A true patriot questions the state of the nation

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In two films from the late 60s — one, a recent Phalke award-winner — we have two different case studies of the ideal "nationalist": one who believes blindly in the mythical greatness of the nation; and the other, who believes in using scientific temper and dissent to ensure his nation stays great.

The word 'sedition' has permeated conversations in the streets, newsrooms, legislatures and living rooms alike. But what does it take to be seditious? Not being patriotic enough? Not thumping your chest at the mention of your motherland? Not waving the flag at your premises? Not being an anthem-singing nationalist? Being a sloganeering leftist? It's subjective after a point. As with everything, cinema, at the vanguard of philosophical inquiry, probably has some wisdom to shed. Two come to mind. And guess what. One of them just won a Dadasaheb Phalke award — 1967 film Upkar by Manoj Kumar (a.k.a. Bhaarat Kumar for being an icon of patriotism, his staple screen persona).

Upkar was reportedly inspired by a slogan, “ Jai Javaan, Jai Kisaan [victory to the soldier, glory to the tiller]”, popularised by Lal Bahadur Shastri. Very patriotic, right? But, in my opinion, the sentiments and ideology represented in Upkar ring truer to what prominent culture critic Sadanand Menon refers to as “pulp-patriotism” — patriotism stripped of introspection, infused with pride and defined in opposition to an “other”.

There is a palpable wariness — at the very least, as expressed in the media — that the current dispensation at the Centre has, at its core, a certain majoritarian image of the ideal bhaaratiya (Indian) — someone who is proud of India’s Hindu past; someone who uncritically accepts the Hindutva-dominated version of history; someone willing to uphold his devotion to the mythical Bhaarat Maataa to the exclusion of everything else, including his day-to-day difficulties. In such a scenario, though, patriotism acts merely as an opiate, detaching the common man from his drudgery for a while and elevating him to a romantic higher plane. A Mr. Bhaarat neatly fits into this scheme.

This begs the question. Is there no better form of patriotism than one which is defined by collective conformity? Is there no truly individualistic patriotism?

If you want an antidote to the pulp-patriotism of Mr. Bhaarat, take a gander at Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam. It was released in 1969 — the year of Mahatma Gandhi's centenary and the establishment of Jawaharlal Nehru University. The two films — Upkar and Satyakam — came within two years of each other. Yet, they were completely different in the way they projected the motif of patriotism.

I feel that Satyakam’s lead character Satyapriya — played by Dharmendra in one of his best roles — best exemplifies ‘the Constitutional Indian’. A scientist as well as humanist, an engineer looking to take part in nation-building, he possesses a healthy scepticism in the idea of the nation-state while being a follower of the Constitution. He is someone whose scientific temper makes him question not just the system but also his own approach toward it.

Sadanand Menon, who has been a close observer of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema, says Mukherjee was impressed by the Upanishadic tale of Jabala Satyakam — a child who doesn’t know about his father is urged by his mother to follow the path of truth — and wanted to contemporise it by creating the image of an idealist in the post-Independence India. “It was Hrishi- da’s way of asking Indians: where have all the ideals that inspired the freedom struggle gone? Why is there such a discontentment with the country so soon?”

Satyapriya sets himself the uphill task of upholding this ideal and living it in his day-to-day life. Having completed graduation just as India gains Independence, he gets employed in the government and sees himself as a vital part of India’s nation-building project — achieving a gradual disappearance of unemployment, corruption and black-marketing. He believes in the power of industrialisation, education and gainful employment for all. Hence, he cannot but feel repelled when he sees a subordinate taking a bribe; when he sees the use of substandard building material; when he sees workers not getting their living wage. His integrity is tested and he comes out unblemished every time.

Contrast Satyakam's Satyapriya with Upkar's Bhaarat, who views himself as a ‘Father India’ duty-bound to feed the nation. He is too besotted with the image of an ideal Bhaarat Maataa to have the scientific temper and scepticism of Satyapriya. He is shown — both in the fields and in the battlefields when he enrolls as a soldier — to be part of the establishment, being proud of his association with it, rather than as someone who can and would challenge the status quo. His vision of India is an ultra-romanticised one.

The real issues of the country — those that would require the filmmaker to look inward and struggle for reform through inquiry — get lost in Manoj Kumar’s quest to infuse a sense of pride in the character of Bhaarat. By extension, he seeks to make Indians proud of the legacy of a rich civilisation, while making its estranged neighbour aware of its follies. Jai Javaan, Jai Kisaan gets transmogrified into Bharat Mata Ki Jai. The image of the nation shown in the second half of the movie is the one the current regime seeks to valorise. Hence, possibly, its unadulterated appreciation for the figure of Mr. Bhaarat, whom it has sought to honour.

Bhaarat is the perfect representation of the patriotic Indian male who fits in with the nationalist’s idea of India — someone who has faith in the glory of an imaginary monolithic past where the most peaceful bliss is to be found in the fields of tradition and meadows of culture.

So, does the figure of Satyapriya — with his scientific temper, spirit of inquiry and reform — represent the most ideal version of the Indian? Or is it the chest-thumping nationalist, Mr. Bhaarat?

This begs the question. Is there no better form of patriotism than one which is defined by collective conformity? Is there no truly individualistic patriotism?

Jai Arjun Singh, author of The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, calls Satyakam a largely “novelistic film”: “While Mr. Bhaarat always comes across as an ideal — the sort of figure that the unquestioningly patriotic Indian must aspire to be, a Son of the Soil where the Soil is inherently pure — Satyapriya always seems painfully human, conflicted, self-questioning even in his noblest moments.”

Here, he also talks of Mukul Kesavan’s essay from his collection The Ugliness of the Indian Male, where Kesavan says that if each individual in a nation makes himself the best possible human being, then the nation automatically becomes elevated and therefore deserving of respect because of the people in it. In contrast, Singh says, we are told that “India is inherently great, therefore we should all be proud of Her and proud of being Indians — and by extension, anyone who questions or dissents from this idea of greatness becomes a deshdrohi [traitior to the nation]. In that light, I’m sure there are many things that Satyapriya would say or do that would say or do that would qualify him to be an “anti-national”.”

Kesavan, who >wrote in an essay that “ Satyakam is at once the most rigorous examination of lived idealism in Hindi cinema and an elegy that mourns the death of republican innocence”, says: “ Satyakam represents the idea that apolitical individual virtue is the building block of nationalism.”

A student protester — being criticised of late for squandering his or her education in politicking — is, I feel, in a sense, an inheritor of the legacy of the likes of Satyapriya. As Kesavan points out, the dissenter in our nation espouses a political ideology of a particular kind, but he also espouses the path of truth, the tool of debate. In that regard, it is perhaps apt to acknowledge the student protester as a patriot like Satyapriya, as opposed to one in the mould of Mr. Bhaarat, whose rational faculties are always subordinated to the service of a mythical figure.

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