In movie theatres in states where playing the national anthem before films is compulsory, people who don’t stand up while the tune is being played are frequently abused, threatened and sometimes made to leave by their fellow cinema-goers. This phenomenon has come back into the news this week, with the emergence of a new YouTube video showing a crowd heckling a family that chose to remain seated during as Jana Gana Mana was being played.

Inspired by the ascendancy of the right wing, a puritanical rigidity has lately come to be associated with the playing of the national anthem in theatres. Recently, in one such episode, actor Ameesha Patel was trolled for refusing to stand while Jana Gana Mana rang out at a PVR theatre in Mumbai. She said she had a “girly problem” and called the person who Facebooked her picture in the cinema hall a “jackass”.

It is difficult to understand what purpose is served by playing the national anthem in a theatre. A cinema hall, where all sorts of violent or tawdry films are screened, is not the place for such a sacrosanct song. The practice, effectively, forces us to reassert our patriotism and allegiance to the nation just before watching a movie. It isn't clear why.

The national anthem should be played only on occasions where nationality or nationhood is the prime reason or logic. International sporting events like the Olympics, for example, are the right place for the reassertion of nationhood since countries compete against one another there to assert their physical supremacy among the comity of lesser nations. In a cinema hall, no such issue is at stake – a theatre is just a showplace of storytelling or photography skills.

Relic of the past

The playing of the national anthem in a theatre is a relic of the pre-television days when propaganda or short films (newsreels) made by the government had to be screened by law. The Prevention of Insults to National Honours Act, 1971, does not prescribe a punishment for sitting during the national anthem. Only if someone prevents its singing or causes “disturbance to any assembly engaged in such singing shall he be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extent to three years”.

However the Home Ministry rules state that citizens must stand to attention  when the anthem is sung. The rules also say that indiscriminate playing of the anthem should be discouraged. Playing the anthem at the cinema is not among the under the occasions mentioned in the ministry guidelines about when the song should be performed..

A movie screening is not a state-sponsored event. The fact that as citizens we are required to reassert out patriotic values just before watching Salman Khan beat up a thug is nonsensical. In fact, in many films, villainy is the main attraction and Bollywood baddies are more talked about than heroes.  Why should we stand in respect before we embrace villainy, violence and double entendres?

An under-confident state

The national anthem may give us goosebumps when we see the tricolour being unfurled in an Olympic stadium. But sadly, with Olympic medals largely eluding us, we haven’t had many occasions to express our nationalist credentials this way. The close links of sports and nationalism can be seen in Usain Bolt wrapping himself in his national flag after every lightning sprint. An Indian athlete doing the same could theoretically be arrested for not obeying the National Honours Act.

During the on-going Indian Soccer League, the national anthem is played and spectators and players stand in respect, even though the league is not a state venture. Half of every team, in fact, is made up of foreign nationals who wouldn’t know Jana Gana Mana from a pop song. So is it enough that half the team sings the national anthem and reinforces its identity before a match? Subnationalism has no place in the IMG-Reliance ISL (unlike in the Santosh Trophy) and anyway why would Fikru Jr be worried about whether he plays for Kerala or the North East?

This constant requirement of reinforcing patriotism and a sense of unity comes from a state that is under-confident about its place in a citizen’s mind and thus seeks reassurances. What if some of the ISL players coming from the North East feel that the state is an encroacher in their lives and the only contact they have with it is when it sends the police to their houses? It is likely that the ISL is playing the national anthem – no permission is required – to appropriate the task of the state and legitimise the private league as an event that is integral to the country’s sporting scene.

Tagore's view

The larger irony here is that we sing Jana Gana Mana in the belief that it enforces nationalism, while the writer of the song, Rabindranath Tagore, who was an anti-nationalist, had said:
“India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

At a time when dissenters are being asked to move to Pakistan and citizens are being pushed out of theatres for failing the nationalism test, Rabindranath Tagore’s thoughts are worth recalling.