Freedom struggle through Hindi films
M.L Dhawan

Directed by Ketan Mehta and produced by Bobby Bedi Mangal Pandey (2005) was based on the life and times of Mangal Pandey, the leader of the 1857 mutiny, and his fight against British rule. Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan) was an Indian sepoy serving the East India Company who revolts while using the gun cartridges that had been greased with cow and pig fat.

The film vividly explains the sequences and events that led to the mutiny of 1857. The film of epic proportions attempts to bring alive a great hero on celluloid who was hanged.

The knockout performance of Aamir Khan as Mangal Pandey set the screen ablaze. The scene when he faces the British army alone and realises that he would be overpowered and tries to commit suicide, sent shudder down the spine of the audiences.

The film makes the people realise that the freedom they enjoy today is because of the sacrifices made by heroes like Mangal Pandey who gave their life and blood for the sake of their motherland.

The freedom struggle that stretched across a century has been captured on camera by our filmmakers, some of whom had even participated in this struggle.

The film industry was particularly charged with patriotism during the struggle days. The filmmakers thought of new vistas and brought in a new vision that altogether changed the outlook, text and tenor of the Hindi cinema. A large number of films in the patriotic mode were made which made the audience/people realise that no price is too high to defend the honour of the country and safeguard it. The films inspired the youth of those days to join the armed forces or at least to serve the country in their own way.

During the shooting of Bombay Talkies’ “Kismet” (1943) starring Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti, the Quit India movement was at its peak. Kavi Pradeep wrote the lyrics of this film, the music of which was composed by Anil Biswas. Pradeep had strong nationalistic feelings. He came up with lyrics “Aaj Himalaya ki choti se hum ne yeh lalkara hai/Door hato ae duniya walo Hindustan hamara hai...” The song was passed by the Censor Board and it was only when they noticed the tremendous enthusiasm of the audience did the Censor Board realise they had blundered.

But they did not recall “Kismet” for recensoring. The underlying content of Kismet was nationalist and anti-British; not only did that escape the censors, it seems to have ensured that the public would greet the film with acclaim for that very dimension.

This patriotic genre of filmmaking became very popular in the years between the 1940s and 1960s. These are really period films but they bring alive the atmosphere of the times. Directed by Ramesh Saigal for Filmistan’s production, “Shaheed” (1948) starring Dilip Kumar, Kamini Kaushal, Chander Mohan etc. was a nationalist melodrama set in the context of Quit India movement and the ensuing wave of terrorist actions, during the mid 40s.

The film had contemporary subject and was relevant to the troubled times. The song “Wattan ki rah men wattan ke naujawan shaheed ho...’ sung soulfully by Mohd Rafi and Khan Mastana became almost a national anthem.
Sanjeev Kumar and Sayeed Jaffrey in “Shatranj ke Khiladi”
Sanjeev Kumar and Sayeed Jaffrey in “Shatranj ke Khiladi”

Directed by Ramesh Saigal, Filmistan’s “Samadhi” (1950) was a patriotic drama addressing Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. Following Bose’s call on the Indian youth to join the anti-imperialist front, Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) joined the INA. In Singapore his elder brother Suresh (Shyam) is a captain in the British army who has to collaborate with a British spy ring. In the war the two brothers face each other. Makers like Ramesh Saigal, Sohrab Modi, V. Shantaram and Phani Majumdar had genuine patriotism flowing in their blood. At the height of British censorship, these directors were courageous enough to make such films and ingenious enough to sneak them past the censors.

“Andolan” (1951) by Majumdar was a story of India’s freedom struggle presented through the experiences of a Bengali family. The important events incorporated into the plot were Gandhi’s satyagraha, the Simon Commission, Vallabhbhai Patel’s Bardoli satyagraha and the 1842 Quit India agitation. Kishore Kumar played the militant hero of the film with aplomb.

Militant Bengali filmmaker Hemen Gupta had his Hindi debut at Filmistan with stridently nationalist biographical of the 18th century sage Satyanand who led the sanyasi uprising against the British. One cannot think of any other patriotic film made with so much feelings, passion and fervour. We need to make more films like “Anandmath” (1952) but where are the film makers to make them?

Hemant Kumar Mukherjee won immortality with his composition “Bandey matram” which Lata Mangeshkar and others crooned soulfully.

Sohrab Modi’s “Jhansi Ki Rani” (1953) had some fabulous sets and Mehtab looked every inch the queen. To date no film, not even “Mughal-e-Aazam”, has been able to replicate that grandeur. “Jhansi Ki Rani” was and remains a classic.

It is true that though the freedom movement threw up hundreds of stalwarts, there are few stories that can match Bhagat Singh’s for sheer heroism, idealism and dare-devilry. People should realise that the freedom they take for granted did not just come to them on a platter. It was bitterly fought, and hard won. The revolutionary to have fired the imagination of our filmmakers was Bhagat Singh.

Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (1977) is one of the finest films made in India on the happenings of 1857. Based on a story by Premchand, it related to the annexation of Lucknow. The city is the last to remain autonomous for a century by paying colossal sums to the East India Company, which had embarked since the 18th century on the annexation or bringing under its tutelage one after another the most vulnerable Indian princely States. The campaign reached its peak during 1840-50. In 1856 Awadh and its nawab came under the tutelage of the Company, one year before the sepoy mutiny of 1857-58.

At the time of those events, two young aristocratic friends, Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir (Sayeed Jaffery), who have nothing else to do than devote themselves to their favourite passion: the game of chess, for which they sacrifice their conjugal lives and their responsibilities to their prince Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan).

Mir and Mirza, after a quarrel which takes them to the point of a pistol duel, get back to their favourite game, outside the town taken over by the British, probably less out of cowardice than to show their disdain for a new foreign invasion, destined like the previous one to be assimilated by the age-old Indian civilisation.

The film was a sharp comment on the moral cowardice and unpatriotic stance of the elite.

With the freedom-struggle stretching for a couple of hundred years, there is obviously a lot in terms of history that our country has to offer. This has been captured time and again on camera by our filmmakers. Whether it was Dharmendra in “Haqeeqat”, Manoj Kumar in “Shaheed”, Raj Kumar in “Hindustan Ki Kasam”, Aamir Khan in “Sarfrosh”, Sunny Deol in “Border”, Ajay Devgan in “Legend of Bhagat Singh”, our hearts fill with pride and our eyes water by the time we are out of theatre.