- - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

“Dear Friend Hitler,” a new Bollywood film based on an actual exchange of letters between Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi, seemed to have all the makings of a cultural provocation.

Instead, it’s turning out to be a punch line.

Musical numbers. The Himalayas as European scenery. A pint-size Indian actor starring as a Hitler dwarfed by his Nazi minions, played by dark-skinned Indian actors standing in for the pale, towheaded Aryan stock idealized by the Third Reich.

These are just some of the unlikely components combined in “Dear Friend Hitler,” which opened across India on Friday. Yet, for all its jaw-dropping incongruities, the film was intended as a respectable historical drama a la “Downfall” or “Gandhi.” Early reviews and the film’s trailer suggest, instead, an inept travesty, one that has been called a real-life “Springtime for Hitler,” the outlandishly tasteless musical-within-a-farce from “The Producers.”

“Dear Friend Hitler,” known as “Gandhi to Hitler” in India, emphasizes the last days of Hitler, played by diminutive Indian actor Raghubir Yadav. Before the start of production, the film’s first-time director, Rakesh Ranjan Kumar, fueled apprehensions in the West that he would trivialize or even apologize for the crimes of the Third Reich and its mastermind with a sympathetic portrayal of Hitler. The film would showcase “Hitler’s love for India and how he indirectly contributed to Indian independence,” Mr. Kumar said last year, as reported in the Guardian.

Producers of the film later backpedaled, claiming that “Dear Friend” is not a glorification of Hitler but, rather, a study in contrasting characters and ideologies crystalized in the brief correspondence between Hitler and Gandhi. In 1939 and 1940, Gandhi wrote two letters to Hitler imploring him to avoid war, beginning each with the words “Dear Friend.”

Nalin Singh, who co-wrote “Dear Friend Hitler” and stars as Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, claims his film has been mischaracterized. “It is a clash of ideology between two most talked about leaders of the era,” he said, explaining that the film emphasizes how different political methods and philosophies can lead to success or failure, with an emphasis on the success of nonviolence.

As reactions to the film filtered in, early anxieties about a pro-Hitler spin gave way to simple incredulity. After a screening at Cannes, the Hollywood Reporter’s Duane Byrge became the first to liken “Dear Friend” to a real-life “Springtime for Hiter,” labeling the film “unintentionally funny and jarringly incompetent.” Now the film is attracting attention as a cultural oddity rather than the whitewashing of evil originally feared.

A cultural disconnect could be partly to blame for historical naivete in India about Nazi Germany. Whereas Hitler is almost universally reviled in the West as a genocidal warmonger, Indian views often are somewhat softer. The swastika, known in the West as a symbol of Nazism, is an ancient Hindu symbol of good luck charged with quite different connotations for many Indians. Bollywood films often feature characters referring to one another as “Hitler,” a casual insult connoting bossiness. Years ago, an Indian restaurant named Hitler’s Cross made headlines for its name and use of Nazi imagery. (The name has since been changed to Cross Cafe.)

“The general [Indian] public doesn’t necessarily know that much about Hitler’s persecution of minorities and the Holocaust,” said Philip A. Lutgendorf, a professor of Hindi and modern Indian studies at the University of Iowa who has taught classes on Indian cinema.

India turns out a lot of films, just like Hollywood does. They’re constantly trying to find new story lines, and there’s pressure to come up with new and interesting angles,” he said, observing that Indian stories often don’t feature the “black-and-white, good-and-evil divide like you find in a lot of Christian traditions.”

“Dear Friend Hitler” generated controversy from the start, even in India. Originally, Bollywood star Anupam Kher was signed to play Hitler, but he dropped out of the production, citing objections from fans. Mr. Yadav stepped into the role, and producers are suing Mr. Kher for breach of contract.

But while Indian perceptions of the Third Reich may deviate sharply from settled opinion in the West, Indian critical reaction to the film apparently does not. Early reviews there have been scathing. “It is utterly silly and unintentionally funny,” wrote Saibal Chatterjee of NDTV.com, sounding a familiar theme. “You want to laugh, but you squirm.”

Taran Adarsh of bollywoodhungama.com said that “the execution of the subject is so amateurish that it leaves you distraught.”

As for audiences, they’ve had “mixed reactions, some good, some bad,” said Mr. Singh, the film’s screenwriter, adding, “All said, it’s interesting and new.”

In one sense, the analogy between “Springtime for Hitler” and “Dear Friend Hitler” is imprecise.

After all, the former was intended to be a bomb but accidentally succeeded.

The latter was supposed to be a prestige success, but ended up a bomb.

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