A day after the rightful euphoria over the Supreme Court upholding the Right to Privacy as a fundamental right, it might be a good time to sober down a little and think back on the Emergency, arguably the greatest attack on citizens’ right in our country since Independence. The suspension of civic rights in the 21-month period between 25 June 1975 and 21 March 1977 cast its long shadow even on the not-too-real world of Hindi cinema, with actors, singers and films running into troubled waters. This year’s Madhur Bhandarkar’s insipid Indu Sarkar has reopened the discussion on why filmmakers have shied away from dealing with this subject.
When Gulzar was asked to make a film on Sanjay Gandhi’s Youth Congress, he refused. Consequently his political drama, Aandhi (1975) was banned — even as it was celebrating its 23rd week in cinemas. Starring Suchitra Sen and Sanjeev Kumar, the film has a woman politician as a protagonist, sparking speculation that it was based on Indira Gandhi’s life — though Gulzar himself denied it. After a Janata Party government was elected in 1977, the film was resurrected on TV. A worse fate was suffered by Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) which lampooned Sanjay Gandhi’s pet project of the Maruti car. The government did not find it funny and film reels were burnt even before they reached the cinemas. (You can see it on YouTube now.)
Individual stars, too, found themselves running the gauntlet of the government. Kishore Kumar’s songs went off All India Radio and Doordarshan because he refused to praise Indira Gandhi’s programme publicly. Shatrughan Sinha was pulled up for supporting Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement. In a bizarre revenge, editors of Star Dust, Cine Blitz and Star & Style decided to ban Amitabh Bachchan from their pages in 1977. They believed that Bachchan, close to the Gandhis, had pushed for censorship in film magazines. The period was so bizarre that few filmmakers have touched it with a bargepole.
In Dark Star: Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna, Gautam Chintamani writes: “The 1970s were a decade of great change for Hindi cinema… yet, the reality failed to strike a spark when it came to the events that took place between 26 June 1975 and 21 March 1977.” This is only partly true. Yes, only Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003) comes to mind when you think of a decent film on the subject, and even Indu Sarkar ran into troubles with the censor board. But filmmakers in the late seventies were also engaging with the claustrophobia of censorship, and using humour as the means to eschew the horror of tyranny.
The biggest box-office hit of 1977 — the year Emergency ended — was Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony. The release of the film was delayed by a few months because of the political turmoil; in fact, it was Desai’s fourth film of the year, the others being equally successful Dharam Veer, Chacha Bhatija and Parvarish. The star cast and the ambition of the project earned scoff from Desai’s peers, but the three-hour-long madcap ride had been defined by Sidharth Bhatia in a monograph on the movie as, “a stellar example of the Hindi masala movie. Flavoured with marquee names, noteworthy character actors, songs and dances, fight sequences and comic moments (not to mention multiple coincidences and a divine miracle), it’s a wonder that the film hangs together.”
The sheer chaos and the brighter-than-life colours of the film — used to offset bad projectors in villages — would have been a welcome breather for the audience after two years of suffocation, but there is a more subtle critique on offer. The story of the break-up and reunion of the central family — a stand-in for the nation — hinges on recognition between brothers Amar and Anthony. The prop used to trigger this recognition is a gun, albeit a toy one. In one of the earliest scenes in the film, a boy Amar hides the toy gun from his younger brother — who later grows up to be Anthony. The family scatters from the foot of a Mahatma Gandhi statue, and is reunited 22 years later when Amar digs out the toy gun from where he had hidden it. The symbolism, perhaps subconscious, is evident: The ahimsa of Gandhi, one of the founding principles of the nation, had been replaced by a more canny politics and a more violent society.
Two years later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal was probably the first — and only — mainstream film to mention the word “Emergency”. In an early scene in the film one of Ram Prasad Sharma’s (Amol Palekar’s) friends reprimands his buddies for making a hullaballoo, and tells them they have no right to do so just because the Emergency was over. Jai Arjun Singh in his exhaustive study of Mukherjee’s films, The World Hrishikesh Mukherjee, groups Gol Maal with Guddi, Naram Garam and Rang Birangi, as examples of meta cinema and how role playing becomes a vessel of self-discovery. (In a delightful meta-reference, and there are innumerable ones in this film, Amitabh Bachchan playing himself is referred to as “Anthony Bhai” by a schoolgirl fan seeking his autograph.) The reason for this role-playing is wholly economic, at least to begin with: Compare the hilarious interview scene in this film with a similar one in Deewar (1975), where Shashi Kapoor’s Ravi does not get a job even after being selected because he has no recommendation letter.
Ram Prasad’s employer, Bhavani Shankar (Utpal Dutt), likes young people to be old-fashioned, disinterested in sports or films, and prefers men who keep moustaches. His unreasonable demands are immediately evident to the audience as a lampoon of people in power. Ram Prasad, a competent accountant but also interested in sports and music, is compelled to conform for a lucrative salary. When he gets caught, he must weave an elaborate sham to deceive his boss and play his own twin, Laxman Prasad — without a moustache. Naturally, a crazy ride ensues, resulting in complete humiliation for Bhavani Shankar, who is mistaken to be gangster who looks just like him, but has no moustache. In the end, Deven Verma, playing himself, refers to perhaps the most sinister moustache of all: that of Hitler.
Another Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, 1980’s Khoobsurat, also uses humour to subvert the power of tyranny, but maybe I’ll discuss it some other time. Amid the laughter in both films, it is easy to forget how unfunny the state of the nation was when they were made. Close on the heels of the Emergency followed political and economic instability, paucity of jobs, labour unrest, and a spurt in Naxalite and separatist movements all over, starting with Punjab. But carnivalesque laughter, as these films remind us, is often the best medicine for those who take their moustaches — or, reputedly, 56-inch chests — too seriously.