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Subtle idiom of prejudice

November 28, 2017


“YE Prataap ka watan pala hai azadi ke naaron pe/ Kood padi thee’n yahan hazaaro’n Padminiya’n angaaro’n pe/ Bol rahi hai kan kan se qurbani Rajasthan ki/ Is mitti se tilak karo ye dharti hai balidaan ki. Vande Matram.” We were raised on the staple of this and similar film songs and we were studiously unperturbed by their communal appeal or the avowedly pseudo-nationalist historiography. Nehru was the prime minister, not Modi.

The lyrics were by Pradeep who also sang the racy patriotic song for the 1954 movie called Jagriti — The Awakening. The story, the songs and even the main child actor were bodily lifted by Pakistani filmmakers who turned it into their patriotic version called Bedaari, their awakening. Jagriti itself was based on an earlier Bengali movie with the same theme. In a nutshell, the song harks to Rajput valour against Muslim rulers. There’s a reference to Rana Prataap of Mewaar who fought valiantly against Mughal emperor Akbar. Some Hindutva versions of this history proclaim him the winner.

Today, an army of secular storytellers is trying to rationally explain the mythological narrative of Princess Padmavati as falsified history on celluloid. The Jagriti song spoke of thousands of Padminis, not just one, jumping into the sacred fire to save their honour from the supposedly lecherous Muslim rulers. The hero with the Hindu name of Ratan Kumar turned out to be Syed Nazir Ali Rizvi who migrated to Pakistan and featured in a carbon copy role. The Urdu song changed the refrain of ‘Vande Matram’ into ‘Pakistan Zindabad’.

Indian cinema is wrongly lauded for shoring up a tryst with the country’s secular legacy.

Another popular song in the movie described Gandhi’s victory over British rule without any recourse to arms. In the Pakistani version, Jinnah is the non-violent deliverer of freedom. Both sides have conveniently undermined Bhagat Singh and countless others who gave their lives in different stages of armed insurrection against colonialism.

The moral of the story is that there was a time when communalism was better camouflaged than it is today. Or should we say that it was not disturbing for us to see bogus historiography with an insidious agenda for what it was.

But one thing is clear. Indian cinema is wrongly lauded for shoring up a tryst with the country’s secular legacy. Let me posit that our movies have also spawned communal and obscurantist ideas in a way that escaped detection. Every film industry has taken recourse to religion and mythology as their themes. However, where else but in Indian movies do they begin with a prayer or a citation from the scriptures? B.R. Chopra was a great filmmaker. His banner had a clip with recitation from the Bhagvad Gita. Raj Kapoor, the most cited example of secular cinema, showed his father Prithviraj Kapoor offering a prayer to Lord Shiva before his movie started. There are dozens of examples of prayers kicking off a movie. Mehboob Khan was most intriguing. He invoked God before the titles but with a communist hammer and sickle banner.

We scarcely discussed an eerie sociology that was mutating below the elitist radar of a massive audio-visual phenomenon. As students at JNU, we learnt to appreciate music and films and theatre. Fellini, Bunuel, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Ray, Benegal, Saeed Mirza were woven into the academic fabric as it were.

They continue to be part of the discourse in the media, in seminar halls and so forth. Yet, there always was a chasm between the discussions that took place in these intellectual hothouses and what captured the popular imagination. In the 1960s, I remember well, a prohibition officer with a fondness for the evening tipple would hold screenings of less-discussed movies in our Lucknow neighbourhood: Saakshi Gopal, Kan Kan Mein Bhagwan etc., films resplendent with divine miracles and a perceptibly missionary Hindu slant. That was the government’s way of discouraging people from consuming alcohol.

During his time as information minister in the 1970s, Lal Kishan Advani slipped in a 1950s movie on Doordarshan, which spewed venom against India’s Christians. That was when the left supported his government, when much of the intelligentsia were riveted to the return of democracy. The black-and-white film was Swayamsiddha. The story in a nutshell was this: a Hindu woman whose husband is deaf and dumb is urged by the village purohit to evict a group of Christian missionaries from the village in the belief that it would cure the husband. The Hindu wife gets the villagers to attack and expel the Christians and the husband is healed. Communal poison is spread in such innocuous yet lasting ways.

There are subtle methods to seed prejudice and here the effect can be achieved by manipulating a language. Prithviraj Kapoor spoke fluent Urdu in his roles as emperors Alexander and Akbar, an uncontested suggestion that mediaeval Muslims and ancient Greeks spoke Urdu. When he played King Porus in a subsequent movie, the Hindu ruler who fought Alexander the Great, Kapoor spoke in distilled Hindi, which he again did as the Hindu guru in Anandmath, a wild interpretation of Indian history.

Similarly, how many complex and difficult situations, including the dilemma of an atheist protagonist, are resolved at the end of a movie in a temple? The liberal, open-minded moviegoers may delight in the fact that a particular bhajan was composed by a Muslim, written by a Muslim, sung by a Muslim and enacted by a Muslim. But in the end it was a bhajan, and, rightly or wrongly, that’s what mattered.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2017

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