Baaghi 2: Heroism ≠ Human Rights
Three and a half minutes into Baaghi 2, the hero of the film — an Army officer named Ranveer Pratap Singh — ties a terrorist to his jeep and parades him through a Kashmiri town.
Baaghi 2 is actually set in Goa. As far as its plot is concerned, there is absolutely no reason to have an opening sequence in Kashmir or to refer to the incident in which Major Nitin Gogoi tied a shawl maker named Farooq Ahmed Dar to his jeep. Gogoi patrolled villages in Budgam district with Dar as his ‘human shield’ against stone pelters. This happened in April 2017.
Principal photography for Baaghi 2 began in August 2017. Director and writer Ahmed Khan and his co-writers Abbas Hierapurwala and Niraj Kumar Mishra (yes, THREE people wrote Baaghi 2) decided that the best grand entry for the hero was with a human shield. When the film was being shot, actor Tiger Shroff decided it was a-ok to re-enact it. All the celebrities who are now praising the film couldn’t have missed this scene and when they tweet their appreciation of Baaghi 2, they’re applauding the decision to show a human rights’ violation as an act of bravery.
Remember this the next time someone says Bollywood is only interested in making money and doesn’t care about politics.
My mind is sort of exploding that Tiger Shroff's entry in Baaghi 2 hasn't led to some serious outrage. It's not that reviewers haven't mentioned it. Most have and they've made their disapproval clear, but they've all gone on to, well, review the rest of the film. Which is fair I suppose given it's a film and they've got to review it, but YOUGAIZ, THEY JUST SAID THAT USING A HUMAN SHIELD IS AWESOME.
It's doubly messed up because not only are we told that disrespecting the Indian flag is reason enough to violate human rights, there's also this minor detail that Baaghi 2 misinforms its audience when it claims the man used as a human shield was a terrorist. Whether or not one is a terrorist, they shouldn't be strapped to a jeep but the truth is, there is absolutely nothing to suggest Dar is a terrorist or even a stone pelter. He's a shawl maker who was going to cast his vote — it doesn't get more peaceful, democratic and unterroristy than that — when he caught Gogoi's attention. So here's Baaghi 2 not just defending the indefensible, but also twisting facts.
Cinema — particularly the commercial variety — is rarely just entertainment, no matter how fluffy and unreal it may seem. Its politics maybe subtly layered in the plot and dialogues, leaving space for writers and directors to say “That’s your interpretation”. Or it could be plain to see, like in the human shield moment of Baaghi 2 or the misogynist conservatism of Padmaavat. Especially in films that aim to be blockbusters, there are ideas being normalised through their storytelling — what patriotism means, the ideal woman, good, evil, masculinity etc. Filmmakers and writers may argue that they’re just putting up what is considered a formula for box office success. However, like the decision to celebrate a man being used as a human shield or show jauhar as a heroic action filmed in romanticised slow-mo, these choices articulate a certain politics and worldview. One could use the resources and talent at their disposal to package and sell any number of ideas to the public. Padmaavat could have shown how difficult it was for women to exercise agency in the patriarchal Rajput family, but instead it applauded a Buddhist Sri Lankan princess giving up all trace of her pre-marriage identity and wholly adopt a Rajput Hindu persona. Similarly, Baaghi 2 chose to valorise using a human shield and give the impression that all Kashmiris are terrorists. The fact that this vignette has no real bearing on the plot is what makes it important. It didn’t need to be there, but it is.
It’s not that Ahmed Khan doesn’t have the right to be #TeamGogoi. He does. So do producers Sajid Nadiadwala and Fox Star Studios. It's a free country so everyone has the right to be obnoxious. However, dear Bollywood, if this is where your politics lie, then don’t complain about lacking freedom of expression. You’re backing the same political conservatism that supports censorship, discrimination and thuggery. The people who think it’s ok to use a human shield are also the ones who think films need moral policing.
We like to imagine Bollywood, India’s most high-profile film industry, is progressive and capable of glamorous rebellion. With stories of outsiders making it big, directors ignoring pragmatism to pursue passion projects and inter-religious marriages, Bollywood has built a reputation for being open, creative and liberal. We do have a history of disruptive stories (the angry young man, love stories that privilege individual over family etc), but those days are long gone. Today’s film industry is deeply and desperately conservative. It has no intention of making space for alternative ideas, politics and aesthetics, which is why indie-spirited films struggle to find footholds and backers. This is an industry in which a leading woman producer would like to remind us that “it is always not true that the person who does not have power is the victim” and that actors “use their sexuality to get things done.” (Don’t hold your breath for a desi #MeToo is all I’m saying.) While Hollywood speaks out against Donald Trump and his policies, Bollywood makes films that are effectively publicity campaigns for the government.
And all the while we’re supposed to ignore the politics because you know, Bollywood is only interested in making money.
Here’s the thing: even if that were true, it wouldn’t be ok. To go around pandering to narrow-mindedness and fundamentalism just because you’re interested in profits does not deserve applause. In the process of being seen by audiences and making money, cinema influences people and this is a detail that informs too few of the films that make it to our screens. I wish Sanjay Leela Bhansali had knocked on door after door, looking for people to fund and act in his abominable Padmaavat. But no. The truth is that because this thoroughly mediocre director (with a history of overspending) has delivered hit films of late, everyone lined up to work with him. The truth is that one of the top actresses didn’t find it problematic to speak about women’s rights off camera while on camera, she played a heroine who told audiences that a wife is her husband’s possession. The truth is that an A-list actor found nothing wrong in contributing to a narrative that demonises the role of Muslims in Indian history and reducing a historical figure to a caricature of villainy. Why? Because they were all hoping it would make money, and it did.
Bollywood gets away with its hypocrisy and ill-informed politics because we don’t hold it to high standards. Film criticism is at best a bonsai in India. We don’t have institutions or organisations that consistently analyse Bollywood films for their biases, like Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and many others do with respect to Hollywood. We don’t study Bollywood and see its releases being broken down into statistics (like, who gets speaking parts, what kind of roles are written for minorities etc). The only numbers that matter are box office collections. While it’s worth knowing Baaghi 2 has had an excellent opening, that’s not a good reason to ignore its politics and messaging.
Bollywood has traditionally shirked the responsibility that comes with its commercialism and we don’t have a critical or academic establishment in India that examines it. For instance, instead of just dismissing it as one element in a generally bad film, we should be analysing the psychotic masculinity that Tiger Shroff embodies on screen. It’s amazing to me that reviewers didn't weigh in on what has been taken from Rocky and the changes between Baaghi 2 and its Telugu original, Kshanam. I’m not naïve enough to think film criticism can change the way people think or the kind of films that are produced, but I do believe criticism can jumpstart conversations; which in turn could nudge sections of society towards rethinking their attitudes.
If moviegoers are communal, conservative, narrow-minded cretins who are turning tripe into blockbusters, then at least some of the blame for this has to fall on the film industry for the kind of entertainment it has provided its audiences. After all, it’s not like they don't back the exceptions to Bollywood rules from time to time. Put a little money and resources behind the offbeat film, and we’ve seen it go the distance time and time again. Yet those successes don't end up making it easier for the next indie film and every dubious creative decision continues to be explained as something done for the audience. It’s about time at least critics and cinephiles interrogated that claim.