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Popular Communication
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Representing Hindutva: Nation, Religion and Masculinity in Indian

Popular Cinema, 1990 to 2003
Madhavi Murty a
University of Washington,

To cite this Article Murty, Madhavi'Representing Hindutva: Nation, Religion and Masculinity in Indian Popular Cinema,
1990 to 2003', Popular Communication, 7: 4, 267 — 281
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/15405700903211898


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Popular Communication, 7: 267–281, 2009
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1540-5702 print / 1540-5710 online
DOI: 10.1080/15405700903211898

Representing Hindutva: Nation, Religion and Masculinity

Popular Communication
Communication, Vol. 7, No. 4, Sep 2009: pp. 0–0

in Indian Popular Cinema, 1990 to 2003

Madhavi Murty
Representing Hindutva

University of Washington
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Working with the assumption that visual culture, specifically film, draws on wider hegemonic discourses
circulating within the public space to construct its own narrative, and that hegemonic definitions of
the nation emerge and take shape within “public culture,” of which film is a part, this article reads
six Indian films from the 1990s and the early 2000s — Roja (Mani Ratnam, 1992), Bombay (Mani
Ratnam, 1995), Sarfarosh/The Patriot (John Matthew Mathan, 1999), Mission Kashmir (Vidhu
Vinod Chopra, 2000), Gadar/Revolution (Anil Sharma, 2001), and Pinjar/The Cage (Chandra Prakash
Dwivedi, 2003). At a time when the Hindu nationalist movement had gained momentum, this article
identifies discourses that surrounded “maleness,” the nation and religion through its reading of pop-
ular cinema. The three themes that emerged from the reading of these films point to the manner in
which discourses of nationalism, masculinity and religion intersected during this particular historical
conjuncture in the Indian subcontinent to form hegemonic patterns that represented and reinforced
Hindu nationalism. All six films mobilize ways of seeing that reproduce and represent social differ-
ences as they construct the Muslim male as the “other.” Although some of these films ostensibly
attempt to grapple with real and contemporary social and political concerns with some sensitivity,
they continue to represent hegemonic discourses that accord primacy to the Hindu male over the
Muslim male by defining Islam as an ideology and the nation as demanding a suppression of

On December 6, 1992, the Babri Masjid, a mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya, was
reduced to rubble by an estimated 200,000 strong mob (Nandy et al., 1995, p. 186). Hindu
nationalists, or the political, religious, and cultural organizations that have sought to define the
Indian nation in distinctly Hindu1 tones, had long claimed that the 400-year-old mosque stood
on the site of a 2,000-year-old temple that had been destroyed by the first Mughal2 emperor of
the Indian subcontinent (Chatterjee, 1998, p. 126). They had been asserting that the temple had
commemorated the site where the mythic king Rama, worshipped by many followers of Hinduism,
was born and should be rebuilt at the same spot. It is estimated that 1,700 people died and 5,500

Hinduism is the religion of the majority of the population in India. “Majority” and “minority” populations are
defined by religion in India.
In Hindu nationalist discourse, the Mughals were conquering kings from Central Asia who ruled the Indian subcon-
tinent from 1526 to 1857. They are identified in this discourse as Muslim rulers of Hindu India.
Correspondence should be addressed to Madhavi Murty, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Communication,
University of Washington, Box 353740, Seattle, WA 98195. E-mail:

were injured in violence triggered all over the country by the demolition of the mosque (Ludden,
1996, p 1).
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the Hindu nationalist movement,
reaped political mileage from this violence. It won elections in several states and in 1998 headed
an alliance that captured power at the center. Though the parliament was dissolved in a year fol-
lowing problems in the BJP-led ruling coalition, the party won enough seats in the elections of
1999 to head an alliance once again, this time for the full five-year term.3 These events, starting
with the mobilization of people across the country for the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya
in the 1980s, have become important milestones for Hindu nationalism in contemporary India.
Hindutva is therefore an ideology that has been successful in negotiating a hegemonic position
for itself (Vanaik, 1997).
During this historical conjuncture, even as the ideology of Hindutva was politically ascen-
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dant, Indian mainstream popular culture produced teleserials such as the Ramayana that served
to establish a narrative about Rama and circulate his iconicity as that of a righteous warrior
widely. Films such as Roja (Mani Ratnam, 1992), Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995), Sarfarosh/The
Patriot (John Matthew Mathan, 1999), Mission Kashmir (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2000), Gadar/
Revolution (Anil Sharma, 2001), and Pinjar/The Cage (Chandra Prakash Dwivedi, 2003) that
described a nation in peril and established the Hindu male as the patriot were also popularly
received during this time. Sarfarosh, for instance, was a high grossing film in 1999 as was
Gadar in 2001; the other films were also successful at the box office.4 Moreover, I would
describe these films as cinematic events that combined the significant thematics of the time
within their popular narratives. Defining popular culture and politics as a complexly articulated
unity such that power is negotiated, inscribed and reinscribed through representation and narra-
tives circulating within public spaces, I am interested here in reading Hindutva through popular
culture, specifically popular film. Following Stuart Hall (1980), I argue that popular cinema
draws its “topics, treatments, agendas, events, personnel, images of the audience, [and] ‘definition
of the situation’ from [. . .] wider socio-cultural and political structures of which they are a dif-
ferentiated part” (p. 129). As such, popular cinema traces what Hall (1986) has called “the mental
frameworks — the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of
representation — which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of,
define, figure out and render intelligible the way society works” (p. 29). In other words, popular
cinema as discourse is implicated in the construction of “common sense.”
Michel Foucault’s (1972) theorization of the concept of discourse provides another lever with
which to discuss popular cinema. He argues that while discourses are indeed composed of signs,

It was the first time since India acquired independence from British colonial rule in 1947 that this political party,
which espoused the cause of Hindu nationalism, had held power for the full term.
Trade data on Hindi films has largely been unreliable; this is particularly true for noncontemporary films and data
collected in nonmetropolitan areas. Both, run by trade analyst Taran Adarsh, and another trade-
related Web site list Gadar as an all-time hit; see
domestic_boxoffice/06152001.html and (retrieved July 8,
2009). Similarly, Sarfarosh is listed as a hit on; see
asp?id=Sarfarosh (retrieved July 8, 2009). Bombay and Mission Kashmir are listed as semi-hits and Pinjar as an average
film; see,
asp?id=Mission+Kashmir and (retrieved July 8, 2009),

“what they do is more than use these signs to designate things,” thus it is not enough to treat
“discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but
as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (p. 48; emphasis author’s).
Discussing Foucault’s conceptions regarding power and knowledge, Stuart Hall (1997) thus
notes that for Foucault:
Discourse is about the production of knowledge through language [. . .] [I]t constructs the topic [. . .]
[I]t governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about. It also influ-
ences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others. Just as a discourse
“rules in” certain ways of talking about a topic [. . .] so also, by definition, it “rules out” [. . .] other
ways of talking about it. (p. 72)

Using the Foucaultian notion of discourse, Stuart Hall re-articulates representation as a practice
that does not simply reflect an event but rather is a process through which the event is constituted as
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such. It is therefore important to examine popular cultural representations such as film when
analyzing political events and historical conjunctures because it is through such representations — in
significant part — that political discourse is constituted. Nicholas Garnham (1992) similarly has
argued that the relationship between media and politics should begin from the “position that the
institutions and processes of public communication are themselves a central and integral part of
the political structure and process” (p. 361). Thus, rather than assume mass media, particularly
entertainment media, to be separate from and a reflection of the political and the ideological, I
begin with the assumption that categories such as the nation and the public, as well as subjectiv-
ities, are negotiated through mediated forms of communication such as the entertainment media.
Moreover, an examination of film is significant because, in the words of Christopher Pinney
(2001), India today cannot be understood without an examination of popular visual culture
because it is through such discourse that “many contemporary Indians debate their present and
their future” (p. 28). Indian popular cinema is produced in the Hindi language, caters to an all-
India market, and is understood by a significant portion of the nation’s multilingual society
(Gokulsing & Dissanayake, 1998). Popular Indian films are largely melodramatic, are often
musicals, and convey simple, clear moral messages that in the words of Gokulsing and Dissan-
ayake “communicate collective fantasies” (p. 45).
Hindi films construct a public that stretches beyond the boundaries of the nation state to the
diaspora. In fact, as Nilanjana Bhattacharjya (2009) has observed, Hindi films affirm the
“Indian-ness” of the citizens of the nation as well as of the diaspora and suggest that the diaspora
constitutes a part of the nation.5 Michael Warner (2002) has argued for examining “public” as
the kind of public that comes into being in relation to texts and their circulation (p. 50). Follow-
ing Warner, I read the six popular films listed above, starting with Roja, released in 1992, the
year the Babri Masjid was destroyed and Hindutva as a political ideology was ascendant, and
ending with Pinjar, released in 2003, close to the parliamentary elections when the BJP lost
power after holding office for a full five-year term (the six films of interest here deal specifically
with issues of nationalism and were popular, commercial successes). I will discursively trace
Hindutva as a hegemonic ideology and thus point to the public that it hailed. In particular, I am

Bhattacharjya (2009) argues that the song sequences in Hindi films play a crucial role in blurring the distinctions
between the Indian and the diasporic space, claiming an authentic Indian identity for the diaspora and the diasporic citizen’s
adoption into the Indian nation.

interested in the intersections between discourses of masculinity and religion and the manner in
which these connections came to define the nation. I show that popular cinema legitimized a
form of masculinity that is linked with “renunciate” celibacy, duty, and service to the nation and
constructed the Hindu male character in the image of the Hindu nationalist icon of Rama. I trace
this form of masculinity to Hindu nationalism through the work of influential Hindu reformers
from the nineteenth century. The narratives of the films examined here position the Muslim
male as the “other” of the Hindu male by defining Islam as an ideology and thus served to give
form to Hindutva within popular culture during the historical conjuncture when the BJP was
politically ascendant. Thus while Hindu nationalism may have acquired hegemonic status in part
through violent means, my argument here is that popular cinema played a crucial ideological
role as well.6 Public culture as a space within which political discourse and cultural and com-
mercial expressions come together played an important role in the emergence and development
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of Hindu nationalism as hegemonic discourse. To trace out my arguments, I will first dwell on
the method that I employed to read the six films of interest here and then discuss my reading of
the films.


I use discourse analysis combined with social semiotic analysis to examine six popular Indian
films — Roja, Bombay, Sarfarosh/The Patriot, Mission Kashmir, Gadar/Revolution, and Pinjar/
The Cage — in order to read the cinematic strategies used to represent the nation, with a partic-
ular interest in the connections among religion, masculinity, and nationhood. I explore the range
of social and political meanings that were constructed, embedded in, and circulated through the
moving image. Doing so necessitates the identification of key themes, exploration of the films’
complexities and contradictions, and an interrogation of the invisible as well as the visible.
In a social semiotic approach, Rick Iedema (2001) argues, analysis of fiction films should
center around two features. The first is a significant conflict or problem that requires a resolu-
tion; such a dynamic necessitates the presence of competing ideas and worldviews, through
which differing value systems gain representation in the film. The second point of focus, Iedema
suggests, should be characters and their actions because, as John Fiske (1987) has argued, the
text performs and activates social and personal discourses through the mechanism of the character.
Following Fiske and Iedema, I analyze the films’ representations of nation, religion, and mascu-
linity by closely analyzing both (a) Hindu and Muslim male characters and (b) the manner in
which conflict was constructed and resolution was attained within the films’ narratives. This
approach, in short, sought to “link the tele-film’s sociopolitical intertextualities to the ways in
which it hangs together from one second to the next” (Iedema, 2001, p. 186).
I sought to identify recurring and prominent themes by paying particular attention to scenes
that depicted interactions between Hindu males and Muslim males, Hindu males and lovers/
spouses, and Muslim males and female characters within the narrative. In addition, I focused on
the narrative strategies used in the constructions of heroes and villains, including their costumes

Arvind Rajagopal (2001) in fact suggests that because Hindu nationalism emerged at a time when the markets and
media in India were growing and developing at a rapid pace, the movement was able to use the “new visual regime” and
the presence of a more familiar religio-political idiom to mobilize consent and “simulate” it as well (p. 64).

and song lyrics that explicitly referred to the nation or to particular religious views. As elabo-
rated shortly, each of the six films of interest here involves a conflict or tension that is resolved
at the conclusion. This resolution was important in identifying themes focusing on nation, reli-
gion, and masculinity because certain values and ideas were affirmed, certain characters died
while others survived, and clear victors and vanquished emerged. The use of discourse analysis
and social semiotic analysis therefore allowed the identification of specific themes and connec-
tions to the predominant character representations.
The six films examined in this study were released between 1990 and 2003 and fall into the
genre of “social drama,” defined by M. K. Gokulsing and W. Dissanayake (1998) as films that
explore social problems and issues. An important criterion for the selection of the films was
commercial success: each was successful at the box office. The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema,
compiled by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen (1994), was studied to identify main-
stream Hindi films released in the two decades of interest here.7 Short descriptions of films in
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the Encyclopedia discussed whether a film treated religion, community or nation in significant
ways, and six such films were selected. A brief description of each of the films, which elucidates
their choice for the purpose of this research, follows this paragraph. Notably, all of the films
emphasize either militancy in the Kashmir region (an area of long-time conflict since the 1940s),
partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, or communal tensions in the wake of the mass
mobilization organized by Hindu nationalist parties, as a conflict within their narratives.
Roja. Militancy in Kashmir forms the central conflict within this 1992 film. City-bred cryp-
tologist Rishi Kumar is commissioned by the intelligence wing of the Indian defense department
to read and decipher “crypto-coded” messages in Kashmir, but after a few days there he is
abducted by Kashmiri militants, led by Liaqat.
Bombay. This 1995 film’s narrative centrally focuses on communal tensions within contem-
porary India, with the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 as a backdrop. The principal pro-
tagonist of the film, Shekhar Mishra, is a journalist working in Bombay who falls in love with
and marries Shaila Bano. The idea of a match between the Hindu Shekhar and Muslim Shaila
incenses both their fathers. Having cut ties with their families, Shekhar and Shaila lead a happy
married life in Bombay and have twin boys. Soon, however, communal clashes break out in
the city.
Sarfarosh/The Patriot. Framing Pakistan as intent on creating situations of instability within
India, this 1999 film emphasizes that the “nation is in trouble.” In the film, crime is presented as
a threat to the nation’s fabric, which is portrayed as forged together by patriots. Ajay Singh
Rathore, one such patriot, is the assistant commissioner of police and works to break up the
nexus between Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, a Pakistani singer residing in India, and
anti-social elements in India. The film includes the Muslim officer Salim, whose loyalties are
questioned because of his religious identity.
Mission Kashmir. Militancy in Kashmir is again the focus, but in this 2000 film the central
protagonists are Kashmiris. Altaaf is a boy when he witnesses the massacre of his parents at the
hands of a masked policeman. The masked man is Inayat Khan, who had suffered personal tragedy

The Encyclopedia (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1994) does not list all the films that were released in a particular
year, but it does list all the films the authors believe were “important” with respect to their commercial value, their artistic
innovation, and the trends and discourses prevalent in India from the production of the first feature film in 1912.

as well when his son died as a consequence of neglect. Inayat Khan brings Altaaf home and
attempts to raise him. When Altaaf realizes that his adopted father killed his parents, he shoots
Inayat Khan and runs, eventually joining a terrorist group. The film’s central focus is Altaaf’s
and Kashmir’s lost innocence.
Gadar/Revolution. Set in 1947, when the British withdrew from the Indian subcontinent and
it was partitioned into India and Pakistan, this 2001 film depicts the love story of Tara Singh, a
lower-class Sikh man, and Sakina, a rich Muslim woman. The film presents Islam as an ideology
and “Muslim identity” as a central problem. Does a Muslim belong to India or Pakistan? Does
one’s religious identity conflict with one’s national identity? These questions frame the film’s
core tensions.
Pinjar/The Cage. This 2003 film also is set when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned.
The protagonist is a young Hindu woman, Puro, who leads an idyllic life in Punjab with her
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family. Puro is engaged to be married to Ramchand but she is kidnapped by Rashid, a Muslim,
who is attracted to her and who is forced into committing the act by his family. Rashid is repen-
tant and tells Puro that he wants to do what is right by her. He marries her, but Puro can never
forgive him for what he has done. Puro’s plight constructs the tension that lies at the center of
the film.


Popular films produced during the time the Hindu nationalist movement was politically ascen-
dant reveal the link among religion, masculinity, and the nation but also draw a distinction
between Hindu and Muslim masculinities. While Hindu masculinity — linked to duty and ser-
vice to the nation — stands legitimated, Muslim masculinity — linked to Islam seen as ideology
not faith — stands delegitimated. Thus, an examination of popular Indian film not only reveals
the masculinity that underlines nationalist discourse but also points to the specific form that this
masculinity must take for it to be seen as nationalist and therefore legitimate. As such, it reveals
the specific contours of the public that are made legitimate by popular cinema during this time
— Hindu, male and unswervingly nationalist.
The following sections focus on the distinctive themes concerning nation and nationalism,
religion, and masculinity that emerged from a discursive and social semiotic reading of the six
films of interest here. The representational patterns that emerge from such an analysis point to
the hegemonic discursive construction of Hindu nationalism during later twentieth and early
twenty-first century India.

“Renunciate Celibacy” The Hindu Male’s Aggressive Renunciation of Home and Family
for the Cause of the Nation

This section focuses on the renunciation of home and family for the cause of the nation by the
central Hindu male characters in the six films. This renunciation is significant for the plot of the
films, particularly because the nation is seen to be in peril. A distinct sequence is introduced by
the narratives of some of the films: The films first define the danger that is faced by the nation.
Their narratives suggest that Islam as ideology (not as faith) directs the believer’s actions and
is the peril that the nation and its patriots must confront; the nation comes to be defined as a

distinct space that is troubled by difference. To confront this danger, the narratives also depict
the Hindu male character renouncing his home and family for the cause of the nation.
The relationship between masculinity and service to the nation can be traced to Hindu
reformers like Dayanand Saraswati and Vivekananda in the nineteenth century, who inspired a
number of nationalist organizations within the Indian independence movement against British
colonial rule. Dayanand Saraswati linked the nation to Vedic Hinduism, arguing that Hindus
should recognize the grandeur of their own faith before looking to Christianity and Islam, and
suggesting that men should “devote their body and soul to the well-being of the country” (in Hay,
1998, p. 62). Within this context, Saraswati had a distinct definition for “manliness”:
Only he is entitled to be called a “man” who thinks and looks upon the happiness and unhappiness,
loss and profit of other men as his own, who is not afraid of a strong man if he is unjust, and fears a
virtuous man even though he is weak [. . .] [H]e should spare no pains to make the vicious weak and
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the virtuous strong [. . .] [T]o achieve this end, he should bear all sufferings and even sacrifice his
life but he should not quit his duty. (p. 62)

Similarly, Vivekananda extolled his followers to chant:

The Indian is my brother, the Indian is my life, India’s gods and goddesses are my God, India’s
society is the cradle of my infancy, the pleasure-garden of my youth, the sacred heaven [. . .] Say
brother, “The soil of India is my highest heaven, the good of India is my good,” repeat and pray day
and night: “O Thou Lord of Gauri, O thou Mother of the Universe, vouchsafe manliness unto me! O
Thou Mother of Strength, take away my weakness, take away my unmanliness, and – Make me a
Man!” (in Hay, 1998, p. 82)

The nationalist, in this form of discourse, is identified through a specific religious identity and
his machismo is distinctly linked to “duty” and service to the nation.
With roots in the works and writings of Saraswati, Vivekananda, and V.D. Savarkar (the
ideologue of the Hindu nationalist movement), the Hindu nationalist movement of the late twen-
tieth century has placed the mythic king Rama at the center of its discursive process. The Hindu
nationalist movement’s Rama looks and behaves like Vivekananda and Dayanand Saraswati’s
“Man.” Anuradha Kapur (1993), for example, argues that the iconography associated with Rama
has undergone a dramatic shift since the 1980s, having been transformed from a “tranquil, tender,
and serene god to an angry, punishing one” (p. 75). This shift in iconography is emblematic of
the aggressive, virile masculinity associated with Hindu nationalism. Kajri Jain’s (2001) work is
similarly concerned with the muscular, aggressive figure of Rama of Hindu nationalism, but she
links this figure to Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan’s so-called “angry young man persona”
in films produced during the 1970s and 1980s. I posit, though, that the genealogy of this iconog-
raphy is older, particularly if one reads the figure, as Anuradha Kapur does, not just as muscular
and aggressive but also as a celibate. Dayanand Saraswati, Vivekanand, and V. D. Savarkar
were believed to have renounced the corporeal pleasures of a home, a female partner and family
in search of a “higher truth” and duty. The notion of renunciation is significant here because as
Caroline Osella, Fillipo Osella, and Radhika Chopra (2004) note, this form of masculinity is
seen as potent because “it holds the promise of resolution and gain – a return to strength and an
augmentation of power” (p. 4). The nineteenth century masculinist view of nation and nationalism
thus reverberates in popular cinematic representations of the present. Vivekananda’s “Man”
who sees his own good in the nation’s good, and Dayanand Saraswati’s definition of manliness

that includes the ability to sacrifice one’s own life without a moment’s hesitation for the nation’s
good, are embodied by the iconic figure of Rama, the centerpiece of the Hindu nationalist move-
ment, and by the Hindu male character in the popular films of this period. The Hindu male char-
acter is set apart by first defining Islam as a dangerous ideology.
In Roja, for instance, Islam is first depicted as the ideology that drives Muslims in Kashmir to
use violent, destructive means to carve out a separate homeland for themselves. This ideology is
depicted as so dangerously potent that it clouds the individual’s innate humanism. For instance,
when the Hindu male protagonist Rishi asks the Muslim Kashmiri extremist Liaqat if he would
kill his family on his leaders’ command, Liaqat answers in the affirmative and states that Kashmir
is above family. In Mission Kashmir, which like Roja sets its narrative in contemporary Kashmir
and attempts to address militancy in that state, Islam as ideology is depicted as fomenting vio-
lence. Unlike the extremist Liaqat in Roja, who is depicted as a devout Muslim, Hilal Kohistani,
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the leader of the militant group in this film, is not portrayed as a practicing Muslim; he is, how-
ever, depicted as using Islam to indoctrinate young men like Altaaf into the militant group.
When Altaaf shows any misgivings about the violent tasks at hand, Hilal reminds him that he is
fighting a holy war for his religion. When Altaaf looks depressed and perturbed about exploiting
his girlfriend in order to bomb a television tower, Hilal tells him that jihadis befriend only men
and that jihadis know no relationships that obstruct their tasks. Islam, defined as ideology, is
thus distinctly framed as the danger that faces the nation within these narratives. The nation in
peril demands the ultimate sacrifice from its citizens and the Hindu male protagonist always
emerges as the supreme patriot; he renounces home and family for the cause of the nation.
It is imperative to note here that this renunciation is conceived as neither escapist nor as a
form of emasculation within Hindu nationalist discourse; rather, it is constructed as active,
aggressive, and potent. Celibacy, in fact, is seen as the “preferred state for possessing concen-
trated masculine vigor” (Osella, Osella, & Chopra, 2004, p. 7).
The narratives of Roja and Sarfarosh vividly depict this form of renunciation. For Rishi, the
central Hindu male character in Roja, and his counterpart in Sarfarosh, Ajay, the home and family
are significant elements of their individual lives. The audiences of both films first “see” Rishi
and Ajay with their families — Ajay as he plays with his nephew, while running an errand for
his mother, then interacting with his crippled father and widowed sister-in-law, Rishi with his
mother as he drives from the city to a village to meet his prospective bride. The narratives of
both films thus introduce the Hindu male to their audiences as “family men,” with a loving
home. At a later stage within the narrative, Ajay and Rishi are transformed into dedicated, duty-
bound patriots who are willing to suffer physical harm and endure hardships for the cause of the
nation. Ajay disregards his wailing mother and his anxious girlfriend as he stoically packs his
bags for a dangerous mission. Rishi similarly is quite willing to leave his new bride behind as he
heads to Kashmir to decode messages intercepted by Indian intelligence and complete his duty.
It is only at the insistence of his mother that he consents to Roja (his wife) traveling with him to
Kashmir. Roja and Rishi consummate their marriage in Kashmir, which is immediately followed
by Rishi’s kidnapping. Thus, while Ajay chooses to momentarily renounce home and family in
order to prioritize his “duty,” through the kidnapping, Rishi is placed in a situation where he
must renounce family for the cause of the nation.
Both forms of renunciation are aggressive and without a moment of self-doubt. Rishi puts
himself in grave danger by attempting an escape so that the militants would not succeed in their
plans of forcing an exchange, that is, hand him over to the government in return for the release

of one of their leaders from prison. This form of renunciate celibacy, which prioritizes duty and
the nation over the corporeal pleasures of the home, and is required of the Hindu male as a con-
sequence of Islam as ideology placing the nation under peril, provides immense potency to the
Hindu’s masculinity. This is particularly true because it carries with it the promise and anticipa-
tion of a return and a reunion with the wife and the lover as well as with the family. Moreover,
this form of heroic celibacy is reminiscent of the later icons of the Hindu god Rama that were
examined by Anuradha Kapur. Much like the later icons, both Ajay and Rishi are depicted as
virile, strong warriors who face the vagaries that assail them and the nation alone, as celibates.
The Muslim male — Liaqat in Roja and Salim in Sarfarosh — also practices a form of celibacy.
However, the Muslim male’s celibacy cannot be read as similar to that practiced by the Hindu male
character because the films’ narratives do not place either Liaqat or Salim in a position where they
must renounce what is dear to them for the cause of the nation. The audience of Sarfarosh knows
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Salim only as an officer in the police department; his home, family, spouse, or lover remain invisi-
ble and absent. Even though Roja’s Liaqat has a sister and brother, he does not renounce his family
for the nation; rather he presses his siblings into tasks that are deemed anti-national by the film’s
discourse. Neither Liaqat’s nor Salim’s celibacy can be constructed as heroic because in the absence
of a distinct home, it does not carry with it an element of renunciation nor does it hold the promise
of a return. The presence of the home is also significant because, as I will argue next, it allows the
film’s narrative to link the Hindu male’s biography with the nation’s narrative. Hindu masculinity is
thus constructed as heroic while Muslim masculinity stands delegitimated.

Linking the Hindu Male’s Biography with the Nation’s Narrative

Through this section I focus on the link that is established in some of the films of interest here
between the nation’s narrative and the central Hindu male protagonist’s biography. The narratives of
all six films are concerned with the resolution of a conflict. Significantly, this conflict plagues both
the nation as well as the central Hindu male characters in several of these films. The linkage between
the nation and the Hindu male character serves to define both the Hindu male and the nation in par-
ticular ways. Personified as an individual with a distinct religious and gendered identity, the nation is
transformed into a subject: a masculine subject with a particular religious identity who progresses in
a teleological fashion through time. Through the linkage, the Hindu male, with his masculinity and
religious identity defined in a particular way, emerges hegemonic. Sarfarosh, Bombay, and Roja
provide examples of this linkage between an individual’s biography and the nation.
In Sarfarosh, Ajay Singh faces personal tragedy when his father is crippled and his brother
killed by “terrorists.” His life is transformed from that moment and he works toward joining the
police force so he can bring criminals such as those who brought tragedy to his home to justice.
In Roja, Rishi is actually kidnapped by militants and while working toward freeing himself,
attempts to reform the militants who captured him. Shekhar Mishra in Bombay is similarly per-
sonally affected by the very forces that threaten the nation. The communal riots that break out in
the city lead to the deaths of his father and his father-in-law, and both his sons are lost in the
chaos that engulfs the city within the narrative of the film. The films thus link the Hindu male’s
biography with that of the nation. As the Hindu male character works toward a resolution of the
problems that affect him, the narrative of the film works towards a resolution of the conflict that
faces the nation. Linked in this manner to the Hindu male, the films depict the nation moving
teleologically from danger and peril to resolution, ostensible safety, and a return to strength.

The Hindu male is an active participant in this process or movement from conflict to reso-
lution; he explicitly links his home and himself to the nation. In one particular scene from
Sarfarosh (in an interaction between the central Hindu male character Ajay and the Muslim
police officer Salim), for instance, the link between the Hindu male’s biography and the
nation is achieved visually through his home. Verbally through the dialogue within the film,
Ajay provides the link when he states that his country is his home and that “he sees the faces
of the criminals who killed his brother in every individual who breaks the law”; visually, the
film constantly frames Ajay against the domesticity of his home. When he speaks, the camera
positions his home in the background, thus legitimizing his speech and linking his concerns to
those of the nation. Ajay’s father, sister-in-law and his home itself are made visible to the
audience while Salim’s home and family remain invisible. Salim thus stands delegitimized in
this exchange. His struggles, unlike those of Ajay’s, cannot be linked with those of the nation
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because, as I will argue next, his identity is linked to Islam while Ajay’s is linked to the
nation. Salim is instead constructed in this exchange as a man who has shirked his duty. In a
discourse that accords primacy to duty above all else, Salim’s masculinity is undermined and
Ajay emerges hegemonic.

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Hindu Patriot: The Nation and Religion’s Role in Defining
Male Identity

In this section, I dwell on the films’ focus on identity, particularly the manner in which some of
the films define the Muslim male character’s identity solely and distinctly in terms of religion,
even as the Hindu male character is characterized in terms of the nation. Framed in this manner,
the Muslim male stands delegitimated. This method also serves to construct the Muslim as the
“other,” particularly because the categories of “Hindu” and “Indian” are collapsed when con-
structing the character of the Hindu male. Thus, the Hindu male is legitimated because his iden-
tity is seen to be defined by his nationality. While the characters of Liaqat in Roja, Hilal
Kohistani in Mission Kashmir, Gulfam Hassan in Sarfarosh, and Ashraf Ali in Gadar are all
depicted as possessing shades of extreme cruelty and intolerance, the Hindu male characters in
Roja, Gadar,8 and Sarfarosh are all defined as patriots. Moreover, several of the films depict a
dichotomy between the “good” Muslim and the “bad” Muslim within the Muslim community, a
dichotomy that is not seen to frame any other community, religious or otherwise, depicted
within the films. Islam as ideology is seen to foster intolerance and extremism within the narra-
tives; the “good” Muslim is the one who resists this ideological pull and affirms the nation while
the “bad” Muslim prioritizes his religious identity over his nation.9

It is significant to note here that the central protagonist in Gadar is a Sikh man from the Punjab who is tragically
affected by the partition violence of 1947. The film’s narrative however, collapses the difference between the Sikh and
the Hindu, such that the protagonist is quite deliberately identified as a Hindu in the film and is made to stand in contra-
distinction to the Muslim. This representational strategy is in line with Hindu nationalist rhetoric that coalesces various
distinct groups into the unified category of the Hindu.
Mahmood Mamdani (2004) has discussed this frame in the context of post-9/11 representations of Muslims wherein
a distinction is drawn between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” rather than between “terrorists” and “civilians,” and
argues that such representations are ahistorical. Gyanendra Pandey (2001) also discusses this frame when examining the
histories and nationalist myths that have served as remembrances of the partition of the Indian subcontinent and its
accompanying violence.

My argument here is that when Islam is depicted as an ideology rather than a faith, and when
the Muslim male is consistently characterized in terms of his religion, even films that attempt to
narrativize social and political issues with some complexity continue to reinforce the discourse
of Hindu nationalism. Thus, even though Sarfarosh ostensibly attempts to depict the discrimina-
tion that a Muslim male often faces, its narrative continues to accord primacy to the Hindu male,
sometimes explicitly, as detailed in the exchange between Salim and Ajay described above (in the
previous section), and sometimes subtly through its visuals. In another exchange between Salim
and Ajay, for instance, which takes place in Salim’s office, Ajay urges Salim to work on their
current case in an unofficial capacity. Salim expresses his anger at having his loyalties ques-
tioned. The audience observes this exchange — meant ostensibly to depict the discrimination
that Salim (a representative of “good” Muslim males within this narrative) faces — through a
series of reverse angle shots, which frame Ajay and Salim in distinct ways. On the wall that
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forms the background behind Salim hangs a poster with an inscription from the Koran, while on
the wall that forms the background behind Ajay hangs a map of the city of Mumbai. In the
absence of any other information, either visual or verbal, that could serve to construct Salim’s
identity, it is his religion as exemplified by the inscription from the Koran and his visit to a
mosque at a later point in the film that serve to define him. In other words, Salim’s identity is
defined through his religion. He is a Muslim, but the film’s narrative is clear that he is a “good”
Muslim. In an exchange with a criminal, Salim tells the man who identifies himself as a “fellow
Muslim” that it is people like him who give the faith a “bad name.”
While a number of these films suggest that the Muslim community is divided into “good” and
“bad” elements, they also depict some Muslim males as being internally torn between the
“good” and the “bad.” The “good” is epitomized by such characteristics as love, affection, humor,
and most significantly by patriotism; the “bad” is characterized by fanaticism, extremism, and
actions that are seen as being disloyal to the nation. Altaaf in Mission Kashmir and Rashid in
Pinjar commit deeds that are cruel and dastardly. Altaaf inadvertently kills Inayat Khan’s wife
(Neelima), a woman who had wanted to raise him as her son, and also betrays and exploits his
childhood sweetheart; Rashid kidnaps Puro, forces her to marry him, converts her to Islam, and
rapes her, yet an attempt is made within the narrative to depict their innate humanism.
There is constant reference in Mission Kashmir to Altaaf’s lost childhood, harking back to
peaceful, uncomplicated times. Altaaf’s anguish at Neelima’s death is palpable as is his struggle
to come to terms with his family’s massacre. In the climax of the film, Altaaf stands between
Inayat Khan and Hilal Kohistani, as both attempt to convince him of their point of view. Inayat
Khan here personifies all that is good within Altaaf: he urges him to think about Kashmir, about
Neelima and about the nation. Hilal, on the other hand, epitomizes all that is evil in Altaaf: he
reminds him that he is fighting a holy war and that he is fighting for his religion. He also
reminds him of his parents’ death. Altaaf’s pain and the torment at this moment stems from
being torn between the two opposing elements.
Similarly, Pinjar makes a deliberate attempt to depict Rashid’s goodness. He is con-
stantly apologizing to Puro and attempts to make amends. When his fields are burnt and his
crop destroyed by Puro’s brother, Rashid does not utter a murmur of protest, accepting the
hardship as punishment for his sins. He places his own life at risk to help Puro’s sister-in-law
and at the conclusion of the film lets Puro go so she can be with her family. When Rashid
kidnaps Puro, he is seen as torn between his lust, his family’s indoctrination, and his innate

Pinjar and Mission Kashmir, like Sarfarosh, attempt to depict their Muslim protagonists in a
sympathetic light but continue to reinforce the dominant discourse of Hindu nationalism, which
would suggest that Islam is an ideology. The films suggest that a Muslim is placed in a situation
(by his religion) where he must make a choice: prioritize the ideological thrusts of Islam and
commit acts that are anti-national and cruel or prioritize his nation and affirm his patriotism. The
films thus reinforce Hindu nationalism’s argument that Islam is an ideology; the only mode that
the films use to depict complexity — political and social — is the categorization of Muslim
males within the binary of the “good” Muslim and the “bad” Muslim. The Hindu, on the other
hand, is never asked to make the same choice and this is precisely why the films work to repre-
sent, reinforce, and constitute the political discourse of Hindu nationalism.


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Hegemonic constructions of the nation commonly suggest homogeneity, often by implying, in

the words of Craig Calhoun (1993), “that certain similarities should count as the definition of the
political community” (p. 229). In particular, religion has often provided the grounds for the
articulation of such similarities and has facilitated and reinforced conceptions of the nation in
homogenous terms.10 Religion as a national identifier enables the rhetorical construction of the
nation as a homogenous community with a national biography of a cosmic drama.11
Religion linked in this manner to nationhood fosters conceptions of the nation that are analo-
gous to an individual’s identity. Craig Calhoun, for example, contends that modern nations are
viewed not so much as a collection of diverse persons but as a self-contained individual. This
“individual,” in turn, is often conceived in distinctly masculine terms.12 Even though nations
may be described as “mother,” their narratives emphasize “founding fathers” and males are
positioned in the role of protector and the focus of authority. Nira Yuval-Davis (1993) has
emphasized the control that a masculinized state and nation exercise over women who are simply
reduced to their reproductive organs and conceived as productive of the nation. Such control
policies, she argues, are crucial in maintaining and reinscribing majority and minority collectivities.
Joane Nagel (1998) specifically draws a link between masculinity and nationalism and argues
that “the culture and ideology of hegemonic masculinity go hand in hand with the culture and
ideology of hegemonic nationalism” (p. 249). The link between masculinity and nationalism
becomes significant in the Indian context when the nation as individual is defined in religious,
masculine terms (Hansen, 1999). Rupal Oza (2006), for instance, argues when discussing
neoliberalism in India that “while women face the brunt of control and surveillance, men and
masculinities also figure centrally in the imagining of the nation” (p. 9).

Ashis Nandy (1998) draws links between religion and nationalism by conceptualizing religion in two different
ways — religion as faith and religion as ideology. The former is “religion as a way of life,” a practice, or a “tradition that
is by definition nonmonolithic and operationally plural.” In contrast, religion as ideology functions “as a subnational,
national or cross-national identifier of populations contesting for or protecting non-religious, usually political or socio-
economic, interests” (p. 322).
Benedict Anderson (1991), in fact, has argued that nationalism is best understood by aligning it not with political
ideologies but with larger cultural systems such as religion.
Peter van der Veer (1994) has suggested that the nation is often “imagined as a brotherhood of men protecting their
womenfolk,” and that protection is equated with the “exertion of male authority to which women have to submit” (p. 85).

The form of nationalism that demands an internal homogeneity, such that national identity
must always supersede other individual identities, is evident in the manner in which the nation
is constructed in the six films discussed in this article. The nation is seen to be in danger and
divisive religious identities are seen as a cause of this danger; the narratives of the films
demand the suppression of religious identities in favor of a national identity. Interestingly, the
categories of “Hindu” and “Indian” are collapsed within these narratives, such that it is Islam
and the Muslim male that are consistently constructed as problems for the nation. The Muslim,
specifically the “bad” Muslim, in these films is depicted as a fanatic because he prioritizes his
religious identity over his national identity. Moreover, the Muslim is depicted as distinctly
different from the other characters. The difference between the Hindu and the Muslim is so
wide that it appears insurmountable unless the Muslim, like Sakina in Gadar, converts to Hinduism.
The films justify this wide gulf by framing Islam as an ideology. Islam, in these films, is no
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longer a faith, a way of life, a simple belief in a god; it is dogmatic, monolithic, and demands
Achin Vanaik (1997) notes that the project of Hindu nationalism involves “recourse to a
systematic distortion of history, to the dogmatization and territorialization of Hinduism —
centering Hinduism on specific texts, gods and goddesses, places of worship [. . .] that are
made pre-eminent and widely acknowledged as such” (pp. 39–40). Popular cultural repre-
sentations such as Gadar, Mission Kashmir and Roja point to the fact that Hindu nationalism’s
effectiveness lies in its ability to define Islam as an ideology, one that is pitted against the
Indian nation.
Through the three sections above I have attempted to point to the manner in which discourses
of nationalism, masculinity, and religion intersected during this particular historical conjuncture
in the Indian subcontinent to form hegemonic patterns that represented, reinforced, and consti-
tuted Hindu nationalism. I have argued that an examination of popular culture is significant to
the examination of political discourse. The films reveal the complex ways in which nineteenth
century discourse about masculinity, religion, and the nation combine with contemporary politi-
cal discourse to provide new iterations of legitimate and illegitimate masculinity. The narratives
of the films framed the home as central to a Hindu male’s masculinity and the renunciation of
this home and family for duty toward the nation provided his masculinity with great vigor.
Second, it is the Hindu male’s biography that is linked to that of the nation, which is in peril.
The narrative progresses toward a resolution of the conflict that plagues the nation through the
character of the Hindu male. Third, the identity of the Hindu male is defined by his patriotism
and his nationalism while that of the Muslim male is primarily defined by Islam. All six films
mobilize ways of seeing that reproduce and represent social differences as they construct the
Muslim male as the “other.” Despite the fact that some of these films ostensibly attempt to
grapple with real and contemporary social and political concerns with some sensitivity, they
continue to represent hegemonic discourses that accord primacy to the Hindu male over the
Muslim male.
Therefore, the appeal of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism may lie in the manner in which it
helps imagine a nation, one that claims an antiquity, a unified present, and an aggressive and
strong future. A Hindu public and Hindutva are co-constitutive, narratives that reinforce Hindu
nationalism circulating within popular spaces such as film constitute a Hindu public, and con-
comitantly a Hindu public constitutes the popular cultural stories that reinforce Hindu national-
ism. Hindutva combines in its rhetoric the celebrated middle class values of discipline, order and

hierarchy and swadeshi13 with a fervor for liberalization and globalization. Moreover, it defines
a distinct “other” — Pakistan, the fanatical mullah and the fervent Muslim — who is violent,
aggressive, and a threat to the nation, to simplify complex political and social situations and
present an easy resolution.
In 2002, vicious riots claimed the lives of several hundred people in the western Indian state
of Gujarat. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organization that is part of the Hindu nationalist
movement, brought the state to a standstill after a fire on a train. The bandh degenerated into
arson, slaughter, and a breakdown of law and order. At the end of the day, on February 28, more
than 100 people were killed in the city of Ahmedabad alone (Engineer, 2003). According to
Asghar Ali Engineer, some of the worst incidents took place in the area of Naroda Patia where
more than 80 persons, including women and children, were burnt alive and many women were
raped in public. While the Bharatiya Janata Party now sits in the opposition in New Delhi, hav-
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ing lost the elections to the lower house of parliament in 2004 and 2009, it continues to hold
power in several Indian states.14 Narendra Modi, BJP leader and chief minister of Gujarat, who
was at the helm when that state witnessed and participated in the brutal massacre and displacement
of thousands of Muslim residents of the state, was only recently hailed by industry and corporate
leaders of India as having prime ministerial potential.15 Therefore, even though the electoral for-
tunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party may wax and wane, the examination of Hindutva remains


I would like to thank Professors Linda Jean Kenix, Hazel Dicken-Garcia, Ajay Skaria, and Linus
Abraham for their mentorship at the University of Minnesota. I would also like to thank Professors
Ralina Joseph, David Domke, and Lisa Coutu at the University of Washington. My partner
Juned Shaikh makes it all possible.


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