In November 2015, a video emerged online of a crowd at a movie theatre in Mumbai, heckling a family of five, including a child, who chose to remain seated as the national anthem was being played. This was not an isolated case. In October this year, writer and disability rights activist Salil Chaturvedi was assaulted at a multiplex in Goa, for not rising to his feet during the anthem – despite the fact that Chaturvedi suffers a spinal injury, and is wheelchair-bound. 

As these incidents demonstrate, audiences in Maharashtra and Goa – until now, the only states in which it has been mandatory for the national anthem to be played at cinemas – are quick to abuse and threaten patrons who fail to stand to attention during the rendition of Jana Gana Mana.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court mandated that the national anthem be played at cinema halls across the country, before the screening of films. Those present at the theatre must “stand up in respect” until the anthem ends. The decision, which came from justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy, aims to “instill a feeling within one, a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism”. 

While Indians are not punishable by law for failing to stand up during the anthem, there is an accompanying code that is periodically updated by the Union home ministry – but it’s one that has been unwittingly violated on repeated occasions over the years, often aided and abetted by the government. 

Adopting the anthem

After Independence, India was quick to adopt the tricolour flag. But it took three years to decide on the national anthem. It was widely thought that Vande Mataram would be picked, given that it was the mantra for the independence struggle for almost half a century.

Muslims, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his followers, would sing Vande Mataram at Indian National Congress conventions. Later, when it was discovered that certain verses were in conflict with Islamic beliefs, hardline Muslim leaders began to oppose it. This created bitterness within the ranks, forcing Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to search for an alternative.

On January 26, 1950, when India became a republic, at a ceremony in Parliament, President Rajendra Prasad declared, “The first stanza of Jana Gana Mana will be the national anthem of the Republic of India and the first stanza of Vande Mataram will be the national song. It will have a status equal to the anthem.” 

Thus, the republic of India got two songs.

Early days

Soon, it was decided to prepare appropriate scores for these songs, in keeping with the international practice. The task was given to All India Radio. Two versions of each song were prepared – vocals for a choral recital, and an instrumental one for military bands, each lasting less than 60 seconds. They were accepted by a parliamentary committee and the Gramophone Company of India Ltd. was commissioned to make a thousand copies of each of these two records.

Each record had the vocal version on one side and the instrumental version on the other. These were then distributed to some 800 radio stations spread across the country. It was also decided that the vocal version of Vande Mataram should be played every day, just after the signature tune, and before the start of the morning session on all radio stations.

The practice continues till this day. Each song has a male voice (that of Dinkar Kaikini) and a female voice (Sumati Mutatkar). “As a part of our duty at All India Radio  Delhi, we used to visit the Parliament every Friday afternoon,” Kaikini recalled. “Our task was to train Members of Parliament to sing the national anthem and the national song within 60 seconds, and without any instrumental support.”

He said that most people did not need any training because Vande Mataram was played on the radio every day. “From 1955 onward, although Vande Mataram is played everyday on the radio, the national anthem is not played unless there is a special occasion,“ Pandit Kaikini said.

These special occasions include the flag handover ceremony of the Indian Armed Forces, immediately after the tricolour is hoisted on Independence Day, and on Republic Day. On these two occasions, citizens should sing in chorus without any instrumental support. They should stand at attention without any body movements or facial gestures.

The anthem could also be sung in a chorus, in an assembly of students and staff, just before the beginning of the school day or when it ends. It is never to be sung solo or in intervals.

Indian citizens followed this code for many years. But in the quest to push the spirit of patriotism, the norms and guidelines and have often been breached.

Now playing

After India lost the war to China in 1962, some government officers felt the country needed a patriotic boost. Various plans were suggested, and finally a decision was made after the 1965 Indo-Pak war, to play the national anthem at the end of the show in cinema halls across the country.

In the beginning, additional 78 rpm records were printed at the Calcutta factory of the Gramophone Company, and distributed to cinema hall owners and operators through the country. Later, a minute-long film was made: it showed a black and white image of a fluttering tricolour mounted on a flag post, with the national anthem playing in the background. The flag got its colours a few years later.

In the beginning, citizens faithfully stood at attention as the anthem played. But as time went on and the fervour of war diminished, audiences began to walk out immediately after the film ended, or left cinema halls even as the anthem’s video was playing. The film was finally scrapped in the 1980s.

During the 1990s, when a large number of multiplex cinema halls cropped up in the metros, some bureaucrats felt the time was ripe to revive the practice of screening the anthem film. In 2003, the Maharashtra government took the lead in this endeavour, with deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal suggesting that the anthem be played just before the screening of feature films. This strategy ensured that no one would leave the hall.

After the advertisements and public service announcements ended, the audience rose for the national anthem. There were comic scenes in multiplexes, as people stood up with a soft drink in one hand and a packet of chips in the other. Some did not even bother to stand up for the duration of the one-minute film with the fluttering tricolour.

Then came the 2000s. A young and energetic team of management and media gurus came up with another idea. A new film was created, containing a vocal chorus of the national anthem. The image of the real tricolour was replaced with a digital one. In doing so, the code was no longer being adhered to, as the colours of the digital flag were different from those of the original tricolour. In addition, the flag did not seem mounted on a flag post, but appeared as if though it was spread on the ground. Several schools adopted this new version of the anthem, which was played at school functions with a harmonium or piano accompanying it.

Enter Rahman

In the mid-2000s, Pandit Jasraj announced that this one-minute film would be replaced by a two-minute video version of the national anthem. The video featured great artists such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Lata Mangeshkar and AR Rahman among 50 vocalists and instrumentalists. Once again, the anthem code was violated. Some institutions and citizens protested this move, and the decision was stalled.

While India celebrated its 60th year of independence in 2007, Pushkar Shrotri, a Marathi theatre and television personality, decided to compose a version of the national anthem with Marathi artists. With some political backing, a minute-long video featuring 40 artists singing a particular part of the anthem each, was created. The video was to be screened in cinema halls from August 15, 2007. 


Where did Shrotri get his idea from? The answer goes back a few years.

Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the culture ministry called on BharatBala Productions, which had produced the patriotic Desh Ka Salaam films in 1999 and collaborated on the Vande Mataram albums created by AR Rahman. Sudheendra Kulkarni, then advisor to the government, had pushed this ambitious project. He enlisted AR Rahman, who in turn got more than 50 musicians to record an unusual rendition of the national anthem.

BharatBala Productions and Rahman brought out the Jana Gana Mana album, which was produced and marketed by Sony Music. The album contained a video CD and an audio CD, apart from a booklet with messages from the Prime Minister and the President. The hour-long audio version featured 35 artists singing or playing the national anthem for well over 90 seconds each, thereby violating the anthem code thoroughly. Each artist took more than a minute, because the tempo of the music was slow compared to the standard tempo of the chorus.

The video CD has two parts – instrumental and vocal, each lasts 150 seconds each. Soldiers are seen hoisting the tricolour in remote Ladakh. The image was not accompanied by the anthem sung in chorus, or played by a military band. Instead, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia is seen playing his verse of Jana Gana Mana on the flute, followed by Amjad Ali Khan and his sons playing a sarod, followed by Shivkumar Sharma and his son. This is followed by the sitar, violins, a keyboard and finally, Sultan Khan’s sarangi. Almost every top musician has a role before AR Rahman is finally seen, violently playing his keyboard, the sea raging in the background.


On the vocal section of the CD, great singers are seen humming the anthem with their eyes closed. Lata Mangeshkar comes into view, wearing a tricolour pendant around her neck, then opens her eyes and sings Jana Gana Mana Adhinayak Jaya Hai – followed by a galaxy of singers from Kavita Krishnamurthy to DK Pattamal, Jagjit Singh, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Jasraj.

Towards the end, sisters Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle sing together. Finally, Rahman re-enters and throws up both hands, singing the last lines of the song – Jay Hay, Jay Hay, Jay Hay – as if he is conducting an orchestral circus.

This video was shown regularly and television channels. A few citizens and institutions opposed it for contravening the anthem code. They wrote articles in newspapers and sent emails to BharatBala Productions as well as Rahman – to no avail. Taking this one step further, the 2000 film Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham also contained solo renditions of both Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana.

A few years ago, a film called We the People was telecast in cinema halls. In it, as the national anthem plays on a transistor radio, a cobbler and his three young assistants stand at attention, even as the traffic on the road behind them moves on as usual. The voice of actor Amitabh Bachchan then commands:

“Stand in attention, respect your anthem and respect your nation”.

The producers overlooked the fact that the national anthem is never played on the radio except in extraordinary circumstances.