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The fatal shooting of a Hollywood cinematographer on a movie set last week was a blunt reminder of the intimate relationship between movies and reality: Hollywood’s glorification of gun violence has long provided free marketing for the firearms industry, advertising especially their effective use in dispensing expeditiously with nonwhite baddies. Mass shootings, such as those at Columbine and Aurora, borrow in diverse ways from films, especially those glorifying American military adventures abroad.
But commercial films do not only underwrite violent and imperial realities. They have also shaped anti-racial and anti-colonial movements by offering the utopian visions necessary to collective struggles for change. The Disney movie Frozen II (2019), for instance, showed the narrative and practical necessity of colonial reparations in a world facing climate disaster.
The influence of anti-colonial struggles on Bombay films
Created by many who suffered the trauma of colonialism, the Indian film industry has shaped both real-life anti-colonial struggles and the utopian aspirations that sustain them. The Indian government’s current drug case against Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan is not simply about demonstrating its power to persecute even the world’s biggest film star but about challenging the often anti-statist, yet nationalistic vision of the subcontinent that the Indian film industry, including Khan’s films, has long purveyed.
The association dates to the industry’s early days. In the 1920s, the young revolutionary Bhagat Singh was an avid film-goer, writes the historian Kama Maclean, and his flair for disguise and conspiracy likely owed something to a romantic sensibility nurtured by cinema. His heroic life of anti-colonial sacrifice, in turn, inspired countless film depictions that extended his revolutionary zeal into the postcolonial era – Shaheed-e-Azam (1954), Shaheed Bhagat Singh (1963), Shaheed (1965), 23 March 1931: Shaheed (2002), The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002), Shaheed-e-Azam (2002), Rang de Basanti (2006).
The influence of lyricists and writers belonging to the anti-colonial Progressive Writers’ Movement founded in the 1930s ensured that even after formal independence and the partition of British India in 1947, the Bombay film industry continued to churn out films insisting that the story wasn’t over. The films conveyed that the struggle for freedom and fraternity would and must continue — not least because left-leaning poets and actors involved in films (like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Balraj Sahni, Faiz Ahmad Faiz) were among those persecuted by the Indian and Pakistani governments in the early years after independence and recognised those governments’ enduringly colonial character.
For the 1957 film Pyaasa, about a disillusioned poet, the Leftist poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, who had moved from Pakistan to India in 1949 (and whose birth centenary we mark this year), only slightly altered his pre-independence poem “Chakle” to compose the lyrics of “Jinhen naaz hai Hind par wo kahan hain?”
For him and many like-minded thinkers and activists, the anti-colonial movement remained unfinished, whatever the change in 1947, especially because of the way Partition had disrupted the ideal of fraternity. Notably, “Hind” here referenced a vaguer geographical imaginary than the national space of India. In a 1958 film, he likewise affirmed, “Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi”.
Other writers, actors and filmmakers affected in different ways by Partition, such as Yash Chopra, Bhisham Sahni, Anand Bakshi, Shailendra, Sajjad Zaheer, Prem Dhawan and Gulzar ensured that Bombay films nurtured the idea of the ongoing struggle for liberty and fraternity.
Central to this notion was the agitating role of distance (from the utopian goal of liberation, the homeland, or one’s other half (brother, friend or beloved). This trope played on the mystical-poetic concept of birha, which elides romantic or erotic longing with religious devotion and has long suffused subcontinental art, poetry, story-telling and anti-colonialism.
When Bhagat Singh and his companions launched a hunger strike in prison in 1929, thousands of supporters gathered in Amritsar reciting poems comparing their love of country to that of Heer-Ranjha, the Punjabi qissa of star-crossed lovers who die before their chance at the union.
Mahatma Gandhi, devoted to the charkha like a character in such a qissa, knew his vision of swaraj as freedom from all political power was unattainable, but must be their object nonetheless: “Let India live for the true picture, though never realisable in its completeness,” he said in 1946, invoking a visual metaphor.
In this Sufi idiom, the most intense experience of union with the divine — or of fulfilment of utopian visions — lies in the interminable longing for that fulfilment. It resonated in new ways after the mass experience of separation and loss of life and homeland that was Partition. Bombay movies frequently drew on this cultural and historical inheritance. The familiar tropes of tragically separated families, of brothers lost and found or divided by deewars, of selves split into double roles allude in oblique ways to the traumas of Partition.
In many such stories, the Punjabi, especially, is idealised as the pardesi, the lover away from home, fighting for his beloved (at) home.
Chopra’s last, posthumously released film, Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), encapsulated this message (including a song by Gulzar referencing the Punjabi qissas of Heer-Ranjha and Mirza-Sahiban), with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead role. Samar is the Indian Punjabi hero (with the requisite Pakistani “brother” in London) struggling in war-torn Kashmir with separation from his beloved Meera, who has put God above her love for him — arguably what many did during Partition, putting religious bonds over social ones. The name “Meera” invokes the medieval poetess who abandoned worldly love for spiritual union with Lord Krishna.
By then, through a series of films, especially Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge (1995) and Veer-Zaara (2004), Shah Rukh Khan had come to embody the persona of the beloved Punjabi pardesi perhaps more than any other contemporary actor. At the same time, he furthered progressive ideals by starring in films challenging the oppression of marginalised Indians, such as Dil Se (1998), Chak De! India (2007) and My Name is Khan (2010). The recent Shah Rukh-starrer Raees (2017) featured the Pakistani actress Mahira Khan in its cast — another in the long list of Indian films that have drawn on talent and inspiration from across the border.
In the previous generation, Amitabh Bachchan’s films depicting inter-faith fraternity challenge state power, and through the importance of labour struggles carried forward his poet father Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s progressive commitments. They did so partly thanks to scripts and dialogues by Javed Akhtar, the son of a progressive poet and lyricist, Jan Nisar Akhtar, who was himself descended from a poet-leader of the anti-colonial rebellion of 1857.
Shah Rukh Khan: The powerful and attractive image of Indian Muslimness
In his work and life, Shah Rukh Khan draws analogously from consciousness of his father’s role in the Khudai Khidmatgar movement, the nonviolent Pashtun anti-colonial movement that was closely allied with the Gandhian movement and staunchly opposed partition. While he has consistently refused to toe the BJP line (for which he is now enduring its wrath), his powerfully attractive image of Indian Muslimness is also inherently threatening the Hindu Right.
The persecution of Aryan Khan on an evidently trumped-up drug charge is thus not simply a case of a celebrity son being dragged into politics. It is about an actor involved in an art form whose popular vision of an inclusive, egalitarian “Hind” stubbornly challenges the current government’s chauvinistic Hindu vision, which it defends with colonial-era mechanisms of repression.
This is not to say that Bollywood films have not often been patriarchal, casteist, bigoted and parochially nationalistic, but that they have also consistently contested such retrograde values. The attack on individuals associated with that contesting vision is part of a struggle to coerce the industry into a more reliably communal and jingoistic force supporting the state’s agenda.
The intimacy of filmy and real Indian life is especially evident in the cricket world’s astonishing mirroring of the plot of Chak De! India, even as the film’s hero faces a trial itself recalling that film and its message. As the drama around Aryan Khan’s arrest has unfolded, the Indian cricketer Mohammed Shami also came under attack, blamed like Shah Rukh Khan’s character Kabir Khan in the 2007 movie, for his team’s defeat by Pakistan at a World Cup match.
At the same time, the Aryan Khan case has taken its own filmy turn with revelations that his detention was connected to a government extortion bid aimed at destroying Shah Rukh Khan’s reputation for integrity — a plot recalling the acclaimed Bachchan starrer, Shakti (1982), in which the villain JK Verma kidnaps the son of an incorruptible police officer for the same reason. (Notably, in this case the government is in the villain’s role.)
One can only hope that the revelation that even King Khan is not beyond the reach of this government’s authoritarian violence may at last alert the inert postcolonial, “get-rich-quick” middle class “bereft of ideas, because it lives to itself and cuts itself off from the people,” as Frantz Fanon perceived long ago, to the danger that government poses to all. Perhaps they too will heed Sahir’s resounding call “Jinhen naaz hai Hind par wo kahan hain?” and join those who have long since taken a position of firm dissent: the farmers protesting across the country, among whom Punjabis have been prominent, trading on that image of loving and brave exile and drawing on popular memory of Bhagat Singh.
They, in turn, follow long-lasting protests at Shaheen Bagh, led by Muslim women, against bigoted new citizenship laws. These protests and this persistent non-cooperation have entailed the creation of forms of fraternity, community and mutual care, an alternate vision of the nation that challenges Modi’s idea of India even in Modi’s India.
This is the same vision of intersectional solidarity between women, religious minorities and marginalised peoples that animated Chak De! India’s allegory of the nation as a sports team whose success depends on a sense of mutuality and the collective (forged with the Punjabi optimism encapsulated by the phrase “Chak de”). As the movie’s plot shows, the Indian collective is prey to fractures rooted in persistent prejudice and jealousy, which always need to be healed all over again; the struggle to renew human bonds is permanent but also permanently worthwhile.
The film industry, too, must continually renew its anti-colonial commitments, most especially in returning to the stories of the rights and dignity of farmers that were a powerful staple through the 1970s – especially as agriculture employs roughly half the Indian work force, and farmers stand at the heart of the struggle against the state and climate crisis.
Partly thanks to the long-circulating utopian visions of the Bombay film industry, many Indians (and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) remain committed to the ethos of syncretism, coexistence, and rediscovered fraternity captured in Bakshi’s buoyant line about the new possibilities such values create: “Anhoni ko honi kardein honi ko anhoni, ek jagah jab jama ho teenon, Amar Akbar Anthony.”
Whether Aryan himself feels the weight of his grandfather’s legacy and joins a collective effort at subcontinental renewal from the margins, his father’s tagline, “Picture toh abhi baaqi hai,” resonates as a filmy riff on Faiz’s exhortation to continue to work towards alternative futures at the end of the poem “Subh-e-Azadi (August ’47)” (penned in jail in 1951): “Chale chalo ki woh manzil abhi nahin aayi.”
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University and author of two award-winning books: Spies in Arabia (OUP, 2008) and Empire of Guns (Penguin, 2018). Her new book is Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Allen Lane, 2020).