Patriotism is often portrayed in popular culture as one of the greatest virtues a person can possess. A trait of the highest order that immediately validates any action done in its name. Quite often, this notion of national pride, of unflinching devotion to one’s country, of pledging oneself for the sake of the country has been enforced through drama, films, music and art. The idea of patriotism is ever evolving and so is its portrayal in mass media over the years.
In this piece, we take a look at how Tamil cinema introduced the idea of patriotism in its films, how this presentation changed later and what it has become today.
The very first Tamil film to talk about independence, patriotism, and with it social evils like untouchability, dowry, class inequality, etc., was Thyagabhoomi that came out in 1939, and was directed and produced by K Subramanyam. Based on a story written by journalist and author Kalki Krishnamoorthy, the film was released when the Indian freedom movement was at its peak.
The most interesting aspect, however, is that popular Carnatic musician and composer Papanasam Sivan played an important role in this film. The film also had real footage of Gandhi spinning the wheel and marching. On its 22nd week of successful running, it was banned by the British government.
In one of his essays in The Hindu, Randor Guy writes that this particular period opened itself up to a few films on this theme, mainly due to the fact that Sundara Sastri Satyamurti, freedom activist and politician, was elected President of South Indian Film Chambers in 1937 and 1938. This allowed him a free hand at censorship, therefore permitting such films to be made.
True to this case is another patriotic film called Mathru Bhoomi that came out in the same year. Made by Hanumappa Reddy Muniappa Reddy, the film was based on the freedom struggle, cloaked under a grand disguise that outwardly spoke about the invasion of North West India by Alexander the Great.
These films were rich in their political messages, with a number of songs written in praise of the country and of the freedom movement, inspiring its audience to join hands in the freedom movement.
The early years post-Independence
The themes of patriotism, nationalism and devotion for the country were again played out on the big screen shortly after independence. This is when patriotism seeped in again in the form of hero worship, sowing the seed for nationalism foisted in the form of a freedom fighting hero.
Films like Sivagangai Seemai (1957), Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1959) and Kappalottiya Tamizhan (1961) are some of the popular examples. The three films had one thing in common - they all hailed the Indian hero who stood up against the British colonisers. Sivagangai Seemai was based on Maruthu Pandiyars, Kappalottiya Tamizhan on VO Chidambaram Pillai who was popularly known as Kappalottiya Thamizhan, and Veerapandiya Kattabomman on the brave chieftain from Panchalankurichi.
“Unaken kodukavendum kisthi?” (Why should I pay you any interest?) is one of Sivaji’s popular dialogues from this legendary film (Veerapandiya Kattabomman) that remains etched in everyone’s memory. Sivaji Ganesan's performance as Kattabomman earned him a Best Actor international award at the 1960 Afro-Asian Film Festival. These films had the agenda of reminding people what they had fought for.
Patriotism in the later years
There was a significant lull in the making of films with patriotic ideas in the seventies and the eighties. Sivaji Ganesan’s Bharatha Vilas, although a drama, was based on the themes of religious unity, secularism, and brotherhood, an important aspect of patriotism back then. This film was a huge success when it released in 1973.
Patriotism was made popular in the '90s by director Mani Ratnam in his trilogy - Roja (1992), Bombay (1995) and Uyire (1998).
These films, set in the backdrop of terrorism, had national and anti-national elements cut out. The partition and ensuing tensions with Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim conflicts and the changing face of Indian nationalism were at the core of these films.
The sense of patriotism that was evoked through these films is aligned with today’s nationalistic agenda and has been replicated time and again to glorify the Good Indian vs the Terrorist other. While previously, the enemy was Britain, the '90s focussed on the Pakistani foe.
Roja, in that sense, was among the first films to portray Pakistani terrorists and Kashmiri separatists as opposed to the Indian Patriot who’d give his life for the sake of the country’s safety.
All three of Mani Ratnam’s films from this trilogy had a pan-Indian appeal, although the first two were originally made in Tamil.
Priyadarshan’s Malayalam film Kaalapani, dubbed in Tamil as Siraichalai, is another important period film on the British-era Indian prisoners. The film had intense patriotism inducing sequences and was based on existing accounts of life in cellular jail during the Indian Independence Movement.
Fighting corruption and improving the quality of life in the country were some of the common themes recurrent in the films made by director Shankar. Beginning from his debut Gentleman that came out in 1993, followed by Indian in 1996, Mudhalvan in 1999, Anniyan in 2005 and Sivaji the Boss in 2007, Shankar’s films have had a strong patriotic flavour to them. Indian, in fact, had a freedom fighter who turns into a vigilante because of his undying love for the country.
The theme of patriotism in the face of terrorism became a common theme in early 2000. Actors Arjun and Vijaykanth were often seen as the patriotic army/special force officer, assigned to thwart a terrorist plan. They diffused bombs, took a good beating while refusing to divulge crucial information and went on international missions to save the country. This in fact, became the most common thread for films to be made on patriotism.
Films like Jai Hind (Arjun), Narasimha, Arasangam, Sudesi (Vijaykanth), etc had plenty of international missions which the hero had to accomplish successfully to save the country.
Kuruthi Punal, directed by cinematographer PC Sreeram, starring Kamal Haasan, Arjun and Nasser is another film that portrayed terrorism and dedicated police officials fighting for the sake of the country. This film released in 1995 and was appreciated for its action blocks. Kamal and Arjun play police officers who try to infiltrate and destroy a terrorist group that is threatening the lives of several innocent people. Nasser plays the leader of this terrorist group. The conversation, between Kamal and Nasser set inside a dark room, has inspired several such scenes including the latest one in Vikram Vedha.
Cheran’s Desiya Geetham that released in 1998 is a film in which the Chief Minister is kidnapped by a group of youngsters headed by Murali and is made to understand the conditions in which the people live under his rule. The film’s climax, in particular, had dialogues on how the government should run for the sake of its people and how government officials should dedicate their lives for the sake of the country and its people.
The 2000s also saw biopics being made on leaders and freedom fighters like Bharati (2000), Kamaraj (2004) and Periyar (2007), reminding us once again of the movies from the early post-Independent years.
Hey Ram, which came out in 2000, was in a different league altogether. The film had important period blocks set in the backdrop of the freedom movement and is considered to be the best of Kamal Haasan’s films to this date. The film deeply probes the freedom movement, and questions nationalism and religious extremism. At its centre is Gandhi, the driving force behind the independence struggle. Hey Ram was praised by many critics and the film went on to win three National Awards.
Patriotism in films today
Patriotism and nationalism in films today mostly revolve around international missions and assignments to foil terrorist attacks based on intelligence with a strong reinforcement of what it means to be a good Indian.
An exception to this rule was Madarasapattinam, starring Arya and Amy Jackson, that came in 2010. This was a period flick set in pre-Independent India on the verge of attaining its freedom. Although majorly based on the romance between a British woman and an Indian dhobi, the film had several patriotism inducing sequences and once again brought back memories of fighting against the colonisers.
However, patriotism in today’s cinema has evidently shifted from fighting the colonisers to patriotism with strong communal undertones. While being patriotic has always meant home country vs the rest of the world, Tamil films on patriotism have remained just that, never crossing the line. From Kamal’s role of the vigilante in Unnaipol Oruvan (2009) to Vijay’s intelligence officer role in Thuppakki (2012), the latest Vishwaroopam (1 and 2) where Kamal plays a Muslim RAW agent disguised as a Hindu, and Vishal's Irumbuthirai (2018) where he fights against a cyber-terrorist to free people from the clutches of hackers, the theme of patriotism has become about diffusing bombs and fighting terrorists. And most times, the enemy is a Muslim.
Advocacy of patriotism and nationalism have seeped beyond the big screen in recent years. Today, nationalistic propaganda has made it mandatory for people to “respect” the national anthem that plays before the movie begins in every movie theatre across the country. Cinema, too, has evolved with the changing political climates to accommodate ideas of patriotism.