The easiest way to depict a country in a movie is through iconography. The tricolor has been shorthand for the nation for as long as we have been independent. The flag’s appearance on the movie screen, often accompanied by music, is a cue for tuning up national pride. When the flag comes under attack, it’s not possible to sit still.
One of the most well-known and debated sequences in Mani Ratnam’s terrorism-themed drama Roja (1992) is of hostage Rishi Kumar (Arvind Swamy) throwing himself on a burning Indian flag that has been sent on fire by his Kashmiri captors. Meanwhile, the group’s leader, played by Pankaj Kapur, prays to Allah. Many critics have pointed how this portrayal juxtaposes the good Hindu Indian with the bad Muslim terrorist. The music accompanying the scene is a hectic version of “Bharat Humko Jaan Se Pyaara Hai (India is more important than our life)”.
It’s called Tirangaa (1992), so there is no surprise that the opening credits of Mehul Kumar’s movie include a montage of the sufferings of the nation under the British, a map of India in chains, and the flag fluttering through it all. The words of the song, “Meri jaan tirangaa hai, meri shaan tiranga hai (My life is the tricolour, my honour is the tricolour)” demolish any doubt.
Films on Indian sportspeople will nearly always include at least a passing moment of tribute to the tricolor – a reminder of the country in whose name they sweat and strive on the field.
Women in films are often conflated with the country, with analogies drawn between the motherland and the literal mother or the virtuous bride of the patriotic hero. The song “Dulhan Chali” from Manoj Kumar’s Purab aur Paschim (1970) describes the bride as India herself: “Dulhan chali, pehen chali teen rang ki choli; mukh chamke ju Himalay ki choti, ho na padosi ki niyat khoti. O gharwalon zara isko sambhalo yeh toh hai badi bholi (There goes the bride, dressed in the tricolour; her face shines like the Himalayas, let’s hope the neighbours don’t desire her; O family protect her because she is innocent.)”
Cut to 27 years later. In Subhash Ghai’s Pardes (1997), Mahima Chaudhary’s character, suggestively named Ganga, is torn between a Westernised Indian and his Indian-at-heart foster brother. In the song “I Love My India”, Ganga runs through a green field dressed in a white kameez and saffron-hued dupatta. She is India itself, and only true Indian values will win her over.
A bizarre depiction of the true-blue Indian abroad is Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). As Rohan (Hrithik Roshan) arrives in London in search of his estranged brother Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), a version of Vande Mataram plays as the background score. First, Rohan runs through a group of Indian women dressed in saffron, white and green. Then he walks through a group of Caucasian women dressed in the same colours – a sign of India’s assertion and place in the world, according to Johar.
The scene shifts to Rahul’s home home, where his wife Anjali (Kajol) is performing a religious ceremony, praying to a picture of her in-laws and singing Saare Jahaan se Acha. Here too is a glimpse of the Indian flag. Later, their son sings the national anthem at an event dominated by Londoners, and everybody rises up in tears.
Even vigilante films invoke the flag to justify their actions. In Rang De Basanti (2006), the five protagonists are justified in killing a minister through non-verbal cues. Flight Lieutenant Ajay Singh Rathod’s death is the result of the minister’s corruption. The lachrymose song Lukka Chuppi opens with a shot of the flag filling up the screen. The camera lingers on it before it is folded and handed over the mother played by Waheeda Rehman. The Last Post bugles and the marching drum beat further build on the idea of the son’s honour. The mother, and the motherland, have lost a son, and the minister must pay with his life.
Mukul S Anand’s unfinished Dus (1997) had the anthem “Suno Gaur Se” that became quite popular. The upbeat tune, with plenty of machismo, features the bare-chested Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan performing to large crowds, with plenty of flags being waved around.
The Salman Khan starrer Judwaa (1997), directed by David Dhawan, injects some possibly inadvertent irrelevance into the veneration of the flag. In the song “East or West India is the Best”, the tricolour flutters in the backdrop, while the lyrics praise the wonderful and modest women of India and then industrialists Birla, Tata, and, the Czech shoe brand Bata.
“Where is the Indian flag?” is a loaded question in Raja Menon’s hit drama Airlift. As refugees fleeing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 arrive at the border with Jordan, they find the tricolor missing. A government official finally hoists the flag, signalling that India is ready to help its citizens and their ordeal will be over. The moment is witnessed in slow motion by the modern-day Manoj Kumar, Akshay Kumar.