Seeing giant billboards, newspaper advertisements and channel promos of a show titled Hitler Didi (2011-) has understandably come as a rude shock to many Westerners who’ve happened across them. From the United States the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has called for the renaming of the show and expressed outrage at the flippant use of “Hitler” in the title of a light-hearted comedy. In India, those involved in the show and the channel seem slightly bewildered and in no rush to take immediate action.
Mass murder and genocide are no more acceptable in India as anywhere else in the world. Neither are the makers of the show, one may safely assume, cruel and insensitive folks who like to distress people for the fun of it. Then how does a show with the premise of bringing colour back into the life of its bitter and strict female protagonist get titled “Hitler Didi”? The fact that no one involved with the soap thought that the title would stir up any controversy, in India or abroad (where the show would inevitably be broadcast), is a clue.
If anyone cared to sift through enough Indian movies and serials they’d find joking comparisons of strict characters to the dictator too many to count. The term Hitler, in India, only invokes the image of a short, mustachioed dictator who had charisma enough to rally a defeated nation into action, ambition enough to take over the world, discipline enough to turn his regime into a well-oiled, efficient machine and, apparently, sensibility enough to be a teetotaler, non-smoker and vegetarian. References to him lack any association to the horrors of the Nazi regime and the pain and suffering it caused to millions. If my memory serves me right, the details of the atrocities committed in the name of Nazism were all but a footnote in our history textbooks. Ludicrous as it may sound, to the average Indian, then, Hitler is just another academic example of a famous conqueror, like say Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, only, for whatever reason he has also become assimilated into Indian popular culture as a caricature of a stern, humour-less disciplinarian.
How can something major like the cause of World War II (WWII) be glided over so easily you may ask. India has such an extensive and rich history itself that there seems, perhaps, little need to look beyond the country’s own past. In any case, during the years of WWII India was in the throes of its own freedom struggle. WWII, thus, registers in the Indian psyche only as that event that weakened the British empire enough to allow India to gain back its independence. Indians have a visceral reaction to references about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the Partition, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots… because these are events that each Indian has grown up hearing about, because each child’s parents or grandparents have told them of the horrors they experienced, because the tragedies have been sung about, written about, and depicted in various media so often that one’s soul cries out at the wrongs done and the lives lost. To anyone who has not encountered Indian history much but happens to hear or read about these tragedies somewhere their reaction will be sympathetic, sure, but not as emotionally violent as those for whom the history is much closer to home. The reason WWII and Hitler’s crimes haven’t made a lasting impression on the Indians living in India is analogous in this light.
In the 1920s, the swastika, a sign sacred to various religions in India, was misappropriated by the Nazi regime, adopted by them as a symbol of their ideology. The use of the swastika dates back to thousands of years before that though, is still used by Indians as a cherished auspicious symbol denoting the Lord Ganesh, and will probably continue to be used by them for thousands of years more. While for many in the Western world the symbol has acquired negative connotations and is a painful reminder of the past it is no more productive or logical to be angry about its prevalence in the lives of millions of people as it is to be mad at the waxing and waning of the moon, and I’m sure people recognise that. So, to anyone in India who may be puzzled by what they may think of as an over-reaction by those abroad calling for the change of the title of Hitler Didi, it would be prudent to first think about the history of the swastika.Your relationship to it hasn’t and will never change just because it has acquired negative connotations elsewhere. Similarly the associations Europeans and the rest of the Western world have to Hitler will never change. The name Hitler will continue to symbolise a terrible evil and references to it in any other context will invariably cause anger and hurt. While ignorance can excuse someone initially, once you are aware of the issues such trivialisation causes others it is rude and even malicious to continue in that vein. It isn’t about bowing down to a Western worldview, it’s about showing good faith and sensitivity in an era of globalisation where we all know better and understand the importance of being respectful of the beliefs of others.
So, while I recognise that calling someone Hitler in a desi soap is not meant to cause offence to anyone but the character being labelled so (and in some cases the character likely takes pride in being thought of as a strict person who no one dares to put up a fight with), I think it would be prudent of the show to indeed undergo a renaming. I wouldn’t see it as a pacifying gesture either, instead I think there is a lot of potential to use this whole situation as an opportunity to raise awareness. If I were the team managing the channel Zee TV or the show Hitler Didi I would use this as a “teaching moment”, something that is quite close to the heart of serials actually.
Serials in India, more than Indian movies, have been responsible for addressing taboo topics and raising awareness about various issues. By nature of their extensive demographic reach serials are able to stir the social conscience of the nation and make people talk about things they don’t normally stop to consider or things they’d rather brush under the carpet. Shows like Balika Vadhu (2008-), which depicted the practice of child marriages in the rural hinterland and Maryada: Lekin Kab Tak? (2010-) which is currently delving into the, till recently, ignored territory of being a gay person living in India, are just some examples of shows that have aimed to challenge the country’s practices and prejudices. Hitler Didi can then at least try to address people’s ignorance by incorporating the issue at hand within the show itself. So far, everyone from the hero of the serial, to the heroine’s own family members, including her young nephew Ishaan, have at least once either called Indira Sharma “Hitler” or mockingly saluted her when she’s been in one of her grim moods. Perhaps it is time Ishaan accidentally calls his bua “Hitler” in front of his school teacher and the horrified school teacher, who has spent a fair bit of time in Europe before returning to India (for any other teacher would probably not blink an eye, except to admonish half-heartedly), decides that it is time for the class to be given a history lesson that will make both the child on the show and show’s audience realise why Hitler and Nazism are such an emotionally fraught topic in the Western world. Ishaan can then similarly proceed to stop everyone else on the show calling his bua “Hitler didi” as well.