From Gunga Jumna to Phir Subah Hogi, messages in the songs from these films resonate even today.
Indian filmmakers have over the years made several films about the freedom movement, sometimes alluding to it directly, on other occasions offering an allegorical take on the newly independent nation. Lyricists have contributed songs that have spoken of hope and despair, and have been rousing or have gently made their point. From the ideals of a newly emergent nation to celebrating the idea of nationalism in a positive way, here are songs about India’s Independence and Partition.
Nastik (The Atheist) is a 1954 I.S. Johar film that charts how a man loses his faith in God as he loses his parents and siblings to Partition violence. The film uses footage of real-life refugees in overcrowded trains attempting to flee to safety. In a moving montage when the main character in the film, Anil, joins these refugees with his two young siblings in tow, “Dekh Tere Sansaar Ki Haalat Kya Ho Gayi Bhagwan” (look at the state of your world, oh almighty) plays in the background, capturing his utter disillusionment with mankind and the hatred being spread in the name of religion. The song was written and sung by Kavi Pradeep while C. Ramachandra directed music.
“Insaaf ke Dagar Pe“, literally ‘on the path to justice’, is a song from the film Gunga Jumna, a 1961 drama directed by Nitin Bose and starring Dilip Kumar. The film follows the story of two brothers, Gunga and Jumna, who end up on opposite sides of the law. Gunga, framed in a crime he did not commit, becomes an outlaw, Jumna becomes a police officer. The song “Insaaf ki Dagar Pe” can be seen as a call to the citizens of newly independent India to stay true to the ideals of truth and fairness – a vision that is particularly appealing to Jumna. The song was written by Shakeel Badayuni and sung by Hemant Kumar.
“Humne Suna Tha” from Didi (1958) was written by Sahir Ludhianvi, and sung by Mohammad Rafi, Asha Bonsle and Sudha Malhotra. The song takes the form of a question and answer session between a class of students and their teacher, played by Sunil Dutt, on what keeps India united and great. In the wake of 1947, the children’s questions about religious pluralism – “That is what Baruch Qur’an says, which is what Ved Puran says, then why this noise, why this bloodshed?” – strike at the very heart of India’s attempts to crystallise its secular identity. The relevance of the song to the India of today is self-evident.
Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), starring Amisha Patel, Sunny Deol and Amrish Puri, is set against the backdrop of Partition. The film is loosely based on the life of Boota Singh, and explores the inter-religious marriage between Tara Singh and Sakina. In this moving montage, Tara safely escorts Sakina to the Pakistani border amid communal violence, even as they fall in love. He stays behind in India, while she, the musafir or traveller who is never to return, crosses the border. The film, one of the few in recent years to touch upon the subject of Partition, was a monster hit.
“Endru thaniyum indha sudhandhira dhaagam” (‘When will this thirst for independence be quenched’) from Kappalottiya Thamizhan (1961) in which Sivaji Ganesan plays Chidambaram Pillai, an activist and patriot in pre-Independence India. Pillai works as a trader in Thoothukudi when he receives news that a British shipping company is refusing to load his goods, so after much work and struggle, he floats the country’s first indigenous shipping company. However, his activist work lands him in more trouble and he’s jailed for six years. When he emerges from prison, he is sad to hear that all his compatriots are either dying or dead. This song is sung in two instances in the film: first to introduce Pillai’s stature in the struggle for freedom and second by one of his relatives when Pillai is on his deathbed. The lyrics are from a poem composed by Subramania Bharathi.
“Kappalaeri poyachu” (‘They’ve got on their ships and left’) from Indian (1996) starring Kamal Hassan, plays in the film to symbolise the end of the struggle, the departure of the British, the flowering of all their efforts and the cleansing of our lands (literally, in the lyrics). Indian is centred on Senapathy, an extremist and former freedom fighter who, during the independence struggle, leaves India to join Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army and returns only when the British have left the country. “Kappalaeri poyachu” was written by Vaali with music by A R Rahman.
Siraichaalai, directed by Priyadarshan, is a Tamil film on imprisonment in the Andaman jail under the British Raj. it was made to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. The film was released in Malayalam as Kaalapani and and then in Hindi as Saza-E-Kala Pani.
Shaheed is a 1948 Bollywood film on India’s independence movement, starring Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal and was directed by Ramesh Saigal. The film raised the question of whether violence in certain circumstances was justified or not. Kumar stars a revolutionary and the song “Watan ki raah mein” is first sung by him and then at his funeral. The ode to martyrdom was written by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, while Ghulam Haider composed the music.
Phir Subah Hogi, or Dawn Will Come Again, is a 1958 adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, starring Raj Kapoor and Mala Sinha. The title song, “Woh Subah Kabhi to Aayegi“, offers hope that one day equality and justice will prevail in the country. Sahir’s songs for the film were widely understood to be a take, sometimes satirical, on the state of the of the newly independent nation.
The song “Buku hom hom kore” was sung by Bhupen Hazarika for the film Maniram Dewan, released in January 1964. Hazarika was also the music director of the film based on the life of celebrated Assamese freedom fighter during the Sepoy Mutiny, Maniram Dewan. Dewan, or Maniram Dutta Baruah, was an Assamese nobleman in the Ahom kingdom, which was a vassal to British East India Company. In 1858, he was hanged by the British for conspiring against them during the 1857 bid for independence. He was also one of the first Assamese people to establish tea gardens in the state. The song is soaked in nationalistic fervour and is a paean to Mother Assam by her loyal son, asking how better can he serve her, that he is willing to give his life if required for her protection.