A little over three decades ago Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency and suddenly the freedom that India won just 30 years earlier had lost its meaning. While Hindi cinema never forgets to celebrate Independence, it has ceased to remember the Emergency and many such events that threaten to kill freedom in some form.
Reality in Hindi cinema is preferred usually in its most sanitised version. Many times a heightened sense of sensationalism is passed off in its name but depicting it as it happened isn’t how Bollywood likes it. It’s not as if the 21-month long period between 26 June 1975 and 21 March 1977 didn’t touch the lives of film artists the manner in which it impacted millions of Indians.
Kishore Kumar’s songs and appearances were banned from All India Radio and Doordarhsan, the state run television network, for his refusal to perform on Delhi’s instructions. One of the busiest stars of that time, Shatrughan Sinha was an open supporter of Jai Prakash Narayan, the man who galvanised a mass movement against Indira Gandhi, and that association led to the banning of his films. Some towed the lined, others stood up against it and some like Dev Anand took the government’s high-handedness head on. His refusal to sing praises of Sanjay Gandhi, the architect of Emergency, made the government force media to blacken out his name in every manner possible. When he tried to reason with the then Information & Broadcasting Minister, he was told that it’s “a good thing to speak for the government in power.” Anand went on to form a political party that took on the government.
Is it too much to expect something real from a cinema that owes much of its existence to escapism? The 1970s were a period of great change where Hindi cinema let go of the idealism of the 1950s and a large part of the romantic aimlessness of the 1960s that shackled it. Inspired by what was happening around Hindi cinema witnessed the birth of characters such as the Angry Young Man of Salim-Javed films and a whole new movement called Parallel Cinema. It stimulated films like Garam Hawa (1973) to re-look at the past in a different light while motivated films such as Ankur (1975) to look ahead with learning’s from the past. Nestled in between were Zanjeer (1973) and Deewar (1975) that were as commercial as they got but without completely selling out. Even in the midst of a whole new movement and rediscovery, what happened that ensured that filmmakers steered clear of exploring the reality of Emergency in cinema?
Allegedly modeled on Indira Gandhi’s life, Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) never enjoyed a wide release thanks to the government. It was banned till the Janata Government came to power in 1977. But the thing that drew a self-inflicted ban on filmmakers could be the manner in which all the negatives of a light veiled satire by the name of Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) were destroyed. The film poked at the functioning of the government but the fact that it was made by a Janata Party MP called Amrit Nahata only made the whole thing more incendiary. In spite of all the atrocities attributed to him during the dark years of the Emergency this was the only case for which Sanjay Gandhi was ever arrested. Ironically, the only other film that had the Emergency as a subject would have to wait almost three decades to get made.
Based on his own experiences during the Emergency, Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aise (2005) is the only Indian film that truly explores the harsh times. One of commercial Hindi cinema’s biggest problems is that it often confuses resolution with solution. Pick any mainstream Hindi film inspired by reality and you will inevitably see the hero taking on the entire system and solving all the problems. Mishra’s film captures the essence of the times through the story of three individuals without ever being preachy. Unlike a tale on corruption where a filmmaker can provide a take home solution to the viewer, there isn’t anything that a film on Emergency can offer. But is the lack of a seemingly palpable solution the only thing that stops any filmmaker to comment on reality via their films? Every good political film right from Garam Hawa to Peepli [Live] (2010) might be inspired by bigger issues but it’s the micro that they choose to focus on. More importantly, such films never try to be instant morality car washes offering the end of any character’s dilemma as a solution to be mass replicated.
Over the years cinematic liberty has transformed into Bollywood’s cinematic reality. The real reason for such an ostrich like attitude towards the Emergency could be to stay away from antagonising the Nehru-Gandhi clan. The prevalent Bollywood mentality is to sugarcoat the obvious and the acceptable to such an extent that audiences wouldn’t care about the reality or political genre. How else can you explain five films on Bhagat Singh in a single year and yet not a single one bothered to scratch beneath the surface when it came to the martyr’s view on Mahatma Gandhi?
Shyam Bengal’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005) simply glosses over anything that would show Bose to be different than how the history books have forced him upon us. Even Ketan Mehta’s Sardar, (1993) the biopic of Sardar Patel chooses to quietly brush away the Iron Man’s later relationship with Nehru. Nothing stops Bollywood from making films that rejoices India’s freedom struggle but any kind battle to uphold that very freedom isn’t welcome. Maybe it’s time Hindi cinema tried to understand the true meaning of Shakeel Badayuni’s words,
‘Apni azadi ko hum hargiz mita sakte nahin, Sar kata sakte hain lekin sar jhuka sakte…’
Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here and follow him @gchintamani
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