Risking life and liberty

If you measure the Emergency (June 1975-March 1977) in terms of films impacted by it and that the Indian masses saw, you would zero in on Sholay, which was released in the same year. During the Emergency, the media was muzzled, and over 100,000 people imprisoned without trial. In Ramesh Sippy’s original Sholay climax, the Thakur takes revenge by killing Gabbar Singh. But the censors did not want the Thakur, an ex-police officer, to be seen as a vigilante during the Emergency. So they insisted a police officer arrest Gabbar Singh instead. With only a few days left for the release, Sippy was forced to reshoot the censor-friendly end in Bengaluru.

But of course other films — though seen by relatively fewer numbers — were more notoriously scorched by the Emergency’s blowtorch: Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) was banned and its prints burnt; I.S. Johar’s Nasbandi (1978) and Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) were also banned.

Kissa Kursi Ka was a political satire about a corrupt politician directed by Janata Party MP Amrit Nahata and made pointed references to a birth control pill called ‘Sanjay Sanjeevani’. Both Sanjay Gandhi and then Information and Broadcasting minister V.C. Shukla, were held guilty of burning the film’s prints and negatives, and jailed, before the verdict was overturned.

Nasbandi was also a satire on the Emergency and its compulsory sterilisation policy, and had the song ‘Kya mil gaya, sarkar, Emergency laga ke? Nasbandi banake, hamari bansi bajake?’ (What did the government achieve by imposing Emergency and getting us sterilised?).

Aandhi, starring Sanjeev Kumar and Suchitra Sen, showed a woman politician feeling guilty for choosing her political career over her marriage. However, the Janata government showed it on Doordarshan when it came to power in 1977. Even playback singer Kishore Kumar’s songs were banned from being played on AIR during the Emergency, because he refused to perform at a Congress rally.

Filmmakers all over the country responded to the Emergency. Sudhir Mishra’s unforgettable Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), on the political and personal journeys of three idealistic college students, explored the Emergency through the high-handedness of the authorities, police excesses, and forcible sterilisation camps. Balu Mahendra’s Nireekshana (1982), a Telugu film which he remade as Yathra in Malayalam and dubbed into Tamil as Kanne Kalaimaane, is inspired by the Emergency’s human rights violations. In Yathra, Mammootty plays a forest officer who is mistaken for a Naxalite, arrested and jailed for many years. P.A .Backer’s Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol (1975, Malayalam) is a love story between a radical political activist who has been declared a criminal by the police and a young woman who finds out about his death from the papers. The film ran into trouble with the censors, and was even pulled out of theatres during the Emergency. But Backer later won a state film award for it.

Two important films that addressed the Emergency, though metaphorically, were Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe (Bengali, 1980) and Shaji Karun’s Piravi (Malayalam, 1988). In Ray’s film, Goopy and Bagha push the tyrant Hirak Raja into a brainwashing machine that turns him into a good guy. It also directly refers to Sanjay Gandhi’s fascist programmes in a scene where poor people are to be evicted, so that tourists don’t see them. Interestingly, the film was produced by the West Bengal government.

Shaji Karun’s exquisite Piravi was inspired by the infamous P. Rajan case, in which a college student had died in police custody. In the film, the father seems to slowly lose his mind, as he waits endlessly for his son to return. The film won the Camera d’Or Special Mention at Cannes.

Although Indira Gandhi lost the elections in 1977, she returned to power in 1980. It is believed that this is why not many films lampooned the Emergency in subsequent years, not even from the relatively popular, hard-hitting, parallel cinema directors. As for documentaries, Anand Patwardhan made two documentaries on the Emergency, Kraanti Ki Tarangein (1975) and Zameer ke Bandi (1978). The first documented the pre-Emergency repression and the Bihar uprising led by socialist Jayaprakash Narayan. It was secretly completed, using outdated film stock and processed in different laboratories for fear of discovery, and underground screenings were held during the Emergency. Zameer ke Bandi, which was widely shown in India, is a courageous and important historical record, with clandestine footage of the arrest, detention and torture of political prisoners during the Emergency.

Films Division (FD)’s propaganda documentaries on Indira Gandhi include The Prime Minister (1976). It is nowhere in the league of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will — the masterly 1935 propaganda documentary commissioned by Adolf Hitler that projected him as the true leader who would ensure Germany’s return to glory. FD’s documentary is cookie-cutter propaganda about how Mrs. Gandhi worked from dawn, and stayed in touch with the common man.

However, there are more recent films to be proud of; that alert us about our constantly eroding democracy. Shonali Bose’s Amu, Nandita Das’ Firaaq and Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania offer courageous critiques of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the Gujarat riots of 2002, in which over a 1,000 people were killed — the majority Muslims — while then chief minister Narendra Modi and the state looked on. Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) is as gutsy a critique of a corrupt, right-wing government as Bollywood can offer: a chief minister, determined to build another Shanghai here, via a shady Special Economic Zone (SEZ), has the opposition leader bumped off. Amazingly, the film, presented by PVR Pictures, was coproduced by DBP and the government’s NFDC.

The truth is, myth-making — or manufacturing consent — takes different forms, and film is only one of them. The Emergency was a one-shot high-potency dose in which we lost our basic democratic rights but, in fact, there has been an ongoing emergency that seems less visible only because it happens every day by degrees. As Shanghai’s item number ‘Imported Kamariya’ warns: “Welcome, welcome karti India, jaan le gayi” (While welcoming me, India took my heart/life).

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant for the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator for festivals worldwide and journalist.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 7:50:05 PM |

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