It is good news for the Reds as leftist poetry is back in the vogue in Indian popular culture. Or is it? Over the past few years, subcontinental revolutionary poetry from the 20th century has been finding its way into films.

In 2016, Vivek Agnihotri’s Buddha in a Traffic Jam featured an intriguing rendition of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s noted poem Chand Roz Aur. The film aimed to expose the supposedly corrupt infrastructure of the Maoist movement in India and the role played by intellectuals in recruiting bright young individuals from college campuses for these movements.

The latest example is Habeeb Jalib’s iconic Main Nahi Maanta, which makes an appearance in the trailer of JNU: Jehangir National University. In the forthcoming film, writer-director Vinay Sharma offers a critique by proxy of Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has long been in the crosshairs of Hindutva supporters for fostering generations of iconoclasts and free thinkers.

Both these films are part of a new kind of propaganda cinema in India that demonises Muslims, vilifies left-leaning intellectuals, glorifies Hindutva icons and belittles civil society.

In Buddha in a Traffic Jam, Faiz’s poem provides the lyrics for a song that featured at a pivotal moment when the protagonist uncovers the connection between his college professor and the Maoist leadership in Bastar. This revelation exposes a nexus that exploits the Maoist conflict for financial gain while deceiving both Adivasis and young urban recruits.

A full-throated supporter of Narendra Modi’s government, Agnihotri coined the term “Urban Naxals” to smear city-based supporters of Maoist movements. Over the years, the term has gathered traction and is now copy-pasted to denounce every individual or organisation that criticises the government and its policies. To speak, write or even to think in favour of the marginalised communities of the country is seen as an act of Naxalism.

It is ironic that a film so vehemently anti-left used a poem written by one of South Asia’s most renowned communist intellectuals. Faiz wrote Chand Roz aur while he was counting down the days to his release from a Pakistani prison in 1955. He was, in many ways, designated by the Pakistani state as their equivalent of urban Naxal. Faiz, forever the poet of the oppressed classes, could never have expected that his own words would one day be used to malign people like him.

Another of Faiz’s classics, Hum Dekhenge, found its way into the controversial The Kashmir Files in 2022, a gross oversimplification of the Kashmir conflict. It demonised Kashmiri Muslims, presenting the entire community as willing participants in the murders of Kashmiri Pandits in the early 1990s.

The distinction between the terrorists who murdered Pandits and ordinary Kashmiri Muslims was blurred to the point of invisibility. Several Bharatiya Janata Party state governments exempted screenings from having to pay tax.


Agnihotri seamlessly integrated his imagined Urban Naxals into The Kashmir Files. In one scene, students and professors at a university in Delhi sing Hum Dekhenge as they protest the way ordinary Kashmiris are treated by the authorities. Faiz’s poem is used to denigrate members of civil society as active collaborators in the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus.

The substance of the poem was mocked while at the same time, its catchiness and emotion were shamelessly commodified. It was a conscious effort to erode the potency of revolutionary art itself.

Hum Dekhenge was written by Faiz in 1979, during the tenure of Zia Ul Haq's military regime in Pakistan, which heralded a decade of authoritarian rule and forced Islamisation. Faiz faced prison, exile and death threats as he stood against the oppression of the state.

Habeeb Jalib wrote Main Nahi Maanta, which can be heard in a song in JNU: Jehangir National University, in the 1960s in an act of resistance against General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship in Pakistan. The poem earned its author a jail term and became an anthem of defiance that many, when faced with the might of authority, still hold on to as a symbol of rebellion.


Since it was first uttered in 1962 to protest Ayub Khan’s formulation of a new Pakistani constitution, the poem has found voice during many social protest movements in South Asia. This time, however, it is aimed not at at military dictators or authoritarian regimes but college students

A central theme in Hindutva politics has been the adoption of a subaltern identity – an identity traditionally associated with marginalised groups such as Adivasis and members of the lower castes as well as by religious minorities. The Hindutva movement seeks to reshape this narrative, portraying itself as a vulnerable group that is under constant threat and has been consistently wronged.

In this revised narrative, the true subalterns have been transformed from being perceived as threatened to being perceived as a threat themselves. So it isn’t surprising when producers of Hindutva pop culture appropriate literature and art from subaltern and revolutionary movements.

Of course, art belongs to all and it is the consumer of art who eventually decides what to make of it. Faiz and Jalib do not belong exclusively to any group of people, neither does their poetry. The poetry of Faiz and Jalib speaks to universal themes and sentiments.

However, it is crucial to recognise that their poetry was crafted with a specific purpose in mind. They wrote for the marginalised – the wretched, the poor, the landless, and the dispossessed. Their verses echoed the values of progressive movements that challenged authoritarian, undemocratic regimes. Their poetry served as a voice for the powerless, advocating for a more just society.

It is one thing to dilute the red in the writings of Faiz and Jalib. It is quite another to paint them saffron.

Bilal Ahmad Tantray is a PhD scholar and teaching assistant from Shiv Nadar University.

Also read: A dummy’s guide to propaganda films in Bollywood