Besides its obvious artistic and entertainment values, popular cinema is also a witness to history. It is reflective and interpretative of a historical past and could be considered a source of information – or misinformation – of contemporary history of a nation. For a film-frenzied nation such as India, cinema is also the most accessible platform of critical contemplation and yet such a powerful tool has fallen woefully short of examining certain historical events in its narrative. Among the ones conspicuously missing from any kind of cinematic discourse is the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi between 1975-77.
It’s rather unfortunate that the 21-month period described as one of the darkest in the history of independent India, where freedom of expression, something that filmmakers often find threatened in most government directives, was thwarted by the political whim of a handful, for some reason refuses to inspire even after four decades.
|A poster of Aandhi (1975) starring Suchitra Sen and Sanjeev Kumar.|
The Emergency saw films such as Aandhi (1975) and Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) get banned for being an allegedly roman à clef about Indira Gandhi or Tarakeshwari Sinha, depending on where you looked from, and a satirical take on the politics of Mrs Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, respectively. Individuals such as Dev Anand, Kishore Kumar, and Shatrughan Sinha were blacklisted for not towing government diktats. One of the reasons filmmakers often cite for the sheer lack of volume in films that looked at the Emergency in a direct way in the years closer to the event is that no one wanted to ruffle political feathers.
It is understandable as the fear of the higher ups in the Congress party would still be rife even if the party were out of power. After all, these were the very people who could overturn the Constitution of India and get away with it, and filmmakers rarely shied away from acknowledging it. Feroz Khan’s Qurbani (1980) begins with a tribute to the then recently deceased Sanjay Gandhi, the architect of the Emergency.
|Aposter of Khubsoorat (1980) reprinted as a CD cover.|
Interestingly, the same year saw Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat (1980) brilliantly address the imperiousness of a leader with a vivacious girl, Manju (Rekha), stirring trouble by questioning her sister’s authoritarian mother-in-law Nirmala Gupta (Dina Pathak). Similarly Mukherjee’s Naram Garam (1981), which released after Indira Gandhi returned to power, had a tongue-in-cheek reference where a Pandit (Om Prakash) says “phir se!? (Not again!?)” when someone mentions the word “emergency”.
One would think passage of time would have given filmmakers enough perspective, and also some resolve to revisit the era, but, unfortunately, this was never the case. It was only with Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003), which released in the year of the Emergency’s 30th anniversary in 2005, that the era was revisited in an upfront manner.
But is the fear of the commercial aspect of filmmaking suffering at the hands of political clout the real reason why even after a distance of 40 years, Emergency remains a taboo topic? Some filmmakers believe that it’s not their business to comment on political matters and some believe that popular cinema should only be about “entertainment, entertainment, and entertainment”.
Could there be some other reasonable explanation for the manner in which Hindi cinema – popular or art-house – sparingly acknowledged Emergency? Perhaps it could have to do with the lack of reference-based filmmaking that contemporary Bollywood can’t function without. Post-independence filmmakers and screenwriters grew up on literature more than films and the result was a generation that saw stalwarts such as Rajinder Singh Bedi, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, BR Chopra and Dev Anand who weren’t limited to cinema for stimulus. The next wave which saw Salim Khan, Javed Akhtar, Yash Chopra, Manoj Kumar, Prakash Mehra, Manmohan Desai and others were the first generation that grew up on films as well as literature and therefore their cinema had that influence. Most people under the age of 30 have very little idea about what the Emergency truly entailed and for the younger lot of filmmakers there is no reference to follow.
For any medium that celebrates popular culture, especially cinema, to be a chronicle of history, there has to be a constant discussion about events and while Bollywood could be blamed for ignoring Emergency as a subject, other formats such as writing (fiction and non-fiction) and even journalism, too, seem to have forgotten the dark days.
|A poster of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005).|
Some of the most prolific present-day filmmakers and screenwriters grew up on a certain kind of cinema and therefore it’s Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai or Mahesh Bhatt that the likes of Karan Johars, Rohit Shettys and Farah Khans or Mohit Suris cannot look beyond.
So, in essence, one can’t really blame existing filmmakers for not making films on something as important as the Emergency when they wouldn’t know the history even if it were to hit them in their face. Having bred on a popular culture that rarely acknowledges history as it was made, Bollywood would only be interested in something when it’s real such as Kissa Kursi Ka, larger-than-life personality-based like Aandhi or extremely personal like Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and you see, unfortunately for Emergency, all three have been addressed.