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75 years of Independence: 10 underrated yet important patriotic films to revisit

As the nation marks a monumental landmark anniversary this year, we look back at some films that portrayed and wove in nationalism into their narrative with a deft touch.

The Cinestaan Team

On the occasion of 75 years of independence, Hindi cinema has looked at the lens of patriotism through several stages. As it developed its industry, with stars from both sides of the border, it looked at the pressing issue of nation building and addressed the lingering trauma left behind by the Partition.

Most of these films are primarily seen from the viewpoint of male protagonist. Barring a Raazi (2018) or Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), there are few features that showcase the female perspective on patriotism.

Over time, this lens has become narrower as jingoism and the rise of nationalism has grown more prevalent. But we remember a time when this wasn’t the case, when Hindi cinema featured more balanced and realistic portrayals of what it meant to be patriotic.

As the nation turns 75 on 15 August 2022, we revisit some films that we believe have been forgotten over the years. Some have attained cult status, while some have just been blanked out due to time. For this momentous occasion, we revive their memory.

Hum Ek Hain (1946)

Made a year before India attained independence, PL Santoshi’s social film Hum Ek Hain (1946) advocates unity and brotherhood through the story of three adopted children. Conveying the theme of nationalism and envisioning a certain future for India through symbolic expression, the film stars Durga Khote, Rehman, Kamala Kotis, also marking the debut of Dev Anand. 

75 years of Hum Ek Hain (1946): A parable of national integration which marked Dev Anand’s debut

Durga Khote plays a benevolent figure, who takes care of the needy. She adopts three children, a Muslim, a Christian and a Dalit girl, which in addition to her own son, a Hindu, makes for four children. As they grow up, rifts are engineered along the lines of caste and religion, and the mother becomes symbolic of the nation, which brings all communities together.

As the title suggests, the film was clearly geared towards reinforcing the message of communal harmony during a turbulent time. With the movement for independence gathering momentum, this was a crucial reminder for all communities to move forward together for a better future.

Shaheed (1948)

When you think of a black-and-white Hindi film named Shaheed, the first one that might come to your mind would be Manoj Kumar’s biopic on Bhagat Singh released in 1965. But much before that film, Dilip Kumar’s Shaheed (1948) wowed the audiences with its fictional tale about the Indian Independence movement inspired by true incidents. 

Directed by Ramesh Saigal, the film revolved around a young revolutionary Ram (Dilip Kumar), who is inspired by Bhagat Singh and his comrades. His ideology and activities are in contrast to that of his father Dwarkadas (Chandra Mohan), a police officer with the British. The film also touches upon his personal life with his childhood love Sheela (Kamini Kaushal). 

Shaheed utilises the narrative tracks between father and a son and the two lovers to tell a dramatic saga that finely balances between patriotism and personal relationships. The film touches the emotional chords of your hearts in an overwhelming climax. 

Apna Desh (1949)

V Shantaram’s Apna Desh (1949) is an early film that examines the nation’s Independence and the Partition of India that left millions displaced. The lead protagonists stand at opposite sides of the spectrum, with one being betrayed by the nation, and the other vowing to defend it at all costs.

Mohini (Pushpa Hans) is displaced during the Partition but is able to come to India and locate her family. Like several families worried about the ‘honour’ of the woman, her family refuses to accept her. Enraged, she becomes a smuggler, moving goods illegally to Pakistan. On the other hand, is an upright police officer, Satish (Umesh Sharma), who wishes to put an end to smuggling activities in the country.

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

Apna Desh took an incisive look at the robust economic business that fed on the displaced and the vulnerable, presenting us with a less talked about side of the nation’s independence. In the character of Mohini too, it moved away from the narrative of the suffering refugee to present one who grabs life’s reins with both hands, determined to be in control of her fate. The film also addresses anxieties about the kind of nation that is being built, after the hard won battle for freedom.

Dharmputra (1961)

Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra (1961) was soon taken down from theatres after its release because of its sensitive theme on religion-based fundamentalism. Unfortunately, the film is more relevant today due to the increasing religious disharmony in the country. 

The film follows Dilip (Shashi Kapoor), who is the illegitimate child of a unwed Muslim couple. After the man flees after impregnating the young woman, her father begs in front of a Hindu couple to adopt the child. Not knowing his religious identity, Dilip grows up to be anti-Muslim in the guise of being patriotic. His foster parents are worried about what would happen when he finds out his true identity. 

Countering Hindu extremism through the message of harmony – Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra (1961)

Dharmputra is a bold take on fanaticism which makes one blindly hate another one the basis of religion. The movie also scores high on its climax where the drama reaches a crescendo which is followed by the heart-wrenching song 'Yeh Kiska Lahu Hai Kaun Mara'. But it ultimately gives a heart-warming message on peace while highlighting that we all have the same flesh and bones. 

Vijeta (1982)

Released in the golden jubilee year that the Indian Air Force was established, Vijeta (1982) was produced by Shashi Kapoor to launch his son Kunal in the industry. But the introspective war drama is so much more than a vehicle designed to introduce a star son. Directed and shot by Govind Nihalani, the Hindi feature is a thoughtful coming-of-age saga about a young man, Angad Singh (Kunal), who discovers his inner strength and worth through his experiences with the force.

Set against the backdrop of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Nihalani showed viewers some skilful aerial photography as Angad trains to be a MiG-21 fighter pilot. The star cast of Vijeta also featured Rekha and Shashi as Angad’s parents, Om Puri as his uncle, Amrish Puri as his mentor, the strict Group Captain Verghese, and Supriya Pathak as Anna Verghese, with whom Angad falls in love.

While showing little of the actual war, Vijeta instead focused on the relationships the young trainee and eventual pilot makes before he is drafted. His friends at the National Defence Academy, Venkat Raju, Aslam Khan and Wilson, can easily represent the rest of the nation. There is an important sub-plot of Angad's father, Nihal, and his Biji (Dina Pathak), representing two kinds of survivors of the Partition.

The nationalism in Vijeta isn't overt. Instead, it allows us to look at those fighting on the frontlines, not just as warriors, but as real humans, with fears and doubts as well. 

Prahaar: The Final Attack (1991)

Written and directed by Nana Patekar, Prahaar:The Final Attack (1991) was a comment on society and the way in which an inert society enables injustice. Starring Madhuri Dixit, Dimple Kapadia and Gautam Joglekar, it was quite refreshing in its take on the army and mundane lives of people. 

Patekar plays Major Pratap Chauhan, the commandant of the commando platoon, who is joined by Lieutenant Peter D’Souza (Gautam Joglekar). Under Major Chauhan, Lieutenant Peter forges his will to serve a greater purpose. When the latter is honourably discharged from the army, he finds it difficult to live by his principles in a ruthless world driven by self-interest. Major Chauhan too, finds that society at large is a mute spectator to ills around it, and decides to take decisive action.

Prahaar is a thought-provoking film, one that is terribly relevant in today’s times. It’s deglamourised depiction of the army, as well as the lives of army men, received much critical acclaim. However, the film remains forgotten amidst the more chest-thumping nationalistic films today.

Sarfarosh (1999)

John Matthew Matthan's directorial debut Sarfarosh (1999), starring Aamir Khan, featured the actor tackling a grave issue of cross-border terrorism Khan plays the no-nonsense and brave ACP Ajay Singh Rathod, who has a personal agenda in taking down criminals, is tasked with leading Special Action team to take an arms trafficking gang wrecking havoc in the country.

Rathod initially butt heads with inspector Salim (Mukesh Rishi), who led the task force before him. There is a notable but powerful scene where Salim speaks out about him having to prove his nationality just because he is Muslim. Sarfarosh also features a famous ghazal singer Gulfam Hassan (Naseeruddin Shah), an embittered Muslim who moves to Pakistan after the Partition. Rathod deeply admires the artist and the film explores their relationship as the film looks at questions of identity and belonging.

With chart-busting hits by Jatin-Lalit,, Sarfarosh was a rare mix of critical and commercial acclaim. The layered performances by both Khan and Shah were noted by critics and audiences. But it was Matthan’s handling of the subject, which wasn’t new by any means, that has stood out over the years.

As recent films have become more jingoistic in treatment of cross-border politics, Sarfarosh showed how cinema could take on a potent subject and engage with it with care, even during a time when both countries were on the precipice of the Kargil War.

16 December (2002)

As clichéd as it may sound, director Mani Shankar’s 16 December (2002) was ahead of its time. The film told the story about a group of Indian Revenue Service officers, played by Milind Soman, Danny Denzongpa, Dippanita Sharma and Sushant Singh, on a mission to avert a massive terrorist attack on India and nab Dost Khan (Gulshan Grover), the cunning mastermind behind the whole operation. 

16 December showed the good guys and the bad guys use some high-tech weapons and tools, which weren’t seen even in the mainstream Hindi films back then. But, at the same time, the film keeps you glued to its narrative that reaches an exciting apex in the climax. The password used, “Dulhan ki bidaai ka waqt badalna hai [The time for the bride's farewell needs to be changed],” became synonymous with the film back then. In fact, the line trends on social media each year on 16 December since the last few years. 

Although 16 December wasn’t a box-office hit, it has found its due respect from its repeated television runs and, in recent years, on over-the-top (OTT) platforms. 

Lakshya (2004)

Farhan Akhtar’s follow-up to the landmark Dil Chahta Hai (2001) was deeply understated Lakshya (2004), a coming-of-age tale with a difference. Hrithik Roshan plays the direction-less and lazy young man Karan who joins the army on a lark, only to find that it brings meaning to his life.

Written off by virtually everyone in his life, from his parents to his girlfriend Romi (Preity Zinta), Karan proves his naysayers wrong as he becomes a man due to his heroic but fictionalized exploits during the 1999 Kargil War. Though he initially rebels against Colonel Sunil Damle (Amitabh Bachchan), his experiences on the frontlines, and with his fellow soldiers, makes him realize the real essence of nationality and what it means to be a part of the army.

The film marked the first time the two long-time friends, Farhan and Hrithik, were collaborating together. Written by veteran screenwriter, Javed Akhtar (Farhan's father), the war within the countries is an important aspect in the film, but never weaponized to twist facts. However, the film does not shy away from harsh realities of war and the toll it takes on the soldiers.

While the film didn’t perform as expected at the box office, it remains one of Hrithik’s best performances.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2006)

The life of freedom fighter and revolutionary Subash Chandra Bose was fascinating and adventurous. So it’s a surprise why it is hardly explored on the celluloid in Hindi cinema. Shyam Benegal tried to fill the void in the early 2000s with a biopic on him titled Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero. 

The film focussed only on the last few years of Bose’s life wherein he left the country to build the Azad Hind Fauj, an army of revolutionaries, in order to kick the British out of India. In terms of scale and budget, this was the highest by Benegal.

The film provided a riveting saga of Bose’s adventurous life, aided by Sachin Khedekar’s fine act as the late revolutionary. The film's long running time of three hours and 28 minutes didn’t turn out to be much of an issue. 

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