Dadasahab Phalke Award winner Manoj Kumar has made several patriotic films that celebrate the glories of the Indian civilisation. Songs from Kumar’s movies blare out of loudspeakers every year on January 26 and August 15. His penultimate film Clerk (1989) is derided as one of the hammiest Indian films ever made, and he was the subject of a hilarious spoof in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007) that was later pulled out of the DVD. Manoj Kumar was not amused at the attempt to poke fun at his trademark gesture of cupping his face with his hands, and the actor and filmmaker is now having the last laugh.
Kumar’s hits as an actor include several films in the 1960s, including Hariyali Aur Rasta (1962), Woh Kaun Thi (1964) and Gumnaam (1965). But it’s the series of flag-waving productions, starting with S Ram Sharma’s Bhagat Singh biopic Shaheed in 1965, which sealed the reputation of the man born as Harikrishna Goswami as Hindi cinema’s most nationalistic soul.
Kumar turned director with Upkar (1967) reportedly on a request from Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who wanted a movie that showcased the slogan “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan.” Kumar plays both soldier and farmer. This was the first movie in which Kumar was named Bharat, and the name stuck, just as Vijay would for Amitabh Bachchan and Rahul for Shah Rukh Khan. One of the most enduring songs from Upkar is a paean to the agricultural bounty of India, composed by Kalyanji Anandji, written by Gulshan Bawra, and sung with gusto by Mahendra Kapoor.
In1970, Kumar directed and starred in Purab aur Paschim, notable for an interestingly lensed black-and-white opening sequence, Saira Banu in a blond mop as a spoilt smoking-drinking Indian living in London, Rajendranath in loud floral shirts, and Kumar as the bastion of Indian conservative values. Once again, it takes a single song, shot in a restaurant with revolving tables, to convey the film’s core message that Indians who live abroad are missing out on the magnificent life that awaits them back home.
In 1974, Manoj Kumar made Roti Kapda aur Makaan, whose title is inspired by the slogan that originated with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan and was co-opted by the Indira Gandhi regime as a promise of food, clothing and shelter to all citizens. The family drama sees Bharat (Kumar) trying to provide for his family after the death of his father. One of the brothers (a pre-stardom Amitabh Bachchan) joins the Army, while his girlfriend (Zeenat Aman) grows tired of Bharat’s poverty and decides to marry a rich man (Shashi Kapoor).
Manoj Kumar reached back into the colonial past for Kranti (1981), which has a star-studded cast that includes Dilip Kumar, Hema Malini, Shashi Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha and Parveen Babi, a screenplay by Salim-Javed, and a score by Laxmikant-Pyarelal. The slim plot revolves around a group of revolutionaries who seek to tear down the Union Jack.
Bharat’s brand of patriotism lost its influence in the volatile 1980s, which found fewer reasons to bow down before the flag. Expect movie channels to unleash “Bharat Kumar” specials, and do make you are saluting the screen and swallowing your misgivings about the melodrama and the quality of acting while watching these films.