I’ve got used to it over the last 11 years. But being in the shower or worse, being on the commode, when the band strikes up the national anthem felt bizarre when we came to live in Bimbisar Nagar in 2005,” says Sumit Bhatnagar, a marketing executive who lives in the Mhada colony sandwiched between the Mahanand Dairy and the State Reserve Police camp in Mumbai’s western suburb of Goregaon.
“Irrespective of whatever time you sleep, a piercing bugle from the camp wakes you up at 6 am. Just when you try to fall asleep again in an hour a full band begins practicing while the SRP jawans march. This extends to 2-3 hours in the build-up to Republic Day and Independence Day.” Since they are practising, every song - from filmy ones to old British hand-me-down march past songs and Jana Gana Mana—is played again and again even if one band member makes a mistake.” He chortles at the irate conductor who swears at anyone going off-key on the megaphone. “Forget even a whiff of patriotism, this unfailingly leaves me hysterical.”
Like most of the nearly 6,500 residents of this colony, this 32-year-old is not too enthused with the apex court ruling asking for the national anthem to be played in cinemas before movie screenings during which all exits will be shut. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court emphasised how it wanted everyone to rise for the national anthem, with the tircolour on the screen, because citizens “are duty-bound to show respect to the national anthem which is the symbol of Constitutional patriotism,” adding, “Any different notion or the perception of individual rights is Constitutionally impermissible.”
Bhatnagar, an NCC cadet through school and college, says he always felt special about the national anthem. “My father was in the Army and there was always a patriotic environment at home and the Kendriya Vidyalayas I went to. But after my shift to Goregaon, Bombay, I can’t stand it. I now wait outside theatres and ask ushers if the national anthem has played out before entering,” and quickly adds, “It’s better than getting beaten up for not standing,” alluding to the ugly episode in October this year when writer and disability rights activist Salil Chaturvedi—who uses a wheelchair to move around and cannot stand because of a spinal injury—was assaulted at a Goa multiplex for not standing up during the national anthem.
All the cinema halls in India shall play the national anthem before the feature film starts and all present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the national anthem as a part of their sacred obligation. The directions are issued, for love and respect for the motherland is reflected when one shows respect to the national anthem as well as to the national flag. That apart, it would instil the feeling within one, a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism. A time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to national anthem, which is the symbol of the constitutional patriotism and inherent national quality.
Across the city, his sentiment finds echo in theatre person and director Manjul Bharadwaj, who has written and directed 25 plays and calls this ruling “a lollipop.” According to him, “While nobody denies some really great examples of judicial intervention, this ruling simply identifies standing up in theatres as patriotism. Truth is the average worker who risks his life by hanging on to a local train to go to work daily is no less a patriot than the sentinels on the border. Such competitive patriotism is pushing us away from real issues. It is sad that the judiciary is also being swayed in the direction of the government of the day.”
Others, like celebrated documentary filmmaker, Anjali Monteiro, whose work has won over 23 national and international awards too finds it worrisome that the judiciary is moving to the political right like the public discourse in today’s times. “You know this is an extension of the age-old mindset that sees cinema and entertainment as evil. Earlier too, film division propagandist films followed by the national anthem were offered as a sort of a prophylactic so that ‘your heart was not corrupted’ by the film you were about to watch. When the anthem was re-introduced in Maharashtra on January 26, 2003, after two decades this was a harking back to that old mindset. The Supreme Court has chosen to now extend this mindset to all of India.”
But who better than reknowned classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal who was part of the award winning public service film Respect The National Anthem can callibrate the difference between the emotional chord that Rabindranath Tagore’s words strike in most Indians and the chest thumping, flag-waving brand of hypernational patriotism made popular in today’s times? Incidentally though the film (which showed a physically-challenged cobbler whose transistor dial changes and the national anthem starts mid-way at ...Vindhya Himachal... He uses a crutch to stand straight respectfully braving the rain. Seeing him, three shoe shine boys who are naughtily giggling also stand straight) struck a chord with Indians across the world, it ran into trouble with some who called it insulting. Mudgal reminisces, “Some people were offended that the national anthem did not play out fully and for the offcially mandated 52 seconds and wanted us booked for the same.”
Admitting to the emotional overwhelm whenever she sings the national anthem, the celebrated composer-singer underlines how such an emotion cannot be imposed.
“More than imposition, I can’t get over the second part of the Supreme Court’s order which says doors will remain shut. Have we forgotten what happened in the Uphaar tragedy? (JP Dutta’s ‘patriotic’ multi-starrer based on the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Border was playing in the Delhi theatre when fire broke out killing 58 and leaving 105 with severe burn injuries) And how tragically lives were lost? I shudder to think what will happen in the face of some untoward incident when every second is invaluable.”
All for the idea of people coming together to join voices and sing Jana Gana Mana, celebrating the idea of a diverse India, she says versions that play out in theatres have artistes who have rendered their bits differently which are then digitally put together. “How can this be used to then talk of unity in India when artistes can’t come together for the national anthem?”
There are, of course, industry insiders who have really sordid stories of how bickerings grew into a full-blown slanging match between a late ghazal maestro and a classical legend over who was getting how much footage in one such production. “The two filmmakers Bharata Bala and Kanika Myer were at their wits end over how to douse the flames and managed the extremely inflammable egos,” remembers a recordist who was present. Repeated calls and an email to Bharat Bala did not yield any response.
When Sarim Momin’s re-interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore’s words—Is Rann Mein Zakhmi Hua Hai, Bharat Ka Bhaagya Vidhaata/Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha/Ek Doosre Se Ladd Ke Mar Rehein Hain—were used in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rann in 2009, it led to much outrage at the CBFC which asked for it to be edited out. Varma went to the Supreme Court in appeal but the Court threw his petition out saying: “No one has a right to tinker with the national anthem.”
But the national anthem has got Bollywood into trouble since 2000. Outrage over A R Rahman’s Jana Gana Mana had seen several court cases against the Oscar-winning music composer. Karan Johar’s use of Jan Gana Mana in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, a year later, got a Lucknow local Pradeep Chandra so riled that he went to court under the Prevention of Insult to the National Honour Act, 1971. He claimed not only was the national anthem played in a way not officially mandated but also felt offended no one in the theatre stood up when the scene played out. While that case took until January this year to get Johar a clean chit, others like Manish Acharya’s Loins of Punjab (2007) took the safe way out with supers warning audiences to stand up when Michael Raimondi’s character sings the national anthem during a reality singing show.
Constitutional law expert and activist Prashant Bhushan said he found the Supreme Court ruling to be an “arbitary judicial fiat.” According to him, “The Supreme Court is seized of several urgent and more pressing cases. Judges would do well to concentrate on those than going out to impose patriotism in the country.”
Others like veteran lawyer Majid Memon too lamented how this will give a handle to those who criticise the judiciary. “This ruling is a classic example of judicial overreach. If the court wanted, it could have directed the legislature to take action in its ruling. But to take over that function into its own hands creates a problem of balance between the two.”
Even political parties kown to wear thier nationalism on their sleeves seem to be surprised at how the court has stolen a march on them. The BJP’s Maharashtra State General Secretary Atul Bhatkalkar said: “We welcome the decision by the court and hope that like Maharashtra and Goa, the country is enthused about rising for the national anthem before watching a movie.” When asked about vigilante enforcement, he brushed it off saying, “The love for the country comes from within. Where is the question of enforcing? People will do this willingly.”
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen MLA Imtiyaz Jaleel wanted to know why cinema halls should become theatres of patriotism. “If people are watching a C-grade comedy full of double entendres, won’t that end up mocking the anthem?” he questioned. “Indians have always loved their motherland and never shy of making sacrifices but this kind of imposition is bound to put off even the most patriotic.” Narendra Verma of the Nationalist Congress Party who started it all in 2002 by lobbying hard to restart the discontinued-for-two-decades tradition of playing the national anthem in theatres in Maharashtra says he is happy that the Supreme Court has made his long-standing desire come true. “I had met then President Pratibha Patil and PM Manmohan Singh to get this done. Finally it happened because of the court’s intervention.”
In October 2016, writer and disability activist, Salil Chaturvedi, was verbally abused and attacked by a couple in a theatre in Panaji, Goa. Chaturvedi was allegedly hit from behind for remaining seated during the national anthem.
The couple was unaware of his disability and later fled the scene. Chaturvedi represented India in wheelchair tennis and is thought to be the only disabled person to have sailed from Mumbai to Goa.
In response to the incident, Chaurvedi, son of an Air Force veteran, said: “Look at my life choices! Who are you to judge how much I love India?”