It needs no elaboration that the Indian struggle for Swaraj was actually a fight for rekindling the spirit of Swa (self) among the countrymen, who had lost their self-pride following centuries long slavery. The same spirit drove the visionaries like Dada Saheb Phalke to depict Indian ethos through movies. Phalke thus expressed his feelings while watching Life of Christ on April 15, 1911: “While the film ‘Life of Christ’ was rolling past before my eyes, I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya. I was gripped by a strange spell. I bought another ticket and saw the film again. This time I felt my imagination taking shape on the screen. Could this really happen? Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen? …the coming two months were so restless for me that I could not sit silently until I watched all the movies being screened in all the cinema halls of Bombay.”
Tilak Extends Support
Raja Harishchandra was the outcome of that same restlessness and spirit of re-establishing Swa in cinema. Premiered at Olympia Theatre of Bombay on April 21, 1913, the movie heralded a parallel to the philosophy of Satyagraha—enduring suffering with faith in the ultimate victory of good over evil. Phalke’s commitment to re-establishing Swa in cinema can be understood from the fact that he sold most of the valuable items in his house and even lost his vision for some time due to continuous watching of movies. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the staunch proponent of Swadeshi, supported Phalke in the endeavour to produce an indigenous movie. Tilak’s Kesari was the first to publish a review of this film. After the success of ‘Raja Harishchandra’, Phalke received many lucrative offers from England, but he refused them to carry on his production of Swadeshi movies. “It is enough if I am able to stop the import of foreign goods in a very small way,” Phalke wrote in an article published in Kesari in 1934. His other movies, Shrikrishna Janma (1917) and Kaliya Mardan (1919), too were the outcome of his endeavour to restore the spirit of Swa in cinema.
The history of cinema in India begins with the exhibition of six small documentaries by Lumiere Brothers of France in Bombay on July 7, 1896. From 1896 to 1905, Lumiere Brothers dominated the film market across the world. However, during this period some Indians also tried to enter the field. Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavadekar, popularly known as Sawe Dada, produced The Wrestlers in 1899 exhibiting a wrestling match in Bombay. He produced another documentary in 1901 depicting the arrival of an Indian student Paranjape who had scored the highest marks in mathematics in Cambridge University at Bombay Ports. Later, Dadasaheb Torne produced Shree Pundalik in 1912.
Mocking the British
Till the 1930s, cinema had effectively started stirring people for the freedom struggle. Obviously, the British Government noticed the trend and started tightening its grip. When RSD Choudhury’s Wrath was released in 1930, it was banned for the depiction of the Indian freedom movement. Similarly, Rythu Bidda, produced in 1938 by Gudavalli Ramabrahmam, was banned for depicting the farmers’ uprising. When Baburao Painter pioneered Shivaji, the movie was ruthlessly censored. Kalyan Khajina (1924), Shahala Shah (1925), Savkari Pash (1925) and Baji Prabhu Deshpande (1919) were other patriotic movies produced by Baburao Painter, which stirred the masses against British atrocities.
In 1931, on seeing the word ‘Swaraj’ in the title of Shantaram’s ‘Svarajyache Toran’ and the poster of the film depicting Chhatrapati Shivaji hoisting a flag, the British authorities banned the film. It was only after the film was retitled as Udaykaal, a few scenes were modified and the flag hoisting in the climax scene was entirely deleted, the film was allowed to be released. In those days, films displayed patriotic fervour through titles too. Vir Bharat (1934), Azadi (1935), Desh Dasi (1935), Desh Deepak (1935), ‘Hind Kesari’ (1935), Industrial India (1938), Mother India (1938), Azaad (1940), were the similar type of movies. These films literally mocked the British censor board. Critical comments on British rule found effective expression in the dialogues of Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939), Sikander (1941) and Prithvi Vallabh (1943).
Portraying the British As Villains
After Tilak, when Mahatma Gandhi started leading the freedom movement, Seth Dwarkadas Naraindas Samapt produced Bhakt Vidur in 1921. It was made in the wake of the anti-Rowlatt Act of 1919. The movie used events from the Mahabharata, like the downfall of the Kaurava Empire to symbolise the ruin of the British Raj. The film was immediately banned. It was released in 1922 under the new title Dharam Vijay. Each show of the movie was heralded by live singing of nationalist songs in praise of the freedom symbols like Charkha. About two dozen movies were released between 1921 and 1947 that directly-indirectly depicted the British as villains.
Some taglines deliberately used by filmmakers during the screening of their films also generated patriotic spirit. ‘Bringing Light to a Vexed Nation’ was the tagline of Chal Chal Re Naujawan in 1944, while ‘Turn East–and Hear India Speak! Is Today’s Tip to the West’ was the tagline of Prabhat’s ‘Hum Ek Hain’ in 1946. ‘Ek Kadam’ in 1947 went to the extent of showing Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in one of its posters. Taking advantage of the British’s unfamiliarity with Hindi, Apna Ghar (1942), Naya Tarana (1943), Prem Sangeet and Amar Jyoti (1936) featured lyrics that the British would have termed inflammatory, had they understood them. Charkha Chalao Behno in Aaj ka Hindustan (1940), Kavi Pradeep’s fiery Chal Chal re Naujawan from Bandhan (1940) and Door Hato ai Duniyawalon Hindustan Hamara Hai from Kismet (1943) stirred the general masses. Following the Kismet song, arrest warrants were issued against Kavi Pradeep and composer Anil Biswas and they had to go underground to escape arrest for several months.
The Patriotic Songs
Released during World War II in 1943, Kismet was actually an out-and-out thriller, which included the song, Door Hato Ai Duniyawalo, Hindustan Hamara Hai, to pack a patriotic punch. This song particularly addressed the Germans and Japanese with whom Britain was at war. Some lines in the song Shuru hua hai jang tumhara, jaag utho Hindustani, tum na kisi ke aage jhukna, Jarman ho ya Jaapaani were a trick so that the song could pass the British censors. But the audience knew the real message better. That is why, at the screenings of Kismet, the reels would be rewound and the song played multiple times on public demand. Such was the impact of this song. Other films also used metaphor, innuendo, symbolism, oblique reference to slip under the radar of the ever-vigilant censors and to convey the patriotic message to the public.
Till the 1930s, cinema had effectively started stirring people for the freedom struggle. Obviously, the British Government noticed the trend and started tightening its grip. When RSD Choudhury’s Wrath was released in 1930, it was banned for the depiction of the Indian freedom movement
Movies in other Indian languages also ignited the spirit of patriotism. Marthanda Varma (1933) depicted the adventures of the crown Prince Marthandavarma in Malayalam. The origins of Assamese cinema dates back to 1935 when noted freedom fighter Jyotiprasad Agarwala produced the first Assamese Film Joymati. The language-associated film industry in Gujarat dates back to 1932, when the first Gujarati talkie, Narsinh Mehta, was released. The filmmaking history in Odisha started from 1936 when the first Odia film Sita Bibaha was made by Mohan Sundar Deb Goswami. The first Telugu film with audible dialogue, Bhakta Prahlada, was produced by H.M. Reddy.
Before the advent of cinema in India, theatre and folk plays had deep influence on the public psyche. India enjoys a rich tradition of classical theatre, which has been documented in Natyasastra of Bharat Muni. The modern theatre in India finds roots in 1795 when Herasim Lebedeff, a band master in the British army, staged the first Bengali version of two Western plays in Calcutta. In 1860, Marathi play Thorle Madhavrao Peshwe written by Vinayak Janardan Keertane, expressed the political urge in the war of 1857. Famous Bengali play, Nil Darpan, written by Dinabandhu Mitra in the same year mobilised countless people to join the freedom movement. It angered the British authorities so much that when the play was being staged at National Theatre of Lucknow, the artists were beaten up at the stage itself. Finally, the play was banned, and the Drama Act, 1987 was enacted forbidding such dramatic performances. Even the words like Bharat Mata and Freedom were censored. Keechak Vadha written in 1907 by Kaka Khadilkar, a disciple of Tilak, which expressed nationalistic aspirations, too was banned. By and large the pre-Independence Indian theatre is marked by the contribution of many dramatists including Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, TP Kailasam, Bharati Sarabhai, ASP Ayyar, VV Srinivasa Iyengar, JM Lobo Prabhu, etc. Many plays were staged on the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh also.
Seventy-fifth anniversary of Independence is an opportunity for the country to revisit each aspect of the Indian cinema and theatre—dialogues, story ideas, titles, characters, songs, singers, song composers, musicians, camerapersons, crew members, financers, technocrats, etc. There are many unsung contributors in this journey, who need to be identified and remembered so that the new generation knows about their sacrifices.