Expression of freedom

Be it Bhagat Singh as Shaheed or Mangal Pandey’s The Rising, Hindi cinema has depicted patriotism in a myriad ways, sometimes subtle and subversive and at others overt and over the top. Nirupama Dutt looks at films which struck a nationalistic chord.

THE country’s Independence celebrations come this time with the saga of Mangal Pandey told in a gala way on celluloid. Four years after the success of playing cricket in the name of freedom in Lagaan, Aamir Khan is back with the patriotic pill Bollywood style with The Rising:Ballad of Mangal Pandey. A hero of what to Indians remains the First War of Independence, while for the British it was the Mutiny of 1857. It has been resurrected with the punch line "discovering Independence." Aamir has picked out Mangal Pandey from the pages of Indian history as the hero who triggered off the Indian mutiny. The saga is told with a lot of song and dance for that is Aamir’s way of making unusual themes click at the box office. Aamir, of course, is Mangal and one has got used to see him in the get-up of a sepoy of the Royal Indian Army who dared to reason why. Rani Mukherjee plays the dancing girl and Ameesha Patel a widow. Cine buffs have been living with the hype created about the film for many months now and it is yet to be seen if it will live up to the hype. Going by Aamir’s track record it is all set to be a blockbuster. The hype is tremendous and so is the enthusiasm. Even if the Oscar continues to evade Khan, the point proved is that Indian filmmakers love to go back to the national struggle for Independence time and again. It is one subject that is still not dated.

In fact, the history of Indian cinema is well woven with the struggle for freedom and even in the times of the Empire, Indian filmmakers had succeeded in making films that would inspire the masses. Censors were vigilant with words like ‘in freedom’ which were deleted from the films of the time but filmmakers had a cultural history that could be pressed to political use without the rulers realising what was happening. When Dada Saheb Phalke delved into Hindu mythology, he raised issues of good versus evil; justice versus injustice; as well as courage versus fear. Beginning with Rajah Harish Chandra, which opened at the Coronation Cinema in Bombay in 1912, Phalke went on producing mythological hits like Lanka Dahan and Krishna Janma that were loved by the people as it strengthened their self image. Cinema was a great happening in the land of the ‘idol-worshippers’ and J.B.H. Wadia recalled in his memoirs the tremendous response to Lanka Dahan: "I remember that devout villagers from nearby Bombay had come in large numbers to have the darshan of their beloved God, Lord Rama." So Ravana became the oppressor identified those days as the ruler and Rama the saviour of the people. So also for Kansa and Krishna. In recent times, we have witnessed this popular imagery appropriated by fundamentalist forces but the significance was different in the colonial era. Thus mythologicals contributed to the building of a movement.

Allegory was in and Debaki Bose used it in a social film, Apna Ghar (1942), with the tyrannical husband representing the British ruler and the rebel wife symbolising India’s desire for freedom. The most interesting film that gave the song of freedom in Mumtaz Shanti’s voice and Anil Biswas’ musical score was Bombay Talkies’ Kismet (1943). Coming close on the heels of the Quit India Movement launched in 1942, it was seemingly a love story on the lost and found formula that has been the Bollywood patent to success. The film made a superstar of Ashok Kumar playing Shekhar the pickpocket and the people of a country struggling for freedom got their marching song Yahan hamari Taj Mahal hai aur Qutub Minara hai, Yahan hamare mandir-masjid, Sikhon ka gurdwara hai/ Door hato ai duniyawalo Hindustan hamara hai. The film ran for three years in Calcutta, and happily, the censors realised only too late that the song had touched a special chord.

The pictures of Congress leaders and the Congress symbols of the freedom struggle had started appearing in Indian films of different languages. A Tamil film Seva Sadan (1938), produced by Madras United Artistes and Chandraprabha, has an entire song picturised with the spinning wheel, with pictures of Gandhi and Nehru in the background. In 1942, the British passed the rule that no photograph of Gandhi should appear on screen, not even as a backdrop. At this, the comment in The Journal of the Film Industry was: "Excision of photos of the Congress leaders is not going to excise them from the hearts of their followers."

Given this history, it would have been assumed that with the dawn of Independence, Indian filmmakers would rush to make films on the national struggle. But this was not to be, for Independence had been preceded by communal riots and Partition was the final blow leading to migration of artistes and filmmakers from India to Pakistan and vice versa. There were only two notable films on the theme, Shaheed (1948), starring Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal and the Ashok Kumar and Nalini Jaiwant starrer Samadhi (1948). Ramesh Saigal directed both films. The former was set against the background of the Quit India Movement and the latter had as its frame, the Indian National Army. Today both these films are remembered by their great music. Ghulam Hyder was to give the free people of a free land catharsis in the famous Shaheed song, Watan ki raah pe watan ke naujawan shaheed ho. C. Ramachandra gave a string of popular songs in Samadhi and the best remembered today is Lata Mangeshkar’s peppy number Gore gore O banke chore/ Kabhi meri gali aaya karo.

The fight for Independence saw Sohrab Modi who had set the tradition of giving romanticised legends against a historical setting like Pukar (1939) and Sikander (1941). The latter was banned in cantonments as it showed rebellion in Alexander’s army, trying to make an actual historical from the freedom struggle. His saga of the warrior queen played by Mehtab in Jhansi ki Rani (1953) flopped in spite of it being a grand spectacle.

Over time there have been many films on the great patriot, Bhagat Singh and the first Bollywood actor to lend his face to the hero was Shammi Kapoor in Shaheed Bhagat Singh(1963), directed by K.N. Bansal. It was a low-budget film that was started in the late 1950s but released late and did not do well. Later, the mood in Bombay was upbeat and the formula for success was song, dance and stars. This formula was exploited with success by Hari Krishna Goswami, alias Manoj Kumar, alias Bharat Kumar, in many a film promoting patriotism. Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1979), with its plot revolving around the Indian mutiny, was one of the costliest films of its times. It fulfilled the filmmaker’s dream of acting with Dilip Kumar but it did not make a mark. However, people loved him as Bhagat Singh in Shaheed (1965).

Playing the patriot most loved is irresistible to the Punjabi hero and in 2002 Ajay Devgan did it with aplomb in The Legend of Bhagat Singh and Bobby Deol in Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh. Ironically, no filmmaker showed the courage to do a feature film on Gandhi and it was British director Richard Attenborough who resurrected the man in the dhoti in Gandhi (1982) with an Indo-British cast and Ben Kingsley, alas not Naseeruddin Shah, in the lead, for the latter had longed for the role. Naseer later lived the role in all its complexity on stage in Mahatma Vs Gandhi, directed by Feroze Khan. Joy Augustine was all set to make a cine version of it with Naseer as Gandhi and Abhishek Bachchan as the son, Hiralal. However, the film ran into trouble even before it started with Anil Kapoor staking claims that he was making the film along with Feroze Khan, who had directed the play. Down South, Kamal Hasan played the hero in Hey Ram (2000), resurrecting the Mahtma’s ideology in the context of present-day Hindu-Muslim conflict, with Naseer doing his bit as Gandhi.

Coming to fictional stories set against the First War of Independence in 1857, Satyajit Ray came with the remarkable Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977), based on Munshi Prem Chand’s famous story. The very next year, Shyam Benegal followed in Ray’s footsteps by directing Junoon, based on Ruskin Bond’s novel, A Flight of Pigeons. A fine film, which was promoted as ‘a stirring romantic thriller in the backdrop of the Indian mutiny’, had a multi-star cast comprising Shashi Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Jeniffer Kendall, Deepti Naval, Benjamin Gilani, Shaukat Azmi and Pearl Padamsee. And now it is over to Aamir Khan and his version of Mangal Pandey. A Reuters review says thus of the film: "The Bollywood style is so bouncy and optimistic, however, it’s difficult to sustain the effect of an oppressed nation when everyone, even untouchables and slave girls, all appear so jolly. The hero is savagely beaten by five Company men, but shortly afterward he joins the beautiful pleasure house girl Heera (Rani Mukherji) in a jaunty dance number..." A few Indians would care about these Western reviewers? It is our oppression, our freedom, our Mangal Pandey, our Aamir Khan and our cinema. We shall do things as we choose to. Away with these outdated notions of Western realism Door hato ai duniyawalo Hindustan hamari hai.

Man who led the mutiny
Who was Mangal Pandey? What were his motivations? What implications did the Mangal Pandey incident have on the wider uprising? To learn more about the hero of India’s First War of Independence, see exclusive excerpts from Amaresh Misra’s Mangal Pandey: True Story of an Indian Revolutionary.