Millennial Review: Sunny Deol’s Hyper-Nationalism in ‘Gadar’
(With the Gadar: Ek Prem Katha sequel currently in the works, we thought it would be a good time to look back at Tara and Sakeena’s story and analyse it for what it really is.)
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Gadar: Ek Prem Katha is the story of three things: a very machismo-infused Sunny Deol, his dhai kilo ka haath (two and a half kilo hand) and Madamji aka Sakeena (Ameesha Patel).
Set against the backdrop of India’s Partition, Gadar — like the title suggests — is the blood-soaked love story of a Sikh truck driver Tara Singh (Sunny Deol) and Sakeena, a Muslim woman belonging to an aristocratic family. (For those of you who don’t know: ‘gadar’ means revolution).
Now, before we dive into the story, there are a few things you should know: Sakeena, for some reason, has amethyst-coloured eyes that will distract you. Even when she’s lying injured on the station platform or literally making a run for her life across borders, her eyes are popping violet.
Secondly, truck driver Tara Singh has a deep desire to become a singer, convinced that life is a really long episode of Indian Idol (Side note: even after two decades, the Gadar soundtrack still slaps.)
Gadar begins with a scene that’s very reminiscent of Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan. The Partition has just been declared; trains flooded with Muslims are making their way to Pakistan. Sakeena’s father, Ashraf Ali (Amrish Puri) is trying to get his entire family to board the train in time but our precious Sakeena gets left behind and is rescued by none other than Tara Singh (who, just before this scene, is violently slashing Muslims with a sword).
In an attempt to save him from other Hindu men who are out to kill and rape unceasingly, Sunny Deol brings out the ultimate weapon — *drumroll* — sindoor. An orthodox tradition that symbolises a woman’s marital status. This is also the scene where we are first introduced to Tara Singh’s infinite physical strength.
Eventually, through flashbacks, we’re told that Tara and Sakeena already know each other and — surprise, surprise — Tara is actually in love with madamji. Naturally, like all Bollywood films, Sakeena also falls in love with him after discovering that Tara secretly writes love poems for her. She then decides to get married to him for real and live happily ever after. For sometime at least.
There’s also this bit where Tara, in passing, mentions that if and when he has a wife, he might just resort to domestic violence to keep her in control.
Now, after a brief rosy marital experience, Sakeena discovers that her parents are in fact alive. After getting in touch with them, she is tricked into leaving her son and husband behind and start over (with a new husband) in Pakistan. The rest of the film is basically just Tara Singh, his son, and his close friend Darmiyaan, embarking on a quest to find Sakeena. They illegally reach Pakistan, make their grand song-and-dance entrance at Sakeena’s even more grand residence, and attempt to go back home alive to India. As some kind of poetic justice, the climax has Sakeena’s father accidentally shooting Sakeena instead of Tara.
From pulling out a hand pump from the ground with his own bare hands to fighting off Pakistanis to literally scaring some of them with his (hilarious) lion-like roar, Sunny Deol is the OG poster boy of hyper-nationalism. An image that was, in retrospect, a big part of his Bollywood career and now, might just help in his newfound political career.
The Hero: Love Story of a Spy, Maa Tujhe Salaam, Border — these are all Sunny Deol films that thrive on anti-Pakistan plots in one way or the other. But while these films are a lot more straightforward in presenting their bias, Gadar is not. In Gadar, the anti-Pak sentiment gains a certain kind of legitimacy in that the Hindus are portrayed as more accepting of the two communities. Whereas Muslims are portrayed as irrational, violent, Hindu-hating people who would stop at nothing to keep the India-Pakistan enmity alive.
Throughout Gadar, Muslims are presented as harbingers of hatred. According to the film, Muslims blindly hate Indians, force an earnest Tara Singh to chant “Hindustan Murdabad” even after he has agreed to convert to Islam, and are driven solely by the idea of avenging their neighbour — beliefs that are a common misconceptions amongst many Indians today as well.
If I had to try and empathise, I would probably say that Gadar was made in the aftermath of the Kargil war. As the first war to be televised extensively, Kargil’s impact was a long-lasting one. And following the events of 1999, the anti-Pak sentiment was at an all-time high in the country and Gadar could have been India’s way of consoling as well as empowering its citizens.
But that’s not entirely accurate because even after almost two decades, our cinema still seems to be floating on anti-Pakistan plots.
While Raazi puts the story of an Indian spy over Pakistan’s assumed hatred for India, Uri: The Surgical Strike does not. The entire premise of Uri’s “ghar mein ghus ke maarenge (we’ll enter their homes and kill them)” is based on the idea that once again, India is a victim of Pakistan’s hatred and betrayal and hence, must retaliate — a point of view that finds its roots in Sunny Deol’s Gadar.
Even in The Ghazi Attack, we’re convinced of the wickedness of Pakistani soldiers. Fundamentally, what makes Uri and The Ghazi Attack as convincing is the idea that they’re based on true stories. But as far as the treatment of these films is concerned, it’s not very different from Gadar — a film that claims to be a love story but is in fact rooted in hostility.