At the inauguration of the newly revamped Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated the site of the 1919 massacre to the nation. “Horrors like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the Partition speak of the sacrifices made for India’s freedom and should not be forgotten as they inspire to keep the country above all,” Modi said. Historians have identified the massacre, in which about 400 people were killed and thousands injured, as the trigger that would galvanize the Indian population against their colonial masters and lead to Independence three decades later. The horror that unfolded on April 13, 1919, continues to have significant emotional power and has, naturally, been an attractive subject for filmmakers.
Richard Attenborough’s multiple Oscar-winning “Gandhi” (1982) depicted the massacre in a realistic, even documentary style. Novelist and critic Marakand Paranjape, in his book “The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi” (2014), described Attenborough’s direction style as “mimetic”, imitating real life. The 5-minute-long scene in the film begins with an establishing shot of the Golden Temple, before cutting to the protest of Indians on which General Reginald Dyer (Edward Fox) would order his troops to open fire. There is slight menacing background music as Dyer and his troops assemble at the site, but after that soundscape is dominated by the thunder of .303 rifles and the cries of men, women, and children as they fall to the bullets or try desperately to escape.
The last shot is that of an infant, crying over the body of her dead mother. The next scene, where Dyer is being questioned by the Hunter Commission, has no background music. The silence is almost oppressive. The questions by the members of the commission and Dyer’s tight-upper lip replies are stark, underlining the structural violence endemic to a colonial state. The scene right after this shows Gandhi at Jallianwala Bagh, looking at the bloodstains on the wall of the well where many of the martyrs apparently jumped in to escape the bullets.
Historian Kim Wanger tells us that might not have really happened. There is music in the background — a mournful shehnai. As this brief analysis of the film’s background score shows us, the depiction of the massacre in “Gandhi” was anything but mimetic. On the contrary, despite the documentary style, it was subtly manipulative, giving the readers hints — with the music — about how to interpret the images they were seeing on the screen.
Of course, not all representations have been this subtle. In “The Legend of Bhagat Singh” (dir. Rajkumar Santoshi; 2002), the massacre is a Bollywood spectacle, full of melodramatic music, the legendary well, over-the-top acting, and a sharp montage of images — all aimed at provoking a sentimental response. Born in 1907, Singh would have been 12 years old when the Jallianwala Bagh incident occurred. It must have been a traumatic childhood memory. According to some sources, he travelled to Amritsar later and collected some earth from the site of the massacre that he preserved. The cinematic depiction is through the imagination of young Bhagat Singh (Nakshdeep Singh) and is as much fiction as fact.
Fictional embellishments, especially in biopics or historical films, do not necessarily diminish them and might even accentuate their emotional or intellectual appeal. In fact, a film that attempts to only replicate history might be, to use Paranjape’s word, “mimetic” — or boring. But some deviations are hard to justify. For instance, in “23 March 1931: Shaheed” (dir. Guddu Dhanoa; 2002) — one of the three Bhagat Singh biopics released that year, the third one being “Shaheed-e-Azam” — young Bhagat drops by Jallianwala Bagh one day on his way home from school. This would have been impossible since Singh and his family lived in Lahore and Jallianwala Bagh is in Amritsar. One wonders what purpose such changes — deliberate or careless — serve.
Another film that depicted the massacre was “Rang De Basanti” (dir. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra; 2006). Told through the eyes of a British documentary filmmaker, Sue McKinley (Alice Pattern), the film reinterprets the “legend” of Bhagat Singh for a contemporary audience. McKinley gets interested in the story after reading a diary kept by her grandfather James McKinley (Steven Mackintosh), a conscientious superintendent of Lahore Jail where Bhagat Singh and his comrades are imprisoned. (This is an example of a fictional deviation that actually works). When Sue comes to New Delhi to shoot her documentary, she meets and befriends a group of young Indians who are either disinterested or frustrated with their country.
However, when their friend Flight Lieutenant Ajay Singh (R Madhavan) is killed in a MiG crash — a rather common occurrence even now — they protest against high-level corruption involving defence materiel. The protest is scuttled by the police and turns the disillusioned young men towards armed revolution. The depiction of the massacre is deeply stylized. Shot in black-and-white, with non-linear camera lenses and angles, it is a nightmare that Bhagat Singh (Siddharth) has in Sue’s dramatized documentary. But it is also referenced later, where General Dyer is transformed into the corrupt defence minister (Mohan Agashe), giving the police orders to fire on peaceful protestors.
The film was critiqued for justifying violence as a political tool — assassinating the defence minister, as Sue’s friends do, could not be a suitable solution. Also, the violence of these young men was motivated by a desire for personal vengeance, unlike Bhagat Singh and his comrades who sought retributive justice or to spark a revolution. However, the film and its images — such as candlelight marches at India Gate — were referenced repeatedly even half-a-decade later as anti-corruption protests gripped the country. These protests would eventually lead to erosion of the credibility of the United Progressive Alliance government and the rise of Narendra Modi.
Not that Modi’s government has been tolerant of protests and dissent. Even as Modi was inaugurating the revamped Jallianwala Bagh site, a video of a senior bureaucrat ordering the police to assault protesting farmers and “crack their heads” went viral. And in Amritsar, the police had banned protests against the revamp and an order banning gatherings is still in effect. Punjab, of course, is ruled by the Congress and not Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). All of this begs the question: what was the reason for such a revamp, now being described by some as Disnification? Was it a part of Modi’s “spectacular politics”, or an attempt at refurbishing the BJP’s Teflon coating before important state elections? Whatever it was, it doesn’t seem to be working too well.
Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel, Ritual, was published in 2020. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University.