On 15 August 2017, India marked 70 years of independence. You might expect this historic moment when India achieved sovereignty and liberation from 200 years of British rule would loom large in Bollywood, the mainstream Hindi cinema. However, over the last seven decades Bollywood had already been telling stories of India and its journey to independence through films celebrating the nation’s firebrand freedom fighters, history of violent and non-violent resistance movements, and what life was like under oppressive colonial rule.

The view that Britain merely handed power back to India is rarely what Indian cinema depicts

Indian independence is often framed as Britain handing power back to India, with India passively and gratefully accepting the secession. Whereas in contrast, the anti-colonial struggle, with its courageous martyrs standing up to injustice and making sacrifices for the greater good and their beloved nation, offers empowering and inspirational characters and stories.

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In these films, such as 1965’s critical and commercial hit Shaheed, starring Manoj Kumar, a biopic of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, the Indian freedom fighter executed by British authorities in 1931 aged 23, the struggle for independence is anything but passive. Shaheed refuses to be subjugated and takes the fight to the tyrants. He’s such a popular figure that Shaheed’s been the inspiration for three more mainstream films, of limited success, all released in 2002.

However, it is a surprise to discover India’s first full length film, and therefore the cornerstone of India’s multiple, thriving cinema cultures, the 1913 silent film Raja Harishchandra by director Dadasaheb Phalke, is in fact an allegory about colonialism. Rajinder Dudrah, professor of cultural studies and creative studies at Birmingham City University, says of the film: “It’s a story about a noble, honourable king who falls under the spell of a holy man, who seems to be pious but is in fact plotting to usurp the king’s land and property. The holy man was read by some audiences as a symbol of colonial rule and Indians being ruled by the Raj.”

Based on the legend of King Harishchandra, a figure and fable present in ancient Hindu texts and familiar to cinema-goers, Raja Harishchandra is the earliest example of how Indian cinema alluded to the Raj through allegories, metaphors and codes, and enabled the film to be approved by British film censors and become a popular success. Following independence, films in the 1950s and 1960s would continue to indirectly nod towards the Raj. “References to British rule and Indian independence have been there since day one in silent films, and in early Hindi sound cinema, there were markers and coded ways of referencing colonial rule,” says Dudrah. “For example, films would often have a cruel figure, such as a landlord or money lender, oppressing the poor and they might wear leather boots or return from hunting expeditions, which reference the British presence in India,” says Dudrah.

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On one level Mehboob Khan’s 1957 blockbuster Mother India, a Hindi cinema classic, is a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking melodrama about Radha (Nargis) single-handedly raising two sons in the face of extreme hardship, misery and bad luck. However, on another level it’s a parable for the stoicism, dignity and sacrifice required to lift independent India from its knees. “The film is full of references to nation and nation-building, it features maps of India and in one scene Radha – who is Mother India – calls out to her fellow peasant farmers to remake the land,” says Dudrah.

Two of the three Indian films nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar have concerned independence 

In 1958, Mother India became the first Hindi film to be nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar. Another of the films to be nominated in this category, 2001’s Lagaan, is an underdog story about drought-stricken villagers uniting to take on their British-sahibs to overturn an unjust tax. Lagaan was an unexpectedly huge box office hit and is a game-changer in contemporary Bollywood, ushering in an era of bolder and more innovative storytelling. However, no one would touch its script with a barge pole until Aamir Khan, Bollywood superstar with a social conscience, stepped forward to star in, and produce, the film.

Lagaan is one of three films, all starring Aamir Khan, that represent the high point of independence-inspired films in contemporary Bollywood. Mangal Pandey: The Rising, from 2005, is a biopic of the Indian soldier who served in the East India Company Army, and then led the attack which began India’s First War of Independence in 1857 (or the 1857 Indian Mutiny as it’s known in British textbooks). While 2006’s Rang De Basanti, a major box office success, follows five university students who embark on a journey of self-discovery and experience an awakening in loving their nation when they make a film about Indian freedom fighters; arguably these films reflected the chest-swelling patriotism of the era, tied to the narrative of India arriving on the world stage as a 21st Century superpower.  

Since then Indian cinema has moved on. “There was a genuine interest in independence around 2001 to 2006, thanks to the amazing success of Lagaan in 2001 but in 2017 contemporary India couldn’t care less,” says film critic and author Naman Ramachandran. “If you look at Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House, retitled Partition: 1947 and released in August to coincide with independence, it tanked at the box office. Also, Rangoon, out this year, had an independence backdrop and was a box office debacle. Independence used to be a big trope in mainstream Hindi cinema, but not anymore.

Rather than harking back to 1947 and the run up to it, today’s audiences are reacting positively to films about social change – Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, a satire about public sanitation, and Dangal are good recent examples,” he explains.

As with Lagaan, notes Ramachandran, all it will take to reignite Bollywood’s interest in independence-inspired stories is a box office smash, and he flags forthcoming blockbuster Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, due in April 2018 and starring Kangana Ranaut as the ruler of the princely state of Jhansi who refused to surrender to the East India Company and became a prominent figure in 1857’s First War of Independence, as a possibility.

While the independence genre in Bollywood may have run its course for the moment, India’s online TV sphere is full of exciting possibilities. “The real action is in the digital space,” says Ramachandran. “There are two series on the freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army due imminently, Bose: Dead or Alive on ALT Balaji and blockbuster director Kabir Khan’s as yet untitled project on Amazon India. The audience reaction to these will determine just how much India is interested in the independence era.”

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