Film festivals in India are such fun. They are free and you invariably get a superb retrospective thrown in. Access to everything cultural in Delhi is obtained through free “passes”. This was a retrospective of the Hungarian master Zoltan Fabri and—honestly—I would have paid thousands of rupees for it if the Hungarian Cultural Centre had asked.
But, I discovered, watching a movie in an India cinema is a different matter altogether. It’s fun but only if you were born with a sardonic sense of humour. I was watching a stunning black-and-white avant garde Chinese art film about a poet on a business trip, called Poet On A Business Trip. It’s a road film—of a kind you’re unlikely to have come across.
Shot back in 2002 but put together only in 2014 (because of a dispute between actor Shu (one name) and director Ju Anqi, the film takes you on a journey with the poet-businessman through Xinjiang province among China’s Uyghur minority, who populate the desolate landscape. The poet-businessman writes 16 poems along the way.
The drama began before the start of the film. The tricolour unfurled on the screen and the national anthem played. I was still fuming over the wrong pronunciation of the word Banga (Bengal) by the singers who wanted to rhyme it with Gangaa when drama unfolded all around me.
The man next to me, who looked Indian, hadn’t stood up. I hadn’t noticed but a festival official had. She came up and he told her he wasn’t an Indian national.
“He can be arrested sir,” she informed me.
It’s his choice, I thought.
But now the row behind ours was a getting a bit restive. Two women who sat together said, “Show some respect.” Two men (who left soon after) shouted, “The point is to stand up, okay?”
The man stood up and, Bangaa duly rhymed with Gangaa, the movie began. Thankfully, the pace was meditative.
Playing of the national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, before every movie screening in India has been ruled mandatory by the Supreme Court. It has also ruled that the audience must stand during the 52-second rendition, which is accompanied by a shot of the Indian tricolour waving on the screen.
“Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality,” the judges declared on 11 November last year.
There were protests about the ruling but the court would have none of it. It made one exception though—you don’t need to stand if the national anthem is played or sung as part of a film.
In passing the judgement, delivered on a citizen’s plea, the court revived a practice that was common in the 1960s and 1970s, possibly as part of a patriotic response during India’s war with China in 1962. The only difference was that the rule at the time was to play the song after the movie, which meant many in the audience were free to leave.
This time around, the judges ruled that not only has the audience to stand up at the start but that all entry and exit doors in the cinema shall be closed for the duration of the anthem. “After the National Anthem is played or sung, the doors can be opened,” the judges ruled.
The one problem that became evident during the screening of Poet on a Business Trip was that there is utter confusion about who is primarily responsible for the enforcement of the court’s order. Is it the individual, or the cinema owners, or the lawkeepers, i.e. police? The latter is an unworkable proposition because one cannot possibly have policemen in every cinema up and down the country, attending every show. Arguably, there are better ways to use taxpayers’ money.
That leaves it up to the individuals to do their duty by the Indian Constitution, failing which, presumably, it is up to the cinema staff. But what is the staff to do? Tell the police? But police presumably have far more pressing matters to attend to.
This leaves us with vigilantes: members of the audience who have sat through the anthem, including a man in a wheelchair, have been beaten up, roughed up or abused in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement.
The order has been challenged by a film club and the hearing on the matter continues. This week, however, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) filed another petition, seeking the singing of the national anthem and an equally patriotic song, Vande Mataram, to be made compulsory in schools. (The first two verses of Vande Mataram are recognized as the national song). As a result, the court asked the government to respond within four weeks to the petition, which seeks a policy on the national anthem, national song and national flag.
There is an obvious political problem here. Although Vande Mataram—a very loose translation would be ‘Hail Mother (India)’—was a rallying crying for Indian freedom fighters, it was originally part of a novel that is known for its pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim narrative. For instance, the iconic Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose dropped Vande Mataram in favour of Jana Gana Mana (reworked in colloquial Hindustani) as the anthem for his Indian National Army.
The court seems to be well aware of this problem. In a previous hearing, in February, one of the judges pointed out that “Constitutionally, it is the fundamental duty of a citizen to respect the national flag, emblem and anthem and not the song”.
In India, there is absolutely no dearth of beautiful patriotic songs. Each one deserves to be respected and loved—by standing if that’s your way. Indeed, the BJP’s veteran leader, L.K.Advani, would stand up and sing the Bengali song ‘Dhono dhannye pushpe bhora’ (this Queen among nations, in a world brimming with wealth, grains and flowers) in public forums, in addition to the national anthem.
The real problem is that there no enforcement machinery to deter vigilantism.
How then to watch a movie in India?
In this increasingly complex world, brimming with nationalist fervour and video streaming services, is it best to stick to the small screen?
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1