Agar kulhadi mein lakdi ka dasta na hota, toh lakdi ke katne ka rasta na hota’ (If there was no wood in the handle of the axe, the axe would not be able to splice wood successfully).” When Dilip Kumar dramatically lamented the role played by traitors in hindering the freedom struggle against British rule in Manoj Kumar’s magnum opus, Kranti (1981), the dialogue resonated with thousands of patriots in the audience.
Cinema has always been a powerful tool in firing up patriotic zeal, right from the pre-Independence days. That era’s biggest blockbuster Kismet (1943) flew in the face of the British rulers with the super-hit song ‘Door hato aye duniyawalon Hindustan hamara hai’. But I think few in the audience must have doubted that the song articulated the raging preoccupation of the time — Independence.
Ashok Kumar, who played the hero in Kismet, spearheaded another patriotic hit, Samadhi (1950). An arresting account of two brothers, Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) and Suresh (Shyam), at loggerheads due to their conflicting loyalties — Shekhar subscribes to the Indian National Army while Suresh is loyal to the British rulers. The film struck a chord because it blended spy fiction with a screen enactment of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s fight for freedom. Besides crafting the famous ‘Gore gore o banke chhore’ for the film, C Ramchandra also sang a song extolling: ‘Subhash Chandra ke naam se Hindustan ka naam’.
Mahatma Gandhi too had a song dedicated to him — ‘Sabarmati ke sant tu ne kar diya kamaal’ from Jagriti (1954). For decades, this preachy, but heartwarming film was shown to schoolchildren, popularising Kavi Pradeep’s ‘Aao bachhon tumhein dikhayein jhanki Hindustan ki’. It was Pradeep again who wrote ‘Aye mere watan ke logon’ at the time of the Indo-Chinese war. This song was rendered by Lata Mangeshkar and famously moved Jawaharlal Nehru to tears.
Smarting under the scars of the 1962 Sino-India war, the public responded spontaneously to Chetan Anand’s war epic, Haqeeqat (1964). It was a song-studded but grim black-and-white tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives fighting for the country in the bleak, snowy terrain of Ladakh. Heading an ensemble cast, Balraj Sahni and Dharmendra emanated dignity while Mohammed Rafi was at his stirring best in ‘Kar chale hum fidaa’, asserting: ‘Kat gaye sar hamare to kuch gham nahin, sar Himalaya ka humne na jhukne diya’. Priya Rajvansh had once told me, “We shot Haqeeqat in bitter cold and stayed in Mongolian huts.” From the many disturbing images in Haqeeqat, the one that still has the power to shock me is the scene in which a battle-fatigued soldier peels off his sock and his skin comes off too.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Manoj Kumar directed and starred in a series of blockbusters built around his love for the motherland. Manoj engendered a unique, patriotic persona, and his name became synonymous with Bharat. According to me, Manoj’s best patriotic role is in Shaheed (1965). The stark black-and-white film on the life of Bhagat Singh located the human element in the nationalistic fervour. Kamini Kaushal as Bhagat Singh’s mother brought a lump to my throat when she waits outside the jail gates while her smiling son is being led to the gallows. Manoj says Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri praised the film and encouraged him to make a film on the ‘Jai Jawaan Jai Kissan’ slogan.
The slogan shaped into Manoj’s emotive directorial debut, Upkar (1967), in which he played a kisaan who joins the Indian army. His later efforts like Purab Aur Paschim (1970) (which tried to convert the virtues of the East while contrasting it with the hedonistic West) and Kranti (which was set between 1825-1875 and glorified India’s first war of independence) veered close to mainstream entertainers. In a conversation on his films, Manoj had once revealed: “After seeing Kranti, Raj Kapoor saab remarked, ‘This is our answer to Hollywood’.”
Ajay Devgn and Bobby Deol also tried to also capture Bhagat Singh’s personality in 23rd March 1931: Shaheed and The Legend of Bhagat Singh (both 2002) respectively, but they could not emulate Manoj’s popular success. In recent years, there have been nationalistic films that have covered all too familiar ground on themes like terrorism or sports, but as we become more confident of our democracy, our films increasingly probe and comment on issues concerning modern polity. However, taking the success of films such as J P Dutta’s Border (1997) as evidence, it will take only a well-made film to again access the wellsprings of patriotism, just waiting to be tapped.