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India: Bollywood does Hitler

What's up with all the Nazi symbols in India?

Hitler restaurant Mumbai
A security personnel stands guard outside a new restaurant, named after Adolf Hitler and promoted with posters showing the German leader and Nazi swastikas, on the outskirts of Mumbai, Aug. 21, 2006. The new restaurant in India's financial hub has infuriated the country's small Jewish community. (Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — You wouldn't expect a woman named Savitri Devi to be interred next to George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. But Devi was no ordinary Hindu.

“Where Savitri Devi really hit the money was after World War II, when neo-Nazism morphed into a globalized form,” said British historian Nicholas Goodricke-Clarke. “It was talking about the white races against the colored people of the world, so therefore her globalized view of Aryans uber alles, transcending the limits of German nationalism, gave the post-War neo-Nazi movement an enormous fillip.”

Born Maximine Portaz in Lyon, in 1905, the French-Greek writer took the name Savitri Devi around the same time she devoted her life to Nazism and joined India's Hindu nationalist movement. Pop-philosopher, pseudo-academic, spiritualist and fascist, she penned “A Warning to the Hindus” to stir anxiety over the supposed threat posed by Christianity and Islam. She worked tirelessly to reconcile Hitler's cherished theory of the Aryan master race with the Hindu religion, and even argued that the Fuhrer was a living incarnation of Vishnu – one of Hinduism's principal deities. And, at least in part, it worked.

In a curious twist of fate — and ideologies — the weird love affair between a mostly brown nation and the world's most diabolical racist has turned out to be mutual. This week, for instance, Rakesh Ranjan Kumar, the director of a soon-to-be-released Bollywood biopic on Hitler, promised to reveal the Fuhrer's “love for India” (with singing and dancing?).

By all accounts, the film, which is titled “My Friend Hitler” and stars Bollywood stalwart Anupam Kher, is not hagiography, and Kumar, who said that an international release is planned for the film, is obviously courting controversy.

But it's inescapable that he's also aiming to tap the subcontinent's continuing infatuation with Hitler for box office returns. The dictator's autobiography, Mein Kampf, is a perennial best-seller here, where it is read by management students searching for business tips and budding Hindu nationalists seeking the inspiration behind Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh ideologue M.S. Golwalkar, whom historian Ram Guha aptly calls “the guru of hate.” And a few years back, nobody batted an eye when a restaurant called “Hitler's Cross” opened in cosmopolitan Mumbai, which has its own proponents of ethnic nationalism in the Shiv Sena and its offshoots.

"As a leader, [Hitler] was successful,” Kumar said at a press conference for the upcoming film, according to local news reports. “Why did he lose as a human being, what were the problems, what were the issues, what were his intentions, this is what we want to show."

So how did brown people come to love Hitler, and white supremacists come to love a brown country?