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From jawans to pahalwans: The changing shades of patriotism in India


After a lull, Hindi cinema has returned to the theme of patriotism and national fervour, except through the new medium of sportspersons. On the 68th Republic Day, we look at the changing depiction of patriotism in Hindi cinema. 

Shriram Iyengar

Hindi cinema adopted patriotic themes as a part of its narrative quite early. The 1940s saw the cry for India's independence grow among the audience, and filmmakers in India adapted their stories to the call. For instance, Kismet (1943) ran the risk of being censored by slyly entering the song 'Door Hato Ae Duniyawalon' into the film. Thankfully for Gyan Mukerjee, World War II and a linguistically-challenged censor board believed it was a statement against the Axis, not the British government. 

In an age when the elites tried to stay away from the rough and tumble of the movement on the ground, cinema emerged as an effective medium for carrying the message of patriotism. Films like Bandhan (1940) and Sikandar (1941) focused on the outsider attacking a stable nation and its pride. In all these films, the stories revolved around unwilling but honest individuals and families who are drawn into the struggle. 

This changed immediately after India's independence in 1947. Slowly, the narrative shifted from a country aspiring for independence to one aspiring for progress. Films like Anand Math (1952), Naya Daur (1957), Jagriti (1954) and Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) are examples of the progressive ideals espoused by filmmakers after Independence. The rise of the Progressive movement with writers like Sardar Ali Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi, KA Abbas, Balraj Sahni and Kaifi Azmi proved to be the fulcrum for these ideals to arrive in cinema. Naya Daur (1957) by BR Chopra remains the perfect example of the Nehruvian socialism that espoused progress into the industrial age, but without hurting the existing agricultural society. 

While there was aspiration, there was also a rising cynicism among storytellers and filmmakers. Raj Kapoor's Awara (1951), Boot Polish (1954), Shree 420 (1955) and Phir Subah Hogi (1958) chose not to paper the cracks over issues like poverty, unemployment, corruption, and the criminal-businessmen nexus. Raj Kapoor also profited from his association with writers like Abbas, Ludhianvi, and his father Prithviraj Kapoor, in his films. This patriotism was not a celebration of the nation's new-found independence, but reminded audiences, like Nehru's favourite poem, that they had 'miles to go before they sleep'. 

In many ways, the cynicism emerged from a younger generation that did not see Independence as an end in itself, but as a stepping stone to a better life. Their disappointment at the lack of change in society after Independence fuelled these stories.

It was India's first major military conflict, with China in 1962, that prompted another surge of patriotism. Filmmakers turned to the most obvious source for heroism — soldiers at the front. Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1967) remains one of the finest war film made in the country. Its depiction of soldiers as real people, with sorrows, troubles, and daily worries established a close connection with the audience. The song 'Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyon' written by another progressive, Kaifi Azmi, sought to instil a sense of responsibility and duty among the citizens — a necessity in times of war. 

The latter half of the 1960s and 1970s saw a similar turn of films seeking to inspire and instil devotion to the national cause through ordinary people. Upkar (1967) focussed on the call of 'Jai Jawan Jai Kisan' uniting the farmer and soldier as symbols of patriotism. There also emerged the first sight of the Indian diaspora in films like Purab Aur Paschim (1970). The idea of the Indian abroad asserting his independence through his identity was a theme that emerged strongly in these films. 

The latter half of the 1970s belongs to discontent, much like the latter half of the 1950s. The creation of the 'Angry Young Man' scenario was the perfect example. After the 1970s, patriotism did not lie in the soldier, but in the common man fighting an uphill battle against a corrupt establishment. The process of nation building now depended on the Vijay of Zanjeer (1973), or the young unemployed students of Mere Apne (1971), or Jai and Veeru fighting bandits in Sholay (1975). These heroes did not wear patriotism on their sleeve but carried within them a sense of morals, injustice, and duty towards the weak. 

The 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in populist films, with patriotic themes emerging fairly infrequently. It was Border (1997), which released while the tension between India and Pakistan was simmering, that set the tone for patriotism in the 1990s. Soldiers, spies, overt action heroes returned as a sign of a country now ready to flex its muscles against an external enemy. Where the aftermath of the 1960s saw films turn to heroes willing to sacrifice, the patriotic heroes of the 1990s were capable of destruction. The 1990s and early 2000s also saw ordinary policemen, homemakers, involved in the fight against one of the greatest threats of the time — terrorism. Films like Sarfarosh (1999), Fiza (2000) and Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Sathiyo (2004) were among those that offer some insight into the heroes of the age. 

The new millennium saw a new sense of patriotism emerge. From historicals like The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) and Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005) to the iconic Rang De Basanti (2006), films evoked a comparison between the struggles of the past and the present. Rang De Basanti stood out for its ability to hit a raw nerve by juxtaposing the oppressive British regime against the corrupt establishment today. The sense of fatalism, desperation, extraordinary achievements by ordinary individuals, and the labelling of these individuals as terrorists by the establishment struck a chord with the audience. 

The latter half of the 2000s also saw films that mirrored India's rise as a sporting culture. When Chak De! India (2007) arrived, India had won the cricket Champions Trophy, finished in the semis in the hockey champions trophy, and was emerging as a medal-winning nation at the Olympics. Chak De! India was also a tale of the minority: a women's hockey team led by a Muslim to bring the nation glory. The theme of minorities helping India achieve glory in sports continued in films like Mary Kom (2014), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), and most recently in Dangal (2016). Films like Airlift (2016), Neerja (2016), even Sultan (2016) idolised the ordinary individual who is transformed into an extraordinary hero at the moment of need. These films reflected the story of India as a nation of ordinary people capable of extraordinary feats.

In many ways, Hindi cinema has come full circle with its focus back on an aspirational society bringing its nation glory through individual efforts. Dangal's national anthem scene might have incited a number of arguments about the effort to generate sentimentality, but its success proved that patriotism as a theme works. It has always worked in Hindi cinema.