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'Everything is for sale in this wretched nation' – The prophetic words of V Shantaram’s Apna Desh (1949)

As part of our series on early Hindi films dealing with India's independence, we look back at V Shantaram's Apna Desh and its examination of the disease of corruption, which can lead the country to ruin.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

V Shantaram’s Apna Desh (1949) stands distinctly apart from many other films that engaged with India’s independence and the riots that broke out during Partition.

Released in the same year as ML Anand’s Lahore (1949), Shantaram’s film presented a nation torn apart by parochialism and featured a woman, raped and abducted during the riots, who chooses a rather unconventional path. 

The film begins with the euphoric celebration of the country's independence interspersed with shots of businessmen scurrying around to occupy positions of power left vacant by the departing colonial masters.

'Beti zyada pyaari hai': The progressive vision in ML Anand’s Lahore (1949)

As businessman Dhaniram (Manmohan Krishna) remarks, “Humein azaadi ka poora poora fayda uthana chahiye [We must take full advantage of independence]." This sets the tone for the film, which examines the evils of black marketeering and corruption against the backdrop of a nation that must examine its founding principles.

The story of Mohini (Pushpa Hans) is that of innumerable women who were abducted and raped in the violence that accompanied Partition. She manages to come to India and locate her family. But her family and society at large refuse to accept her.

Abandoned, deeply wounded and filled with rage, Mohini decides to exact her revenge on a society that has ostracized her and becomes a smuggler, transporting goods illegally to Pakistan. She takes the help of unscrupulous businessmen, willing to do anything for money, including sabotaging their own country.

In the course of events, she meets Satish (Umesh Sharma), an honest police officer who is determined to end the smuggling activities. But Mohini must assess her actions when Satish is wrongfully implicated in the black-marketeering racket.

Unlike many films that portrayed the misery of abducted women as helpless victims, waiting for the men to rescue them, Apna Desh stands out as Mohini takes matters into her own hands, turning against the people who rejected her.

As one would expect, this drew heated criticism from certain sections of society and the ire of Partition refugees who criticized the film as a misrepresentation of refugees and even labelled it unpatriotic.

Kavita Daiya, assistant professor of English at the George Washington University and author of Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender and National Culture in Postcolonial India, has pointed out that the film was advertised as being about a Hindu Indian “refugee girl who sells her nation’s honor and fools the Indian Police force by her seductive charm”, and generated much discourse regarding the “gendered Partition refugee and national belonging”.

Mohini was seen by outraged viewers as a traitor as she 'betrayed' her people, and in many ways her gender, by refusing to be the sacrificing, suffering woman. An indignant reader of the magazine Filmindia called the film “Apna Trash” while another questioned Mohini as the representation of a “true Hindu girl”, while yet another sarcastically responded to her character saying, “And we still believe that India is a land of Seetas and Savitris who would immolate themselves rather than sell their home and country.”

In the film too, Satish, who is filled with ideals of honour and duty towards the nation, advocates sacrifice of the self rather than betrayal of the nation.

As the title suggests, Apna Desh contemplates the project of nation building in the face of men led by avarice, as black money and tax evasion hamper the growth of the newly born country. The evil of wealth and its effect on people is most evident in the case of Jagdish Narayan, who is transformed from a rule-abiding, patriotic simpleton to a greedy man with eyes gleaming with the gold he secures in his safe, which, in a symbolic gesture, he covers with the Tricolour.

In another incident, when Mohini is instructed to procure weapons and transport them, she is asked whether the job can be done, and she replies, “Kyun nahin? Iss kambakht mulk mein rupaiyon se sab kuch khareeda jaa sakta hai” [Why not? In this wretched nation everything is for sale]."

In a searing indictment of the wrongdoers, the judge calls the black-marketeers “padhe-likhe daku, samaaj ke chor, azaadi ke lootere, desh ke dushman [educated thugs, thieves of society, looters of freedom, enemies of the state]", labelling them traitors or “desh ke gaddaar”. One hopes the Vijay Mallyas, Nirav Modis, Mehul Choksis and scores of politicians who treat taxpayer funds as their personal coffers are listening.

Apna Desh remains a crucial film in understanding the anxieties around the project of nation building as well as the representation of gender and refugees.

The desire to build an ideal nation as well as the problems in doing so are highlighted amidst the celebration of independence. The songs of the film, especially 'Dil-e-Nadaan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai' and the patriotic 'Apna Desh Hai Apna Desh' and 'Jai Hind Kaho' remain popular.

The dance dramatization of an enslaved India breaking free, followed by the diversity of India and its unification depicted through dance, is evocative and was appreciated.


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