By Subhash K Jha
BOLLYWOOD: Whatever happened to the patriotic films of yore? There was time when Manoj Kumar made a series of patriotic films beginning with Shaheed and Upkar. Today after a long period of hibernation he is all set to return to filmmaking with a film on genealogy rather than desh-bhakti.
So is filmy patriotism dead?
Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, who directed one of the last and finest patriotic film Rang De Basanti in recent times, recalls the heartbreaking assault on his spiritual and emotional connectivity with the theme.
“There were 4-5 Bhagat Singh films that didn’t connect with the audience. Then there was Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey. That too failed. And my film starred ‘Mangal Pandey’ Aamir Khan. So any sign of patriotism in my film was read as a danger sign. We never thought about whether it would work or not. It’s so much fun to raise the bars.Someone has to believe in you if you give two years of your life completely. UTV did. My kids forgot my face.”
Recalls Mehra, “In school I wanted to join the air force. It didn’t work out for me. In college in Delhi I was predominantly a sportsman. It didn’t work out because I was from a lower middle-class family. And the first priority was to bring money back into the family….As kids in Delhi on August 15 when we flew kites, we could hear India Gandhi speaking…On the other side there were the patriotic songs on the loudspeaker….Ae mere watan, Mere desh ki dharti…We were looking at the idea of our country through a kite….Films like Mother India, Do Bigha Zameen, Naya Daur which came on TV, touched all of us. This was the era when escapism hadn’t seeped into cinema or real life. I wanted to make a film on the life of the revolutionaries. What I didn’t want to do was to shoot them with halos ….I wanted to shoot them as normal youngsters . I wanted to call it The Young Guns Of India.The race for Bhagat Singh started. Initially I wanted to enter the race. Then I realized we were all insulting his memory. Attention was diverted by who would get into theatres first. I moved on….I did a focus group in Delhi and Mumbai. I took a new story idea to youngsters between 17 and 23. Our survey showed that for our generation a relationship meant, ‘Let’s get married and make babies together.’ Not to this generation. The youngsters we spoke to were driven by ambition. And I didn’t even know how to get on the internet! Anyway, we then moved into surveying them about the country and the tri-colour. The borders of patriotism had blurred. Pagdi sambhal jatta was no more relevant. Not too many kids knew who Chandrashekhar Azad was. I told my writer Kamlesh Pandey there was no point in making a film about the freedom fighters. He insisted , reminded me of the passion that Manoj Kumar’s films used to incite. But that was a different era. I sadly abandoned the original idea and hit on another idea of a British documentary filmmaker coming to India to make a film on the Indian armed revolution. She finds kids who are more western than her. Two lines… the past and present run together. They intersect. Finally my heroes took to the gun. At the end my heroes realize how futile it was to kill the home minister. Every story has to follow its own course. When heroes in a mythology enter the caves to fight the demons , they’ve to perish. Mani Rathnam’s Yuva didn’t work for me after the heroes went into the parliament….What’s jolting the audience is, they love my heroes and they don’t want them to die. What I was trying to say is, we got independence from the goras. But we got enslaved by our own. Now we’re killing each other. Take any government from the Congress’ Emergency to the Americans in Vietnam. You’re from Bihar. You know what I mean. There can be no neat solution to the problems we face. My film was a conversation with the masses.”
Bedobrata Pain is the director of the only patriotic film in the past few years. His Chittagong is a take on the well-known Chittagong uprising against the British Raj in 1930 .Pain feels patriotic films have run out of steam. “I think one of the problems with our partiotic films is that it focusses more on sacrifice and hero worship and less on the victory. I tried to get away from that.In my film there’s this feeling that it won’t end in sadness rather than on an uplifting note.I think today’s India wants to hear stories of winning.they also feel that a patriotic film will not be very exciting.Take a film like Braveheart .I think we have not been able to create such a big canvas. I don’t believe people have become apathetic to nationalism.I think the challenge for filmmakers is to keep it exciting .I wanted to see if I could tell the story of a boy growing up in an age of optimism – and tell it in a very simple way,and keep the audience engaged much like what our puranas or our epics have done.”
Pain feels the patriotic fervour of Manoj Kumar’s cinema has run its course. “The patriotic cinema of Manoj Kumar type does not evoke the same sentiments today.That was the era of optimism, of hope, of vision , of anticipation of something big that was going to happen , for which people were willing to lay down their lives.But after some 65 years of independent India that story of hope and vision has been replaced by cynicism.
Very few films dare to talk about creating a new society.The pervasive theme is of cynicism The heroes are the marginalized of the world ,or the lumpen proletariat.Anurag Kashyap’s films are a classic example.Even Rang De Basanti succumbs to that. Despite their valiant resistance and their rebellious acts, the film’s protagonists run out of ideas at the end.And despite their fabulous actions the film ends in a despair. I think we live in an age where we don’t see solutions,where we don’t see inspiration.In Chittagong I wanted to tell a story of inspiration. If we compare M.S.Sathyu’s Garam Hawa with Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaron Khwahishey …both beautiful films …I loved both of them. But Sathyu made me smile through my tears, whereas Sudhir made me sad even as I wa overwhelmed with the beauty of the film.”
Pain feels today’s generations in India are averse to history. “Just see how many films were made on WWII or the Irish uprisings.But ours can be counted on our fingertips. At the same time, it’s not that the genre doesn’t work. Ashutosh Gowarikar had given us a hit movie with Jodha Akbar. Despite my misgivings about the film it worked.”
According to Pain the Emergency during Mrs Indira Gandhi’s regime was the turning-point in cinema’s relationship with history. “ I think the concept of India underwent a change with the onset of 1975 emergency. The India that we dreamt of culminated in and ended with emergency.It almost feels like India had to be re-imagined.And then came the era of new economic policy in 1992.The last connection with the past was gone.So the quest for India took a very different turn. It’s almost as if a new discovery of India had to be written.Our present generation is a product for good or for worse (mostly worse I feel) of globalization.Their head is much stuck in the glitter of international wealth and American way of life than rooted in India. Most of the middle class urban youth today has no concept of slums and those who are in the lower rungs (or say in smaller towns) don’t want to change their situation, they want an escape from it. We don’t want to create a new India.We want to escape it.And that’s what has caused our young generation to be disconnected from the present and the history of India.”
Says Irrfan Khan cynically, “Patriotic films are replaced by T20 and 1-day matches between India and Pakistan.”
Says filmmaker Sanjay Chauhan who directed Lahore, a film on Indo-Pak amity, “In contemporary cinema the definition of stereotypical patriotic films has undergone a change.It is believed that one-dimensional flag-waving films studded with themes sacrificing one’s life for the beloved nation, like Anil Sharma’s Gadar have lost their audience. I beg to defer.Filmmakers are imbibing them streak of patriotism in subtle ways and blending them effortlessly into themes depicting myriad realities of life. Rang De Basanti with its candle-light protest stands tall in its support of how cinema can impact the mindset of society.Even my film Lahore which many thought was anti-climactic because it showed Pakistan’s victory on a sports platform,, is a quintessential example of new-wave patriotic cinema.Spoon-feeding the audiences with preachy patriotism is out.”
Mulling over his long absence from direction Manoj Kumar says, “I never intended to be a director in the first place. I became one by default when during Shaheed I had to direct the film unofficially. Then Lal Bahadur Shastri raised the slogan of Jai Jawan Jai Kisan. That’s how I made Upkar. I give credit for my success to my parents. My father was a poet philosopher. I came to Mumbai with two targets .One was to be a hero, the other was to make 3 lakh rupees,1 lakh each for my two parents and 1 lakh for my siblings.When I had left home in Delhi in 1956 to come to Mumbai to become a hero my father gave me a letter . In that letter he said, ‘My blood can never commit blunders, only mistakes’. I made mistakes in my career. But not blunders
Recalling the grenesis of one of his most well-known films Roti Kapada Aur Makaan Manoj Kumar says, “When I was in Class 8 a senior student named Dewan a school function chanted, ‘Maang raha hai Hindustan roti kapada aur makaan. That’s where the idea came to me. Roti Kapada Aur Makaan remains contemporary. The film was inspired by a report in a newspaper in 1972. A young graduate tore up his degree in front of the vice-chancellor as soon as it was given to him. That set me thinking about degrees and jobs. I was in Hardwar with my children once when I heard Hai hai yeh majboori early morning at 4 am on the loudspeaker.I found that funny.Yes ,Zeenat danced and I just watched.The irony of the situation was Bharat couldn’t join her in the rain because he had to go for a job interview.Also, after Upkar and Purab Aur Pachchim where I played a patriotic idealist how could I be shown getting intimate with the heroine? In the culture that I come from men didn’t touch women before marriage. Trust me it was very hard for me to not touch my heroine and still create romance.It used to be a nightmare.In Purab Aur Paschim Saira Banu played a half-British girl. Wohto seedha pakad kar chummi le leti. It took all my willpower to protect the sanctity of my hero Bharat.”
Manoj Kumar recalls the genesis of one of the most popular patriotic songs Mere desh ki dharti in his directorial debut Upkar.”That song is imperishable. When Mahendra Kapoor-ji, who sang ‘Mere desh ki dharti’, expired our prime minister Manmohan Singh said he would always be remembered for ‘Mere desh ki dharti’. It hurts to know so many people connected with that song – Kalyanji, Mahendra Kapoor and Gulshan Bawra – are no more.”
The veteran actor remembers how the song “Meri desh ki dharti” was conceived.
“Meri desh ki dharti happened when we had gone to a shrine to pay our respects. When we returned from the shrine in the car, lyricist Gulshan Bawra was singing ‘Mere desh ki dharti sona ugley… jawanon bhar bhar lo jholiyan… khushi se bolo boliyan.’ I kept quiet as he hummed these lyrics.Two-three years later when I made ‘Upkar’, I went to music composer Kalyanji and narrated the script. I called Gulshan Bawra home and told him the situation. I recalled the lyrics I had heard him hum near the shrine. It had stayed in my mind I saw it as a great idea that needed to be improvised.But I didn’t like the lines ‘Jawanon bhar lo jholiyan, khushi se bolo boliyan?I removed it from my ‘Upkar’ song. Instead we had ‘Meri desh ki dharti sona ugley ugle heere-moti’. Both Kalyanji and Gulshan were hesitant. They said the ‘mukhda’ of a song couldn’t be of one line. But I was adamant.An hour later Gulshan, who was sitting in the next room jumped and said, ‘This is great’. Every filmmaker while writing a screenplay comes to a landmark point in the plot where he thinks a scene can be narrated musically. That situation is given to the lyricist and explained. That was how Mere desh ki dharti happened.”
Filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan feels the concept of patriotism has undergone a ‘see’ change in cinema. “Shaheed, Kranti and then came the last of the patriotic films Khelenge Hum Jee Jaan Se and Chittagong, about characters fighting for their country in pre-Independence India. The outlook has changed. Patriotism is defined in the cuurent context.. Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelenge Hum Jee Jaan Se and Bedobrata Pain’s Chittagong were the last blast from the past.”
Subhash Ghai, who made the fiercely patriotic Karma, doesn’t believe Manoj Kumar’s brand of patriotism to be dead. “It’s still there in Indian cinema. But the definition of patriotism has changed.Audiences don’t want empty slogans, false pride and bogus dreams.Today cinema is addressing itself to Real India.You may see some reflection of that reality in my next film Kanchi.”
Writer Prasoon Joshi feels patriotism remains unchanged in our films. “It’s still about love and loyalty for the country.Earlier perhaps it was more tangible in terms of an external enemy and striving to get freedom for your country. This is where the Shaheed genre of patriotic cinema came in. Then it was about building your country, the Naya Daur and Upkar genre of patriotic cinema. Today’s patriotic cinema is about changing our country, purging it of the corruption and others ills that have set in.The enemy is within. Today Gandhian ideals are again finding a resonance in our cinema, e.g Raj Kumar Hirani’s Munnabhai. Be the change you want.”
Dr Chandraprakash Diwedi who crafted that fine film Pinjar on the theme of patriotism feels the definition of patriotic cinema has changed over the years. “Yes, there has been a decline in films depicting past A patriotic film needn’t be historical in content.Any film that strengthens and integrates society ,cultivates peace and harmony is patriotic.For me Salim Ahamed’s Malayalam film Adminte Makan Abu, Gautam Ghose’s Bengali Moner Manush and Amit Rai’s Road To Sangam are also patriotic films.”
Amol Gupte, the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society Of India, feels we’ve entered entered an era of self-absorption. “From Nation before self the ideology has shifted to I me myself.Given the circumstances where audiences’ tastes are dictated by the boxoffice, what can the poor filmmaker do? Is only the solidier going to lay down his life for Mother India while the rats attack the cheese?”