On June 15, Balendra Shah, the mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, warned via social media that he would not allow any Hindi movies to be screened in the city unless the makers of “Adipurush,” an Indian movie inspired by the Hindu epic Ramayana, removed “the objectionable portion of the dialogue that ‘Janaki [Sita] is India’s daughter.’”
According to the epic, Sita, the wife of Ram, who is the main protagonist in the epic, was born in Janakpur in present-day Nepal. She is a cultural icon of Nepal.
However, a line in the movie refers to her as a daughter of India. This has riled a section of Nepali nationalists, including Shah.
“If the film is allowed to be shown in Nepal or abroad in the current form, it will establish a misleading fact and cause irreparable damage to Nepali nationalism, cultural unity, and national icons”, Shah tweeted.
T-Series, the makers of “Adipurush,” apologized for unintentionally hurting the sentiments of the Nepali people. They clarified that the said dialogue did not refer to the birthplace of Sita. However, the movie’s writer muddied the waters further when he wrongly claimed that Nepal was “very much a part of India” till 1903-04.
Shah declared that the ban would be effective from June 19. He prepared to stop the screening of the movie by deploying municipal police. Mayors from other Nepali cities, such as Pokhara and Dharan, endorsed Shah’s decision.
Meanwhile, the Film Association of Nepal filed a case against Shah’s directive. On June 22, the Nepal High Court issued an interim order against Shah’s decision and directed him not to block the screening of Hindi movies. Cinemas in Nepal have started screening Hindi movies, except for “Adipurush,” but tension persists.
However, Shah upped the ante, alleging that the Nepali government and the court had become slaves to India. “On issues of [national] sovereignty and independence, I will not obey laws or court decisions,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Shah has sought to bolster his nationalist credentials by lambasting India. Last month, in response to India’s unveiling of a “Greater India” mural in its new Parliament building, Shah installed a map depicting “Greater Nepal” in his office. The map shows Nepal before a third of its territory was lost to the East India Company.
An ambitious young leader, Shah has positioned himself as a nationalist and is riding on a wave against the abysmal performance of Nepal’s mainstream politicians over the last three decades.
Indian movies have been a staple of Nepali entertainment for decades and have directly or indirectly shaped worldviews or defined fashion. The movies headlined by Indian superstars rake in extensive collections at the Nepali box office.
Nepali cinema halls would struggle to survive if not for Hindi movies. “RRR” and “KGF: Chapter 2” were among the highest grossers in 2022. Indian stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan have a massive following in Nepal and are loved as passionately as in India.
It is this overwhelming presence of Hindi movies (and India in general) over Nepali movies (and Nepal in general) that many in Nepal find concerning.
Nepal and India often tout their unique “roti-beti” relations, referring to the close interconnection of food (roti) and marriage (beti) reflecting the deep social and familial bonds between the two nations. However, Nepal has always yearned for an independent identity. The basis of that identity rests on differentiation from India.
Many in Nepal perceive that India does not treat Nepal as an equal. The fear of Indian cultural hegemonism is real in the minds of some Nepalis. This has recently intensified because the Indian government has actively promoted the civilizational nature of ancient India.
The asymmetry in power and influence between the two states has also bred an inferiority complex among many Nepalis, including among its political leadership. They have sought to raise nationalist sentiments primarily expressed in the form of anti-Indianism as a result. Nevertheless, Nepal also constantly seeks validation from India.
This manifests in two extremes when it comes to the entertainment industry.
First, Nepalis fiercely support Nepalis, including Indians of ethnic Nepali origin, who are members of India’s entertainment industry. In 2007, Prashant Tamang, an ethnic Nepali from Darjeeling, India, rode on widespread support from Nepal to win “Indian Idol,” a singing reality show. People in Nepal voted for him in droves. In 2014, Teriya Magar from Nepal won the Indian dancing reality show “Lil Masters,” again riding on the wave of Nepali support and votes. It reflects Nepali’s quest for respect and identity as an equal in India.
Second, Nepal’s inferiority complex stems from its dependence on India and on Indian influence in every sector of Nepal. This has led to resentment, which boils over in the form of anti-Indian sentiment, even violence when Nepalis perceive that India has hurt Nepali pride and identity. In 2000, five people died and hundreds of others were injured when protests broke out in Nepal following rumors that Hrithik Roshan, a popular Indian movie actor, had said he hated Nepal. In 2009, a Hindi movie was banned in Nepal for suggesting that Gautama Buddha was born in Nepal. It triggered massive protests in Nepal. Public vehicles with “Buddha was born in Nepal” written on them can still be seen in Kathmandu.
Social media has facilitated the spread of such sentiments at an incredible pace in recent years.
In this context, Shah’s statement and outburst are not an aberration. An overwhelming majority of people supported Shah’s decision to ban the movie based on the comments he received on his posts on social media. Many have praised his bold decision to stand up to India while disparaging the government’s meek response.
It raises critical issues.
A large crevasse exists between the government and voters’ perceptions and expectations of how India-Nepal relations should be. The political leadership has failed to communicate an honest narrative of bilateral relations. Political parties and politicians have fueled anti-Indian sentiments when it benefits their politics at home, without considering the long-term implications.
As a result, anti-India sentiment is deep-rooted. Leaders like Shah have re-triggered that sentiment, for which the current top brass of leadership is responsible. In such a situation, perception takes precedence over behavior. If such sentiments harden further, both countries will find it increasingly difficult to accomplish a workable bilateral relationship because cooperation will be considered a compromise. Worse, it could lead to violence against the political leaders or Indians in Nepal.