I had resolved to pen a few things about the radio industry but when I sat down to writing this column on 27 May 2019, the gravity of the date being the 55th death anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru made me change my track. I was struck by the fact that the visionary architect of modern India had been the source of inspiration for the Hindi cinema with his idea of socialism and if our films still provide stories of humanitarian understanding, much of the credit must go to the great statesman. I felt a homage to this humanitarian leader was justified for his exemplary upholding of the democratic values of freedom, equality and justice that influenced Hindi filmdom for a long time.
I accept that the many of the Hindi screen tales can be sordid, indecent or even ludicrous: yet it is irrefutable that they have constantly spread the message of love, friendship and harmony. Hindi films have shaped not just ideals of peaceful co-existence but also our morality, language, fashion and life styles that are generally acknowledged as “Hindustaaniyat” (Indianness).
Our constitution makers acknowledged the composite culture for India and if millions are practicing secularism in their daily lives today, it is in a large measure due to the overriding impact of Nehru’s benevolent spirit on our films.
Nehru’s gift of secular democracy was a much needed adhesive for national survival since India had a divergent culture of multifarious languages, life styles, customs and practices.
While none can deny the contribution of patriotic countrymen, , one has to nevertheless admit that Hindi films have helped unite this nation more than anything else and if the concept of one nation is still alive, it is thanks to enormous contributions by the Nehruvian brand of cinema.
Despite foolish decrees of religious leaders, irresponsible and acerbic barbs of political bosses as well as legacies of religious and communal conflicts, Hindi films have retained sanity to spread ideals of universal brotherhood.
From mediocre to sublime and avant-garde, Hindi films have steadfastly preached the need to live together and the message from “Dharamputra”, “Seema”, “Godaan”, “Garam Coat” to “Lagaan”, “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” and “Chak De India” is that irrespective of cultural and religious differences, we are one and hatred or killing are not tenets of any religion.
According to economic and political analyst Surendra Modi, “The kind of gigantic monetary and social upheavals that India has undergone since independence could have been catastrophic for any other country but Nehruvian ethics ensured India’s progress was inclusive and safe for all.”
Despite its spectacular diversity, Indian secularism has endured only because of common citizens but the roots of faith and goodwill have been well nourished by several on screen characters like Sher Khan (“Zanjeer”), Harnam Singh (“Roti Kapda Aur Makaan”), Mrs. D’Sa (“Anari”) and Bharat (“Upkaar”) that castigate the rigid caste system and evil dogma with great ferocity. Author Shashi Tharoor says, “Nehru will be remembered for not abandoning vast sections of society” in India’s quest for economic progress and our worst of Hindi pot boilers vindicate that Nehruvian vision of inclusivity embraced everyone.
As the nation’s conscience keeper, Nehru stood for an India that honoured every religion, caste, ethnicity and language. But if his “unity in diversity” became the most sacred tenet of independent India, it is all thanks to the stirring lyrics of our film songs.
Unlike the hypocritical utterances of politicians, phenomenal poetic renditions like “Insaan Bano” (“Baiju Bawra”), “Pyaar Ki Raah Dikha Duniya Ko” (“Lambe Haath”) to “Allah Tero Naam, Ishwar Tero Naam” (“Hum Dono”) and “Zindagi Hai Kya Sun Meri Jaan” (“Asli Naqli”) strengthened not just our secular framework but also inspired the “Ganga – Jamuni” tehzeeb (composite culture) wherein goodness and humanism are ranked higher than religious and communal practices.
Recovering from the traumatic grief of the partition, Nehru’s compassion motivated millions to give up violence while also encouraging film makers to exhibit the common thread of our shared heritage. Providing a universal colour to festivals like Eid, Raakhee, Holi, Diwali and Christmas, our films helped improve the trust quotient in civil society while also weaving a fabric of good will and harmony.
Nehru’s nationalism was synonymous with secularism whereby everyone, irrespective of caste, creed, colour, belief or religion was accepted as equal. Inspired by the Nehruvian philosophy, Hindi filmdom consistently spoke for the ostracized or marginalised citizenry with its exposition of feudal landlords (“Saheb Biwi Aur Ghulam”) or the helplessness of labour class (“Do Bigha Zameen”), while also pleading justice for physically and mentally challenged (“Dosti”, “Shor” to “Taare Zameen Par”) as well as farmers’ distress (“Mother India” and “Gunga Jamuna”).
In a way, Hindi cinema pioneered several praiseworthy initiatives too that apart from advocating inter-caste betrothals (“Julie”) also ranged from denouncing child marriage to raising a voice for widow remarriage (“Prem Rog”) while also trouncing untouchability (“Achoot Kanya”) and exploitation of child labour (“Boot Polish”), orphans (“Sujata”) and prostitutes (“Pakeezah”).
It would take several pages to list out the whole battery of film makers and artistes who were inspired by the iconic leader and incorporated Nehruvian legacy in their creations. The composite culture of filmdom enthused Hindus like HS Rawail and B.R. Chopra in depicting authentic Muslim culture in films (“Mere Mehboob” & “Nikaah”) and Muslim artistes (Naushad, Shakeel Badayuni and Mohammad Rafi) to create the profoundest bhajans for Hindus! Our political class needs to learn a lot from sublime artistes like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Sunil Dutt as well as Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle, Sahir, Shailendra and Khayyam who rose beyond labels of caste, community and religion by being human!
If they could excel with Nehruvian philosophy, couldn’t politicians too work wonders with our development if they discarded their petty prejudices against the noble leader? It is pertinent to note that Jesus Christ was crucified for all the wrong reasons yet he ‘lives’ and hence, attempts at tarnishing Nehru will only make him live eternally. And who knows, someday, somewhere a gifted film maker might even validate Nehru’s legacy on screen forever!
(Deepak Mahaan is a well-known Documentary Film Maker, Writer and Commentator)