‘A Vision of Unity’: How Jawaharlal Nehru Helped Shape Indian Cinema and Songs

Nehru’s nationalism was a synonym for secularism that got reflected in the films that were made post-partition.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Jawaharlal Nehru was not just India’s first prime minister but also its conscience keeper. Healing the wounds of the nation with his egalitarian spirit, the giant visionary built an inclusive India that embraced every religion, caste, ethnicity, and language, thus, ensuring the new Republic would survive beyond the unfortunate events of partition. Despite regular military uprisings and dictatorships along its borders, if democracy has dug deep into Indian soil, it is all thanks to Nehru’s exemplary upholding of secular values enshrined in the Constitution.

Nehru’s tireless zeal for freedom, equality, and justice for all citizens acted as an adhesive for our "unity in diversity”, safeguarding the peaceful co-existence of multifarious languages, lifestyles, customs, traditions, and religious practices in India. His liberal outlook made such an indelible impression on the various artistic domains that a substantial number of progressive writers, lyricists, painters, musicians, and filmmakers created "works” that not just strengthened the secular fabric but also provided Indian sub-continent with societal and cultural identities that are acknowledged the world over as “Hindustaaniyat” (Indianness).

So profound was the influence of Nehru’s humanism that it became the bedrock of numerous meaningful Hindi films and it is my steadfast belief that secularism has survived in India largely due to the sacred composite culture propagated by Hindi films and songs. If millions of Indians still practice secularism in their daily lives, it is because of the overriding impact of the Nehruvian ideal of universal brotherhood that permeated through Hindi film scripts and lyrics, nourishing friendship and goodwill in spite of lies and hate spread by devious right-wing megalomaniacs.

Nehru’s Influence on Indian Films

Divisive politics may have led to several communal conflicts in the country but it is irrefutable that the concept of one nation is still alive in the collective conscience of Indians only because most Hindi films have steadfastly promoted Nehru’s maxim that hatred and killing are not tenets of any religion. Go down the memory lane and you will find that irrespective of their quality of production or star power, Hindi films from “Mother India”, “Phir Subah Hogi”, “Jaagte Raho”, “Godaan”, “Paigham” and “Garam Coat” to “Lagaan”, “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” and “Chak De India” have consistently propagated plurality to help India survive as a democracy.

Author and politician Shashi Tharoor once opined that, "Nehru will be remembered for not abandoning vast sections of society” in India’s quest for economic and social progress. Most Hindi movies, especially those made between 1947 to 1980, vindicate the Nehruvian vision of inclusivity since they castigated the caste system and social disparities with great ferocity via noteworthy screen characters like Mrs D’Sa (“Anari”), Sher Khan (“Zanjeer”), Harnam Singh (“Roti Kapda Aur Makaan”) and Bharat (“Upkaar”). Driven by Nehru’s compassion and appeal to give up violence, poets also wove thousands of soul-stirring songs to embalm the painful wounds of partition with "bandages of love”.

Unlike the hypocritical utterances of politicians, phenomenal lyrical renditions like "Insaan Bano” (“Baiju Bawra”), “Pyaar Ki Raah Dikha Duniya Ko” (“Lambe Haath”), “Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega, Insaan Ki Aulad Hai Insaan Banega” (“Dhool Ka Phool”) to “Allah Tero Naam, Ishwar Tero Naam” (“Hum Dono”) and “Saathi Haath Badhana Saathi Re” (“Naya Daur”) inspired the “Ganga – Jamuni” tehzeeb (composite culture) wherein, goodness and humanism were ranked higher than religious and communal practices. Many heart-tugging songs lent a universal colour to festivals like Eid, Raakhee, Holi, Diwali, and Christmas, thereby, improving the quotient of goodwill and harmony in Indian society.

Unlike the mischievous rhetoric of modern polity that has led to horrendous polarisation, Nehru’s nationalism was a synonym for secularism wherein, all were accepted as equals irrespective of their caste, creed, colour, belief, or religion. Inspired by Nehruvian socialism, Hindi filmdom consistently raised the flag for the civil rights of the ostracised or marginalised people: be it through the exposition of feudal landlords in “Saheb Biwi Aur Ghulam” or exposing the vulnerability of the labour class via “Do Bigha Zameen”.

A Reflection of Inclusive Philosophy & Social Justice

If Hindi films pleaded for justice for the physically and mentally challenged (“Dosti”, “Shor” to “Taare Zameen Par”) as well as farmers’ distress (“Mother India” and “Gunga Jumna”), they also pioneered social initiatives like inter-caste betrothals (“Julie”), widow remarriages (“Prem Rog”) as well as denouncing untouchability (“Sujata” & “Achoot Kanya”). Nehru’s boundless affection for children, his concern for their future as well as his exertions for women’s emancipation is well known around the globe and many Hindi films paid sensitive homage to those ideals with remarkable explorations about child labour (“Boot Polish”), orphans (“Brahmachari”) and prostitutes (“Pakeezah”).

Historian Ramachandra Guha states that “Nehru was without question, the chief architect of our democracy. It was he, more than any other nationalist, who promoted universal franchise and the multi-party system.” No wonder, sublime artistes like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Sunil Dutt as well as Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle, Meena Kumari, Sadhna, Nargis, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Khayyam, Bimal Roy, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Naushad and many more went beyond the labels of caste, community and religion to become human and humane!

Incorporating Nehru’s social philosophy of amity and goodwill in their artistic endeavours, the film fraternity not just brought peace and joy into our lives but also inspired us to become better human beings.  Films like “Anand”, “Dil Ek Mandir”,Mujhe Jeene Do”, “Haqeeqat”, “Bandini”, “Parakh” and many others made people realise, with their stories as well as exquisite songs, that our existence is worth only if we bring a qualitative difference to the lives of others.  

Convinced that India was a composite nation that “had drawn from and assimilated many religious and cultural traditions present on the subcontinent”, Nehru’s lifelong mission was to create a strong and independent nation that guaranteed fundamental rights, secularism as well as social equality. Indeed, this sacred and much-needed notion of composite culture was served with an unwavering commitment by the Hindi filmdom whereby most Hindi films proffered love, compassion, and understanding as necessary for survival and urged people must not be crucified at the altar of bias and bigotry.

Amity & Communal Harmony in Films & Songs

It is heartening to note that while Hindu filmmakers glorified Muslim culture in several films like “Mere Mehboob”, “Ghazal”, “Taj Mahal” & “Pakeezaah”, Muslim artistes created hundreds of the most meaningful and mesmerising bhajans for Hindus and to me, that is an outstanding triumph of Nehru’s vision which he personally inscribed into the Indian Constitution. The finest luminaries of the globe affirmed the world had gone poorer without the “great man” and it is not surprising that Hindi filmdom paid Nehru lyrical homages through many songs, the most notable being the Kaifi Azmi-Madan Mohan-Rafi Sahab classic “Meri Awaaz Suno” which still moistens our eyes on every hearing. 

Today, saffron polity derides Jawaharlal Nehru as it has none in its stable equal to Nehru’s political acumen, stature, erudition, statesmanship, humanism, or, enlightened vision. Suffering from verbal diarrhea and a penchant for abuse, they understand little about the magnitude of Nehru’s contribution in creating a strong constitutional democracy in a nation inflicted with social inequities and deprivations. But try what they may, Nehru will live eternally as a champion of the downtrodden, an upholder of human rights who “created for his country a distinctive, independent, international identity.” To billions across the world, Pandit Nehru is immortal and the vast legion of Hindi films will thoroughly validate as well as make Nehru’s extraordinary legacies live on-screen forever! 

(Deepak Mahaan is a documentary filmmaker and an eminent author. A specialist on Cinema and Sports, he has published numerous pieces in prestigious publications in India and abroad. He tweets at @mahaanmahan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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