bookmaker while Guddu works as a social activist. Guddu's dreams are shattered when his girlfriend Sweety (Priyanka Chopra) informs him the news of her pregnancy. Sweety is the sister of Sunil Bhope (Amol Gupte), also known as Bhope Bhau, a politician with a criminal background. Bhope Bhau shares his political beliefs with the Raj Thackeray school of thought. Bhope Bhau is against migrants coming to the city of Mumbai. He is livid when he finds out that his sister is planning to elope with a migrant from Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh as it can cause a huge dent in his political ambitions that have been built on the slogan of Jai Maharastra. Bhope Bhau's men kidnap Guddu and bring him home. Bhope calls immigrants coming to Mumbai as termites who making the city unlivable. Guddu responds back that migrants are like sugar added to milk. If they leave, the milk won't lessen but it would turn bland. Guddu also has the guts to say "Bombay" in front of Bhau even when he insists on calling it "Mumbai." In an earlier scene in the film, Guddu corrects Sweety to call it Mumbai when she had called it Bombay. His insistence on calling the city Bombay is making a political statement. Karan Johar had to apologize to Raj Thackeray for referring to Mumbai as Bombay in Wake Up Sid. Bhardwaj, who also grew up in Uttar Pradesh, makes a political point on the issue in his film Kaminey.
In Maqbool, Vishal Bhardwaj adapts Shakespeare's Macbeth by setting it in the underworld of Mumbai. The film narrates the story of a powerful don Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur) who is killed by his adopted son Maqbool (Irrfan Khan) and his own mistress Nimmi (Tabu). Maqbool is not really a political film but it depicts the power the underworld has over politics and Bollywood. The film was released when wanted gangsters were blackmailing many stalwarts of the Hindi film industry. There is a point in Maqbool where Abbaji is given a lucrative offer to become a partner in the drug business which could help him establish his presence all over the world. Abbaji rejects the offer and says, "Mumbai hamari mehbooba hai, Miyan. Isse chhodkar hum Karachi ya Dubai me nahi bass sakte hai." Mumbai is my sweetheart. I will not leave her and go to settle in Karachi or Dubai. This is reminiscent of Dawood Ibrahim, who is also believed to have a vast business empire in Karachi and Dubai. Abbaji's refusal to move out of Mumbai is a way to differentiate himself from other Muslim criminals known for their anti-India activities. Some commentators have an interesting but (I think) a little far-fetched reading of the film where they surmise that the film presents Muslims in a bad light. In a research paper titled Dharma and Violence in Mumbai, David Mason, and Rhodes College write, "While Muslim gangsters thrash ignominiously in petty vendettas, extortion, alcohol, and illicit sex, Hindu authority overcomes the mean sins of mortality through cooperation with the transcendent forces of existence. The intra-communal violence of the movie, by which Muslim kills Muslim, is inter-communal after all, but insidiously so, as it has been instigated and nourished by the Hindu authorities (Pandit and Purohit) so that its bearing is only inward, toward a small, blind Muslim community at the center of the story from an arc inscribed and veiled by a Hindu establishment."
Vishal Bhardwaj adapts another of Shakespeare's plays Othello in Omkara. Set in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, the film is the story of Omkara Shukla (Ajay Devgn), a bahubali, working for the local politician Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah). After the elimination of Bhaisaab's political rivals, Omkara is asked to contest state elections. He chooses a much junior Kesu Firangi (Vivek Oberoi) over his right-hand man Langda Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan) as his successor; a decision which makes Langda seethe with rage and jealousy. Langda plots to take revenge from Omkara by instigating him against his lover Dolly (Kareena Kapoor). The film shows the reality of the current democratic system in India, where there is no separation between crime and politics. Omkara shares a lot with Maqbool as both films are set among gangsters and powerful overlords. The difference is in the milieu of the two films. The characters in Maqbool are mainly Muslims, while they are upper-caste Hindus in Omkara.
In Othello, race plays a crucial role in the life of Othello. In Omkara, Vishal Bhardwaj replaces the element of race with that of caste. Omkara is a half-Brahmin. His mother was of a lower-caste, hence, he is called an aadha baaman. Dolly's father objected to the relationship between Omkara and Dolly as he was a half-caste. Hindi films do not have a good record of depicting and discussing caste. Omkara still remains one of the few mainstream films to at least mention the issue of caste.
Vishal Bhardwaj provides more commentary about his political beliefs in his film Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. Set in a village in Haryana, the film is a political satire about crony capitalism, unfettered economic growth, and institutionalized corruption in contemporary India. It is the story of Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur), a wealthy industrialist, who, in cohorts with a politician Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi) wants farmers from the village to sell their land to the government at throwaway prices for making a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) which will bring massive profit to him. The villagers, however, are warned by a mysterious revolutionary who calls himself Mao to not give up their land easily. He encourages them to fight for their rights. The film was released when the Indian government of the day was reeling under massive corruption scandals. There was some speculation that the film was based on the Robert Vadra-DLF land grab case; however, Bhardwaj clarified that he wrote the story much before it. The film also gave one of the most succinct justifications of corruption in a society. In a monologue, Chaudhari Devi says that the behavior of the leaders of a nation is a reflection of its people. If people are corrupt, their leaders will also be corrupt. All through the film, there are references to Leftist ideology. The character of Mao is inspired by Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung. Other characters in the film talk about bringing revolutions. Even the humor is laced with Leftist terminology. Matru (Imran Khan) who studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University jokingly calls a friend 'bourgeois bitch' who replies by calling him a 'commie bastard.' At another stage, Mandola offers a drink to Matru and says, "Tu left wali lele, tu toh Mao se." Take the left one as you are Mao. When a transgender woman is harassed by the villagers, she turns the phrase "Ghar me maa behen nahi hai" to "Ghar mein Mao-Lenin na se." The film clearly displays Vishal Bhardwaj's own belief in Leftism as he has spoken of being a Leftist. In an interview, he has said, "If I am not a leftist I am not an artist. The kind of inequality India has if that were to happen in a European country it would have faced six revolutions. For centuries we have played with the psyche of the masses. That your deeds in the last birth are responsible for your present miserable state of affairs. It is given a religious tinge so that he should not revolt."
In Rangoon, Vishal Bhardwaj enters into unfamiliar terrain. The film is set against the backdrop of World War II when the British Indian Army is fighting the forces of the Indian National Army (INA) led by Subhas Chandra Bose. Jemadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor) is a soldier of the INA who has infiltrated the ranks of the British Indian Army where he is entrusted with the task of protecting the film star Julia (Kangana Ranaut). Julia is asked to travel to the Indo-Burma border for the entertainment of the British soldiers. One of the members of her entourage is also associated with the INA and helps bring a valuable sword that would help in the funding of the INA. Nawab wants to ensure that the sword reaches the right hands. The film makes the point that it is easy to spot the external aggressors but one has to rebel against the internal dictatorial forces as well to attain true freedom. However, the execution of the film turns it into an endorsement of Bose's ideology, also because it released at a time when there has been an increase in the number of films espousing nationalism. It felt like after Haider, Bhardwaj wanted to make a film for the Right. Rangoon does have a few politically subversive elements that film scholars have noted. Saibal Chatterjee in his review of the film writes, "It is difficult not to spot the daringly subversive soul of Rangoon. It is best revealed by the three lead characters—none is a Hindu. Neither is any of them a single-toned, flag-waving, chest-thumping patriot striving to enhance his/her value in the eyes of the 'nation'." Rangoon also showcases Sab Sukh Chain, the national anthem of the Provisional Government of Free India led by INA. Uday Bhatia, in his review of the film, argues that the anthem adds a layer to the film's subversiveness. He writes, "This is the third time in a few months the national anthem has played in a film, but here, it’s the INA version that’s sung: the same familiar tune, but with alternate lyrics. Trust Bhardwaj to locate patriotism not in the national army but in the rebels."
Vishal Bhardwaj's most recent film Pataakha told the tale of two sisters, Badki (Radhika Madan) and Chutki (Sanya Malhotra), who share a contentious relationship. They are always fighting with each other. The film is inspired by the short story Do Behnein, written by Rajasthani writer Charan Singh Pathik, who wrote it after seeing the rivalry between his sisters-in-law. The film uses the continually warring sisters as an allegory for India and Pakistan, who like the two sisters are fighting with each other. They cannot stay with each other and they cannot stay without each other. The father of Badki and Chutki is named Shanti (meaning peace) where he tries to resolve the dispute between the two sisters, like Gandhi argued for peace between the two nations. There is mention of other significant political events in the film, such as the India-Pakistan Partition, and the failed Agra summit between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf. Given Vishal Bhardwaj's political inclinations, the film also seems to be a subtle critique of the present day Right-leaning Indian dispensation. For instance, when Badki's husband hits Chutki's husband, she incites him by questioning the Indian Army followed by saying Bharat Mata ki Jai, a slogan that has caused much controversy in the last few years. There is a lecherous character 'Patel' who is known as Tharki Patel, which again seems to hint towards an old political figure who has been in the news recently. There is the character of Dipper who keeps instigating the two sisters to keep them divided, much like the strategy the incumbent government has adopted to remain politically relevant. There is the frequent mention of cows, again a favorite topic of the current government. At one stage, a picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugging US President Donald Trump is also prominently shown. All such little things provide an alternative lens to decipher the underlying politcal themes in the film.
Artists are hesitant to take a firm political stand as the economic repercussions for doing it are huge as the state law and order machinery is unable to protect them in difficult situations due to political affiliations. If people develop more tolerance for contrasting opinions, more artists would speak up. After all, art does not exist in a vacuum. It is often, if not always, political.
1. Omkara—Swinging Between Two Faces—Link
2. Dharma and Violence in Mumbai—Link
3. Saibal Chatterjee on Rangoon—Link
4. Uday Bhatia on Rangoon—Link
Dialogue of the Day:
"Hasee badi mehengi ho rakhi hai duniya mein."