The national anthem's changing face

The lights were already dim when we entered the newly-opened PVR theatre at Andheri on a Monday night to catch a show of Ghanchakkar. The smell of popcorn engulfed the air, as people slowly shuffled towards their seats.

Actor Akshay Kumar, who announced the ‘My Nation My Anthem’ campaign says, “My clear favourite is the national anthem film featuring kids, as I liked the concept of forgotten heroes brought to life by children.”

In the midst of this, the screen showed the mandatory request to stand up for the national anthem. While some groaned and stood up slowly, others who hadn’t found their way to their seats stood quietly on their spots. Slowly, the screen filled up with images of tiny tots getting ready to sing the anthem for a school function.

The vast emptiness of Ladakh provides the perfect backdrop for the 40-piece string orchestra led by K Srinavas Murthy for the instrumental version of the national anthem 

As the kids, dressed up as freedom fighters, held hands on stage and started singing Jana Gana Mana, we could hear some other voices joining in. As we sneakily looked around, we realised that some of those voices belonged to a few members of the audience. People were actually joining in to sing along! And when the song ended, we distinctly heard remarks like ‘What a lovely video’ and ‘That was awesome!’ No, this is not a made-up story but something we actually witnessed.

The timeless voices of India’s musical repertoire came together to sing the national anthem in 2000

Just like we’re witnessing a change in the national anthem renditions across multiplexes in Mumbai. A 2003 order made it mandatory for the metropolis to play the anthem in cinema halls.

Technology’s far-reaching effects were explored in the anthem made by Talenthouse India in 2013

And while the initial few years saw most theatres opt for the image of the national flag fluttering in the air with the song being played in the background, the last few years have seen a huge change in the way cinemas are viewing the videos.

Led by the Chief of Army Staff, General NC Vij, the soldiers of the Indian Army are seen saluting the national flag at Siachen Glacier

Which in turn has made the audience too, stand up and take notice. “We have been singing our national anthem in our school assemblies but did we really feel connected to it there?” asks Gautam Dutta, COO, PVR Ltd. The change, according to him, is of seeing young people taking notice and even singing along with the song in theatres. “This is what creativity is all about -- about taking something that we took for granted and making it relevant to today’s times,” he says.

What an idea!
While many theatres have production houses making the videos for them, PVR went a step ahead and engaged Talenthouse India, a crowdsourcing giant, to conceptualise the ‘My Nation My Anthem’ campaign with a vision to create the youth’s interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore’s iconic Jana Gana Mana. It offered an opportunity to budding artistes across creative genres such as music and filmmaking, and received more than 400 interpretations of the national anthem. The result? Two beautiful versions of the national anthem, one capturing the reverence Indians have for the anthem while going about their daily lives and the other with kids dressed up as our famous freedom fighters. Says Arun Mehra, CEO, Talenthouse India, “When we went to theatres and saw the national anthem videos, we realised there is so much potential for the youth to channelise their energies and show their talent. We think creativity comes with restraints. You don’t need big budgets to make great videos. All you need is passion and a vision, and the winners of these videos proved that.” And why choose the national anthem for this? “Because this is the one song that if sung well and shot well, can touch you in a way that’s not possible with any other,” adds Mehra.

Engaging the audience
While the cinema halls have no control over the content shown in the film, they do have control over what is shown during the pre-show and the interval. And that’s where the creativity and originality of the cinemas comes into play. The need for re-inventing the national anthem videos at PVR, according to Dutta, stems from the need of engaging the audience. “We have always tried to give a crisp and engaging onscreen experience to the consumer. The only thing we weren’t able to get around was the national anthem and it’s then that we came up with the idea of really connecting with the audience,” he says. As the majority of the demographics was the youth, Dutta says that was the determining factor when it came to choosing the final renditions. “Technology was something that appealed to today’s generation and secondly, kids who can cut across any demographics. So these were the two creative ideas we settled upon for the videos,” he adds.

National anthem

Says Shirish Handa, senior vice-president, marketing, Fun Cinemas, “The government has made it mandatory for all cinema halls to play the national anthem. We can always choose to just play the audio with an image of the national flag on screen, but the idea is to make the consumer’s onscreen experience come alive.” The video, featuring the Indian Army soldiers shot at Siachen Glacier is a tribute to our soldiers guarding the highest and most difficult battlefield in the world. It has been playing at the theatre for more than two years and Handa says they have no immediate plans of changing it. “It’s a beautiful video, one that makes us feel proud as Indians,” he adds.

Striking a chord
Anyone who’s seen the national anthem video of the Indian Army soldiers at Fun Republic or the silent national anthem featuring children with hearing and speech impairment at theatres owned by BIG Cinemas, will tell you that these are not your run-of-the-mill videos. “Every time I watch the silent national anthem, it gives me goosebumps,” says model Janvi Turakhia, “A sense of intense pride, a whiff of sadness combined with a deep sense of patriotism and belonging. The kids in the video are truly inspiring.” The anthem, that was released on the occasion of India’s 61st Republic Day, was made by BIG Cinemas in association with the Mudra Group and ranked among India’s top 10 most-watched YouTube videos of 2011. Says Pratap Bose, COO, DDB Mudra Group, “We took almost six months to script the video before actually shooting it. If you see the video, we’ve left the imperfections in it. A few children are out of sync but the beauty of the video lies in its imperfections.” Bose adds that they are very proud of the video that spreads the message ‘Patriotism knows no language’, and are happy that it managed to touch so many people.

The most important element of these national anthem renditions, according to filmmaker Bharat Bala of BharatBala Productions, is that they should be able to touch you on an emotional level. Bala, who’s made a number of renditions of the national anthem -- including the one with the Indian Army, an instrumental one featuring greats like Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhat among others and another featuring vocalists like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Bhupen Hazarika and others -- believes that a video will only hold ground if it is made with sincerity, honesty and originality. “Only then will it reflect in the video as well,” he says.

Logic versus sentiment
While nobody discounts the beauty of these numerous renditions, there are some who question the entire logic of screening the national anthem in cinema halls. If you happen to go online, there are debates raging about the necessity of screening the anthem before a film and whether patriotism means standing up for the national anthem at all. “While I appreciate the fact that the anthem should be played somewhere, so that we don’t lose our connect with it, I don’t think cinema halls are the correct forum for them,” says Prasoon Pandey. The ad filmmaker adds that he can’t understand the logic behind doing this. “It may have had some validity when they started it, but it just doesn’t make sense now. By that same logic, you should be playing the national anthem before any entertainment show or film on television as well,” he argues. Pandey believes that there should be a place and occasion for one to feel for the anthem and respect it. “Exactly the way you do when it’s played before the football World Cup matches. It’s not the same when you go and watch a film like Murder and see the anthem right before it,” he reasons.

Respecting the sentiments
And while it may be a topic of debate for some and many might not agree upon the concept of the mandatory screening of the national anthem videos in cinema halls, there’s no iota of doubt in the minds of its makers and cinema owners about screening them. “You need the right environment to play the national anthem. A cinema hall is a place where people are attentive and captive. A mall, for example, might not be the right place to play as the atmosphere is not conducive to it. If people are not able to stand quietly and respect it, then you’re diluting the whole purpose of playing the anthem,” feels Dutta. Bala echoes the sentiment, “The cinema hall’s environment lends itself to something like this. The lights are low, there’s a certain discipline and people are focused on the screen. Cinema is a medium, where if you’re provided with rich sounds and beautiful visuals, they will grab your attention.”

Recounting his personal experience, Bose says, “I used to live in Bangalore a few years back and had come to Mumbai on a business trip. I happened to watch a film in the theatre and I was thrilled to see the national anthem, something I had never seen back home. It was a moving experience.” Nine out of 10 people, he believes, would be proud to stand and acknowledge and respect the anthem if it’s played in theatres. “We had become accustomed to seeing the national anthem in a bland way on the screen. The past three or four years have seen some great renditions of the anthem and that’s something really beautiful,” he adds. Now, can someone just do something about those mind-numbing and groan-inducing anti-tobacco commercials please?  

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