The History Of Protest Songs In Bollywood

From Pyaasa to Gully Boy, Hindi cinema has a rich tradition of poets, songwriters and filmmakers expressing their strong disapproval on matters of social importance
The History Of Protest Songs In Bollywood

The recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) have seen students and civil society in different parts of the country come together to register their opposition to the legislation. The demonstrations have taken various forms, with inspiring slogans, creative placards and impromptu singing featuring prominently in these protests. Whether it was actor-television personality Javed Jaffrey reciting Rahat Indori, or Varun Grover coming up with his own stirring piece of verse, or students at IIT Kanpur singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz's iconic 'Hum Dekhenge', poetry, too, has been an integral part of these marches, sit-downs and assemblies.

Several personalities from Hindi cinema, be it Anurag Kashyap, Taapsee Pannu or Swanand Kirkire, have come out in support of these dissenting voices. This is in keeping with a rich tradition in Hindi cinema where poets, songwriters and filmmakers have often registered their strong disapproval, or 'mukhaalifat' as we know it, on matters of social importance through films. Be it Sahir Ludhianvi's scathing songwriting in Pyaasa (1957) and Phir Subah Hogi (1958), or the mocking nature of 'Sab junta ka hai' (Parvarish, 1977), the politics of protest has consistently found place in the Hindi film song. With that perspective, we look at the chronology of protest songs in Hindi cinema that have questioned the establishment and power structures in the harshest terms over the last 80 years. While this is not a comprehensive list, it is a ready reckoner of the writers who have challenged the status quo on various issues, ranging from the overall state of the nation to more issue-based subjects, without fear of being termed 'anti-national'.

'Door haton aye duniyawaalon, Hindustaan humaara hai' 

Kismet (1943)

This is probably the rare instance that protest and patriotism merged together in one number. Coming closely on the heels of the Quit India movement of 1942, this song by the lyricist Kavi Pradeep was directed towards the British even though he cleverly masked his protest by including the line 'Tum na kisi ke aagey jhukna German ho yaa Japaani'. Pradeep issued the most stringent dissent possible with lines like, 'Iss dharti par kadam badhaana atyachaar tumhaara hai'. Tuned to composer Anil Biswas's martial beat-inspired rhythm, the song became an anthem for a nation that was on the cusp of overthrowing a most crippling colonial power.

Pyaasa (1957)

For his stellar contribution to the Progressive Writers' Movement in Urdu literature, Sahir Ludhianvi came to be known as the 'Inquilaabi shaayar'. Revolution and speaking up for those, who exist at the very margins of society, are among the consistent themes in Ludhianvi's poetry. Perhaps it was this quality in his writing that made Guru Dutt incorporate Sahir's 'Chakley', meaning brothels, for Pyaasa as a song, which highlights the plight of women in red light areas. Sahir simplified the refrain to make it more understandable for the masses. But in doing so, he bluntly asks the leaders of an independent nation whether this was the India that they had envisaged.

Aaj Aur Kal (1963) 

The opening lines of this song could have easily been the slogan with which the Aam Aadmi Party launched itself at the start of the last decade. Penned once again by the poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, the song is actually the voice of the common man asserting his rights. It is a brutal takedown of crony capitalism, communal politics and feudalism. Interspersed with images of Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad addressing the masses, the song is a rallying cry for the marginalized, disenfranchised and the oppressed to come forward and demand what is rightfully theirs. Until they do that, a 'sachcha swaraaj' will only remain a pipe dream.

Leader (1964)

This Sasadhar Mukerji-produced film is about the enemy within. The enemy who bankrolls politicians in exchange for protecting big business interests. It is in this context that the Mohammed Rafi song is picturised on Dilip Kumar's character. Before the song itself, Kumar's character is seen exhorting the people to not be afraid. He urges the people to unite and attack these vested interests like a gale would raze a barn of hay. It works. The people are galvanized by Kumar's rousing speech. And that results in the wonderful song by Shakeel Badayuni, whose fiery lines ('Waqt ke toofaan me beh jaayenge zulm-o-sitam') are entirely about dissent and revolution.

Aandhi (1975)

Parody meets protest in this Gulzar film. As the protagonist Aarti Devi (Suchitra Devi) sets out on her campaign trail, the disenchanted public gathers around and trolls her brutally. With lines like 'Yeh nangey jism chhupa dete hain qafan de kar' and 'Yeh jaadugar hain, yeh chutaki mein kaam kartey hain', Gulzar's writing is dripping with sarcasm and might be construed purely as satire. But cinema is a sum of many parts. By picturising the song with the aam junta coming together, and heckling the campaigning leader, Gulzar made it a worthy protest song that transcends the immediate cinematic moment.

Andha Kanoon (1983)

Songwriters do not write in silos. When the right situation arrives, they will deliver what is expected of them. Anand Bakshi does just that with this song in a film that is entirely about the failings and deficiencies of the judicial system. He lashes out at its nefarious working, the degenerate dealings of its practitioners, all of which work to the extreme disadvantage of the feeble and the impoverished. The song may not quite match the high poetic flavour of some of the other numbers mentioned in this list, but sometimes it is necessary to recognise substance over form especially if it is for the right cause.

Main Azaad Hoon (1989) 

 Tinu Anand's film was a statement against the unholy nexus between politicians, morally depraved profiteers and a media that had sold its soul. Amitabh Bachchan played the eponymous character, who was an embodiment of the gullible common man. He pays for his naivety eventually with his own life. But before he plumbs to his own death, Bachchan lent his vocals to this most powerful number, written by Kaifi Azmi. The song sought public action, with the promise that we the people of India – farmers, university students, mill workers, the poor and the uneducated – would triumph against state brutality and corruption provided we participate in the fight 'jee jaan se'. 

Hu Tu Tu (1999) 

One of the few criticisms possibly of Gulzar's songwriting is that it was never nearly as overtly political as it could have been, particularly in films like Aandhi and Maachis. But in Hu Tu Tu, Gulzar made some attempt to respond to that criticism. With lines like 'Humaara hukmara arrey kambhakt hai', literally translating to 'our leaders are inept', Gulzar said it as it is.  Sadly, the film disappointed at the box-office, but in a decade where Indian cinema was largely wooing the NRI audience and reminding them of their desi roots, this Gulzar film and song made sure that the anti-establishment torch passed forward from one decade to another. 

Rang De Basanti (2006)

Images of cops raining blows on peaceful protestors at India Gate in this song from Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's film aren't very different from the visuals of students getting beaten up by the police in recent weeks. Prasoon Joshi's lyrics in the song are layered. He does not want the youth to bandage their wounds or forget their pain. Instead, he directs them to spill out onto the streets in large numbers so that they may ask questions and seek explanations. He warns the establishment that the youth are even ready to sacrifice their lives for a complete overhaul of the current state of affairs.

Halla Bol (2008)

While many would struggle to recall the music of this Ajay Devgan film, but this number carries distinct echoes of Faiz, Sahir and Habib Jalib. The song does not adopt a tone that mourns or mocks the current setup. It instead aims at lighting a spark, very much in keeping with the protest poetry of the aforementioned progressive poets. Sung in the inimitable Sukhwinder Singh's voice, one is certainly inspired to get up and act upon his fervent call, which goes, 'Sirf hungaama khada karna mera maqsad nahin, meri koshish hai ke yeh surat badalni chahiye' (Sloganeering is not my aim, I wish to bring about change).

Mardaani (2014)

Given the backdrop of the 2012 Nirbhaya case, and the growing number of heinous crimes against women, the song couldn't have been better timed. To top it all, it wasn't yet another man writing on behalf of women, but a successful, accomplished female writer articulating the wrath and fury of so many women in this country. Lyricist Kausar Munir's 'Mardaani anthem' is not so much a protest, but a dire warning to lecherous perverts that women will fight back. She rightfully puts the onus of propriety and decorum on the men, otherwise 'main tumko nahin chhodungi', writes Munir. Men beware!


Gully Boy (2019)

The anger and frustration of the ghetto is palpable in Divine and Dub Sharma's lyrics for Zoya Akhtar's film. They aren't afraid to call out the roguish political class ('Haan mera bhai yeh toh noton ki sarkar hai naa') or ask tough questions of the privileged elite ('Ghar mein hai chaar, phir rooms tere aath kyun?'). There is class politics, environmental concern and a declaration of war against the current exploitative system in their writing, but which ultimately ends with asking the individual to rise ('Isstemaal karr tu zubaan kabhi') and clean up this mess ('Iss gand ko karna saaf abhi') once and for all.

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