When August 15 rolls around every year, Indian hearts are expected to swell with patriotic pride, as Mere Desh Ki Dharti Sona Ugle Ugle Heere Moti, sung in Upkar (1967) by Mr Bharat (Manoj Kumar) himself plays from every loudspeaker, along with a playlist of ‘India is great’ songs on loop.
But the idea of patriotism changes with time. When Mumtaz Shanti sang Door Hato Aye Duniyawalon Hindustan Hamara Hai, in Kismet (1943) it was clear she was shooing away the British. But once Independence was achieved — along with a traumatic Partition — communal harmony, national integration and the hopeful building of a new country took on added significance.
V Shantaram had made Padosi in 1941, a film that made a plea for Hindu-Muslim amity, back when nobody could have imagined how the relations between the two communities would fray to the extent that in a 2018 film titled Mulk (directed by Anubhav Sinha), a Muslim man would be made to stand in court and ask to prove his patriotism; and a Muslim RAW agent’s integrity would be questioned and he would say, “I fight for my country, not for my faith” in Vishwaroop 2 (directed by Kamal Haasan).
In MS Sathyu’s 1973 classic Garm Hawa, a Muslim man wishing to stay in India when others of the community are migrating to Pakistan, is made to suffer for his choice; in Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Naseem, an old Muslim man dies on the day Babri Masjid is destroyed, marking the day from when peace would become a fragile and precious thing.
In the interim years, Muslims would be seen in a genre by itself, known as the Muslim social with films like Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Ghazal, Benazir, Pakeezah (to name a few), or as the ubiquitous Rahim Chacha in dozens of films, meant to show that families belonging to the two communities could be friends. Then terrorism became a global threat, and the portrayal of Muslim, lost all shades of grey.
It was Yash Chopra who made Dharmputra (1961), one of the few films about a Hindu militant (played by Shashi Kapoor), who hates Muslims till he discovers that he was adopted and that his real parents were Muslim.
For some years after Independence, films like Shaheed (1948) and Samadhi (1953) were made to cash in on the admiration for patriots and martyrs in the cause of India’s Independence. Surprisingly, the biopic of the Father of The Nation, Gandhi, was made as late as 1982, and that too by a foreigner, Richard Attenborough. Still films about national heroes — Bhagat Singh (several) Sardar, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Netaji, Mangal Pandey — are always inspiring.
Post-Independence, there was also the matter of states being drawn up on linguistic lines, so V Shantaram made a quirky Teen Batti Char Rasta (1953) about a Punjabi man, who marries a woman from Uttar Pradesh, and five of his six sons marry women from different states, turning the home into a chaotic match of one-upmanship.
The North-South divide was handled in a comic way in Mohan Segal’s New Delhi (1956), with Kishore Kumar playing a Punjabi man masquerading as a ‘Madrassi’ (calling a Tamilian that today, would invite violent protests) to woo a South Indian, Vyjayanthimala. Years later, a North-South romance would result in a tragic film, K Balachander’s Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981), and also a Rohit Shetty action-comedy, Chennai Express (2013).
War movies are great to evoke nationalism — the devastating Indo-China war of 1962 was turned into a classic Haqeeqat (1964) by Chetan Anand, while in 1967 after the Indo-Pak war of 1965, Manoj Kumar made Upkar, inspired by Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Jai Jawan Jai Kisan slogan.
JP Dutta’s war films, like Border and LOC Kargil, whipped up anti-Pak sentiment, that got increasingly more virulent as Pakistan-supported militancy became a headache for Kashmir in particular and India as a whole. As the county battled communal riots, terrorist attacks, bomb blasts, films could only get more jingoistic — Gadar (2001) being a perfect example, and in a gentler way, Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). It took Megha Gulzar to make Raazi (2018), that was about an Indian spy (Alia Bhatt) in a Pakistani military family, but resisted the temptation of demonising the other side. On a lighter note, Mudassar Aziz’s Happy Bhaag Jayegi (2016), showed the softer side of Pakistan.
At a less obvious level, globalisation and the fear of Western domination produced another set of films with family values and rituals to underline Indianness — of which Hum Aapke Hain Kaun! (1996) could be considered the herald. And even films like Namaste London (2007), which was an updated version of Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Pashchim (1970), projected the purity of the Indian spirit as opposed to the depravity of the West. Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Swades ((2004) used nationalism in a positive way, as an NRI returns to India to help make a difference to the lives of the rural poor.
If films about soldiers, spies and intelligence agents from the old Aankhen and Farz to the new Madras Café, D-Day, Baby, Ek Tha Tiger, Tiger Zinda Hai, make Indians look invincible, sports films, from Lagaan, Chak De India, to Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Dangal, Sultan, Soorma and the latest Gold, are perfect for whipping up nationalism in a healthy way.
Then, there is yet another kind of film that is catching the upbeat mood of the country — films that recreate India’s achievements — films like Airlift, Padman and Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran. And Bollywood is now even more on the lookout for real life heroes and motivational stories…because India can do with more optimism.