From Propaganda To Social Dramas: The Evolution of Nationalism in Hindi Cinema

Films like 'Upkar' redefined what nationalism meant to Indian audiences.
Films like 'Upkar' redefined what nationalism meant to Indian audiences.L: Bollywood Vinyl, R: NFDC

The neon-lit billboard of Roxy cinema in Bombay of the 1940s was unfamiliar to the halo of commercial blockbusters until the Mumtaz-Ashok Kumar starrer Kismet (1943), which ran unceasingly for 192 weeks, a record broken more than three decades later by Sholay (1975). Swashbuckling, cigarette smoking Shekhar swaggering down Howrah Bridge just looking to make easy money — Ashok Kumar’s homegrown Humphrey Bogart impression — was your pickpocket with moral scruples that became the antihero irreverent to society’s strictures but wearing his heart on the sleeve for the right woman to steal. Rani, the dancer heroine left crippled by her father’s mania to work her to near death, was the ghostly image of our beleaguered country wrestling with its own honest thief who sang paeans like Door Hato Ae Duniyawalon Hindustan Hamara Hai echoing through 1,1745 feet of film reel.

The Bombay film industry or Bollywood is often credited with the sociopolitical consolidation of India’s post-colonial identity and its protracted song-and-dance sequences have evolved to become predominant purveyors of hypodermic messaging — capitalistic nation building inundated with a heady rush of patriarchal morality — entering the veins of our circulatory system with almost no flinching or shutting of eyes necessary. With the doors of consciousness swung wide open, we dined with the pomaded and pencil moustache bearing Dilip Kumar who isn’t above a petty train robbery to break the jaw of the colonial overlords in Shaheed (1948), although his own father is a British loyalist and an ex-Deputy Commissioner.

The theme of ideological skirmishes within the household was revived in the next film by the same director, Samadhi (1950) wherein a staid and earnest Ashok Kumar joins the INA under the baton of freedom fighter Bose, much to the consternation of his elder brother who is an officer in the British Indian Army. In most of these films, the hero had followed the classic odyssey of breaking ties with privilege and insular self absorption to experience the real world struggles of living in a young country under the grip of poverty and famine, but films like Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar (1948) and Khwaja Ahmed Abbas's Rahi (1953) were also exploring the economic segregation within our population.

Mother India was emblematic of how hard life is in the villages.
Mother India was emblematic of how hard life is in the

It was not until we bristled with compassion for the indomitable spirit of a peasant woman in the three-hour-long, Gevacolor epic Mother India (1957), did we discover that India was a character in its own right and not merely a geographical setting in our stories. Rife with imagery of martyrdom and selfless villagers who lay the moral groundwork for a society that finds romance in their sacrifice and suffering, this film unconsciously betrayed the biases we embody against women and the working class, and perpetuated the ideal of protecting your country’s honour above all else.

Cutting through the clutter of rustling popcorn buckets and slurping soda straws, the familiar strains of Jana Gana Mana first started echoing in our cinema halls during the India-China war of 1962, an interlude between commercials and trailers that has become so normalised today that most spectators will find themselves chiming in.


Dramatising the famous last stand of Major Shaitan Singh and his platoon, outnumbered but unrelenting at the Chushul airfield during the Chinese invasion, Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964) proved that even a strategic failure at the battlefield can be capitalised for its sorrow and heroism to boost the audience morale and maintain their trust in the wartime administration. After all, this wasn’t the first time that cinema had been utilised for its influence to repurpose a political narrative and define the attitudes of its spectators towards real world events.

Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1964) stood out among the spate of military dramas that erupted from the 60s onwards for not only giving us another memorable song Mere Desh Ki Dharti, which we can bluster in school assembly halls on Independence Day, but also for infusing the legacy of nationalistic cinema with a dichotomy bisecting the two different Indias — that of the metropolitan cities and the other of the countryside. In a newly constituted republic, Indians were wary of losing sight of their roots and becoming mired in the blind pursuit of 'Western' ideals of mechanisation and economic prosperity, and films like Upkar examined that protecting your territorial integrity through warfare was as important as working in the fields or teaching school children in villages.

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The genre of war films has raged loud enough well into the 21st century, losing numbers and appeal only in the last decade or so, with iconic frontliners like Akraman (1975), Prahaar: The Final Attack (1991), Border (1997) and LoC Kargil (2003). However, given the long history of communal riots, representation of Muslims in war films remained somewhat problematic and stereotypical. In Border, there was only one Muslim character who was fighting in the Indian army and his service to the country was an endorsement for the ‘good Muslims’ among us compared to the ‘bad ones’ we perceive as threats to our national security.

At the turn of the century Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India (2001), a sports film with a veritable lineup of songs and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), an action film set during Partition that revolved around interfaith love were game changers for how Indians perceived patriotism in cinema. With Lagaan (2001), we had recognised the Indian sports hero films as a potential crowd pleaser, laden with uplifting background score and small town naïveté as archetypal elements to induce a feeling of pride for our unassuming but talented prodigies. While Gadar taught us that the wounds from Partition have still not healed completely and making a film about India versus Pakistan hysteria is a sure shot money spinner.

This formula was moulded and rehashed by many more films to follow like Iqbal (2005), Chak De! India (2007), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Mary Kom (2014), Dangal (2016) ad nauseam.

A more positive trend that had effectively been kickstarted by Upkar (1964) was the redefining of what qualifies as patriotism. Unlike the aggressive, muscular period dramas and war propaganda films, there was a turnaround with more forward looking, grassroots oriented cinema that delved into how challenging it can be to actually inspire change and to uplift a downtrodden faction of society not by pitying them but empowering them. Films like Swades (2004), Rang De Basanti (2006) and Peepli Live (2010), prophesied the collateral damage of blinkered radicalism perpetuated by nationalistic propaganda often inflicted upon marginalised communities left in the backwaters. 

In October of 2016, wheelchair ridden writer and disability activist Salil Chaturvedi, was allegedly beaten up at a cinema in Goa by another patron for not standing up during the national anthem. Salil’s incident is not an isolated one in a country that’s lately been experiencing tidal waves of tokenistic patriotism threatening to turn our public spaces into mosh pits of virtue signalling and conspiracy mongering. The need for a more holistic interpretation of national identity is now more imperative than ever.

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