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SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 12 AUGUST, 2015

So What Is Patriotism? Perhaps Hindi Cinema Has The Answer

Patriotism in cinema


The definition of the word ‘patriotism’ has changed over the years so much that one fails to pin it down and give a precise definition. If Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed was considered to be among the top ‘patriotic’ films in Hindi mainstream cinema, then would Lagaan be considered a patriotic film today? Or, 3 Idiots that lambasts the education system that has become more rigid than it was when the British were in power? It is very difficult to bring out an honest and precise answer to this question. Children born immediately following India’s independence are now on the wrong side of sixty. Men and women in their thirties and forties have no clear idea about what patriotism means because the syllabus of history books has changed and Indian cinema does not need to breed patriotism to get a tax exemption.

Historical and political realities hardly have value at the box office. Hemen Gupta's 1942 shot in Black-and-White was very popular, but one is uncertain about its fate at the box office. Many years later, Vidhu Vinod Chopra made 1942: A Love Story, a period love story set against the backdrop of the freedom struggle. Following this if through a cloudburst, a flood of films on the freedom struggle began to get made by a generation of post-Independence film makers. Among them, are a few whose memories of freedom at midnight are a part of their boyhood days.

Dr. P.K.Nair, then-curator-Director of the National Film Archives, Pune, made a list of 25 films on the freedom struggle between 1925 and 1955 of which, 11 were in Hindi. These are Azadi ke Rah Par, Andolan, Apna Ghar, Anand Math, Chandra Shekhar, Jai Bharat, Kashmir, Neecha Nagar, Swarna Bhoomi, Sikandar and Shaheed. Of these 11, Indians in their fifties might have heard only of Anand Math (because of its famous rendering of Bande Mataram in an unconventional tune), Andolan (because it was a hit), Sikandar (because it starred the two pillars of Hindi cinema of the time - Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor) and Shaheed. Not one of the younger generations would even have heard of these films, leave alone having seen them. Writes Shama Zaidi on historical films in popular cinema: "they are highly romanticized, historical recreations of patriotic, idealistic, self-sacrificing Indians fighting evil, scheming, autocratic British villains of the darkest hue." She adds that after the Emergency, the patriotic anti-Establishment motifs have been co-opted into popular cinema."

Mani Ratnam, a gifted filmmaker, cleverly and diabolically manoeuvred the tools of the craft of filmmaking so that his film Roja not only turned out to be an aesthetic and political surprise but also a commercial hit. Ratnam's command over the language of cinema, especially as evinced through Roja, illustrates all over again, the power and infinite possibilities of cinema as a medium, metaphor and language. Roja is thankfully bereft of the regular, almost institutionalised formula-dictated motifs that formed the crux of so-called patriotic cinema of yore.

Patriotic cinema as we know them, were filled with certain stereotypical motifs: patriotic songs, marching crowds, emotionally charged scenes of marching on in the face of flying bullets, the national flag atop a long wooden pole held in the hands of those who are leading the procession, and finally, some of them falling to gunshots fired at them, followed by lines of the chorus in the backdrop. Both 1942 : A Love Story and J.P.Dutta's Border had them all, including songs. But were they truly patriotic or were they paying celluloid lip service to something they felt was ‘patriotic’?

In the Eighties, anti-Establishment films were mainly in demand. Without being brazenly political by painting the Gandhi-capped people in dark colours that show them up for what they are - crooks and debauches out to cheat the very electorate that voted them to power (Inquilab, Aaj ka MLA, Yeh Desh, etc.). These films threw up undercurrents of patriotism through the anti-Establishment hero, popularised by the charismatic persona of Amitabh Bachchan. But this is not even pretence of patriotism in its truest sense. It is a manipulation of the audience, trying to bring them on 'their' side (the side of the film-maker) by showing that the angry young man who bashes up, fights and kills without a qualm, is actually doing it for a just cause : either to avenge a wrong done to him, or to avenge corruption within the body-politic.

Garm Hawa is a patriotic film in its truest sense because it does not take sides. It only portrays the tragedy of the Partition through the metamorphosis in the life of a Muslim family which chose to stay back and not cross the border. Garm Hawa gently reminds us where we are going wrong over and over again in this country: we continue to fall prey to the elements of disunity that would like to see the country fall apart.

Lagaan, under a delicately layered text, uses the game of cricket between two incredibly unmatched teams pitted against each other to demonstrate a young man’s pride in being Indian. The rulers are pitted against the ruled in an unfair game thrown as a challenge to a small group of villagers who do not even know the name of the game. For the British team, it is a matter of racial and colonial pride. For the villagers of the fictitious Champaran, it is a war of life and death. For if they win, they live. If they lose, they die of starvation. The music in both Gadar and Lagaan function as metaphors of resistance, of love, of war, of triumph in the climax. Gadar is one man’s mission. In Lagaan, the one man who picks up the gauntlet cannot perform without the active support of the rest of the village folk and even the people of the neighbouring villages. The game of cricket, as they learn it from a white woman – a cinematic convenience to rule out any possible British uproar –wipes away their personal conflicts, their ego fights, even their differences of caste, class and community.

Love for one’s country, if that is what patriotism is all about, need not be drawn in sharp shades of black and white because it is a concept, an ideal that has almost faded like the fading colours of a beautiful water colour landscape today. We live in a world of corruption – political, economic, educational and everything else so patriotism would probably translate itself into qualities of commitment, honesty and moral discipline. Which Bollywood film of today can fit into this description? Could it perhaps be Bajrangi Bhaijan that transcends the borders of a national identity to forge a humane one based on brotherhood, love and commitment to a fellow human being never mind his/her national identity? Think about it friends. There might be a clue there.

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