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The use of Cinema in the Construction of a Nationalism State

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2642 words Published: 9th Sep 2021

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The paper aims to highlight the role of cinema in constructing and reconstructing the nationalism of a state. In doing so the paper is divided into three parts. In the first part, I shall conceptualize the notions of nationalism and popular culture with the help of academic sources and then shall try to formulate a link between these two concepts and shall analyse how these are correlated. In the second chapter, I shall explain the role of cinema in constructing and reconstructing the beliefs, practices and objects associated with a popular culture and how these constructions and reconstructions are accepted into a nationalistic discourse. In the final section, to strengthen my previous debate I shall analyse two films, one from India Dil Se (1998) and one from Yugoslavia Underground (1995), to argue that cinema works as an instrument of nationalism through its devices by influencing the consciousness of audiences and results in construction of a nation.

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Conceptualizing the link between Nationalism and Popular Culture

Andrew Vincent describes the nationalism as an ideology that ‘makes national self-consciousness, ethnic or linguistic identity into central planks of a doctrine which seeks political expression” (Vincent, 2010:227). The ethno-linguistic identities are elements of culture associated with a nation, therefore, the nation as an entity is a blend of “culture and psycho political factors” (Heywood, 2003: 134). Therefore, nationalism has a link with the culture and to be more specific with popular culture. Popular culture has its roots in ‘‘’folk’ or ‘popular’ beliefs, practices, and objects rooted in local traditions as well as “mass” beliefs, practices, and objects generated from political and commercial centres” (Mukerji & Schudson, 1986: 48). Sanjeev Kumar explains popular culture as a “collective experience” of a society that formulates “a symmetrical feeling of common tastes” (Kumar, 2013:458). These common tastes further give rise to political ideas as many scholars believe that “popular culture plays a crucial role in mobilizing political action” (Mukerji & Schudson, 1986: 47). This political action can be defined as a projection of nationalistic feelings or nationalism.

Ernest Gellner in his modernist theory on nationalism and nation asserted the importance of shared common culture in formulating the nationalism of a particular nation by eroding the “rigid social structures” and argued that ‘nations are products of nationalism, and not vice versa” (O’Leary, 1997) (Walicki, 1998). A similar argument can be found in the constructivist perspective of nation that see nations as “constructs” (Walicki, 1998). Therefore, a nation is not a substance, but the product of a historical process, and a social, political and cultural construct that represent the collects of a nation. The collective consciousness of the nation is described as nationalism.

It is important to note that it is not necessary that the beliefs that make up the rhetoric of nationalism are based on historical facts. As many scholars such as Benedict Anderson, David Miller and Anthony D. Smith believes that “misrepresentation of historical facts” plays significant role in the constitution of nation building and thus “national identity is often based on false or, worse still, intentionally misleading beliefs”(Tamir, 1995).

Cinema as an Instrument of Nationalism

In almost every state there is a “national cinema” that makes films for the masses of that particular state (Walsh, 1996). To attract audiences these films are made by keeping in mind the popular culture of the masses. Cinema like other type of mass media carries meanings and symbols that not only represent beliefs, practices and objects of a particular popular culture associated with a nation, but also structure the process of nation building by influencing the popular culture through reconstruction of these beliefs, practices, and objects. Walsh (1996) characterizes these meanings and symbols as “national imaginary”. This process leaves an impact on the psyche of the audience and thus influence the collective consciousness of the nation- nationalism. Thus, “Internalization” of these meanings and symbols into discourse of nationalism happens through national cinema (Walsh, 1996).

One way to understand this phenomenon is through focusing on the identity politics of a nation. Identity is a sense of belonging to a particular group that can lead to the possibility of a nationhood. Through this identity individuals of a nation distinguish themselves from individuals of another nation. Thus the collective identity of a group is defined by distinguishing others as foreign. This process can also be utilized against the minority groups within a state. Sanjeev Kumar conceptualizes this as the practice of “othering” (Kumar, 2013). As he further highlights with the help of a case study of Indian cinema that cinema plays a vital role in offering Muslim minority.

Cinema plays a dynamic role in identity formation by reconstructing the beliefs, practices and objects associated with a national identity. Therefore, a “national imaginary” is created in which some meanings and symbols are promoted and some are subordinated to define identity Furthermore, cinema with its tools also define and reconstruct the geographical, ideological and cultural boundaries of a nation. And these reconstructions are internalized through psychological effects on the collective consciousness of the masses. As Shohat and Stam (1994) with the help of psychoanalysis argue that cinema plays an importance role in acceptance of these recreated imaginary by “efficiently mobilize[ing] desire in ways responsive to nationalized and imperialized notions of time, plot and history”. Further, they argue that cinema “homologize” the nation because of collective consumption by the masses and with the help of Benedict Anderson’s argument they declare that “The nation of course is not a desiring person but a fictive unity imposed on an aggregate of individuals, yet national histories are presented as if they displayed the continuity of the subject-writ-large” (Shohat & Stam, 1994).

Dil Se (1998)

This film attempts to revisit the ideological underpinnings of India after 50 years of independence. The film starts with two extreme positions: Indian nationalism and the nationalism of sub national entities. The protagonist, who is the program executive for All India Radio strolls through North East and Kashmir in an attempt to understand the rationale behind insurgencies and separatist movements in those regions and finds out that insurgents blame Indian government for the poverty and human rights violations and thus justify their violent means to achieve independence. As being a patriotic Indian with a military background he is not convinced by the reasoning of the insurgents and is swayed that Pakistan is helping these movements. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a girl who is a terrorist in disguise and chases her throughout the film. The high point of the movie is the scene where the protagonist learns the real identity of his lover, who is going to attack the parade on the 50th anniversary of Republic Day, and confronts her and questions her motives. The girl reveals that she had been a rape victim in theKunan Poshpora incidentand that her soul seeks deliverance through hersuicide attack on Republic Day. At this juncture, he replies to her “you cannot kill innocent people because of the wrongdoing of some people”.

It is noteworthy that when this film was released, India was using brutal military force against pro-independence movements and was under much international criticism. The film tries to limit the whole question of pro-independence movements as an issue of governance rather than ideological, cultural or historical as the director makes the insurgents to say so in the beginning of the film. It also puts the responsibility on “some people” rather than Indian State thus the enemy is “some people” that exploit their position and force common Indian to pick the gun. This is “misrepresentation of historical facts” that I mentioned earlier. In addition, it also subordinates the notion of violence and promotes the notion of love as the suicide bomber girl chooses love over violence in the closing scene. Therefore, Indian identity is reconstructed by distinguishing individuals on this principal.

This film also attempts to define geographical, ideological and cultural boundaries of Indian nation by creating “national imaginary”. To define geographical boundaries the film portrays many locations such as Ladakh, Kashmir, North East, Delhi, Kerala and Bengal etc. Ideological boundaries are defined in term of the subject of the film as throughout the movie there is no mention or visualization of the religious origins of violence. Such as the religious identities of terrorists are not indicated. Even their oath that they repeat throughout the film is secular in nature. Thus, this film emphasizes the secular nature of Indian nationalism. Cultural boundaries are defined in term of lyrics, music and choreography that range from work of Bullay Shah to Mirza Ghalib and from South Indian exotic dance to gypsy dance on a moving train. In doing so the film gives the notion that despite insurgencies and separatist movements this whole sphere and its tastes constitute India and thus tries to evoke the sense of belonging to the land in audiences’ consciousness.

Underground (1995)

This film was produced during Balkan crisis of 1990s during which the former republic of Yugoslavia exploded. The narrative and imaginary of the film indicates that the director Emir Kushturica is still stuck with the dream of the old republic of Yugoslavia as one film critic notes “if growing up implies the death of the past, there is no area in which Kushturica refuses to grow up. He refuses to believe that his homeland, the country formerly called Yugoslavia, no longer exists” (Yarovskaya, 1997-1998). Therefore, the whole effort of Kushturica is to project the notion of Yugoslavian nationhood on screen and tell the world what went wrong. He does so through historical and psychoanalytical devices in which he blends the history with the lives of main characters Marko and Blacky.

The film goes through three eras: World War 2, post-war reconstruction during Tito’s regime and Yugoslav wars. In the first part, the film promotes the idea of “Brotherhood and Unity” that was the official ideology of Yugoslavia and shows that how with this guiding principal Yugoslavs fought against Nazi power and succeeded. At this juncture, the director introduces enemy that is human desire for power rooted in the subconscious. The film further divides desire into two parts: sexual desire and destructive desire (Yarovskaya, 1997-1998). The next chapter shows the struggle between conscious and subconscious through symbols. The main characters Marko and Blacky are symbols of the subconscious that wanted to grab power and the character of Natalija is a symbol for power. Marko is a symbol of sexual desire and Blacky is a symbol of destructive desire. During this struggle in order to get Natalija Marko makes other characters that are symbols of consciousness, and Blacky believe that war is still going on so they must hide themselves in an underground cellar and produce guns for the resistance. The revolutionary meaning of underground is resistance and psychological meaning is “collective consciousness” (Yarovskaya, 1997-1998). On ground level the film portrays the corrupt regime of Tito that grows out of power seeking subconscious. In this regime Marko is right hand man of Tito and an arms dealer.

After the death of Tito Yugoslavia starts to disintegrate and soon civil war erupts. Meanwhile, characters that are symbols of collective consciousness come out of hiding and see ruins of their dream by the hand of symbols of the subconscious. Disheartened, some characters commit suicide and others resort themselves to a parallel Yugoslavia that is shown through a sequence of underground tunnels that is inhabited by refugees, Yugoslav warriors and UN peacekeepers. The character of Blacky that is the symbol for destructive desire becomes a warlord and contribute to the Civil war.

Therefore, with this film Emir Kushturica tries to promote the guiding principle of “Brotherhood and Unity” that helped Yugoslavs to win the war, but soon the human desire for power changed the whole Yugoslav society and it became unrecognizable by the time of death of Tito. After the death of Tito destructive desire was unleashed and thus resulted in the Yugoslav Wars.


Therefore, it is argued that cinema construct and restructure the notion of identity of a nation and define and reconstruct the geographical, ideological and cultural boundaries of a nation through the creation of “national imaginary” and influence masses by mobilizing desire of nationhood and thus results in homologizing a nation. As a result, cinema works as an instrument of nationalism through its devices by influencing the consciousness of audiences.

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The analysis of two films strengthen this argument. The first film Dil Se not only justifies military operations against insurgents through “misrepresentation of historical facts” but also portrays insurgents as murderers of innocent people. This film also attempts to reconstruct Indian identity by subordinating the notion of violence and promoting the notion of love. It also attempts to define geographical, ideological and cultural boundaries of Indian nation by creating “national imaginary” and tries to evoke sense of belonging to land in audiences’ consciousness.

The other film, Underground, promotes and justifies the idea of Yugoslavian nationhood by showing Yugoslav resistance against Nazi Germany. It also attempts to explain the breakup of Yugoslavia by putting all the responsibility on power seeking desire of humans rather than on republic, thus it evokes the desire of belonging to old republic of Yugoslavia in audiences’ consciousness.


Heywood, A. (2003). Political Ideologies: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mukerji, Chandra & Schudson, Michael. (1986). Popular Culture. Annual Review of Sociology, 12:47-66.

O’Leary, Brendan. (1997). On the Nature of Nationalism: An Appraisal of Ernest Gellner’s Writings on Nationalism. British Journal of Political Science, 27(2): 91-222.

Ringmar, E. (1998). Nationalism: The Idiocy of Intimacy. The British Journal of Sociology, 49(4): 534-549.

Shohat, Ella & Stam, Robert, (1994). Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge.

Tamir, Yael. (1995). The Enigma of Nationalism (Review of the Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson: Five Roads to Modernity by LIah Greenfeld; National Identity by Anthony D. Smith). World Politics, 47(3): 418-440.

.Vincent, A. (2010). Modern Political Ideologies. West Sussex: Wiley.

Walicki, Andrzej. (1998). Ernest Gellner and the “Constructivist” Theory of Nation. Harvard Ukrainian Studies, 22: 611-619

Walsh, Michael. (1996). National Cinema, National Imaginary: Film History, 8(1): 5-17.

Yarovskaya, Marianna. (1997-1998). Underground by Emir Kushturica; Pierre Spengler (Review of the Underground by Emir Kushturica). Film Quarterly, 51(2): 50-54.


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