The Story of Bollywood’s first Super-hit Film and Nationalism

It was six months after Mahatma Gandhi had started the Quit India Movement and promulgated a nationwide non-violent campaign against the Britishers. In Bombay, lyricist Kavi Pradeep was working on a song for the new movie Kismet (1943) which was to star Ashok Kumar. Although the movie was about a small-time pickpocket and had a few bold themes for its time, Pradeep wanted to use the platform to send across a message to the colonised Indian masses. What better way than to compose a song about rising against oppression and giving the people a rallying cry. The song ‘Door hato duniya waalon, Hindustan hamara hai’ (Go away foreigners, India is ours) became a de facto slogan which could be heard everywhere post the movie’s release.

Source :  Kismet  (1943)

Kavi Pradeep had defied the very system which had an iron grip on anything which reached the masses. Kavi masterfully hoodwinked the Britishers by making them believe that the song was addressed to the brutish Germans and not them. The censor board of that time, mostly old Englishmen, liked the idea of a song denigrating their perennial enemies of that time and it passed without cuts. Kavi had done something which was hard to imagine during those days, that is, reaching the masses with a war cry of sorts. However, it didn’t take much time for the Britishers to figure out their ignominious mistake and Kavi Pradeep had to go underground for a while. But it remains the first instance of an artist weaving nationalism in a Bollywood movie. In fact, the masses were so enraptured with this smart act of defiance that theatre owners had to replay the entire movie just for the audience to watch the song and sing along again! It’s no surprise therefore that “Kismet” became India’s first superhit movie, grossing almost 50 times it’s production budget.

Bollywood has since come a long way since J. P. Dutta’s iconic multi-starrer ensemble Border which was a genre-defining film in its own right and quite ambitious for its time. From the unidimensional emotion of Patriotism, we have now moved on to a more multi-dimensional aspect of Nationalism – an idea which propagates a collective vision of a future India. Today, movies of this burgeoning genre have a multitude of categories – some reminiscing historical events, some showing our crowning achievements in sports, and finally some which eulogise feats which place India in the global podium, like the upcoming ‘Mission Mangal’. For a country like ours, which grapples with demographic challenges, these movies are a great unifier. A country divided by language, garb, and colour, comes together and celebrates Uri : The Surgical Strike as a festival, chanting “How’s the Josh ?  High sir !” with fervour. Actors like Akshay Kumar and Mohanlal have made entire careers out of hard-hitting movies which directly address social issues and evoke a sense of ‘Indian-ness’ among all. 

Source :  Border (1997)

Even though writers have broadened their scope to such a wide range of subjects, we are not moving away from the time-tested formula of war movies. However, even in this beaten down subject, there has come about a subtle change that has imparted a certain realism to its treatment. While Border and LOC Kargil were large productions, their treatment was invariably focussed on the emotional aspect of war which was reinforced by its iconic song ‘Sandese Aate Hain’. The imagery of soldiers leaving their newly wed wives and old mothers behind for a dreadful war from which they may return wrapped in the tricolour was powerful. The stories were more about sacrifice and love than about the operational intricacies of war. This is where movies like Uri became a turning point. Although the film also provided a very personal motive for Major Vihan Shergill to fight against terrorists, it also delved into a very tactical style of warfare which was usually not explored before.

Source :  Uri: The Surgical Strike(2019)

The 2017 Film The Ghazi Attack also came close to creating the atmosphere of tactical warfare by showing the story of the Indian Submarine P21which thwarted the undersea attack by Pakistani Submarine PNS Ghazi. Shooting an entire film within the confines of a submarine set was praiseworthy especially with a working budget of merely 16 crores. After the horrid Pulwama attacks, the story of the brave retaliatory efforts by the Indian Air Force in the Balakot Airstrike is also in the process of a film adaptation. Commander Abhinandan’s intelligent maneuvering through which he put down a more advanced enemy aircraft is the stuff of legends and the perfect raw material for Bollywood. War would continue to move audiences like never before, but as the writing gets more mature, we would start seeing movies that are more objective in portraying war as a necessary evil rather than a chest-thumping declaration of patriotic fervour.


Source :  The Ghazi Attack (2017)

2018 itself saw more than a handful Hindi movies which had Nationalism as its central theme. From Raazi to Parmanu, we saw a range of films that focussed on stories that had remained buried behind the uproarious clangour of patriotism. The recent Article 15 touched upon the sensitive subject of caste discrimination which is constitutionally prohibited and is yet practised with aplomb in the hinterlands. These movies did not have epic battles with enemy nations, nor did they employ war-cries as an instrument to evoke the patriotic emotion. And yet, they were equally powerful in their message. From Kavi Pradeep going against the establishment to sneak in patriotic elements in the pre-Independence era, to Bollywood coming up with stories that represent us globally, nationalism has grown and so has Bollywood. For a country with a rich history and with no dearth of epochal events, Bollywood has found its footing in bringing these stories to the fore. In this emerging transformation where writers have found a voice, Nationalism is going evolve even further asking pertinent questions about India’s role in the world and, even more importantly, the role of its people in making it a superpower.

Source :  Article 15 (2019)

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