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Opinion: How Indian cinema captured 70 years, a billion dreams!

By HT

Films mirror the society or the society follows films? As Bollywood peddles a certain kind of chest-thumping patriotism that may or may not be targeted at the neighbour across the border, the question is even more significant. 
 
This Independence Day, we take a look at the Hindi film industry and how its definition – and portrayal of patriotic cinema changed in 70 years since India attained its Independence. The patriotic fervour of the years after independence showcased it in films that celebrated the idea of social responsibility and building the nation (Jagriti, Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Naya Daur). The disillusionment of the 70s and 80s found its expression in the angry young man and films such as Ardh Satya, Aakrosh and Sadgati. The 90s was all about jingoism and Pakistan bashing became a synonym for patriotism
 
The new millennium brought along Indians taking pride in themselves and a return-to-roots cinema, best shown in Swades but as the new decade began, the terms everyone was talking about were Nationalism, Patriotism, Nation building. Patriotism as a sentiment needs to be expressed everyday in any way possible and this nationalistic rhetoric are finding their way in the films.
 
Such has been the focus on painting a film mediocre that some mediocre films get disproportionate attention, whereas other films which are also Indian in their concerns, theme or treatment, but which do not ride the patriotic bandwagon, get ignored.
 
Or, at times, films are misleadingly pegged as patriotic. Let’s look at a recent example. An intense battle was fought on social media between the supporters of the two biggest blockbusters of 2016 - Dangal and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. S.S.Rajamouli’s Baahubali 2: The Conclusion was portrayed as a patriotic film, not by its makers, but by certain enthusiastic supporters who lauded the film for promoting Indian culture and revelled in the film’s depiction of a glorious past. This new trend of mixing mythology with history, was completely unnecessary, as also technically incorrect. Besides, Baahubali 2 would have done well on the strength of its content and delivery alone, which included powerful dialogues, uber-dramatic performances and world class special effects.
 
Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, on the other hand, had Amir Khan playing the ‘haanikarak bapu’ to his two young girls (a reference to the tough regime he imposes upon his daughters), whom he chisels until they shine and bring glory to their family, community, village, state and nation. If patriotism means love for one’s country, then this real-life story of Mahendra Phogat, the wrestler patriarch and his two daughters who beat the odds which were stacked high against them, was to my mind, was truly patriotic. The subliminal message of making India proud, always lurked in the background, throughout the film. That the film also trashed the rigid, patriarchal orders of the north Indian state of Haryana, where, two decades ago, it would perhaps have been unthinkable for a girl to take up the hitherto masculine sport of wrestling, was an added bonus.
 
It goes without saying that sports builds character, and character-building is critical to nation building. Right from the early days of our freedom struggle, our leaders laid emphasis upon the importance of women coming forward to grab their share of the spotlight on the national and international stage. Hence, any well-made film that deals with the subject of empowering women through sports, is essentially patriotic. Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom (2014) and Shimit Amin’s Chak DeIndia (2007), immediately come to one’s mind as excellent examples of well-made films which were based on this theme. Mary Kom was the laudable story of the rise and rise of the unstoppable boxer from Manipur who refused to let marriage and motherhood dampen her spirits, showing Indians how the tough get going, when the going gets tough, much like that athlete who put India back in the reckoning for an Olympic medal, P.T.Usha. Determination and grit are essential qualities of Indian women, many of whom fight battles daily at the workplace and at home.
 
Another genre of films that find finds its way effortlessly into patriotic category are the ones that attack ills inherent in our society which we would rather brush under the carpet than face. 
 
Seventy years after independence, there are certain sections of Indians who are discriminated against, based on the caste into which they were born. From the idealistic cinema of Bimal Roy in the 1950s (think of Nutan in Sujata,1959) to the New Wave cinema of the 1970s and 1980s (think of Om Puri in Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati,1981 or in Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh, 1980) to the cinema of this millennium (think of Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga, 2016 or Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, 2016 to name some recent films), several films have over the decades held a mirror to our casteist society , shaking us up and opening our eyes to the reality that many of our brothers and sisters are yet to occupy their rightful place in the sun. 
 
Equal rights for the differently abled and for those with a different sexual orientations, have also been sympathetically depicted by sensitive film makers- think of Sai Paranjpe’s Sparsh (1980) or Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a straw(2014), Onir’s My Brother Nikhil ( 2005) and Hansal Mehta’s recent film Aligarh(2016), to name some outstanding examples.
 
Communalism is another scourge that has plagued our country for centuries. And films based on the themes of communalism, bigotry and intolerance that arose around the events of partition - M.S.Sathyu’s Garam Hava(1973) , Deepa Mehta’s 1947: Earth (1998), Govind Nihalani’s Tamas (1988) - to name just a few - or on subsequent communal riots all over the country-Nandita Das’s Firaaq (2008), Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania (2005), Govind Nihalani’s Dev (2004), Shonali Bose’s Amu (2005),among others, continue to sensitize us to the evil that can rear its head on the slightest provocation.
 
Indians love films about war heroes. War films based on the events of World War II (V.Shantaram’s Dr.Kotnis ki amar kahaani, 1946) , Indo-China war of 1962 (Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat,1964), Indo-Pak war of 1965 (Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari, 1970) , Indo-Pak war of 1971 (J.P.Dutta’s Border, 1997), Kargil war of 1998(Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya, 2004) and the like ,will always continue to be popular. Films on freedom fighters bond us and remind us about the long battle that our freedom fighters waged against British rule - S.R.Sharma’s Shaheed (1965), starring Manoj Kumar, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1994), Jabbar Patel’s Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar(2000), are some popular films from this genre.
 
A more recent trend is of an ordinary individual standing up against the might of two neighbours constantly at loggerheads (Raj Kapoor’s Henna, 1991, Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha,2001, Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, 2015 and Tubelight, 2017);these will perhaps continue to find ready audiences in the future. And if a film can trash the Britishers, showing a bunch of illiterate villagers beating them in the game invented by the Burra Sahibs (Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan,2001), it is sure to stoke patriotic sentiments among Indians, ensuring huge box office collections in the process.
 
Now let us talk about another kind of hero - one who fights daily battles in our school and college classrooms, hospitals, offices and homes. Films that are based on progressive India are definitely patriotic, for isn’t nation-building an essential characteristic of nationalism? Take Swades, for instance. The film, about a successful NRI (played by Shah Rukh Khan) working in NASA struck the right note. 
 
An unplanned vacation to his nanny’s village in India turns into a journey of discovery for Mohan Bhargava - a journey of discovery of India as well as that of his own self and of all the values that he holds dear and had perhaps forgotten in the West. The film keeps you hooked with its intense emotional brief. 
 
The character’s growth is remarkable and realistically gradual-from the initial sequence where Mohan Bhargava hires an RV (recreational vehicle) loaded with mineral water bottles for the journey, to the scene where, after sharing a frugal meal with his nanny’s impoverished tenants, he accepts unfiltered water from an urchin boy who approaches him from the bus window. There is no sloganeering or loud acting in the film; there is a quiet realization that casteism, ignorance and superstition have very strong roots in our villages and our towns, but we need to keep trying to fight these social evils.
 
An excellent precursor to Swades was Shyam Benegal’s path-breaking film Manthan(1976).The film was crowd-sourced ,with 5 lakh villagers in Gujarat contributing Rs. 2 each to produce the film, and brought the story of the white revolution (cooperative dairy farming), led by Verghese Kurien to the silver screen. The film is remarkably written jointly by Vijay Tendulkar and Kurien himself, with multiple layers of issues which were then effecting our dairy farmers and preventing them from marketing their daily milk collection-exploitative zamindars, caste system, ignorance and backwardness among men and women of the village, etc. This was and remains a truly patriotic film and one which continues to inspire communities across the country to form collectives for the greater good.
 
50 years ago, Dileep Kumar told us in Naya Daur (1957) that together we can improve our lot. In Sahir’s words, “Saathi haath badhana, ek akela thak jayega , mil kar bojh uthana”. In the new millennium, Swades showed us how Indians can empower themselves, that our national pride lies in progress- progress for all Indians. In the words of Javed Akhtar-
 
Ram Hi to Karuna Mein Hai, Shanti Mein Ram Hain
Ram Hi Hai Ekta Mein, Pragati Mein Ram Hain
 
There is a connection between Lord Ram and our nation in this song. Lord Ram, the most virtuous of all men (Maryada Purshottam Ram) represents the king/leader. The song reminds Indians that true devotion lies in nation building, in karuna (compassion towards all beings), shanti (peace), ekta (unity) and pragati (progress).
 
In this 70th year of our independence, let us Indians come together and build a beautiful, progressive country where all are truly equal. Let our patriotic film makers embrace fresh ,unconventional themes of nation building in our films, be it Swachha Bharat in Shree Narayan Singh’s Toilet:Ek Prem Katha (2017) or Right to Education in Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium (2017). Let our dream merchants take a pledge to peddle a billion collective dreams of a heaven of freedom. In the words of Gurudev Tagore -
 
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
 
(Nirupama Kotru is a civil servant. Views are her own)