The worldview of Satyapriya, an engineer in the urban India of the late 1940s, is shaped by an unflinching commitment to truth as well as his grounding in Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. His short life as an uncompromising idealist, influenced by the ideals of the freedom movement, is marked by total disavowal of wealth and desires. Sanjay Suri’s book does not mention Satyakam (1969); yet Satyapriya, the film’s lead character, epitomises the hero archetype that forms the book’s core.
A Gandhian Affair begins with a clinical observation of some well-known films released between 1948 and 1959, to demonstrate the ubiquity of this spirit of renunciation among the lead male characters of the era. From the Independence movement-inspired Shaheed and the spiritually-inclined Jogan, both starring Dilip Kumar; to the socially charged K.A. Abbas-scripted blockbusters like Awara and Shree 420, both Raj Kapoor ventures; to thrillers like the Dev Anand-starrer Baazi, the chapter agreeably gives examples of multiple occasions when the hero considers acquisition of wealth and yielding to sexual desires as dishonourable. However, Suri magnifies the subliminal influence of Gandhi.
To quote academic Akbar S. Ahmed, while the early-day protagonist’s philosophy, which he called ‘corrupt Gandhianism’ and ‘corrupt Hinduism’, took non-violence and universal brotherhood from Gandhi, his romantic idealism owed itself to Nehru and his thinking was also influenced by Indian traditional wisdom.
The average Hindi film protagonist, exemplified by Satyapriya, was hence a lower-middle class, upper-caste, Hindu male. He was upwardly mobile, yet had the ability to spurn wealth. He romanced the heroine, but placed a high value on celibacy. To cite Ashis Nandy, this belief system took shape because commercial Hindi films by themselves were premised on the sensitivities of the deracinated, urban, lower-middle class, with the lead protagonist being caught between ‘two cultures, two lifestyles and two visions of a desirable society’.
But how did this renunciation of wealth and desire square with a celebration of both in songs? As Suri suggests, this had to do with the relative tolerance of censor authorities. However, the Victorian codes that informed the Indian Cinematograph Act 1952 only partly explain this attitude.
Academic M. Madhava Prasad offered a historical analysis of this when he said that while kissing was deemed to belong to the private sphere, songs were in the realm of the public. Hence, the latter were considered by a patriarchal state as more acceptable than the former. Prasad postulated that the state, in alliance with the ‘premodern intermediate patriarch’ (the middle-class filmmaker in this case) reserved the right to itself when it came to showing ‘the private’ on screen, while it adopted a more indulgent attitude while presenting ‘the public’.
Suri’s book, while delightfully narrative, lacks a theoretical grounding that would have made it a handy reference material. Further, factual errors at some places mar the reading experience. For instance, the lyrics of Chaudhvin ka Chand are attributed to Sahir Ludhianvi instead of Shakeel Badayuni; and films like Aag (1948), Rahi (1953) and Insaniyat (1955) are considered top grossers.
A Gandhian Affair: India’s Curious Portrayal of Love in Cinema; Sanjay Suri, HarperCollins India, ₹499.