How Mani Ratnam’s Terrorism Trilogy Stoked 1990s Nationalism

Though critically acclaimed, the director’s “Roja,” “Bombay,” and “Dil Se...” pushed jingoistic narratives that persist in Bollywood today.

Meher Manda

August 31, 2021

How Mani Ratnam’s Terrorism Trilogy Stoked 1990s Nationalism
Shah Rukh and Manisha Koirala in "Dil se..." (1998)

When someone mentions filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s Terrorism Trilogy — featuring Roja (1992), Bombay (1995), and Dil Se (1998) — a scene from Roja always comes to mind. A Kashmiri separatist group kidnaps and holds Indian intelligence analyst Rishi Kumar (Arvind Swamy) hostage. When a member of the group burns the Indian flag, a handcuffed Rishi breaks through a window, runs behind the incendiary, knocks the burning flag to the floor, and throws himself on it in a bid to contain the burning. Lit aflame — both literally and emotionally — Rishi proceeds to fight with the terrorists while he cries out in pain as A.R. Rahman’s searing score fires up a crescendo. 

It’s a scene of soaring emotional intensity, but one that does not ask for introspection or critical thinking. The viewer is left with only the image of the sacrificial, nationalistic hero and the contemptuous, barbaric separatists who want to destroy the very fabric of India. Linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky and social critic Edward S. Herman termed such slapdash narratives as an attempt in “manufacturing consent” where “their primary function is to mobilize support for...special interests.” 

Patriotic movies, particularly those presented with a ham-fisted definition of patriotism — think high-voltage chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” the unchallenged positioning of the Indian state as the arbiter of goodness and morality, and the absence of any critique — have always performed well in India. Films like Border (1997), LOC: Kargil (2003), and Mission Kashmir (2000) instantly come to mind. This is probably why a slate of patriotic films come out every year around India’s Independence Day on August 15 — this year alone saw the release of Shershaah, Bhuj: The Pride of India, and Bellbottom. This fascination with nationalism has evolved into a sub-industry in Hindi cinema, with every major production house eager to dish out its own patriotic film in recent years. But few movies have successfully peddled nationalism with the emotional subtlety and natural realism of Mani Ratnam’s trilogy, which set up everyman Hindu characters as the victims of violent militancy — without any political nuance.