by Gautam Chintamani
This week marked yet another anniversary of the Emergency. Pundits and politicians all weighed in with their Emergency stories. But if you comb through the archives of cinema you’ll come up with very little. Think of the Emergency and there are hardly any films that come to mind. The 1970s were a decade of great change for Hindi cinema. It finally managed to break free from the shackles of the idealism of the 1950s and the romantic aimlessness of the 1960s. Yet the reality that inspired characters like Salim-Javed’s ‘angry young man’ or the birth of the Parallel cinema movement failed to strike a spark when it came to the events that took place between 26 June 1975 and 21 March 1977.
Barring Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) and Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aise (2005) there are no films that can be called cinema of Emergency. Aandhi was not about the Emergency. But because it was allegedly inspired by the life of Indira Gandhi (though others contend it was more Tarakeswari Sinha) Aandhi, made right at the beginning of the dark period, never enjoyed a wide release. The film was banned during the 21-month period of the Emergency and it was only after the Janata Government came to power that it finally saw an all-India release. There was also the political satire, Kissa Kursi Ka. In 1977 all its negatives o were destroyed for it poked fun at the functioning of the government and the director, Amrit Nahata, being a Janata Party MP, only made the whole thing more incendiary.
It’s not like the Emergency didn’t touch the personal lives of the people who made films. The government forced artists to follow diktats similar to the ones it imposed on millions of Indians. Like thousands outside the film industry, a handful of people within it stood up to this coercion. Kishore Kumar’s refusal to be a stooge who performed on Delhi’s command saw him getting barred from All India Radio and Doordarshan. Similarly films featuring Shatrughan Sinha, one of that era’s busiest stars, were banned, as he openly supported Jai Prakash Narayan.
In his autobiography, Dev Anand recalled how he was tricked into attending a rally for the Youth Congress and then requested to praise Sanjay Gandhi’s dynamism. He mentions that his refusal led to his films being banned and his name being blacklisted as far as official media went. When he sought time with the then I&B minister to question this dictatorial act he was told that it’s “a good thing to speak for the government in power.” Dev Anand later floated a political party, the National Party, to oppose the government’s high-handedness.
It’s surprising that in spite of such incidents the Emergency never disturbed or inspired our filmmakers enough to make films that questioned it. Even the parallel cinema that was born during these years fell woefully short of depicting the plight of ordinary men and women during the Emergency. In spite of its constraints popular cinema tried putting in a joke here about the Emergency. For example in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Naram Garam (1981) Om Prakash, the pandit, is told to hurry on account of some emergency and he haplessly comments, “Phir se?”
It took almost three decades for Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi, the only film that truly explores the harsh times, to become reality. Based on the filmmaker’s personal experiences during those times, the film which tells the tale of three individuals, captures the essence of the period without ever being preachy. One of Hindi cinema’s biggest problems is that it often confuses resolution with solution. Pick any mainstream Hindi film inspired by reality and you will inevitably see the hero taking on the entire system and solving all the problems. With the Emergency that’s hard to do. There is no pat solution a film can provide for the viewer to take home.
In any other culture, events like the 1971 Bangladesh War, the Emergency, or the atrocities of 1984 Sikh Riots or 1986-87’s Operation Brasstacks that saw the largest mobilization of the Indian Army, would have all been inspiration for cinema. Here it’s only the war of Independence and the surrounding events that our filmmakers gravitate towards. The Independence war is safe. It clearly demarcates between the good and the bad when it comes to people but more importantly it is risk-free of antagonizing the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Voluntary restraints along with blind reverence for politicians stops filmmakers from questioning anything beyond the sugarcoated obvious. So there can be five films on Bhagat Singh in a single year and not one bothers to scratch beneath the surface when it comes to Bhagat Singh’s views on Gandhi. Ketan Mehta’s Sardar, the biography of Sardar Patel, depicts a near perfect portrayal of the iron man but steers clear of his later relationship with Nehru; Shyam Benegal’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero celebrates the hero in an almost unreal manner. If filmmakers avoid ruffling the Nehru-Gandhi feathers even on such ‘safe’ subjects, don’t expect anything on Emergency, their most abominable legacy.
Real life might have never stimulated Hindi cinema beyond a point but that’s not as upsetting as the post-Emergency mindset that refuses to leave our filmmakers. Look at the nonsense that is pawned off in the name of realism by the likes of Madhur Bhandarkar or even a Prakash Jha, who once upon a time referred to a different dictionary. For all the talk about freedom of expression, it’s been 35 years since the Emergency ended and you can hardly find any filmmakers who have it in them to question the government’s action.