Bharat Mata Ki from Shanghai (2012) is a rare film song about India that does not celebrate its greatness and glory. Shanghai director Dibakar Banerjee, who also wrote the song’s lyrics, lampoons the state of the nation through the words Gurr bhi hai, gobar bhi hai, Bharat mata ki jai (It’s both jaggery and cow dung, hail mother India). The song was passed by the Central Board of Film Certification, unlike in the days when films were censored for inciting nationalist pride.
Patriotic songs in Hindi films range from gently prodding tunes to blood vessel-bursting paeans. They were especially useful in movies made during the freedom struggle to articulate what the rest of the screenplay couldn’t. Since independence, they have served as occasionally forceful reminders of our duty towards our flag.
Before 1947, pro-freedom themes were tucked into mythologicals and historicals, and not all of them managed to escape censorship by the colonial government. The silent film Bhakta Vidur (1921), based on the Mahabharata epic, was the first Indian film to be pulled out of circulation because its lead character was modelled on Mahatma Gandhi. In 1930, the silent film Swarajyacha Toran (Flags of Freedom), about the Maratha warrior Shivaji, was renamed Udaykal. Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939), Sikandar (1941), Prithvi Vallabh (1943) were covertly nationalistic dramas in the guise of historicals.
One of the best-known nationalistic numbers from the pre-1947 era is Chal Chal Re Naujawan, written by Pradeep for the movie Bandhan (1940). “Though the film was not based on a patriotic theme, a situation was created for this song and when it came to screen, the audience went delirious with excitement,” writes Pradeep’s daughter, Mitul Pradeep, in the book Legends of Indian Silver Screen. “Wherever the film was screened, the theatres had the public shouting ‘once more’ and the film had to be reversed to show the song repeatedly. The songs were a direct attack on the British government. Though British censors unknowingly cleared it, belated realisation dawned on the song’s implications. They ordered to arrest Kavi Pradeep and he went underground for a year.”
The song’s success promoted Pradeep to request the producers of the film Kismet (1943) to include the song Door Hato Aye Duniyawaalon Hindustan Hamara Hai (Stay away outsiders, India belongs to us).
After independence, the songs reflected the general mood of jubilation. Shaheed (1948) brandished the Indian tricolour in the opening credits with the song Watan Ki Raah Mein Watan playing in the background. The revolutionary hero Ram (Dilip Kumar), was not modelled on a freedom fighter but represented the ordinary viewer. Andolan (1951), Anand Math (1952) and Jhansi Ki Rani (1953) all dealt with various struggles for independence. A popular song from this period is Vande Mataram, sung by Hemant Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar for Anand Math.
Films such as Mother India (1957) and Naya Daur (1957) captured in different ways the Nehruvian nation-building project. Yeh Desh Hai Veer Jawanon Ka from Naya Daur, written by Sahir Ludhianvi, reflected the upbeat spirit.
The progressive wave carried over in Chhodo Kal Ki Baatein (Hum Hindustani, 1960). Lyricist Prem Dhawan suggested through the song that it was time to forget the past and move into a new nation. Insaaf Ki Dagar Pe (Ganga Jumna, 1961), written by Shakeel Badayuni, suggested that Indians should follow in the righteous path of Gandhi and assume leadership of the newly independent country through the words Neta tumhi ho kal ke (You are tomorrow’s leader).
Patriotism arrived with a tinge of sadness in Kar Chale Hum Fida, written by Kaifi Azmi and sung with great passion by Mohammed Rafi for Haqeeqat (1964), which explores the 1962 Indo-China War. The same year, Rafi sang another crowd-puller, Apni Azaadi Ko Hum, written by Shakeel Badayuni for Leader.
Manoj Kumar proved to be a good model for Bhagat Singh when he took on the role of the freedom fighter in Shaheed (1965). Kumar fashioned a number of patriotic films after Shaheed’s success. Upkaar (1967), Purab Aur Paschim (1970), Roti and Kapda Aur Makaan (1974) all had the leading man cast as a son of the soil who stands up for Indian values and wages a non-violent protest against many social evils, including Western culture. The song Mere Desh Ki Dharti from Upkaar, written by Gulshan Bawra, depicted India as a golden goose. By the ’70s , Kumar’s patriotic streak had hardened into hyper-nationalism, best embodied in the song Hai Preet Jahan Ki Reet Sada from Purab Aur Paschim (1970).
Hindi cinema’s suspicion of invading outsiders and treacherous domestic enemies got full expression in the ’80s. Films such as Karma (1986), Mr India (1987) and Elaan-E-Jung (1989) popularised larger-than-life villains such as Dr Dang and Mogambo. The song Aye Watan Tere Liye (Karma), written by Anand Bakshi, became the new go-to pop patriotic tune.
A number of films in the ’90s, including Tirangaa (1992) and Dijale (1996), feature Islamist terrorists waging war on India. The operatic Bharat Humko Jaan Se Pyara Hai (Roja, 1992), written by PK Mishra and composed by AR Rahman in his film debut, is a rare instance of a nationalist song that is also a great tune. Bharat Humko starts like a hymn, rises into a rousing anthem and ends with a stunning chorus finish, reiterating the need to move into a new direction.
The ’90s and 2000s too have their share of rousing numbers and flag-thumpers, including Hindustan Hindustan (Border, 1997), Yeh Mera India (Pardes, 1997), Zindagi Maut Na Bann Jaaye (Sarfarosh, 1999), Chale Chalo (Lagaan, 2001) Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, 2000), Desh Mere (The Legend of Bhagat Singh, 2002), Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera (Swades, 2004), Khoon Chala (Rang De Basanti, 2006) and Des Rangila (Fanaa, 2006).
One of the most earnest nationalistic songs is sung by a character who pines for his country from afar. In Aye Mere Pyare Watan (Kabuliwala, 1961), the Afghan immigrant Abdul Rehman Khan (Balraj Sahni), who lives in Kolkata, is shown yearning for his family in Kabul. In a welcome reversal, the song articulates a rare universal spirit, proving that music truly has no nationality.