Bollywood’s Freedom at Midnight: Cinema in the year of India’s Independence

“Magal Pandey: The Rising”

In the last 72 years since India’s independence, its film industry has come a long way. From the mythological stories and great epics of the early 1900s to the films with social messages cinema has always been a medium of connecting with the larger masses. So it comes as no surprise that the year 1947, a momentous year for India, for a significant one for the film industry as well. Along with films that tackled themes like prostitution, dowry, polygamy and survival and daily miseries of the lower class, 1947 witnessed a remarkable transformation of the film industry.

A look at some of the films released in 1947 shows that several films like “Jugnu,” “Do Bhai,” “Dard,” “Mirza Sahibaan,” “Shehnai,” “Beete Din,” “Elaan,” “Hatimtai” and” Himmatwali,” chose not to the real-life political turmoil but instead focused on stories which provided respite to the viewers. However, 1947 began on a sad note with the death of Kundan Lal Saigal.

Filmindia magazine, in its February issue, had noted at the time that “for a week, after the daily papers flashed the news of Saigal’s death, riots, politics and Pakistan went out of news and the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians, the Jews, the touchables and the untouchables — one and all reverently discussed the sad and sudden death of Kundan Lal Saigal, the greatest singer the Indian screen had ever produced in its long history of misadventure.” The nation bade farewell to another legendary actor — Master Vinayak — who died a few days after Independence Day.

But as stars were lost, future stars were born — actresses Mumtaz, Rakhee and Simi Garewal were all born in 1947. And a few newcomers like Raj Kapoor and Madhubala stepped into the limelight.

Bollywood’s Freedom at Midnight: Cinema in the year of India’s Independence

According to Moviepedia website, roughly 170 movies were released in 1947. The top five highest-grossing films at the box office were “Jugnu,” “Do Bhai,” “Dard,” “Mirza Sahibaan,” and “Shehnai.” Out of the top six, three films starred singer-actor Noorjehan, before she migrated to Pakistan. Around the same time, a young singer named Lata Mangeshkar was coming to the forefront and went on to dominate the Hindi film music scene for five decades.

It should come as no surprise then, given the casting and prominence of musicians like Rahul Dev Burman, that music was a common factor amongst all these films. Most of them were all musical hits.

Other songs that were part of films released in 1947 and became popular include “Mohabbat Main Kabhi Aisi’ composed by Khurshid Anwar from “Parwana,” “Sawaan Ki Ghata O Dheere Dheere Aana” by Sudhir Phadke from “Aage Badho,” and “Dil Wale Jal Jal Kar Hi Mar Jaana” by Naushad for “Natak.”

“Jugnu” was Dilip Kumar’s first hit at the box office. He was seen opposite ‘Malika-e-Tarannum’ (queen of melody) Noorjehan. The film was directed by Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, her husband. However, this was the only film the actor did with Noorjehan as she and her husband moved to Pakistan. Prior to this film, the actor, whose real name was Muhammed Yusuf Khan, was seen in three Bombay Talkies films — “Jwar Bhata” (1944), “Pratima” (1945) and “Milan” (1946).

“Do Bhai” also featured Noorjehan along with lhas, Kamini Kaushal, Dipak Mukherjee, Ramayan Tiwari, Rajan Haksar and Paro in lead roles. The film directed by Munshi Dil was famous for its songs like “Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya” and “Yaad Karoge,” sung by Geeta Dutt, with music composed by Sachin Dev Burman, and lyrics by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan.

Bollywood’s Freedom at Midnight: Cinema in the year of India’s Independence

Kundan Lal Saigal

An October release, A.R. Kardar’s “Dard” saw actress-singer Suraiya as the second lead to Munawar Sultana, while Kardar’s brother Nusrat played the male lead. According to Cinestaan, Nusrat Kardar also went to Pakistan and began acting there.

The film’s music was composed by Naushad who primarily used the voices of Suraiya, Shamshad Begum and Uma Devi on the hit soundtrack. Uma Devi found more fame as a comedienne instead and was known as Tun Tun. But initially, she came to Mumbai with dreams of becoming a singer. Songs like “Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon” and “Yeh Kaun Chala Yeh Kaun Chala” became popular.

Another Noorjehan starrer was “Mirza Sahibaan,” on the Punjabi legend of lovers Mirza and Sahibaan, also starring Trilok Kapoor. Music for the film was composed by Pandit Amarnath who passed away before it released. His younger brothers, Husnlal-Bhagatram, went on to form the first composer duo in the industry.

Filmistan’s “Shehnai” was the second film from Pyarelal Santoshi who was also responsible for the film’s hit songs like “Jawani Ki Rail Chali Jaye Re” and “Aana Meri Jaan, Meri Jaan, Sunday Ke Sunday” along with music composer C Ramachandra. V.H. Desai played the patriarch of a family with four daughters. The film boasted for an ensemble cast including Kishore Kumar, Rehana, Indumati, Nasir Khan, Dulari, Mumtaz Ali and Kum Kum. Cinesaatn writes that “in the turbulent, uncertain times of 1947, the lightness and comedic situations of ‘Shenai’, with its toe-tapping, jazz-inspired music, helped contribute to its success.”

Along with socially relevant films, India’s movie-goers were introduced to Raj Kapoor. Although he debuted in 1945 with “Inquilab,” at age 10, his big break came with the lead role in Kidar Sharma’s “Neel Kamal” opposite Madhubala.

The same year, the two were also seen in Mohan Sinha’s “Chittor Vijay.”

Another interesting factor of that year was that most of the established at the time were Muslims. While a few like Noorjehan and Nusrat Kardar left for Pakistan after the Partition, actors like Dilip Kumar Rehana, Munawar Sultana and Sauraiya stayed back. Dilip Kumar and Suraiya enjoyed immense popularity, but Rehana and Munawar Sultana saw their stars fade away.

Bollywood’s Freedom at Midnight: Cinema in the year of India’s Independence

But in this period of ambivalence and turmoil, the film industry soldiered on, delivering on its promise of providing entertainment to the masses.

Since then, Bollywood has made several films on India’s independence movement.  Some of the prominent ones include the critical and commercial hit “Shaheed” (1965), starring Manoj Kumar; Mehboob Khan’s 1957 blockbuster “Mother India,” a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking melodrama about Radha (Nargis) single-handedly raising two sons in the face of extreme hardship, misery and bad luck; and “Gandhi,” the 1982 British-Indian epic biographical film which dramatizes the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Then there are filmmakers like M.S. Sathyu in “Garm Hava” (1974), Deepa Mehta in “1947 Earth” (1998), Srijit Mukherji in “Begum Jaan” (2017) and Gurinder Chadha in “Partition: 1947,” the Hindi version of her 2017 film “Viceroy’s House,” explored the devastating consequences of the Partition. Similarly, “Nastik” (1954), starring Ajit and Nalini Jaywant and directed by comedian I.S.Johar also deals with the trauma of Partition.

In the last two decades several films have explored India’s freedom struggle. Biopics like Shyam Benegal’s 1993 war film “Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero,” Ketan Mehta’s 1993 film “Sardar,” on Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Rajkumar Santoshi’s “The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) and “Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005) helped throwing light on those legends who fought for India’s freedom.

There are also films like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s “Rang De Basanti (2006), “Lagaan” (2001) directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, and Gowariker’s “Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey” (2010) and Bedabrata Pain’s 2012 film “Chittagong,” both based on the Chittagong Uprising against British rule in 1930.

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