This article was originally published on August 15, 2015 and is being republished with the addition of an eleventh song on August 15, 2020.
Come August 15, and India’s airwaves are full of patriotic film songs – from the stirring anti-colonial Ai Vatan, Ai Vatan, Hum Ko Teri Qasam, picturised on Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his comrades, and war-related tearjerkers like Ai Mere Watan Ke Logon to rousing anthems for the temples of modern India like Chhodo Kal Ki Baatein, complete with footage of mountain sides being cut to build dams and factories.
Many of the best loved and most memorable patriotic movie songs date back to the first decades of independence—those heady days when India had shaken off the shackles of colonial rule and was preoccupied with building itself up as a nation and confronting external threats.
But there has also been a subversive side to the patriotism of the Hindi film industry, with a handful of directors and lyricists determined to make Indians think hard about what freedom and independence really ought to mean—an end to injustice and exploitation, communal divisions, the oppression of women, wars brought upon the people by corrupt or inept leaders—and which celebrate the ideals of solidarity.
1. Cheen-o-Arab Hamara
In this song dripping with sarcasm from Ramesh Saigal’s Phir Subah Hogi (1958), Sahir Ludhianvi shows up the hypocrisy of those taking pride in Iqbal’s notion of India as ‘sare jahan se acchcha’ when so many of its people remain poor and hungry:
2. Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Woh Kahan Hain?
Sahir reminds us again of the dangers of misplaced pride in this classic and controversial song from Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), in which the hero-poet, betrayed by love, commerce and alcohol, opens his eyes to the wretchedness all around him and indicts the country’s leaders for not doing anything about this.
3. Jaaney Waley Sipahi Se Poochho
In this little-known gem from Moni Bhattacharjee’s Usne Kaha Tha (1960), the poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin penned a lament on the flipside of jingoism: of soldiers being sent to fight someone else’s war, of the violence and destruction and stench of the battlefield, of the effects of war on the families of soldiers. The film was based on a 1915 story and is a run-of-the mill tragic love story but the lyrics and picturisation of the song painted a bold and arresting picture of war that was remarkably different from the valorisation which would later become a staple of the film industry:
4. Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi
By the late 1950s, the theme of an independence betrayed figured prominently in the imagination of poets in both India and Pakistan. Where Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote about the ‘night-smudged light’ of freedom’s morning (in ‘Subh-e-Azadi’), Sahir Ludhianvi assured us that the promised dawn would eventually come in this song from Phir Subah Hogi:
5. Insaaf Ki Dagar Pe
Nitin Bose’s Gunga Jumna (1961) has this endearing song sung by an avuncular and idealist village school teacher in front of an open-air class of children who join him enthusiastically. ‘Walk on the path of justice for all, dear children, for you will be the nation’s leaders tomorrow,’ Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics go:
6. Saathi Haath Badhaana
B.R. Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957) has this rousing Soviet-style dramatisation of a Sahir Ludhianvi song celebrating the role of solidarity in the building of a new and prosperous India:
7. Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega
In Dhool ka Phool (1959), directed by Yash Chopra, Sahir Ludhianvi turns his attention to the creation of the New Man who would not be obsessed with his religion or the religion of others. ‘Tu insaan ki aulad hai, insaan banega‘ (you are the child of a human and you must be human) is a message very different from those who believe being Indian and being Hindu are one and the same thing:
8. Meri Aavaz Suno
Kaifi Azmi wrote this in an attempt to capture the moral and ideological legacy of India’s first Prime Minister. The song played out over scenes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral in Raj Marbros’s forgotten 1967 film, Naunihal, on an orphan who finds meaning in life after being told Nehru was a distant relative. Pained and angered by the Gujarat riots, Ganesh Anantharaman writes in Bollywood Melodies, Azmi would reprise this title for a poem he wrote shortly before his death in 2002
9. Itne Bazu Itne Sar, Gin Le Dushman Dhyan Se
Tinnu Anand’s 1989 workerist fantasy Main Aazad Hoon is a curious film that sought to build on growing public cynicism towards the manipulative ways of politicians and big media. The film wasn’t a success but featured this remarkable song, an anthem to the solidarity and collective protest needed to lead India out of the dead-end to which its leaders had taken it:
10. Mile Sur Mera Tumhara
Written by Piyush Pandey, sung by a galaxy of musicians, film stars and sportspersons from across India and shown repeatedly on national television from 1988 onwards to promote ‘national integration’, this song was meant to be an act of penance and redemption by a Congress party that had brought the country the 1984 massacre of Sikhs and the problems in Punjab and the North East. The country would soon be swept up in the divisive campaign against the Babri masjid and the violence which followed its destruction in 1992, suggesting the film may not have been all that effective as a piece of agitprop. But 27 years later, it is impossible to watch it without getting goosebumps
11. Humne Suna Tha Ek Hai Bharat
This song, from the 1959 film, Didi, with lyrics by Sahri Ludhianvi takes the form of a dialgue between an idealistic school teacher, Sunil Dutt, and his pupils, disillusioned by the violence, hatred and oppression which still surrounds them in Independent India. We had heard that India is one, that India is the best, they begin shyly, but when we look around, we see that we are separated by language, religion and caste which looks nothing like the country you taught us about. Dutt’s initial reply is that these differences do not mean the country is one but the students’ response is sharp: if the message of the “Quran and Veda-Puran” is the same, why is there so much noise and bloodshed? Dutt says this is the product of the divide-and-rule policy of colonialism, the legacy of their rule.
But what about caste, the kids ask next. Why is society divided between Brahmins, who are venerated, and Harijans, who are humiliated. Their question forces Dutt to think. His answer: The powerful always presented their hold over wealth and knowledge– and the labour and exploitation of the working people – as the natural order of things. But, he tells his students, “Jo nafrat ki shiksha de, vo dharam nahin vo laanat hai” (‘any religion which teaches hatred is not a religion but a curse”).
Dutt may have been able to convince his class. But sadly, 61 years down, his message doesn’t seem to have percolated well over time.