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Indira's Emergency and India's Film

Societies prefer to learn from their failures rather than from successes. As the rise and fall of Indira Gandhi recedes into India's past, the true lessons of her rule are apt to be forgotten and people are likely to discover in her the various aspects of their own rejected selves, thus mythologizing the entire experience of her rule as the battle between the good and the evil, the progressive and the regressive, and the hard and the soft.
- Ashis Nandy in his book 'At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture' (1980) starting off the essay 'Indira Gandhi and the culture of Indian Politics'

Nobody is more into the business of mythologizing in India than its film Industry. And yet.

If we think about Films, Emergency years and Indira Politics, name of films like Gulzar's Aandhi (1975) and Sudhir Misra's Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005) come to mind. Most often, that's about it. And both these films in pure terms are not actually about politics. In Andhi, a working women (who happens to be a politician) in the end finds her place in the society and in Misra's film a young man (of post-Nehruvian era) tries to create a place for himself in the 'new order', fails and finds a place and a numbing peace in the arms of a woman who was equally out of place. Politics wasn't the main theme of these films, they just dealt with it. There is not a film that would touch the 'RSS brand Gandhian Socialism' that was the one basic wave sweeping in nationalist corridors of India during the Emergency (on the subject and more check out Christophe Jaffrelot's brilliant year 1996 book, 'The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s').  

Politics, real politics was never a popular theme for Indian films. Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) made by a former parliamentarian from Rajasthan may well be the reason and the lesson. The film was a satire on the politics of Indira Gandhi. The film had an impressive cast that included Shabana Azmi, Raj Babbar, Utpal Dutt, Manohar Singh, Rehana Sultana and Katy Mirza. Even though the film was passed by the Censors with no less than 40 cuts, after the films release, Sanjay Gandhi and buddies backed by the mob of Youth Congress went into a public campaign of intimidation. Cinema Halls screening the film were burnt down and the government too decided to swiftly move against the film. A storm followed.

Ved Mehta in his book 'A family affair: India under three prime ministers' recalls:
In July, 1975, Mrs. Gandhi's government had confiscated the negative and al the prints of the film, whereupon its producer, one Amrit Nahata, had petitioned the Supreme court to get his film back, but the following November, eleven days before the film was scheduled to be screened in Court, the confiscated material had mysteriously disappeared, leaving the producer without the film - the evidence for his petition. After the overthrow of Mrs. Gandhi, it was alleged that Sanjay, with R.K Dhawa, private secretary to Mrs. Gandhi, and V.C. Shukla, her Minister for Information and Broadcasting, had burned the film in the sanctuary of Sanjay's car factory.
And according to this fine article about Bollywood and politics :

An original copy of Kissa Kursi Ka reached the United States, where it was forwarded to the New York Film Academy, one of only a handful of original copies to still survive.

Bollywood film personalities found themselves wrapped up in the politics of the Emergency. The axe fell on "Biharibabu" Shatrughan Sinha and all time musical legend Kishore Kumar, both of whom were perceived as unsympathetic to the Congress and Indira Gandhi. Information and Broadcasting Minister K. K. Tiwari banned any film featuring Shatrughan Sinha, a supporter of opposition leader Jayaprakash Narayan.

Playback singer Kishore Kumar was similarly barred from All India Radio and Doordarshan during the Emergency. He incurred the wrath of India Gandhi's cronies for refusing to curry favor with the Congress Party. Dev Anand and I. S. Johar lost favor because they floated their own National Party in 1975 to protest the excesses of the Emergency [the funny guy even made a film called 'Nasbandi']. Between 1975 to 1977, several Indian film personalities fled overseas to escape the wrath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her inner cabal.

Memories of the censorship during the Emergency were revived this month [year 2004. Surprised!] when the new Congress government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the sudden withdrawal of the film Loknayak on Oct 11 from the telecast schedule of the government TV channel Doordarshan.

Directed by Prakash Jha, Loknayak portrays the life of the famous Indian freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan. A fierce opponent of Indira Gandhi's declaration of Emergency, Jayaprakash called for "Sampoorna Kranti" or total revolution in India in 1973-74.
Keeping all this in mind.

Last month I got an email from Vinay Shukla, a young filmmaker from Bombay (among other things, previously ADed a film called Continuum [Youtube link, dekkho!], who is now working on his first short film as a director. The film set in Uttar Pradesh of 1976 will deal with The Emergency Period. Given the nature of my blog, vintage ads and all, he thought maybe I could help him with the project, source some ads and anecdotes to get the era right. I asked him for the storyline. Can't divulge the details but what I read certainly got me interested.  What followed over the next few days was a nice little conversation, part of which I am sharing below. Hopefully some of the readers might have something interesting to add.

Vinay: The film opens in this scenario and goes into the life of the jailor of one such prison. We stay with the jailor throughout and observe the eccentricity of the world he is functioning in. It's a 20 minute plot oriented film with two main conflicts. The film is layered with political and social commentary but none directly. None of my characters will be political ideologues and they will not be talking about the politics of that time. I am keeping this film as the story of a common govt officer.

[ goes on to explain a scene that crafty uses Newspaper.]


Vinayak: Certainly interesting. Sounds good. I will help with whatever little I know. Sourcing ads exactly from years  1975-77 may be a bit  difficult. But I do have a bunch from the 70s as you must have noticed. You can surely use them. And I  have read some anecdotes from those years...

Like about that Newspaper scene, I think it will be great on screen (and the use of telephone for News was indeed very true of the time) but one of the interesting things about Emergency (in words of Advani)  was how Newspaperwallas 'crawled when they were asked to bend' . In light of that the act of a Editor to print blank page may seem like a brave act of protest which very few in that year would have had the nerve to pull off. The media in fact developed teeth only after the Emergency.

And since your film will be based in may note that the maximum number of people ( 'Satyagrahis' - to use the exact term used that time around) who were put in Jail in U.P (mostly immediately after Emergency was declared) were from RSS (around 400).  

Vinay: well the newspaper won't be entirely blank, it will have blank patches. Back then, newspapers like Statesman and Indian Express had shown exemplary resistance against the govt. When their power was cut by the govt they got the courts to restore it. They chose to print blank spaces whenever there stories were censored. Writing on a picture is a good idea though.

There is an interesting after story to the RSS guys - after the emergency got over, the RSS went all out to show how its leaders had suffered in jail for the people. They went red in the face when Indira Gandhi flung their letters asking for pardon (which they repeatedly while jailed) in the parliament. The buggers had written her letters saying that they admit and realize their mistake and they should be let free :P We do go into the that zone in the film but we don't mention the RSS guys explicitly in the film since it was really a bigger phenomenon of a lot of big ppl saying that they are sorry and they should be freed.

Another interesting kissa is that Indira Gandhi had a grudge against the royal kingdoms and when emergency came down - she got the Rajmata of Jaipur and Gwalior arrested and jailed for charges like black marketing!

Vinayak: Yeah RSS guys were afraid that they are going to be banned all over again and they will lose control over the network that they had built over the years. Jansangh, and through them RSS, was not the only one after power. In the 60s not just socialist but even communist were in some sort of partnership with Jansangh in some states. The opposition openly claimed that their aim was to topple the government at all cost, ideologies be damned.
Rajmata was Jansangh's main 'guy' in Madhya Bharat no doubt Mrs Gandhi gave her a little treatment. In 1971 Ramnath Goenka , malik of Indian Express, with the blessings of Rajmata and Jan Sangh stood up for Lok Sabha election from Vidisha near Bhopal and won.

Even though Feroze Gandhi was at one was the MD of Indian Express in Delhi, but paper itself was never too close to the family.

Here's something interesting: In 1976 Indian Express got away with publishing this carefully crafted obituary ( maybe not original though because but these words were also published a  in a Lankan newspaper in their own political context in around 1974 ) "The death occurred under tragic circumstances of O'Cracy: D.E.M. O'Cracy, beloved husband of T.Ruth, Father of L.I. Berty, father of Faith, Hope and Justice, on June 26."

Vinay: Very very valid trivia. Thank you so much!!

The ad is correct. Thats how it appeared back then in the TOI.

Attached alongside is the cover of the "Akashwani" magazine which used to be published back then. I'm looking to source copies of the same. I need to know what the content on radio was since the radio plays an important part of the setup in our film. So if you happen to know of/posses any jingle from back then. This magazine is important since it immediately reminds of that time period. Its something which belongs to that era. Can you think of similar objects from the media or life in general?

I saw the magazine in a film.

Vinayak: Can't help you with Akashwani magazine. But yes...I can help with the radio. I have collected a couple of 70s radio ads from various hindi films. Here are the links from my blog:

With a little editing you can easily use these. In addition to these, to get radio samples of the Government propaganda that was broadcast in those need to get you hand on a film called Mazdoor Zindabaad (1976). It was a propaganda film supporting Indira Gandhi and had a some scenes involving radio.

Hope that helps!

[You may also like to check out 'Indira Gandhi and the emergency as viewed in the Indian novel'  by Dr. O. P. Mathur]


  1. Also, picked up one more trivia (thanks to the book by Iqbal Masud). Indira Gandhi's defeat post Emergency in 1977 election and Janta Party's win was announced on Doordarshan by newsreader Dolly Thakore. It is said that unlike any other day, and against the Doordarshan norm, she delivered the news with a broad smile.

  2. she became infamous for 'nasbandi' young boys were scared of her.....heard so from my grand dad

  3. Recently, I came across a veiled reference to it in oddest of places. A Ramsay brothers' movie.


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