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Independence Day 2021: Bollywood’s flag-bearers of patriotic cinema, from Manoj Kumar to Akshay Kumar

India at 75: Patriotism or jingoism? A look at why the Indian flag is flying high in today's Bollywood movies, from Uri to Shershaah to Bhuj and looking back at the original Bharat Kumar.

Written by Shaikh Ayaz | Mumbai |
Updated: August 17, 2021 5:57:47 pm
Manoj Kumar, Akshay KumarOn Independence Day, here's looking at the evolution of Bollywood's patriotic films. (Photo: Vishal Pictures, Excel Entertainment)

Independence Day. Can you imagine this occasion without Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak, Nehru, Netaji Bose, BR Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Sardar Patel… and from the Bollywood side, Akshay Kumar? You might as well add John Abraham and Kangana Ranaut to that list, lest the duo have any hard feelings later. These are just three of the Hindi marquee stars, with a little help from Ajay Devgn, who are responsible for the extraordinary rise of patriotic-themed Hindi movies in the last decade. Put another way, if the “josh” of nationalistic content is high these days — sorry, Uri (2019) guys — blame it on the Desi Boyz (2011) and our very own Rani Jhansi (Manikarnika2019) who famously called herself an “ultranationalist.”

In fact, Kangana’s Manikarnika and the Vicky Kaushal starrer Uri might just be the first cultural artefacts of the Modi era. A National award winner for her leading lady, the Rani Lakshmi Bai biopic Manikarnika celebrated India’s rich past while Uri talked proudly about the triumphant “naya Hindustan” (new India), au courant with the Prime Minister’s vision for India as the next military and economic superpower. One way to track how Hindi films have got so nationalistic in flavour lately is to look for the traces of the Tricolour in its frames. That won’t be difficult because symbolically speaking, the Indian flag is virtually everywhere in Bollywood movies of today.

Kangana Ranaut Kangana Ranaut in Manikarnika (Photo: Instagram/ Taran Adarsh)

In Shershaah, the latest of a clutch of patriotic Hindi releases, Siddharth Malhotra plays the Kargil war hero Vikram Batra, who sacrificed his life on the battlefield. As the Tricolour is hosted suggesting victory over Pakistani intruders, Captain Batra breathes his last. Inspired by the Indo-Pakistani Naval War of 1971 and set mostly in a submarine, The Ghazi Attack (2017) ends on a similarly rousing note with Atul Kulkarni’s naval officer foisting the flag as an instrumental version of the National Anthem fills the soundtrack.

Reema Kagti’s hockey saga Gold (2018), too, closes with the flag unfurling high as ‘Jana Gana Mana’ brings tears to the avenger Tapan Das (Akshay) and the rest of the teammates. A far cry, one must add here, from the days when Akshay Kumar bowled for the same country (Great Britain) in Patiala House (2011) he so badly wanted to vanquish in Gold.

Even the recent sports flick, Saina (2021) sees  badminton ace Saina Nehwal (Parineeti Chopra) clutching the flag and taking a victory lap after becoming world champion.

Much Flag-Waving

While most recent patriotic films have tried to capture the spirit of the times by inflicting a form of hyper chauvinism upon its audiences there are some notable exceptions. Romeo Akbar Walter (2019), for one, eschews the chest-beating approach though it’s a film very much in line with the prevalent ‘nation-comes-first’ narrative. In most patriotic films, ‘Jai Hind’ is a default war cry and somebody or the other is always fighting for ‘azaadi‘ (freedom). Here, in the gentlest of touch, you see the intelligence boss (played by Jackie Shroff) pinning a lapel flag on the John Abraham character followed by a firm but friendly “best wishes.” (As usual, this film also ends with John saluting the flag).

A journey of a humble bank clerk called Rehamatullah Ali (John Abraham) who becomes a RAW undercover agent, Romeo Akbar Walter is a salute to thousands of such anonymous heroes who keep the motherland safe. The film shows Ali living with his widowed ammi but there’s another mother that he has to care for. When the country needs him he shows up, displaying the necessary spunk to cross the border to spy on the Pakistani army and hopefully, prevent some serious military attacks.

John Abraham John Abraham in RAW. Photo: (Twitter/ John Abraham)

Sounds familiar? Probably because a year before, a demure Alia Bhatt did precisely that in Raazi without radiating an eroticised sense of nationalism. The same could be said of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020) in which our fighter pilot protagonist’s (Janhvi Kapoor) father (Pankaj Tripathi) stays clear of rabble-rousing and instead, dishes out this sobering advice: “Do you think the Force needs those who chant, ‘Bharat mata ki jai’? Be a sincere and hard working pilot and you will automatically become a patriot.”

To be fair, the flag making a heroic appearance on Bollywood screens is nothing new. Hindustan Ki Kasam (1999) features Amitabh Bachchan’s timely entry as he saves the Tricolour from the ignominy of ending up as yet another rag to wrap piping hot samosas on a bustling Indian streetAnd before Akshay Kumar, there was Sunny Deol.

Though Sunny is best known to us for his “Hamara Hindustan zindabad tha, zindabad hai aur zindabad rahega” dare to Amrish Puri that takes place on enemy soil, the actor-turned-BJP MP is an equally angry customer in Maa Tujhe Salaam (2002) where, in one unintentionally funny scene, all he has to do is growl and the opponent wets his pant. In the film’s climax, an emotional Sunny picks up fallen flags while there’s death and destruction all around.

Bollywood’s Patriot-in-Chief

In the past, patriotism — which in Hindi films can just as easily slip into jingoism — was the exclusive fief of war movies. Think Chetan Anand, JP Dutta or Anil Sharma’s works. Today, even a harmless game of sports can turn into a battleground. Take Akshay Kumar’s Gold, in which as the assistant manager Tapan Das he guides independent India’s first hockey team to a hard-won gold medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics. The victory is as sweet as Akshay’s Bengali is grating.

Finally, by trumping the British the Indians, as the film reminds us, have extracted “revenge” for a century of colonial slavery from the Raj. In a patriotic Hindi movie, either the Brits or Pakistanis have to be trounced to reach a happy ending. The British as the bad blonde boys have presented Bollywood with seemingly insurmountable challenges, whether it is in Rang De Basanti (2006), Lagaan (2001) or even Mard (1985) but nothing amps up the patriotic rhetoric quite as bombastically as Gold.

In the last few years, it’s evident that Akshay’s work has become overtly India-proud. Watching his films from this period you can’t help but wonder if he’s the only true desh bhakht around. As the elite Indian task force officer Danny Denzongpa explains to his boss in Baby (2005), “Some crazy officers care only about their nation and patriotism. They don’t want to die for the country. They want to live, so that they can protect her till their last breath.” In this film, Akshay plays an undercover officer foiling terrorist plans. In Airlift (2016), he saves the lives of his fellow countrymen stranded in war-ravaged Kuwait while Mission Mangal (2019) has him supervise India’s successful mission to Mars. Most of these films are based on or recreate real events, with dollops of creative liberties neatly thrown in. In a career that began exactly three decades ago, Akshay has played different kinds of audience-friendly roles but in recent years, he has particularly excelled in his new posting as Bollywood’s Patriot-in-Chief.

Now, take a look at John Abraham’s recent filmography. It’s exactly the sort of high-octane, serve/save-the-nation thrillers Akshay would give his right arm for. Consider Madras Cafe (2013), Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (2018), Satyamev Jayate (2018), Batla House (2019) and Romeo Akbar Walter (2019) — whether the scourge is corruption, terrorism, China, Pakistan, America etc, all films showcase the full force of John Abraham’s duty towards his nation even at the risk of losing everything he has.

So what makes patriotism so irresistible to Hindi filmmakers and stars? A reasonable guess would be that it’s good for business. Bollywood has cannily tapped the August 15 holiday for its commercial potential. Everyone wants a slice of this pie. After a Covid-induced no-show, two big Hindi films have been released around Independence Day 2021. Bhuj: The Pride of India stars Ajay Devgn whereas Shershaah made its debut on Amazon Prime on August 12.

Come August 19 and Akshay Kumar will return to the silver screen with BellBottom inspired by a real-life hijacking event.

So, another supposedly inspirational tale with homilies on what the nation means to you — only this time in 3D.

The OG Bharat

As Bollywood fans of a certain generation will know, before Sunny Deol, Ajay Devgn, John Abraham and Akshay Kumar there was Manoj Kumar. He was something else. He was the original. Thanks to his patriotic exploits, Khiladi Kumar is now rechristened Bharat Kumar by some — an acknowledgement that Akshay is merely carrying the torch from Manoj Kumar. All top Manoj Kumar films evoke the feelings of patriotism, be it Shaheed (1965), Upkaar (1967), Kranti (1981) and the oft-parodied Clerk (1989). All are star-studded, but like Dev Anand, in every film no matter who’s starring alongside him, Manoj Kumar remains the de facto hero.

A still from Manoj Kumar's Upkaar A still from Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (Photo: Vishal Pictures)

But it is Purab Aur Paschim from 1970 that best personifies Manoj Kumar’s patriotic ideology. In most of his films his character is called Bharat and Purab Aur Paschim is no different. You can’t get more literal than that — Bharat. It’s a film that exists purely to remind the arrogant British of what an ancient and evolved civilisation India is. Much of the action is set in London but India is the hot topic of conversation. When a desh drohi called Harnam (Pran) insults Bharat’s homeland, hoping to embarrass the young Indian by saying there’s nothing worth taking pride about his country, Bharat responds to him in the form of a song.

Sung by the legendary Mahendra Kapoor, ‘Hai Preet Jahan Ki’ is a paean to Indian achievements, from her mathematics and scientific contributions to why it’s a land of purity. More than three decades later, none other than Akshay Kumar gave a nod to Purab Aur Paschim in Namastey London (2007). His character, the son of the soil Arjun Singh faces a similar affront when he lands in London from provincial Punjab.

Finding himself amidst a predominantly British crowd, he can’t take it when his Indianness is offended. Folding his hand in a polite namaste he goes on to give a mouthful to the stunned Brits, each word helpfully translated into English by co-star Katrina Kaif. And these last golden words: “Kuch aur khoobiyan bhi hai hamare paas, woh sab jaan ne ke liye Manoj Kumar ki Purab Aur Paschim ki DVD aapko bhej dunga.” 

You can only imagine Manoj Kumar having the last laugh.

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