APPARENTLY it was a phone call from the esteemed director Mahesh Bhatt’s German mother-in-law that clinched the issue for Indian actor Anupam Kher and prompted him to turn down the title role in Dear Friend Hitler, a projected Bollywood take on the Nazi dictator. According to a report in The Times of India, she told him: “It’s not just the Jews who suffered because of Hitler. The Germans, too, suffered … Please don’t do anything to further the name of that blot from history.”
Then there was Sister Dolores, who works with autistic children alongside Kher. “These two women decided the issue for me,” says the versatile actor, who had earlier described his casting as a challenge. First-time director Rakesh Ranjan Kumar is said to have picked Kher because of his resemblance to Adolf Hitler – which is surely a bit of a stretch. But then, so is the idea of a Hindi-spouting German tyrant.
Portrayals of Adolf Hitler on the big screen are, of course, hardly a novelty. And they are seldom particularly controversial. A few years ago, the German film Downfall did excite comment for its purported attempt to humanize a mass murderer, but the criticism was largely misguided. The movie depicts Hitler’s last days in his elaborate Berlin bunker and suggests that he was to the very end a thoroughly deluded human being.
But a human being all the same. That clashes with the popular idea of him as a monster. There can, of course, be no doubt whatsoever that he was responsible for monstrous acts that have few parallels in modern history. But does the monumental cruelty he presided over automatically disqualify him from membership of the human race? If only.
The value of the lessons that can be derived from the Nazi experience would markedly be diminished were it to be determined that Hitler was somehow completely distinct from the remainder of humanity. That he embodied some of the worst aspects of human nature is difficult to dispute. But it was human nature – and therein lies the historical value of the Hitler years as a cautionary tale.
That does not justify bandying about the Hitler analogy with abandon, as western propagandists – among others – are all too frequently inclined to do. While the Second World War was still fresh in the public consciousness, it was absurdly applied, for instance to Gamal Abdel Nasser – but, remarkably, not to Francisco Franco.
More recently, the likes of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic have been tarred with the same brush. From a somewhat different point view, so has George W. Bush. Now, however bereft these three may be of redeeming features on the political plane, comparisons with Hitler nonetheless seem outlandish and, arguably, outrageous.
On the other hand, it is even more ridiculous – and dangerous – to look for redeeming qualities in the Fuhrer.
It would be unfair to allege that this is what Kumar has in mind, although his purported press statements did provide cause for concern. “As a leader, he was successful,” he has been quoted as saying. “Why did he lose as a human being, what were the problems, what were the issues, what were his intentions, this is what we want to show.” That’s certainly an ambitious intention, but not necessarily deplorable. But then, as The Guardian reported it, “Kumar also said he hoped to show Hitler’s ‘love for India’ and how the Nazi leader indirectly contributed to independence in the subcontinent”.
The would-be director has subsequently claimed that he was misquoted, but the attribution inevitably stirred the ire not just of Indian Jews but of historians as well. There can, after all, be no question whatsoever that Hitler was a racist, and if he did not specifically denigrate the denizens of the subcontinent, that’s only because they were on the fringes of his worldview – he is known, after all, to have expressed the view that British imperialism was too benign, and it is surely unlikely that non-violent non-cooperation of the Gandhian variety would have cut much ice with Nazi stormtroopers.
It’s true that Hitler’s government did accept the radical Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose as an ally – as did the Japanese subsequently – and helped him raise an anti-British army from among Indian prisoners of war, but the willingness of the Axis powers to whatever they could to undermine British power can hardly be construed as concern for Indian freedom. Of course, a film about Bose’s meeting with Hitler and broader relationship with the Nazis would indeed be interesting. (Not having seen Shyam Benegal’s Bose biopic from five years ago, I’m unable to say how far it delves into this aspect of Netaji’s struggle – although Benegal did at least get a German actor to portray the Fuhrer.)
A BBC report last week, hinged on the projected movie by Kumar, paints a disturbing picture of a growing fascination among young Indians with the Hitler phenomenon. It cites instances of fascination with the Fuhrer on account of his mesmerizing power and his “patriotism”. Such misconceptions of Hitler are not restricted to India, of course. Steady or growing sales of Mein Kampf have also been reported from Turkey, the Palestinian territories and the US. There is cause to fear that all too often it serves to reinforce notions of anti-Semitism. That’s a travesty. It’s far more pertinent to point out, as a number of Israelis periodically do, that the tactics of the Israeli security forces against Palestinians are sometimes reminiscent of Nazi actions against Jews.
It may be the case that a few Indians are fooled by Hitler’s appropriation of a Hindu symbol, the swastika. Others may be taken by the fascist tendencies of Bal Thackeray and his ilk. But if anyone is keen on an illuminating cinematic portrayal of Hitler, it would help them to revisit The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s inimitable 1940 satire, in which he plays a Jewish barber who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Fuhrer.
In his final speech, Chaplin exhorts the masses: “Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie … Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people … Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.” To that one could indeed say amen.
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