It was almost pre-ordained that actor-director Manoj Kumar would qualify for the Dadasaheb Phalke award for lifetime contribution to cinema under a government that wears hyper-nationalism on its sleeve. Long before Smriti Irani’s exhortations about Mother India and Mohan Bhagwat’s call for every Indian to be “taught” to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, generations of Indians had drawn their nationalist nourishment from the pop patriotism of Manoj Kumar’s movies.
There is a difference between then and now though-where Manoj Kumar’s brand of desh bhakti was gentle, relying on sentiment and solidarity, those who would want to appropriate him are anything but. Manoj Kumar’s Bharat never beat up any one–instead, he tried to shame them into changing their ways.
At one time, his brand of cinema, though commercially successful, was the subject of much humour. To say “Manoj Kumar type” was to immediately brand someone as given to too much flag-waving and in-your-face patriotism, something that was not really done in those days. But that was then; today, Manoj Kumar looks like a philosopher ahead of his times, and treating patriotism light-heartedly (or even an allegation that you did) can of course land you in jail and get you beaten up by lawyers.
Manoj Kumar and all he stood for, at least cinematically, is now so kosher that judges quote the songs from his films while warning recalcitrant youngsters that they ought to be careful about what they say even as soldiers are dying on the border. Manoj Kumar, long faded into the mists of nostalgia, is now very In.
Yet, his films deserve some examination as cultural artifacts of their time. Till the mid-1960s, he was one more chocolate-faced hero romancing heroines – especially Mala Sinha and Asha Parekh – in snow-clad locations. It was his film Shaheed (1965), where he played Bhagat Singh, that was the first foray into the desh-bhakti genre.
But it was Upkar (1967) where he played Bharat, a simple villager who sacrificed everything to pay for his brother’s education that created a new persona, one of a man rooted to the soil and the values of India. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s call, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan‘ found full expression in the film and the sub-text too was clear – the real Indian was to be found in the village, while the city was a corrupting influence. Many of the issues of the day – a doctor working in the village, family planning, black marketing in medicines – were present and accounted for in the film.
The song that Justice Pratibha Rani quoted in her bail order for Kanhaiya Kumar – ‘Mere Desh Ki Dharti’ is from Upkar.
Manoj Kumar’s next offering, Purab aur Paschim (1970) is in fact even more prescient. Long before NRIs, PIOs and OCIs came on the scene, Kumar spotted a niche and made a movie about them. Today we celebrate the Indian diaspora and even woo them, in seminars as well at Madison Square Garden; in the 1970s, those who left India for opportunities abroad were seen as deserters, anti-nationals in their own way. Instead of staying back and working for the motherland, they ran away to the United States or Britain. Moreover, they were so ashamed of their own culture that they tried to disown or rubbish it.
It was once again left to Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar to show them the error of their ways, when he reminded them of the glories of Mother India and set the wayward (and blonde) Saira Banu – given to short skirts and smoking – on the right path. The film was another hit and Manoj Kumar had found his calling.
Roti Kapda aur Makaan (1974) had Bharat address the issues of blackmarketing and hoarding, as also unemployment, Kranti (1981) took him back in time to fight the evil British and Clerk (1989) had a convoluted story involving rapes and corruption. By this time, the Manoj Kumar brand had become outdated and his direction style stilted and hammy. Moreover, with the real Angry Young Man – who too was old hat by then – out there bashing people, who needed someone whose only reaction to evil was to put his palm on his face?
After that, Manoj Kumar cleverly took sanyas and was hardly seen, though he has been spotted on late night shopping channels benignly looking on while all kinds of magic remedies are being flogged. But there is little doubt that he has become a kind of metaphor for a certain kind of overwrought patriotism which, in this day and age, is visible in our daily lives. And yet, Bharat would never have bashed up anybody for not standing up to the national anthem – he projected, in essence, the softer side of Indianness. The patriots of today cannot tolerate anyone who does not wear the flag on their sleeve.
In 1997, the Vajpayee government bestowed the Phalke award on Kavi Pradeep, who wrote “Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo”. Nearly twenty years later, another BJP-led government has given it to Manoj Kumar. Without taking away from his achievements, or indeed his longevity, one has to wonder if it was the quality of his work or his invocation of patriotic fervour that has won him this accolade.