How Did Indian Movies and Songs Inspire Our Freedom Struggle?

These films not only inspired our countrymen to fight for freedom but also spoke against social ills plaguing India.

Published
Indian Cinema
11 min read
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‘Kahin Pey Nigahen, Kahin Pey Nishana’, the popular song from Aar Paar (1954), though sung in another context, could have described another song that came out eleven years earlier – a song that is considered a gold standard amongst songs that inspired the freedom movement.

‘Door Hato Ai Duniyawalo , Hindustan Hamara Hai’ from Bombay Talkies’ Kismet (1943), released during World War II, was ostensibly addressed to the Germans and the Japanese with whom Britain was at war – “Shuru hua hai jang tumhara ,jaag utho Hindustani,tum na kisi ke aage jhukna ,Jarman ho ya Jaapaani, aaj sabhi ke liye hamara yahi qaumi naara hai”.

Why A Lyricist And A Composer Went Underground To Avoid Being Arrested For ‘Sedition’

By resorting to such a stratagem, the song passed the censors. But the public knew better. Coming as it did less than six months after Mahatma Gandhi called for the Quit India Movement, the actual target of the song – composed as a martial tune by Anil Biswas – was obvious. The patriotic overtones against British rule became at once evident to the people. At screenings of Kismet, the reels would be rewound and the song played multiple times on public demand. The audience sitting in the cinema halls were no different from the charged-up audience shown in the song – such was the song’s impact.

The unprecedented popularity of the song forced lyricist Kavi Pradeep and music composer Anil Biswas to go underground to avoid being arrested by the British authorities for sedition.

They could re-surface only when it was pointed out to the government that the song was directed against the Axis members – Germany and Japan – and was in fact, pro-British (which of course it was not). Interestingly, the map of India shown in the song included Burma, which had been separated from the Indian Empire six years earlier in 1937.

Kismet was not a patriotic film. It was an out-and-out thriller. It included the song to pack a patriotic punch while dishing out entertainment.

Poster of the movie ‘Kismet’.
Poster of the movie ‘Kismet’.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There were many such films which used metaphor, innuendo, symbolism, oblique reference to slip under the radar of the ever-vigilant censors to convey the true message to a public that was discerning enough to be aware of the film’s or the song’s real message.

A Prayer For Victory Fuelling Nationalist Sentiments Among Indians

As early as 1938, Watan, a costume drama film directed by Mehboob Khan, was released. The story, set in Central Asia, was based on the Decossackization policy, involving the Bolsheviks and Cossacks.

Sitara Devi and Kumar in Watan.
Sitara Devi and Kumar in Watan.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Cossack’s fight for independence was a symbolic reference to the fight for independence from British rule in India at that time. It had a song – ‘Jahan Tu Hai Wahin Mera Watan Hai’, composed by Anil Biswas.

In 1941, Sohrab Modi’s Sikandar hit the screens. It had a song ‘Jeete Desh Humara, Bharat Hai Ghar Baar Humara, Bharat Hai Sansar Humara’. Even though in the movie this is a prayer for victory against the forces of the Greek ruler Alexander, the song fuelled the nationalist sentiment in the Indians.

Under colonial rule, when the National Movement was at its peak, the masses understood who the ‘victory’ was to be wrested from.

Sometimes, it didn’t work. In 1931, ‘Swaraj’ in the title of Shantaram’s film Swarajyache Toran (Thunder of the Hills), and the poster of the film depicting Chhatrapati Shivaji hoisting a flag, led to the threat of a ban, because using ‘Swaraj’ was considered seditious. The film was a historical film based on the military expeditions of Maratha Emperor Shivaji. The film was renamed Udaykal. The censors had the producers make several other changes, one of them being the climactic hoisting of the saffron flag at Sinhagad Fort.

Pre-Independence Songs & Films Inspired The Freedom Movement

Earlier, in the silent era in 1921, Bhakta Vidur became the first film to be banned in India. The film came just after Rowlatt Act was passed in India. The character of Vidur, the Hindu mythological character, was portrayed on the personality of Mahatma Gandhi. There were scenes in the film where Vidur appeared like Gandhi, wearing a Gandhi cap and khaddar. Many contemporary political events of India were shown in the film. As a result, the film was banned as the censors held that the character was not Vidur, but Mahatma Gandhi. The censors also held that the film was likely to excite dissatisfaction against the government and incite people to non-cooperation.

Dwarakadas Sampat in Mahatma Gandhi-like garb as Vidur in the first Indian film to be banned, still from ‘Bhakta Vidur’ 1921 (“Devotion of Vidur”).
Dwarakadas Sampat in Mahatma Gandhi-like garb as Vidur in the first Indian film to be banned, still from ‘Bhakta Vidur’ 1921 (“Devotion of Vidur”).
(Photo: NFAI’s archive collection, May 2014 / Wikimedia Commons)

The songs and films of the pre-Independence era inspired the freedom movement, added fuel to the nationalist fire, invoked feelings of love for the country, roused patriotic fervour. But they are neither well-known, nor their contribution adequately acknowledged.

How Much Do We Know About Pre-1947 Patriotic Songs?

We all know the patriotic songs post-Independence, but their counterparts before 1947, not so much. But their role needs to be known and appreciated.

Their reach extended to every household, much more than any other platform, even political mobilisation. The pen, the song, the composer, the singer were no less powerful in inspiring the people’s fight for freedom as the non-violent political movement, or the sword (whenever rarely used).

Many films and even more songs were released during the period which, either obviously or obliquely, depicted the British as the villain. The censors made every possible attempt to throttle such messages, but most films and songs slipped through. From the mid-1940s, with freedom in the air, the British censors’ grip slackened, and films and songs became more direct, and bolder.

So, which were these films? Which were these ‘Azaadi ke Taraane’?

One song that probably many would know is ‘Chal Chal Re Naujawan, Kehna Mera Maan’ from Bandhan (1940). Kavi Pradeep was the lyricist (who else?) and the music director was Ramchandra Pal. Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis starred in the film. The song was parodied in Ek Phool Do Mali (1969) and that’s probably when most people heard it for the first time.

Film poster of ‘Bandhan’.
Film poster of ‘Bandhan’.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This song became very popular. So much so that when the film opened in Delhi, the audience wanted the song to be shown again. So, it was played again after the film was over. It is an inspirational and marching song for children. For this reason, it was included in the Hindi school books of those times. The song had many versions – the most famous sung by the child star Suresh.

Ashok Kumar also sang a version:

The impact of the song was so significant that when S Mukherjee, Ashok Kumar, Kavi Pradeep, and others, left Bombay Talkies and established Filmistan Studios, their first film in 1944 was titled ‘Chal Chal Re Naujawan’! This film too had an inspirational song ‘Jai Bharat Desh, Teri Jai, Bharat Ke Naujawanon Chalo Ek Raah Par, Ai Hindu Musalmanon Chalo Ek Raah Par’ sung by Ashok Kumar to the music of Ghulam Haider (who migrated to Pakistan after independence) and lyrics of Kavi Pradeep.

This song, like many others, advocated Hindu-Muslim unity.

Ghulam Haider composed another song in the film Bhai (1944) ‘Hindu Muslim Sikh Issai, Aapas Mein Hain Bhai Bhai’ sung by Shyam Sunder. A year earlier, in Poonji (1943), he composed ‘Hey Mata Ab Jaag Uthe Hain Hum’ sung by Shamshad Begum.

Pehle Aap (1944) had a song ‘Hindustan Ke Hum Hain, Hindustan Hamara, Hindu Muslim Dono Ki, Aankhon Ka Tara’ sung by Mohammed Rafi to the music of Naushad.

When Indian Films Had Two Titles

Even Noor Jahan sang a patriotic song in Hamjoli (1946) ‘Yeh Desh Hamara Pyara, Hindustan Jahaan Se Pyaara’ composed by Hafiz Khan. A year later, she would move to Pakistan and would star in her first Pakistani film Chan Wey (1951), opposite Santosh Kumar, a famous actor of the 1950s and 1960s (he had a brother Darpan – another renowned actor of that era).

In fact, Noor Jahan acted in Badi Maa (1945) too, set against the backdrop of World War II, which had two patriotic songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Lata acted in the film too – ‘Mata, Tere Charnon Mein Guzar Jaaye Umariya’ (with Ishwarlal) and ‘Janani Janambhoomi… Tum Ho Maa, Badi Maa’ (with Meenakshi Shirodkar) to the music K Dutta. The film also had Asha Bhosle in a minor role. This is the only film which had the three singing goddesses acting together.

Lata sang other such songs too. In Sona Chandi (1946) – the other name Bhai Bhai – she sang ‘Pyare Bapu ke Charnon Ki Le Lo Kasam, Pyaare Pyaare Tirange Ki Le Lo Kasam’ under the baton of DC Dutta.

A brief pause here. The above film had two titles. Those days it was not uncommon to have films with two titles with ‘urf’ in between such as Satya Ki Raksha urf Harishchandra Taramati; Ehd e Inteqam urf Diler Ladki.

Dev Anand’s very first film Hum Ek Hain (1946) had a song ‘Hum Jaag Uthe Hain So Kar’ composed by Husnlal Bhagatram

Even ‘Fearless Nadia’, famous for her stunt films, pitched in. Her Lutaroo Lalna (1938) directed by Homi Wadia, had ‘Jug Jug Chamke Hind Ka Tara, Jhanda Ooncha Rahe Hamara’ sung by Master Mohammed (music director) and Sarita Devi which became very popular. The refrain, ‘Jhanda Ooncha Rahe Hamara’, would be sung by freedom fighters. It had one more song – ‘Jug Jug Chamke Hind Ka Tara’ sung by Sarita Devi. Master Mohammed had earlier composed patriotic songs for Veer Bharat (1934) and Jai Bharat (1936).

Fearless Nadia in the Indian movie 11 O’Clock (1948). Basant Pictures.
Fearless Nadia in the Indian movie 11 O’Clock (1948). Basant Pictures.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Bombay Talkies’ Janmabhoomi (1936) starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani had ‘Mata Ne Hai Janam Diya, Jeene Ke Liye’ sung by Devika Rani.

It had another song: ‘Jai Jai Janani Janmabhoomi’ sung by Ashok Kumar.

The music was composed by Saraswati Devi.

Bombay Talkies made one more film – Anjaan (1941) starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani which had the song ‘Kheecho Kamaan Kheecho, O Bharat Ma Ke Naujawan’ sung by Ashok Kumar. The music director was Pannalal Ghosh (the flute maestro) and lyricist was Kavi Pradeep.

New Theatres’ Hamrahi (1945), directed by Bimal Roy, included Rabindranath Tagore's ‘Jana Gana Mana’, even before it became the national anthem of India. The song has more verses than the national anthem.

There was another song in the film – ‘Badhe Chalo, Bhade Chalo, Badhe Chalo Jawaano’ composed by Rai Chand Boral.

Ek Kadam (1947) went so far ahead as to show Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on its poster.

Film poster of ‘Ek Kadam’
Film poster of ‘Ek Kadam’
(Photo: Osianama.com)

And the list continues:

  • Amar Prem (1936) ‘Hamara Pyara Hindustan, Pyara Hindustan’
  • Jay Bharat (1936) ‘Hum Watan Ke Watan Hamara, Bharat Mata Jay Jay Jay’
  • Bharat Ki Beti (1936), other name: Sneh Lata‘Hey Dhanya Tu Bharat Nari, Mahima Hai Teri Nyaari’
  • Samaj Patan (1937), other name: Zaalim Zamana‘Jaago Jaago Bharatwasi , Ek Din Tum The Jagat Guru’
  • His Highness (1937)‘Bharat Hai Sukh Chain Hamara, Apna Watan Hai Subko Pyara’
  • Toofan Express (1938)‘Dharti Mata Baalak Tere Charnon Mein Sheesh Nawaein’
  • Brahmachari (1938)‘Chalo Sipahi, Karo Safai, Haath Dharo Jhaadoo’
  • Karma Veer (1938), other name: Mard Bano‘Saare Deshon Se Nyaari, Pyaari Bharat Mata Hamari’
  • Wasiyat (1940)‘Hind Mata Ki Tum Santaan Ho, Naujawanon Tum Watan Ki Shaan Ho’
  • Aaj Ka Hindustan (1940) ‘Charkha Chalaao Behnon, Kaato Yeh Kachhe Dhaage’
  • Amrit (1941)‘Jaago Jawano, Jaago Jawano, Navjug Aaya Re’
  • Koshish (1943) – ‘Ai Hind Ke Sapooton, Jaago, Hua Savera, Hindu Hon Ya Musalman, Hum Sab Hain Bhai Bhai’ and ‘Hindustan Walon, Hindustan Walon’ – both songs sung by GM Durrani
  • Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943)‘Mata Mata, Meri Mata, Bharat Mata’ sung by Shamshad Begum The music director was Rafiq Ghazanvi who later migrated to Pakistan
  • Muskarahat (1943)‘Bharat Desh Hamara, Hara Bhara Hariyara’ composed by C Ramchandra
  • Chand (1944)‘Watan Se Chala Hai Watan Ka Sipahi’ composed by Husnlal Bhagatram, their first film
  • Parinde (1945) – Doobte Bharat Ko Bachao, Mere Kartaar’ sung by Zohrabai Ambalewali
  • Naseeb (1945)‘Hum Panchhi Hai Aazaad, Humme Koi Pinjare Main Kyun Daale’
  • Ghulami (1945)‘Ai Watan Mere Watan, Tum Pey Meri Jaan Nisar’
  • Swayam Se Sunder Desh Hamara (1945) – English Name: Call of the Motherland ‘Desh Hamara, Desh Hamara, Desh Hamara, Desh Hamara Swarg Se Sunder, Desh Hamara’
  • Pannabai (1945) ‘Chale Musafir, Khaak Watan Ki Lekar, Desh Parai’
  • Mansarovar (1946) ‘Jai Hind Jai Hind, Hind Ki Kahaniyan, Yeh Hind Ki Kahaniyan’ composed by SN Tripathi
  • Zanjeer (1947) ‘Naach Rahi Thi Bharat Mata, Azadi ke Aangan Mein’
  • Ahinsa (1947)‘Sadiyon Se Hai Ghulam, Janmabhumi Hamari’; ‘Azaad Hai Hum Aaj Se, Jailon Ke Taaley Tod Do, Angrezon Bharat Chhod Do’ (sung by Chitalkar). The music director was C Ramchandra

All these songs were replete with ‘Bharat Mata’, ‘Watan’, ‘Hind’, ‘Dharti Mata’, ‘Hindustan’.

Freedom: Throwing Off Yoke Of British Subjugation & Regressive Facets Of Indian Society

The films not only inspired the countrymen to fight for freedom with zeal and fervour but also spoke against the social ills plaguing Indian society. Freedom meant not only throwing off the yoke of British subjugation but also the yoke of regressive facets of Indian society that Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders were fighting against. The films and songs also promoted charkha, khadi, swadeshi goods. One such song was ‘Charkha Chalao Behno’ in Aaj Ka Hindustan (1940).

Duniya Na Mane (1937) – a social classic of V Shantaram, raised its voice against the treatment of women in society, specifically child marriage and dowry menace. It had a song ‘Aha, Bharat Pyaara Hai, Hai Who Jag Se Nyaara’.

Poster of movie ‘Kunku’ (Marathi)/ ‘Duniya Na Mane’ (Hindi), 1937, by V. Shantaram.
Poster of movie ‘Kunku’ (Marathi)/ ‘Duniya Na Mane’ (Hindi), 1937, by V. Shantaram.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Actress Shanta Apte sang the full-fledged English song / poem – ‘A Psalm of Life’ – by HW Longfellow.

Brandy Ki Botal (1939) criticised liquor consumption and exhorted Gandhian morality and self- discipline. Ghar Ki Rani (1940) showed the adverse consequences of aping western traditions. Achhut (1940) sought to promote Gandhi's movement against untouchability.

V Shantaram’s Dharmatma (1935), on the caste system, based on the legendary Marathi religious poet and scholar Sant Eknath, was originally titled ‘Mahatma’. There are conflicting accounts as to why it had to be renamed. One account has it that Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, the then Home Minister of Bombay State, charged Shantaram with exploiting the name of Mahatma Gandhi for selfish purposes. The other account is that it was done due to the censors’ objection.

English Films To Counter Patriotic Hindi Ones

But the British were not sitting silent. As a counter to patriotic Hindi films, the British released English language films showing Indians in poor light.

The Drum (1938) showed all Indians as untrustworthy and scheming against their British masters. Bombay city rose in revolt against the screening of the film with the ‘Frontier Gandhi’ Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan demanding its ban. The Lives of A Bengal Lancer (1935) met with stiff objections in Lahore by the Muslim community for its disrespectful portrayal of the Muslims.

Bengal Lancer movie poster.
Bengal Lancer movie poster.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

‘Chal Chal Re Naujawan’, post 1947, led to ‘Nanha Munha Rahi Hoon’ (Son of India,1962).

One inspired the freedom movement, and after its attainment, the other instilled love for the nation.

Both are two sides of the same coin and both need their rightful place in history. But ‘freedom’ from ignorance, from poverty, from disease, from an unequal society is still work in progress. “Tu aage badhe ja, aafat se lade ja, aandhi ho ya toofan, phat’ta ho aasmaan, rukna tera kaam nahin, chalna teri shaan, chal chal re naujawan” – is still relevant.

(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS Officer and presently runs a Tax and Legal Advisory. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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