Statement by Sikata Banerjee
This video essay analyzes two popular and critically acclaimed films, Chak de! India (2007) and Dangal (2016), hailed as “feminist,” through the theoretical lens of a gendered vision of nation, which I term muscular nationalism. Although both movies are projected as journeys of female empowerment, two men, Kabir Khan and Mahavir Singh Phogat, are the true protagonists. In the former, the Indian field hockey team coached by Khan, and in the latter, wrestlers, Geeta and Babita trained by Phogat, win international glory for India through their grit and strength. The men are the real winners and the films celebrate their success and redemption.
This study is informed by McClintock’s (1993) argument that popular film is an important vehicle for the circulation and recreation of dominant visions of nation. Further, scholarship (Nandy 2006 & Virdi 2003) has eloquently argued that Hindi language popular film (or Bollywood as it is sometimes known) in India is a wide-reaching medium for the dissemination of dominant nationalism. At this cultural juncture, a particular nationalist triumphalism, coinciding with globalization and often unabashedly Hindu, has shaped the circulation and consumption of a muscular view of India (Banerjee 2016). Nationalism is a gendered affair in popular film. This submission is a comparative exposition of how the films’ narratives accommodate athletic female bodies within muscular nationalism.
For the past several years my analytical inquiry has been guided by a theoretical concept, muscular nationalism, which focuses on the intersection of masculinity and nation. Muscular nationalism is animated by an idea of manhood associated with martial prowess, muscular strength, and toughness. My research on the fusion of masculinity, nationalism, and Hinduism informed by extensive field work in India led to the development of this concept. My book (Banerjee 2012) presented a multi-faceted analysis of muscular nationalism while a more recent work (Banerjee 2016) examined the dissemination of this concept through popular film. After the completion of this project, I began my collaboration with Niall and Rachel who had experience in creating video essays and it seemed to me this was a compelling medium in which to explore the location of women’s bodies in this view of nation.
These women’s sports movies are consistent with muscular nationalism. An important normative and physical signifier of this interpretation of manhood is victorious athleticism (Anderson 2005 & Burstyn 1999). For example, in the United States, the Super Bowl opening ceremony is a celebration of masculinity, nationalism, and martial prowess. India’s present nationalist triumphalism is frequently expressed by male bodies and masculinity.
The central problem this essay addresses is the position of women and femininity in muscular nationalism. Research (Banerjee 2012 & Enloe 1990) has shown that, normally in this vision of nation, women are passive, chaste objects expressing national moral honor, protected by masculine warriors. However, this study focuses on the manner in which popular culture envisions women who take on the active task of projecting national strength and glory. These female bodies don’t necessarily masculinize themselves but certainly deemphasize markers of femininity: sexual desire and long hair. Further, as the two films reveal, this feminization of national strength must be nurtured by masculine guidance and draws meaning from the redemption of masculine failure.
In Chak De! India, a Muslim man, accused of betraying the Indian national team, must show his allegiance to (Hindu) India by erasing any marker of his faith and representing a hyper-patriotism through coaching the Indian women’s field hockey team. Given the rise of Hindu nationalism, the depiction of Kabir Khan (portrayed by Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim actor) as coach is especially poignant as is another great Muslim actor, Aamir Khan, playing the father-cum-coach in Dangal. Bollywood films have struggled to accommodate the Muslim body in their narratives. A common story telling device is the “good” Muslim –“bad” Muslim binary. Kabir Khan is a “good” Muslim. Handsome, well-spoken, he bears no markers on his body proclaiming his religion, nor is he depicted praying in a mosque or participating in namaaz. He is happy to declare his steadfast patriotism by saluting the Indian flag and coaching the team to redeem his honor by bringing glory to his nation. He opposes the “bad” Muslim portrayed by menacing terrorists who wield their religion as a weapon (Rai 2003). Yet Chak De! maintains a sexual firewall between Kabir (Shahrukh) Khan’s Muslim body and the senior players, Vidya and Bindia, despite their attraction to him. The focus stays on his proving his patriotism by disciplining his players.
In conclusion, this videographic essay argues that female bodies are suspect if they independently reach towards an expression of muscular, national strength and thus need to be guided, perhaps policed, by masculine energy. Put another way, this centering of the masculine, in a story of women’s empowerment, can be seen as a social strategy of accommodating women and femininity in a story of a nation that is unapologetically masculinized.
Anderson, Eric. 2005. In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Banerjee, Sikata. 2016. Gender, Nation, and Popular Film in India: Globalizing Muscular Nationalism. Routledge: London.
Banerjee, Sikata. 2012. Muscular Nationalism: Gender, Nation, and Empire in India and Ireland. New York: NYU Press.
Burstyn, Varda. 1999. The Rites of Man: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Enloe, Cynthia. 1990. Bananas, Beaches, Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
McClintock, Anne. 1993. “Family feuds: Gender, Nationalism and the Family.” Feminist Review 44: 61-80.
Nandy, Ashis. 2006. “Introduction: Popular Cinema and the Culture of Indian Politics.” In Fingerprinting Popular Culture: The Mythic and the Iconic in Indian Cinema, edited by Vinal Lal and Ashis Nandy, i-xxvii. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Rai, Amit. 2003. “Patriotism and the Muslim Citizen in Hindi Films.” Harvard Asia Quarterly. Summer: 4-15.
Virdi, Jyotika. 2003. The Cinematic Imagination. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Sikata Banerjee is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada. Her work focuses on gender and nationalism in India. She is the author of Warriors in Politics: Hinduism, Nationalism, Violence, and the Shiv Sena in India (Westview 2000); Make Me a Man! Masculinity, Hinduism, and Nationalism in India (SUNY 2005); Muscular Nationalism: Gender, Violence, and Empire in Ireland (NYU 2012); and Globalizing Muscular Nationalism: Gender, Nation and Popular Film in India (Routledge 2016).
Rachel Malia Newkirk graduated with degrees in Sociology and Film Studies from Fairhaven College, Western Washington University (WWU). Her video essays and films can be found on Vimeo and YouTube. Rachel works as a Social Media and Marketing Specialist and Editor for film festivals around the country.
Niall Ó Murchú is professor of global studies and political economy at Fairhaven College, Western Washington University (WWU). He has published articles in political science, sociology, and applied philosophy in Comparative Politics, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Irish Political Studies, International Journal of the Sociology of the Family, and The Journal of Human Development and Capabilities. His video essay “A Place in the Nation” was published in [In]Transition (5.2). His current research projects focus on film and nationalism in Ireland, Korea and Palestine.