My nation, my love

Jan 25, 2013, 08:05 IST | Subhash K Jha

On the occasion of Republic Day tomorrow, Subhash K Jha revisits the changing definition of patriotism and its portrayal on celluloid

Patriotic songs will blast from speakers on January 26, but most of them are your golden oldies. This year, there are very few patriotic films that will hit the screens Satyagraha and The Attacks of 26/11 being the most prominent ones.

Abhishek Bachchan in Ashutosh Gowariker's Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey
Abhishek Bachchan in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey

Even Manoj Kumar, who became the epitome of patriotism thanks to Shaheed, Upkar, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Purab Aur Pachhim and Kranti, has decided to return to direction with a film that has nothing to do with the subject. Whatever happened to the patriotic films of yore? Is filmy patriotism dead? Is Irrfan Khan right when he says cynically, “Patriotic films are replaced by T20 and one day matches between India and Pakistan”?

New era
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who directed Rang De Basanti (RDB), one of the finest patriotic films in recent times, recalls how he defined patriotism in his childhood. “As kids in Delhi, on August 15 when we flew kites, we could hear Indira Gandhi speaking. On the other hand, patriotic songs would be playing on the loudspeaker such as Ae mere watan, Mere desh ki dharti…We were looking at the idea of our country through a kite.

Bedabrata Pain
Bedabrata Pain

Films such as Mother India, Do Bigha Zameen and Naya Daur which were shown on TV touched all of us. This was the era when escapism hadn’t seeped into cinema or real life.” He describes the heartbreaking assault on his spiritual and emotional connectivity with the theme of RDB.

“I wanted to make a film on the life of the revolutionaries. What I didn’t want to do was to shoot them with halos; I wanted to shoot them as normal youngsters. Then the race for making a movie on Bhagat Singh started. I moved on and took a new story idea to youngsters in Delhi and Mumbai. We surveyed them about the country and the tricolour. The borders of patriotism had blurred. Pagdi sambhal jatta was no more relevant. Not too many kids knew who Chandrashekhar Azad was.

I told my writer Kamlesh Pandey there was no point in making a film about the freedom fighters. He insisted, reminded me of the passion that Manoj Kumar’s films used to incite. But that was a different era. I sadly abandoned the original idea and hit on another idea of a British documentary filmmaker coming to India to make a film on the Indian armed revolution.

She finds kids who are more western than her. Two lines… the past and present run together. They intersect. We never thought about whether it would work or not. It’s so much fun to raise the bar.” He explains, “What I was trying to say in the film is, we got independence from the British, but we got enslaved by our own. Now we’re killing each other. There can be no neat solution to the problems we face. My film was a conversation with the masses.”

Not exciting
Bedabrata Pain, who directed Chittagong (about the Chittagong uprising in 1930) feels patriotic films have run out of steam. “I think one of the problems with our patriotic films is that it focuses more on sacrifice and hero worship and less on the victory. I tried to get away from that. In my film there’s this feeling that it won’t end in sadness; rather it will end on an uplifting note.

I think today’s India wants to hear stories of winning. They also feel that a patriotic film will not be very exciting. I don’t believe people have become apathetic to nationalism. I think the challenge for filmmakers is to keep it exciting. I wanted to see if I could tell the story of a boy growing up in an age of optimism - and tell it in a very simple way, and keep the audience engaged much like what our puranas or our epics have done.”

Pain feels the patriotic fervour of Manoj Kumar’s cinema has run its course. “The patriotic cinema of Manoj Kumar type does not evoke the same sentiment today. That was the era of optimism, of hope, of vision, of anticipation of something big that was going to happen, for which people were willing to lay down their lives. But after some 65 years of independent India, that story of hope and vision has been replaced by cynicism. Very few films dare to talk about creating a new society.

The pervasive theme is of cynicism. The heroes are the marginalized of the world, or the lumpen proletariat. Anurag Kashyap’s films are a classic example. Even Rang De Basanti succumbs to that. Despite their valiant resistance and their rebellious acts, the film’s protagonists run out of ideas at the end. And despite their fabulous actions the film ends in despair. I think we live in an age where we don’t see solutions, where we don’t see inspiration. In Chittagong, I wanted to tell a story of inspiration.”

Pain feels today’s generation is averse to history. “Just see how many films were made on World War II or the Irish uprisings. But ours can be counted on our fingertips.” According to Pain, the Emergency during Indira Gandhi’s regime was the turning point in cinema’s relationship with history. “The India that we dreamt of culminated with the Emergency (of 1975). It almost feels like India had to be re-imagined. And then came the era of new economic policy in 1992. The last connection with the past was gone. So the quest for India took a very different turn.

It’s almost as if a new discovery of India had to be written. Our present generation is, for better or worse (mostly worse I feel), a product of globalization. Their head is stuck in the American way of life instead of being rooted in India. Most of the middle class urban youth today has no concept of slums and those who are in smaller towns don’t want to change their situation. They want an escape from it. We don’t want to create a new India. We want to escape it. And that’s what has caused our young generation to be disconnected from the present and the history of India.”

Don’t preach
Says filmmaker Sanjay Chauhan who directed Lahore, a film on India–Pakistan amity, “In contemporary cinema, the definition of stereotypical patriotic films has undergone a change. It is believed that one-dimensional flag-waving films studded with themes such as sacrificing one’s life for the beloved nation - like Anil Sharma’s Gadar - have lost their audience. I beg to defer. What is out is spoon-feeding the audiences with preachy patriotism. Filmmakers continue to imbibe a streak of patriotism in subtle ways and blend them effortlessly into themes depicting myriad realities of life. ”

Old days
Manoj Kumar, who ruled the box office with his patriotic films in the 1960s and ’70s, says about his long absence from direction, “I never intended to be a director in the first place. I became one by default when during Shaheed I had to direct the film unofficially. Then Lal Bahadur Shastri raised the slogan of Jai Jawan Jai Kisan. That’s how I made Upkar.” Recalling how Roti Kapada Aur Makaan came about, Kumar says, “When I was in Class 8 a senior student named Dewan chanted during a school function, ‘Maang raha hai Hindustan, roti kapada aur makaan.’ That’s where the idea came to me. Roti Kapada Aur Makaan remains contemporary. The film was inspired by a report in a newspaper in 1972, which described how a young graduate tore up his degree in front of the vice-chancellor as soon as it was given to him. That set me thinking about degrees and jobs.”

New outlook
Filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan feels the concept of patriotism has undergone a change in cinema. “The outlook has changed. Patriotism is defined in the current context. Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, Chittagong and Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey, about characters fighting for their country in pre-Independence India, were the last blast from the past.” Adds Dr Chandraprakash Diwedi, whose film Pinjar dealt with patriotism, “Yes, there has been a decline in films depicting the past. But a patriotic film needn’t be historical in content.

Any film that strengthens and integrates society, and cultivates peace and harmony is patriotic. For me, Salim Ahamed’s Malayalam film Adaminte Makan Abu, Gautam Ghose’s Bengali film Moner Manush and Amit Rai’s Hindi film Road To Sangam are also patriotic films.” Amol Gupte, chairperson, Children’s Film Society of India, feels we’ve entered an era of self-absorption. “From ‘Nation before Self’, the ideology has shifted to ‘I me myself’. Given the circumstances, what can the poor filmmaker do?”

No change
However, there are still a few filmmakers who firmly believe that the Manoj Kumar brand of patriotism is not dead. “It’s still there in Indian cinema,” says Subhash Ghai who made the fiercely patriotic film Karma and is working on another one, titled Kanchi, “but the definition has changed. Audiences don’t want empty slogans and bogus dreams. Today cinema is addressing the real India.”

Writer Prasoon Joshi feels patriotism remains unchanged in our films. “It’s still about love and loyalty for the country. Earlier perhaps it was in terms of fighting an external enemy and striving to get freedom for our country. This is where the Shaheed genre of patriotic cinema came in. Then it was about building our country, the Naya Daur and Upkar genre of patriotic cinema. Today’s patriotic cinema is about changing our country, purging it of corruption and other ills. The enemy is within. Today, Gandhian ideals are again finding a resonance in our cinema, for instance, Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai series. Be the change you want.”

Making of Mere desh ki dharti
Manoj Kumar, actor-cum-filmmaker, reminisces how one of the most popular patriotic songs Mere desh ki dharti, from his film Upkar, was conceived. “That song is imperishable. When Mahendra Kapoorji, who sang the song expired, our prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh said he would always be remembered for Mere desh ki dharti. It hurts to know so many people connected with that song - Kalyanji (composer), Mahendra Kapoor and Gulshan Bawra (lyricist) are no more.

The song happened when we had gone to a shrine to pay our respects. When we returned from the shrine to the car, Gulshanji was singing, ‘Mere desh ki dharti sona ugley... jawanon bhar bhar lo jholiyan... khushi se bolo boliyan’. Two-three years later when I made Upkar, I called Gulshanji home and recalled the lyrics I had heard him hum near the shrine. But I didn't like the lines ‘Jawanon bhar lo jholiyan, khushi se bolo boliyan’ and instead we had ‘Meri desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle heere-moti.’”

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