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7 Bollywood Movies That Reflected Various Shades Of Indian Nationalism

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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. 

Indian Nationalism

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.” 

A gathering of ABVP students. It's a student wing that is propagating ultra-nationalism.
Representational image.

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 As An Advocate Of Nationalism

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 filmRaja 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. 

  • Mother India (1957)

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

Still from the movie, “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. 

  • Debi Chowdhurani (1974)

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. 

  • Roja (1992)

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.

  • Lakshya (2004)

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. 

Scene from “Lakshya”,

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. 

  • Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005)

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. 

  • Rang De Basanti (2006)
10 years of 'Rang De Basanti': 8 interesting facts about the film that you may have not known
Scene from “Rang De Basanti”.

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. 

  • Bhaag Milka Bhaag (2013)

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. 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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