Jallianwala Bagh massacre: 98 years later, a look at films, books, music that documented it

Ankita Maneck

Apr 13, 2017 13:23:00 IST

13 April 1919, the day of Baisakhi marked the day of one of the worst political acts of violence we have ever seen.

There was already a nationwide ban on public meetings and excursions, and the streets of India were quiet at the thought of being arrested by the police. But people had still gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh to peacefully protest the arrest of two leaders Dr Satyapal and Dr Saifuddin by the British despite a curfew being declared. The protest, however, was not a non-violent one.

Governer Reginal Dyer decided to teach the people of Amritsar a lesson for violating the curfew.

The Bagh-space comprised 6 to 7 acres and was walled on all sides except for five entrances. Four of these entrances were very narrow, admitting only a few people at a time. The fifth entrance was blocked by the armed soldiers, as well as by two armoured cars with machine guns (these vehicles were unable to pass through the entrance). Upon entering the park, the general ordered the troops to shoot directly into the gathering. Shooting continued until his troops' supply of 1,650 rounds of ammunition was almost exhausted. The shooting continued unabated for about 10 minutes resulting in the death of about 1000 people and injuring an equal number. To save themselves, people resorted to jumping into a nearby well and it is said that 120 bodies were recovered from here after the massacre.

The landmark day has been portrayed in countless documentaries, films and book, for it is as much as landmark of the martyrs of our freedom struggle and the horror of the British Raj as much as the Hiroshi


The new Anushka Sharma starrer is about a ghostly romance that goes back and forth in time. Born under an unlucky star, Kanan is told he must marry a tree before he can wed his childhood sweetheart, as the ritual will cleanse him of his bad luck. Grudgingly, he agrees. To his shock, he finds himself being trailed by an unearthly spirit known as Shashi (played by Anushka Sharma), who used to live in the tree. The bewildered spirit now finds herself trapped in the human realm, and Kanan must help her return to her own realm.

The central point of the story is, however, is the romance that blossoms in a village off Phillaur, in the era of Gauhar Jaan, the freedom struggle and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. While Sashi thinks that her lover ran away from her, Kanan and his fiancee help her unearth the truth — he was one of the many killed during the massacre.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Image via Creative Commons

Image via Creative Commons

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie uses magical realism to portray life in India at the time of Indian independence.  The novel is very complex with its many characters, its supernatural qualities, and jumping from one thing to another.  Although there is 'magic' in the novel, it is based around real historical events.  The main character, Saleem, is a metaphor for the country of India.  His fate seems to be the fate of the nation.  One event that Saleem describes in the text is the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. This can be found at the end of the chapter called 'Mercurochrome' on pages 32-35.

Rushdie's retelling of the massacre in Midnight’s Children is almost completely factual:

“It is April 13th, and they are still in Amritsar… The largest compound in Amritsar is called Jallianwala Bagh… On April 13th , many thousands of Indians are crowding through this alleyway.  ‘It is a peaceful protest,’ someone tells Doctor Aziz… Brigadier R.E., Dyer arrives at the entrance to the alleyway, followed by fifty crack troops… There is noise like chattering teeth in winter… There are screams now and sobs… Brigadier Dyer’s fifty men put down their machine-guns… They have fired a total of one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds into the unarmed crowd.  Of these, one thousand five hundred and sixteen have found their mark, killing or wounding some person.  ‘Good shooting,’ Dyer tells his men, ‘We have done a jolly god thing’.” (Rushdie 33-35).

City of Ghosts by Bali Rai

Image via creative commons

Image via creative commons

Bali Rai's novel, City of Ghosts, is partly set around the massacre, blending fact with fiction and magical realism. It chronicles the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and features Dyer, Udham Singh and other real historical figures feature in the story.

It is told through the perspectives of three central protagonists. Bissen Singh had fought for the British during the Great War and he has a limp and a lost love to prove it. He needs to get back to England and Lillian before he sinks completely into opium addiction. Gurdial and Jeevan are orphans. Gurdial also has romantic problems. He is in love with Sohni, the daughter of a rich merchant who will never countenance the union of his only daughter and a poor boy. Jeevan, in his loneliness, is swept up into the fomenting rebellion, his comrades replacing a family.

Gandhi, the 1982 film

Richard Attenborough's 1982 masterpiece starring Ben Kingsley as Gandhi has a very accurate description of the massacre. Edward Fox plays the role of General Dyer and the film depicts most of the details of the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the subsequent inquiry by the Montague commission.

Frank Brazil by Ska Vengers

Political expression and music have gone travelled hand in hand for centuries, and if there’s one Indian band we associate with art that makes a statement, it’s the Ska Vengers. The band have just released a powerful animated ode to Indian revolutionary Udham Singh on the 75th anniversary of his execution, in their new single and video for 'Frank Brazil.'

General Michael O'Dwyer was the governing general of Punjab during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and was responsible for giving Dyer the go-ahead for firing on the crowd that day.

The massacre galvanised a generation of youth into anti-colonial resistance. Bhagat Singh leads the roster but there was Udham Singh too. He was 20 at the time, and deeply scarred by the event. A story goes that Udham Singh was serving water to thirsty crowds that very day, and the scar on his arm came from injuries he had sustained during the melee.

This led him to assassinate British administrator Michael O’Dwyer in 1940. Though Singh was assassinated for his act of 'terrorism,' he remains an iconic figure in the history of Indian Independence.

Updated Date: Apr 13, 2017 13:23:00 IST