In the National Interest?: Questions of Independence in Indian Cinema

By Gayatri Chatterjee

mother-india-mehboob-khan.jpgMother India, 1957

While celebrations for the sixtieth year of Indian Independence are being prepared, both here in India and in other countries with large populations of ex-patriots and immigrants, a question surfaces: how was nationalism portrayed in films then and how is it portrayed now? It is a curious fact that in the decade after India gained independence on 15th August 1947, Indian cinema seemed rather silent about such an important event. Considering that prior to this date films regularly explored political ideas and events, this lacuna is even more interesting.

Ever since cinema began, films in India carried themes and representations of oppression and the people’s struggle for freedom. However, since the British censors banned any direct representation considered seditious, or thought likely to excite anti-British feeling, filmmakers would turn religious themes into political allegories. When Krishna tamed the Snake-King, Kaliya, in D.G. Phalke’s silent film Kaliya Mardan (1919), people stood up and shouted anti-British slogans. In Bhakta Vidur (Kanjibhai Rathod, 1921), the character of Vidur was made to resemble Mahatma Gandhi and given the Gandhian cap. Consequently the film was banned in some parts of the country [1]. Even film titles were considered incendiary [2].

Against this backdrop, filmmaking was often a cat and mouse game – as is the case in any colonized country. Filmmakers inserted patriotic sequences in films that otherwise caused no offence to those in power. In a super-hit film Kismet (Destiny, Gyan Mukherjee, 1943) a song & dance sequence ends with the dancers forming a map of India and the heroine carrying the Congress flag. The song lyrics declare: “O people of the world, go away. India is ours”: for the audience a clear reference to the British rulers.

It is typical of post-colonial countries that those who acquire or inherit political power strive to keep the populace from knowing their rights – to free speech, to education, participation in governance, and to equal access to national resources. In this they emulate the colonial government before them, and at times they can be even more zealous than their predecessors. In Aurat (1940), director Mehboob Khan shows villagers demanding that the local moneylender share the grain that he has kept hidden in his stores. Since the indigenous moneylender was the villain of the piece, the British censors had no problem with the film. However, when the director repeated this sequence in Mother India (1957), (the remake of Aurat), this time in the context of a terrible flood, the Censorship Board of the independent nation demanded that the entire sequence be cut [3].

kismet-gyan-mukherjee.jpgKismet, 1943

In the post-independent decade, instead of celebrating freedom, critical cinema chronicles the problems of the fledgling nation. The peoples’ disappointment with the general state of affairs is expressed repeatedly through a common feeling of indignation: ‘Is this what we had desired and fought for!’ A decade after independence, Pyaasa (The Thirsting One, Guru Dutt, 1957) shows the poet-hero wandering through a red-light area (often a marker in literature and films for the ills of society) and asking through verse, ‘Where are those who claim to be proud of India?’

In the same year, Mother India shows development and progress reaching the Indian village, but it is only after the people have undergone tremendous hardship and personal sacrifice (Chatterjee, 2002). Many Indian films throughout Indian cinema history carry liberal humanistic or socialist criticism of traditional customs (some made worse under British rule) that remain unchanged after independence. Many films critique class, cast and gender inequalities, both in their traditional manifestations, and in their new avatar under capitalism and industrialisation [4]. Awaara (1951), an international blockbuster by Raj Kapoor, ends with the protagonist Raj in prison for having committed two Oedipal crimes: he has killed his “bad” father, a villainous man who taught him to steal, and has murderously attacked his biological, “good” father, a prominent judge who had disowned Raj’s mother when she was pregnant. The film ends with the hero (played by Kapoor) voicing his desire that one day he will come out of prison and be like his father – and climb the ladder to riches and social importance by becoming a lawyer, a magistrate and then a judge.

These films critique feudalism and capitalism, the colonial rule and the independent nation-state – and look for answers they have not yet formulated. Indian films have always pursued entertainment and box-office success by celebrating money, sex and power. But whether it’s a crassly commercial movie, a work by a studio auteur or a film made by an independent/parallel/art film-maker, most movies exhibit a certain suspicion of money and power. In Awaara, Kapoor seems to be admitting that he must enter the world of money and corruption; and in his next film, Sri 420, he shows the hero (again, played by himself) getting embedded in the darker side of Indian economy. In many films problems are merely raised but not resolved, suspicions eventually suppressed by utopian remedies, and the status quo is ultimately maintained. This can only be fully understood by remembering that it is the state, film financiers, producers, exhibitors and distributors that have dictated the tenor of Indian films in the last hundred years.

In the last two decades, we are seeing the emergence of what could be called (neo)-nationalism in many films – a phenomenon that is closely connected with the global economy and the film industry. As in many countries in the world, India is witnessing a resurgence of neo-nationalism coupled with religious fundamentalism amongst Indians living in India and within the Indian diaspora. This is not connected with direct colonial rule but with indirect, economic, cultural and hegemonic control exercised by the ‘superpowers’ over ‘India’. Nationalist fervour today is expressed in jingoistic terms and enjoys uncensored representation and popularity. This has nothing to do with any social or religious reform or amelioration of life, thought and action – as was largely the case during the nationalist struggle.

cloud-capped-star-ritwik-ghatak.jpgThe Cloud-Capped Star, 1960

In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Karan Johar, 2002) Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) is an adopted son of a Delhi business tycoon (Amitabh Bachchan). He marries a poor girl, Anjali (Kajol), against his father’s wishes and decides to move to London. His younger brother, Rohan (Hrithik Roshan) comes to London years later both to further his father’s business and to bring his estranged brother back into the family fold. An aerial shot of London underscored by the song of Indian independence Vande Mataram signal Rohan’s arrival in the UK. In films like this it is suggested that India is now in a position to exert economic power and cultural hegemony over Great Britain and America. Blond British girls are shown wearing dresses that are the colour of the Indian flag, orange or saffron, white and green. Later in the film, Rohan teaches Anjali and Rahul’s son the national anthem, which his nephew proudly sings at his school’s annual day, and in place of the song the children were supposed to sing, (‘Doe a deer, a female deer’). Anjali, who always embarrasses her family by her rude public behaviour, hurls abuse at an English parent as the latter boasts that she has reserved places for her family at the top table. However, this same English mother is then seen to stand up, along with the entire school and staff when Anjali’s son sings the Indian national anthem on stage, to glorious effect and accompanied by all the children. [5]

Films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995), Pardes (Subhas Ghai, 1997), Kal Ho Naa Ho (Nikhi Advani, 2003) and numerous others show foreigners as morally corrupt (the Indian / Hindu hero must ‘save’ the Indian / Hindu heroine), and now working for Indian masters (who treat them shabbily). Indian families are seen to insist that their children marry Indian partners – and so on and so forth. Film scholars have often remarked on the nationalistic aspect of Indian films. However, it is interesting that such blatant jingoism, and the neo-nationalism that feeds on religious fundamentalism, seem to have gone largely unnoticed.

Subarnarekha (The Golden Line, Ritwik Ghatak, 1962) begins with the teachers and students of a school raising the national flag. Normally it is August 15th, Independence Day, that is set aside for flag hoisting. In this film, the flag is hoisted on January 26th, to mark the day the Constitution of India was implemented in 1950. For Ghatak, it is more important to show the people of the nation shaping their own lives and destiny, rather than simply marking the transference of political power.

By way of conclusion, in the early Indian cinema, patriotic and nationalistic tendencies are contextualised in discussions of nation building, the need for self-evaluation and the construction of a modern, reformed selfhood. Even after Independence there was no outright celebration of the attainment of freedom, whether this was due to excessive censorship, Partition’s deep wounds or dissatisfaction with those in power. Perhaps it was also economic factors that came into play, together with the socialist mindset of the middle-class who were taking over the Bombay film industry and making movies that were increasingly inward looking. However analysed, the films of the early decades are definitely progressive in comparison to the films of the last two decades. These latter works have been made in the new climate of a global economy where progressive elements must be absorbed or eliminated in the name of ‘family values’ or, more bluntly, ‘family business’. It is no coincidence that in all these films the patriarchs are rich business people, and the young heroes and heroines, whilst ultimately coming together in love, also end up safeguarding the family business.


[1] In the Indian epic The Mahabharata Vidur is the youngest brother to Dhritarastra and Pandu, whose sons fight a terrible war. Poor and idealist (his mother was a maid in the royal palace), he did not want to be a king, like his elder brothers. Instead he became a scholar (of dharma, politics and statecraft) and advisor to his royal brothers.
[2] There were some notable examples of direct representation, like the films by Hemen Gupta, an armed revolutionary who was jailed, sentenced to death but eventually freed. Gupta joined the famous New Theatres Studios of Calcutta, where many film personnel like Devaki Bose were active or ex-revolutionaries. Gupta made his most memorable Bengali film Bhuli Nai (I/We have not forgotten) in 1948. The film was cleared in the ninth sitting of the censor board. Once released, it played for one hundred and twenty five weeks in Calcutta and was similarly successful in the rest of the country as well (Kaul, 1999).
[3] Chatterjee, 2002
[4] Even though India was not directly involved, the Indian economy went awry during the two world wars – with the introduction of various kinds of corruption and a black-market economy. The film industry too had suffered and films are filled with the depiction of these problems.
[5] Similarly in a Karan Johar production – the Indian flag goes up and covers the entire screen, when an Indian restaurant in New York does well, driving a Chinese restaurant out of business.

Ken McMullen’s drama Partition, written with Tariq Ali, is a striking and very little seen film, made for British television in 1987 and resonant with many of the above debates. It will be released by Second Run dvd in August and will receive a special screening on 12th August at London’s Curzon Soho Cinema, where it is hoped that McMullen, Ali and members of the cast may attend.

Gayatri Chatterjee is a teacher of film studies. She has written the award-winning Awaara (1992) and Mother India (2002) titles from the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series.