Bollywood takes on Adolf Hitler

India has long been oddly fascinated with Adolf Hitler, in part because the Führer offered to help India gain independence from Britain. A new Bollywood film may have pushed the limit.

Actor Anupam Kher (r.), who had agreed to play Adolf Hitler in a film, has withdrawn from the project. Neha Dhupia (l.), to play Eva Braun, has not. Every few years the world gets a glimpse of Indians’ peculiar fascination with Hitler, whose autobiography, “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”), is a consistent bestseller here.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It’s not that often that Bollywood films – better known for formulaic plots and cheesy musical numbers – stir up much international attention for their politics. But the recent announcement here of a film about Adolf Hitler’s last days, his love life, and his supposed connection to India, has raised eyebrows around the world – not to mention the ire of India’s tiny Jewish community.

Though the director promised Hitler wouldn’t be singing and dancing, condemnation was swift. Within a week of the announcement, Indian actor Anupam Kher withdrew from the lead role.

This isn’t the first Hitler-related controversy here. In 2006, a hotelier opened a cafe called Hitlers’ [sic] Cross, decorated with Nazi flags and portraits of the Führer. After a flood of complaints, the hotelier changed the cafe’s name, explaining with mystified chagrin that he just wanted to use a “catchy” theme.

Every few years the world gets a glimpse of Indians’ peculiar fascination with Hitler. His autobiography, “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”), is a consistent bestseller here, selling 70,000 copies in the past decade. The book is popular among management students who see it as some sort of self-help or leadership strategy manual. (Copies lie alongside “Who Moved My Cheese?” at booksellers’ stands.)

In a local student chat room discussion on dictators, management student Deepak Narayan says: “We need to be afraid of someone so that we won’t do any faults. Think about Hitler ruling India. We don’t [have] to bribe anyone. Corruption would be reduced.”

You could put it all down to a longing for strong leaders, or the appropriation of Aryan mythology and the symbol of the swastika from Hinduism, or the fact that Indian revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose sought Hitler’s aid in 1943 to overthrow the British colonial government in India. (Mr. Bose later traveled to Singapore and Burma where he raised a force of Indian prisoners of war to liberate India.)

“Part of it is the mythologized inheritance of India’s independence struggle – whoever was the enemy of England had to be a friend,” says eminent Indian sociologist Ashish Nandy.

It isn’t all innocent: Hitler has also been held up as a model by Hindu nationalist groups. But for the most part, says Mr. Nandy, the fascination comes down to historical ignorance. Indians know he’s one of history’s reviled figures, but with little real awareness of the Holocaust, that knowledge remains somewhat abstract. “I would have been worried,” Nandy says, “if [the fascination] persisted while knowing what Hitler really was.”


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