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FREEDOM SPECIAL ISSUE

Azadi and Nana Patekar: A deadly duo

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on August 14, 2020 Published on August 14, 2020

Silver-screen soldier: In the 1990s, Nana Patekar built a career out of loud and theatrical nationalism   -  PTI

On Independence Day, nothing lightens the mood more than a chest-thumping nationalist film on television

When I was a schoolboy, few days were more conducive to TV-watching than Independence Day. The holiday apart, there was a general laziness in the air, once the obligatory flag-hoisting et al was over and done with at school. I found it interesting that on the evidence of this annual holiday, the truest expression of freedom was to go nowhere and do nothing at all.

This holiday had only one true god, and it was an LG 18-inch (the ‘LG’ stood for ‘Lord God’). TV channels, on cue, would roll out a special menu of chest-thumping nationalist films — lots of Manoj Kumar (Upkar, Purab Aur Paschim, Kranti), any one of the several Bhagat Singh biopics, some of Anil Kapoor’s late-career cringe hits (Pukar, Nayak) and, of course, JP Dutta (Border and later LOC Kargil).

 

But the Independence Day showstopper would somehow always be Nana Patekar. In the 1990s, while Arnab Goswami was probably shouting at his classmates at Oxford, Patekar built a career out of extremely loud, theatrical nationalism. Prahaar (1991), Tirangaa (1993), Krantiveer (1994) and Kohram (1999) were all examples of this genre. Patekar wrote and directed Prahaar, but the other three were made by Mehul Kumar — all masala action films with nationalist plots involving corrupt politicians, noble army men, mistreated freedom fighters and a frenzied, generally clueless media. Patekar played a soldier in two films, a super-cop in one, and a freedom fighter’s cynical grandson in another.

As an adult, I find these movies unintentionally hilarious. Perhaps it’s because Patekar’s signature brand of freestyle, ‘out-of-control’ monologue/ranting (about the ‘system’ and its hollowness hurting his throat or something) has been parodied so often since (at least once by the man himself). There’s no doubt that they have aged terribly, but perhaps they were ridiculous to begin with.

Take the much-parodied ‘Hindu ka khoon’ scene from Krantiveer. In this scene, Patekar (Pratap Narayan, the Hindu grandson of a freedom fighter) confronts Ismail, a local Muslim leader whose basti has just been burned down by goons sent by a powerful Hindu leader, Chatur Singh Chita (Danny Denzongpa). Pratap yells at a Muslim man for “sowing the seeds of hate” because he has the gall to urge the community to unite against majoritarianism. He then takes a brick, smashes first his own finger and then Ismail’s — blood spilt in the service of rhetorical flourish — as he asks, “Dekh, yeh Hindu ka khoon, aur yeh Musalmaan ka khoon, jab upar waale ne farq nahi kiya, toh tu kyun kar raha hai?” — This is Hindu blood and that’s Muslim blood. If God didn’t discriminate why did you?

One shudders to think what Pratap would do should people have more serious disagreements with him — any sequels to Krantiveer (Mehul Kumar did make one a few years ago, sans Patekar) would, one feels certain, involve a fair amount of blood transfusion.

Tirangaa, which paired Patekar with the equally bombastic Raaj Kumar, is similarly giggle-inducing despite the body count and the intermittent rat-a-tat of machine gun fire. I mean, the primary villain is called Pralaynath Gendaaswami (played by staple bad guy Deepak Shirke), which translates roughly to “Lord World-Ender Rhino-Daddy”. That’s more Terry Pratchett than Stephen King and no amount of angry gesticulation by jazz hands Patekar will convince me otherwise.

For a nationalist film, Kohram was strangely provincial — Patekar’s character, Major Ajit Arya, reminds us at least thrice that he’s a proud Rajput and that proud Rajputs never spare the enemy (elsewhere he also reminds us that Rajputs play fair, while deciding his prisoner’s fate via coin toss). Amitabh Bachchan’s character, meanwhile, is a Sikh soldier who’s very attached to his family and his clan’s martial tradition. So when these two armymen have to pick disguises, they go with the most plastic stereotypes they can think of — Patekar becomes an effeminate Bengali man called, bizarrely, ‘BBC’ (Bibhuti Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, no doubt derived from the only two Bengalis the director had heard of). Bachchan becomes a buffoonish, potty-mouth, paan-chewing parody of his own Uttar Pradesh.

We get it, Nana — the ‘bhaiyaa’ cackles, the Bengali does the writing while the Rajput and the Sikh take care of the fighting.

The most watchable among these movies is Prahaar, till date the only film Patekar has directed. He plays a training officer who takes bloody revenge upon thugs who kill his favourite ex-student Peter (who’s wheelchair-bound). The sequences at military school were praised for their sense of realism. Madhuri Dixit shines in a small role as Peter’s fiancée, while the legendary theatre director Habib Tanvir is unforgettable as Peter’s father.

But even Prahaar is retrospectively funny when you consider the scene where Patekar's character is briefed by a senior officer; General VK Singh (decades before becoming a TV debate staple and, of course Cabinet minister) playing himself. A star discussing military strategy with a real-life practitioner is morbidly funny in this era when Bollywood stars routinely offer their expert tweet-views on everything under the sun (especially about the troops).

Last month, the defence ministry proposed that production houses obtain NOCs from it for films or documentaries about the Indian Army. This additional layer of censorship may spawn a new generation of shrill films in the Tirangaa/Krantiveer mould. Should that happen, all our Independence Days will be dominated in perpetuity by Mehul Kumar and company.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

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Published on August 14, 2020