A Bollywood film released on the streaming platform Amazon Prime has come under fire for downplaying the Holocaust and using Auschwitz as a metaphor for the protagonists’ relationship conflict. Banal and insensitive, Bawaal, directed by Indian filmmaker Nitesh Tiwari, makes tactless comparisons with Hitler, telling the story of a couple as they travel through Europe together and visit World War 2 sites.
“Aren’t we all a bit like Hitler too? We are never satisfied with what we have, we want what others have,” the female protagonist says in the film. The plot uses one of history’s most evil figures to give lessons on morality and human greed.
Another dialogue, “every relationship goes through its own Auschwitz” trivializes the Holocaust by reducing it to merely a lesson for the strife in two people’s romantic lives, failing to take into account the enormity of pain and suffering that was inflicted upon millions. One of the deadliest concentration camps of the Nazis, at least 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz in occupied Poland, out of which 1.1 million were Jews, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Historians further estimate that 1.1 million people, including homosexuals and Roma prisoners, were murdered in the camp complex within the five years of its existence.
A remnant of one of the greatest tragedies of the modern past, Auschwitz has become a symbol of Jewish persecution and the Nazi genocide. By conflating it with a love story and using tasteless dialogues and analogy — even though literature and documentaries have been inspired by the Holocaust before — the writers of the Bollywood feature failed to do justice. In a grotesque, vulgar and inconsiderate portrayal, the protagonists of the film are seen as imagining themselves in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
The movie and the backlash over it caught the attention of Jewish organizations. The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a leading Los Angeles-based human rights NGO dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, has urged Amazon Prime to remove the film due to “its outlandish abuse of the Nazi Holocaust as a plot device” with Director of Global Social Action, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, saying that Auschwitz is the quintessential example of man’s capacity for evil and cannot be a metaphor.
“By having the protagonist in this movie declare that ‘every relationship goes through their Auschwitz,’ Nitesh Tiwari, trivializes and demeans the memory of 6 million murdered Jews and millions of others who suffered at the hands of Hitler’s genocidal regime,” the Rabbi added.
The Israeli embassy in India too reacted to the film. In a public post, it stated that the trivialization of the Holocaust in the movie was disturbing and that there was a poor choice in the utilization of some terminology, assuming that no malice was intended.
Despite the film also receiving negative reviews in India over its intertwining of marital crisis and the Holocaust, its director and lead cast defended the movie, saying that the same kind of scrutiny is not meted out to non-Indian, non-Hindi films. The response speaks of ‘whataboutism’ and is reflective of moral decay and the disconnect from Holocaust knowledge and education in South Asian communities.
An enterprise that more often than not relies on nationalism, even Islamophobia and anti-Pakistan bashing in its movies in attempts to woo the local masses, Bollywood is not only facing a dearth of good stories, it also has the tendency to sensationalize hardcore realities, present one-sided points of view and succumb to propaganda — as seen with its other release, the Kashmir Files, which was heavily championed by India’s Hindu nationalist BJP government and had an anti-Muslim theme — further aggravating the discord in India’s social fabric. Moreover, the Indian film industry has also earned a reputation for harboring nepotism — in a blow to talent and merit — with both lead actors in Bawaal also coming from families with roots in the film business.
The South Asian region lacks empathy and the conceptual depth and understanding of a tragedy like the Holocaust owing to geographical, cultural and religious contexts, and hence the insensitivity and the repulsive glorification of Hitler in society as well as the cinema. India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary group formed in 1925 with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its political arm, seeks inspiration from Hitler’s genocidal regime and is considered an equivalent of the Nazi party that propagates hatred — now pervasive in Indian society — towards India’s minorities, especially Muslims a lot on the lines of the Nazi antisemitism. The myth of the Aryan race, one of the ideological roots of Nazism, further provides a common ground for Hindu nationalists that look up to Hitler.
While most European and Western countries have made the Holocaust a mandatory or a recommended topic in the teaching of history or other subjects, in most South Asian countries, only a surface-level, general context of the World Wars is given in basic education. An assessment of education carried out by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, the EU- funded Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) revealed that teaching about the Holocaust “differs considerably from one country to another and within any one country in terms of content, support structures and time allocated to studying the subject.”
A greater emphasis on Holocaust education and meaningful trips to the concentration camps can perhaps help overcome the emotional and intellectual deficit in this region that is leading to Holocaust trivialization and even antisemitism in society and in creative businesses.