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The Emergency amnesia in Hindi cinema


One of the darkest periods of Indian democracy finds hardly any mention in its cinematic chronicles. The commercial aspects of cinema in India have often outweighed the need for its involvement in political discourse. 

Shriram Iyengar

In Gillo Pontecorvo's scathing The Battle Of Algiers (1966), when journalists hound the world-weary French general on Sartre siding with the rebels, the general questions, "Why are the Sartres always born on the other side?" Indira Gandhi might have wondered the same after she opened one of the darkest chapters in Indian democracy.

On 25 June 1975, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed bestowed the ultimate authority in the country upon Indira Gandhi, suspending democracy for a period that lasted 21 months. The arts were curbed. Litterateurs and political orators were arrested. The press was censored.

Yet, this was also the period that marked the transition of Hindi cinema into its most explosive and commercially successful era. During the Emergency, Sholay (1975), Kaalicharan (1976) and Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) were made. It was a period that marked the rise of 'The Angry Young Man'. It was also the time when 'Bollywood' came into the form we recognise it today.

Yet, for a medium that chronicles the history around it, Hindi cinema has been notoriously quiet about Indian democracy's darkest period. 

Indian cinema has been a chronicler of its times. From Franz Osten's Achhut Kanya (1936) to Raj Kapoor's Awara (1951) and Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960), and even Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957), films offered radicals a chance to rebel against the prevalent social setup. Yet, strange as it is, there are few films in Hindi cinema that offer any discourse on these 21 dark months in Indian history.

In a country where filmmakers often face curbs on their freedom of expression, it is surprising that the Emergency did not inspire more rebellious voices. Perhaps it was the growing commercial repercussions of such a rebellion, or the slow decline of the Progressive Movement, which led to this studied silence.

MS Sathyu remarked to a national newspaper, "The PWA [Progressive Writers' Association] and Indian People’s Theatre Association [IPTA] were aligned to the Communist Party of India [CPI]. When the party split in 1964 into CPI and the more extreme CPI(M), it weakened these institutions as the cadre’s loyalties were also divided."

The silence, though majoritarian, was not complete. There were stray voices that rose from the crowd of mute filmmakers. Utpal Dutt, a staunch socialist, turned to theatre to find his voice. His 'Ebar Rajar Pala' was a play based on a megalomaniacal actor playing king. It was an allegory that did not fail to make its point.

Dev Anand and Kishore Kumar found themselves sent to the sidelines for not kowtowing to the powerful. All India Radio stopped airing any Kishore Kumar songs during the Emergency. IS Johar found himself facing more serious problems for his open criticism of the Congress(I). When the Emergency was lifted in 1977, the comedian was quick off the blocks to make his out-and-out satire Nasbandi (1978) on Sanjay Gandhi's infamous population control drive.

Gulzar's Aandhi (1975) and Amrit Nahata's Kissaa Kursee Kaa (1976) remain the best known films of the Emergency era which suffered the direct wrath of the government. Gulzar's film was the story of a courageous female politician. Gulzar had initially based the character played by Suchitra Sen on Indira Gandhi, but had to mention Assam chief minister Tarkeshwari Sinha as the inspiration once bigwigs started to grow uneasy with the reference. Sen's look in the film was a direct reference to Indira Gandhi, right down to the strip of white hair in her plumage. The film struggled to find a release during the Emergency, and remained in the cans. After Gandhi's defeat at the hustings in 1977, the Janata Party, which came to power, decided to take a shot at its sworn opponent by allowing the film to be released.

Amrit Nahata's Kissaa Kursee Kaa (1976) had no such luck. A tale about politicians wooing a mute, afraid Janata (Shabana Azmi) to gain power, only to leave her in the lurch later, the film was a direct analogy to the apathy of politicians. The censors not only refused to pass it, but reported it to Sanjay Gandhi. The filmmaker never saw the copy of his film submitted to the board again. All prints were reportedly taken to Sanjay Gandhi's automobile factory in NOIDA and burnt.

The 1970s marked the rise of Hindi cinema as a commercial entertainment industry rather than the socialist, egalitarian medium it was through the 1950s and 1960s. Films like Deewar (1975), Sholay (1975), Chupke Chupke (1975), Choti Si Baat (1975) were among films that scored high at the counters for their entertainment value. Amitabh Bachchan rose to the top as the Angry Young Man, the ultimate evolution of the frustrated, suppressed Indian's persona. Yet, there is no mention of the ongoing political turmoil in most of his films. 

Even after the Emergency was lifted, few filmmakers had the courage to pursue this discourse. There would be sly references that would creep in. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Naram Garam (1981), when the residents panic and call for help during an 'emergency', Om Prakash's character remarks 'Phir se?' (Again?). In another Hrishikesh Mukherjee film Khoobsurat (1981), the filmmaker talks about a family dominated by a disciplinarian matriarch. Incidentally, both films were released after Indira Gandhi had returned to power. 

It took a further 20 years before Hindi cinema turned to the subject of Emergency as the backdrop for a film. Sudhir Mishra's Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003) was a tale of three collegians during the suspension of democracy. Even at their most radical, such films were classified as 'parallel cinema', a condescending term for socially relevant films that do not match up commercially to big-budget entertainers.

Indian cinema is an extension of its dramatics, and offers its audience the same product – escape. With few exceptions cited above, Hindi cinema has largely stayed away from the political arena. For a medium as powerful and influential as cinema to stay away from political discourse is disappointing, even if not surprising. If Pontecorvo's general were in India, his question would probably have been, 'Where are the Sartres?'