Balaji Vittal’s book ‘Pure Evil: The Bad Men Of Bollywood’ is an exhaustive, well-researched roster of the Hindi film villain. Director Sriram Raghavan, who wrote the foreword, calls it a “colourful canvas against which we get to see through the workings of these accursed minds.” Vittal has previously written ‘S.D. Burman: The Prince-Musician’ (co-authored with Anirudha Bhattacharjee) and Gaata Rahe Mera Dil: 50 Classic Hindi Films Songs’. He co-authored ‘R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music’ with Anirudha Bhattacharjee, for which they won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema. Following is an excerpt from ‘Pure Evil’.
During the 1920s and 1930s, with the Indian freedom movement gathering momentum, the enemy of the people — the British — were the most obvious choice of villains in films. But needless to say, the British Indian Censors would generally not permit the release of films depicting anything patriotic, let alone show the British as the villains. Here is a classic example of censorship roadblocks ….
It was a fine morning in Bombay, sometime in 1931. The film being premiered that day at Majestic Cinema was V. Shantaram’s Swarajyache Toran (Thunder of the Hills), starring Shantaram himself in the role of Chhatrapati Shivaji. When the head of the British Indian Censor Board (who also happened to be the Commissioner of Police in Bombay) arrived at the theatre along with the rest of the Censor Board members—all Indians, he was enraged because the title of the film contained the word ‘Swaraj’ and a poster of the film depicted Chhatrapati Shivaji hoisting a flag. No surprise that he exclaimed, ‘No! No! This can’t be passed!’ As the screening ended, the Indian members of the Censor Board conveyed to Shantaram with their heads bowed, ‘The picture is banned.’ Shantaram, swamped by a welter of emotions ranging from disappointment to shock, sat down in a heap outside the Majestic while his friend and film distributor, Baburao Pai, walked the officials to the exit gate, conversing with them.
The censors urged that the film’s title be changed, a few scenes modified and the flag-hoisting scene in the climax be deleted in its entirety. Although reluctant to yield to such demands at first, Shantaram eventually gave in. Swarajyache Toran was renamed Udaykaal and released.
In a discussion with the author, documentary film-maker and V. Shantaram’s daughter, Madhura Jasraj, shared, ‘Incidentally Udaykaal portrayed the only beardless Chattrapati Shivaji in Hindi film history. Historically, Shivaji was just sixteen years old during this conquest. Perhaps they would have thought that a beard would have been inappropriate. This was the kind of attention Shantaram lent his scripts.’
Given these clampdowns by the British Censor Board, the British foreigner villain in the pre-1947 Hindi films was at best implicit, and often metaphorical. For instance, the character of Vidur in Kanjibhai Rathod’s silent film Bhakta Vidur (1921) is a mediator between the two warring mythological cousin camps (symbolically the Congress and the Muslim League, in all likelihood). But the telltale topi (cap) of the lead actor, Dwarkadas Sampat, and the use of a charkha (spinning wheel) led to the film being banned, with the 1928 Indian Cinematograph Committee (ICC) report terming it ‘A thinly veiled resume of political events in India’. ‘We know what you are doing. It is not Vidur, it is Gandhiji, we won’t allow it’, said the report. Unverified accounts also state that Bhalji Pendharkar’s Vande Mataram Ashram (1926), which questions the British system of education and carried overtones of Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lala Lajpat Rai’s sentiments, was also censored and briefly banned.
Despite the censorship restrictions at the time, a few cheeky film-makers were able to slip veiled messages to their compatriot viewers that the Censors would have scissored out, had they been able to decipher them.
Film historian Sanjit Narwekar talked about how it was ‘an insider joke. People knew that when Shivaji was talking about Purna Swaraj in Udaykaal, it meant Purna Swaraj [complete independence] of India.’
A few films emphasized the need to be united and socially progressive in order to fight the British. Duniya Na Mane (1937), based on the Marathi novel Na Patnari Goshta by Narayan Hari Apte, advocates widow remarriage. Master Vinayak’s Brandy ki Botal (1939) criticizes liquor consumption while Ghar ki Rani (1940) highlights the dire consequences of aping Western traditions. The messages put out by these films began receiving the attention and support of the country’s nationalist leaders. For example, even before the release of Achhut (1940), director Chandulal Shah had secured the public blessings and support of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. And the British censors poked their noses once again, ordering the removal of the library footage of Vallabhbhai Patel’s speech about abstinence from Brandy ki Botal.
Communal harmony was another potent weapon in fighting the British. For instance, Padosi (1941), remade from Shantaram’s Marathi original Shejari (1940), is about an outsider (read Britisher) attempting to divide two good neighbours, Thakur and Mirza. Interestingly, the film’s cast itself made the point: the role of Thakur was played by Mazhar Khan (not to be confused with another actor of the same name in the 1980s) and the role of Mirza by Gajanan Jagirdar, i.e., a Hindu playing a Muslim and vice versa.
But surprisingly (or maybe, not so surprisingly), not all native Indians were supportive of the Indian film-makers. V. Shantaram’s Dharmatma (1935), originally titled Mahatma, had to be renamed because of objections not from the British censors but from Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, the then Home Minister of Bombay State, who was also a Congressman. According to Madhura Jasraj, Munshi charged Shantaram with ‘… exploiting the name of Mahatma Gandhi for [his] selfish purposes.’ Shantaram argued that there was nothing wrong in calling the protagonist, Sant Eknath, a mahatma, since he had taken up the cause of eradicating untouchability. But Munshi would have none of that.
There were films that contained songs which, while upholding the sentiment of the struggle, were overlooked by censors given the Britishers’ unfamiliarity with Hindi. Apna Ghar (1942), Naya Tarana (1943) and Amar Jyoti (1936) feature lyrics the Angrezi hukumat (British Raj) would have termed inflammatory, had they gotten a whiff of what the words mean. There is, for example, ‘Charkha chalao bahno (Spin the wheel, sisters)’ in Aaj ka Hindustan (1940), ‘Chal Chal re naujawan (March on, youth of the nation)’ from Bandhan (1940) and the cheeky ‘Door hato ae duniyawalon, Hindustan hamara hai (Back off, o world! India belongs to us)’ from Kismet (1943). This last, however, incurred arrest warrants against poet and songwriter Kavi Pradeep, and composer Anil Biswas.