Sare Jahan Se Achha(?): Glorification of Nationalism and Nationhood in Cinematic Portrayals of NRI Youth

There are, among numerous other things, two very sensitive issues which are often the topic of heated debates in college canteens or train compartments or even local tea stalls and other such sites where exchanges of popular beliefs and passions, of the average Indian populace, take place. And these are: maa (mother), and cinema. Here ‘maa’ does not simply refer to the biological mother, but also the nation which is known as a ‘mother’ or motherland. And while the former subject of debate is hardly a debate per se, and is mostly comprised of the elocution of the choicest expletives against hostile/so called ‘enemy’ countries, the second is merely about divides over one’s favourite hero or heroine. It must therefore be said that curiously, for us Indians who boast of being one of the biggest democracies in the world, we mostly talk these matters, and in the latter case, merely of the hero or the heroine and seldom of the plots or the cinematic techniques, thus indulging in hero/heroine worship (here ‘us’ refers to the average Indian.) What we indulge in is hero worship which runs quite counter to the ideals of democracy. And that is why we have gigantic posters of our leaders (always with folded palms) in any electoral campaign. Indeed, it is queer, and almost alarming to see that the major preoccupations of today’s youth centre around two topics: cinema and maa – in its broader sense.

Film is perhaps the single strongest agency for the creation of a national mythology of heroism, consumerism, leisure, and sociality (Appadurai and Breckenridge 1-20). In light of this statement we can analyse how this national mythology is created. Whenever a myth about a nation is created the people of the nation are projected in a glorified way. Usually they are presented as brave, intelligent and basically good people who overcome all sorts of impediments with the help of courage, knowledge or presence of mind. Obviously there would be villains who create all sorts of problems for the hero/heroine, or people in general, but these villains are later destroyed or defeated. One can therefore say that epics are the main generators/originators of such Manichean myths and world order, and are the prime narratives from which later narratives have been derived. Films, for instance, is an art form whose narrative has been derived from these epics. Bollywood films, accordingly, borrow from myths and grand narratives of good vs evil espoused in Ramayana and Mahabharata, and are repeated over and over again in the films, albeit new treatments.

Indeed, and as Giambatista Vico and Northop Frye have pointed out, it is often said that all our literature is actually a retelling of our myths. Frye in his work The Archetypes of Literature refers to certain archetypes which are recurrent across all forms of literature and art. He refers to the motif/archetype of the quest. Similarly there is a motif of preservation of one’s clan/nation and its glorification. This motif or archetype can be seen in Ramayana where the abduction of Sita by Ravana is not only a matter of personal but also of national prestige issue. One would get exhausted after counting the number of times the name of clan/nation have been mentioned in a glorified manner in these epics. Bollywood films which reiterate the archetypes also do the same.

We will take up some films like Des Pardes (1978), Pardes (1997), Namaste London (2007) to prove our point. In these movies one or other aspects of our culture are sanctified and glorified. And that can be either the sanctity of marriage as in Namaste London, or the purity of women as in Pardes. In all these movies it is the youth who are the upholders of the idea, however the tradition is also followed by some modern interpretation of the same. The last case can be illustrated in the movie Salaam Namaste (2005) where the protagonists played by Priety Zinta and Saif Ali Khan is a live-in couple, and ultimately enter the sanctimonious institution of marriage in the climax of the film. To quote D. Bhoopaty:

Cinema is widely considered a microcosm of the social, political, economic, and cultural life of a nation. It is the contested site where meanings are negotiated, traditions made and remade, identities affirmed or rejected’ (Bhoopaty 507-517).

In some movies like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), directed by Anil Sharma, the issue of nationality is more explicitly dealt with where the character played by Sunny Deol, Tara Singh, asserts the supremacy of the Indian nationhood by fighting the whole army of Pakistan. Though Sunny Deol is not really a young person but his character shows that he is a newly-wedded husband. This image of the husband going to a foreign (hostile) place to rescue his wife from the captivity of the antagonist is to be found in Ramayana as well. Ram’s wife Sita was abducted by the demon Ravana and was taken to Lanka (geographically similar to Sri Lanka). Here the female protagonist played by Ameesha Patel (Sakeena) goes to meet her parents in Pakistan. Her father, who is an influential politician there, keeps her from coming to India by force. In the epic, Ram like, Sunny Deol, goes to the new Lanka to free his Sita, assisted by Hanuman, who in the movie is Vivek Shauq as Darmiyaan Singh. Like Ram he fights an entire army (of Pakistan and its police) to rescue the wife. He undertakes an arduous journey full of perils at every turn to reach his beloved. This journey motif is perhaps the most easily recognised and widely used motif of all archetypes. There are many stories in Greek mythology where the hero crosses the Hades to rescue his beloved. In this movie Sunny Deol crosses the border to rescue his wife.

Again, in Pardes (1997), directed by Shubhash Ghai, Ganga (Mahima Chaudhary) is a ‘gaon ki gori’ (village lass), who is educated and smart. She goes to America with her would-be husband Rajeev (Apurva Agnihotri), only to discover that he is a womaniser who tries to have a physical relationship with her. Ganga says that this is not the practice in India. In India couples have sex only after marriage. However Rajeev tries to rape Ganga and Arjun (Shahrukh Khan) saves her, upholding the sanctity of the Indian feminine body. Here the myth of the virginity of sanctimonious Indian women is glorified and reified. Again, Arjun is a mythical name in Mahabharata and so is Ganga. Importantly the family of Rajeev have established themselves in the foreign land by the dint of hard work and intelligence. They have conquered the foreign land and not only have they established their industries and physical presence but also their moral presence. One is made to understand that like Ganga many women abroad have carried their souls and morality along with themselves. They do not want to let the foreign land affect their sense of right and wrong.

This technique of the upholding of the Indian values becomes all the more important when they are threatened abroad. An Indian often realises that he/she is an Indian the moment he/she leaves the country. Indian values are glorified as a part of the struggle on the part of the Indian to maintain his/her identity which is threatened under the pervasive influence of the foreign culture. The valorisation of the ethics of Indianness is a defence mechanism of the psyche of the individual who is overwhelmed by everything alien. By asserting the values of the Indian culture, the individual assures his unique presence amidst the foreign environment. This could happen consciously or unconsciously. The people who want them to be assimilated in the foreign culture imitates the life style of the west consciously but deep down at the unconscious level he/she is resisting the same by some act that surprisingly takes him/her closer to his/her roots.

Such narratives of diasporic consciousness are not very uncommon. The very first Indian documentary, shot in 1902, focused on a certain Mr. R. P. Paranjpye, a former (young) scholar at Cambridge. Less than twenty years later, in 1921, Bilet Pherat directed by N. C. Laharry, dealt with loss of one’s roots and the corruption of Indian values after living abroad. But the expatriate Indian did not gain currency on the big screen until 1967 with An Evening in Paris directed by Shakti Samanta and Purab Aur Paschim directed by Manoj Kumar three years later (the terrain had been prepared by Sangam in 1965, which shows foreign locations and Indians moving freely around the world for leisure). This period corresponds to the coming of age of the first generation of Indian migrants in the United Kingdom, the adolescence of the second uprooted generation and the mass influx of educated Indians in the United States after the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. However, the overseas Indians are portrayed in both films as depraved persons or as outsiders whose very Indian identity is dubious. In An Evening in Paris, for example, there is no question of immigration as the hero Sam, played by Shashi Kapoor, is not Indian and is neither presented as a videshi (foreigner) nor as a pardesi (outsider). Even though Sam is visibly Indian, speaks Hindi fluently and strongly defends the honour of Indians when arguing with his friend Michel, he introduces himself as a Frenchman as if his place of residence were a determining factor for defining his nationality. This illustrates the way Indian nationality was viewed at that time: it was based above all on the law of the soil and circumscribed by national borders before mass migrations redefined the sense of national belonging.

The new generation of films made during the last fifteen years, however, reflects the insidious change from a jus soli to a jus sanguini conception of citizenship. The migrant, promoted to the rank of blood brother, has therefore ceased to be a symbol of the ‘Other’ and has become instead the prototype of the new Indian, globalized and modern, but always a nationalist at heart. The fact that he belongs to the nation is constantly underlined through the use of the possessive pronoun before the words ‘country’, ‘India’ or ‘Hindustan’ and, despite going through all types of ordeals, his ‘Indianness’ is always reaffirmed at the end of the film. For instance, the rich American of Indian origin played by Amrish Puri in Subhash Ghai’s Pardes sings “I Love My India” and recites “Karam Mera India, Dharam Mera India, Vatan Mera India, Sajan Mera India” (India is my destiny, India is my religion, India is my motherland, India is my beloved). As for the expatriates in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), they talk with great emotion of “apna desh” (my country), “meri hi mitti” (my soil), “hamare desh ki mitti” (our country’s soil).

Benedict Anderson perhaps means to convey the same meaning through his concept of the beauty of ‘Gemeinschaft’ (community), where one has the natural ties to one’s country and community. Indeed, far from being isolated cases, these examples are representative of the ethnic nationalist discourse developed in themes of diaspora in films made during the years 1990-2000. It reminds one of the slogan “Global Indian Family” devised by the Indian government for the first PBD. Punathambekar noted that:

In positioning and drawing the diaspora into the fold of a ‘great Indian family’, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham articulates everyday struggles over being Indian in the diaspora to a larger project of cultural citizenship that has emerged in relation to India’s tentative entry into a transnational economy and the centrality of the NRI (non-resident Indian) figure to India’s navigation of this space (Punathambekar 151-173).

The same holds true for other movies of that period for these Bollywood films project the NRI as the model Indian using very classical tropes of nationalist discourse and representations like anthems, flags, references to the motherland, etc. Two basic principles govern the visual, structural and textual organization of these NRI-centric films: ubiquity and synchronicity, the ability to match place and time. Popular Hindi cinema actually illustrates the idea of the nation elaborated by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture: it is above all a narrative and discursive strategy in which temporal and spatial representation holds a central place. He agrees on this issue with A. D. Smith and Benedict Anderson and remarks that, “The difference of space returns as the sameness of time, turning Territory into Tradition, turning the People into One” (Bhabha 159).

Following the same logic, recent Bollywood films focusing on the diaspora and heralding a set of conservative and essentialized Indian values, seek to do away with the distance separating the expatriates from India, rebuild an ‘ethnoscape’ and bring together the permanence of tradition and the time of modernity to create an ‘ethno-history’ (Smith 445-458) that will give the viewers a sense of national continuity and pride embodied by the NRI. Long tracking landscape shots and quickly alternating views from India and abroad testify to this desire to recreate a new geography. The first scene in DDLJ is a perfect illustration of this technique. As the viewer discovers Choudhury Baldev Singh (Amrish Puri), England and Punjab are juxtaposed (just as in the film’s narrative structure) through the frequent mention of ‘apna desh’, ‘apna Punjab’ (my country, my Punjab) as well as through back and forth cuts. ‘Punjab’, the final word in Choudhury Baldev Singh’s introductory monologue, signals the start of the narration while the camera moves from an easily identifiable Trafalgar Square to an equally emblematic although unidentified Punjabi mustard field with young shalwar kameez-clad girls running to the score of ‘Ghar Aaja Pardesi’ (Come back home, outsider).

The arrival of Rohan in London in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001) is another instance where ubiquity and palimpsest are effectively used as nationalist rhetoric devices. When the young man arrives in the British capital, wide-angle shots of London’s celebrated monuments (Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the London Eye) taken from a helicopter precede a panoramic view of the city followed by a succession of quick shots showing signs of the London Underground and the big department stores playing on the effect of consumerist accumulation – as in Purab Aur Paschim. But, while the viewer is discovering London, “Vande Mataram”, India’s national song, can be heard in the background as young girls walk down the streets in shalwar kameez with orange and green dupattas to recreate the tiranga, the national tri-colour (while a group of white girls perform a few Bharatnatyam moves). At the end of the sequence, the scenes of London make way for indoor shots. The viewer sees the back of a woman walking through a house holding a worship platter in her hands. She bows down before a very large portrait of her parents-in-law, then turns to face the camera as the scene closes on the notes of the patriotic song “Saare Jahan Se Accha”. Anjali, as a woman, represents India (besides, she is the only character who wears traditional clothes) and ensures a religious, symbolic and geographical continuity while holding together the family living abroad. The akhand bharatiya parivar (undivided Indian family) also symbolizes a new version of akhand Bharat (undivided India, as dreamt by nationalists), the stability and perpetual unity of Hindu and North-dominated India even outside the national territory. Films like Kal Ho Naa Ho, directed by Karan Johar and released in 2003 go even further in exploiting geography for nationalist ends. As Namrata Joshi observes in the magazine Outlook: “Karan may have got the geography of New York all wrong, but, quite interestingly, manages to portray it like an Indian city, a place where Gujjus and Punjabis can melt”. In fact, the boisterous old grand-mom in the movie considers Punjab a part of New York. NRIs in KHNH don’t carry the baggage of roots. They need not keep coming back to India. They can die in America and still remain Indian. Religious hymns and national anthems, like in the Jana Gana Mana scene in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, further emphasize the conflation of spaces and strengthen, when performed on screen and inside cinema halls across the world, a sense of belonging to the Indian national fold. Indeed, there is a special kind of contemporaneous community which language alone suggests – above all in the form of poetry and songs (again it is these devices that are to be found in ample amount in the epics). Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody.

What is interesting to note is that in all these examples what we see is that the chief characters are young people and are the most in number. They pre-dominate the major scenes and themes of the movie and become the medium through which the major ideas and messages are conveyed to the audience. One may argue that this is because aesthetically and romantically, having young protagonists is more feasible and acceptable. But whatever may be the reason the chief characters in the movies are almost always young (or look young). Accordingly, one can conclude that the values of Indianess is glorified through the portrayal of the young Indian who conquers the world and comes back in time either for the ‘Raksha bandhan’, ‘Holi’, ‘Diwali’ or ‘Karwa Chauth’.



Appadurai, Arjun, and Carol A. Breckenridge. “Public Modernity in India.” Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in Contemporary India. Ed. Carol A. Breckenridge. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996. 1-20. Print.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Bhoopaty, D. “Cinema and Politics in India”. Political Communication: The Indian Experience. Ed. Kiran Prasad. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation, 2003. 507-17. Print.
Punathambekar, Aswin. (2005) “Bollywood in the Indian-American diaspora: Mediating a Transitive Logic of Cultural Citizenship.” International Journal of Cultural Studies. 8 (2005): 151-73. Print.
Smith, Anthony D. (1996) “Culture, Community and Territory: the Politics of Ethnicity and Nationalism.” International Affairs. 72 (1996): 445-58. Print.


Pritesh Chakarborty is a PhD student at West Bengal State University, and an Assistant Teacher in Tribeni Thermal Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy Vidyalaya (High School). He did his M.Phil on comic books from Calcutta University. He may be contacted at

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