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Communalism, Secularism and Indian Historical Films (1940-46)

This article investigates invocations of the medieval period in the popular historical films made during the height of communalised politics before Partition. The themes were chosen to reveal a complex process of negotiation between the elite and popular interpretations of the medieval period that affected the political culture in the 1940s. The historical narratives of figures in the film industry, who responded to the contemporary political culture of the time, explain the role of agency of people of the non-elite. The partisan nature of communalist/secularist positions of the time can be understood by a study of these films.

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 12, 200863Communalism, Secularism and Indian Historical Films (1940-46)Urvi MukhopadhyayCommunalism, in its most dramatic moments is seen as massively organised public event – riots, demonstrations, processions, media spectacles and elections – where the politics of mobilisation is perceived as a “form of back room scheming” headed by ideologues or political leaders.1 This politi-cal culture also affects the perception of anti-communal mobili-sations. But unfortunately, a greater emphasis on the political nature of the movement leaves a little space for the common people who actively participate in this debate. Same could be said about the mass culture, which is taken into account only to elabo-rate the sharp contrast of ideological positions between the communalist and the anti-communalist forces. Hence the mass media such as film is often read as a passive receptive agent of the ideology from the two binary opposite camps, propagated by the elite leaders.2 Such analyses highlight on the primacy of the identity-centric historical interpretations, irrespective of their political affiliations at the time of dominant communal political culture. The leaders of the communal brigades, desperately trying to deny the heterogeneity of the national community, uphold a notion of the past that is attuned to their claim of single-community-based nation-state(s). On the other hand, the secular-ist version stress on the communal diversity of the national space, but struggle to overrule the increasing importance of community as a political criterion. In this context, mass media, both printed and electronic, including film, becomes intensely contested, where the past terrain as the historical roots of the current situa-tion is never spared to rest. Despite the dominance of the communal rhetoric, the cinematic medium negotiates with the dominant culture uniquely and represents a more nuanced version of the past depending on its own exigencies. Targeted to a wider range of audiences including the poorest and the illiterate sections of the society the historical films accommodate various imageries and interpretations embed-ded in popular forms of the past narratives to make it more identifiable. This fragmentary nature of the filmic narrative arouses interest, especially in the context of recent debates around the question of agency in interpreting historical experi-ence during a communally sensitive era. This article investigates filmic representations of the “controversial” “medieval” past during the early 1940s in south Asia when communal politics was trying to define two prospective nation-states based on community identity. The emphasis here is to explore the relation-ship between the dominant ideologies of the time and the film-making, which, I hope, would problematise issues like commu-nalism and secularism by infusing the question of agency and This article investigates invocations of the medieval period in the popular historical films made during the height of communalised politics before Partition. The themes were chosen to reveal a complex process of negotiation between the elite and popular interpretations of the medieval period that affected the political culture in the 1940s. The historical narratives of figures in the film industry, who responded to the contemporary political culture of the time, explain the role of agency of people of the non-elite. The partisan nature of communalist/secularist positions of the time can be understood by a study of these films.Urvi Mukhopadhyay ( teaches history at Uluberia College, Howrah, West Bengal.
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 12, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly64response of the people who apparently stayed outside the arena of identity-politics.1The worst communal moment of Indian history, i e, the early 1940s, ironically, could also be termed as the foundation moment of the country-wide film industry. At the beginning it suffered considerable economic hardship as production costs jumped to up to four times due to inflation during second world war.3 However, film production received an impetus as import of foreign films decreased drastically due to overseas trade disruption caused by the war, allowing Indian films to monopolise the national market. This failure of the distribution network on the part of the foreign, particularly Hollywood films,resulted in increase in direct investment in the Indian filmproduction sector, instead of the distribution network.4 The in-flow of capital investments was primarily directed to the building up of film studios, which in turn further increased the cost of film production. In the face of this rising production cost, coupled with economic inflation, the studios with traditional means of generating capital, such as Prabhat Studio of Pune, had to make way for a different film organisation.The initiative was taken up by a new group of people, who had gained quick money from other (often questionable) sources.5 Bombay, as the centre of the industrial and financial network was in a position to exploit these capital resources and thus cameto the forefront of film-making in India. The studios in Pune, Kolhapur and even Calcutta felt the need to be part of the bigger financial networks of Bombay to sustain the costs of production during the days of inflation. Bombay Talkies, set up in 1934,became the model for these studios to follow in creating an industry-like set up.6The composition of the Bombay film industry also changed drastically through accommodating actors, directors, script-writers and music directors from a wide range of socio-cul-tural and religious backgrounds. They had come to the city in search of a livelihood in the early 1940s due to the unstable economic and political situation during the depression and war years. The film industry attracted a considerable number of these migrants because as an emerging industry, it did not require any specialised skills. Only a few had previously worked with regional film studios, but most were without any experience in film industry. They brought a regional flavour to all-Indian films, sometimes through the plot, or through music or settings.7 All these new studios were trying to capture an all-India market rather than the regional audiences they had attracted in the past. They produced films mostly in the Hindustani language, understood in a large part of the subcontinent. The Hindustani language used in these films was a created language, developed to transcend the limits of regional boundaries. As KAAbbas has remarked “the commercial instinct of the produc-ers pointed towards a compromise between the lingua extremes, seekingtomake the dialogue in their pictures understood by the largest number of cine-goers all over the country”.8 In spite of the ongoing controversy over the Hindi-Urdu languages in United Province (UP), the film industry chose to project a hybrid Hindustani language that implicitly favoured the idea of syncretic cultural tradition as the foundation of modern Indian society. Perhaps this tussle between their identification with the religious or regional communities and a broader national-self led the film enterprise to deny the monolithic identity formation of contemporary communal politics. Their commercial goal to establish an all-India market was also in tune with the vision of the multiplicity of Indian culture. The presence of the left-leaning Indian Peoples’ Theatre Movement within the Bombay film indus-try may also have contributed in countering the communalist vision especially in cinematic representations.9 However, contem-porary communalism was hard to avert, especially for stars concerned about projecting an image. This may explain why famous film personalities like Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Madhubala and many other Muslim actors and actresses, took “Hindu” names. Though the cinematic space was seldom used as a direct agent to carry out the debatable issues of communalism at the time, the selection of plot, semiotics especially in the historical films could not negate the contemporary political controversy on communalism. A discussion of the broader political-cultural controversies that invoked the historical roots of the community, as well as the national identity would reveal the complexity of the historicising process in representations and would help to situate the cinematic historicals in its socio-political background.2The 1940s started with many hopes and promises in the Indian subcontinent. With the prospect of imminent independence the Congress and the Muslim League began to put forward divergent visions for the future nation-state(s). The difference in their views may be traced back to the Government of India Act of 1935, which brought forth the provision of “separate electorates” on the basis of major religious groups in constituting the provincial governments. Yet, there was no evident clash of ideologies in the Congress or the League’s manifestos, apart from the latter’s emphasis on creating a Muslim constituency in the national electorate.10 But the situation changed rapidly as Congress refused to share power with the League in the UP assembly.11 The League retaliated with a series of reports on the 27 months of Congress rule in different provinces as a glaring example of “Hindu” communal rule. Hindu-nationalistic measures such as the ban on cow slaughter in Bombay presidency and encouragement of the Devanagari script and Hindi as the official language inUP instead of Urdu were criticised as conscious measures to build up a communal assault against Muslim minorities in Congress-ruled provinces.12 Secular initia-tives like the Muslim Mass Contact Campaign launched by Nehru in 1937 from the Congress platform failed miserably at the turn of the decade because of its increasingly slender support- base both within the Congress leadership and the targeted Muslim masses.
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 12, 200865Mushirul Hasan observes that the demand for a separate homeland for the minority Muslim community on the basis of the “two-nation theory” was seen as a formidable reality only from the early 1940s.13 In the League session in Lahore in 1940 Muhammad Ali Jinnah, proposed a clear vision of a separate state for the Muslims in post-independent India. After a sweeping victory in the provincial by-elections just prior to this session, Jinnah confidently dismissed Gandhi’s suggestion for forming a constituent assembly on the basis of free adult franchise to chalk out the constitution for the future independent Indian state. Taking a historical perspective, he advocated forming a national assembly elected on the basis of separate electorate emphasising the difference between the two major communities whose inter-ests in the subcontinent had never coincided.14 From that time onwards the Muslim League narrated the history of the Islamic community in the sub-continent from the viewpoint of the “Muslims of India” where the ‘Muslim’ element prevailed rather than that of “Indian Muslim”.15 In the Lahore speech, Jinnahinter-preted the differences as socio-cultural, where the two communities “neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilisations which are basedonconflicting ideas and conceptions”.16 This narrative purportedtodemonstrate the nature of the mutually exclusive community interests that had prevailed in the subcontinent since the advent of Islam.Accordingly, by the 1940s the League revised its historical perspective where the harmonious relationship evolved on the basis of common experiences shared by both communities during a thousand years of co-existence in the subcontinent were completely ignored.17 This alteration in historical perspective definitely brought a new dimension to the two-nation theory originally propagated by Syed Ahmed Khan during the 19th century. During the late 19th century the cultural implication of the two-nation theory encouraged the perception of history from the Muslim perspective in India. But with the paradigm shift in the historical narrative from the 1940s they invoked an “idyllic Islamic past” and a “pristine Arabic community during the days of the prophet”, unsullied by the presence of the “other” conflicting communities. They aspired to revive this ideal Muslim community life in the proposed state of Pakistan. This assumption of an exclusive Arabo-Islamic identity was a departure from the pan-Islamic vision of the earlier days. This vision, especially during the Khilafat movement, traced the history of the Islamic world to the urban civilisations of Persian or Ottoman empire rather than to the tribal communities in the Arabian desert. The new vision, however, claimed that theMuslim community in India retained its Islamic identity and preserved a pristine Arabo-Islamic culture in the closed boundaries of the millat community in spite of sharing a territory with other communities.18 This identification with a homogeneous community life rather than a heterogeneous imperial culture reduced the importance of medieval India, especially the Mughalpastastheideal for the “Islamic society”. This tendency to dissociate the Islamic heritage from the Indian subcontinent ironically placed the League at the side of the imperial and Hindu-nationalist historians, who had always seen Islam as a “foreign”, “alien” force in an otherwise homogeneous Indian/Hindu civilisation.Denial of HeterogeneityThe extreme Hindu-nationalist organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha also denied the heterogeneous roots of Indian civilisation by stressing the monolithic foundation of a Hindu-nationalist identity. They interpreted “Islamic invasion” as the source of all socio-political trouble that had continued into the present. In 1923, one of the most important Hindu nationalist ideologues, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, described the so-called “Muslim invasion” as when “the conflict of life and death began”.19 In the sharply polarised communal situation of the 1940s, the extreme Hindu nationalist forces openly criticised Congress for taking a soft line against Muslim communalism.20 This view was also shared by the right-wing members of the Congress party such as K M Munshi, a noted historian and the editor of the Bharatiya Vidya BhavanHistory of India series. In his collection of speeches on Indian history Akhand Hindustan (1942), he divided the history of Islamic rule in India into two parts; ‘The Age of Resistance and Cultural Decadence (1175-1400 AD)” and “The Third Empire of India: the Age of New Adjust-ments (1399-1700AD)”.21 The history of the first period described “from the Indian point of view” the “fearful impact on the Indian and foreign elements” caused by the Islamic invasion.22 The second period, dealt with the theme of “adjustments” between the two systems in the formation of a durable imperial structure in Mughal India. His conscious replacement of the word “interac-tion” with “adjustment” points out his belief in the idea of essen-tial separation between the two worlds of Hindu and Islamic communities during the medieval era. In this atmosphere of growing communal antagonism, extrem-ists from both communities traced their respective “glorious ages” to a historical past when inter-community interactions in social and cultural sphere were unthinkable. Thus the Hindu-na-tionalists invoked the ancient Vedic period of Indian history, as the “golden age”, while the Muslim communalist forces chose a “pristine Arabic culture” as their “ideal past”. Both these perspectives were critical about the “medieval age” perhaps because of its explicit records of cultural interactions between the two communities.Secular Nationalist VoiceThe composite culture of the medieval period thus became the chosen field for historical references by nationalist secularist forces. Leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and Gandhi represented this secular nationalist voice but, in the growing communal atmosphere, had already lost their former dominance in the contemporary nationalist scene. In his presi-dential address to the Ramgarh session (1940) of the Congress conference, Abul Kalam Azad drew attention to the “1100 years of common history”, which had enriched an “Indian” society that comprised both Hindu and Muslim communities.23 Azad expressed his pride in being part of the rich Islamic culture, which he claimed had helped him to be integrated as an Indian. He did not see any contradiction between his religious and
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 12, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly66national identity and condemned the attempt to revive an idyllic past of homogeneous community as a contravention for the progress in “social matters”.24 Jawaharlal Nehru, in his reflection from Ahmednagar jail on the Indian civilisation and culture, stated that the non-communal perspective of a composite nationality between Hindus and Muslims was the foundation of modern Indian society. He praised the Mughal ruler Akbar as the “father of Indian nationalism”, who “deliberately placed the ideal of a common Indian nationhoodabovetheclaims of the separatist religion”.25 These thoughts were repeated inDiscov-ery ofIndia at a time of unprecedented communal violence in 1946. But like a true modernist, Nehru’s reference to the past was not intended to be regarded as a call to revive the grand old days. 26 Apart from the secular politicians, there were several sporadic instances of resistance against the communalised version of thepast at both academic and popular levels. Researchers from Allahabad and Aligarh universities focused on the shared historicalexperi-ences during the thousand years of co-existence. Historians like Tara Chand, R P Tripathi, Muhammad Habib and K M Ashraf disseminated an image of syncretic Indo-Islamiccultureduring medieval times, which inspired contemporary secularists.27 Born and brought up in the “Hindustani” cultural milieu of north India, Tara Chand and his colleagues interpreted thehistoricalinherit-ance of the medieval period as an exerciseinsyncretism.Alongside these academic initiatives, the Bombay film indus-try, which retained its non-communal image for much of the decade, tried to invoke the medieval period as an age of combined cultural heritage. Directors like Mehboob Khan portrayed an idyllic relationship between the Muslim-Mughal emperor and his Hindu-Rajput subordinates inHumayun ignoring growing communal sentiments in 1945. Other films such asShahenshah Akbar (1943),Shahenshah Babar(1944),Mumtaz Mahal (1944) and Shahjehan (1946), though less political in content than Humayun, dealt with the controversial medieval period. However, attuned with the communally sensitive decade of the 1940s, the historical theme and content represented on celluloid took a cautious stance. The aggressive communal atmosphere compelled film-makers to look beyond the medieval period for historical themes, which was most popular as a historical setting even a decade ago. Film-makers wanted to avoid this period because of its associated political and communal controversies. 3In spite of the growing uneasiness in choosing the “medieval” as the locale for historical genre, V P Sathe categorises the 1940s as the era of ‘Shahenshah films’.28 He comments that after the huge success of Sohrab Modi’sPukar (1939), celebrating the courtly grandeur set in the days of the emperor Jahangir, “producers, determined to produce historical films, decided to bring every Mughal ruler on the screen”.29 Perhaps the ongoing communal political debate also created interest in medieval times. New producers earning fortunes from black marketing tried to gain from their film investments by repeating successes such as that of Pukar. Director like Mehboob Khan however had a serious interest in upholding examples of communal harmony from the historical period and tried to contribute to the ongoing political debate. In spite of their sincere efforts and huge investments most of the films failed to draw large audiences. Opinion was divided between a rightwing reaction and a left-centrist interpretation of medieval history. The Hindu rightwing viewed most of these films as an attempt to “whitewash Muslim intolerance in Mughal days” which legitimised the “plea for Pakistan”.30 The MuslimLeague members in the legislative assembly, on the other hand, contested the release of Taj Mahal, which they claimed might hurt Muslim sentiments.31 The left-centrists, following Nehru’s interpretation of national heritage, tried to interpret theseprojectsasarepresen-tation of the “glorious heritage” of Hindu-Muslim unity.Grandeur as the Major FactorIn spite of these political controversies, the grandeur of the Islamic medieval still acted as the major factor behind the selec-tion of these themes. Nanubhai Vakil, who had earlier specialised in Arabian fantasies such asArabian Nights, was attracted by the grandiose scale of the Mughal court and decided to make a film celebrating the romance of the Taj Mahal (1941). He chose to portray this conventional theme by featuring known faces from the historical genre such as Mubarak, Kumar and Sarojini in the lead. The film was advertised as a production with “an enormous cost – showing the real scenes of Mughal palaces at Agra fort, Delhi and other palaces where Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal have lived in their days”.32 The film narrates the legend in which the emperor Shah Jahan refuses to meet his beloved wife Mumtaz because of his imperial duties, but his action causes pain and suffering to the empress and in consequence she dies. This overtly dramatised romance might have appealed to audiences a decade earlier, but in an atmosphere of growing communal tensions this narrative was not accepted well among all sections of the cinema-going public.33 G Ahmed, a Muslim League member in the legisla-tive assembly condemned the film for showing a debased image of a “Muslim” monarch, which, according to him, could hurt Muslim sentiments.34 Though this film failed to make any impres-sion at the box office, films celebrating the legends around Mughal monarchs continued to be produced. A short-term investor in the film trade, perhaps as a means of laundering money, Kamal Roy Pictures produced the film Shahenshah Akbar (1943), on the life and times of the great Mughal emperor Akbar, jointly directed by G R Sethi and R Roy. G R Sethi, who had earlier been a close associate of Lala Lajpat Rai in Lahore, selected the most tolerant figure in Mughal history to focus on contemporary communal issues.35 Its advertisement published inFilmindia reads:It upholds a golden page from the ancient glorious times. It depicts the glory and the grandeur of Mughal culture and wisdom of our ancestors who built India’s national life on the touchstone of unshakeable friend-ship called the “Hindu-Muslim Unity” along with the greatness of it.36 Stereotypical CastingIn an earlier issue ofFilmindia the film was advertised as “holding even the scales of justice, India’s great monarch – Shahenshah Akbar”.37 From the advertisement one might imagine that the character of Akbar would be depicted as a pioneering figure, who treated all his subjects equally irrespective of
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 12, 200867religious beliefs. In the film, however, this contribution is viewednot as a general trend but rather as an exception among the “Muslim” rulers of India. Kumar, famous for his Mughal character-roles especially after Taj Mahal (1941), appeared as Akbar. Thus a stereotypical casting came to be introduced into the historical genre. Akbar’s physical appearance with Mongo-lian eyes was, however, not accepted as authentic by the audiences, accustomed with his Hindu-phile image with a ‘tika’ on the forehead. In a review inFilmindia the film faced a scathing attack for presenting Akbar as a “Mongolian opium-eater (rather) than the greatest emperor of the Mughals”.38 Shahenshah Babar(1944) from Ranjit Movietone featured emperor Babar who founded the Mughal dynasty in India. This film faced “communal accusation” from a similarly communal review published inFilmindia because of its association with a “Muslim” director Vajahat Mirza. Born into an aristocratic family in Lucknow, Vajahat Mirza was better known as a scriptwriter than a film director.39Shahenshah Babar was perhaps his only experiment with the historical theme. The film offers a historical biography of Babar and shows how he embraces the new land and culture of India as his own. The legend about his prayer sacrificing his own life to save his son Humayun was, however, not mentioned in the film. Filmindia critically reviewed the film for failing to mention this legend because it claimed that the absence of this legend made the character of Babar “completely missing on human angle”.40 The film’s overemphasis on the diplomatic moves made in befriending his Hindu subjects was also condemned for presenting the character of Babar as nothing more than “a wise invader”.41 Krishna Gopal, a former lecturer of Delhi University, saw a deeper conspiracy in showing these medieval “Muslim” rulers as benevolent rulers. He could see a “plea for Pakistan” in these representations by the Muslim direc-tors.42 Ravi Vasudevan argues that with the intrusion of Hindu-nationalist ideology in the film industry, “off-screen information” such as the religious identity of the producers, directors and actors came to be perceived in relation to the on-screen narra-tives, especially during the late 1930s and early 1940s.43 In fact in 1937 an aggressive Hindu nationalist private body had set up a parallel film censorship committee called the All India League for censorship allegedly for the purpose of removing “Muslim and Parsi hegemony from the film industry”.44 It claimed that because of its composition, the industry portrayed Hindus “in (a) bad light”. The league assumed that the provincial govern-ment led by the right wing faction of the Congress would respond positively to their demands. But then home minister K M Munshi, who was otherwise known to be close with Hindu nationalists, dismissed the League as bigots.45Similar allegations were made when a “Hindu” director attempted to focus on the darker sides of “Muslim” rule. A review published inFilmindia blamed Pandit Indra’s “Rajput origin” for the “distortion of history” for a “Muslim” historical theme in Mumtaz Mahal (1945).46 Quoting passages from the writings of historians like Shriram Sharma and Jadunath Sarkar, critics denounced the representation of emperor Shahjahan as a heart-less, oriental despot as a complete distortion of history.47 This review challenged the dubious truth behind the depicted legend of a long separation between the royal couple because of Shahja-han’s exaggerated sense of justice, which in the film, ultimately caused Mumtaz’s death.48 Although reviews in the film journals tried to interpret Shahenshah Babar andMumtaz Mahal as products masterminded by two rival communalist perspectives, in actuality Ranjit Movietone was responsible for producing both of these films. Perhaps after facing a lukewarm reception of Shahenshah Babarat the box office, the production company tried to produce Mughal historicals with a different complexion, and this time under a “Hindu” director (Kidar Sharma) and “Hindu” screenplay writer (Pandit Indra). But even in the “Hindu” production team, Khurshid, the singing star actress of Ranjit, and a Muslim, played the leading role of Mumtaz and remained unsurpassed by any other “Hindu” stars.Mehboob Khan’sHumayunHowever, Mehboob Khan’sHumayun (1945) faced the harshest criticism from the Hindu-communalist press. A self-proclaimed Marxist, Mehboob adopted the hammer and sickle as the emblem for his Mehboob productions in the 1940s. After experimenting with few social themes he portrayed the medieval milieu in the mid-1940s when any representation with the past became contro-versial in the wake of the communalist trend in the politics. The film presents a cordial relationship between the Mughal rulers and their Hindu subjects, even before the days of Akbar. The narrative starts with Babar’s victory at Panipat in 1526AD and glorifies him (Nawaz) as an ideal ruler who openheartedly embraces India and its defeated rajput chiefs. Realising the importance of the traditional system of chieftainship, he offers Rajkumari (Veena), the daughter of a slain rajput chief, the opportunity to ascend to her father’s throne. Babar also plays a paternal role vis-à-vis Rajkumari and she in turn accepts Babar and his family as her own. After Babar’s demise, Humayun (Ashok Kumar) carries on his father’s policies and retains good relations with his Hindu rajput subjects. He treats Rajkumari as his own sister and in the latter half of the story he sacrifices his own kingdom to save her. Mehboob creates an interesting romantic relationship between the emperor Humayun and a commoner Hamida Banu (Nargis) where, unlike the Mughal romances, Hamida seems to be a more dynamic and strong character than Humayun. Here Hamida turns down Humayun’s offer of marriage claiming that all kings treat women not as partners in the reign but an object to play with. Despite the film’s use of elaborate sets and costumes, very little attention was given to authenticate the image and sound to its historical time and location. Some communal stereotypes in costume and appearances were maintained throughout the film, such as, the celebration of Rakshabandhan, a Hindu rajput ritual in Rajkumari’s palace or Babar’s last prayer to cure his ailing son Humayun. The music was not directed to provide a classical ambience that was generally associated with Akbar’s court, as the music director Ghulam Haider freely experimented with the “modern orchestra”.49 This interpretation of social harmony in medieval times infuri-ated a section of press who accused Mehboob of distorting history. A report inFilmindia attacked even the advertisement of
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 12, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly68Humayun for “displaying the bogey of communalism that caused a deep consternation among the intelligentsia”.50 From the film it was apparent that Mehboob had attempted to invent a secular myth to counter the communally coloured Mughal myths, which so long had enjoyed a monopoly in historical cinema. A review in Filmindia denounced this film as a “Muslim communalist effort to promote the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity”.51 Even the selection of the historical character of Humayun came under scrutiny. The above-mentioned report elaborately described Humayun’s histor-ical role as a “staunch Muslim monarch” in continuing anti-Hindu policies.52 In spite of all these criticisms the filmHumayun with its star-studded cast and timely invocation of a non-communal, although invented past was a box office success and kept alive the interest in Mughal courtly legends. When A R Kardar started working in his filmShahjahan (1946), the contemporary political atmosphere was already too tense to express any sort of opinion on the ideological motive for the historicals in the popular media. A R Kardar, who usually made social melodramas, perhaps impressed by the huge success of Mehboob’sHumayun and Jayant Desai’sTansen (1943), tried to follow the trend by featuring Shahjahan and the celebrated legend around the building of the Taj Mahal. The film portrayed the opulence of the Mughal court by recreating its splendour in sets and music in the true tradition of Mughal romances. The film stresses the two motifs generally associated with Shahjahan: his commitment to justice and the building of the Taj Mahal. Though directed and produced by a “Muslim” A R Kardar, the film accepts the despotic nature of the emperor who, in his personal moments, atones for being a ruthless, absolutist ruler.Made in the style of the contemporary melodramatic genre, the film plays with binary oppositions in the fields of private and public, love and duty, emotion and justice that dramatised the life and times of Shahjahan. According to Ashish Rajadhyaksha this film is a classic example of the Mughal romance, which “fetishes royal masculinity” by “gendering the segregation between the personal and political spaces while contrasting declamatory dialogue and large-scale sets with a staccato, documentary narrative”.53 The film scored an immense success because of its music. The songs were composed in a simple Hindustani by Majrooh Sultanpuri who became famous for his sensitive style of lyric writing. Naushad, the music director, blended middle-eastern instruments into the orchestra to create a pre-Lucknawi courtly musical ambience.Celebration of Classical Music Themes celebrating the Hindustani classical musical tradition of the Mughal court still attracted audiences. Ranjit’sTansen(1943), featuring K L Saigal as the legendary court musician during the days of Akbar, enchanted the audience with its music in spite of the growing Hindu-nationalist denial of the medieval/Muslim contribution to Indian classical music. Critic Bhaskar Chandavarkar questions the historical authenticity presented in the name of musical maestros, such as Tansen. As the notations werenotwritten down in traditional Indian classical music ICSSSR AD
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 12, 200869until very recently, he argues that the exact style of singing ‘ra-gas’ 500 years ago is impossible to revive.54 Despite this critical review the filmi classical remained popular among the audiences.Tansen set a trend for musicals situated in Mughal times which narrate the fate of a musical genius from a common background in the court of an authoritarian but benevolent monarch. The diametrically opposite worlds of the common people and the imperial court are conceived through music and dialogue in these films. For example, protagonist Tansen’s childhood playmate Tani’s song More Balapanke Sathi (My Childhood Companion) is composed in a colloquial Hindi whereas courtly songs used either heavily Sanskritised or Persianised Hindustani. This theme obliquely reasserts the notion of the despotic nature of medieval/Muslim rule, where music of court dominates the worldofmusic and categorises its classicity depending upon its patronage. Films like Baiju Bawra(1952) followed this trend during 1950s and 1960s.The unprecedented success ofTansen led K L Saigal to appear in numerous films as a quasi-classical singer. Kardar might have created the role of poet-singer Sohail to create a similar space for Saigal inShahjahan.Another contemporary film Omar Khayyam (1946) from Murari Pictures featured him in the lead as the celebrated Persian poet. The film scarcely attempted to recreate the historical locale of medieval Persia and almost entirely relied for its success on the songs sung in the tradition of the 19th century Lucknow ‘ghazal’ by Saigal and Suraiya.Historical Films on ‘Hindu’ Heroes Along with the Mughal rulers and court musicians, historical films were also made on “Hindu” heroes from medieval times. These films essentially featured historical legends from the rajput and maratha past. With the opening up of a greater Hindi speak-ing national market during the 1940s, rajput legends made their presence felt for the first time in historical films. At least two films were made about the legendary sacrifice of Pannadai, a rajput wet-nurse, to save the life of Udai Singh of the Shishodia dynasty, later founder of the city of Udaipur. The legend narrates how the wet-nurse Pannadai sacrifices the life of her own infant son to save the only heir of the Shishodia throne amidst a bloody palace intrigue. The first public shareholding film company Navyug Chitrapat produced the first film of this Rajput legend in 1944.55 The next version came out in 1945 featuring an all-star cast with names like Durga Khote, Chandramohan and Mubarak. Unfortunately, both these films failed to create any stir at the box office.56The fate of the two above-mentioned films led the producers to leave the stories of inner conflict within the rajput clans and revert to the heroic resistance posed by the “Hindu” rajputs against the “Muslim” invaders, particularly Rana Pratap’s fight against Akbar in the battle of Haldighat in 1576. Since the late 19th century Hindu-nationalist leaders had eulogised this incident of resistance as the first instance of so-called “nationalist” consciousness against “Muslim” imperial forces represented by Akbar and his rajput allies.Leaving Ranjit Movietone just after the successful production of Tansen, the director Jayant Desai moved away from Mughal courtly drama to make films celebrating “Hindu” history and mythologies. His Maharana Pratap (1946) was perhaps the second of the so-called “Hindu” historicals after Samrat Chandragupta (1945). The director however freely featured Muslim actors and actresses in the lead roles. The names of Khurshid, Mubarak and Noor Jahan shared the title roles with Ishwarlal and Sita Devi. This cast however was not accepted from the Hindu-nationalist perspective, as the editorial of Filmindiain the issue of September 1946 demonstrates.57 Under the title of ‘Criminal Vandalism!’ the editor Baburao Patel criticised Jayant Desai for ‘mercilessly distorting our heritage of historical annals’ as he represented “a rajput maiden who runs about the streets of Udaipur like a common street wife, without the traditional rajput veil on her face and begs funds for helping the war activities of her clownish king Pratap”.58 From the beginning of the 1940s the editorial of Filmindia, the most popular journal in the Bombay region became vehemently critical of any production, particu-larly historicals involving any Muslim film personalities. However, ignoring this pressure from the communalists, W Z Ahmed of Shalimar Studios in Pune continued to make popular Hindu legends set during medieval times. Most of these films did not follow the heroic representational style as seen in Maharana Pratapbut featured rajput bhakti and romantic themes. Director Najam Naqvi of Shalimar studios chose the legendary romance between the last Chauhan king Prithviraj and his beloved Sanjukta. Chand Bordoi, the court poet of Prithviraj Chauhan, immortalised their love story in his ballad Prithviraj Raso. The filmPrithviraj Sanjukta (1946) follows this legend and narrates the ultimate union of the royal couple in spite of severe opposition from Sanjukta’s father, Jaichand, who was also chief of the powerful Gadhwala clan. The film ends with the incident of futile inter-clan rivalry, triggered by Prithviraj-Sanjukta’s marriage. It benefited only Muhammad of Ghor, who defeated and captured Prithviraj in the second battle of Tarain in 1198, taking advantage of the power struggle within the rajput fold. The studio continued to project rajput themes and produced Meera (1947)celebrating the life of the famous rajput ‘sant’. But the growing polarisation along community lines in contemporary society led to the rejection of these productions as an “Islamic distortion of Hindu cultural heritage”.59 In the face of these communal attacks W Z Ahmed abandoned his future plans for Hindu historicals and migrated to Pakistan just after Partition.Marathi FilmsThe increasing dominance of Bombay as the nationwide film capital of India adversely affected the production and finance of neighbouring Marathi film centres in Kolhapur, Pune and Nasik. Bombay’s overwhelming influence led Marathi films to blindly imitate the typical social melodrama or mythologicals that became very popular even in the traditional centres of Marathi historicals. This change in popular taste compelled even the traditional historical film producers to try their hand at social films. Bhalji Pendharkar, the legendary contributor to the Shivaji genre, thus desperately attempted to accommodate social melodramatic emotions within the historical setting of Shivaji’s court inThoratanchi Kamala (1941). This film narrates the tension
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 12, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly70between Shivaji and his son Shambhaji over Shambhaji’s relation-ship with a girl named Kamala. The plot proceeds as a typical social melodrama where the tension between the father and son over a son’s relationship was the main focus. Shambhaji, portrayed as a chivalrous but pleasure-loving prince, accuses his father of being an autocrat, insensitive to human feelings. But ultimately, Shivaji proves to be the ideal ruler as he places the interest of his state even before his sentimental attachment to his son.60 The film was advertised as a revival of the historical genre with “drama, emotions and spectacles”.61 The film featured famous Marathi stage personality Nanasaheb Phatak along with other stars like Sumati Gupte and Chandrakant. In fact this was the film, which made Chandrakant the stereotype actor for the role of Shivaji in Marathi films.62 In spite ofThoratanchi Kamala’s relatively contemporary narrative the film failed to make any impression at the box office. During the next few years, as Sanjit Narwekar observes, “Bhalji alternated between the historical genre and socially relevant films”.63 Among these films Bahirji Nayak(1943) andJay Bhavani (1947) were historical films that celebrated the so-called golden era of the Marathi past. But unlike his social films none of these productions were a success. It seemed that the vibrant tradition of Marathi historicals had made its final departure from the screen. Prabhat’s last major hit Ramshastri(1944) was the sole excep-tion that scored a huge success in spite of diminishing interest in the Marathi historical theme. This film is acclaimed as one of the best-researched historicals ever produced in India. Its expensive set and relevant invocation of a historical events enthralled audiences across the country. The film’s narrative stays away from the so-called glorious days of the marathas under Shivaji and narrates instead the intense power struggle during the later days of Peshwa rule. The protagonist Ramshastri Prabhune (1720-89) was the chief justice at the court of Peshwa Madhav Rao and later Nana Phadnavis. The film narrates the episode when a power struggle breaks out between the young Peshwa Narayan Rao and his uncle Raghoba, who under the influence of his wife Anandibai tries to capture power. Raghoba ultimately kills his nephew and tries to bribe the whole council to support his claim for the throne. Ramshastri, the incorruptible, refuses his offer and, denouncing him as the murderer, resigns from the court. His bold decision appeals to the other ministers’ conscience as well and they unite to topple this murderous regime. Follo-wing K P Khadilkar’s play on the similar episode Bhaubandhaki (1902) Raghoba is portrayed as an ambitious man completely dominated by his wife Anandibai’s evil plots. In the style of the typical medieval harem intrigue, Anandibai represents a schem-ing woman who instigates her husband to commit murder to fulfil her hunger for power. Initially V Shantaram was the director of this film. However, he could not finish this project, as he had to leave the studio because of his deteriorating relationship with the governing body. Gajanan Jagirdar and Raja Nene gave the finishing touches to Ramshastri. The internal feud within Prabhat however became apparent especially when its original Marathi version was released without any credit titles. Its Hindi version also did not mention the name of the director, while the names of Jagirdar and Nene were referred to as the co-directors.In spite of these internal problems the film became a hit especially in the Mahar-ashtra region. The Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal of Pune provided all the historical research for Vishram Bedekar’s script.64 Dinkar Kelkar, the founder director of the Raja Kelkar Museum of Everyday Art in Pune lent all the necessary antiques.65 Even the old aristocratic families of Pune willingly lent their rare brocade saris to adorn the women inRamshastri. ThusRamshastri boasts the most authentic historical set and costume of any Marathi historical. The unadorned interior of Ramshastri’s home starkly contrasts with the gorgeous settings of the Peshwa courtThis film sought to remain impartial to communal politics. In an advertisement published in the Times of India the film stressedits communally impartial prerogative.66 It shows one veiledHinduwoman and one veiled Muslim woman holding eachother’s hands and asking ‘SeenRamshastri?’ under the shadows of a temple and a mosque. The filmof course invoked a past that could be easily identified with the contemporary political condition. But unlike others it never projected the glaringissuesoftheday in order to generate interest in histori-cals. Emphasising its conviction in truth that can ultimately triumph in an era of confusion, conspiracy and distrust, the film created in essence a mythicalallegorythatearnedappreciation throughout the country. ConclusionsThe years before independence and Partition witnessed a complex social matrix where various binary tendencies such as rural/urban, regional/national and somewhat overwhelmingly communal/secular issues swept away the linear idea of dominance in political culture. A popular medium like the film industry, which had to depend on a broad social culture for its survival, went through a testing time during this decade. The industry, targeting an all-India market, had to invent a language to communicate to the largest possible audiences in spite of educational, cultural, ideological differences amongst them. A consciousness of its social responsibility as an ideological medium developed within the film industry during this time.67 This consciousness helped the industry to formulate a cinematic language to communicate to a range of different social groups within and outside the expanding film circuit, which could transcend the extremely polarised communal culture of the time. Hence the enterprise tried to stay aloof from glaring controver-sial issues of communalism and history, particularly medieval history that could restrict its approach to the wider society. Perhaps the growing popularity of social melodrama instead of historicals during this decade is a sure proof of this popular rejec-tion of the communal politics in India. These social films, however, stayed away from depicting the reality of every day life. A plot celebrating the status quo in the modern world was more appreciated than the spectacular grandeur of pre-modern romances. In this situation historical films lost their patronage from the so-called educated section of the society who consid-ered them a mere sensual exercise unrelated to the national cause.68 It was the down-market audience of small cinemas in urban and semi-urban centres that still maintained their passion
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 12, 200871for historical romances along with other genres including social films. Going to the cinema remained the cheapest mode of enter-tainment even during the worst days of inflation. Urban migrants uprooted from their rural societies could afford to watch films. The gorgeous settings of the Mughal romances created an illusive world for these audiences, as did the opulence of the rich urban lifestyle in a social film situated in a contemporary setting. The report of the Film Enquiry Committee just after independence in 1951 acknowledged their role in the continuation of the film trade in India.69 Unperturbed by the so-called dominant debate on the issues of communal politics these people accepted Mehboob Khan’s mythologised vision of a harmonious past inHumayun, which could hardly be authenticated by any historical sources. They also made the scrupulously authentic representation of Ramshastria success. The accumulated stereotypes used in these films might not be always authentic in a historicist sense, it might even challenge the dominant notions of stereotyping certain community/communities in heated debates of communal politics. Challenging the dominant discourse of the contemporary politi-cal culture these stereotypes unfold a more complex terrain of popular understanding of the controversial invocation of “medie-val” past. These usages of semiotics that often lay in a contradic-tion to the dominant discourse add a new dimension to the filmic narrative where, in the words of Marcia Landy, a “multi-layered version of the past” is created that challenged the monolithic image of dominant ideology of a certain time.70 The film-makers, as well as the common consumers of the medieval historical were perhaps siding with a composite culture, which haditsultimate representation through the newly formed cinematic language in the 1940s. But unfortunately, the national leaderships of both Congress and Muslim League never cared to listen to their opinion. Notes 1 David Ludden (ed), Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India, Delhi, 1996, p 13.2 See Achin Vanaik, Communalism Contested: Religion, Modernity and Secularisation, New Delhi, 1997, pp 13-14.3 Rikhab Das Jain, Economic Aspects of the Film Industry in India, Delhi, 1960, p 11. 4 Ibid.5 Hoarding and Black-marketing of essential commodities was a common phenomenon during the war years. See Sugata Bose et al, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, New York, 2003, p 187. 6 Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen describe Bombay Talkies as a “full-fledged corporate body with a board of directors” comprising of F E Dinshaw, Chimanlal Setalvad, Chunilal Mehta, Pheroze Sethna and Cowasji Jehangir who, through their control over banks, insurance companies and investment trusts, occupied commanding positions in the industrial life of Bombay. See Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen (ed),Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, New Delhi, 1994, p 65. 7 Saadat Hasan Manto, Stars from Another Sky: The Bombay Film World of the 1940s,New Delhi, 1998, p 2. 8 K A Abbas, ‘Dialogue and the Dialogue Writers’, from the report of the conference on Indian cinema organised by Sangeet Natak Academi, p 253.9Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association was launched in Bombay (1943) with a call to “defend culture against imperialism and fascism’. Unofficially affiliated to the Commu-nist Party of India, this association took a prominent role in anti-fascist, anti-imperialist cultural productions, especially in 1940s and 1950s. For details see Sudhi Pradhan (ed), Marxist Cultural Movements in India: Chronicles and Documents, Calcutta, 1979. 10 The perceived difference in the political agenda of the Congress and the Muslim League was so negligible that in 1936 the Raja of Muhamma-dabad, a close friend of the Nehru family, joined the League, believing that these two platforms ‘were like two parts of the same army fighting a common enemy’. See Raja of Muhammadabad, ‘Some Memories’ in C H Philips and M D Wainwright (eds),The Partition of India: Policies and Perspectives, London, 1970, p 387.11 SumitSarkar,Modern India: 1885-1947, p 354.12 Mushirul Hasan, ‘Introduction’ of Mushirul Hasan (ed), India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilisation,New Delhi, 1993, pp 17 and 20. 13 Ibid, p 5.14 S Pirzada (ed), Foundations of Pakistan: All India Muslim League Documents 1906-47, Vol 2, Karachi, 1970, p 341. 15 Ishtaq Husain Qureshi, The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947): A Brief Historical Analysis, Karachi, 1977, p 92. 16 M A Jinnah, ‘Presidential Address of M A Jinnah – Lahore, March 1940’ from M Hasan (ed), India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilisa-tion, p 56.17 See Hussain Malik, ‘In Defence of Two Nation Theory’ from J C Johari (ed), Muslim Isolationism and Communalism, Vol 3, New Delhi, 1995, pp 227-29.18 G M Syed, ‘An Independent Sovereign Nation of Sindhu’, J C Johari (ed), Muslim Isolationism and Communalism, Vol 3, pp 235-37.19 V D Savarkar, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?, Poona, 1949, p 42. 20 K R Malkani, The Midnight Knock, New Delhi, 1978, pp 92-93. 21 K M Munshi, Akhand Hindustan, Bombay, 1942, p 128, p 130.22 Ibid,p 128.23 Mushirul Hasan (ed), ‘Presidential Address of Abul Kalam Azad – Ramgarh, December 1940’ from India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilisation, p 67.24 Ibid,pp 67-68.25 Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Quest,London, 1946, p 155. 26 Ibid,p 160.27 Tara Chand, Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, Allahabad, 1976, p 110.28 V P Sathe, ‘The Glory That was Ind’ inMirror, Vol 1, No 17-22, November 1944, p 52. 29 Ibid.30 Krishna Gopal, ‘Historical Truth about Humayun: Such Sugary Mughal Pictures only Distort Modern Problems’, Filmindia, Vol 11, No 11, November 1945, p 49. 31 File No 22/121, 1933, Government of India, Home Department, political section, National Archives, New Delhi.32 Filmindia,Vol 8, No 2, February 1942, backcover.33 Javed Zaidi, Collections: First Indian Film and Video Guide, Mumbai, 1999, p 286.34 Complaint lodged by G Ahmed in Legislative Assembly, Indian National Archives, New Delhi, Home-Political, File No 2/21/41-Poll(1).35 Sanjit Narwekar, Directory of Indian Film-makers and Films, p 298.36 Filmindia,Vol 9, No 12, December 1943, p 68.37 Filmindia, Vol 9, No 2, February 1943, p 8.38 Filmindia, Vol 10, No 1, January, p 69. 39 Sanjit Narwekar, Directory of Indian Film-makers and Films, Trowbridge, 1994, p 187.40 Filmindia, Vol 8, No 11, November 1944, p 63.41 Ibid.42 Filmindia,Vol 11, No 11, November 1945, p 49.43 Ravi Vasudevan, ‘The Political Culture of Address in a ‘Transitional’ Cinema: Indian Popular Cinema, p 10.44Bombay, Home Department, Political File No 313/1940, Maharashtra State Archives. 45 Ravi Vasudevan, ‘The Political Culture of Address in a ‘Transitional’ Cinema: Indian Popular Cinema’ at Filmindia, Vol 11, No 12, December 1945, p 45. 47 Ibid.48 Ibid.49 S Jayaraman, ‘The Music of Ghulam Haider’ in Sangeet Natak,New Delhi, No 100, April-June, 1991, p 71.50 Filmindia, Vol 11, No 10, 1945, p 41. I could not locate the advertisement mentioned.51 Filmindia, Vol 11, No 11, November 1945, p 49.52 Ibid. 53 Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclo-paedia of Indian Cinema,p 287.54 Bhaskar Chandavarkar, ‘How Classical Is Filmi Classical?’, Cinema in India, October-December, 1988, pp 19-23.55 Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclo-paedia of Indian Cinema, p 152. 56 Javed Zaidi, Collections: First Indian Film and Video Guide,p 211.57 Filmindia, Vol 12, No 9, September 1946, p 3. 58 Ibid.59 Filmindia,December 1947, p 53. 60 Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen,Encyclo-paedia of Indian Cinema, p 273.61 Filmindia, Vol 7, No 4, 1941, p 78.62 See ‘Chandrakant Mandare Is No More’ inThe Deccan Herald,27 March 2001.63 Sanjit Narwekar, ‘The Historical Approach’ from Cinema in India, May, 1992, p 36.64 See shanta-ram1.htm.65 Ibid.66 The Times of India, September 9, 1944.67 See K A Abbas, ‘Why Pictures and Producers Fail: A Socialist Tells Capitalists How to Make Money!’, Filmindia, Vol 6, No 1, January 1940. 68 See Report of the Film Enquiry Committee 1951, New Delhi, 1951, Paragraph 259 and 606.69 Report of the Film Enquiry Committee, 1951, p 40, Paragraph 141.70 Marcia Landy, Cinematic Uses of the Past, Minneapolis, 1997, p 3.

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