Rakesh Ranjan Kumar thinks that Adolf Hitler was a friend of India, and the world should see the human side of the man who transformed the nation of Goethe and Schiller into unthinking mass murderers, or, as Daniel Goldhagen called them, “willing executioners".

Admiring Hitler is somewhat similar to admiring Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, or Saddam Hussein, to name only some of the unsavoury characters that have made the 20th century so bloody. And yet, the fascination with Hitler in India is perplexing.

As a schoolboy in Bombay, I recall seeing dozens of films at Sterling, Metro, Regal and Eros, in which Nazis were always the bad guys, period. The Longest Day, The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, A Bridge Too Far, Is Paris Burning?, or Battle of Britain. And yet, at college, I recall a well-read student senior to me telling me with great conviction that the Holocaust never happened and that there was a giant conspiracy against Hitler.

He had read Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler’s autobiography, which sold 100,000 copies in the last decade, according to Jaico Books, its publisher. Like the Indian youngsters the BBC interviewed recently, he admired Hitler’s sense of “discipline", “nationalism", and “spirit".

These kids aren’t alone. The Shiv Sena’s patriarch, Bal Thackeray, has often praised Hitler. Some Gujarat textbooks look uncritically at Hitler, focusing on his role in building German nationalism after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, glossing over the blood-splattered record.

There is an older Hindu nationalist obsession with Hitler. Leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have at various times praised Hitler’s nationalism, though to be fair, some have also decried Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Balkrishna Munje of the Hindu Mahasabha went briefly to Mussolini’s Italy in 1931 and came back impressed. Hitler’s quest for Aryan supremacy makes some Hindu nationalists nostalgic; his usurping of the swastika makes some feel a vague kinship. Adding mumbo-jumbo to the mix is Maximine Julia Portas, a French writer, who took the name Savitri Devi and wrote extensively praising Hitler, and dabbled in Hinduism and occult. (She died in 1982).

Such fascination is subliminal, and except for the Hollywood films, there is little to counter it. It is in such a context that an entrepreneur could open a restaurant in Navi Mumbai in 2006 with Nazi insignia. He seemed genuinely puzzled by the international opprobrium and changed its name (Hitler’s Cross) within days. Other companies have used Hitler in Indian ads.

But here’s the irony: on the one hand, some Hindu nationalists want to admire Hitler’s “virtues". On the other, they see themselves as Israel’s best friends in India, united in a common struggle against Islamic terror. They want closer relations with the Jewish state—while being in awe of the man who attempted to eliminate all Jews.

It is in such an environment that Kumar wants to make the film, Dear Friend Hitler. Anupam Kher, who had agreed to play Hitler, backed out after fans, the Jewish community, and Soni Razdan’s mother (who is German) informed him that it wasn’t a smart career move. If the film gets made, it won’t be the first time an Indian film-maker will portray Hitler. Asrani acted as a Hitler lookalike jailor in a comic cameo in Ramesh Sippy’s epic Sholay (1975), down to the trademark moustache. While not as profound as Charlie Chaplin’s superb depiction of Hitler in The Great Dictator, in Sholay Hitler was at least ridiculed.

When Shyam Benegal made Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, he had to decide how to show Hitler, (who he knew was no friend of India), and Bose’s militant nationalism in a good light, without undermining Mohandas Gandhi’s civil disobedience. Bose chose Hitler over Gandhi; the film avoided the moral debate.

Benegal takes us to wartime Berlin, where Bose waits to meet Hitler. When they do meet, Hitler comes across as unemotional, almost like a bureaucrat. And yet, Hannah Arendt’s term, “banality of evil", is inappropriate, because nothing in Benegal’s film reveals Hitler’s evil nature. Hitler brings Bose to a large globe, and shows him how close India is to Japan compared with Germany, and says that Bose had come to the wrong country. It looks like a scene from a high school play, not a rousing historical drama. Benegal does not mock Hitler, nor does he make you admire him. But he doesn’t make you hate him either.

Other films have got Hitler right: Chaplin dancing with the globe in The Great Dictator shows his megalomania with uncanny prescience—the film was made in 1940, before the full horrors of Nazi era were known. In Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (Downfall), we get a nuanced view: not sympathetic, but more accurate. It shows Hitler’s frailties and insanity, making him more sinister. In that film, evil is not banal. And you know instantly that Hitler is not your friend.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

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