Hindi cinema, among the various cinemas worldwide, is one of the most prolific in terms of output but it rates rather poorly when one is scanning for socio cultural themes in it. Films based on political themes or Political cinema, as one would call it, is even rarer. Much of it has to do with ‘mediocrity’ as ace photographer Raghu Rai would often allege Indian arts and artists of.
But more significantly the absence of good political cinema and challenging themes in it owes to the self imposed taboos, excessive reverence for political leaders and fixation of Indian filmmakers with superficial political ideas such as socialism. Despite the above it has had its share of sparks, some above average but a few truly scintillating. In trying to list some of the best Hindi political movies, I have refrained from including some well made Biographies (like Benegal’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose), because they turn out to be life sketches devoid of the politics of leader in question, his/her ideology or even an honest account of relations with contemporaries.
For the same reason I have not included Gulzar’s Aandhi based on Indira Gandhi and Tarkeshwari Sinha’s life. Similarly historicals set in a particular political milieu (Benegal’s Junoon) but failing to make a political statement about the times, in my humble opinion, do not qualify as political cinema. Some brilliant critical takes on media (Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live) also, to me, are films about media as a profession and not political films as such.
Garam Hawa – Based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai, this 1973 M S Sathyu film is generally regarded as the first Hindi film in political genre. The film catches the plight of a Muslim family residing in Agra which is confronted, in the aftermath of Partition, with the dilemma of having to choose between staying back in India or moving to Pakistan. Going becomes tougher for Salim (Balraj Sahni), a businessman after the sudden migration of his brother Halim, an Indian Union Muslim League leader who had promised all along to stay back with ‘his’ people. Film portrays the gradual disintegration of a family torn between the fears of staying back in a predominantly Hindu India and the as yet unseen, untried promise of Pakistan. Kaifi Azmi deserves as much credit as Sathyu for developing a short story into a power packed screenplay running into a full length feature film.
Sootradhar – The story of a young man full of idealism venturing into politics to seek change but ending up as the same beast he had set out to slay is a story we find aplenty in real life politics. In fact, a reminder of one such account of a prominent Dravidian politician by dear Prasanna is the immediate inspiration for this whole write up. Prerna’s (Smita Patil) admiration for Kumar’s (Nana Patekar) idealism and courage soon turns into love for him. Mobilising support Kumar sets out courageously to dislodge the local Zamindar (Girish Karnad) from the position of head of the local body. But the success doesn’t take much before going to his head. Prerna after a while is thoroughly disillusioned to find her one time hero descending into a continuum (Sootradhar) of corruption and oppression that has marred the system all along. Director Chandrakant Desai expresses his pessimism and exasperation with power politics and seems to highlight the dictum “Power corrupts…”
Mere Apne – This Gulzar film is a tale of frustrated educated unemployed. With no sense of purpose and direction, street quarrels over petty issues is what life for the youth has been reduced to. The following satirical lyrics by Gulzar in the film, set to tune by Salil Chowdhury capture the essence of movie
“Haal chaal theek thak hai, sab kuchh theek thak hai, kaam nahin hai varanaa yahaan aap kee dua se sab theek thaak hai; B.A. kiya hai, M.A. Kiya hai, lagta hai wo bhi aiwain kiya hai. Aab o havaa desh kee bahut saaf hai, kaayda hai, kanoon hai, inasaaf hai;Allaah Miyan jaane koi jiye ya mare, Aadamii ko khoon voon sab maaf hai; Aur kya kahoon, chhoti moti chori, rishvat khorii detii hai apna guzaaraa yahaan, Aap kee dua se baaki theek thaak hai”
I wonder if Gulzar or his friends ever pondered how much of this unemployment owed to silly Nehruvian socialism.
Shatranj Ke Khiladi – This is one rare Hindi film by Satyajit Ray. Based on a short story by legendary Munshi Premchand, the film is set in Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s (Amjad Khan) Awadh. Besides the apathy of Nawab himself towards affairs of governance, the film captures the escapism of general Nobility under him. The two Nobles Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) who have abandoned interest in all other things including their families and wives are so completely obsessed with the game of chess that Mir when he comes to know of his wife’s love affair with his nephew chooses to ignore it, lest his chess playing routine gets disturbed even for a day. Coming to know about the advancement of British troops in Lucknow, the two nobles, fearing they might be called into service, flee the city and continue their game. Ray uses chess as a metaphor for the Nobility’s escapism as well as British guile which leverages the situation to plot and overthrow Nawab in a bloodless coup.
Gandhi my Father – Directed by UK based Theatre director and playwright Firoze Abbas Khan, this film explores the troubled relations between Gandhi and his eldest son Harilal whom he ultimately had to disown. It is one rare Hindi film which challenges an almost fixed imagery associated with Gandhi. Call it his higher callings but Gandhi who was to be hailed as father to the nation could not remain one to his biological son. The story of a bitter Harilal who lamented that Gandhi was “the greatest father one could have, but the one father I wish I did not have” also shows the price Gandhi had to pay for his idealism.
Sardar - This is one of the finest political biographies produced in Hindi cinema. After an almost comic portrayal of Patel in Attenborough’s Gandhi, Hindi cinema finally salvaged his image on celluloid, and sort of redeemed itself too. Given the short three year span of 1945 to 1948 selected by Ketan Mehta, it does full justice to the most significant part of Patel’s political life. The film is an exhaustive yet candid narration of events unfolding around Sardar Patel played to perfection by Paresh Rawal.
Kissa Kursi Ka – This Amrit Nahata film does not make it to the list on the strength of technical finesse or outstanding performances. It does so for the raw courage of its director, a two time former Congress MP from Barmer in Rajasthan who risked his career and safe being to protest the despotism of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi in an age when most newspapers and periodicals were singing paeans to Gandhi tyranny. In an almost theatrical storyline, the director makes a direct spoof on Mother and Son, even naming a birth control pill as Sanjay Sanjeevini . The inevitable happened and all prints of the movie were confiscated and burnt by in Maruti factory. After Janata Party came to Power, Nahata remade the entire film and released it. It will be interesting to note that Shabana Azmi, nominated by Congress in Rajya Sabha and Raj Babbar who recently joined Congress were the two main protagonists in the film. Amrit Nahata, needless to say, never got to contest any election even though he rejoined Congress later.
Gulal – Rated by some as one of the finest political movies, Gulal is about the Rajput vainglory which many an erstwhile Rajputs still wear on them despite having lost their Kingdoms and Principalities. It is a narrative of the refusal of former Kings and chieftains to come to terms with post independence democracy and the sense of betrayal they harbour mainly towards Congress and generally towards democracy for denying them what they feel was theirs. The film will help those unfamiliar with the politics of Rajasthan to understand the varied constituent support for right wing Parties such as former Jan Sangh and present BJP besides their usual Saffron support base. A large chunk of Rajputs have allied with BJP (and Jan Sangh formerly) because of their strong antipathy for Congress which is seen as having cheated them twice, once by way of integration of Indian states- the largest number of princely states to have signed accession were from Rajasthan- and later again by abolishing the Privy purses. One highlight of the film is Piyush Mishra’s poetry, encompassing the full repertoire of Left Liberal thoughts from Pacifism to anti-Americanism to anti-Nationalism and anti-Capitalism. A song “Arambh hai Prachand ..” in the movie is a spoof underlining the insolence and megalomania of the belligerent who in any age and time would find excuses to wage wars. Mishra himself wears many hats in the movie. He is the music composer of the film besides acting in an important role.
Manthan – If most political cinema portrays anger, frustrations and general pessimism, this film is a pleasant departure from the norm. Benegal’s Manthan is a success story from Gujarat much before Narendra Modi happened to it. It traces the success of co-operative movement from Kheda District of Gujarat leading to the foundation of Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers Union and similar unions in other districts, finally ushering in white revolution. The story is that of the efforts of social worker Tribhovandas Patel (a follower of Sardar Patel), Varghese Kurien and veteran Dairy farmer Dara Nusserwanjee Khurody although the film is partial towards the contributions of Kurien who co authored the script along with Benegal.
Aaj Ka MLA – Should you be considering this humorous take on politics starring Rajesh Khanna with the casualness for a fun and frivolity filled masala film, think twice. Real life politics and politicians seem to have aped the tricks and mannerisms of the protagonist to the hilt, even exceeding him in many cases. Had Laloo arrived on scene before the release of this film, Telugu director Narayan Rao Dasari would have been accused of caricaturing Laoo as Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avatar. The ingenuity with which Ram Avatar offers deputy CMship to all MLAs to become CM himself reminds us of Madhu Koda. The detailed dossiers he keeps on all MLAs to silence them appears to have been inspired by inside knowledge of Congress’ dirty tricks department. The optimist in me strongly believes our honest PM in the end will stand up like Ram Avatar one day to declare the real loot figures during UPA I and II, demonstrating the true potential of corruption possible under governments led by Congress.