Towards a more inclusive Indian identity? A case study of the Bollywood film Swades

National Identities, 12:1, 41-59

If there is anything I’ve learned from Maya Ranganathan, it is to place whatever you are arguing “squarely”¹ within social, political, and economic context. And that the ability to build said context comes from extensive reading.²

In this paper — Towards a more inclusive Indian identity? A case study of the Bollywood film Swades, I find her doing what she does best — make an argument within the context of reality. As a film that released within a year of passing of the Dual Citizenship Act, she reads Swades as an attempt at propagating a more inclusive Indian identity.

She takes her time outlining the idea of national identity, its manifestation on the diaspora, India’s history with Indians migrating to countries abroad, the need then for liberalisation and the resultant need to be more inclusive and inviting of NRIs, the expanding market for Bollywood films abroad, among other things. This is so rich, that is there is one reason I’d want to live 200 years is to be able to read all the papers and books she’s referenced in this section.

Strong on the foundation of context, she gets to Swades. She explores the idea of parampara in understanding one’s identity; and conflict in the film. She argues — “that it falls in line with what Chatterjee identified as a unique feature of anticolonial resistance: the creation of an ‘inner’ culturally sovereign realm while competing with the West in the ‘outer’ realm of politics and economy.”

The stereotypical media image of the callous and selfish Indian abroad of the 1980s when the Indian economy appeared to be doing well had to give way to a more tolerant image of the NRI following the waking up of the Indian government to the need of involving the huge NRI population in the process of nation-making.

She recounts one after another the various ways in which the film uses familiar images and symbolism to nudge the importance of returning to one’s homeland. She draws meaning from the film’s name and how it’s used, the names of the characters — the Kaveriamma in rural UP, “Charanpur” — the land that offers refuge. She reads Kaveriamma as metaphoric of (mother) India. But she returns to the Dual Citizenship Act and the need to be domicile in India to contribute to nation-building.

In the end, she also finds that, by the film’s logic, Mohan’s returning to settle in India might be useless.

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¹ I find myself using that word often, to mean snugly/comfortably fitting into something. I remember having learned it from her.

² The learnings are more now in retrospect than at the time — she was a professor and thesis guide while I was in college in 2006-08.

Imagining Eelam Tamils in Tamil cinema

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 26:6, 871-881

In this paper, Ranganathan and Velayutham argue: “…that subtle shifts and changes in Indian–Sri Lankan political relations over the period of the conflict, 1983–2009, coupled with the nebulous articulation of ethnic affinity between Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils in media in general, greatly impacted on the ways in which Eelam Tamils were depicted or unspoken in Tamil cinema.”

They closely analyse 4 films —  Thenali, Kannathil Muthamittaal, Nala Damayanthi and Rameswaram.

While there is insightful context setting with references to Ceylon Tamils in films of the 1930s, collaboration with Srilankan artists, and sympathies of the Tamil political and cultural participants to the Eelam movement and the LTTE, the most interesting part for me was the reading of the films itself.

For instance, this reading of Thenali — “If Thenali is the oppressed Sri Lankan Tamil, Dr Kailash is a metonymy for India, whose help Thenali seeks again and again, refusing to see anything wrong in the doctor or his intentions, and thus elevating him to the position of a divine being.” And a little later — “Interestingly, Dr Kailash becomes a victim of his own villainy, his house is destroyed, he is incapacitated and it is Thenali’s compassion and ingenuity that restores the doctor to normality.”

Their reading of Nala Damayanti is equally interesting. They begin noting that in the film the two groups of Tamils — Srilankan and Indian — are both depicted as part of a diaspora trying to make a living abroad. In fact, the film does not raise any issues arising from the cultural differences between the lead pair — a women of Eelam descent and a man of Indian descent. But they also raise an important argument that Eelam Tamils are represented as “somewhat subservient to an undifferentiated Indian Tamil cultural hegemony.”

Imagining Ealam Tamils in films itself is seen as rather problematic and circumventing troublesome issues — they argue that among the four films, the real reasons of the crisis are never discussed (much less debated) or the name of the LTTE is never raised. They find, “While Rameswaram attempts to give voice to the displacement and trauma experienced by the Eelam Tamil refugees, it is the romance and conflict arising from it that takes the centre stage.” I say — story of our lives!

In conclusion, “While these films sought to build empathy with Eelam Tamils, they by no means generated a collective idea of ‘Tamilness’ or solidarity. In that sense, Eelam or for that matter diasporic Tamils in general are only ever present at the margins of Tamil cinema and unlikely as one of us.”

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