Patriotism and cinema are old companions

Directors and producers of 1950s’ Hindi cinema best exploited the patriotic sentiment


A boy sells a glass of water to SRK’s Mohan Bhargava in Swades.
A boy sells a glass of water to SRK’s Mohan Bhargava in Swades.

It is the way Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik and P.V. Sindhu played for India—it’s been a while since I have felt this patriotic, certainly so since 2014. Sports can do that. Even to those of us who don’t live for sports, or care to understand the fine details of games. I don’t know what reverse swing means, but one of my life’s most patriotic moments was when India won the 1983 cricket world cup at Lord’s. I watched it with neighbours of all ages, between frequent power cuts, on a grainy Weston TV set. I was 9, still recovering from watching the 1982 Asian Games; like many Indian families, mine had bought the Weston TV so we could watch the Asian Games (it also served well to watch the live broadcast of Indira Gandhi’s funeral two years later).

This is not a piece about the 1980s or sports. I can’t write with authority about either. It is about nationalism and patriotism, inevitably tied to sports.

Both these words are de rigueur in India now, for reasons other than sports. Seditious, anti-national—frighteningly, you could be accused of either for various reasons. This is also the kind of time when things or ideas that have existed for ages acquire new meaning—usually the doing of ideologue commentators and opinion-makers. In the last two weeks, I have read quite a few opinion pieces that conclude Hindi movies are newly replete with nationalism, that movies such as Mohenjo Daro and Bajirao Mastani are glorifying India’s history.

That’s far from the truth. Patriotism in cinema is as old as Sergei Eisenstein and Bombay Talkies. Even after the two catastrophic world wars, Europeans managed to keep art splendidly isolated from rousing, hard-wired nationalism. You would rarely see simple love of nation in a European film; you would see characters through the prism of distinct political world views. In Hollywood and other big film-making nations like India, patriotism is a commonly used, commercially lucrative storytelling trope. Even a romance has a few patriotic scenes. Remember Hrithik Roshan’s arrival in tricolour-fluttering London in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (2001)? Hollywood’s obsession with American soldiers fighting wars in the Muslim world, strange in look and texture through the lens of its wizardous cinematographers, has become a genre in itself.

Commercial cinema does not go against the mood or grain of a nation. With rare exceptions, it exists not to provoke or scrutinize, but to entertain and soothe. One of the ways it engages with the larger world that unrequited love and dangerous gangsters can’t cover, is through stories that rouse nationalism and patriotism. Soldiers are heroes and the enemy is another country, an idea, or sometimes a chimera of a universe populated by bearded men.

In the 2000s particularly, Hindi cinema has produced films brazen with anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) is just one of them. It was about the same time that the national anthem started playing in cinema halls before the start of a movie.

Directors and producers of 1950s’ Hindi cinema best exploited the patriotic sentiment. The classic Mother India (1957); Hum Hindustani (1960), a film about the clash of the old and new India, the song exemplifying it: Chodo kal ki baatein, kal ki baat purani; Saat Hindustani (1970), the fight of seven Indians to rescue Goa from Portuguese rule—also famous because it was the debut of Amitabh Bachchan; Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953), one of the finest socialist films ever produced, a lyrical eulogy to the farmer. In Nehruvian India, patriotism was the song of the farmer, the Everyman, the displaced.

Sometimes it is just a song. In 1957 again, a golden year for Hindi cinema, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa had the song Jinhe naaz hai Hind par, written by Sahir Ludhianvi and sung by Mohammad Rafi. Mani Ratnam picturized his lead man in Roja (1992), hands tied, body flung over a national flag in flames, in the song Bharat humko jaan se pyaara hai. In Rang De Basanti (2006), the mother of a fallen soldier is fragile and poetic in the hauntingly beautiful song Luka Chuppi. Are we even allowed to forget Aao bachchon tumhe dikhayen from the 1950s film Jagriti?

Director Ashutosh Gowariker brought the 1950s’ language back to Hindi cinema with Lagaan (2001) and Swades (2004). He took nationalism to mud huts and cracked farmlands, to a privileged young Indian’s return to his rural roots, to rural characters with defined traits, professions and mannerisms. The patriotism in Mohenjo Daro is puffed up and shallow, and film critics have rightly disliked it for this and many other reasons. There is a difference between Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, both films from 1998, both set against the spectre of World War II. Only the first could make love with the box office.

Let’s not blame governments or thought police for nationalism in cinema—the two are old companions. The real issue is censorship of films that question the nationalistic grain—opinions on that aren’t enough.

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