Whenever there is massive public unrest against the government of the day, celebrities in India are often put in a tight spot, because both fans and the government elicit their support. It’s a difficult choice to make, whatever their personal beliefs.
So, when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency in June 1975, the government’s spin doctors were working non-stop to facilitate support of this decision and enlisted the help of celebrities.
While many of them followed the government-approved line, some notable film personalities chose not to go along with this severe policy, which drastically curtailed civil liberties.
Some of them paid for their principled stand in a big way.
Take the example of legendary actor and playback singer Kishore Kumar.
Besides rejecting an invitation to perform at a Youth Congress rally in Mumbai, he also turned down the then Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Minister VC Shukla’s request to make and participate in advertisements promoting Sanjay Gandhi’s 20-point Economic Programme launched just after the imposition of Emergency.
In response, Shukla did what most petty votaries of governments do, which is direct public broadcasters like Doordarshan and All India Radio to ban all songs and films that feature him.
This was a tactic not only meant to intimidate Kumar but others in the film industry as well.
In fact, according to journalist Ranjan Das Gupta, legendary singer Manna Dey had told him, “[Mohammed] Rafi even questioned [Sanjay] Gandhi how he, being the grandson of a great man like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, could indulge in such an act.”
At a time when there were very few avenues to reach mass audiences, this was a crippling blow. At no point did he ever retract, and the ban was lifted only a year-and-a-half later when Emergency ended, and the Congress government was booted out of power.
Similarly, stars like Dev Anand and Shatrugan Sinha also had their films banned on Doordarshan. The government, in fact, threatened Sinha that he would be implicated in the Baroda Dynamite Case if he didn’t campaign for the party in Bihar.
Dev Anand, however, went beyond refusing the government’s invitation and publicly spoke out against Emergency with his brothers Chetan and Vijay Anand.
“The pro-Emergency lobby enforced strict discipline amongst the masses and the rank and file of the government offices through certain legislative measures. It did a lot of good for the country. But, the fact was that the soul of the people was smouldering, their spirit stifled by an iron hand,” wrote Anand in his autobiography, ‘Romancing With Life.’
“They were dying to break the shackles, and the lava inside them was gathering momentum, soon to explode into a spluttering volcano. It just needed a single matchstick to light up. And the matchstick was provided by Indira Gandhi herself,” he added.
In response, the government came down particularly hard on Anand and set up multiple hurdles during the shooting of his film, Des Pardes.
But he was fearless and spoke out on public platforms with support from fellow members of the film fraternity like Pran, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Danny Dengzongpa and Sadhana.
During a public speech at Juhu beach in Mumbai, he directly attacked Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay for their dictatorial behaviour. He even formed a political party called the National Party at the time to take on the government.
Then, of course, there was legendary actor and director Manoj Kumar, who many had initially seen as a supporter of the regime because he had managed to convince VC Shukla into clearing the epic film Sholay, despite the government’s reservations.
However, he was against the Emergency from the start and soon his opposition to it was out in the open.
“One morning, I received a call from the I&B Ministry to direct a pro-Emergency documentary written by Amrita Pritam. I point-blank refused to direct the documentary and even asked her directly if she had sold out as a writer,” he said, speaking to the Sunday Guardian.
An apologetic and ashamed Amrita Pritam asked him to burn the script.
When the time came for the release of his film, Shor, it was surprisingly telecast on Doordarshan two weeks before its scheduled release. Naturally, when the film was released in theatres, it flopped.
Another film of his, Dus Nambri, was also banned, but Kumar wasn’t going to take it anymore from the government and spent weeks challenging it in court. He eventually won the case and became the only filmmaker in the country to win a lawsuit against the Emergency.
Going beyond the likes of Dev Anand and Manoj Kumar were National Award-winning actresses like Snehalatha Reddy, who not only spoke out against the Emergency but also actively participated in the underground movement that sought to undermine the government.
She was arrested for her troubles and booked under the draconian MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) on trumped-up charges and held without trial for eight months in Bangalore Central Jail. There, she endured inhumane conditions, torture and suffered a debilitating illness that eventually killed her five days after she was released from prison.
There were other famous film personalities like V Shantaram, Uttam Kumar, Satyajit Ray, Raaj Kumar and Gulzaar, who spoke out against the Emergency as well.
Satyajit Ray refused to accept Indira Gandhi’s request to direct a documentary on her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. Considering not just his popularity at home, but his international standing, there was no way the government was going to touch a filmmaker of Ray’s stature.
At a time when artists didn’t have multiple avenues to screen their work to massive audiences, it took real guts for a handful of them to stand up to the vindictive regime and their policies.
More than four decades later, it’s time for us to honour them once again.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)