Akshay Kumar’s Hindu Samrat Goes Where No Other Bollywood Films Have Gone Before

Hindi films in recent years have waved the saffron flag – literally. Medieval sagas, sometimes based on fiction and myth, have turned into epic battles where valorous Hindu kings defeat crude and cruel Muslim marauders on the screen. The virtuous kings declaim their Hindu credentials loudly and often – they are fighting for the religion. It ties in well with the new hyper-nationalist, Hindutva agenda of the ruling government. But now, one film has gone where none has gone before.

A print ad for the new film, Samrat Prithviraj, proudly announces: “Come Celebrate India’s Last Hindu Samrat.” No ambiguity there. No one has, so far, spelt it out so blatantly, aiming it at a particular community in such stark terms; indeed, Hindi films bank on audiences from every demographic and every religion for commercial success. Here is one film that boldly seeks out only (hardcore) Hindu crowds.

Lest you think it is just an ad, watch the trailer. With its invocations of the ’tilak’ on the forehead and the rousing chorus of ‘Harihar’, the intent is clear.

A poster for Samrat Prithviraj

The film tells us the story of Prithviraj Chauhan, who ruled in present-day Rajasthan and Delhi in the 12th century and who finally lost to and was captured by Mohammed Ghori after defeating him several times.

Prithviraj, whose passion for Sanyogita was taught in schools, has been frequently portrayed in film and on television, but never before on the lavish scale of the latest film, starring Akshay Kumar, the poster boy for Indian nationalism.

There are some other intriguing factors – why the last Hindu Samrat?

Surely a whole slew of kings whom the Hindutva brigade now claims to be upholders of the religion (even if that is highly debatable) followed in the next few centuries. There have been films on Bajirao, Tanhaji (both 18th century) and, not to forget, on the self-sacrificing Padmavati (14th century), who jumped to her death rather than give herself to the uncouth Alauddin Khilji and whose saga was recounted in the over-the-top Padmaavat.

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All these films demonised the Muslim and hailed the Hindu, even if it meant glorifying sati. And, of course, the two Hindu Samrats of our lifetime, Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi – they might take umbrage.

Never mind, but it is this discarding of the dog whistles and coming straight to the point which is a milestone in Hindi cinema. And while it opens the door for more brazen advertising in the future, it firmly shuts the door of Hindi cinema –and Indian sensibilities – to the past, which is already beginning to look like a figment of our collective imagination. Was there really a time when India believed in secularism and the sarkar promoted it?

Hindi films reflected that ethos and Hindu-Muslim amity was a regular theme. Muslim characters were usually either kindly uncles, loyal friends and sidekicks or good-looking women, but never villains, much less treacherous. It was an equally distorted view, but still, a benign one, reflecting the values that were – or seemed to be – embedded in our very being.

Two films over a gap of a decade-and-a-half, tell us about what India was and how popular culture reflected it. 

The first is Dharamputra (1961), directed by a young Yash Chopra whose son’s company, Yash Raj Films has now produced Samrat Prithviraj. Chopra had, just two years prior, made his debut with the film Dhool ka Phool, with the anthemic ‘Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega’. 

Dharamputra tells the story of a boy who grows up to be a hardcore Hindu fundamentalist, who bays for the blood of Muslims and then faces the shattering realisation that he may be a Muslim after all. An unusual subject for a Hindi commercial film, but fully in sync with the national spirit of the time.

A still from Dharamputra

In 1977, the King of masala films, Manmohan Desai directed Amar Akbar Anthony, a potboiler if ever there was one, which was full of his usual elements like brothers separated in childhood, unlikely coincidences, divine intervention and popular songs. The presence of not one but several top stars of the time added to its appeal.

The credits of the film roll over a sequence of all three brothers, now adults, giving their blood to a blind woman who was hit by a car and – in another unlikely coincidence –turns out to be their mother.

The title cards come up on each one, who have all grown up practising different religions, but, as the film reminds us, are brothers. No one can miss the point.

Desai was no art film maker, but it is a safe bet that he reached many more people people with his secular message than any auteur could with a profound, critic-pleasing film. AAA was never going to be an entry to any international film festival, nor would Desai have been interested in that – he often used to tell Shabana Azmi to over-emote, saying his was ‘not a Satyajit Ray film’ – but it was perfect for Indian audiences and continues to be a much-loved film.

Would either of those films be made today and would the Hindutva types allow it to be made? Highly unlikely – too many red flags for the berserk Hindutva bull.

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The first one would not just rile the Hindutva right wing, but no filmmaker would have the courage to wade into something that would almost guarantee the wrath of the saffron mobs. Showing a militant anti-Muslim right-winger who is then revealed to be Muslim would be considered too provocative and incendiary. If anything, the protagonist would be shown as a hero, a righteous warrior who does the right thing.

As for the second, again, it would be a no-go. Brotherhood of Hindu-Muslim-Christian? Too dangerous in the India of today. At the very least, the mob-censors would force the filmmaker to show them all converting to Hinduism at the end, something that the clever Manmohan Desai left open-ended. The Hindu hero would be a patriot, the Muslim one a borderline terrorist, the Christian on a mission to convert the heathens. The mobs would not allow it to be released otherwise. Which self-respecting director would want to make a film in these circumstances? 

One could argue that Samrat Prithviraj captures the values du jour, to coin a phrase, but are these really national values or just those of noisy and violent hordes who, backed by the establishment and the machinery of the state, try to impose their will on those who may not subscribe to their Hindutva? A large number of Indians don’t, even if they may be devout Hindus. But they don’t go about lynching people, nor do they shout down others. 

So the producers and financiers of Samrat Prithviraj may be in for a surprise. They may find that they need a far bigger number than just fervent Hindutva types to see their film to earn back their hefty investment. Even among them, not everyone will queue up outside the theatres. If the expected box office numbers don’t come, then overplaying the Hindu theme will die down, like many other fads and trends in Hindi cinema have. 

Featured image: A still from the trailer for Samrat Prithviraj. Photo: Youtube/ YRFz

This article was first published on The Wire.