Note: This article might have spoilers.
A Rohit Shetty film that has as many dying Muslims as flying cars, Sooryavanshi is yet another film with incredibly righteous policemen with anger issues and physics-defying stunt capabilities.
Yet again, police violence and vigilante tactics are played for laughs and hoots. Though they have always seemed at least tone-deaf, Sooryavanshi also turns to become an apologist– The film is rife with gleeful and made-to-look funny scenes of police brutality.
It identifies yet another common target, provides a simplistic solution, and celebrate the cops doing the killings. So many killings that it just becomes repetitive after a point.
Sooryavanshi is an act of fiction, framed in the aftermath of some events of the past. What it still does is very dangerously blur the lines. While trying to remain within the realms of fiction, it very subtly insinuates things that suit a pre-existing and pretty real narrative and it shows.
In one scene, very casually, it just happens to have mentioned how the abrogation of Article 370 has made cross-border infiltrations impossible. In another scene, it justifies how artists from Pakistan like Fawad Khan and Atif Aslam have had to leave India due to the actions of their countrymen, without any mention of what exactly made them leave.
The issue here is when a piece of fiction conveniently suits a narrative, true or not, that is constantly being built around us. Sooryavanshi conveniently pushes that narrative.
It at times tries to provide us with a more balanced outlook that turns out to be superficial. But it successfully and relentlessly plants seeds of suspicion against a particular community.
One may not call it propaganda but the least it is, is indoctrination.
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Sooryavanshi has turned out to be yet another polarised view of a minority living in the of a majority. Minorities are often relegated to a dichotomy of good or bad, wherein they must prove their loyalty to the nation over religious affiliation to access the right of citizenship and belonging to the Indian state.
The film tries to put on a balancing act at times but fails to do so. Like it tries to go into maddening complexities of conflicts, though only lip service, by informing us that the villain’s son was killed by the Indian Army. It fails to do so and gives us an extremely superficial outlook and unfortunately, many times does fall into the good Muslim- bad Muslim trope.
“Iss desh mein jitni nafrat Kasab ke liye hai, utni izzat Kalam ke liye (As much as India hates Kasab, it respects Kalam)”, says Akshay Kumar’s character while confronting one of the antagonists.
It reduces an entire community to two binary sides– Muslim can either be Kasab or Kalam and there’s nothing in between. They are dehumanised to the extent that their identity is reduced to what they can do for and against the nation.
If it doesn’t seem to be a problem to you, ask yourself: How often do we see such contrasting representations of a majority community in movies?
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Other than putting a community to fit a black and white narrative and completely ignoring the grey, it paints a picture clear as day of what the black and white is supposed to look like.
In one scene, the “Good Muslim” is the lead’s former colleague Naeem Khan, a now-retired policeman with over three decades of service. He happens to just have come back from Ajmer Sharif, which works upon a stereotype and puts an angle on what a good Muslim is.
In contrast to the clean-shaven former policeman with zero religious markers in Naeem Khan, is the “Bad Muslim”, Kader Usmani. Usmani is shown as the stereotypical topi-wearing Muslim cleric – with a long beard, upper lip shaven, with a prayer mark on his forehead.
The only Muslims shown offering prayers are the terrorists, the only ones engaging in religious acts are the terrorists. On the other hand, the only occasions where stereotypically appropriate Muslims are shown to be good is when they’re helping the police, or, in another scene, when they’re helping Hindus.
As if, they are the only ways a visibly Muslim person looking person becomes non-threatening.
Moreover, in the film, Kader Usmani, one of the villains, is shown to be a Marathi Muslim, living in the middle of Maharashtra, yet one who fluently speaks the North Indian dialect of Urdu. Every antagonist in the movie, all of whom are Muslim, no matter where they’re from, speaks fluent Urdu.
In a time of Jashn-e-Rivaaj, one need not wonder where the association of a centuries-old Indian language to a particular religion or a certain type of people comes from.
If all these insinuated religious associations weren’t enough, the film makes sure no doubts are left. With the terrorists being thrashed with Hindu shlokas playing in the background.
Sooryavanshi focuses a great deal on themes like “the enemy within”, “sleeper cells that could be anyone around you”. The enemy could be anyone around you and that enemy is a hundred per cent Muslim, according to the film.
If Sooryavanshi is taken at face value, many would begin distrusting Indian Muslims who wear religious markers, pray regularly, have religious markers at home or those who speak up against oppression– because a “good” Muslim would blindly go about their work for thirty years without speaking up or speaking out, as the film bluntly suggests.
It carelessly flukes its responsibility and plants a seed of mistrust at a time when what may be needed is quite the opposite.
Sooryavanshi, though slightly better balanced, is no different than what we have seen before in terms of representation. It tries to tread its path to success by riding on a certain prevalent sentiment, reinforcing irrational fears and beliefs.
In the climax, the 1960 song ‘Hum Hindustani’ is played to go with scenes that portray religious harmony. In a place where literal “kal ki baatein” could mean the least of decades of discrimination, how could one just “chhodo” (leave) it? You may desperately want to warm up to the sentiment but is it possible? The film that itself paints a grim and polarising picture of some fourteen per cent of Hindustanis keeps asking one to forget.
In that regard, the film itself might have to be a “kal ki baat”.
Note: The author is part of the Sept-Nov’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.