Cinema has been a tool of expression, not only serving as a medium of social change, but also educating the newer generation about stories that they may never hear of. They tell a story with a message or information about their past, such as stories about the independence and the freedom struggle, as is relatable to the present generations.
Bollywood has had many filmmakers who have served to create reels of films that archive historical incidents in the country. Filmmaker Ketan Mehta made films such as the 1994-film Sardar on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the 2005-film Mangal Pandey, revolving around the national uprising.
He was also involved in making a biopic on Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi with Kangana Ranaut, which finally was made without him in 2019 after the actress and Ketan had a falling out over the language choice in the film, and was called Manikarnika.
Ketan sees cinema as an expression of collective consciousness. “The best way of influencing and communicating is through cinema. It is more powerful than other mediums. If you realise, Sardar is one of the more powerful films made on the freedom struggle. If Mangal Panday was about why the rebellion of 1957 failed, Sardar was about why the freedom struggle succeeded in 1947,” explains Ketan. Interestingly, Ketan had wanted to first cast Amitabh Bachchan and then Sanjay Dutt in Mangal Pandey over a period of 17 years though he finally succeeded in making the film with Aamir Khan.
To Ketan, films on historical events are also about telling a generation who never really understood the complexity of the process of achieving freedom. “For me, the Indian freedom struggle has been one of the most complex exercises in Indian history,” says Ketan.
“There were so many challenges and the various forces at play that helped arrive at a viable balance and that is what our freedom has been. During the national uprising, there was peasantry, sepoys and civilians all with contradictory perspectives and still the desire for freedom survived and that is the greatness of our civilisation,” opines Mehta, who incidentally also made a film in 1995, called Oh Darling Yeh Hai India.
For filmmakers such as Shyam Benegal who made the epic 2004-war drama Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose — The Forgotten Hero, and Kabir Khan who made the web series The Forgotten Army– Azadi Ke Liye, which was launched in 2020, the idea was to tell the story to a nation that had forgotten them.
“When the show dropped, I had many people telling me that they never knew about it,” says Kabir Khan who even had the good fortune of interacting with INA members Captain Lakshmi Sahgal and Gurbaksh Dhillon leading to his research and love for the subject. “For me, it was recreating my debut documentary into a visual spectacle. Films didn’t have budgets for stories made on foot soldiers, which the OTT had.”
For Shyam Benegal, who made documentaries on Nehru and the 1996-film The Making of the Mahatma on MK Gandhi, a film like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose-The Forgotten Hero was also to tell people stories that they never knew about Bose. “No one knew what he was. They knew he was a hero. No one knew that he had ideological differences with Gandhi and how he challenged the latter, how his activities transcended nations. No one even knew that he was also married. He fought the British and even succeeded in getting hold of some territories,” points out Benegal.
While Benegal’s Making of the Mahatma only followed the Richard Attenborough 1982-film Gandhi, Manoj Kumar is known as the man who infused patriotism into audiences through his sometimes biographical and sometimes fictional tales of India. He’s now even known as Mr Bharat after calling himself as “Bharat” in many films including Upkar (1967), Purab Aur Paschim (1970), Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974), Kranti (1981) and Clerk (1989).
Manoj’s 1965-film Shaheed on Bhagat Singh, however, brought him close to Bhagat Singh’s mother as well. “I was making Shaheed with my friend, producer Kewal Kashyap, when we heard that Bhagat Singh’s mother was unwell.
We went there and Bhagat Singh’s brother Kultar Singh introduced me to her, letting her know that I was playing the role of her son in the film,” recollects Manoj Kumar. “She looked at me rather intently and then smiled saying that I would be good enough to play the role because I looked like him. It was like a certification for me. Later, when the film won three national awards, I took her along to the stage to receive the award from Smt. Indira Gandhi, who even fell at her feet and hugged her.” says Manoj Kumar.
The legendary actor and filmmaker also tells us that Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri was so happy with Shaheed, that he asked me to write a film on his ‘jai jawan jai kisan’ slogan. “I made Upkar for him,” adds Manoj Kumar.