Gender, Nation and Decolonisation in Indian Cinema, 1947-1975

Lucy Inskip

Cinema can help us to trace the process of decolonisation after 1947 in India. The direction of Indian cinema changed not only with independence but also in the decades that followed, while India’s post-independence modernity project wavered, especially during the cynicism and extra-parliamentary challenge of the 1970s. Whilst political commentary by cultural producers was not absent during this period of flux, the medium of film did not reflect a linear trajectory of growing disillusionment with the new Indian state. Cinema’s creative capabilities could ultimately liberate consumption of the so-called modernity project from its colonial roots to form a broader postcolonial narrative.

The cinematic production of the post-1947 film industry conveyed diverse artistic output and often presented a commentary on the optimistically reforming state from a variety of perspectives; the new Indian state inevitably meant different things to different people. Indian cinema was also culturally, politically and regionally diverse. Despite the unitary state’s involvement in the film industry, the output of filmmakers demonstrated the richness of cultural production. The three iconic and important films that follow – Mother India (1957), Sholay (1975), and Parasakthi (1952) – all capture intervals in the first 25 years or so of independence; an era not only bound up with the complex manifestations of postcolonial modernity, but also how this tangibly intersected with the lived experience of the state, gendered anxieties, and regional patriotism on and off the big screen.

Gender, Authority and Statehood

Mother India (1957), a cult classic Bollywood melodrama, focuses on the sacrifices of the protagonist, Radha (played by Nargis), as an embodiment of the Indian nation. After losing his arms in an accident, Radha’s husband leaves the family and in his place, Radha is subsequently forced to defend her village’s honour at various junctures. At the beginning of this film, Radha is seen to cradle the earth, an act of inherently gendered ‘mothering’ which is shown in symbolic contrast with a backdrop of tractors and ‘masculine’ machinery that are constructing an irrigation canal nearby.[1]

Figure 1. Promotional poster for Mother India (1957)

This ambiguous association of the state with modernisation was indicative of Jawaharlal Nehru’s (the first Prime Minister of India) overarching ideals for post-independence India: democracy, science and socialism. Mother India could be seen as an ode to Nehru’s planned nation-building, with the intention of being widely disseminated at home and abroad as a permanent symbol of India; this was more symptomatic of an elite-driven myth-making exercise than depicting social realities. The socialist director, Mehboob Khan, was a key player in this propagandistic film, which suggests a degree of industry deference towards the state leadership, in exchange for their approval.[2]

In Mother India, Radha is painted as a goddess-like, moral and chaste woman.[3] However, the empowerment perhaps synonymous with a female protagonist did not sit easily with the perpetuation of more limiting stereotypes (such as the pre-destined occupations of mother and wife). Indeed, the Towards Equality Report from 1974 suggested that the state had made limited attempts at achieving equal rights in action (contrary to the gender equality outlined in the new Constitution). However, this foundational report aimed to reconceptualise gender and challenge the state’s mobilisation of women, to paradoxically satisfy their goal of a unified nation by promoting the women it had failed.[4]

Post-independence Indian masculinities were also re-negotiated in celluloid, with ‘Angry Young Man’ films (synonymous with Amitabh Bachchan), such as Sholay (1975) illustrating the establishment’s growing concerns about criminality in the 1970s.[5] Sholay represents the state through the literal disarming of Thakur Baldev Singh, a retired police chief (and symbol of responsibility), and the film centres on the two criminals Singh enlists to bring down the bandit who disarmed him. This alludes to both the state’s inability to act and the decision of turning away from the state to deliver some kind of justice.[6] Anxieties about increasing unemployment, poverty, and political violence were negotiated on the big screen whilst they played out on India’s streets.

Figure 2. Promotional Poster for Sholay (1975)

This proclamation of contested state authority echoed widely with audiences, with Sholay becoming ‘the first Indian film to gross more than Rs. 10 million’.[7] It has been estimated that the film reached an audience of 250 million, and given that ‘young men in all-male groups’ were a large audience from the 1940s to 1980s, this air of discontent would have resonated with both big-city workers and the urban unemployed.[8] This demographic was intersected by more intense passion in the south, such as the town of Madurai in Tamil Nadu where 500 fan clubs ‘whose members were mostly in their late teens or early twenties’ celebrated male stars such as Bachchan.[9] Sholay made visible ‘the gap between the language of the state and the realities of everyday life’.[10] This was especially prevalent in the 1970s where Indira Gandhi’s Emergency stifled dissent (by imprisoning opponents such as Gayatri Devi) and fanned the flames of anti-establishment feeling through accusations of nepotism.

Regional Resistance

The range of relationships different regions maintained with the centre is most visible in the example of Tamil cinema in the south of India. In Tamil Nadu, cinema was seen by many as an accessible utopian fantasy, produced mainly for poor, urban viewers to break from socio-economic insecurity.[11] Parasakthi (1952), for example, explores the misfortunes of a Tamil family in a new Madras. Inspired by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a political party which advocated for social equality and justice within a deeply entrenched caste system that elevated the position of Brahmins (teachers), the film articulated their politics of ‘anti-Congressism, anti-Brahminism, attack on the religious order and north Indian imperialism’.[12] Both the screenwriter and Parasakthi’s hero were DMK activists, and it was criticised by Indian National Congress supporters for its harmful potential as a propaganda tool for linguistic (Tamil) nationalism and therefore a threat to the country’s perceived unity.[13]

Figure 3. Cast of Parasakthi (1952)

Parasakthi was a veiled challenge to the predominance of the Hindi language and Northern chauvinism, and rather than just attacking the state as a monolithic national entity, it critiqued Congress rule in the Madras State more specifically.[14] In the film, the Madras Corporation is portrayed as sleepy, the mayor as useless, the district collector as foolish, and the drinking tap as empty. In cinemas, the film was frequently met with applause from audiences.[15] Indeed, Parasakthi signalled the coming of an electorally stronger and ambitious DMK, whereby they managed to capture power in Madras in 1967; 15 years after the DMK’s filmic statement.[16]

Whilst cinema could be controlled by the Film Censor Board and influenced by political leaders, filmmakers found ways to think creatively about Indian society, their own prerogatives, and the views of their audiences, be it Indian or international viewers.[17] It is also worth stating that not everything was an explicit political commentary, and films did not always have to carry an overtly obedient or subversive message. Nonetheless, though no particular ‘tone’, such as that of disillusionment, can be traced in the period, Indian cinema could become an instrument of collective expression for a country whose journey out of British rule was not as smooth as many would have hoped.

Lucy Inskip is a History graduate from the University of Oxford. She is currently a Communications Assistant at The Heritage Alliance in London, was formerly a Curatorial Intern at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and has also volunteered at a variety of heritage sites. Connect with her on LinkedIn and view previously published work here and here.

[1] Mother India, dir. Mehboob Khan (Film, 1957), 0:47-1:26, (19 December 2018).

[2] M. Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, (Delhi, 2000), p. 122.

[3] R. Thomas, ‘Melodrama and the Negotiation of Morality in Mainstream Hindi Film’, in C. A. Breckenridge (ed), Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in a South Asian World, (Minneapolis, 1995), p. 157.

[4] Government of India, Department of Social Welfare, Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, (New Delhi, 1974), p. 7.

[5] N. M. Kabir, Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story, (London, 2001), p. 18.

[6] M. Misra, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India since the Great Rebellion, (London, 2007), p. 313.

[7] Ibid., p. 311.

[8] R. Guha, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, (London, 2008), p. 725.

[9] Ibid., p. 726.

[10] Prasad, Ideology, p. 192.

[11] S. Dickey, ‘Consuming Utopia: Film Watching in Tamil Nadu’, in C. A. Breckenridge (ed), Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in a South Asian World, (Minneapolis, 1995), p. 132.

[12] M. S. S. Pandian, ‘Parasakthi: Life and Times of a DMK Film’, in R. Vasudevan (ed), Making Meaning in India Cinema, (New Delhi; Oxford, 2002), p. 65.

[13] Ibid., p. 76.

[14] Ibid., p. 72.

[15] Ibid., p. 73.

[16] Ibid., pp. 89 & 91.

[17] The Cinematograph Act, 1952 meant that a Central Board of Film Censors could be constituted. Read more in S. S. Chakravarty, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987, 1st edn, (Austin, 1993), p. 72.

Figure 1. Promotional poster for Mother India, 1957. Understood to be in the public domain according to UK and Indian copyright terms.

Figure 2. Promotional poster for Sholay, 1975. Usage as critical commentary on the film is understood to qualify as fair use.

Figure 3. Image of the cast of Parasakthi, 1952. Understood to be in the public domain according to UK and Indian copyright terms.

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