Notebook Primer: India's Fight for Independence

Telling stories of life surrounding the country's freedom struggle, Indian filmmakers crafted a mythology for a newly independent nation.
Soham Gadre
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Garam Hava (M.S. Sathyu, 1974).
“The land is divided, lives are shattered. Storms rage in every heart; it’s the same here or there. Funeral pyres in every home, the flames mount higher. Every city is deserted; it’s the same here or there.”
Thus begins M.S. Sathyu’s seminal historical drama Garam Hava (Scorching Winds, 1974), one of the most insightful films about the 1947 Partition of India. The Partition was a cataclysmic migration event in the histories of both India and Pakistan—the “here or there” referenced in these lines by screenwriter and poet Kaifi Azmi, though it’s purposefully not made explicit which refers to which. In Garam Hava, a shoe manufacturer named Salim Mirza (an eloquent final performance in the legendary career of actor Balraj Sahni) watches his family migrate to a Muslim-majority Pakistan during the Partition as it becomes clear that they will no longer feel safe in a majority-Hindu India. As his business slowly falls apart and members of his social circle depart for the new country, Salim becomes yet another tragic figure in a post-independence India where social and economic changes rapidly upended lives in the blink of an eye. He is another Muslim “here” just like Hindus “there” who, through no fault of his own, no longer belongs to the country he has called home since birth. Sathyu’s film is especially significant in that it is one of the few representative Indian films that depict the Partition and Indian independence wholly from the perspective of a Muslim.
The era of the independence movement and the fall of the British Raj was liberating, but also one of the darkest times in the history of the Asian subcontinent. Movies of the 1950s and ’60s—the veritable Golden Age of India’s cinematic output featuring some of its greatest auteurial works from Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, V. Shantaram, Raj Khosla, Guru Dutt, B.R. Chopra, and Manoj Kumar—are rife with stories of a post-independence India and set the stage culturally for what “being Indian” meant. Movies in the following decades incorporated historical details from the independence struggle and biographical tales of freedom fighters into mainstream entertainment cinema, or “masala movies” as they are colloquially called.  Historical films had romance, comedy, fantasy, and high-octane action. From struggles of forming new governments and borderlines to the fluctuation of a large populace of Hindus and Muslims (not to discount the Christians and Buddhists), post-Partition Indian cinema embraced bold mixtures of genre and political messaging, crafting stories of the people of India coming to terms with a new nation. 
With the release of S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (2022)—a film that aims to present a triumphalist and nationalist-tinged celebration of India’s independence from the British Empire—creating a sensation across the globe, it’s important to recognize the transcendent place that the independence movement, the Partition, and its aftermath have had in Indian movies. RRR soups up the lives of two Indian revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, to near-mythological proportions, making them superhuman and incorporating allegorical references to the Gods in the Hindu epic Ramayana (at one point they take a spear from Lord Rama’s statue and kill British soldiers with it). The film is akin to what Salman Rushdie considered Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) to be in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh: “a tale of Hindu myth-making.” Mythmaking is an unavoidable side effect of the formation of national identity. Mother India also found inspiration in religious tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both Hindu epics of gods and demons that draw a clear line in the sand between the virtuous and the crooked. Of course, these lines don’t exist in real life, but in the movies, they can be used as effective tools for defining an ideology of a nation.
Mother India presents the eponymous “Mother India” Radha as a cipher for the nation itself, and her two sons, Ramu and Birju, as dichotomous post-independence pathways for the country to tread. While Ramu leads a normal, well-adjusted life with a wife and a good job, Birju grows up to be a criminal. Khan’s film metaphorically represented the post-independence period as a battle between stability and turmoil, between building a nation of honor and one of depravity. It was a response to Katherine Mayo’s polemical and libelous book of the same name which painted India as an uncivilized nation, particularly attributed to its treatment of women. Pointedly, Mother India kept the title of the original book: an ironic reclamation for a nationalistic portrait of a country finding its footing.
Upkar (Manoj Kumar, 1967).
From Mother India onward, many filmmakers sought to define their national mythology in their cinema. Manoj Kumar is perhaps the premier example: his spiritual trilogy of films, Upkar (1967), Purab aur Pachhim (1970), and Kranti (1981) strove to promote a standard definition of Indian culture as one of modesty, sanctity, and a strong work ethic. These values were often portrayed in contrast to those of the nation’s foes in Pakistan and Britain. In Upkar, Kumar, never one to be subtle, defines Indian ideals against those of the West by setting two brothers, Puran and Bharat, at odds with each other. Puran, who goes to live abroad comes back as selfish and self-centered, while Bharat (the Sanskrit given name for the nation of “India”) puts his country above everything and enlists in the war against Pakistan. A more recent example can be found in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Oscar-nominated film Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001), where two opening scenes establish Indian citizens’ stewardship toward animals as a moral virtue, in stark opposition to the British rulers’ self-serving killing of them. A translator, Ram Singh, refuses to eat a steak offered to him by a British captain, Andrew Russell. Later, Russell’s hunting of a deer is foiled by the film’s main character Bhuvan, an idealistic young farmer, when he throws a stone to warn the animal.
Many of these morals were also inspired by stories of important revolutionary figures and activists: they offered inspiration for continued political activism in the decades following the freedom struggle. Just as RRR defines its ethics through the acts and beliefs of Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, two revolutionaries from the state of Andhra Pradesh, so too did earlier films use figures like Mohandas Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Veer Savarkar, and Subhas Chandra Bhose as ideological lightning rods. Gandhi, of course, is the most prominent figure to be depicted in this way. The ideology of “Gandhism”—nonviolence, civil resistance, satyagraha (a desire for truth)—has been used as a catalyst for characters’ motives in Indian cinema for decades.
Some of these films are direct biopics, like Shyam Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma (1996), which can be considered an Indian-produced companion to (and arguably a better movie than) Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). Others focus on his influence; V. Madhusudhan Rao’s Padandi Munduku: The Dandi March (1962) follows two brothers who are inspired by Gandhi’s protests and decide to become activists in the famous Salt March of 1930. A more contemporary and genre-bending example is Rajkumar Hirani’s fantasy-comedy Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). In this movie, a small-time gangster begins to see the apparition of Mahatma Gandhi, who morally guides him toward becoming a nonviolent activist against the teardown of a nursing home. The movie uses humor and a ghost story to display how Gandhi’s ideologies (which they call “Gandhigiri”) still have a significant influence on Indian life. 
Gandhi, My Father (Feroz Abbas Khan, 2007).
Gandhi’s nonviolence tactics didn’t necessarily sit right with everyone during the freedom struggle, nor were they without consequence of death for many. Certain films have showcased opposing sides to Gandhi’s seemingly innocent pacifist stance and questioned the icon’s unblemished persona in the global discourse. Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi, My Father (2007) critiques the freedom movement of the Mahatma through the eyes of his resentful neglected son Harilal Gandhi. Kamal Haasan’s political thriller Hey Ram (2000) focuses on Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse, who began plotting Gandhi’s assassination during the freedom movement. In a rare film told from the perspective of Buddhist Dalit Indians—members of the lowest castes who had converted from Hinduism—Jayan Cherian’s Papilio Buddha (2013) considers nonviolence tactics to have harmed low-caste and indigenous populations of India more than helped them. Instead, the film finds heroes and paragons of the revolution in political leaders like Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a strong supporter of Dalit rights and social reforms to the caste system.
Gandhi’s pacifism was also rejected by Bhagat Singh, a socialist revolutionary often referred to as “Shaheed-e-Azam” (The Great Martyr), and who can be considered the Malcolm X to Gandhi’s Martin Luther King. Along with the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, he committed several retaliatory acts toward British oppressors, including the killing of British police officer John Saunders and the bombing of the Delhi Legislative Assembly. Singh has been immortalized in several biopics, most notably Ramesh Saigal’s Shaheed (1948), S. Ram Sharma’s Shaheed (1965), and Rajkumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002). The influence of his direct revolutionary tactics, especially on future generations, is prominently displayed in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006), a political thriller in which a British journalist films a documentary about Singh and his comrade in co-founding the HSRA, Chandrashekhar Azad. The project spurs a group of millennial slackers to take up arms against a corrupt Indian Defense Minister. In contrast to Singh’s approach, Alluri Sitaram Raju and Komaram Bheem’s revolutionary movements were focused on Adivasis (village/indigenous communities) in India and fought not only against the British oppressors, but also against rich landlords and upper-caste Indians who would seek to keep power after the British had left.
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001).
Gowariker’s Lagaan occupies a genre-nexus point of films about India’s independence: it is a sports movie, a musical, and a historical drama with a love triangle attached. The film turns a game of cricket between a group of Indian villagers and British imperial captains into a conflict mirroring India’s fight for independence; pointedly, the game is both an English invention and India’s national sport. Lagaan (the Hindi word for “tax”) is also a film concerned with the economics of the British Raj. The central wager is based on an increasingly draconian tax that the Raj placed on rural farmers who were experiencing a drought and unable to produce enough crops for themselves, let alone for the crown. Disputes between farmers and landlords were a major running theme in post-independence cinema of the ’50s. Gowariker’s main inspiration for Lagaan was B.R. Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957), a film that also uses competition to metaphorically comment on changes in Indian rural life. Chopra tackles modernization’s slow creep from urban areas into villages: an industrialist introduces machines and buses to a rural town, leaving manual laborers scrambling to find new jobs. One of the tongawallas (bull-cart riders) decides to race the industrialist’s bus to prove that his traditional rural method of transportation is still viable in a quickly developing nation. 
The social and economic fracturing that plagued India soon after independence was a primary concern for filmmakers like Bimal Roy, whose films explored the nation’s struggle to build an equitable society. His film Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953) is an indispensable text of rural exploitation through capitalist greed. A poor landowner named Shambhu is forced to find work in a quickly industrializing Calcutta to raise money for the landlord who wants to seize his property. Roy’s film shows the clash between the rich and the poor as a continual struggle in India’s modernization, where the widening wealth gap left the poor in the dust. He also illustrates the expanding gulf between rural and urban India. When Shambhu is in Calcutta, Roy’s camera depicts him as an ambiguous figure in crowds, small and indecipherable in a vast and confusing place. His plight in the city is one of many rural folks after independence who were unprepared to navigate a modernizing, globalizing world.
The Home and the World (Satyajit Ray, 1984).
India’s independence was the product of many local movements whose insular battles added up to a diverse national picture. RRR’s story takes place in the South Indian state, but West Bengal, which came to border East Pakistan (later to be known as Bangladesh) was also a hotbed of uprisings and mini-movements, not in small part to the notorious history of Winston Churchill’s contribution to the famine in the region. Bengal was also an incubator for well-studied socialist revolutionaries, using film, novels, and poetry to spark activism. Satyajit Ray’s The Home and the World (1984) is based on the work of one such poet, Rabindranath Tagore. A quasi-romance, the film centers on a woman named Bimala who, encouraged by her wealthy husband Nikhilesh, seeks independence; she does so amidst the ongoing Swadeshi Movement, a nationalist movement of self-reliance which aimed to eliminate Western imported goods in India. In a clear metaphor, as Bimala gains independence, there is a sense of recklessness that overtakes her. The Swadeshi Movement, likewise, was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it helped foil Lord Curzon’s plans to tie India’s economy permanently to the British Raj. But on the other, participants began burning and destroying British products that were easier for the working poor to afford, leaving them helpless. Many socialist artists and activists grew skeptical of nationalism’s didacticism: in Kumar Shahani’s Char Adhyay (Four Chapters, 1997), we witness the latter stages of the Bengali Renaissance of the ’30s and ’40s. A group of young revolutionaries begins to question their fellow citizens’ blind adherence to nationalist leaders, who use the same tactics as the British to suppress others in the name of the independence struggle.
At that time, Bengal was dramatically split between Muslims and Hindus. Both Muslims and lower-caste Hindus often fell to the wayside in the fight for freedom, becoming afterthoughts at best and falling victim to Hindu nationalist violence at worst. In addition to Garam Hava, several films have been made about Hindu-Muslim camaraderie in the horrifically violent Partition, but these are almost exclusively seen through the eyes of Hindu protagonists. In Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s Pinjar (2003), an Indian Hindu woman is kidnapped by a Pakistani Muslim man during the Partition, and they eventually fall in love and are forced to reconcile their religious and national differences with their families. A similar romance unfolds in Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (Mutiny: A Love Story, 2001), a Hindu truck driver falls in love with a Muslim woman and they must navigate the genocidal events that occur along the border, almost exclusively Muslims massacring Hindu and Sikh people. The film contemplates the possibilities of reconciling religious differences, but many of these films, as well-made and narratively affecting as they are (and also filled with great music), tend to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to the Partition itself. They often use the Partition as an auxiliary backdrop or plot catalyst rather than reckon with its lasting damage. Despite often being three or more hours long, these movies don’t consider the Partition’s effect on Hindus and Muslims worthy of discussion, apart from the central Hindu-Muslim couple’s ability to overcome its ambiguous violent hurdles.
Tamas (Govind Nihalani, 1988).
Govind Nihalani’s remarkable four-hour adaptation of Tamas (Darkness, 1988), on the other hand, carries the full weight of the Partition in its narrative. Based on the novel by Bhisham Sahni, this too is a Hindu-centric tale, portraying a group of persecuted Hindus migrating from the Pakistani side of the borderline to India during the Partition. What makes Tamas more significant than just a Hindu-Muslim relations story is its depiction of the British as nefarious bystanders (and the culprits with the most blood on their hands). Two of the local community leaders in the film, Bakshiji and Hayat Baksh, ask the commanding British officer of the region to take preemptive measures to quell the rising communal tension, but the officer simply says people have to remain calm. A major failure of the Partition was the insidious design of it by the British, who purposefully prompted discord and imposed a “divide and rule” strategy on the region. This was not only a failure from the standpoint of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, but also in the form of the caste system, which the British promoted as a means of keeping Indians fighting amongst themselves. In Tamas, the British remain passive onlookers of the mass carnage they caused, the open wounds of the Partition that would never be sewn back together.
The West did not leave India and Pakistan alone as independent nations, which is evident in subsequent campaigns to address the population increase in both countries. Propaganda films are important to understanding post-independence India, a particularly nefarious example being A. Bhaskar Rao’s Planned Parenthood (1949). Produced by the Films Division of India, a government agency, this was one of many movies which used juxtaposition and metaphor as well as “poverty porn” to scare Indian citizens from having children. As researcher Alexander Keefe describes in his analysis of the film, “Independent India soon found itself positioned as a kind of ideal test-case for the ‘Third World’ and its problems…solutions proposed by population control advocates like International Planned Parenthood, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the UN, as well as foreign governments like the U.S., who encouraged the Indian government to pursue target-based family planning by tying it to much-needed food aid. It’s a shameful history.” Post-independence existence was more accurately and insightfully portrayed in films like I.S. Johar’s Nastik (The Atheist, 1954) and Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread, 1965), which deal with the Partition’s upheaval of everyday life. Nastik focuses on the religious conflicts and loss of faith stoked by the violence of the Partition. Subarnarekha follows a brother and sister who are Hindu refugees from Pakistan. As they travel to West Bengal to start a new life but find it difficult to settle, the film surveys how isolation and displacement destroyed communities and marriages.
The political and social webs of India’s and Pakistan’s independence are vast, and many viewers unfamiliar with these events may gravitate to cinema to understand them. For better or for worse, movies can make history digestible by distilling it into fiction. Films like Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998) and Pamela Rooks’s Train to Pakistan (1998) both weave the feelings, conflicts, and turbulence of the time period into their narrative fabric. Earth depicts this through the growing animosity within a fracturing, tight-knit neighborhood, and Train to Pakistan throws carnage directly at its characters, where a single massive tragic event—the arrival of a train full of butchered bodies—forever changes a village’s outlook on the country’s future. Both films present how the Partition fundamentally changed people’s thinking about independence, as well as the massive damage it inflicted on their social ties. Affecting as they are, though, these great artistic representations should be considered a launching point to learn about the events that inspired them.
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