The Future Speaks Through Films of Our Past

Social Commentary

The Future Speaks Through Films of Our Past

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

F

ilms are an often overlooked but reliable token of history. Sometimes, they hold the key to the future; sometimes they can predict it. An alien might see in us that which we cannot either feel or admit to. It often takes an outsider to show us the clearest mirrors with the greatest depths.

Films made during the years of the Raj have been rejected by us for the simple reason that they fall on the other side of a binary we now seek in everything foreign from that period. But these films spoke volumes that maybe even history hasn’t captured. A whole group of pre-Independence films produced by the Raj, for example, could be earmarked as soft advertisements for justifying colonial rule in the face of the Quit India Movement.

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Armand Denis and Leina Roosevelt’s Chrysler-truck-sponsored East of Bombay (1937) – part of Wheels Across India (1940) – prefigures the future 80 years down the line. The film talks unreservedly about India’s veneration for the cow, how people can be murdered for it, and the importance of the Indian Muslim as part of its urban sprawl. While it is not free of a perverse focus on India’s mystique, its magicians and tricksters, it does point to something poignantly current.

Fast-forward to the present day and the information pouring from our devices feels like an atavistic throwback to the past, an exaggeration of East of Bombay’s script. The kind we’d have accused the Raj of doing; only we can’t, because it is now our reality. The cow is still venerated and people are indeed still being killed over it. The Indian Muslim, meanwhile, has to watch every step. Eighty years on and we have, it seems, taken to telling the stories the Raj wanted to tell about us. It is a bit of a shame that our destiny in our hands looks no different from the one they imagined for us.

Armand Denis and Leina Roosevelt’s “East of Bombay” talks unreservedly about India’s veneration for the cow, and how people can be murdered for it.

Image Credit / Armand Denis and Leina Roosevelt and Travel Film Archives, YouTube

Not too far in the future from East of Bombay is Encyclopaedia Britannica’s India (1951). Set nearly 15 years later, India is more astute in its conjecture than the earlier film and talks about our handicap of caste and communal tensions. While East of Bombay seeks to be more explorative and raises its eyebrows at India’s queer traditions or culture, India is simultaneously assertive and assuring. It talks about caste as a problem of the Hindu population – not necessarily that of the entire country – and underlines the country’s diversity and its dependence on maligned minorities like Muslims and Christians. In a way, investing in India’s secularism is an idea we seem prepared to almost give up on.

Were we always like this? Perhaps not, and if proof is required that we were, at one point, further from all this than we are today, there is SNS Sastry’s wonderful I am 20 (1967).

What would be particularly jarring to many, other than the voice, the subject, and narrative of these films is the fact that both pin their political and social concerns around the cow. A few years ago, it might have been amusing to view them as quaint cultural artefacts of a bygone era. Now, as cows drive our political discourse and questions are raised about the place of the Muslim in India, it is no longer possible to just dismiss these films. This old and seemingly outdated question has come to claim our present. To add to that, there is little space for dissenting opinion, a dangerous premium on free expression, and a corrosive inability to be self-critical.

Were we always like this? Perhaps not, and if proof is required that we were, at one point, further from all this than we are today, there is SNS Sastry’s wonderful I am 20 (1967).

Shot on the simple premise of talking to Indians who were born in 1947, about the country they call home, I am 20 is a glowing example of the freedoms we once espoused, the criticality with which we looked inward, and the modernity that our egos were sheltered from. In the film, a man laughingly tells Sastry, “I don’t want to be one of those who pretend to love their country. Who shall I tell? Should I go on the street and tell everyone how much I love my country?” Such a statement today would be a target for a ban, for CBFC’s ire, or an online troll’s hate. Another man, as if having gone back in time only yesterday, says, “Our greatest accomplishment is that we have a bright future; our greatest failure is that we have a precarious present.”

Shot on the simple premise of talking to Indians who were born in 1947, about the country they call home, “I am 20” is a glowing example of the freedoms we once espoused.

Image Credit / SNS Sastry and Films Division, YouTube

Sastry’s frank and near-confessional look at an India 20 years on from Independence, seems like a thing of the future. In the film, another man explains his idea of freedom: “Azaadi ka matlab hai swatantrata. Khud ko azaad rakhna. Kisi ke adheen naa rakhna.” Loosely translated, it means:

Freedom means to be free
Keeping yourself free and
Not at the mercy of others

What better time to remind ourselves of the way we once were. Might we at least get back the India we already were at some point? In a way we might have achieved modernity in the body, but for some reason our hearts and minds have travelled backward. These ideas, before they become omens, must be resisted. India cannot survive another Partition.

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