Frames per Second: Music for tragedy

In the 1965 summer edition of Film Comment, actor and critic Edith Laurie reported on the third International Film Festival of India, held from January 8 to 21 of that year. “The President and Vice-President of India, the Minister of Broadcasting and Information (who is the late Prime Minister Nehru’s daughter), the Mayor of Delhi, and the chief minister of Bengal, Madras, and Maharashtra — all took an active promotional part in the proceedings,” she wrote, adding: “Could anything short of a national emergency rally this kind of American-government support?” This was the first competitive film festival held in the country — the previous two editions, in 1952 and 1961, were non-competitive.

 

Satyajit Ray, who headed the jury, was unhappy with the competitive nature of the festival, arguing that with several established film festivals around the world the Indian one was unlikely to get any good cinema. Laurie, however, reported that “the festival came about as a result of stirrings deep within the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting”. Indira Gandhi, who headed the ministry as part of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Cabinet and who would later use it effectively during the Emergency to suppress dissent, announced at the festival that India would reduce censorship and issue more licences to foreign films.

 

One of the films included in the competitive section was Chetan Anand-directed Haqeeqat (1964). “It is the first movie treatment of India’s war with China,” writes Laurie, “(s)hot in the Himalayas”. The film had received widespread state patronage and media support, according to some reports. It is dedicated to Jawaharlal Nehru, whose visionary self-fashioning was somewhat dented by the debacle in the Sino-India war. Naturally, its depiction of the “enemy” conforms to the widespread anti-Chinese hysteria stirred up by the government. “The eye-rolling Chinese are reminiscent of sinister Japanese in America’s World War-II movies,” writes Laurie. “The usual patriotic cliches are spread thickly over every character.”

When the film was shown at the festival, though, one of the most striking aspects was that the songs written by Kaifi Azmi and music by Madan Mohan were scratched. Mohan’s son Sanjeev Kohli, in an interview, recollected the brief Anand had given his music director: “Indeed at the back of the mind was the lost war, but the anguish and suffering of the armed forces and the nation was all pervading. Thus, the music had to be pathos-laden, with an air of despondency. But at the end, it needed to celebrate the contribution of those that laid down their lives.”

 

Anand was no mean craftsman; his debut venture, Haqeeqat, one could hardly deny its technical finesse. It reminds one of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries — Anand’s film is, after all, called “The Truth” and the desire for documentation is intense, with sequences of Ladakhi culture and festival. It is a strange form of nationalism that exoticises its own citizens.

 

But, the emotionally manipulative nature of the film is evident from the first shot itself, beginning with orchestral music, alerting the audience that they are in for an epic narrative. The sequence comprises montages of two army officers on their way to Srinagar to report for duty in a plane, intercut with shots of hilly topography. This is what they presumably see as they peek out of the aircraft’s windows. The music is muted when we hear the dialogue between the soldiers and rises to a crescendo when we are shown the landscape. This landscape is India; this is what the soldiers martyred themselves for.

This is also the structure of the film. It begins with frothy and romantic numbers such as Ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyon. The nearly six-minute-long song goes from shots of the bodies of Indian soldiers strewn all over the arid landscape of Ladakh to documentary footage of a procession taken out by the Film Writers’ Association, collecting donations for the war effort. A portrait of Nehru, mounted on a truck, leads the procession.

 

Kohli describes the song as “the crowning glory of the film’s album”. “This song came at the end of the film and had everyone in tears — the audiences did not move till it was over. Many marvelled at the fact that a war-based film could have such melodious music!” We get a glimpse of Nehru, in high-altitude gear, addressing the soldiers and then the display of arms during a Republic Day procession in New Delhi. Soldiers are shown being paradropped in the Himalayas and the firing of guns, giving the audience the impression that the struggle is on. The truth was, of course, that the Chinese troops, having repelled India’s forward positions, withdrew to their lines and declared a ceasefire on November 21, 1962, exactly a month and a day after hostilities began. While the film and other such efforts helped reinstate Nehru, his defence minister Krishna Menon took the fall, resigning on October 30, 1962.

 

In Haqeeqat and the IFFI are also similar — albeit early — examples of Mrs Gandhi’s “spectacular politics”. , was published in February 2020


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