The Idea of 'Two Indias' Always Existed In Hindi Film Songs, Why the Outrage?

The idea of two contrasting Indias has always existed in Hindi film music, so why the outrage over Vir Das' act?

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Hindi Female

Recently, a video clip of comedian Vir Das’ monologue ‘I Come From Two Indias’ at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC pointing at the contradictions and hypocrisies of Indian politics and society went viral. It received backlash from many for allegedly showing the country in poor light. The idea of these two contrasting Indias has always existed in art and one of India’s most widely consumed media — the Hindi film music — is a compelling evidence of it. That begs the question as to why the outrage is necessary.

Hindi film music, for the longest time, has shaped notions of patriotism and national pride among Indians. Kids performing in schools, community gatherings or programmes in government offices — one can hardly think of important national days being celebrated without a suitable playlist of patriotic Bollywood songs for company. The greatness of India eulogised in these songs with phrases like ‘Sone ki chidiya, ' ‘Dulhan ki bindiya’ and more have always created an image of a nation with a glorious history and heritage, a vibrant present, and a promising future. None of which is untrue but isn’t the only truth about this diverse, developing country.

The Indian freedom movement’s influence was visible in Bombay Cinema of that time and, by extension, its music. Irrespective of the genre, several releases had songs dedicated to the nationalistic mood like ‘Chal chal re naujawan’ (Bandhan, 1940), and 'Yeh desh humara' (Humjoli, 1946). Arriving a few months after the Quit India Movement, the emphatic chant ‘Duur hato aye duniyawaalon Hindustan humaara hai’ from the Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti-starrer mega hit Kismet (1943) became an anthem for freedom fighters. “Jahaan humara Taj Mahal hai aur Qutub Minara hai/ Jahaan humaare mandir masjid, sikhon ka gurudwara hai/ Iss dharti par qadam badhana atyachaar tumhara hai/ Duur hato duur hato,” the fiery lyrics went.

It established Kavi Pradeep’s reputation as a patriotic poet who would go on to pen classics like ‘Aye mere watan ke logon’ and ‘Hum laaye hain toofan se’. Post independence, the tone and contents of songs in this category shifted towards nation building, self-reliance, progress and pluralism. While ‘Chhoro kal ki baatein’ (Hum Hindustani, 1960) aspired for greatness, ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega’ (Dhool Ka Phool, 1959) appealed for humanity and harmony after the communal horrors of partition, and ‘Insaaf ki dagar pe’ (Gunga Jumna, 1961) batted for equality and justice.


The legacy was taken forward by actor-filmmaker Manoj Kumar’s exalting brand of irreproachable patriotism that would sometimes boast 'Jab zero diya mere Bharat ne duniya ko tab ginti aayi, taaron ki bhasha Bharat ne duniya ko pehle sikhlaayi' (Purab Aur Pachhim, 1970) or warn adversaries 'Mera chana hai apni marzi ka, yeh dushman hai khudgarzi ka/ Sar kafan baandh ke nikla hai, deewana hai yeh pagla hai/ Apnon se naata jodega, gairon ke sar ko phodega' (Kranti, 1981). While he had been in the industry since the late ‘50s and delivered several romantic hits, Manoj Kumar’s portrayal of the young revolutionary Bhagat Singh in Shaheed (1965) was a turning point for the actor. Kumar’s measured performance aided by the film’s stirring score — ‘Sarfaroshi ki tamanna’, ‘Aye watan humko teri kasam’, ‘Mera rang de Basanti chola’ — immortalised him as the legendary leader and set him up as the enduring symbol of celluloid patriotism.

Upkar (1967) became first in the line of nationalist films Kumar would direct and star in and as Bharat — the embodiment of India who struggles to keep its hopes and values intact against all odds — and in the end, prevails. The film’s biggest draw, the buoyant track ‘Mere desh ki dharti’ penned by Gulshan Bawra and sung robustly by Mahendra Kapoor, created the template for proud, adulatory deshbhakti geet about India and Indian values.

Purab Aur Pachhim, a clash between East’s spiritualism and West’s materialism, was a highly conservative film that painted the western way of life in the broad strokes of amorality and prejudice. Conversely, India as Bharat sings in ‘Hai preet jahaan ki reet’ is a land where 'kaale gorey ka bhed nahin' and 'itna aadar insaan toh kya patthar bhi puje jaate hain' blissfully denying the existence of any caste and gender based discrimination and religious intolerance in the country.

Perhaps the most sanctimonious song even by Bharat Kumar’s standards, is the extremely amusing ‘Ek tara bole’ from Yaadgar (1970). It has Kumar batting for swadesi, shaming women for showing skin; men for dressing up like hippies; people in general for not respecting gods and national anthem suitably, denouncing corruption and mob justice, hailing Nehru and Shastri, calling for world peace and sermonising about population control — all in one go. It’s fascinating how much of this — barring Nehru cheering, of course — resonates with the country’s present socio-political state which refuses to acknowledge differing voices and is ready to brand anyone anti-national at the drop of the hat.

A country that’s more obsessed with reclaiming its lost glory, it isn’t surprising that the current crop of nationalistic historicals churned by Bollywood aligns with the same idea that these songs propagate: harking back to India’s famed and fabled golden past of bountiful lands and valorous people.


While Hindi film music has largely lionised India, songs of resistance and speaking truth to power have always been a part of its history. Progressive lyricists like Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, and Gulzar have composed songs critical of the system, given them socialist touches, and called for the need of self-analysis. The beauty of these songs also lay in the fact that they represent a diverse group of people and didn’t shy from confronting uncomfortable truths about Indian society.

In Boot Polish’s (1953) ‘Thehar zara o jaane waale’ Shailendra stresses on the social inequities and questions, 'Panditji mantar padhte hain, ganga ji nahlaate hain/ Hum pet ka mantar padhte hain, joote ka mooh chamkaate hain/ Panditji ko paanch chavanni hai, humko toh ek ikkanni hai/ Phir bhed bhaav yeh kaisa hai?'

Breaking away from his style of rousing patriotic poems, Kavi Pradeep raised the rights of the working class in Dilip Kumar’s socialist drama Paigham (1959). 'Naye jagat me hua purana, oonch neech ka kissa/ Sabko mile mehnat ke mutaabik apna apna hissa/ Sabke liye sukh ka baraabar ho batwara, yehi paigham humaara,' Manna Dey sings in an assuring voice.

The notion of Two Indias appears in Sahir’s ‘Humne suna tha ek hai Bharat’ in Didi (1959). Students question the idea of India taught in textbooks versus what they witness around them to their teacher. 'Humne nakshe aur hi paaye, badle huye sab taur hi paaye / Ek se ek ki baat juda hai, dharm juda hai jaat juda hai/ Aapne jo kuch humko padhaaya, woh toh kahin bhi nazar na aaya,” they ask. The teacher responds: 'Bhasha se bhasha na mile to iska matlab phoot nahi… bura nahin gar yun hi watan mein dharam juda aur jaat juda.' It’s an important song that encourages the idea of asking questions, differing and yet discussing among children and has them engaging instead of being preached.

Similarly, for the disillusioned unemployed youth in Gulzar’s Mere Apne (1973), the angst of wasted education and lack of opportunities is conveyed in the irony of ‘Haal chaal theek thaak hai.’ 'BA kiya hai MA kiya hai, lagta hai woh bhi ainvay kiya hai,' they mock and draw attention to post-independence optimism that has long faded, jobs are scarce, prices and crimes are rising. Yet the system wanting you to believe 'Aabo hawa desh ki bahut saaf hai / Kaayda hai, kanoon hai, insaaf hai.'

In Sahir’s body of political compositions, there’s the greatly overlooked but highly important impassioned plea to the nation in Naya Raasta’s (1970) ‘Apne andar zara jhaank mere watan’. The film campaigns for caste abolition and this little-known song plays alongside the opening credits. The lyrics are stinging and offer no recourse: 'Tera ithihaas hai khoon me lithada hua, tu abhi tak hai duniya mein pichhada hua / Tune apno ko apna na mana kabhi tune insaan ko insaan na jana kabhi / Tere dharmon ne jaaton ki taksim ki, teri rasmon ne nafrat ki taalim di.' If anything, one can see how remarkably relevant these words are even today.


Of course, the poet’s most piercing and powerful commentary on India’s contradictions is the devastating ‘Jinhein naaz hai Hind par’ in Guru Dutt’s pièce de résistance Pyaasa (1957). The song comes at a point when the film’s hero Vijay, an idealistic poet disillusioned with life, sits in a brothel drunk watching a dance performance. The unfair, hypocritical ways of the world where a courtesan is forced to dance for her lusty patrons even as her sick baby wails in the next room, makes Vijay recoil in shame and horror. He stumbles his way out observing the exploitative world that preys on the weak and laments, 'Zara mulk ke rehbaron ko bulaao, yeh kooche yeh galiyaan yeh manzar dikhaao/ Jinhein naaz hai Hind par unko laao, jinhein naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain?' The plea rendered with heartbreaking poignancy by Mohammed Rafi has since become the proverbial mirror that society doesn’t wish to look into.

Amidst these contrasts, there’s straddling generosity and guile in Indian style. 'Apni chhatri tumko de dein kabhi jo barse paani / Kabhi naye packet mein bechein tumko cheez purani' — Javed Akhtar encapsulates the duality of his compatriots with humorous honesty in the title track of Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000).

In a country full of people who need so little to get offended, it’s a surprise that an innocuous song making some unflattering and yet accurate observations has actually found both acknowledgment and a long shelf life.

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Topics:  India   Shah Rukh Khan   Vir Das 

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