Nallathambi, the good brother in Tamil, was a film in 1948 that was an act of revolt against the zamindari system. Written by Annadurai, the legendary Chief Minister of then Madras state, it is an early example of cinema’s intimate link with politics, social commentary, and what one might term ‘standing up’ now.
Tamil cinema continued the tradition of cinema being seamlessly about politics and society. Screenplay writer Karunanidhi, and actors MGR and Jayalalithaa dominated the state’s politics and it was cinema that they drew from and punched back in. Even recently, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Captain Vijaykanth, Khushboo are people of cinema — who are in politics.
Andhra Pradesh’s N T Rama Rao or NTR is not just another vintage example of persons in cinema being political but also of cinematic tricks and spectacle being used to sharpen politics and give it wheels. NTR’s Chaitanya Ratham, a road-trip in a Chevrolet van which turned the push against the then invincible-looking Rajiv Gandhi into a storm, spun regional leaders into ‘national’ ones and changed politics.
Bombay cinema and its artistes and writers too have had their brush with the political. As early as 1948, Ram Daryani’s Ghar ki Izzat, a film about a subservient Indian son caught between his mother and wife, found it necessary to insert a song to mark the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi earlier that year.
Prithviraj Kapoor came out of the India People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the pre-Independence theatre body that used culture as a form of protest. In his memoirs, the late Socialist Madhu Dandavate recalls a session of the All India Congress Committee held in Bombay, before the formation of Pakistan, when all attendees were invited to watch Prithviraj Kapoor staging a play called Deewar, on the need to bridge distances between India and Pakistan.
In a newly independent India, even for — and especially for — Hindi cinema, it was impossible to stay away from national issues, politics and social commentary. The Communist Party, with its many members and sympathisers imbuing ideas of egalitarianism, amity and socially radical thoughts, played its part.
Mehboob Khan Productions had the hammer-and-sickle as part of his on-screen logo. Kaifi Azmi, Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianvi, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Krishan Chander and others through the Progressive Writers Association wrote lines that are still hummed every time there is a call for revolution. Actor Balraj Sahni’s photograph in bloodied clothes, after personally fighting back attacks on the party headquarters, adorned the CPI office building in Mumbai for a long time.
Nehru’s influence went beyond the formation of the Film Finance Corporation (FCC) in 1960 and the establishment of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in 1960. People close to him and his ideas, KA Abbas, Raj Kapoor, Chetan Anand, Nargis were vocal on issues and spared no punches, whether in themes they picked or comments made off-screen.
Critic and a scholar of cinema, Aruna Vasudeva, writes in The New Cinema (1986) ; “With the Film Finance Corporation’s policy decision in 1968 to start giving loans to new film makers for small budget, offbeat films, the means of production were radically expanded and the groundwork for the arrival of alternate cinema was laid.”
While the films made and released in the run-up to and after the Emergency offer little hint of the repression and turmoil of the times, Manoj Kumar’s Roti, Kapada aur Makaan, released in 1974, was an honourable exception. There is a scene when the hero is beating up a villainous grocer and ‘Vote for Congress’ is written prominently on the wall behind them.
Days after the political murder of theatre-personality and Communist activist Safdar Hashmi while performing a street-play, in January 1989, at the opening ceremony of the International Film Festival of India in Delhi, Shabana Azmi was asked on stage which directors had brought out the best in her. Azmi took the mic and said, “My views on my directors and the new wave can be reserved for a later date. What is very important right now is that we’ve been distributing some leaflets in the audience. My fear is that not all the leaflets have been equally distributed. And so, I choose this occasion to read out our protest, please bear with me.” She proceeded to calmly name the ruling Congress party.
Then there were big stars who entered electoral politics. Amitabh Bachchan took the plunge, first supporting his then family friend Rajiv Gandhi and later became an MP. Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Raj Babbar, Govinda and Nagma, among others, fought elections.
Things changed as Bombay cinema became the Bollywood film ‘industry’. There was money to be made and a lot to lose too. This tamed the voice emerging from the City of Dreams. With the Shiv Sena controlling Bombay and Bal Thackeray larger than life, Mani Ratnam had to infamously meet him and show him Bombay, a Hindu-Muslim love story in the aftermath of the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, before he could release the film. Actors were happier to do PR-inspired statements, appearances or placements in ways that products were made to do. The ‘industry’ put up little resistance when there was pressure on Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (there were calls for its ban after the Uri attacks since it starred Pakistani actor Fawad Khan) or Padmaavat (Rajput outfits sought a ban alleging it portrayed a Rajput queen being intimate with a Muslim king)
Yet, the most relevant instance of Bombay cinema’s history of connect with politics is in Balraj Sahni’s convocation address to JNU in 1972. On courage, he spoke with utmost candour: “More often than not I had lost courage at the crucial moment and taken shelter under the wisdom of other people. I had taken the safer path. I made decisions which were expected of me by my family, by the bourgeois class to which I belonged, and the set of values upheld by them. I thought one way but acted in another. For this reason, afterwards, I have felt rotten. Some decisions have proved ruinous in terms of human happiness. Whenever I lost courage, my life became a meaningless burden.”
Those who speak today, in some measure, shed that “burden” that Bollywood has borne for some decades now.