While deconstructing the discriminatory politics of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Nathuram Godse, in his statement to the Special Court, had deliberated on Hindustani versus Hindi as our national language. I quote from the book Why I Killed Gandhi (facts were supported by Flemish author Koenraad Elst in his critically acclaimed Why I Killed the Mahatma: Uncovering Godse’s Defence), “In the beginning of his career in India, Gandhiji gave a great impetus to Hindi but as he found that Muslims did not like it, he became a turncoat and championed what is called Hindustani… a language that has no grammar, no vocabulary; is a mere dialect and is spoken but not written. It is a crossbreed between Hindi and Urdu and not even the Mahatma’s sophistry could make it popular. His blind supporters though ensured this so-called hybrid tongue was used.” Godse also revealed how words like ‘Badshah Ram’ and ‘Begum Sita’ were spoken and written but Gandhi never dared to call Jinnah as Shri Jinnah and Maulana Azad as Pandit Azad, clearly pointing how all such experiments were at the expense of Hindus.
In view of the statement, it is quite interesting to note how despite Marathi and Gujarati being the major languages spoken in Maharashtra in 1931, when Ardeshir Irani released Alam Ara that year (the first sound movie in India that was produced at Bombay’s Majestic Talkies) he chose Hindustani as the medium. His rationale being that the film would reach a wider audience. A flourishing businessman whose ancestors had to settle in India after being driven out of Iran due to religious persecution by Islamists, it’s also noteworthy that while Alam Ara was path breaking in launching the sound movies era here, it was not exactly a story that films those days relied on. Director Irani was inspired to make the country’s first talking and singing film after he watched the American film Show Boat in 1929. It is with this work that Bollywood’s quest for making exuberant musicals began. However, it also influenced society to view our history and society in a certain way, as well as the character of the freedom movement in India vis-à-vis the films made in the regional film industries.
Irani’s creation brought about a paradigm shift in the Hindi film industry for reasons beyond just having sound. Before its release, India produced only silent films (starting with Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra in 1913), themed around Vedic texts, Bharatiya history, Devis and Devtaas and icons which the society revered. Irani risked it all to pick a popular play that didn’t have Hindu iconography in it. Whether it was his conviction to ensure the movie reaches a wider audience or to slowly set a vocabulary and narrative shift is a matter of debate and discussion though. Alam Ara, translating as “The Ornament of the World”, was adapted from a Parsi play by Joseph David. Its basic plot revolved around the love story between a soldier (Adil Jahangir Khan) and a gypsy girl (Alamara). Actors Master Vithal and Zubeida also played major parts but note how the lead protagonists were given fancy Muslim names even as Khan was depicted as a dashing, gallant soldier. Maybe this was setting the precedent for painting the Mughals as brave, strong and valorous in Hindi films in later years as against their debauch, brutal and true historical self.
Godse also revealed how words like ‘Badshah Ram’ and ‘Begum Sita’ were spoken and written but Gandhi never dared to call Jinnah as Shri Jinnah and Maulana Azad as Pandit Azad, clearly pointing how all such experiments were at the expense of Hindus
Because of Vithal’s poor diction, his character was rewritten and mostly shown in trance to ensure he has no dialogues. A really popular actor in Maharashtra till then in silent films, Vithal was given a largely muted role despite being a very important character in Alam Ara putting in perspective how important the language was in Irani’s scheme of things! With the impetus on Hindustani being so high from the very beginning, it was but obvious that slowly the scripts would involve more Urdu words in the dialogues as well as songs, creations that have a huge retentive value and have the power to pervade the society faster because of the visual/audio appeal. So, even though books on Hindu subjects were available in shudh Hindi, cinema established a grip over the audience’s mind where Urdu, with a smattering of Hindi, was presented in a romanticised and lofty breath.
The Influx of Muslim Performers
Alam Ara also opened the floodgates for performers and crew with various talents and skills. Understandably, with the commercials more in talkies now, the stars of the silent era started losing their popularity. However, one must remember how Muslim names were changed to fit in the industry weighing the pulse of the Hindu majority audience. Cases in point are Yusuf Khan, who rose to fame with the screen name Dilip Kumar.
While in a 1970 interview, Kumar had admitted to changing his name for fear of being ‘thrashed by his father’ who considered his getting into films as ‘nautanki’ (Islam as a religion doesn’t encourage the flourishing music, dance or performing arts), it was later known that Devika Rani, who went on to own Bombay Talkies after its founder Himangshu Rai passed away, suggested he conceal his Muslim identity so that it would help his career to flourish in post-partitioned India. Ironically, even though the religion constricts its women from engaging in cinema or theatre, there were many Muslim women getting into Hindi films then. However, while Suraiya Jamal Sheikh didn’t shy away from using her first name for film credits, Begum Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi was rechristened Madhubala to ensure that the Hindu-majority audience fell for that Bharatiya name if not her ravishing looks and charm on screen. Just like Mahjabeen Bano had to become Meena Kumari.
Tales of how these girls were forced by their ‘strict’ families to earn money doing films abound, too, just as we hear of how Jaddanbai got into ‘film music composition’ after her popularity as a courtesan diminished. Her daughter Nargis hence, would eventually land up in films because that was the easiest trade for these people who saw the Hindi film industry as an avenue to salvage their dying careers in dilapidated courts during the Awadh rule. There was surety of income, too, if they camouflaged their lineage well before the Hindu audience. Over time though, this surreptitiousness wasn’t needed anymore, since the Muslim stronghold in the industry gradually strengthened with musicians lyricists, scriptwriters and filmmakers like Salim, Majrooh Sultanpuri (Asraar ul Hassan Khan), Shakeel Badayuni, Mehboob Khan, Javed Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi (originally Abdul Hayee), Naushad Ali who openly glorified Islam and Urdu as against Hindu customs, traditions and culture through their work in Hindi cinema.
Urdufication of Hindi Films
According to the etymology of languages, Urdu was primarily created to romanticise customs that in today’s parlance would require reformation. For instance, the tawaif culture relied heavily on Urdu where sher, shayri and nazms about love, pain, dejection and other emotions sounded utterly ethereal. The poetry being an artistic veneer on the blatant miscarriage of human rights in the trade. Famous poet and playwright, Bharatendu Harischandra had once said, “When sons of rich Hindus get in touch with prostitutes they start speaking Urdu.” Today, not many would be aware about Mohajirs in Pakistan or how Urdu was imposed on Punjabis, Balochs, Sindhis and Pashtuns there. Just like they would not know that the language was derived from Persian, Arabic and Hindi (Sanskrit) and that even the Mughal invaders spoke mainly in Persian as they weren’t comfortable with Urdu, a language of the slaves because it was spoken by those who were forcefully converted.
Here we must bring to the fore how Urdu also normalised vulgarity in Hindi films. Let’s take the example of the word aurat (remember how Mehboob Khan justified the presence of anti-social elements such as dacoits through the films Aurat and Mother India). The word aurat comes from the Arabic word awrah, meaning ‘defectiveness, pudendum, genitals’. As a technical term in Islamic law, the extended sense of ‘pudendum’ has been defined to mean the part of the body that must be covered for the sake of basic decency: for men, from the navel to the knees, and for women, the whole body except for the face, hands, and the feet.
History Through Hindi Film Prism
Some Muslim jurists, extended the definition of woman’s ‘awrah to mean the entire woman, with nothing exempted i.e whole of women is genital, defective and hence to be covered and called as aurat. So, every time Hindi songs and dialogues threw up the word aurat, it sought to normalise the usage in common parlance, thus mitigating the extremely regressive and problematic connotation. The language one uses affects the way he perceives reality and this is where the Urdufication of language used in Hindi films post Independence comes into purview. The status of women or aurat is denigrated in Islam, which is thoroughly responsible for the objectification of women increasingly in Hindi movies with the growing use of Urdu. Nothing reflects that more than the quality of songs churned out over a period of time. While some sound utterly romantic, once you probe, the lopsided meanings emerge.
With its influence and popularity growing amongst the mainstream Indian audience, the industry also saw films as a powerful tool to feed the populace with its version of history, especially regarding the Mughals. The consolidated effort to whitewash their brutalities and paint them as saviours of the Indian subcontinent and purveyors of art and aesthetics cannot be denied. There isn’t even one film that shows who the Mughals really were. Instead, they were projected as rulers Bharat should be grateful for. Moreover, while chronicles of battles and conquests were largely ignored, a soft narrative was encouraged that the Muslim rulers were kind, lovers of music, dance and basically honourable people. For instance, in Vinod Kumar’s Jahan Ara, released in 1964, the script tries to show the sacrifices Jahanara Begum makes for her ailing father Shah Jahan. This is blatantly trying to hide how Shah Jahan forced his eldest daughter to have an illicit relation with him when his wife, Mumtaz Mahal passed away. To justify this disgusting act, he had infamously said, “A gardener has the rights to enjoy the fruits of what he has sown.”
M Sadiq’s Taj Mahal wraps the sorry plight of Mumtaz Mahal in celestial music by Roshan, even as the film is a surreal romantic veneer over the harsh truth. The audience couldn’t be told that Mumtaz died out of haemorrhage giving birth to her husband’s 14th child so a dreamy romance was scripted to brainwash the audience who had anyway been fed with the Congress version of Indian history in schools. With so much beauty and sonorous sounds in the film, no one would bother asking why he went on to defile his daughter if he loved his wife so much.
K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam collects sympathy from the audience for Jehangir by showing how his love for a courtesan Anarkali (whose real name many historical accounts reveal was Nadira Begum/Sharf-un-Nissa) was doomed. Funnily, while Emperor Akbar was shown to be utterly cruel in K Asif’s film, he becomes an epitome of romance and restraint years later in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodhaa Akbar, where the Mughal king waits for the Hindu princess to fall in love with him before he consummates the marriage! Further on, the film glorifies how Akbar abolished the jizyah tax but there is no Hindi film to depict Aurangzeb levying it again, along with other atrocities on Hindus. The regressive customs in the Islamic society were shown to be part of the Hindu Samaaj in Hindi films. This looked like a ploy to depict Bharat as filled with errors that needed reforms without owning up to how the Islamic invasions, and later colonisation, affected the fabric of society.
It is after all these years that a full-fledged film on Nathuram Godse will be released next year. As the audience waits for Amol Kolhe’s Why I killed Gandhi, we must spare a thought as to why we were never told about Godse in detail but were conditioned to believe that he was some deranged fellow who shot the Mahatma dead. The same Mahatma, whose ideology was the sole narrative Bollywood highlighted when it came to movies on the freedom movement. The call for non-violence being a foremost one. It is now that we know how Gandhi had his part to play in the persecution of many in the armed struggle movement who would have otherwise toppled his importance.
Brainwashing the Indian Psyche
Richard Attenborough’s 1982 magnum opus Gandhi (majorly funded by the Gandhi family) is also a whitewashed but cleverly packaged treatise (another being the distorted narrative of Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram for its projection of Gandhian principles in a Muslim being an absolute lie) also severely brainwashed the Indian psyche to never question the role of the man in the national movement as well as Indian politics. His deification in the film and in our conscience is complete when Gandhi is shown to breathe his last mouthing Hey Ram instead of the actual ‘Ah’ (a masterstroke by the Congress that time to evoke pro-Gandhi Hindu sentiments for the man).
Actors Master Vithal and Zubeida also played major parts but note how the lead protagonists were given fancy Muslim names even as Khan was depicted as a dashing, gallant soldier. Maybe this was setting the precedent for painting the Mughals as brave, strong and valorous in Hindi films in later years as against their debauch, brutal and true historical self
Strangely, Hindi films have always invested more attention in romanticising certain elements while making films against the British colonisers. Shyam Benegal’s Junoon gunned for the union of Javed Khan (Shashi Kapoor) and Ruth (Nafisa Ali) in the backdrop of the Indian rebellion of 1857. Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey: The Rising, was a Bollywoodised version of the rebellion but it diluted the seriousness of the revolt by hinting Mangal Pandey’s connection with a courtesan! Except for a lone patriotic song or a descent here and there, whitewashed history and grating jingoism largely pepper the repertoire of Hindi cinema in capturing the struggle of Indian revolutionaries against the Brits. Also, even if films were made on the subject (there were a host of films on Bhagat Singh), they amped up the Gandhian philosophy to further the Congress agenda. Probably that is why independent movies like Ved Rahi’s Veer Savarkar were never allowed to hit the limelight.
The Freedom Narrative in Regional Cinema
In comparison to the verbose, lopsided and commercialised work in Hindi films after Independence that played to the gallery even as they set a certain narrative, regional cinema took bold strides while showcasing the struggle for India’s freedom. While S Rajamouli’s RRR paints a true picture of what the British really were as it talks about some brave tribal revolutionaries, Surendra Reddy’s Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy is another treatise on the struggle against the British East India Company. However, a discussion on films on the national movement will be incomplete without mentioning Priyadarshan’s iconic National Award winning Kaalapani exposing the plight of Indian independence activists incarcerated in Cellular Jail. The Marathi film industry, which somehow got sidelined in the glitz and glamour of Bollywood have been doing some exceptional work in the patriotic genre. Om Raut’s Lokmanya: Ek Yugpurush was a noted Marathi treatise on Bal Gangadhar Tilak while Chinmay Mandlekar brought Shivram Hari Shivguru to life in Krantiveer Rajguru. In 1977, Pijush Bose’s Sabyasachi presented the swashbuckling side of matinee idol Uttam Kumar as he donned the role of a Bengali revolutionary against the British imperialists. Social dramas were also regularly depicting how young men from regular homes fought for freedom. For instance, Tarun Majumdar’s Srimaan Prithviraaj (playing on the historical character who also fought against an Islamic invader) was a romance but there was a section that dealt with how young educated men were dedicated to save the honour of their motherland Bharat by defeating the cruel colonisers.