new delhi | When word spread in June that Bollywood planned a movie called “Dear Friend Hitler,” screenwriter Nalin Singh was genuinely shocked it stirred even a small controversy.
The media expressed disdain, Jewish groups were horrified and Singh’s lead actor — though a bit baffled by the reaction — quit.
While such a response would seem, if anything, understated in much of the world, Singh had reason to believe his film would not generate even a ripple of scandal.
In India, Hitler is not viewed as the personification of evil, but with an attitude of morally ambiguous fascination. He is seen as a management guru — akin to Machiavelli or Sun Tzu — by business students, and an object of wonder by people craving order amid the chaos of India.
“Indians still have a curiosity about Hitler. The Western audience has seen a lot of films on Hitler, but there was no Hindi film on him,” said Singh, explaining the choice of subject for his first film, which he hopes will be made by the end of the year.
Without a major role in World War II, India does not have the intense feelings toward the Nazis that many other nations have. In Bollywood movies, characters routinely call each other “Hitler” as a minor insult, referring to a nagging wife or annoying boss.
A few years ago a restaurant named Hitler’s Cross opened in the suburbs of Mumbai complete with posters of Hitler and swastikas for décor. Protests from Jewish groups forced the owners to change the name to the Cross Cafe. A home furnishings company had to withdraw a line of bedspreads called Nazi amid similar complaints.
“Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s semi-autobiographical book outlining his anti-Semitic ideology, sells thousands of copies a year in the upmarket, air-conditioned bookstores of New Delhi.
“[Buyers are] basically the young crowd, the rebellious,” said Anuj Bahri, who runs a popular bookstore in New Delhi’s posh Khan Market.
Sociologist Ashish Nandy said for some readers, modern India is a country in chaos, and there is a “certain admiration” for Hitler and his extreme authoritarianism.
Tarun Singhal, a management student at New Delhi’s prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, said for him the book is uplifting.
“It serves as a reminder that nothing is unachievable,” he said, adding that he is able to separate that message from the book’s pervasive anti-Semitic ideology.
However, when news about the Indian film on Hitler came out last month, it might have been a step too far. The title, “Dear Friend Hitler,” is a reference to two letters written by Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi to Hitler.
The first, written in 1939, asked the Nazi leader to help prevent a “war which may reduce humanity to the savage state.”
India’s tiny Jewish community condemned the film as insensitive and the lead actor Anupam Kher dropped out, saying he didn’t want to upset anyone.
“It’s very hurtful,” says Jonathan Solomon of the India Jewish Federation, of the film’s title. “The Jews in India were not the victims of anti-Semitism or the Holocaust, but we feel for our brother Jews, and this is very hurtful to Jews all over the world.”
But Singh is determined to see his script — which he says juxtaposes the personality of the German dictator against Gandhi — on celluloid and has the support of the film’s producers. If he’s able to persuade Kher to return to the project or can find a replacement, the film should be ready by the end of the year, he says.
“It’s misleading to say our film is glorifying Hitler,” he says, adding that he just wants to make an “authentic” film for Hindi audiences.