Independence Day 2022: How films like RRR, Gorkha mark the return of ‘loud’ patriotism in Indian cinema
Independence Day 2022: A look at how the changed landscape of post-pandemic movie-watching has meant that nuanced, subtle patriotic films have taken a backseat again.
It seems like a glitch in the Matrix now, or the Blip Thanos caused in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which caused regular programming to be upended for five years. Because for a while, the best and the most popular patriotic films being made in India were all about subtlety. These understated films--think Raazi or Gunjan Saxena--did not have much chest-thumping or over-the-top monologues, but they still worked. And they touched an emotional chord too with the audiences. I have been guilty of using this word too often but it was a refreshing change after years of in-your-face loud patriotic films with a lot of dialoguebaazi. But alas, after a brief break, seems we are back to regular programming. Also read: Kangana Ranaut praises Shershaah, calls it 'glorious tribute' to Captain Vikram Batra
The 2018 release Raazi can be seen as a starting point for this trend, at least the latest iteration of it. The Alia Bhatt-starrer Meghna Gulzar was an unusual film in many ways. It was about a spy but she was a 20-something-year-old girl, not a savvy soldier. It had Pakistani Army personnel but they were depicted as likable, human characters and not merely punching bags for jingoism. As actor Ashwath Bhatt, who played Major Mehboob Syed (the older brother of Vicky Kaushal’s character), puts it, “It didn’t matter that this character was Pakistani. He was simply a soldier and a family man. It was a very nuanced, human portrayal of someone who was essentially the enemy.”
It didn’t start with Raazi, of course. There had been subtle patriotic films earlier too. But they had been few and far in between. And more often than not, they were offset by other more successful louder deshbhakti sagas. So every Sarfarosh had a Border and every Swades had a Gadar. But of later, there had been a marked increase in more staid, sober dramas on loving your country. Even war films, which have largely been grand and loud in Bollywood, had a rare understated gem in Shershaah. Add to it, other recent dramas like Sardar Udham, Anek, and Mulk, and a pattern does begin to emerge.
But the audience’s thirst for drama in the pandemic has changed the game again. Just as Indian cinema was learning how to deliver story and character-driven plots about the emotion called patriotism, Covid-19 changed the game. The emergence of OTT has meant that people are now willing to head back to cinemas only when it’s ‘worth it’. Simply put, they want to be entertained and get value for the price of their ticket. The slice-of-life films they can stream on their laptops. In a theatre, they want the old school cinema experience. And this has meant that RRR makes ₹1200 crore, and Bollywood takes cue. This is what the audience wants now.
The larger-than-life formula has seemingly worked outside the patriotism genre as well, as the successes of Vikram, Pushpa: The Rise, and KGF: Chapter 2 prove. Ajay Devgn, who had a cameo in RRR, opened up about why it works so well. “The common man always connects more with a character that has similar, humble origins as him, but he behaves in a larger-than-life manner. That creates a strong connection with the audience,” he said in an interview with Etimes.
Bollywood tried going the chest-thumping, adrenaline-pumping way in patriotic films this year with Samrat Prithviraj, Rashtra Kavach Om, and Attack. But none of these films worked. That can easily be chalked down to their quality. But do keep in mind that the best opening by any Hindi film during the pandemic was achieved by a larger-than-life patriotic film--Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi. The good news (or bad depending on where you are looking at it from) is that more are on the way. Akshay Kumar will make another attempt with the war drama Gorkha, his female counterpart in this genre Kangana Ranaut has Tejas up her sleeve, and Sidharth Malhotra is also going the supersoldier route with Yodha. The lesson for all of them is that no formula can work without quality.
OTT, of course, still gives hope. People do have an appetite for the subtler, more nuanced, and more personal tales about loving your country. So, stories like Shershaah would probably continue to find platform there. But as far as theatrical releases are considered, given the doldrums Hindi film industry is in, filmmakers would struggle to get backers for such stories there. Till the landscape changes again, be prepared for more larger-than-life deshbhakti sagas, which are meant to entertain more than connect.