HYDERABAD, India — When Indian screenwriter Vijayendra Prasad set out five years ago to write an action film, he wanted to tell a fictional story but pay tribute to the “real warriors” of India’s freedom struggle.
The result was “RRR,” a three-hour, visual-effects spectacle that was released this spring and instantly broke records at the Indian box office. In the film’s climax, a muscle-bound protagonist retrieves a bow from a shrine to the Hindu god Ram and cuts down hapless British soldiers with a hail of arrows. Then he arms Indian villagers with guns to fight their colonial oppressors before launching into a lavish song-and-dance number that eulogizes a list of real-life revolutionaries from Indian history.
Absent from the names? Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian pacifist who has been celebrated by many — including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — as an inspiration and an icon of nonviolent resistance.
But not by Prasad.
“The time has come to let Indians know the truth, the real warriors who should be honored,” Prasad said recently in his office in Hyderabad, a hub of the fast-growing south Indian film industry. “The real reason why we got independence was not because of Mr. Gandhi. That’s the fact.”
As India celebrates 75 years of independence on Monday, the legacy of the “father of the nation” who advocated nonviolence and secularism is being debated, downplayed and derided as never before. Instead, Indians are embracing a pantheon of other 20th century heroes, particularly leaders who favored armed struggle or overtly championed Hindus, in a reflection of the nation’s mood and its shifting politics.
Today, at rallies of Hindu nationalist hard-liners, Gandhi is routinely vilified as feeble in his tactics against the British and overly conciliatory to India’s Muslims, who broke off and formed their own state, Pakistan, on Aug. 14, 1947. On social media and online forums, exaggerations and falsehoods abound about Gandhi’s alleged betrayal of Hindus. And in popular films and the political mainstream, Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru — the first prime minister — are sidelined, while nationalists who advocated the force of arms have been elevated.
India is fundamentally rethinking whether Gandhi could have delivered freedom out of colonialism without the specter of bloodshed — which so clearly contributed to the British loss of appetite for empire — and whether his ideals should be the country’s bedrock principles.
“The current government has been trying to project itself as a government that is macho, defiant, strong, and won’t take nonsense from anybody,” said Tushar A. Gandhi, an author and the independence leader’s great-grandson. “There is an ongoing campaign to eradicate Gandhi from the psyche of the Indian people, or at least reduce his qualities to the point it is trivial and meaningless.”
Personifying the cultural shift is Narendra Modi, the popular prime minister who is portrayed by his allies as a living counterpoint to Gandhi and Nehru: tough on Islamic separatists, steeped in Hindu nationalism, formidable on the world stage and — if his campaign speeches are to be taken literally — physically imposing, with a 56-inch chest.
Since 2018, Modi has announced new statues of two freedom fighters: Subhash Chandra Bose, an Indian nationalist who split with Gandhi, formed an army against the British and sought aid from Nazi Germany and imperial Japan; and Vallabhbhai Patel, a former home minister who efficiently consolidated India’s territory with the use of military force and professed concerns about Indian Muslims’ loyalty. While both men are revered by Indians across the political spectrum, they have been particularly embraced by the right.
When the Ministry of Culture released a video this month to encourage citizens to observe the independence anniversary, it featured cameos from Bollywood stars and showed statues of Bose and Patel. Gandhi and Nehru didn’t make the cut.
Nor did they appear in “RRR.” Prasad ended his summer blockbuster with tributes to Bose, Patel and Bhagat Singh, a folk hero who shot a British policeman and bombed the parliament building in Delhi before being hanged in 1931. They were the kind of heroes who forced the British to go home, Prasad explained.
“You cannot preach nonviolence when facing brutes and killers,” said the writer, who was nominated by Modi to the upper house of parliament in June for his contributions to culture. “Mr. Gandhi was not a bad man, but the praise that built up around him over the decades? Today’s younger generation are questioning it, because so many historical facts are coming out.”
Since his death, Gandhi’s accomplishments and failings have been vigorously debated by Indian historians and writers. Many argue that Gandhi was excessively valorized — and the contributions of militant leaders overlooked — in the decades after 1947, when his party, the Indian National Congress, dominated politics and shaped the nation’s mythmaking. More recently, scholars have criticized Gandhi’s views on race and gender, adding wrinkles to his legacy.
But the wave of revisionism has accelerated and grown mainstream in recent decades, especially with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the decline of the Congress. The BJP has roots in the Hindu nationalist movement that opposed Gandhi’s secular ideology during his lifetime and favored a vision of India as a Hindu state. Nathuram Godse, the man who shot Gandhi three times in the chest in 1948, was a member of the Rashtriya Swayam Sangh (RSS), an influential Hindu nationalist organization that Modi would join in 1978 as a young cadet.
“Criticism of Gandhi isn’t new, but what is interesting is it is taking root once again at this moment when you have a new nationalist ideology of the BJP trying to assert its hegemony,” said Srinath Raghavan, a historian at Ashoka University. Because organizations like the RSS stayed away from the Gandhi-led independence movement, Raghavan added, their “search for historical legitimacy has required a search for alternative nationalist icons.”
To be sure, Modi, 71, has continuously paid respect to Gandhi at public ceremonies and in speeches. When fellow BJP lawmakers have praised Godse as a patriot, Modi has scolded them. In 2011, when Modi, then serving as the chief of Gujarat state, banned a biography by an American journalist that suggested Gandhi had a same-sex relationship and racist views, Modi said the book defamed an “an idol not only in India but in the entire world.”
But he also stayed silent in the past year, as the Hindu far right gathered for a series of religious assemblies in which speakers called for violence against Muslims — and hatred of Gandhi became a running theme. At a December rally, a Hindu cleric saluted Godse and argued that India would be stronger than America today had Patel, not Nehru, been its first prime minister.
One of the high-profile activists at the rallies, Pooja Shakun Pandey, said she believed Modi privately shared the far right’s disdain for Gandhi. “He is bound by the circumstances of his secular chair, but I believe in his heart of his hearts, he has the same feelings,” Pandey said. “His upbringing was in the RSS, and the RSS teaches in its classrooms: ‘Who is the real hero, Godse or Gandhi?’”
On the anniversary of Gandhi’s death in 2019, Pandey made headlines when she picked up an airsoft gun and fired three shots into an effigy of him, which spurted fake blood. What was needed in India, she said, was national strength, greater militarization, more training for India’s young men to fight against what she called the threat of Islamic jihad.
“You have to become spiritually and physically strong,” she said.
In 1998, the government under the BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee banned a Mumbai theater production that featured Gandhi’s killer as the protagonist. But since the 2000s, more films have emerged to explore the lives of lesser-known nationalists, radicals and Gandhi’s rivals. In 2004, the acclaimed director Shyam Benegal released a biopic about Bose, the militant nationalist, with the subtitle, “The Forgotten Hero.”
Today, more mass-market films are being made that “anticipate” the country’s rightward shift, said Srinivas S.V., a professor at Azim Premji University who studies Indian cinema. “We see a preference for a more muscular nationalism and a rewriting of the kind of nationalist who we should be respecting,” he said. But, he cautioned, some popular narratives are derived “from internet re-tellings of history, which are not evidence-based.”
Mahesh Manjrekar, a filmmaker and actor who starred in the 2008 British drama “Slumdog Millionaire,” plans to release a picture this year about Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a forefather of Hindu-nationalist thought who was charged as a co-conspirator in Gandhi’s killing. Manjrekar also has an upcoming project about Godse, which he plugged on Instagram as “a story no one dared to tell before!”
Prasad, the “RRR” writer, says he, too, has undergone a transformation in recent years.
Born into a wealthy Telugu-speaking family in southern India in 1941, Prasad had a long and successful writing career before “RRR” and frequently collaborated with his son, the director S. S. Rajamouli. The plots he conjured up often became hits. They included “Baahubali,” an action epic set in ancient India, and “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” a drama about a devout Hindu (played by the superstar Salman Khan) who befriends a mute Pakistani Muslim girl.
Five years ago, Prasad said, his friends sent him online posts about Gandhi and the history of independence, which upended the orthodoxy he learned in school.
Prasad began digging online and concluded that Gandhi was undemocratic, and the partition of India “unfortunate.” And while Nehru failed to protect Hindu women from being violated by Muslims in Prasad’s home city of Hyderabad in the early days of the republic, Patel sent in the military, he said.
These days, Prasad has grown a bushy white beard, turned vegetarian and expounds on the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings to visitors. But he called on Hindus to embrace religious pluralism and condemned the Hindu nationalist fringe that worships Gandhi’s killer. “No person is perfect,” he said. “But no person deserved to be killed.”
When “RRR” finally hit theaters this year after a lengthy production that cost $70 million — the most in Indian film history — it came loaded not just with political but also religious undertones.
Prasad’s story was loosely based on the tale of Alluri Sitarama Raju, a real-life, southern Indian guerrilla. In the film, Alluri devises an elaborate plot to obtain guns for the Indian resistance. After numerous explosions, fistfights and a jailbreak, he finds himself hunted by British soldiers in a forest. Wounded and desperate, Alluri suddenly morphs into a character who bears a striking resemblance to the Hindu god Ram himself. The transformation scene was so popular that when “RRR” premiered, some Indian theaters burst into spontaneous cheers and cries of “Hail, Lord Ram,” a chant favored by Hindu nationalists.
Reinvigorated and clad in a saffron dhoti, Ram exacts revenge on the despotic British governor with the help of his burly friend Bheem, who bears a resemblance to the Hindu god Hanuman.
Ultimately, Prasad said, “RRR” was fictional, but the underlying message for Indians was real.
“We created an alternate history,” he said. “But the inherent themes — patriotism, honor, commitment to country — it’s all there.”