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How nationalism evolved in Hindi films

*Priyadarshi Dutta

August 24, 2017: Several memorable Hindi films, over the last 70 years, have appealed to people’s sense of patriotism, valour and self-sacrifice for the nation. Their subjects range across freedom struggle, invasions & battles, sports, ancient and medieval history, insurgency etc. The common theme running across them is pride in being Indian and duty towards the nation. But admittedly they are fewer in number when compared with the vast output from the Bombay film industry, now called Bollywood.

The film industry in India grew up through the heydays of freedom movement. Like drama, in the 19thcentury, there was a strong possibility that films could purvey patriotic spirit. As early as 1876, the administration of Lord Northbrook had promulgated the Dramatic Performances Act to stamp out sedition on stage. The British similarly kept a watchful eye on the films also, through the Censor office and Police.

Thus in 1943 there was an arrest warrant against Ramchandra Narayanji Dwivedi aka Kavi Pradeep for writing a thinly disguised song in support of Quit India movement in the Bombay Talkies’ film Kismet. The song ‘Aaj Himalay ke choti se phir humne lalkara hai/Door hato aye duniya walon Hindustan Hamara Hai (We have thrown the challenge from the top of the Himalayas/Foreigners, hands off India)The lyrics further reads-“Shuru hua hai jung tumhara jag utho Hindustani/Tum na kisi kea age jhunkna German ho ya Japani (Your battle has begun, awake O, Indians/Never capitulate before anybody whether German or Japanese). In the World War II (1939-1945), India being on the Allied side, was theoretically an adversary of the Germans and the Japanese. Throughout 1942, after Singapore and Burma crumbled, the fear of Japanese invasion of India was real. But the British were clever enough to see that Jung (War) here actually meant freedom struggle, and foreigners actually implied the British. Kavi Pradeep had to go underground to evade arrest.

With independence declared on August 15, 1947 such hurdles were removed. However, we do not notice crop of films on nationalism emerging. It is speculative why it should happen for a country that had emerged independent through a protracted freedom struggle. A comparison with say the number of films produced in Egypt about 1952 Revolution and in Bangladesh about Liberation War is likely to disappoint us. There were no doubt exceptions like Shaheed (Martyr) written by Wajahat Mirza and directed by Ramesh Saigal that was the highest grosser in the year 1948. Its song ‘Watan ki raah mein watan ke naujawan shaheed ho penned by Qamar Jalalabadi still sounds poignant.  The biggest grosser for the year 1950 was Samadhi, again directed by Ramesh Saigal, allegedly based on a true incident of Azad Hind Fauz of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Also in the same year came another film based on Azad Hind Fauz viz. Pehla Aadmi directed by legendary Bimal Roy.

In 1952 came Anand Math, based on the famous novel by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. It was directed by Hemen Gupta, a former freedom fighter, who had spent years in jail and allegedly escaped hanging by a whisker. He later turned to making of films. But Anand Math was nowhere amongst the top ten grosser. The list was dominated by likes of Aan, Baiju Bawra, Jaal and Daag etc representing musical, romance, suspense and social drama genres.

The common genres in the 1940s and 50s were social, romantic, musical, action, suspense, mythological, costume drama etc. Patriotic or nationalistic films were an exception. Shohrab Modi, the great maker of historic movies, faced box office debacle for his superbly produced film Jhansi Ki Rani (1953).  The top grosser for the year 1953 was Nandlal Jaswantlal’s Anarkali, based on a legend with no grounding in history. Similarly Durgesh Nandini (1956) based on a historical novel by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, was a miserable flop.

This is not to say that viewers were indifferent to nationalistic spirit. It only meant political freedom was not the only challenge for India. Already in 1946, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, India’s first entry into Cannes Film Festival, showed how avaricious rich dealt with the poor villagers. The Rahi (1953), directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, is about British proprietors of tea estate in Assam exploiting workers and depriving them of their rights. Such proprietors are to be deprecated as unconscientious capitalists whether British or Indians.

The films have acquired a life of their own when the freedom came. Their study through 1940 and 1950s would reveal the priorities and viewing preferences of the people. The new Republic had its own set problems that engaged people’s attention. The biggest hit of 1950s decade was Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957). The film captures struggles of a poor village woman Radha (played by Nargis) to raise her two sons, and survive against cunning money lender. Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420, the highest grossing film of 1955, shows the perils of Ponzi schemes meant to fleece poor people. Anari (1959) a film by Hrisikesh Mukherjee, featuring Raj Kapoor, shows the urban underbelly of fatal spurious medicines.  The problems that newly independent India grappled with found reflection in the films.

The 1960s revealed that challenges India needed to solve were not merely internal. They sometimes needed military response. The Goa Liberation War (1961), Chinese invasion (1962) and Pakistani aggression (1965) were highlights of the 1960s. Another Indo-Pakistan War followed in 1971.  They made us conscious about the valour, patriotism and spirit of sacrifice in the armed forces.

A string of military films have followed since then. They include Haqeeqat (1964), Humsaya (1968), Prem Pujari (1970), Lalkar (1972), Hindustan ki Kasam (1973), Vijeta (1982), Akraman (1975) etc. Closer to our times there have been films like  Prahaar; The Final Attack (1991), Border (1997), LoC Kargil (2003), Tango Charlie (2005), Shaurya (2008), 1971 (2007), Ghazi Attack (2017) etc. These films have increased the stature of the armed forces in the esteem of ordinary Indians.

In the 1960-70s, actor Harikishna Giri Goswam alias Manoj Kumar, held the fort with positive and patriotic thoughts in films. He earned the nickname ‘Bharat Kumar’ (Son of India). He played revolutionary Bhagat Singh in Shaheed (1965). His films like Upkar (1967) shows the peril of a demobilized soldier caught in the web of black marketing and spurious drugs. In Purab Aur Paschim (1970) he upholds the Indian culture in the West.

In the 1970s, India was still considered a backward and regressive nation in the West. Manoj Kumar defended the superiority of Indian culture boldly in Purab Aur Paschim. A change has come over post-liberalization, which coupled with performance in the field of Information & Technology, led to India’s rising global stature. Since the mid-1960s Indian immigration to the industrialized nations of the West like the USA and UK has increased. It has led to growth of long-distance nationalism whereby immigrants are proud of their Indian identity. Songs like ‘I love my India’ (Pardes, 1997) captivate that spirit.

The films like Lagaan (2001), Chak De India (2007), Bhag Milkha Bhag (2013), Dangal (2016) used sports to rouse patriotic feelings. Mention might also be made about a Bengali movie Egaro  or The Immortal Eleven (2011) by Arun Roy based on Mohun Bagan’s victory over East Yorkshire Regiment on July 29, 1911 in IFA shield match in Calcutta. It was the first victory by an Indian football club over a British team. The film was a tribute to that event on its centenary year.

Patriotism has not lost its appeal on film maker is proven by the fact that in the year 2002 three Hindi films were produced on Bhagat Singh. These were The Legend of Bhagat Singh by Rajkumar Santoshi, 23rdMarch 1931: Shaheed directed by Guddu Dhanoa and Shaheed-E-Azam by Sukumar Nair. In 2004, noted director Shyam Benegal came out with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero. But patriotism alone is not talisman of box office success as the box office disaster of Khele Hum Jee Jan Sey (2010), a film by Ashutosh Gowarikar, based on Chittagong Armoury Uprising (1930-34) proved. But there is no doubt that nationalism will continue to find new ways on silver screen. It will have to continuously reinvent itself to endear itself to viewers.

*The writer is an independent researcher and columnist based in New Delhi.

Views expressed in the article are his personal.

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