New film by Kangana Ranaut revisits the anger and angst of urgency

A new hindi movie, Emergency, directed by Kangana Ranaut and also starring her as former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, ran into trouble even before its release as Congress expressed reservations about how it portrayed Ms Gandhi. While the state of emergency, a 21-month period from June 25, 1975 to March 21, 1977 when Mrs. Gandhi suspended basic rights, imprisoned political opponents and ruled by decree, is a significant event in post – India’s independence is something of a lost moment in mainstream Hindi cinema. Only a few movies — Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Sudhir Mishra, 2003), Indu Sarkar (Madhur Bhandarkar, 2017) – attempted to represent or engage with it.

While writing about the effects of the forced sterilization campaign and the relocation of Delhi’s citizens to the eastern fringes of the city, anthropologist Emma Tarlo in her landmark book Unsettling Memories (2003) argued that the urgency was “a lost moment” for historians and politicians. scientists. She believed that this amnesia was the result of socio-political processes deliberately initiated by Congress after its re-election to power in 1980. Congress, led by Mrs. Gandhi, had suffered a shocking defeat in the central parliament elections in 1977, a moment often described as a shining example of Indian democracy.

Tarlo’s assertion, however, is only partially correct. It is true that Congress has tried to erase the memories of the emergency by various means. For example, the party apparently acquired and destroyed several copies of the report produced by a commission, headed by Judge JC Shah, which investigated the excesses of the emergency. Others, like the sociologist Smriti Sawkar, have show how Mrs Gandhi’s government also engaged in “spectacular politics”, organizing such spectacles as the Asian Games in New Delhi (1982), the India Festival in Britain (1982), the launch of the Maruti Suzuki “family car” (1983), and the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Delhi (1983) to regain the public trust it had lost due to the state of emergency.

However, by the time Tarlo published his book, there had been several significant interventions in the history and analysis of the emergency by journalists, political scientists and historians. Of these, perhaps the most significant is left-wing historian Vijay Prasad’s 1996 essay “Emergency Assessments”, in which he uses the prison diaries of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci to assess whether the emergency was a “fascist moment” and also traces the rise of the Hindu right. in India. Historian Ram Guha has also written extensively about this in his monumental work India after Gandhi (2007).

Urgency has also had a checkered career in Hindi cinema. Shortly after his dismissal in 1977, Amrit Nahata, a congressman, accused Sanjay Gandhi of stealing and destroying all copies of his film , which had caricatured Mrs. Gandhi’s regime. Sanjay and Indira Gandhi’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting, VC Shukla, was sentenced by “a lower court to two years in prison for destroying the original negative of the film…He appealed to the High Court. But at some point his bail was canceled and he had to spend a few nights in jail,” journalist Coomi Kapoor writes in her book. The emergency: a personal story (2015). By 1980, however, Indira Gandhi was back in power and, as Elliot Stein reported in Movie commentaryNahata has withdrawn his complaint against Sanjay Gandhi.

Two other mainstream films — Gol Maal (1979) and Khubsorat (1980) – both directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee engaged with urgency, or at least with the idea of ​​authoritarianism. Gol Maal, a classic now, is perhaps the first Hindi film to reference urgency. In an early scene, protagonist Ramprasad Sharma (Amol Palekar) takes his friends out for a picnic to celebrate a promotion at his job. A friend of his announces that he has three tickets for an Indo-Pakistani hockey game and that only two of them can go. There’s a bit of a stir among the friends when the friend with the tickets silences them: “Just because the emergency is over doesn’t mean you’re going to behave so unruly.” Discipline was a slogan for Emergency.

Ramprasad’s overbearing boss Bhawani Shankar (Utpal Dutt)’s obsession with his mustache is said to have reminded audiences of Hitler – in fact, Deven Verma, playing himself in the film, references the German dictator in the final scenes of Gol Maal. Likewise, Nirmala Gupta (Dina Pathak), the family matriarch in Khubsoorat, who rules her household with relentless laws, would have reminded a contemporary audience of Mrs. Gandhi. Nirmala’s law-bound household is disrupted by a rebellious young relative Manju (Rekha). After Khubsoorat, however, the urgency almost disappears from Hindi cinema, perhaps because of the fate of Kissa Kursi Ka and Amrit Nahata.

This silence would not be broken briefly until 2005, with the delayed release of the critically acclaimed film. Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi, directed by Sudhir Mishra. The film appears to be inspired by political historian Sudipta Kaviraj’s suggestion that the 1970s in India should not be seen as a decade but as a longer period during which Indira Gandhi dominated the country’s political landscape. , from 1966, when she became first. minister and ending in 1984 when she was assassinated. Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi begins in the early years of the decade and centers on a love triangle between Siddharth Tyabji (Kay Kay Menon), Geeta Rao (Chitrangada Singh) and Vikram Malhotra (Shiney Ahuja), all students at Delhi University. It traces their lives through the tumultuous decade, ending shortly after the emergency when they are all irreconcilable. In retrospect, this film can be seen as part of a great nostalgic repackaging of the 1970s in Bollywood, with films like Action replay (Vipul Amrutlal Shah, 2010), Once upon a time in Mumbai (Milan Luthria, 2010) and Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007).

Since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected to power, there has been a resurgence of interest in the emergency, both academically and in culture. popular. This is partly the result of government activities – in 2015 it commemorated the 40th anniversary of the emergency, highlighting the role of Hindu leaders as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in resisting it. Several senior BJP leaders, such as former finance minister Arun Jaitley and current Rajya Sabha member Prakash Javadekar were jailed during the emergency, and Modi himself had taken part in the Navnirman anti-corruption movement in his home state of Gujarat in 1974. However, critics of the government have also likened its tenure to urgency due to decrease in freedom of the press, democracy in declineand rise of religious intolerance.

This renewed interest is also reflected in scholarly work. The most significant of these is India’s first dictatorship (2021) by political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and historian Pratinav Anil. Jaffrelot and Anil use the theory of “sultanism”, developed by Juan Linz and Alfred Stephan, to explain the personality cult around Mrs. Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency. Besides the provocative title, Jaffrelot, in a interview with Thread, called the current political climate in India “sultanism”. Historian Gyan Prakash in his book Emergency Chronicles (2019), drawing on the political power theories of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, describes the emergency as a “state of exception”.

Despite the renewed interest in ED, Bollywood has been slow to catch up. Two recent films that focus on or reference urgency – Indu Sarkar (Madhur Bhandarkar, 2017) and Baadshaho (Milan Luthria, 2017) – have been disappointing. While some critics have identified the first film as a kind of pro-government propaganda, the second is a vapid heist drama that caricatures Sanjay Gandhi and Maharani Gayatri Devi. One can only hope that Emergency doesn’t add anything to this pile. But given Kangana Ranaut’s recent work, that hope doesn’t shine too bright.

Uttaran Das Gupta teaches journalism at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. Her novel, Ritual, was published in 2020

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