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Construing the Indian Middle Class Ideology

Changing Ideas of Nation and Nationalism in Hindi Cinema

Amit Ranjan ( is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.


In this age of globalisation, many Hindi films are centred around the diaspora, non-resident Indians, and North Indians from the upper class and upper castes.The adoption of a market economy and the rise of majoritarian religious politics in India have had an impact on film scripts. Most Hindi film stories revolve around affluent Indians and endorse the social, religious, and cultural values of the Hindu middle class. By doing so, such films are also trying to construct a new form of nation and nationalism that is not fully inclusive.


The author would like to acknowledge the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. The views expressed in this paper are of the author and do not represent or reflect those of the institute with which he is affiliated.

In countries with a strong film industry, cinema is often more than just a means of entertainment. It is a powerful and effective medium for disseminating ideas of nation and nationalism among the masses. This is true of Bollywood1 as well, which has from its inception in 1913, with the release of Raja Harishchandra (King Harishchandra), been engaged in fulfilling this role. During the anti-colonial movement in India, Hindi cinema extended its support to the national struggle by releasing cinematic adaptations of its events; after independence, Bollywood took up the cause of Nehruvian socialism and promoted its ideals; and decades later, when India’s economic policy took a turn towards liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG), Bollywood promoted the Indian market.

Despite changes in the storylines, in its journey of more than 100 years, one thing has remained immutable: the target audience. It is the dominant middle class whose values Bollywood seeks to represent on screen, and who it targets in the hope of minting money at the box office. This includes this class’s definition of a nation and nationalism, imagined mainly by the upper-caste Hindus from North India.2 While imagining the nation, differences based on region, religion, caste, and class, and the differential treatment meted out to members of such categories, are subsumed. This domination by the upper class and upper castes, and by extension their definition of nation and nationalism, is being challenged. This is more so in recent times, as there is growing resistance against the imposition of a single identity by the dominant group, due to the rise of strong subaltern voices. Clashes between the different narratives have become more frequent, mainly after the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government under Narendra Modi in 2014. As a representative of Hindutva politics, the party has been trying to impose a single identity on the nation, which has led to friction and tensions in society. Interestingly, in this clash of narratives, both dominant and non-dominant groups have garnered the support of the middle class.

Looking at the links between the Indian middle class and Hindi films, Tejaswini Ganti (2012: 4) describes this evolution of the Hindi film industry as an ongoing process of gentrification.3 Further, on this relationship, Ashis Nandy maintains,

If the middle class plays a role in Indian society and politics disproportionate to its size, so do popular films. These films, it is true, are seen by a wide cross-section of people, and their appeal is certainly not sectoral. But they are produced, conceived and executed within the middle class culture, more specifically within the confines of lower middle class. (1999: 6)

Notably, the middle class is not a single, unified group. Historically, in many parts of India, the middle class was responsible for introducing social reforms and driving a cultural renaissance during British rule. This group also led the anti-colonial movement and spearheaded debates on nation and nationalism in India. In the 1960s, under the influence of leftist movements across the world and in India, a section of the middle class raised the issue of marginalised groups and participated in movements in support of their causes. For example, the Naxalbari movement4 (1969) in West Bengal, which aimed to give land rights to marginalised people, attracted many middle class students from universities in West Bengal and other parts of India. Even today, such issues find support among a section of urban middle-class students in universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of Delhi, though they distance themselves from the violence associated with these movements. Making a distinction between the different sections of the middle class, M Madhava Prasad (1998: 163) writes:

While one sector of the middle class cinema represents a community hemmed in by the larger society and devoted to its own reproduction, there is another that presents the class’s national profile, its reformist role in the drama of class and religious conflicts within the nation-state.

This paper is an attempt to examine how the Indian middle class has influenced the development of Hindi cinema by providing it with themes, storylines, and characters to be represented on screen. This relationship goes both ways. Indian film-makers also choose storylines and characters that suit the changing tastes of the Indian middle class.

This paper discusses the role played by the Hindi film industry in constructing the idea of a nation and fostering anti-colonial sentiments during the struggle against the British in India. It considers how, in post-independence India, the Hindi film industry popularised socialism and state-aided development, in line with the views of the Indian middle class at the time. These years in India’s history also saw increased internal conflicts such as the Naxalite movement, the national Emergency in 1975, and, at the end of this phase, the rise of communal politics and identities and the related frictions. In the final section, I have discussed two films: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) (1995) and My Name Is Khan (MNIK) (2010). The rationale for choosing them is that they reflect two different aspects of globalisation. DDLJ was one of the first films that tried to link the economically valuable Indian diaspora and non-resident Indians (NRIs) with the country. This was necessary because the newly opened Indian economy needed investments, and the Indian diaspora was its most reliable source. On the other hand, MNIK presents a different aspect of globalisation, the issue of identity in a context where an entire community has been labelled as “terrorists.”

Nation, Nationalism, and Cinema in British India

Theoretically, a nation is a group of people who share a common language, religion, culture, history, and territory. Those who do not share such commonalities are often considered as the “other.” In many narratives, the “others” are dubbed as enemies to unite those who supposedly belong to a single group. Anderson (1983) claims that this sense of belonging to one’s “own” group and the construction of the “other” are based on individuals’ or society’s imagination. However, just as an individual has multiple and changing identities, the identity of a nation and the values attached to nationalism do not remain fixed but change with time and space. The best example of this is Bangladesh. In 1947, Muslim Bengali-speakers imagined themselves to be a part of Pakistan because of their religion, but in 1948, they came to realise that they also have another identity, that of being Bengali. Eventually, in 1971, it was their imagined identity of being Muslim and Bengali, and not Muslim alone, which led to the liberation of Bangladesh.

Usually, nationalism follows from the idea of a nation, but in the case of India, nationalism resulted from the attempt to create a single nation from many nations in disarray. Both nationalism and the idea of the nation were products of colonial modernity (Bandyopadhyay 2014). During the anti-colonial movement in India, there was no consensus among the different groups on the definition and form of nation and nationalism to be adopted. These differences fuelled demands for separate states in the country.

In British India, one major criterion to identify the “other” was the religious identity of the individual or group. Though Muslim social reformers held different views on the issue, according to Syed Ahmed Khan, Hindus and Muslims represented two different nations because of their religious differences (Raja 2010). Similarly, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar maintained that despite the differences within their fold, Hindus from Kashmir to the southern tip of India, and from Sindh (at that time part of India) to Assam, constitute a single nation (Savarkar 1949: 102). Savarkar’s view was that Muslims identify and align themselves with Muslims from outside India rather than with their Hindu neighbours (1949: 102).

In addition to the differences constructed between Hindus and Muslims, there were differences within Hindus as well. In his writings and political activities, B R Ambedkar raised questions about the nationalism promoted by the Indian National Congress (INC) and other Hindu groups. In South India, “Periyar” E V Ramasamy mobilised the southern states against upper caste and North Indian domination under the banner of the Dravidian movement (Pandian 1987; Raghavan 2016). Both leaders found that Hinduism promoted social discrimination, and that their community’s interests would not be served under such a religious order. Further, in the 1946 elections, the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF) voted for the Muslim League in Punjab instead of a Hindu party to assert its independent existence (Rawat 2001), and during the referendum at Sylhet, Bangladesh, many SCF members (despite being Hindu Dalits) voted for Pakistan.

Amidst such debates on nation and nationalism sparked by the anti-colonial movement, film-making started in India. Initially, in the early 20th century, primarily documentaries were made. Even during colonial rule, India was the third-largest producer of documentary films in the world (Ganti 2004). The percentage of Indian footage to the total footage of films, as examined by the Censor Board, rose from 9.57% in 1921–22 to 14.92% in 1927–28, excluding Burma (now Myanmar, which was then a part of British India). If Burma is included, then the percentage increased from 9.03% to 21.2%, or an increase of 135%. Likewise, there was an increase in the total Indian footage in the same period, by about 235% (Report of the India Cinematograph Committee 1927–28: 163, 183).

In terms of content, most of the newsreel films of this time focused on India’s ancient history, while there were some films that featured general stories (Thoraval 2000). In 1902, Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar released his first newsreel, The Return of Wrangler Paranjpe to India, which celebrated the achievements of the Indian mathematician R P Paranjpe, who had attained the distinction of being made a Senior Wrangler at Cambridge University. This film aligned with the sentiments of the then ongoing nationalist movement. From 1897 to 1912, several short films were made, which had titles that revealed their political orientation. Some examples are: Great Bengal Partition Movement: Meeting and Procession (1905), The Terrible Hyderabad Floods (1908), Delhi Durbar and Coronation (1911), and Cotton Fire at Bombay (1912) (Deshpande 2009).

Shree Pundalik (1912) was the first Indian fiction film and was directed by Nanabhai Govind Chitre, Ram Chandra Gopal Torne and P R Tipnis. The story revolved around a Hindu holy man from Maharashtra (Thoraval 2000: 4). However, Indian cinema truly emerged into its own with the release of Raja Harishchandra, directed by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, affectionately known as Dadasaheb Phalke (Thoraval 2000: 4). Through his films, Phalke aimed to promote the ideas of nationalism and economic self-dependence. Soon after the release of Raja Harishchandra, Phalke also started writing on cinema for two Marathi newspapers: Kesari (run by Bal Gangadhar Tilak) and Navyug (Bhattacharya 2016). His films—Raja Harishchandra, Lanka Dahan (Lanka Aflame) (1917), and Sri Krishna Janam (Krishna’s Birth) (1918)—and Baburao Painter’s Sairandhari (Maid) (1920) were the first to disseminate nationalist discourse through Indian cinema (Bhattacharya 2016). These films showed the views of the Hindu middle class, as most of the stories were based on Hindu mythology and, in different ways, promoted the causes espoused by the religious revivalists of their times (Ray 2016).

The then nascent industry also produced some newsreels and documentaries in support of the political causes and social reforms propagated by the anti-colonial movement. T Jansen, an American freelance cameraman, made a newsreel called The Great Bonfire of Foreign Clothes (1915), in which M K Gandhi was shown as the most prominent figure among the nationalist leaders. It ran for two consecutive weeks at the Globe Theatre and the West End Theatre in Bombay (now Mumbai) (Bhattacharya 2016). Franz Osten’s Achhut Kanya (Untouchable Woman) (1936) addressed the practice of untouchability in India. Duniya Na Mane (The Unexpected)5 (1937) by V Shantaram discussed women’s emancipation (Benegal 2015: 235–37). Film-makers also grappled with other issues raised by the anti-colonial leadership in India, like widespread poverty in rural India. In 1925, Baburao Painter made Savkari Pash (Indian Shylock), which was a realist film depicting rural indebtedness, feudal oppression, and the poverty of the peasantry (Saari 2009: 104). Despite such support, many of the leaders of the INC had a negative image of this industry.

To regulate the political content of documentaries and newsreels, the British Parliament passed the Cinematograph Act in 1918, under which four censor boards were set up in 1920 in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and Rangoon. The fifth one was set up in 1927 in Lahore. One of the first victims of the Cinematograph Act was a film called Bhakta Vidur (1921). The film was denied exhibition by the district magistrate of Karachi and the local officer of Bombay because “it [was] likely to excite disaffection against the government” (Bhattacharya 2016: 30).

Later, to arrest the increasing popularity of American films across the world, and in response to the demands of the British film industry, the colonial government set up the Indian Cinematograph Committee (1927–28) to examine the working of censorship and cinema in India. This committee was headed by B T Rangachariar. The committee invited responses from film professionals as well as leaders such as M K Gandhi. In response to the committee’s questionnaire, on 12 November 1927, Gandhi said, “Even if I was so minded, I should be unfit to answer your questionnaire, as I have never been to a cinema. But even to an outsider, the evil that it has done and is doing is patent. The good, if it has done any at all, remains to be proved.”6 In his entire life, Gandhi watched only one film, Ram Rajya (Lord Rama’s Rule) made by Vijay Bhatt in 1943, and before that, he had watched a play, Harishchandra in 1913. Years later, in 1939, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, in an open letter to Gandhi in the journal Film India, protested Gandhi’s negative characterisation of Hindi cinema and urged the INC to consider the role that film can play in political action and to aid in the development of the film industry (Sinha 2013: 244).

Negative and Constructive

Even though Hindu–Muslim differences were already prevalent in British India, after the formation of the All-India Muslim League (AIML) in 1906, the emergence of demands for a separate Pakistan, and the spread of Hindu communalism, communal tensions multiplied. In this communally charged society, Hindi cinema played both a negative and constructive role. Due to the social and political impact of the then ongoing communal situation in India, a large section of the film industry was divided on religious lines (Vasudevan 2000). However, there were film-makers who spread the message of communal harmony through their work. One such early attempt in this direction was made by Dhiren Ganguly who moved to Bombay after the withdrawal of the Non-cooperation Movement in 1922, which also witnessed communal riots in some parts of India. He publicised his politics through his film Razia Begum (1924), which was financed by the Nizam of Hyderabad. In an attempt to promote communal harmony, Ganguly gave the Razia story a fictional twist (Deshpande 2009: 79), which infuriated the Nizam. As a result, he called off his patronage, and Ganguly was asked to leave his court (Mukhopadhyay 2014). Then there were films like V Shantaram’s Padosi (Neighbour) (1941), Nazir’s Bhalai (Benevolence) (1943), and G K Mehta’s Bhaichara (Brotherhood) (1943), which talked about communal harmony in the country (Bhaskar and Allen 2015).

To spread the idea of communal harmony, writers and poets belonging to the Progressive Writers’ Association, and members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) who later joined the film industry (Benegal 2015), also produced films showing their politics. Unfortunately, these efforts were not sufficient to ease the tensions brewing between the two communities. In 1946, a film called Chalis Karod (Forty Crore) was made, which showed Hindu and Muslim protagonists opposing the vivisection of a map of India. Members of the AIML opposed the film (Dhulipala 2015: 23) and, in some theatres, cut the screen with blades. In 1947, the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan and, with it, many members of the Bombay film industry such as Saddat Hasan Manto and Nazir moved to Pakistan, while Hindus like Roshan Lal Shorey, who were associated with the Lahore film industry and Lahore theatres, moved to Bombay.

A New Nationalism, 1947–1980s

Soon after India gained independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared development as a national goal and socialism as the means to achieve it. Five year plans were formulated to promote industrialisation in the country and to support the agriculture sector. This initiative was supported by the Indian middle class. Hindi film-makers adapted government plans to the silver screen and created what Sanjay Srivastava calls the “Five Year Plan hero.” This hero represented the “ideal” in many ways, largely because of his support of Nehurivian socialism and its ideals (Srivastava 2006). The debates surrounding the spirit of industrialisation were showcased in movies like Naya Daur (New Age) (1957) and Madhumati (1958). Dilip Kumar was projected as an ambassador of Nehru, promoting the Prime Minister’s vision of India in his roles (Nayar 2014). Correspondingly, other changes were also taking place in metropolitan cities where class divisions were clearly visible. The metropolitan city was portrayed as infested with corruption and clashes between the rich and poor. Raj Kapoor’s films like Awaara (Vagabond) (1951) and Shree 420 (1955) are good examples of this kind of film.

During the initial years following independence, a large section of rural India’s population was under the control of feudal lords. The social division, exploitation, and distress of the feudal social order have been showcased in films like Mother India (1957) and Do Bigha Zamin (Two Measures of Land)7 (1953). Earlier, under the banner of the IPTA, Dharti ke Lal (Children of the Land) (1946) was made with the vision of ushering in the Soviet model of collective farming. These realist films forewarned what might happen if the Indian state did not address rural distress. Later, as rural distress grew further, the Naxalite movement emerged in West Bengal in 1969 and then spread to the other parts of India. The leaders of this movement demanded land reforms to address unequal social relationships in rural India. Many art films, as well as some commercial films, were made on this issue. One of them is Nishant (End of Night) (1975), made by Shyam Benegal (Rajadhyaksha 2009: 357).

Besides domestic unrest, India also faced turbulence at its borders with Pakistan and China, respectively. The Sino–Indian War in 1962 and the Indo–Pakistani Wars of 1965 and 1971 provided Hindi film-makers an opportunity to construct the nation by projecting the “other” as a security threat to the country. On reel, Indian Army personnel were presented as heroes sacrificing their lives for the security of the nation. Haqeeqat (Reality) (1964) showed that despite fighting valiantly, the Indian Army lost the 1962 war against China. As most Indian Army soldiers came from agricultural households in villages across India, films like Upkar (Countenance) (1967) talk about their transformation from farmers to soldiers, the two professions that were integral to the border and food security of India. The film also reverberated with the slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (Hail the Soldier, Hail the Farmer), which was coined by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri during the 1965 Indo–Pakistan War. A few years later, in 1971, India and Pakistan fought once again. The war-themed films of that time characterised Pakistan as the “other” against which India must remain united and cautious. The first film to depict this theme was Hindustan ki Kasam (The Oath of Hindustan) in 1973 (Kumar 2008).

Simultaneously, a large number of films were made during this phase on the domestic situation in the country. India was yet to recover from the pain of partition in 1947, and social violence and discrimination were rampant. Many individuals wanted to understand and sketch the condition of Muslims in post-independence India. One of the best on-screen attempts to understand the situation of Muslims in India after partition was the film Garm Hawa (Hot Winds) (1973). It tells the story of a Muslim family which, disheartened by the prejudice against Muslims in post-partition India, discusses migrating to Pakistan, but later decides to stay on in the country and become participating citizens (Khurana 2009). This was also a phase of decline for the Muslim social8 genre of films, whose last hit was Pakeezah (Pure) (Deshpande 2009: 106). This decline is mainly attributed to changes in values due to modernisation, especially with regard to the status of women. The new changes clashed with the traditional idea of the begum (the “angel” of the house and the woman in a veil, who embodied the traditional values of the community) (Bhaskar and Allen 2015).

The 1980s saw changes in the course of religion, society, and politics in India. With the support of a section of the Hindu middle class, Hindu nationalism and political Hindutva rose to the fore in India. Politically, one of the early moves in this direction was made by then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who after being disenchanted with Sikh politics in Punjab, started endorsing Hinduism. In 1983, Indira Gandhi inaugurated a temple in honour of Bharat Mata (Mother India) at Haridwar, in the then Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (now in Uttarakhand). The temple was built by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a group that set up the Sri Rama Janma Bhoomi Mukti Yajna Samiti. The samiti was formed in July 1984 with the sole aim of “liberating” the disputed site at Ayodhya where Lord Rama is said to have been born, and where the general of the Mughal ruler Babur constructed a mosque by destroying the then existing temple (Setalvad 2017). Her son and the succeeding Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi appeased the demands of both Hindu and Muslim communal groups. The Rajiv Gandhi government supported Muslim groups’ demands regarding the Shah Bano case. The Supreme Court had stated that maintenance is to be given to divorced Muslim women, but this was nullified by the Rajiv Gandhi government passing the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in 1986. This angered Hindu groups, and so to please them, his government decided to unlock the gates of the Babri Masjid and allow Hindu priests to enter the mosque’s compound in February 1986 (Setalvad 2017).

Cinema and Nationalism in the Age of Globalisation

In the 1990s, as identity became an important global issue and violent majoritarianism was on the rise across the world, India too witnessed further deepening of communal tensions. Politically, the rise of Hindutva benefited the BJP more than any other political party in India. In September 1990, the BJP demanded the construction of a Rama temple in Ayodhya. As part of this effort, a ratha yatra was undertaken from Somnath (in Gujarat) to Ayodhya (in Uttar Pradesh) by the BJP leaders with the support of many other Hindu groups. Starting from the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, most flags depicting Rama transformed him from a pacifist god to a Hindutva warrior (Bhattacharya 2013: 142). As the ratha moved from one region to another, it raised communal tensions along its trail.

The political journey was concluded in October 1990 in Ayodhya. In the following year, the ratha yatra brought electoral dividends to the BJP, which won 120 seats in the 1991 parliamentary elections. However, the party could not muster enough support to form the government. P V Narasimha Rao, with the support of alliance partners, formed the INC-led government at the centre.

Foreseeing the further electoral gains to be made from polarising communities on the temple issue, on 6 December 1992, BJP leaders, along with their supporters and volunteers from other Hindu outfits like the VHP, gathered near the disputed site in Ayodhya to reinstate their demand. During this gathering, the mosque was attacked by some volunteers and some tombs were demolished. Following this incident, almost the entire country witnessed communal riots in which a large number of innocents lost their lives.

More than the film industry, in the early days of Hindutva politics, television succeeded in establishing itself through the help of mythological serials. In 1987, the 74-episode television serial Ramayana9 was telecast on the national television channel. Following its success, another mega serial, Mahabharat, a 94-episode serial made by B R Chopra, first aired in 1988 (Dwyer 2014). Political parties used the leading characters of both the serials to exploit public sentiment for electoral gains. In many small towns and rural areas, to which the author stands witness, a large section of the illiterate population with no exposure to these mythological stories came to know about them in a systematic way after watching these serials. Before these stories were telecast, different communities knew about the characters through different sources, but largely believed in their own version of the story. Also, in many parts of rural North India, characters from the Ramayana television serial, played by actors, were used to portray gods in posters. This made many Indians, especially in rural areas, believe that their gods and goddesses look like them.

Arun Govil, who played the role of Rama in the Ramayana serial, dressed as his reel character while campaigning for the INC candidate in the 1987 by-election in Allahabad constituency. In June 1991, Deepika Chikhalia, who played Sita in the serial, contested and won the parliamentary election in Baroda (Gujarat) as the BJP candidate (Mishra 2002: 221). Later, Nitish Bharadwaj, who played Krishna in the Mahabharat serial, won the parliament elections from Jamshedpur in 1996 as the BJP candidate.

The 1980s–90s also witnessed the beginning of militancy in the Kashmir Valley, which helped further consolidate Hindu nationalism in India. This new nationalism projected Muslims as aliens responsible for the militancy in Kashmir and other militant acts in India. Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992) is an early and effective example of such a perspective. The film shows that the god in a temple in Kashmir was not different from the god in temples in Tamil Nadu, thus offering Hinduism as a framework to transcend not only regional differences, but also to extend the national territory (Vasudevan 2010: 217). According to Tejaswini Niranjana and Rustom Bharucha, Roja demonises the Kashmiri militant as Muslim fundamentalist, and “idealises the modern middle-class Hindu male as the fount of a committed and developmentally dynamic nationalism, and […] neutralises or at best appropriates the woman into [the] larger project” (qtd in Vasudevan 2010: 216).

For a short period, anti-Sikh nationalism also emerged in India after Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in 1984. The assassination was followed by an anti-Sikh pogrom in India, in which many Sikhs were killed by Hindus, especially by workers of the INC. The pogrom had long-term implications for the country because it gave birth to a new minority (Chakravarti and Haksar 1987: 13). Never before had the 10 million Sikhs in India felt that they were a minority community. In fact, they were viewed as a dominant group in major fields and institutions. The carnage dealt a shattering blow to the already battered emotions of Sikhs following Operation Blue Star,10 and the self-perception of Sikhs was severely affected. They were repeatedly reminded by various forces that they constituted only 2% of the population (Chakravarti and Haksar 1987: 23). Despite this, Sikhs were not frequently projected as the “other” because of their historical ties with the Hindu community. After the riots, a number of commercial films such as Border (1997), Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (Revolt: A Love Story) (2001), and Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo (We Entrust this Nation to You, O Countrymen) (2004) were made to project the Sikh community as warriors of the national cause.

In parallel with the rise of Hindutva politics and a unified vision of Hinduism, on the economic front, the Indian government under P V Narasimha Rao adopted the New Economic Policy (NEP). Under the NEP, the state’s role in many sectors was rolled back, opening it up for private players. In over 25 years, NEP has brought prosperity to a few but despair to many. However, the educated middle class welcomed the NEP because the opening up of the market provided them with global opportunities, which had been unavailable previously. This dynamic is also seen in the themes of many Hindi films. In the age of globalisation, the Hindi film industry transformed itself to better represent India in the global market. Referring to this transformation in the stories films were telling, Ganti writes, “Whereas wealthy businessmen were frequently the symbols of exploitation, injustice, and even criminality in Hindi films from the 1950s through the 1980s, by the mid-1990s they were more commonly depicted as benign, loving, and indulgent fathers” (2012: 98). Keeping in mind the economic growth that the middle class was enjoying, film-makers mostly showed the favourable side of globalisation and left out its pitfalls.

This shift in themes reflected a new form of economic nationalism that had emerged in India in the 1990s. Ganti (2012: 99) shares one of her experiences:

During my interview with screenwriter Anjum Rajabali in 2000 he narrated an anecdote in response to my observation that all signs and references of poor people had disappeared from contemporary films. He told me that he had come up with a script with the mill closures in Bombay as the backdrop—he thought he could base the protagonist in one of the bastis (slum) trying to fight the mills being shut down. He convinced the director with his idea and so he and the director went to a producer to pitch the story. The producer was absolutely aghast and exclaimed, “But we can’t make a film like this! We can’t have such poor people. They are so poor—it won’t look nice!” Rajabali complained, “No one in the industry wants to show a slum anymore.”

In the years following the onset of globalisation in India, Indian film-makers (like the middle class) have adopted multiple identities borne out of economic globalisation and India’s tumultuous cultural identity post independence. The middle class has tried to present itself as liberal and global, but also rooted in traditional customs. The customs of the Hindu upper castes, in particular, were adopted in middle class households following their depiction in television serials and films. In this phase of globalisation, capitalism and patriarchy working together was a popular theme in Hindi films and television serials. These values came to be accepted as “Indian values” and appealed to the Indian diaspora, whose support to the new economy after the NEP was essential.

DDLJ: Bringing Back the Diaspora

DDLJ is one of the first movies in post-NEP and liberalised, privatised and globalised India that targeted the Indian diaspora and NRIs. In the film, Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) are young people of Indian origin living in London. They meet and fall in love during a trip to Europe. Simran’s father, Chaudhary Baldev Singh (Amrish Puri), however, had arranged for Simran to marry his childhood friend’s son, Kuljeet Singh. After hearing about his daughter’s meeting with Raj and her feelings for him, Baldev does not approve; he decides to go to Punjab with Simran to ensure that she marries Kuljeet. Learning of this, Raj follows Simran to Punjab and befriends Kuljeet. With the aim of winning over Simran’s family, he starts helping them with the wedding preparations. In the climax scene, Baldev finds out about the love affair between Raj and Simran. He loses his temper and slaps Raj in the presence of Simran’s prospective in-laws and fiancé. Hurt, but with a deep faith in his love, Raj leaves their house and goes to the railway station where his father Dharamvir Malhotra (Anupam Kher) waits for him. At the station, both father and son are attacked by Kuljeet’s friends. Simran’s mother, Lajwanti (Farida Jalal), and her other relatives also arrive at the station. After the fight with Kuljeet’s friends, Raj and his father board the train while Simran pleads with her father to let her go to him. Finally, Baldev lets go of her and Raj gets his bride.

DDLJ starts with a scene where Baldev Singh accepts the fact that he is a foreigner in the land he is living in (London) and is there only to earn his livelihood. He also expresses a desire to go to his country one day (des not desh, which is not India but Punjab). For the first generation of the Indian diaspora as well as for NRIs, memories play a powerful role in linking them with their land. The foreign land they live in is alien and unwelcoming, but they find themselves “trapped” there because of money. This sentiment is expressed throughout DDLJ, particularly in the opening scene.

DDLJ was different from many pre-globalisation era Hindi films in which the diaspora and NRIs were frowned upon and considered unethical for being “un-Indian.” Purab aur Paschim (East and West) (1970) is a classic example. In DDLJ, however, the diaspora is shown as remaining Indian at heart, despite living in a foreign country. The characters repeatedly assert their Indian values and culture. In one scene, Simran reads the letter from her father’s friend in which he proposes her marriage with Kuljeet and she runs away in shock; her father misinterprets her reaction and boasts that he has instilled Indian values in his daughter, that she is so “innocent” that she grew shy upon hearing about news of her own marriage. The diversity of religions and cultures in Simran’s experience is seen in how she wears miniskirts during her Europe trip, but in London and in Punjab, she is equally comfortable chanting the Gayatri Mantra, performing Karva Chauth,11 and respecting the patriarchal authority of her father.

To mobilise the Indian diaspora and NRIs, initiatives like Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Diaspora Day) were started by the Indian state. With such changes in politics, society, and mainly, economics, Tejaswini Ganti (2004: 42) finds that the West and its materialistic culture are now not represented as evil or threatening and, unlike earlier films, did not serve as a foil for the Indian protagonists’ moral and cultural superiority.

After the success of DDLJ, transnational connections were portrayed in many subsequent movies (Bhattacharya 2013: 133). DDLJ, as Patricia Oberoi notes, defines Indian identity both at home and abroad through the emotional travails of a young NRI couple in love. This identity is different from the earlier ones depicted on screen, which involved conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures and values (Oberoi 2015). In support of the theme, the film’s director Yash Chopra said that, “what [immigrants and the diaspora] are looking for is … tradition” (qtd in Ram 2014: 149).

Films like DDLJ brought the Indian diaspora and NRIs closer to their homeland through their representation on screen. About this process, Anjali Ram (2014: 93) writes,

Crucial to the notion of an imagined, national, community is the marking of boundaries to delineate sameness and differences, us and them, self and other. Such imagining of differences is the subject of most contemporary theories of identity formation and has particular relevance to the way Indian national identity is constituted.

It is this idea of difference and sameness that has made the North Indian perspective of India depicted in Hindi movies the popular perception of Indian culture (Ram 2014). Hence, Hindi films have simultaneously earned large profits while constructing the idea of the nation. In his analysis of this, Amit Rai (2009: 34) writes,

[the Hindi film industry] selectively sells a chauvinistic brand of national culture, thereby paying its debts to (Hindu) nationalism, while its financial and profit base is increasingly oriented toward the centers of capitalist accumulation in the West (this is a tendency of profit accumulation as much as ideological alignment, and given the devaluation of the dollar globally, there may soon be a reorientation toward the euro).

In India, the story of DDLJ was tailor-made for the newly emerged mobile Indian middle class. For this class, the “national” had become transnational, and “Indianess” was now part of a borderless, imagined world (Dwyer 2014). However, this imagined world is different from the real world. Indian film-makers have attempted to show that despite living in foreign lands, Indians have certain innate qualities that they do not and cannot change. This is explicitly substantiated in the following quote from director Subhash Ghai:

My film (Pardes [Foreign Land] [1997]) is about American dreams and the Indian soul … every young person is dreamy (sic) about the place [America]. But only on reaching there does he realise that there are things about himself that he cannot change. (qtd in Ram 2014: 149)

However, living in a foreign land is not as easy as presented in DDLJ. Especially after the September 2001 (popularly called as 9/11) attack in New York and terrorist attacks in other European cities in the following years, there has been an increase in racial discrimination and attacks against immigrants. There has also been a rise in anti-immigration rhetoric in politics across the globe, as a result of majoritarian politics. For many conservatives in the West, being a Muslim is synonymous with being a terrorist. This is a less flattering side of globalisation, where individuals’ identities have become the reason for violence against them (Achcar 2006).

MNIK: Identity under Question

In this phase of globalisation, debates started between two self-constructed groups: good Muslims and bad Muslims. The so-called good Muslims tried to plead their case and show the world that they were not like the Muslims who participated in terrorism. To a large extent, MNIK can be interpreted as a cinematic attempt to do this. This film was released a year after its lead actor Shah Rukh Khan (a Muslim) was reportedly detained by United States (US) immigration officials at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey in 2009.

MNIK was released in 2010, 15 years after DDLJ. The lead roles in MNIK were played by the same actors as in DDLJ: Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. MNIK is the story of Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), who has Asperger’s syndrome and lives in the US with his brother, after spending his childhood in Mumbai. There, he is attracted to Mandira (Kajol), a Hindu woman and single mother who lives with her son Sameer and works as a hairdresser. The two fall in love and decide to get married. While Rizwan’s brother does not support the marriage, Rizwan’s sister-in-law, a university professor, attends the ceremony. Rizwan, Mandira, and Sameer live for a while as a happy family. However, after 9/11, things change for them. Sameer is grievously injured after he is attacked by white children in his school because of the colour of his skin and his Muslim stepfather. Grief stricken, Mandira blames Rizwan for Sameer’s death, citing his surname (Khan) as the reason. Devastated, Rizwan leaves home. He goes to Georgia, where he helps
residents repair damage caused by a cyclone and torrential rainfall. After 9/11, Rizwan always introduces himself as, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” Rizwan’s good work finally gains him recognition, and in the last scene, the American president-elect rewards Rizwan for his assistance to people in the cyclonic flood-hit city, and reaffirms Rizwan’s identity. At the end, Rizwan and Mandira reconcile.

This film extended the debate on “good” and “bad” Muslims. In many scenes, Rizwan boasts about his identity as a Muslim, but at the same time, repeats that “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” The film also shows the fear people exhibited towards Muslims after 9/11. Post 9/11, Muslims living in the US feared identifying as Muslim in public. In one scene, Rizwan starts to pray during a bus ride, and his fellow Muslim travellers disassociate themselves from him, while others fear him because of his identity. However, the same was not true in all cases. Soon after 9/11, Haseena Khan (Sonya Zahan) wears her hijab to university despite the ongoing identity-based tensions. Viewers of the film interpreted this differently, some seeing this as an assertion of her identity, and others seeing it as the film-makers’ way of avoiding offending Muslim women.

Unlike DDLJ, MNIK focused on religion-based identity tensions, which have been prevalent in India since colonial times, or even earlier. The theme, that there were “good” Muslims and “bad” ones, appealed to both middle-class Hindus and Muslims. It helped a large number of middle-class Hindus distinguish between the two kinds of Muslims. It was also a sigh of relief for Muslims who were always looked at with suspicion by the Hindus. For a large section of the Muslim middle class that was aware of how the Hindu middle class perceive them, MNIK successfully asserted that all Muslims are not terrorists and that good people who practise the religion also exist. This perception of “good” versus “bad” Muslims translated into “nationalist” and “anti-nationalist” Muslims. Earlier films like Sarfarosh (1999) and Qayamat: City Under Threat (2003) had also showed the two types of Muslims on screen.

MNIK’s screening in India was met with opposition from a few Hindu nationalist groups shortly after Shah Rukh Khan, as a co-owner of an Indian Premiere League (IPL) franchise, expressed his opinion that Pakistani cricket players should be allowed to participate in the IPL. His view was taken as a testimony of his allegiance with Pakistan. The Shiv Sena and other similar political groups labelled him a traitor, disloyal, and Pakistani (Khan 2013).

In Conclusion

This paper has discussed how the themes and storylines of Hindi cinema have changed according to the tastes of the Indian middle class. Even on-screen debates on an idea of a nation and nationalism were influenced by the beliefs of the middle class from the North Indian upper castes. This relationship is not new; rather, it dates back to the beginning of film in India. However, almost all films have shown only one side of the coin without touching the dissenting arguments. As a result, when a large section of the middle class became Hinduised, and began to support the NEP and LPG, films have changed their scripts and themes, accordingly.

In the age of the NEP and LPG, earlier differences between “outsider” and “Indian” have changed. What was vilified in the past is being glorified today. This change has created a new form of nation in which marginalised sections are unfit and unwanted. Consequently, despite being citizens of the country, they are hardly a part of the real or on-screen imagination.


1 This term is popularly used to refer to the Hindi film industry (Mishra 2002).

2 In the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, a number of films were made in which the leading reel character had a Muslim name, but one hardly finds a commercially successful or even an average film in which the protagonist has a surname of Hindu or Muslim non-upper caste or non-dominant caste group in recent decades. Until the late 1990s, many films were made showing clashes between the rich and poor, but none of them have challenged the dominant group’s narrative of society and politics.

3 The word or term “gentrification” means to renovate or convert an area to conform to middle class tastes.

4 The Maoist movement started in 1969 in a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal and was led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) CPI(M-L). It aimed to capture state power through violence. Later, the CPI(M-L) adopted a more democratic route, giving up its earlier ideology. At present, this movement is spread across 530 districts in India. It is led by People’s War Group, Maoist Communist Centre, and other outfits.

5 The Marathi title was Kunku (a coloured powder used in social and religious functions).

6 This statement of Gandhi was taken by the author from press clippings and his letters to M R Jaykar exhibited at National Museum of Indian Cinema, Mumbai. The museum has a separate section on Gandhi where his statue, spinning wheel, and statements, and the poster of Ram Rajya, are exhibited.

7 Bigha is a traditional unit to measure land in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. There is no standardised measurement of how many bighas equal an acre. The standard varies from one Indian state to the other.

8 A term used for Muslim social elites who have interests in art, music, films, and literature. During the 1940s, Muslim social films were produced by the Hindi film industry. An Urdu film Masoom (The Innocent) (1941), directed by Hasnain and produced by the Fazli brothers, was the first to show Muslim households and the lives of women behind the veil (Bhaskar and Allen 2015). After this, a few more films on similar themes were made with the support of Muslim elites.

9 According to A K Ramanujan, there are more than 300 different versions of the epic (Dharwadeker 1999: 131–60). Of all such versions, the most popular one in North India is the one written by Goswami Tulsidas in the 16th century.

10 This was a military operation carried out by the Indian Army during 1–8 June 1984 to flush out the Sikh militants from their most sacred temple: the Golden temple in Amritsar.

11 The Gayatri Mantra is a verse from the Rigveda. Karva Chauth is a festival in which a married woman observes a day-long fast for the well-being and long life of her husband. She breaks her day-long fast after seeing her husband’s reflection in the moon. This is a popular festival in North India.


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