An easy way to magnify the leading man’s heroism in Indian cinema is to establish his devotion towards the country. The more aggressive this love is, the better. This card was played by Manoj Kumar to great effect for decades, to the extent that it became the subject of parody in subsequent years. In an early scene in Shirish Kunder’s Jaan-e-Mann (2006), Manoj Kumar is awarded an imaginary Filmfare Award for being the best patriotic hero.
Several actors since have tried their luck at playing the vigilant and violent son of the soil. The most successful among them are Vijaykanth in the case of Tamil cinema, and in Bollywood, Sunny Deol in the 1990s and early 2000s, and more recently, Akshay Kumar.
Patriotism and its warring cousin, jingoism, became a surefire box-office draw through the Manoj Kumar starrer Upkaar (1967), which came right after his Bhagat Singh bipoic Shaheed (1965). He continued to keep the tricolour flying high with the films Purab Aur Paschim (1970), Shor (1972) and Roti, Kapda aur Makaan (1974).
Patriotism was its most furious in the ’90s, as the insurgency in Kashmir peaked and Indo-Pak relations went south before culminating in the Kargil war of 1999. The trend continued till the mid-2000s and came back strongly after 2014 with stars such as Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn trying to step into Manoj Kumar’s shoes.
The display of jingoism in Indian cinema has often been extravagant, in contrast with the relatively gentle Manoj Kumar years. The actor and filmmaker did, however, go over the top later in Clerk (1989). In October 2017, when right-wing blogger Shefali Vaidya tweeted a bizarre tale of being able to give birth to triplets in an hospital safely because she was listening to the national anthem, a clip from Clerk that reflected the comicality of Vaidya’s account went viral.
In the clip, Satyapati (Ashok Kumar), a former Indian National Army soldier, has a heart attack and needs immediate medical attention. The local doctor refuses to attend to him. Satyapati’s son Bharat (Manoj Kumar) has a plan. He puts two freshly bought battery cells in a tape recorder and begins playing Qadam Qadam Badhaye Ja, the INA’s marching song. In no time, Satyapati is up and about, marching on the bed and singing along.
If Qadam Qadam Badhaye Ja makes an ailing heart patient spring back to life in Clerk, the national anthem momentarily makes Indians out of white Londoners in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (2001).
Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) and Anjali (Kajol) are attending a singing performance headed by their son Krish (Jibraan Khan) at his private school in London. Krish begins to sing the Indian national anthem, and is joined by his schoolmates. Rahul and Anjali immediately stand up, followed by every other Britisher in the audience.
The Indian obsession with its national anthem is neatly parodied in Manish Acharya’s Loins of Punjab Presents (2007). Josh Cohen (Michael Raimondi) is a passionate Bollywood fan from New Jersey. He becomes one of the shortlisted contestants in a local singing competition, Desi Idol, arranged by and for non-resident Indians. When a finalist backs out, Cohen steps in her place, but the supporting musicians and audience are hostile. But he surprises all by breaking into Jana Gana Mana. The entire audience stands up on cue.
The national anthem even proves handy to slay Pakistanis, in spirit.
In Sankalp Reddy’s war film The Ghazi Attack (2016), the Indian submarine S21 is forced to go 350 metres below sea level to escape repeated torpedo attacks from the Pakistani submarine, Ghazi. When the Indians seem to have no hope in place, the sounds of Saare Jahaan Se Achcha, and then Jana Gana Mana begin to reverberate through the Arabian sea. The Pakistanis are able to hear the singing, without headsets, from inside their chamber of titanium and steel underwater. Furious, the Pakistani commander, senselessly proceeds to exhaust the remaining torpedoes he has. They don’t succeed.
The national anthem also comes to the rescue of Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), a film producer loyal to the British, and redeems him in Vishal Bhardwaj’s historical drama Rangoon (2017). Billimoria, who earlier sided with the British and helped them in fighting the INA, has a change of heart when his lover Julia (Kangana Ranaut) dies. Julia was sympathetic to the cause of independence. Billimoria hits back at the British soldiers and slays them with a sword. In the final scene, he walks over a tightrope and joins the INA while the strains of Subh Sukh Chain, the INA’s recreation of Jana Gana Mana, plays in the background.
In the Tamil film Pasanga (2009), director Pandiraj uses the national anthem to poke fun at the robotic response Jana Gana Mana generates in people. In a scene in which school children are busy fighting outside the classroom, a fellow student plays the national anthem out loud, forcing the children to stand still.
Nagraj Manjule uses a similar set-up in his debut film Fandry (2013) to make a subversive statement about nationalism. A Dalit family is running across its neighbourhood to catch hold of a pig. Students from a nearby school have gathered to witness the spectacle. The young boy from the family, Jabya (Somnath Awghade), is drowning in shame, especially since the witnesses include the upper-caste girl he is in love with. Just as the family manages to corner the pig, the national anthem is played in the school. Immediately, they stop the chase and stand with rapt attention as the pig walks away calmly.
The Indian tri-colour isn’t far behind in doing wonders for the way a character’s heroism is perceived.
In Hindustan Ki Kasam (1999), a man uses the Indian flag to hold hot samosas. Immediately, ex-army man Kabira (Amitabh Bachchan) arrives, snatches the flag from the man’s hand, and lectures him about its importance. The man quips that the piece of cloth costs 25 paise. Kabira destroys him with words: “You have priced your mother’s veil at 25 paise, at what price will you fix your daughter’s clothes?”
Dharmendra gets his flag moment as another ex-soldier, Ranvir Singh, in Bhooka Sher. (2001). Two ruffians have undressed a woman, who is screaming for help. The brigadier throws the Indian flag on the woman who stays wrapped in it for the rest of the sequence. When asked who he is, Singh replies, “Wherever mother India’s daughters are in peril, I am there”, and proceeds to beat them black and blue.
In Harry Baweja’s Diljale (1994), Shyam (Ajay Devgn) is a nation-loving college student. In the song sequence, Mera Mulk Mera Desh, a group of separatists comes to Shyam’s college, take down the flag and throw it away. Shyam leaps from a jeep and catches it. A group of students prop up Shyam so that he can put the flag back in its rightful place. Shyam’s to-be-lady love Radhika (Sonali Bendre) appreciates this gesture from a distance.
Arvind Swamy goes the extra mile and puts his body on the line to protect the flag in Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992). When militants attempt to burn the flag, Rishi (Swamy), who is their hostage, jumps on the burning flag.
Sometimes, love for the motherland doesn’t need national totems at all. In the Tamil film Jai Hind (1994), police office Bharat (Arjun) is on a mission to decimate a group of terrorists who killed the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. In the middle of the action, Bharat’s ailing, bed-ridden mother gets a chance to speak to her son on the satellite phone. But Bharat hangs up without speaking a word with his gasping mother.
In Ratchagan (1997), Ajay (Nagarjuna) plays an unemployed angry young man who beats up lawbreakers before advising them to mend their ways. In one scene, Ajay comes across a bookie asking for bets in favour of India losing to Pakistan in a cricket match. Ajay clenches his fist and the veins in his hand start to swell and snake up to the ones in his neck. He thrashes the bookie and admonishes him: “Aren’t you ashamed to be an Indian?”