That day in 1931, on seeing the word ‘Swaraj’ in the title of Shantaram’s film Svarajyache Toran (Thunder of the Hills) and the poster of the film depicting Chhatrapati Shivaji hoisting a flag, the Head of the British Indian censor flew into a rage.
“The picture is banned”, conveyed the Censor Board. But Shantaram’s friend and film distributor Baburao Pai reasoned it out with the officials who demanded that the film be re-titled, a few scenes be modified and that the flag hoisting in the climax scene be entirely deleted. And therefore, Svarajyache Toran (Thunder of The Hills) was renamed Udaykaal and released.
Armed with the proverbial pen, our filmmakers were fighting their battle against the haughty Empire. Close to two dozen films were released between 1921 and 1947 that, either obviously or obliquely, depicted the British as the villain. The British-Indian censors made every possible attempt to throttle such messages. Even earlier, in the silent era in 1921, the character Vidur’s tell-tale ‘topi’ (cap) and the charkha (referred to as the Wheel of Fortune) in Bhakt Vidur (1921) led the film to be banned.
To fight the British, India needed to be socially united and progressive. That precisely was the message in Duniya na Mane (1937) which also raised a voice against unfair marriages and advocated widow remarriage. The British censors interfered once again, ordering the removal of documentary footage of Vallabhbhai Patel making a speech about abstinence. Brandy ki Botal (1939) criticised liquor consumption and exhorted Gandhian morality while Ghar ki Rani (1940) showed the dire consequences of aping western traditions. These messages started receiving the support of the country’s Nationalist leaders too. For example, even before its release, Achhut (1940), directed by Chandulal Shah had secured the public blessings and support of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel.
Surprisingly, not all native Indians were supportive of the Indian filmmakers either. V. Shantaram’s Dharmatma (1935) which was originally titled ‘Mahatma’ but had to be renamed because of objections not by the British censors but by Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, the then Home Minister of Bombay State. According to Shantaram’s daughter Madhura Jasraj, Munshi charged Shantaram with “... exploiting the name of Mahatma Gandhi for your selfish purposes”.
Taking advantage of the British’s unfamiliarity with Hindi, Apna Ghar (1942), Naya Tarana (1943), Prem Sangeet and Amar Jyoti (1936) featured lyrics that the British would have termed inflammatory, had they understood. Charkha Chalao Behno (Spin the wheel) in Aaj ka Hindustan (1940) and Kavi Pradeep’s fiery Chal Chal re Naujawan from Bandhan (1940) and the cheeky Door Hato ae duniyawalon Hindustan Hamara hai from Kismet (1943) were directly speaking to the Indian masses. For the Kismet song, arrest warrants were issued against Kavi Pradeep and composer Anil Biswas.
“Both my father and Pandit Pradeep had to go underground to escape arrest”, remembers Shikha Biswas, daughter of Anil Biswas. “They could re-surface only when it was pointed out to the government that the lyrics Tum na kisike aage jhukhna German ho ya Japani ’ were directed against the Axis members Germany and Japan. To that extent it was pro-Allied (and hence pro-British) rather than anti-British”, she adds.
Meanwhile, the Empire struck back too. As a counter-strategy to patriotic Hindi films, the British released English language films deemed objectionable to the Indians’ sensibilities. The Drum (1938) showed all Indians as untrustworthy and scheming against their British masters. Bombay city rose in revolt against the screening of the film with the ‘Frontier Gandhi’ Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan demanding the ban of The Drum .
The 1938 edition of Film India magazine called it a ‘shameful affront to the Frontier Pathans’. According to Leeladhar Mandloi in the August 2007 edition of Documentary Today , The Lives of A Bengal Lancer (1935) met with stiff objections in Lahore by the Muslim community for its disrespectful portrayal of the Muslims.
But, come the early 1940s, Freedom was in the air. Busy packing their bags, the British censorship grip understandably slackened and cinema posters got bolder. “Bringing Light To a Vexed Nation” was the tagline of Chal Chal Re Naujawan (1944) while “Turn East – and Hear India Speak! Is Today’s Tip To The West” was the tagline of Prabhat’s Hum Ek Hain (1946). Ek Kadam (1947) went to the extent of showing Netaji Subhash Bose in one of its posters!
While we (and indeed Bollywood) speak of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny as the first war of Independence, the first real show of Imperial power was in 1854 when General Outram ousted Nawab Wajid Ali Shah from Lucknow. The most significant film made around that little-known saga was – Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977) by Satyajit Ray with Tom Alter (whose Urdu was as fluent as the Queen’s English) playing General Weston and Richard Attenborough as General Outram.
Like Hollywood, one wishes that there had more of ‘faction’ films i.e. fiction based on a true historical incident. Like Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978) which sketched the story of India in the immediate aftermath of Mangal Pandey’s assassination by the British. Junoon (adapted from Ruskin Bond’s novella A Flight of Pigeons ) is based in the British Cantonment of Rohilkhand in northern India, with the core story straddling the dual track of true history as well as fiction. Film expert Pavan Jha has unearthed a little-known ‘faction’ by Hrishikesh Mukherjee titled Jalian Wala Bagh (1977).
Poet and film maker Gulzar plays Suneel, an Indian student studying in England, and as a part of the freedom movement, he delivers speeches on the campus. The commercial blockbuster Kranti (1981) claimed to be based on a true story of a freedom struggle between 1825-1875 but did not specify which one. On the other hand, Lagaan (2001) believed to be based on a true story was not. In an interview with Asif Kapadia of The Guardian in October 2002, producer Aamir Khan categorically said, “It ( Lagaan ) has no link to any true story….No Indian played cricket in 1893”.
Another ‘faction’ 1942 A Love Story (1994) was a fine balance between one of bright romance and a nationalistic plot to assassinate the tyrant General Douglas. But the tail piece of the film succumbed to the stock make-believe variety.
Newer sagas and shades of patriotism will continue to emerge….