From the very beginning in 1895, cinema was a global form. The first Lumiere screening in July 1896 at the Watson’s Hotel in Bombay created a huge demand for films, as well as a desire to learn how to make films and capture the multihued reality of India on the screen.
Almost immediately various Indians in different parts of the country rushed to procure equipment and learn the craft of filmmaking and began to produce ‘actualities’, and short narrative films as well. At the same time, people were exposed to British, American, and European films along with Indian productions as it was not difficult to understand foreign films since there was no dialogue to be understood, and only the title cards had to be changed to the languages of the region where they were being screened. However, with the coming of sound, a transformation of the film business happened because Indian film markets suddenly shrank for foreign films, and Indian productions too faced a change since the markets became language specific. This new emergence of specific linguistic territories coincided with the Indian national movement at its peak. Even before Independence, the cinemas of India—Hindustani, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil among others —were invested in the idea and ‘vision’ of the nation.
A poster of Mehboob Khan’s Humayun, (left); a poster of Lahore, starring Nargis.
Gandhi, the non-cooperation movement and the nationwide mobilisation of people against the colonial state had an impact of cinema from the silent period. The mythological, based on figures from Indian mythology, were extremely popular from the silent period onwards. The colonial state was extremely sensitive about any material glorifying the national movement or nationalist political leaders, and was quick to censor this material. The 1921 Bhakt Vidur was banned because even though it was based on a mythological story taken from the Mahabharata, the figure of Vidur could be seen wearing a Gandhi cap and singing a song in praise of the spinning wheel! Of course, one couldn’t hear the song, but the title cards clearly carried the words of the eulogy. This nationalist tendency would continue after technology led to the production of sound films in different Indian languages. Due to colonial censorship, Indian filmmakers deployed allegorical genres: devotionals, mythologicals and historicals, in which they would subtly weave in anti-colonial themes that were an intervention in the contemporary political context.
Allegory works at two levels at the same time; hence the stories of the past simultaneously also gesture to significations in the present; for instance, the 1939 historical film Pukar, about Jahangir and his idea of justice. On the surface, it’s not a film about the national movement, or nationalism—it is set in the early 17th century. However, the film dramatises a debate between law, justice and mercy which was a response to the arguments and discourses of the colonial masters that India was not capable of self-governance. This film not only powerfully, though indirectly, asserted its opposite, it also articulated an imagination of the India to come—a democratic polity where the government would be for and by the people.
Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra.
Then there were the devotionals, which took their protagonists from the Bhakti movement who all asserted the freedom to worship one’s own god in one’s own manner. Sant Tukaram (1936), a film by Prabhat Studio about Tukaram, a 17th c saint poet—a Kunbi by caste (an agricultural labouring caste)—dramatises the different attacks on Tuka by the Brahmin head priest even as it simultaneously gestures towards the oppression of the people by the colonial state. This mobilisation of the Bhakti movement to create the spirit of emancipation is significant. For one, the Bhakti poets who wrote in the vernacular languages—and were thus very accessible—were examples of indigenous popular leaders who could motivate and influence people. These saint films also dramatised the popular miracles associated with the saints. In another scene of this film, Tukaram, who is worshipping with a few devotees in a temple, is attacked by the army of a neighbouring kingdom that has been called in by the Brahmin head priest, jealous of Tuka’s popularity, to capture the Maratha leader, Shivaji who had become Tuka’s follower and was then present in the temple. Tuka asks his god Panduranga for help and people start streaming in from the body of the idol. When enemy soldiers try to capture Shivaji, they cannot find him because everyone present in the temple is a Shivaji lookalike. There are hundreds of Shivajis in this scene embodying the idea that sovereignty is disseminated among the people, and governance can be too, as film scholar Ravi Vasudevan has pointed out.
From the 1930s on, films like these proliferated: films on Kabir in Hindi and Kannada; Sant Dnyaneshwar in Marathi (1940); Meera (1945 and 1947 in Tamil and Hindi), and Sant Janabai in Marathi (1949), both about woman saints. The big studios made a lot of these films as bilinguals which not only opened up the linguistically limited markets but also disseminated their political messages over large parts of the country. The 1935 film on the 16th c saint Eknath is a case in point. Initially called ‘Mahatma’, it was banned by the British on account of its name since the censors objected to the clear reference to Gandhi, and only allowed the film to be released after its title was changed to Dharmatma. Eknath was a Brahmin saint who was attacked by fellow Brahmins because he stood against caste discrimination. This anti-caste urge flowed into cinema from the political imagining of a new India.
Nutan as and in Sujata.
Caste discrimination, a prominent strand before Partition disappeared in the two decades after 1947, with the exception of one film, Bimal Roy’s Sujata, starring Sunil Dutt and, in the titular role, Nutan, a dark-skinned Dalit girl brought up in a Brahmin family. Sujata’s adopted mother does not accept her entirely until the melodramatic climax, when Sujata donates her blood to save the mother’s life and she is fully accepted and integrated into the family. This was a big change. Films in the ’30s evoked caste but didn’t talk about marriage across caste. Only Achhut Kanya (1936) raised the issue, but there, the marriage of a Dalit girl with a Brahmin man is not realised. So these films are also in conversation with each other in a way. What couldn’t get resolved in the 1930s is imagined as possible in new India.
Prabhat Studio in Pune, a hub of cinematic activity, was a good example of a nationalist-reformist production house. V. Shantaram worked in Prabhat for 15 years from 1929 and directed a lot of these films. In 1941, he made a bilingual film, called Padosi in Hindi and Shejari in Marathi. Set in a village, it depicts the friendship between a Hindu and a Muslim and the tension outsiders created between them and how they did not only reconcile their differences, but together through their sacrifice saved their village from destruction and brought about communal amity.
Several other films addressed the communal tensions peaking at that time, pointing towards ways of possible harmony. Humayun (1945), made by Mehboob Khan, dips into history for this. When Babar arrived in India and had to face several Rajput kingdoms, the film dramatises his confrontation with the princess of Amarkot standing atop her fort with a flag of her kingdom. He calls her his daughter—so she becomes a sister to Humayun. Eventually, when Humayun has to leave for Iran, he leaves his wife, pregnant with Akbar, with this sister. It is in Amarkot that Akbar is born, with the Rajput princess singing in praise of him. The film was a synthesising message in the 1940s, at a time when the Muslim League resolution for Pakistan had resulted in communal tensions all around.
A song from Ashok Kumar-starrer Kismet showing the map of (undivided) India.
Nationalistic themes figured even in crime and stunt films. In Kismet (1943), the song Aaj Himalaya Ki Choti Se shows the map of (undivided) India, and vociferously asks foreigners to leave India, a clear reference to the Quit India movement. In a film made by the Wadia brothers called Diamond Queen starring Nadia, the action star of the times, an interesting scene has a man confronting her for breaking gender codes, and she says: don’t take women lightly, don’t forget India will never be free unless its women are free.
Partition is a curious absence in cinema: very few films from the first decade after Independence directly addressed this historic and cataclysmic experience, and even those tended to be inward-looking more than jingoistic.
In other films, Partition experiences were represented in a displaced and oblique manner. Some of these films were about women who were abducted or left behind during the Partition, and were then “recovered’. The prime ministers of both countries had in 1949 agreed on a policy that these women should be returned to their families, but ironically a lot of the women who came back were not accepted by their natal families. The films advocated that the women should be accepted back with respect. Lahore (1949) is a good example. The character played by Nargis is left behind in Pakistan where she is forcibly married to a Muslim man. Her fiancé who was in love with her goes back from the refugee camp to Pakistan, and brings her back, and they are married. Acceptance, not rejection.
The 1931 Wrath, which the British censors flagged for its protagonist’s resemblance to Gandhi.
The same theme is taken up a decade later in Chhalia (1960). Here, Nutan, a married, pregnant woman is left behind in Pakistan where a ‘good Muslim’, played by Pran, protects her. Her child is named Anwar to ensure that he remains safe in Pakistan. When she returns to India and introduces their son to her husband (played by Rehman), he rejects them when he learns of the child’s Muslim name. But a ‘chhalia’, a petty criminal (Raj Kapoor), falls in love with her and takes care of her, but realising that she is devoted to her husband, helps unite the couple .
As for Partition violence, breaking the silence around it is the very interesting 1961 film Dharmputra. It’s Yash Chopra’s second film as director. The Chopras are a Partition family, from Lahore, and in some of their films we see a yearning to resolve the conflicts caused by the Partition. In Dharmputra, based on a novel of the same name by Acharya Chatursen Shastri, the conflicts of the times are directly evoked and resolved. The novel, one could say, is actually a biased and communal account but the Chopras’ writing team completely changed it and created a Nehruvian, secular film.
The storyline, set between 1925 and 1947, spans 22 of the most difficult years of the country, after the Khilafat movement, the demand for Pakistan, the communal riots, Independence and Partition, and where most films have skirted a direct negotiation of these events, Dharmputra squarely addresses them. Ashok Kumar plays a nationalist nawab who takes part in the Quit India movement. Through the plot device of a Muslim boy raised by a Hindu family, who grows up to be a rabid Hindu fundamentalist and nearly commits matricide during the Partition riots, the whole panoply of emotions and attitudes of the times are evoked, right through to the eventual reconciliation of the two families. Images such as a bridge between houses act as symbols of Hindu-Muslim unity. The last scene has the entire family, of Hindus and Muslims, standing on that bridge. One brother is a Congress nationalist and another a left-leaning figure, so the entire political spectrum is incorporated. And as Rajendra Kumar, the figure of a leading politician sings ‘Ye Kiska Lahu Hai, Kaun Mara’ (Whose blood is this, who dies?), the film raises the question of the impossibility of differentiating identities through human blood and that Hindus and Muslims are born of the same mother and tied together by the bonds of blood that constitute the nation and write its filmic story.
(As told to Martand Badoni)