The relationship between a film and its audience is never unidirectional. Just as a film can shape what its audience thinks, it can also reflect popular public sentiment. The film is, therefore, a discourse.
This discourse shapes what Nationalism means for Indians. Historically, films have been an important contributor to the nation-building process. Multiple spectres have been projected onto the silver screen, starting from the “bhadralok’s” silent newsreel era to Bollywood after independence. Similarly, several interpretations of nationalism have coincided at the same time.
Acknowledging these sentiments, it is significant to understand how the rhetoric of Indian Nationalism has been shaped by popular films for public consciousness.
As Hans Kohn (1965) stated, “Nationalism is a state of mind, in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due to the nation-state”. Indian Nationalism is a historical category, an idea and a movement. It promotes the interests of a nation to preserve the nation’s sovereignty over its homeland. According to A.R. Desai, “Indian Nationalism is the consequence of the material conditions created by British colonialism.”
The nationalist sentiment is said to be the most dominant sentiment of man. Contemporary movements in the realm of culture and entertainment are inspired by collective nationalist motives, as can be seen in the case of Indian cinema.
Cinema has always endorsed a theatrical brand of Indian Nationalism meant to appeal to the people. The parallel between cinema and nationalism was first cemented by the feature film “Raja Harishchandra” directed by Dhundiraj Phalke (1913).
Through this film, Phalke attempted to foster ideas of nationalism located in India’s ‘glorious past’. He believed that these sentiments would reinforce the freedom movement in India. Since then, the possibilities for Hindi film nationalism have been endless.
Mehboob Khan’s Mother India remains one of the most commercially thriving films. After independence, the need for a national cultural icon was recognized, thus, Khan took the opportunity and made Mother India.
In Mother India, Radha (Nargis) has been shown as a selfless maternal figure who bears the ferocity of conflict between India’s traditions and the nation’s steps towards modernity. The film has an authentic representation of village life and the exploitation of the poor. In one vivid scene, Radha is summoned by a group of men dressed in Gandhi caps to inaugurate a new dam in the village because she is “everyone’s mother”. The new dam is then seen as an embodiment of ‘real’ India.
This scene represents the idea of nationalism espoused by Nehru in his Five Year Plans which focused on industrialisation. Thus, the film’s scene of constructing a dam contributed to the government’s nation-building exercise. Further, in presenting Radha as a resisting woman, the prototype of a national hero was created in cinema.
Bankim Chandra’s Debi Chowdhurani was successfully made into a movie by Dinen Gupta. Loosely based on the story of a real-life female bandit, the movie offers an insightful vision of the Hindu nationalist sentiment. Prafulla (Suchitra Sen) is a righteous woman mistreated by her in-laws. She encounters a fortune by chance and is mentored by nationalist leader Bhabani Pathak. Soon, Prafulla becomes the legendary Bandit Queen feared by the British.
The novel’s closing lines, “To protect the good, to destroy the wicked, and to establish right order, I take birth in every age, “ articulates the Hindu sentiment of rising against colonialism.
Mani Ratnam’s Roja made its viewers into unsuspecting nationalists. The box-office hit evoked in its audience a nationalistic fervour as the protagonist Roja (Madhoo) fights against all odds to rescue her husband who is captured by Kashmiri militants. Set against the background of azaadi, Roja is not merely a love story. It shows Kashmir as the typical paradise lost.
In this context, Roja was successful in creating consent towards Kashmiri violence. The movie redesigned India’s patriotism.
Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya presented a fresh outlook towards Indian Nationalism. Set in the backdrop the Kargil War, Lakshya not only presents a look at war but delves deep into the psyche of soldiers fighting it. It highlights the vanity of war and upholds the idea of ‘Me’ before nationalism.
In Lakshya, Karan (Hrithik) has reached a point where he has realised the futility of war. But, he cannot say it out loud. The protagonist has been shown as a young soldier dealing with the loss of his dear friend but fixating on the sacrifices he has made to fight for his country.
On account of historical dramas, Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey successfully serves the anti-colonial purpose. Based on the true story of sepoy Mangal Pandey who called the ‘first war of independence’ in 1857, this film triggers national pride and patriotism.
A monumental film, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti is a patriotic film that extends commitment towards the ‘national’ cause. In the movie, a largely apolitical group of friends are awakened with patriotism after the tragic death of their friend owing to corruption. Inspired, they decide to avenge the killing.
The film uses a clever way of portraying the progressive narrative of young nationalists and asserts the idea that one can be as radically patriotic today as the juvenile revolutionists during independence.
There is an astonishing statement of nationalism in cinema through sports dramas. The most poignant of these is Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The film recalls partition from the eyes of athlete Milkha Singh who witnessed his family being assassinated in present-day Pakistan. Milkha Singh is traumatized by his past, but he embraces his sportsmanship when Jawaharlal Nehru calls on him to run a race in Pakistan.
The analogy between sports and nationalism go way back. Nationalists like Tagore urged physical fitness that transpired as a response to the colonial gibe that Indians were bone idle and effete. To date, sports is associated with national pride.
Indian Cinema has been successful in selling the idea of ‘Indian Nationalism’ to Indians. These nuances have produced an entirely new paradigm in Indian cinema. The message here is that “Indian-ness” is much more than an innate spirit. It is a special sense of being that can transcend differences.