There has been no dearth of patriotic movies in India. But it is curious to observe that only a handful of those were declared a ‘hit’ and rest all went to the chipper. With the recent release of Raagdesh and a heavy air of nationalism around in the country, let’s have a look at the various facets of patriotism seen in our Hindi cinema.
1. The British Era
Not many films came out that dealt with patriotic themes. After all, films are as much about commerce as they are about art; and in those days, speaking against the British regime would have meant a ban on the release of the film in theaters. To put things into perspective, poet and lyricist Kavi Pradeep went underground for his patriotic song ‘Aaj Himalaya Ki Choti Se Phir Humne Lalkara hai, Duur Haton Ai Duniya Walon Hindustan Humara‘ in the 1943 film Kismet, which otherwise had nothing to do with patriotism. The song played an important role in making the film the biggest Bollywood hit till Sholay came out in 1975.
2. New Age, New Patriotism in Cinema
Free from the clutches of the British, the period from 1947-67 saw a number of patriotic films being made. Some of these patriotic films worked big time, while many bit the dust. Ramesh Saigal was a trendsetter in this regard. Two of his films dealing with patriotic themes- Shaheed and Samadhi, starring two of the biggest stars of the day Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar respectively, emerged as the biggest hits of the years 1948 and 1950. And yet others were not so successful.
3. The Patriotic War Film
The year 1950. Two films. Two biggest banners of the time. The patriotic war film is born in Hindi cinema. Both Bombay Talkies’s Samadhi and New Theatres’ Pehela Admi told the story of INA soldiers. Yet Samadhi worked big time, and Pehela Admi sank without a trace. It wasn’t until 1964 when Haqeeqat, the patriotic war film truly arrived. Later films like Border were clearly modeled on this Chetan Anand gem and did wonder at the box-office. Chetan Anand’ s brother, the evergreen Dev Anand, too made his directorial debut in this genre but his Prem Pujari turned out to be a colossal disaster. Later movies made in this genre like Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Sathiyo, LOC Kargil, Lakshya too couldn’t succeed.
4. Emergence of Bharat Kumar
Manoj Kumar chalked himself the image of – Bharat Kumar, the patriotic hero which endures him to a generation of cine-goers and sets him apart from his other contemporary actors. To his credit, Manoj Kumar not only made patriotic films a commercially successful venture at the box-office but an enviable one at that. Upkar, Purab Aur Paschim, Kranti all turned out to be big hits. Both Upkar and Kranti were the biggest hits in their year of releases. Yaadgaar (1970) probably remains the only Manoj Kumar film with Bharat themes that failed during that golden phase of 1965-1981. (Here we are not going into Manoj Kumar’s later ‘masterpieces’ like Clerk and Jai Hind).
5. Bonds out to save the country
007 fascinated people world over, and India was no exception. In the same year as Upkar (1967), Farz came out. It had white shoes and tight pants clad Indian Bond Jeetendra saving the country from desh ke dushmans (country enemies/foreign foes).
Farz was followed by other films like Surakksha, Wardat, Agent Vinod (1977) etc over the next 15-16 years. As with all other things, some of these films met with success, while many withered away. But probably the best secret agent patriotic film ever made in Bollywood is the 1968 blockbuster Ankhen. Directed by Ramanand Sagar, this film mixed Netaji’s INA with contemporary 007 agents to tell a highly engrossing and entertaining story. Unsurprisingly, the film became not only a huge hit but also brought Ramanand Sagar a Filmfare Award for Best Direction.
6. Karma and the ‘desh ke gaddaar’ Genre
Come 1986 and Subhash Ghai gave birth to a kind of patriotic film. He combined two earlier blockbusters- Sholay & Do Ankhen Barah Haath, and gave them a patriotic twist. It had mainly three elements. First the Nationalistic/Patriotic Hero (often a police officer, army officer or, to spice things up, an ex-convict, thief or simply a man with a dishonorable past). Second the international terrorist outfits and third the traitors (desh ke gaddars). The Indian audience loves love triangles, and so this one was no different. Karma, Watan Ke Rakhwale, Tirangaa etc all set the box-office on fire. The Patriot vs Terrorist formula still works as the success of films like Holiday prove the same. But these films lack the melodrama and tackiness of their 80’s and 90’s predecessors. And they also make us miss the larger than life over the top desh ke dushmans of the likes Dr. Dang and General Dong.
7. Bhagat Singh and Biopics of Revolutionaries
Bhagat Singh has the special distinction of having seven biopics made on his life. Except for Shaheed (1965) starring Manoj Kumar as the freedom fighter, all were commercial failures. Even Ajay Devgn’s power packed performance in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh couldn’t bring in the footfalls. The biopics of other revolutionaries like Chandrasekhar Azad, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Surya Sen, Veer Savarkar, Mangal Pandey and others too have flopped in spite of often having big stars and famous directors and also at times winning critical acclaim. So can we say that the success of Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed was more of a result of Manoj Kumar’s draw as a patriotic hero? It has to be pointed out here that Shaheed was Manoj Kumar’s first successful film as a patriotic hero and its script was written by Bhagat Singh’s comrade Batukeshwar Dutt.
Films set in the British era i.e. the Bollywood films which depict the independence struggle and the related events like Jallianwala Bagh massacre or Partition, seem to have few takers, which is kind of unfortunate. Pinjar, Begum Jaan, Rangoon or even in the older times films like Prem Kahani which were set in the British era, couldn’t exactly set the ticket counters ablaze. Of course, there have been exceptions like Lagaan & Gadar, which were big hits and were released on the same day (coincidence?). But such success stories are few and far between.
The question that arises is – Don’t, we the audience like to see the real struggle that people of that era had to undergo to earn us our freedom for us on the screen? The less than appealing box office results of period films set in British period or the biopics of our revolutionaries somewhat suggest in that direction only. Of course one can argue that many of these films weren’t good or well made. But Rajkumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh & Bedabrata Pain’s Chittagong were surely well-made films. And so were many others like Pinjar. And yet they flopped.
On the other hand, it seems that if we can contemporize patriotism, mix our patriotic heroes like Netaji, Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad with modern issues, we invariably have winners at the box-office (for instance 1968 Ankhen or 2006 Rang De Basanti). Contemporary terrorist films like Neerja, Baby and Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty also work with the audience and critics alike. It has to be noted that even superb modern patriotic films have failed at the box-office like Swades, Heroes, Sarabjit, Zameen, and 16 December. But why some of them work and others fail miserably? Is their failure because of the fact that they didn’t invoke our freedom fighters while talking about modern issues faced by our country? Or is there a formula our movie makers are yet to discover to lure the audience into the theatres for a treat of a truly patriotic movie?
- Raunak Joy