To glance over the list of nominations for this year’s Oscar awards is to marvel at the number of movies about Americans speaking to power. At least three of the seven frontrunners revolve around people or groups challenging the might of the American state.
This theme is most explicitly explored in The Trial of the Chicago 7, in which activists jailed for participating in a demonstration make stirring arguments for the right to dissent and question the ideology underpinning government institutions. Aaron Sorkin’s film has been nominated in six major categories.
The film has several lines that resonate beyond the plot’s specific milieu (the late 1960s and 1970s in politically charged America): “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before” and “We’re not going to jail because of what we did, we’re going to jail because of who we are”, among them.
The recent agitations against racial injustice in America have led to decisive shifts in the screen depictions of African American lives. This includes acknowledging how the US government used its brutal powers to crush Black Power groups.
Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, which earned six nominations, addresses the vilification of the radical Black Panthers Party by drawing attention to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s targeting of its leadership. The Bureau recruits an African-American car thief to infiltrate the organisation, destroys its Chicago headquarters in a gunfight, and eventually kills the influential leader Fred Hampton.
Both Chicago 7 and Black Messiah are set in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. However, Lee Daniels’s The United States Vs Billie Holiday, starring Andra Day, suggests that America’s war on people it labels as undesirable is older. Set in the 1940s, the biopic dramatises African-American singer Billie Holiday’s battle with heroin and the American drug control agency.
Billie Holiday suggests that there is an added element to Holiday’s frequent runs-in with the law: she is also being persecuted for recording Strange Fruit, a ballad protesting the lynchings of African Americans.
In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional Kazakh journalist journeys through Donald Trump’s America. Borat takes potshots at Trumpism, fake news and authoritarianism – none of which is going anywhere merely because Trump lost his election rebid to Joe Biden.
Also in the running but failing to secure a nomination was Kevin MacDonald’s The Mauritanian, about how America’s so-called War on Terror jailed innocents alongside Islamist terrorists involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.
Mohamedou Ould Salahi was accused of participating in the 9/11 conspiracy and sent to the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison in 2002. He spent the next 14 years in jail on the basis of a confession he made after being horribly tortured. The Mauritanian, based on Salahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary, reveals the difficulties involved in giving Salahi a fair trial.
These movies revisit and recontextualise important moments in American history. We can argue about their merits and demerits, but we cannot deny their significance, particularly at a time when Indian filmmakers find it increasingly difficult to hold up mirrors to the bewildering and often deeply troubling situation in which the country finds itself.
The prospects for political-minded Indians who wish to reflect upon their predicament for posterity or revisit their past to make sense of the present are increasingly bleak. The criminal cases against the Amazon Prime Video series Tandav, the massive scrutiny that follows every new release, and the recently framed rules that seek to police streaming platforms and digital media are aimed at ensuring that films and series with political subjects will become even rarer.
There is no lack of topics for curious filmmakers. The mysterious deaths and cynical arrests of scores of activists over the years could are worthy of a series of biopics.
For instance, the murders of student activist Chandrashekhar Prasad in 1997, playwright and street theatre exponent Safdar Hashmi in 1989, labour leaders Shankar Guha Niyogy and Datta Samant in 1991 and 1997 respectively, and folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila in 1988 all tell us something about the broken pact between state and citizen. So do the extra-judicial killings by the police, conveniently described as “encounters”. The absence of justice in many of these cases makes remembering them all the more crucial.
Without the freedom enjoyed by Hollywood filmmakers, Indian creators have to be content with fictionalising source material heavily or consigning their ideas to wishlists that will never escape their computers. In fact, the Central Board of Film Certification’s history of waging war on the imagination could constitute a sub-genre in itself. The pettiness and absurdity that have poured out of the censor board for decades could lead to rip-roaring comedies or sobering cautionary tales. But would the censors be kind towards a film that critiques them?
Another movie waiting to be made concerns the attempt to obliterate Kissa Kursi Ka, about the Congress government’s corruption and poor governance record in the 1970s. Amrit Nahta’s satire was completed two months before Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency and suspended civil liberties in 1975. Vidya Charan Shukla, the Information and Broadcasting Minister at the time, ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed. After the Emergency was lifted, Nahta remade the movie. Surely the present regime cannot object to a chronicle of this shocking instance of censorship from the Congress years?
Unlikely to be memorialised in our present times, though, is the unrelenting campaign by Hindutva groups against the freedom of expression. From the hounding of artist MF Husain in the 1990s, which led to him taking exile in Dubai, to the more recent crackdowns on professors, students, priests and comedians, the conscientious filmmaker has no shortage of material. There is, however, no guarantee that movies or series on these subjects will either be greenlit or released unhindered.
Dream on, and instead watch the Oscar nominees as they are released in Indian cinemas over the next few weeks.