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Questioning faith in turbulent times – IS Johar’s Nastik (1954)

Revisiting early Hindi films that dealt with India's independence, we take a look at Nastik, a film that was banned for a while for its attack on organized religion.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

In the years immediately following Independence, a few films in Hindi cinema portrayed the horrors of Partition and its impact on refugees. Filmistan’s Nastik (1954) stands out among them as it features a protagonist unable to comprehend the bestiality of man in the name of god.

While several films contemplated the mayhem and violence that ensued, especially through song, Nastik boldly explored the violence in the name of religion, offering a scathing critique of organized religion and its gatekeepers.

Directed by the maverick Inderjeet Singh Johar, who is largely remembered for his comic roles, the social melodrama begins with the Partition riots and is the story of a displaced family trying to grapple with its circumstances.

IS Johar

Anil (Ajit) manages to escape from the eye of the storm with his younger sister and kid brother Munna, after they witness the murder of their parents. Anil is shaken to the core by the barbarity and, as the narrator tells us, “Insaan ki haiwaaniyat ko dekh kar uska dimaag chakra gaya, uska vishwaas hil gaya. Bhagwan ki duniya mein aisa kyun [Seeing the cruelty of man, his mind was shaken and so was his faith. How could this happen in god’s world]?"

Still reeling from the loss, the family seeks shelter in a dharamshala where they are forced to give money in the guise of daan or charity. In the temple, he sees the priests solely driven by avarice.

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As Anil gets progressively disillusioned with religion, the priest, Tulsiram (Ulhas), refuses to help his brother Munna who is on his deathbed. In sheer desperation, Anil threatens the priest and is thrown in jail on trumped up charges.

This is the last straw and Anil declares himself an atheist, or Nastik, and swears vengeance on the priest. Once released, he faces adversity again and sets out to find Tulsiram, who, fearing Anil, has scampered off on a pilgrimage.

Following the priest to exact revenge, Anil visits various holy sites and his quest gets quietly transformed into his own pilgrimage as he visits Rameshwaram, Jagannath Puri, Benares, Vrindavan and other revered sites and looks upon the works of god. He also meets Rama (Nalini Jaywant), whose devotion is the perfect foil to Anil’s atheism.

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Nastik presents several examples of the hypocrisy of ‘holy’ men and of the devotees. While in Vrindavan, an 'untouchable' boy is slapped by a priest when he dares to touch a Brahmin, Rani Ma (Leela Mishra). Anil retaliates by punching the priest, and Rani Ma indignantly says he must follow the dictates of religion and conform to caste distinctions. Anil responds, “Jo dharm insaan ko insaan par zulm sikhata hai, uss dharm ko khatam karna hi dharm hai [The religion that teaches men to be violent towards other men must be destroyed; that alone is true dharma]."

This unequivocal message of the film and the questions it raised led to the film being banned at the time of its release. It was finally only screened in the 1960s.

Besides directing the film, IS Johar wrote the script and also played the supporting role of Anil’s friend, Joker.

Johar had previously written the comedy films Ek Thi Larki (1949) and Dholak (1951) and turned to direction with Shrimatiji (1952).

Nalini Jaywant

Ajit and Nalini Jaywant made a lovely pair and they worked together in 10 films, which included 26th January (1956), Miss Bombay (1957), Kitna Badal Gaya Insan (1957) and Girls Hostel (1962). 

While the questions raised in the film remain largely forgotten, the songs, especially Kavi Pradeep’s classic ‘Kitna Badal Gaya Insaan’, which invokes the almighty to look upon his creation and its deeds, remains immortal.

Dekh tere sansaar ki haalat kya ho gayi bhagwan
Kitna badal gaya insaan

See what has become of your world, O lord
How much man has changed

Poet Sahir Ludhianvi wrote a song in response to this, composed to the same tune by C Ramchandra, as a sarcastic rejoinder to those who tend to blame all of society’s ills on god’s will. The song, 'Dekh Tere Bhagwan Ki Haalat Kya Ho Gayi Insaan', from Railway Platform (1955), pointed to the differences between the rich and the poor, but instead of lamenting the actions of mankind and invoking god, as Pradeep did, Sahir turned it on its head to say god had changed!

Dekh tere bhagwan ki haalat kya ho gayi insaan,
Kitna badal gaya bhagwan

See what has become of your god, o man
How much god has changed

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