NEHRU ON, AND IN INDIAN CINEMA
This is the season for film festivals in the country. Two film festivals have just been held: The Kolkata International Film Festival and the International Film Festival of India in Panaji, Goa.
There is one common factor in all such international events, now at least 27 in number, being held in the country annually. No one knows how the precedence was set and by whom. Apparently there were three original players of the drama. To recognize them we have to go back in time to the year of our Independence.
Before 1947, the Indian Congress Party had appointed the Parsi polymath Jehangir (Jean) Shapurji Bhownagary, a French-Indian based in Paris, as its information officer for advocating the cause of the Indian freedom struggle before the European political agencies. Bhownagary was substantially wealthy and moved freely amongst intellectuals and artists. He saw the rebirth of the film festivals in Venice and thereafter in Cannes. India’s own free enterprise, like the films Neecha Nagar and SantTukaram, made its mark in international cinema without any official backing and won accolades.
The newly installed Indian Government invited Bhownagary to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1951 and appointed him Information Advisor to the Central Government. More importantly, he was advised to stay in close contact with Indira Gandhi, the youthful daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira was also fresh from a long stay in European cultural waterholes and the two shared notes on arts and cultureand how to revive Indian sensibilities in this sphere.
As soon as Indian Cinema entered the era of the ‘talkies’, it also took upon itself the role of pushing the envelope in the country’s freedom struggle. The effort continued till the objective was achieved.
Nehru’s own objective was to deploy all available means in the process of nation building. That included using a vast pool of cultural assets to revive the glorious past of its various civilizations and communities. Cinema could become its powerful engine. Standing in the wings, Bhownagary glimpsed Nehru’s vision and impressed Indira Gandhi about the need to push the cause of the country’s vibrant film industry. Indira became the second actor in the drama.
A speech delivered by Nehru in which he extolled India’s need to keep its windows open to the West and welcome all that was the best in the sciences and cultures, prompted Indira to write a note to her father. She dwelt on the concept of organizing international film festivals in India to showcase the best of cinema it produced. This note was approved by Nehru, which was then send down to R.R.Diwakar, the newly appointed Minister of Information in the Union Cabinet. Diwakar had no idea of this subject and reached for help from Indira Gabdhi. Indira in turn called for Bhownagary and he was asked to advise the Information Ministry on how to go about organizing film festivals, using the system in Venice and Cannes as working models! The Indian embassies in Europe, the Americas and other film producing countries in Asia were approached for information about the good films doing the rounds and their makers.
The first International Film Festival of India in January 1952 set the precedence. Films from twenty two nations including the USSR, USA, UK, France, Italy, Germany and Japan were screened to audiences in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and New Delhi. Leaders of the Indian film industry joined hands to support the effort.
India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawahar Nehru attended the regional inauguration of the Festival held in the auditorium of the National Physical Laboratory, Pusa-Delhi.
His message to the Inaugural in Bombay, which he could not attend was, “I hope that films which are just sensational or melodramatic or as such make capital out of crime, will not be encouraged. If our film industry keeps this ideal before it, it will encourage good taste and help pave its own way in the building of a new India….. The festival and the Exhibition will bring new ideas from other countries. I hope that we shall profit by these ideas”.
The first International Film Festival did not lay the foundation for holding international film events in the country. However, it did leave an indelible impact on the Indian film industry. It also laid the foundation for what in future came to be known as ‘Nehru’s socialist dream in cinema’.
Nehru became the third actor in the drama.
Unlike his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru was not a bigot. A Fabian by thought, he travelled widely and saw the changes that were wrought abroad and realized why his own country had been left behind. As a Traipos in Botany from Cambridge, he saw his times through the filters of science and found its child, cinema, entertaining. He would have frequented the movie theatres in the neighbourhood of his college with his friends to view Charlie Chaplin’s early comedies. Nehru remained a distant acquaintance of the two world artists, Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin. The latter was outlawed in India by the British Imperial administration. During the Nehru era, Chaplin and the Soviet film director Sergio Eisenstein were restored to their exalted cinematic status India.
Nehru’s support enabled Jean Bhownagary to engineer the constitution of a new film enquiry committee headed by S. K. Patil, the labour leader, and define the kind of cinema which independent India needed. The resultant ‘Film Enquiry Report of the Patil Committee’ sought momentous changes in the state of Indian cinema and Nehru ensured that its recommendations were accepted and implemented in a timely manner. The Report also led to the founding of a film funding authority in the Central Government, the Film Finance Corporation. A new Cinematography Act of 1952 was passed in the Parliament, the National Films Award scheme was launched and the Board of Film Censors was reconstituted with a new mandate. Future films would not be viewed from the political point angle and the revival of Indian cultural values would be assured.
Only one recommendation of this Committee was delayed inordinately – the creation of an official training centre for cinematic arts. The Film Institute of India was opened in 1961.
The entire gamut of changes carried out in the film industry bears the fingerprints of Bhownagary and V Shantaram. Nehru’s imprint is visible in the newly constituted Dada Sahib Phalke Award bestowed for the first time to an Indian artist. The first awardee selected was Devika Rani Roerich. It was Nehru’s choice also.
Nehru had been an ardent fan of this cute niece of the Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore since the early days of 1936. He had seen her in Achhut Kanya, her co-star being Ashok Kumar. Nehru pursued Devika for a personal meeting thereafter. He even wrote a fan letter to Devika which finds mention in Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s I am Not an Island: An Experiment in Autobiography. In it Abbas recounts an incident in 1941 when he, Ashok Kumar and Devika were sharing lunch with some other artists in the dressing room of Bombay Talkies studio. In all innocence Devika mentioned that she had received a fan letter from Nehru seeking an appointment with her during his official visit to Bombay. Abbas had asked Devika whether she would accept this request and she had said no. This had annoyed Ashok Kumar and he had asked whether she was aware whose request it was that she was declining. Devika had retorted that she knew very well who Nehru was. Askok Kumar rebuked Devika for her vanity and made it plain that he would not associate with her for any professional and social engagement for the next six months. Ashok Kumar kept his word, and Devika had apologized to him for her haughtiness.
Nehru had constituted Akadmies for arts, literature and music with a similar one in mind for Indian cinema. He asked the Sangeet Natak Akademy to organize a national seminar on Indian Cinema. Indira Gandhi was made the Secretary for this seminar. Prithviraj Kapoor and Devika Rani were appointed directors, representing the film industry.
The seminar was inaugurated by Nehru in February, 1955. Speaking on the occasion, Nehru said,
‘I see a great future, a glorious future, for Indian films. Before long I expect Indian films to be exhibited to crowded houses all over the world, and they will earn not only money for our country but also a reputation for beauty, goodness and truth. India must, and will make a distinctive contribution to the film art of the world and I am confident, it will’.
Artists and senior workers of the Indian film industry participated with great gusto to discuss all aspects of film craft. The proceedings were compiled in book form which soon ran out of print and had to be reprinted by the Academy in 1988 with a new jacket and a higher price.
No Indian leader has spoken so confidently with feeling and conviction on the future of the Indian film industry as Nehru did on that occasion. When the young generation film directors spite Nehru for his so called ‘mistakes’, they speak out of ignorance, not knowing how great a visionary he was in laying for them the foundation of the largest film industry in the world.
Nehru took his cinema very seriously.
Nargis, a Rajya Sabha member, had criticized Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchali as a document that ‘sold Indian poverty to the world’. Nehru had stood up and replied:“What is wrong about showing Indian poverty? Everyone knows that we are a poor country. The question is: Are we Indians sensitive to it? Ray has shown it with extraordinary beauty and sensitiveness”.
Nargis was stopped in her tracks and took a different route in the House for voicing the issues she represented for her industry.
Subject to being corrected, Nehru did not see many films during his lifetime. We know that he did see the long feature documentary film on Netaji’s Subhash Chandra Bose’s struggle in Burma and Malaya as a fighter for India’s freedom. This documentary had been smuggled into India by Vallabhbhai Patel for an early morning winter screening in the local Regal Theatre in Delhi. The theatre operator Rajeshwar Dayal was unaware of the content of the film and once the screening was over he found the police staring down at him before arresting him. The local magistrate, Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi, who was also a poet, rescued the operator from charges of treason.
Nehru saw Doctor Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani in 1949. In 1955, he saw the Japanese film The Last War based on the effects of nuclear warfare, and Battleship Potemkin. He was the Chief Guest at the Bombay premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight in New Excelsior cinema. He also saw Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, Bimal Roy’s Sujata, Abbas’s Munna and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. He missed seeing Attenborough’s Gandhi though he had worked hard on the film’s original script by Henry Bolt in order to keep it suitable to the thinking of the old Gandhians. Indira continued her father’s effort when she herself became Prime Minister and pushed the project to its fruition.
Neither Nehru nor Indira ever acted in any film but both found their spirit and images in a large number of films made in the country. Nehru is featured in a cameo role in the 1964 film Haqeeqat, though the shots seem to be lifted from a newsreel showing him on the Sino-India border in Ladakh.
Nehru also found himself as a film subject in at least one feature film, Nainihaal made in 1965 in which a small boy wishes to meet Nehru in New Delhi to complain to him of the problems of children in India, only to find, on reaching, that Nehru had died earlier.
Again, Nehru was the subject of nearly half a dozen documentary films made both in India and abroad. The film made by Shyam Benegal, Nehru, had also received official help which allowed Benegal’s research team to travel to many parts of the world to gather film footage. The material loaned by USSR govt. was much used, but Benegal did not return this material pleading it was allegedly ‘lost’.
A number of films made during 1948 to 1975 now find mention under the umbrella of ‘Films of Nehruvian Socialism’ and alongside those made by Bimal Roy, B.R. Chopra, S.S Vasan, L.B. Prasad, Ramu Kariat, Mehboob Khan, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, K. Amarnath, Mrinal Sen, Ramesh Saigal, Raj Kapoor, B. Nagi Reddy and others.
Nehru was quoted and Indira was caricatured (Aandhi). The father-daughter duo shared substantial glory for creating the Indian Cinema infrastructure as it exists today. This is a surprising achievement to which both never put a claim. It was in line with their nation building endeavor. They were fortunate to have had walking with them, the stalwarts of today’s Golden Age of Indian Cinema.