“It is like writing history with lightning” was claimed to be the response of Woodrow Wilson the president of United States (from 1913 to 1921) on viewing a special screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Regardless of the fact that the film in question had racial connotations it does say something about the power of the silver screen to narrate the past of a nation punctiliously albeit with a little embellishment here and there. In this particular piece I have attempted to show four main social occurrences in the history of India written as Wilson stated ‘with lightning’ in the silver screen.
The Era of Realisation- Late 1950’s to 70’s
After independence in 1947 the first prime minister observed that the bulk of the nation still relied on agrarian works to feed themselves and hence took measures inspired by the ideology of Socialism which he believed would benefit the farmers most. However, in this case though the underdogs were the agriculturalists, the machines were looked upon with suspicion. But all changed as the 50’s came to an end ushering in the 1960’s. The focus now shifted from agrarian reforms to industrialization due to urbanization gaining more ground as many farmers and rural workers in general realized the limitations of agriculture and advanced towards the city with hopes of earning a living. Also noticeable in the middle of the decade were the technological methods used in the Green Revolution. As more farmers and villagers flocked to the city joining those who were already the underbelly of urbanization the message of socialism reached its most important receiver: The Indian Middle class.
But even the privileged section of the society started getting influenced by socialist ideals. The villainous machines of the preceding decades became the means of earnings for the underdogs as the factories became the driving force for industrialization with the identified have-nots getting employed to work the machines. The laborers in factories became more vocal than before since they had more importance in the said era compared to the farmers (who were lionized in the fifties).
Yet the afflictions remained the same for the have-nots as the oppressors changed from landlords to rich entrepreneurs and the shift to industrialization did not reduce the large gap between rich and poor retaining the same sort of social inequality. To check this inequality or at least reduce them the more cautious and informed workers formed unions with a hierarchy of leaders to counter any injustice brought about by entrepreneurs. Strikes by unions became an expression of dissent by the have-nots who in this context were the factory laborers. The new shift also saw the effects and realities of poverty prevalent nationwide. Now since the union strikes occurred in the urban centers the young urban residents observed the inequalities in their surroundings more thoroughly and some became resolute to apply socialist schemes the government spoke of while becoming disillusioned with the image of their nation simultaneously. The preceding generation of Indians encouraged the youth while having mixed feelings about the disillusionment factor. With this new realization the youngsters were divided into two groups: one group willing to change the prevailing conditions while the other saw the growing consumerism as a way of life. The preceding generation felt the pangs of disappointment as both groups denounced the idealist socialism of the Nehru years creating two extreme poles widened more aggressively in the 1970’s. Veteran director Hrishikesh Mukherjee captured these sentiments in the classic Namak Haram.
Guns replace sickles:
As 1970’s kicked off the importance swung back to the farmlands in India due to massive economic loss caused by union strikes and catchphrases like ‘cultivators own the land’ were propagated by the Indira Gandhi-led government. The cultivators as well as the farmlands however were still in pitiful conditions.
Unlike the previous decade the new generation of youngsters from privileged backgrounds felt responsible to change society by violent methods if required. These youngsters fell in love with the thought of uprisings and saw parallels in the conditions of their times with that of colonized India. The Cold War events like the wars in Vietnam and uprisings in Cuba spiced their viewpoints more. To the angry youth the state was now a draconian entity determined to repress its own citizens hence it was time to dissolve it by necessary violence.
Political movements like the satyagraha led by Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar as well as public opposition to the Indira Gandhi administration made those romancing revolutions more intense. Indira Gandhi’s strident response to free speeches and clamping down on her opponents during the imposition of National Emergency was the final straw. The budding but violent pro-peasant movement fermenting in the small village of Naxalbari in West Bengal had its resonance felt in different parts of the nation due to the activities of the said rebels. Unlike the ideal socialists of the 60’s these revolutionaries believed in do or die philosophy and attempted to bring about a total revolution to enforce their own version of ideals. Revolutionaries Mao Zedong, Trotsky, Kanu Sanyal became the role models of the youth in place of Nehru and toiling peasants.
The administration on seeing the intensity of the attacks decided to give an equal violent response. Now the lovers of uprising had a heart attack with the stringent measures administered by the state. And almost all admirers as well as participants of the radical Naxalite movement were punished by the authorities. The end of this saga saw the replacement of the Indira Gandhi government by the Janata Party in the Centre during the 1977 elections as well the beginning of three decade rule of the Left Front in West Bengal. This matter was sensitive for a long period of time but there were few cases of comprehensive documentation done on this barring the ones with heavy political connotations. Same could be said of its visual presentations. However an entertaining yet effective example was seen in 2003 with the release of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi directed by Sudhir Mishra.
Deteriorating Stagnation: 1980’s to 1990’s:
One thing that was always present in the 60’s and 70’s was the involvement of the students as a group of political advocates. From the days of the freedom movement the students have been the most active participants in any political turmoil. The careers of national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar started as student leaders. But the rise of Sanjay Gandhi during the emergency era in 1970’s changed the concept of youth leadership as he used the youngsters as cronies for the administration. In the aftermath of Sanjay Gandhi’s death and Indira Gandhi’s assassination India had a charismatic young leader in the form of Rajiv Gandhi becoming the youngest Prime Minister of India.
However, unfortunately the perception of youth leadership changed from that of young firebrands to petty power seekers as political parties used them for the sake of expanding their base (there were some exceptions though). Such instances were said to have affected the ‘Student Unions’ in states like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra often leading to violence in university campuses hampering the functioning of the institutions. The liberalization of the Indian economy as well as changing of ideologies did have its impact on young political leaders but most of these young guns couldn’t match the charisma of their predecessors. Also many dedicated youngsters had to confront their own mentors, many of whom became either disenchanted or authoritarian. According to some social observers the opening up of the economy made the youngsters more materialistic, taking the political zeal away from their psyche.
This new era saw the youngsters in three different avatars: those seeking power by hook or by crook; those running after material benefits; and lastly those willing to become agents of change. One can take a look at Mani Ratnam’s Yuva to see the different shades coming together.
The ever present anti factor:
‘To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction’ Newton’s third law was every bit true in all the three eras mentioned above. There were always forces that consistently rose up against the trend of the era and became a trend by itself. Of all such movements that happened nationwide I have decided to highlight the one established in the nation’s financial as well as entertainment capital Mumbai: the Shiv Sena. Founded on June 19, 1966 by former political caricaturist Bal Keshav Thackeray who stated the party’s avowed intention is to fight the alleged injustice in employment and other matters being faced by the Maharashtrians in Mumbai.
The reason cited for this injustice was the influx into Mumbai of people from other states, amongst whom the Shiv Sena mainly targeted South Indians. Even though this catapulted the Sena into national headlines I believe it was their role as anti-trendsetters that made them unique. During its early years the Shiv Sena was engaged in frequent struggles against the trade unions. Prior to the formation of the Shiv Sena, the Communist Party of India played a dominant role in labour politics in Mumbai. According to journalists of the then era the Shiv Sena was supported by elements inside the Indian National Congress, who hoped that the new organization would be capable of weakening the communist party’s influence on trade unions.
Soon Shiv Sena cadres were involved in a series of violent conflicts with the communist trade union activists. The Sena saw the union and communism as distractions for the disgruntled local Maharashtrians preferring the youngsters to toil and join the authority to gain an efficient and wholesome lifestyle. This sentiment was narrated by Bal Thackeray in his caustic speeches against trade union leaders and socialist hardliners. Though it was Balasaheb Thackeray’s belief that the “people” were supreme, he argued that the institutions of liberal democracy and the administration were engineered against it.
The defense of its interests required direct action: Laws had to be broken. Violence and intimidation were necessary to bring the people’s enemies to heel. “Wake up, wake up, before it is too late,” he would urge his admirers. The educated yet unemployed young men were among the most loyal members of the Sena. It was the triumph of assertive rhetoric over economics. This anger turned local Maharashtrians of Mumbai into angry rebels conflicting with the state machinery. Anything that resembled closely knitted authority like municipalities and trade unions faced the ire of the Shiv Sena. Bal Thackeray’s political rise was fitted together with the cinematic rise of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man on the silver screen. This trend of angry young men dominated the political as well as cinematic landscape throughout the last years of 1960’s till 1970’s.
As the 1980’s ushered in and disruptive student politics was taking over, the Sena supremo decided to play defense. But this defense was not to create ideal student leaders as that move did not succeed in the preceding decades but to counter it with the belief that this disruptive system is fit for the privileged section. The underdogs must become more vigilant and ensure that their interests are not exploited by the misguided leadership of privileged students. If necessary resort to ‘goondagiri’ the Senapati opined. It was easily said and done: the students from a certain strata of society came together with the struggling ones in the underbelly of society and acted as a barricade to the inflow of any kind of student movement into their midst. Instead through rowdiness they marked their territory and the unemployed youth became a type of guardian as well as a bully of his area. This was captured in starring actors like Jackie Shroff, Nana Patekar, Anil Kapoor among others donning the role of a popular young vandal. As the economy liberalized the hold of the Sena on Mumbai stayed strong as Bal Thackeray further fortified his role as the sole guardian of the disadvantaged residents of Mumbai carrying out what he felt was correct for them wheedling the government apparatus as he saw fit becoming a definite ‘parallel government’.
- Purandhare,V(2012).‘The rise & fall of SHIV SENA’. Third edition. Mumbai. Roli Books Private limited
- Virdi,J(2003). The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History. Second edition. Rutgers University Press.
- Rediff Movies (2005, April 15th ). Hazaaron Khwaishein is overwhelming. Retrieved 13th February 2013 from http://www.rediff.com/movies/2005/apr/15hazaaron.htm.
- Prasad, M. M (2000). Ideology of the Hindi film: a historical construction. Oxford University Press
- Shekhar,M. (2006). Bombay talkies: 2004-2005. Frog Books.
- Times of India (2012). With Bal Thackeray’s death, are Shiv Sena’s best days over? Retrieved 13th February 2013 from : http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-11-20/edit-page/35204690_1_shiv-sena-uddhav-bal-thackeray.
Note: This is an old essay written during the writer’s time in college and has been published in his personal blog also(click here).