Revolution mirrored on celluloid

Leaders of great caliber and vision, participation of people from every strata of society, their sacrifice, armed resistance by revolutionaries, contribution of women… Indian freedom movement has all the drama one would find in a novel or a film. Naturally, Indian cinema was, and still is, in love with this movement.

From the silent era itself, cinema in India was closely associated with the freedom struggle. Prabhat Film Company produced Udaykal (1930). It tells the story of young Shivaji Maharaj, who inspired common people to fight against the mighty Moguls.

Though on the surface this looks like a story from history, it was a message to countrymen to come together and fight against the British. The British government sensed the underlying motive behind the film and they forced many changes in the movie — even the title had to be changed. Filmmaker V Shantaram had portrayed the role of Shivaji, apart from directing the movie.

Many films were not directly connected with the movement of Independence, but were based upon some theme of the time. For instance, Achhut Kanya (1936) made by Bombay Talkies speaks about abolishing caste system and untouchabilty, a cause very dear to Mahatma Gandhi. Prabhat film company’s Padosi (1941) by Shantaram propagates communal harmony in those troubled times.

One prominent film made during the Raj was Kismet (1943) starring the mega star of the time — Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti. It is a simple love story of a thief and a young girl.

But the film has a song that is directly related to the freedom struggle. “Aaj Himalaya ki choti se hum ne yeh lalkara hai, Door hato ai duniya walo Hindustan hamara hai...” This song is written by Kavi Pradeep (who later penned the immortal “Ai mere watan ke logon”). Lyrics clearly gives an anti-British message. Then Quit India Movement — led by Mahatma Gandhi — was at its peak and the song echoed that sentiment. Miraculously, the censor department passed the film, but later realised the mistake.

Around this time, to add to the woes of Indians, the World War II broke out, which made life more miserable. The government imposed strict regulations on the film industry. Film reels were expensive and hard to get. Censoring became harsher. This atmosphere drove filmmakers away from taking up any ‘nationalist’ subject. This was the period when Indian and particularly Hindi cinema turned towards escapism. Big sets, stars and music with song-and-dance routine — became important.

However, post-Independence, there was a spurt in films based on the freedom struggle. One important and commercially-successful film was Shaheed (1948) starring Dilip Kumar. The song from the film, “Watan ki raah main watan ke naujawan Shaheed ho”, soulfully rendered by Mohammad Rafi, became an instant hit.

The agitation of 1942 is portrayed in a Bengali film called ’42. It was released in 1949 and directed by Hemen Gupta. This film depicts violent events that took place in Midnapore district when the Imperial police force tried to suppress the nationalist movement. It is significant to note here that Gupta was a close associate of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. He debuted in the Hindi film world with Anandmath, based on the Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel of the same name.

The film was produced by Filmistan and released in 1952. The story is about the uprising of sanyasins against an oppressive regime. The novel, needless to say, was popular in the pre-Independence era. The same novel gave the slogan “Vande Mataram.”

“Mera rang de basanti chola..” were the words that were uttered by Bhagat Singh, a young boy who dared the British and embraced death with a smile on his face. No wonder his dramatic life attracted Indian filmmakers.

In the past six decades, numerous films were made on the life and times of Bhagat Singh in Hindi and in other languages. Bhagat Singh’s life story was picturised for the first time in Hindi in 1965. This film was also titled Shaheed. Manoj Kumar portrayed Bhagat Singh. Prem Chopra, who later earned fame as a villain, played another revolutionary who was hanged along with Singh. Perhaps this was the film which turned Manoj Kumar towards cinematic patriotism. Bhagat Singh was again a ‘hero’ of a few films made in early 2000.

It is an irony that the bio-pic of Mahatma Gandhi was made by a British director and remains an outstanding film on the subject of India’s freedom struggle. Kranti claimed to be depicting people’s uprising against the British rule. Producer-director Manoj Kumar carefully stuffed masala ingredients like sex and violence in the film, which became a box-office hit in the early 80s.

Films on the first war of independence in 1857 are many. Mangal Pandey, starring Amir Khan, is a recent one. Rang De Basanti, again starring Amir Khan, is based on the thoughts of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad. Lage Raho Munnabhai retells the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.

Both, released in mid-2000, were commercially successful. Does that mean the independence movement still inspires the new generation? Perhaps yes. Partly because modern Indian society has not yet fully understood the real meaning of independence, and it needs films to understand the value, and because of all the sacrifice made by our ancestors — struggle makes for good entertainment.

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