Linking the nation: Bollywood ways
In my last post I talked in some length about how newer means of technology, especially trains, have always found a prominent place in the cinematic portrayal in Hindi cinema. The range of emotions that are depicted through trains are wide, varied, and least to say, interesting. From a close camera-shot of tracks and a speeding train signifying escape, displacement, migration, and not the least death to those of scenes of crowded railway compartments in which the lovers’ eyes still managed to meet (for instance Amol Palekar and Tina Munim starrer Baaton Baaton Mein (1979), railways have remained integral to the ways in which individual sensibilities of a character in Hindi cinema has been depicted.
But they signify more than that, at least in Bollywood. They signify a link, a connectivity that joins territories and groups. They signify a medium through which a nation is conceptualised. They signify a continuum through which that perceived or real (whatever it is) bonding is constantly promoted, reproduced, and maintained. In other words, trains have not only served in the portrayal of intense individual feelings or in showcasing the exotic natural beauty; they have helped linking the nation.
Bollywood has a long history of patriotic films and songs. Even in present times we get such films from time to time, nonetheless sometimes with a hawkish jingoist temper as was the case with Ghadar. We also saw a trend towards making epics on individuals: five films on Bhagat Singh in a row and one on Subash Chandra Bose in recent years. The context of such films has shifted over a period of time. So for instance, if Roja and Sarfarosh were made in the backdrop of cross-border terrorism, recent films like Rang De Basanti have turned the gaze towards internal political corruption prevailing in the country and the need to reform the system.
If we go a bit further back in time, we see a different context. The 1960s and 70s saw some war-films that fed patriotic feelings in their own ways. Haqeeqat (1964), arguably one of the finest war-films ever made in Hindi cinema history, was set in the context of 1962 Indo-China war and Rajkumar starrer Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) was based on the recently concluded 1971 Indo-Pak war. And in between came two popular gems in this genre of films and songs: one the Manoj Kumar starrer Shaheed (1965), and the second, a song penned by Kavi Pradeep, composed by C. Ramachandra and sung by legendary Lata Mangeshkar: Aye mere watan ke logon. The song was about remembering those who lost their lives in the 1962 war; a song which although officially was not a national anthem but one with which most of us struggled to sing on the Independence Day in our schooldays.
And very briefly, if we go further back to the period of 1940s and 50s, we encounter a different context in which patriotic songs and films were produced. This was the context of freedom struggle and the incipient nation-state that was coming to terms with a new independent life. If films like Shaheed (1948) and Jhansi Ki Rani (1953) on the one hand depicted a romanticised past of struggle against the colonial rule with a moralist perspective, Railway Platform (the debut film of late Sunil Dutt, 1955) and Phir Subah Hogi (1958), on the other, tried to raise a new debate about nationalism. It was in this period when “unity amidst diversity” had become the doctrine of new independent India that trains also figured in Bollywood songs to build that imagined unity.
Travel by the railways became a part of seeing the nation or rather discovering the nation, specifically its past. The glimpses captured while gazing out of the window of a railway carriage were actually the snapshots through which the history of India was constructed and reified. Abhi Bhattacharya, who acted as a school teacher in the film Jagruti (1954) took a bunch of students on this “nation-seeing” trip, while he sang the famous song: “aao bachchon tumhe dikhayein jhaanki Hindustan ki”. The train passed through different territories and each of the stanzas depicted (or rather mythically constructed) the historical significance of that territory. For instance, Maharasthra was defined as a territory of patriotic Shivaji who had fought the Mughals, while crossing through Rajputana (modern day Rajasthan) the bravery of Rana Pratap (and yes, also of “thousand Padminis" who had apparently committed suicide to save their “grace”) was extolled, and the horrors of Jallianwala Bagh massacre was reminded to those school kids who took their lessons in Indian history while on train. The travel not only forged physical linkage over the vast distance of north India it also stitched together the dispersed historical facts and myths in one thread to promote the unity which a new nation-state required.
The carriage with people from different regions became a “melting pot” of different cultures. At least so was this for an otherwise funny song, “rail mein jeeya mora” from the movie Aankhen (1950), which also signified that this vehicle had become a medium to pull people out from far flung areas, like Madras and Bengal together into a common and shared mode of travelling. The regional variations persisted; Bengalis while travelling stuck to their “rasgullas” and the Punjabis to “loud chit-chat”, but they all travelled together, thus bridging the tyranny of physical and social distance.
This forging of national space was however accompanied by partition, when millions got displaced and thousands lost their lives. The linkages of a new nation were premised on the division of an erstwhile-shared space. No wonder, trains had become historically and symbolically a representative of that division as well; the dead bodies dumped in the trains running along the borders of the Punjab during the Partition in the later years invoked memories of those horrible journeys (seen in films like Pinjar). Trains thus not only depict a harmonious building of a new nation, its wheels and speed also reminds of tracks soaked in blood.