Mother India: Indian Films and the National Narrative


Imtiaz Ali, Rachel Dwyer and Sudhir Mishra

 in conversation with Shubhra Gupta


Prachi Bhagwat, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


No form of art is ever isolated from the political climate in which it is produced. While some films are most valuable during the era they are made in, others speak to the viewer retrospectively. Like a museum, the collective body of cinema in a nation tells the story of the people who populate it. Filmmaking also brings together a multiplicity of artists, who bring their personal experience to the stories they tell. Films, in that sense, embody a plethora of national narratives, some common, others distinctly individual.

The process of nation-building in India coincided with the arrival of cinema. In its own way, cinema did its part in imagining some of the many possible futures of the country. Quoting historian Benedict Anderson, film historian Rachel Dwyer observed that just as nations are imagined communities, films are a ‘great way to imagine the nation.’ Films, she said, are a ‘way of imagining, looking, hearing and feeling.’

Filmmaker Sudhir Mishra pointed out that in independent India, some films like Mother India celebrated the new nation and the Nehruvian dream, whilst others such as those of director K.A Abbas abided by different ideals. He described Abbas’ creations as a ‘guerilla kind of way to snap at the national narrative.’ Even within the larger narrative of a film, he observed, individuals, such as lyricist and directors, are presented with the space to voice their own thoughts.

Director Imtiaz Ali was of the view that filmmakers are ‘custodians of contemporary morality.’ We take our impulses from the ‘India in which we are living in,’ he said. Both moderator Shubhra Gupta and Mishra observed that Ali’s immensely popular film Jab We Met redefined love, twelve years after the iconic love story Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ). The film’s protagonist Geet, a girl originally from the rural environs of Bhatinda who lives in the big, wild city of Bombay, marked a departure from the obedient Simran from DDLJ. Unlike Simran, for whom her family’s approval to marry her love interest Raj was of paramount importance, Geet chose to take the reins of life into her own hands.

The representation of communities usually ignored by the nation-state can serve as a subversive tool of protest against the majority national narrative. Gupta cited the way blockbuster Marathi film Sairat, which narrates a love story set against the background of a society torn by caste divisions, ‘turned all the rules of mainstream Hindi cinema,’ and mainstream society, ‘on their heads.’ Sairat’s unlikely hero, a lower caste boy in a village in Maharashtra, dares to love an upper-caste girl. He proves that he too can express love as profoundly as Shah Rukh Khan’s prototypical character Raj in a string of big-budget romantic movies filmed in foreign locations. In its humble way, it was a breakthrough moment in cinema.

While a film might begin with a conversation or a fresh idea, it also generates new conversations and ideas, which in turn lead to other films, observed Gupta. And so, cinema and other forms of popular culture are both reflections of, and creators of a nation. As such, it is important to understand and respect their influence.


Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor



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