Pop patriot

Print edition : April 01, 2016

The veteran Hindi movie actor and director Manoj Kumar. Photo: PTI

Manoj Kumar and Bharati in "Purab aur Paschim". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Manoj Kumar, the latest recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, was a smart man who tapped into the patriotic spirit of the average Indian to achieve enormous box office success.

IN this age of public proclamation of patriotism, Manoj Kumar, arguably the earliest purveyor of pop patriotism on the silver screen, has unsurprisingly been honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for lifetime achievement in cinema. It reeks almost unavoidably of political expediency. As the man who carved out his own niche with films tapping into the patriotic spirit of the average Indian, Manoj Kumar today ticks all the boxes. His films, never shining examples of technical brilliance, were lauded in the 1960s and 1970s for taking pride in everything Indian. Thus, all things Indian were praiseworthy, all things Western were to be avoided—remember the song Hai preet jahan ki reet sada? In the age of Make in India, Manoj Kumar’s films fit in fine. Back in his heyday—from 1965 to 1974—he was a smart man at the right place at the right time. Following the wars in 1962 and 1965, he tapped into the nationalistic fervour with a rare zest with Shaheed (1965) and Upkar (1967), topping it up with Purab aur Paschim (1970). Today, he is again the right man with the right package.

Let us first look at Purab aur Paschim with its epochal song, Hai preet jahan ki. With a clear delineation of things Indian and foreign, the film raked it rich at the box office. Importantly, with lyrics like “Jahan Ram abhi tak hai nar mein, nari mein abhi tak Sita hai”, he effortlessly interchanged the Hindu with the Indian. The words, Itni mamta nadiyon ko bhi,yahan mata kehke bulate hain”, completed the blend.

Or take Upkar, made following a suggestion by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri for a film that brought alive his slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”. A film that projected the trials of the soldier and the farmer, it is remembered to this day for its timeless song Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle. Penned by Gulshan Bawra, the song instilled a sense of overweening pride among all, yet again harping on the goodness of everything Indian, glossing over all the negatives. Again, a not-so-subtle juxtaposition of “good” Indian women helping the menfolk in the fields with shots of “not-so-good” foreign women taking a dip in the swimming pool spoke a thousand words.

Beyond these two films, Manoj Kumar was able to tap into patriotic sentiments with films that unabashedly dealt in black and white: we were all white, the enemy all black, there was no space for grey. It made for successful cinema at the box office with an audience asking no uneasy questions. Whether those films would meet with the approval of connoisseurs of cinema is another matter. Technically flawed with cardboard characters, they, however, whipped up nationalistic fervour. Aided by songs that celebrated a certain vision of our freedom struggle, the films helped the nation step beyond the age of a shared past when film-makers were happy to show Mughal romances to foster a spirit of brotherhood or even pride in India’s past. K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam and M. Sadiq’s Taj Mahal were no longer needed by a nation riding on a newfound sense of self. Manoj Kumar’s films happily catered to the new image, the new perception.

Importantly, and this is where Manoj Kumar the director deserves credit, his films were never jingoistic, though they were bereft of the abiding angst of Haqeeqat or the realism of arthouse cinema. But they were miles ahead of the sort of fervour sought to be whipped up by Anil Sharma many years later with Gadar-Ek Prem Katha. For him, the average Indian was a law-abiding, conservative Hindu, steeped in ancestral values. He was more tolerant of the “other” inside the country (read Muslims and Christians) than the “other” abroad (read Western civilisation as depicted through wine, skimpily clad women and deceit). His films, though often simplistic, could never be accused of suffering from xenophobia. In many ways they presented a distilled version of the dream of extremists and revolutionaries like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bhagat Singh.

Speaking of Bhagat Singh, Shaheed remains, to this day, the best tribute to the revolutionary. A little under 40 years after it was made, the likes of Rajkumar Santoshi and Guddu Dhanoa tried to walk down the same lane with The Legend of Bhagat Singh and Shaheed, respectively. Made in 2002, the films did not even come close to the original. Shaheed remains Manoj Kumar’s passport to posterity. It was a film steeped in the colours of solidarity, gentle and persuasive, yet gripping. Along with Upkar and to a lesser extent Purab aur Paschim and Kranti, it completes his quartet of patriotism, a quartet that overrides his other works, notably films like Himalay ki God Mein, Do Badan and Hariyali aur Rasta.

If Manoj Kumar the director was blessed with laudable market acumen, as an actor he was not above reproach. He was a stylised actor whose penchant for appearing with his face half covered was alluded to in Om Shanti Om, and his face retained an identifiable placidity whether he played a farmer, a soldier, a clerk or an urbane romantic hero. Any emotion other than calmness did not find residence on his countenance. As a director, he did not fight shy of using the female form for box office gains. Few would have forgotten a rain-drenched Zeenat Aman in Roti Kapda aur Makaan. The film, in the mainstream commercial cinema format, addressed the burning issues of unemployment, food and shelter. And only a few would remember Madhavi’s clearly awkward gait in a swimsuit in Kalyug aur Ramayan. Interestingly, the film was initially called Kalyug ki Ramayan, in which Manoj Kumar himself played Hanuman.

Many years later he tried to launch his son, Kunal, with Jai Hind (1999), only for the audiences to rebuff him. There was a message in it: the audiences could appreciate only one Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar in the 1960s and 1970s. In the late 1990s, at the dawn of a new millennium, there was no space for a clone.

Sadly, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award only confirms one’s worst fears: posterity will know Manoj Kumar only as the patriotic “Bharat”, the one use by a dispensation desperate to clutch on to any straws in the name of nationalism, not as an actor who did films for a decade before Upkar cast him in the image of “Bharat”. Do Badan, a hit at the box office, will always be dwarfed by a Shaheed, Upkar or Kranti. And the Dadasaheb Phalke Award will do nothing to change the impression.

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