In the Bombay Talkies blockbuster Kismet (1943), the British censors were caught unawares when the song proclaimed, “Door hato ae duniyawalon Hindustan humara hai” (Move away, India is ours). Released within a year of the proclamation of the Quit India movement, the laced message of the song was not lost on the censors.
Moviegoers sang along and demanded the song be replayed in the theatres. The lyricist Kavi Pradeep is said to have gone into hiding. The excuse that the filmmakers gave to the British censors was that the message was meant for the Japanese forces who were then attacking the eastern front of India. Indian films began talking in 1931 and it didn’t take them long to belt out ideas of freedom. And with our films having had a culture of song and dance, patriotism found its way into even regular entertainers like Kismet. But they did clash with the censors from time to time. For that matter, the first Indian film to have been banned in Karachi and Madras is said to be Bhakta Vidur (1921), a silent film. Film Historian VAK Ranga Rao says the character of Vidur (from the Mahabharata) was a veiled reference to Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhian ideas were often referenced in films through various means though we don’t know if it was intentional on the part of the filmmaker or something we infer today in retrospect. B Nagi Reddi made the Telugu film Vande Mataram (1939), which didn’t have anything to do with freedom but such titles often drew attention to the political climate of the nation,” he says. Even earlier, H M Reddy’s Gruhalakshmi (1938) had brought out ideals of Gandhism.
A bold step in this direction was made by the team of K Subramanyam, Kalki Krishnamurthy and SS Vasan in 1939 with Thyagabhoomi, starring the legendary Papanasam Sivan. The film’s credits opened with the song Bharata punya bhoomi, sung by DK Pattammal and the film made no attempt to hide its Gandhian ideals.
“The censors in Madras got strict after the Congress government resigned in 1939 to protest against India’s forced participation in World War II. The film showcased several Gandhian upliftment programmes. But in comparison to cinema, theatre played a more defining role in spreading the idea of freedom. There was also a lathi charge inside the theatre where the film was being screened,” says Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, a noted historian. Thyagabhoomi got banned but the ideas espoused in the film failed to die down.
In 1940, A K Chettiar made a documentary on Mahatma Gandhi after acquiring footage on Gandhi from several countries, which he visited over a period of three years. The film also drew the censors’s ire. “The documentary had many songs like Padave ratnama (Sing O charkha, the song of Bharati) and the voice-overs were done in Tamil and Telugu,” says Ranga Rao. But the 1940s was a time of war and scarcity and this was true for film reels as well. “There was strict rationing of everything and filmmakers were careful not to overtly hurt British sentiments,” says Venkatesh.
Many a time, films based on epics and historical events were also used to stand for reformist ideas and freedom. Sant Tukaram (1936) of Prabhat Films used the subtext of the saint-philosopher to speak out against foreign oppression and awaken social consciousness. In 1943, director Vijay Bhatt made Ram Rajya, a depiction of the life of Rama as a king based on Uttara Ramayana, which was also an ode to the idea of a welfare state by Mahatma Gandhi. In a rare instance, Gandhi took out time to watch a few reels of this film, making it the only film to have been viewed by him.
Ellis R Dungan’s Meera, with MS Subbulakshmi playing the eponymous character became a huge success, with a grand release in Hindi as well. “The story of Meera was also the story of India,” says playwright Gowri Ramnarayan. “Meera’s rejection of material pleasures for a higher goal was similar to the narrative of Mahatma Gandhi, who called for rejecting materialism for rising spiritually.”
As freedom neared in 1947, AV Meiyappan brought out Naam Iruvar. “The film is remarkable for many reasons. One, because the songs of Subramania Bharati such as Aaduvome Pallu Paaduvome appeared on the silver screen and the dance performance of Kumari Kamala brought Bharatanatyam to the masses,” says Venkatesh. Many of these films are now confined to archives. But some film cans still hold reels that speak silently of the heroic efforts by our filmmakers to take ideas of reform and liberty to the masses.