How Bollywood’s portrayal of patriotism has changed since Independence

Bollywood has always been known to wear its patriotism on its sleeves – be it films on freedom fighters, the wars that the nation has fought, or on the actual Independence struggle. While some films have mirrored the national sentiment of the period, many others have influenced thought processes and perceptions of patriotism.

Seven decades have passed since India gained Independence. Today, while we still are fighting to protect our borders from external factors, we are also faced with a multitude of home-grown threats. Bollywood, too, has evolved to reflect this ever changing notion of patriotism.

Bollywood’s heydeys of patriotism:
The pre-independence era and the decades that followed immediately since Independence saw films that were purely patriotic in nature – in many cases melodramatic in its love for the nation. A number of film makers also explored the concept of national identity and the problems faced by a new nation. A nascent India, in the late 40s and 50s, was trying to shed its colonial past and embrace the future, and many films reflected this struggle between the old and new Indian ideologies.

One of the most important patriotic films of the pre-independence era, and one that gave the hit patriotic song, ‘Door hato e duniya walon, Hindustan hamara hai,’ was the 1943 film Kismet. It instilled a sense of nationalism and desire for freedom among cinemagoers, and became the first Indian movie to gross Rs 1 crores, back then, running continuously for three years at Calcutta’s Roxy Cinema.

This period also saw films being made on freedom fighters. Shaheed, directed by Ramesh Sehgal and based on Bhagat Singh’s struggles and fight for the nation’s independence, was released a year after independence. The year 1965 also saw another film of the same name. The 1965 Shaheed was the first of Manoj Kumar’s patriotic films, the others being Upkar, Purab Aur Pashchim (1970) and the 1981 Kranti, which focused on the freedom struggle from 1825-1875.

Films such as the 1952 film Anand Math, directed by Hemen Gupta, which was based Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel about the Sannyasi Revolution of the late 18th century; Chetan Anand’s 1964 film Haqeeqat, based on the Sino-Indian war,  or Mother India which was a rebuke of the 1927 book by Katherine Mayo, exuded a strong sense of identity and nationalism, showcasing a post-colonial and post independent India, fighting the problems that the new nation faced.

Patriotism and Pakistan:
The early years of freedom saw a country, and an industry, deeply wounded by the Partition. Hence, the early post-independence films never saw a mention of Pakistan. It was only in 1967, that Manoj Kumar and his classic ‘Upkar’ covertly referred to Pakistan. However, the country was never named. Instead, the metaphor of the evil younger brother, demanding that the ancestral property be divided, and the just elder brother, Bharat, trying to save it, was used to depict the two nations.

However, in 1973, Chetan Anand’s Hindustan Ki Kasam, set against the backdrop of the 1971 war, took the India Pakistan rivalry to a different level. It clearly defined Pakistan as the enemy and set a new theme to patriotism – banking on the basis of a strong anti-Pakistan sentiment.

This sentiment has lingered since and films such as the fervently anti-Pakistan 2001 film, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, cashed in on this emotion. Loosely based on Boota Singh and the partition, Gadar was one of the most commercially successful and most watched films of that time.

JP Dutta’s 1997 Border, which was based on the Battle of Longewala, fought during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, was also an out and out patriotic film, and its dialogues and songs such as ‘Sandese Aate Hain’, stirred a deep nationalistic sentiment, making the film a huge success.  His 2003 film LOC: Kargil, which featured a big star cast, also cashed in on the war theme.

The 2004 war drama, Lakshya which was also based on the Kargil War, however, portrayed a much more contained, though an equally patriotic set of emotions.  The film had Hrithik Roshan play a clueless guy, who later turns into a soldier, ultimately hoisting the Indian flag after a victory against the enemy. Though the film did not do as well at the box office, it did put across a message, urging the youth to join the armed forces.

The early 1990’s saw a number of films which helped fuel patriotism in a nation, which was slowly forgetting its colonial past. The 1994 Vidhu Vinod Chopra film, 1942: A love story, portrayed a love story between the son of a British supporter (Anil Kapoor) and the daughter (Manisha Koirala) of a revolutionary fighting for freedom. The same year saw the release of Mani Ratnam’s Roja, which was in the background of the Kashmir unrest. Roja was the first in Ratnam’s trilogy of films that portrayed social issues – the other two being the Bombay (1995) and Dil Se (1998).

However, amidst all the anti-Pakistan rhetoric in cinema, there were also stories of cross-border love. The 1991 Raj Kapoor film, Henna, which showcased a love story between an Indian man and a Pakistani woman, was one of the first to portray such a relationship.

The 2004 Veer Zaara, set against the Indo-Pakistan conflict, featured a romantic story between an Indian Air Force Pilot played by Shah Rukh Khan, and a rich Pakistani woman, played by Preity Zinta. The film, which also saw Rani Mukherjee play a Pakistani lawyer who, after hearing his story, fights for the Pilot’s freedom, gained much critical acclaim.

Over the years, filmmakers have gauged the national sentiment and political scenario between the two countries, and have come out with films reflecting the relationship. The 2004 Main Hoon Naa, directed by Farah Khan, which portrayed India-Pak relations in a neutral, if not positive manner, reflected the thawing of relations, during that time.

Again, a complete departure from the whole hate Pakistan sentiment was the 2015 super hit, Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The Salman Khan starrer tells the story of a Hindu man travelling to Pakistan to reunite a little Muslim girl with her family. It went on to become a huge box office hit.

Beyond the freedom struggle:

As an independent India progressed, and the actual independence struggle became an event which not many could relate to anymore, patriotism took on newer meanings. It was no longer about fighting a colonial oppressor, but more about fighting evils that were afflicting the nation. Hence, filmmakers moved on to subjects such as corruption, terrorism and other social injustices.

The new millennium featured a set of films which portrayed the public’s angst against corrupt and inept governments. A cult film that depicted this new age patriotism was Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s 2006 film Rang De Basanti. The film featured a set of college goers, who fed up with a corrupt government, decide to take matters into their own hands, turning into rebels in the process. The film is famous for a scene which has since been played out in real life numerous times – the candle light march protesting the death of Indian Air force Flight Lieutenant, played by Madhavan, in a MiG 21 fighter aircraft crash.

Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday, set in the wake of the 7/11 blasts that took place in the Mumbai local trains, depicted the anguish of a man fighting against a hapless government, in the face of terrorism. All of Pandey’s subsequent films, with Akshay Kumar as the lead, have depicted patriotism in various forms.

While Baby featured a special task force created in response to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, to find and eliminate the terrorists,  in Naam Shabana, a Neeraj Pandey production, Tapsee Pannu’s character sets out to seek revenge on her lover’s killers, in the process finding herself embroiled in cross-border espionage.

However, a complete departure among the new age patriotic films was Swadesh, which tried to reinforce the concept of nationalism, though in a subtle manner. The 2004 film, directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar, with Shah Rukh Khan as the lead, featured a NASA scientist, who quits his cushy job and comfortable life in the US, to return to his nation.

A decade later, the 2016 Akshay Kumar starrer Airlift showcased the efforts of an Indian stranded in Kuwait, trying to coordinate one of the largest evacuation operations ever done. Neerja, released the same year, was based on air hostess Neerja Bhanot, who stood up to hijackers of a Pan American World Airways flight, and in the process, gave up her own life. Both these films also infused a sense of patriotism in the audience.

Sports and patriotism:

Patriotism in Bollywood has not been restricted to the battle fields. With the growing interest in sports, came a growing list of films that portrayed nationalism and a love of the nation through sports. The 2001 film, Lagaan, came at a time when cricket fever was at its peak, and patriotism was also defined by how India fared in the international arena. Hence, the coming together of a motley group of villagers, led by Aamir Khan, to beat the English at their own game, made Lagaan one of the most watched films till date, and the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign language Film.

The 2006 hit film, Chak De India, to its credit, brought two rarely spoken about aspects to the fore – hockey, India’s sidelined national game, and women sports players. It also paved the way for other sports films which focused on women representing India at the international level. Both Mary Kom, based on the boxer, and Dangal, based on wrestler Geeta Phogat, focused on the need for bringing attention to other sports, and for giving women sports players an equal platform.