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26 January 2016

Anand Math (1952)

Directed by: Hemen Gupta
Music: Hemant Kumar Mukherjee
Lyrics: Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri, Jaideva
Starring: Prithviraj Kapoor, Geeta Bali, 
Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, Ajit, Ranjana
Vande Mataram’ has always had the uncanny effect of making me feel very ‘Indian’, very conscious of my country and its heritage. As a child, Anand Math came alive to me through Amar Chitra Katha. It fuelled my imagination, and my interest in History. When I grew older, I found its English translation in my college library. I must confess that when I saw the title, The Abbey of Bliss, by ‘Nares Chandra Sen-Gupta – Vakil, High Court, Calcutta’ I didn’t instantly connect it to the Bankim Chandra Chatterjee novel. (This translation is now available in public domain. Orient Paperbacks brought out another translation by Basanta Koomar Roy; not having read that, I have no idea how good or bad it is.) It made me wish I could have read it in the original (I feel that way about a great many books that I read in translations.), but I wasn’t as uncritical this time. (More about that later.)

I first watched Anand Math on television; the reception was grainy due to the rains, and we were in the midst of our scheduled power cuts, which meant 'Goodbye film!' halfway through the feature. It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to watch it again, but I just never got around to doing so until recently. And perhaps, this is as good a time as any – what better way to commemorate our Republic Day than to review a film that was based on what is considered by some to be the first banded revolt for freedom.*
Satyananda (Prithviraj Kapoor) is terribly grieved – will he ever see his motherland free? Yes, replies an disembodied voice, but it requires a terrible price. ‘My life?’ ‘Life is cheap.’ What else is there, wonders a bewildered Satyananda. Would he be able to give it? What? Bhakti (devotion). Towards the Motherland. 

The voice then give us the background: in 1770, the great famine struck the eastern part of our country – more than half the population died because of it. But the British East India Company had secured revenue rights from Nawab Mir Jafar. The dissolute Nawab, unmoved by the catastrophic effects of the devastating famine, immersed himself in wine and women even as the British extracted their pound of flesh.
Natural disasters spare no one, not even the rich. Raja Mahendra (Bharat Bhushan), a Zamindar, once the wealthiest man in the district, is forced to leave his haveli, along with his wife, Kalyani (Ranjana) and child. All his wealth will not buy him a drop of milk for his daughter. They join the multitude of the wretched who are leaving their homes and their lands in search of food. Mahendra and Kalyani break their journey in the ruins of a building in the forest. Once he settles his wife and daughter there, Mahendra goes in search of some milk for the hungry child. Left alone, Kalyani and the child are carried away by a band of dacoits.
But as they soon fall out among themselves (hungry for food, not money and jewels), she manages to flee, until she nearly collapses from exhaustion. She is fortunate; just as the dacoits track her down, she is found by Satyananda, who takes her to his ashram. He promises he will send his men to search for Mahendra. He sends Bhavanand (Ajit) to look for the missing man, and to bring him to the aashram when he finds him. Jivanand (Pradeep Kumar), another young man, is asked to take charge of the attack against the British. 
Meanwhile, Mahendra who returns to the ruins to find his wife and daughter missing, is captured by the soldiers of the East India Company, who mistake him for one of the dacoits.  Bhavanand, who spots them, manages to get himself captured as well. When Jivanand and his men attack the cohort, Bhavanand helps Mahendra escape, though the latter is not very grateful. He mistakes them for dacoits, and wants nothing to do with them. Bhavanand explains they are ‘santaans’ (children) of the motherland, fighting for her, but Mahendra is not convinced. Yet. 
But he accompanies them to the aashram, where Satyananda shows him the three faces of ‘Maa’  - Jagaddhatri, the Mother, as she was; Kaali, the Mother, as she is; and Durga, the Mother, as she will be. He then leads Mahendra to Kalyani.

Meanwhile, the British commander is furious at the attack on the company forces. A British officer has been killed, and he demands compensation from the Nawab. The latter is also warned – if he cannot keep law and order in the region, then he can be removed. The Nawab sends out a hokum namah – the santaans are to captured, dead or alive. But the santaans have already been warned by their spies.

Mahendra and Kalyani leave the math, but he cannot resist the call of the Mother. The sight of her has affected him more than he imagined; Kalyani is sympathetic. It is the voice of the Goddess, and Mahendra shouldn’t turn his back to her. She decides to take poison, but Mahendra stops her; unfortunately, their little daughter gets her hands on it and imbibes it before her stupefied parents can stop her. A remorseful Kalyani takes the rest of the poison, freeing Mahendra to follow the call of his conscience.
Satayananda, hearing Mahendra’s distraught cries, arrives there, only for both of them to be captured by the soldiers. On the way to the barracks, he requests the halvildar’s permission to sing a bhajan. He begins:   
Dheera sameere thatini teere,
Vasati vane var naari…
(The lyrics are an intelligent play on the original hymn Dheera sameere Yamuna teere, Vasati vane van maali… from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda.)
He is overheard by Jivananda, who realises that the ‘song’ is a message – quickly, he searches the forest alongside the banks of the stream; the cries of the child bring him to where Kalyani is lying unconscious. Assuming she is dead, Jivananda takes the child away. On the way, he meets Bhavananda, whom he sends to bring Kalyani’s body back. Only, Kalyani is alive, and Bhavananda entranced by her beauty, takes the unconscious woman to an old woman of his acquaintance, and asks her to bring a physician.

Jivananda takes the child to his sister’s house; there, he hears a plaint, which remind him of his past, of the storm that had obliterated all in its path, of the promise he had once made…
Jivananda is conflicted; when he joined the santaans, he had taken a terrible vow – of dedication to the cause, of devotion to the motherland, of celibacy of mind and body until the country was free… and today, when he comes face to face with a voice from the past, the person he loves most, how can he walk away?
The next day, the santaans mount an attack to free Satayananda. They manage to get back to their hideout but pay a heavy price in the lives of their comrades. Satyananda is terribly grieved - they need cannons in order to have a fair chance in battle. The ends justify the means, he tells them. Leaving Bhavananda and Jivananda in charge of the math, Satyananda leaves - he promises to find the best workmen and send them to Padachinha, where they will use Mahendra's house as an arms and ammunition factory. Before leaving, he also leaves his two disciples, chastened - if either of them had knowingly or unknowingly committed any sin, he asks them to wait for his return before they expatiate them. 

Mahendra is being initiated into the math. Along with him is another lad whose demeanour arouses Satayananda's suspicions. He names him Nivinanand, but his suspicions are soon proven true - the 'lad' is none other than Shanthi. Her pointed questions about the nature of the crime and the repentance demanded disturb Satyananda. He gives in to her impassioned pleas and lets her remain, however. 

Jivananda and Bhavananda have their own troubles to bear - Jivananda cannot remain far away from Shanthi, even though she is now Navinanda; Bhavananda cannot forget Kalyani. After all, if he as to atone for his sins, why not commit another? The atonement is the same whatever be the magnitude of the crime - death. 
And all the while, the santaans were mounting well-crafted attacks on the British usurpers who, in turn, stepped up their atrocities. Eventually, Warren Hastings is sent to India. The dilettante Nawab is only a puppet, his strings manoeuvred from afar. The fate of a country, and the destinies of many men and women now hang in delicate balance. 
Will Jivananda and Shanti ever find happiness? Will Mahendra reunite with Kalyani and his daughter? Does Satyananda achieve his ambition? Does Bhavananda find redemption? 
Anand Math (Anondomôţh in Bengali) is a political drama with religious overtones. It not only influenced the spirit of nationalism during our struggle for independence, it gave us our national song, Vande Mataram. Novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee visualised the country as the Mother Goddess who requires the supreme sacrifice from her children, to rid her of her chains. An intensely nationalistic film that puts the goal of freedom above personhood, Anand Math glorifies the sacrifices asked of, and made, by the men and women of the times.

The novel’s plot was loosely set against the Bengal Famine of 1770 and the Sanyasi Rebellion, and the film followed suit. With Prithviraj Kapoor, Pradeep Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, Geeta Bali and Ajit taking on the major characters, Anand Math is not only an intensely nationalistic film but a deeply personal one – what comes first? Country or personal relationships? Both novel and book take the view that personal relationships have to be sacrificed for the good of the country.

The musical score of the film still resonates – Hemant Kumar made his debut in Hindi films with this film. (So did Pradeep Kumar.)  Two songs, Vande Mataram and Jai Jagdish hare, underlined the theme of the film. His emotionally charged, energised version of the former is still considered one of the finest interpretations of an already inspirational song.
The latter, a collection of hymnal verses known as the Dashavatar Stotram, are from Jaideva’s Geeta Govinda. (The cinematic version uses five of those verses, depicting only five incarnations of Vishnu – Meena (fish), Vaamana (dwarf), Rama, Buddha and Kalki.) What is interesting is the way it is sung –the voices of Geeta Roy (as she was at the time) and Hemant Kumar continuously overlap each other. Hemant Kumar’s recital of the shlokas begins faintly (he is singing for Prithviraj Kapoor, who is at some distance from the camp) and then, Geeta Roy holds forth for Geeta Bali with ‘Keshava, dhrita meena shareera…’; so far, it’s like a conventional chant-song duet, but this is where it becomes quite unusual:  there is no line from here on, where the two singers are not singing – only, they are singing completely different lines all through. It is almost as if there are two songs – two completely different songs - being sung simultaneously. 

My reservations? They are mainly about the book, and not the film which, while it closely followed the book's narrative, sensibly focused on the British as the enemy. Anand Math (the novel) is rabidly anti-Muslim. Yes, it is a product of its times, and yes, the rulers were Muslim, and so it has to be read in context. But there are several references to not only fighting the Muslim invaders, but killing any Muslim they met, destroying their houses and lands, killing their wives and children. So much so, says one reference, Muslims began to cut their hair and shave their beards, and smear holy ash in order to disguise their religion.

There are multiple references to how the British were welcome, and they were being fought against only because they were helping the Muslim rulers. Which is kind of disingenuous when the British are already shown increasing the taxes so they could fill their coffers and inflicting numerous indignities on the populace, regardless of religion.

In fact, towards the end of the novel, Satyanand is taken away by his Guru he’s told by the latter that it is not yet time for a ‘Hindu rashtra’; the country needs the English to rule over us for some time before we can be free – there’s much to learn, and he should be happy that they have put the Muslims to rout in that area. I can’t imagine a ‘nation’ being built with such divisiveness, especially when you consider that it is this divisiveness that allowed the British to rule over our country for more than two centuries. 

Yes, I can see that those feelings can have been rife during those times, especially with a Muslim ruler who was both inefficient and a wastrel. I can understand that, and I can even empathise with those feelings. But I still cringed because the book was written a century after the Sanyasi Rebellion (about which very little was known then, and now). I can only assume it was written with an agenda - again, as my husband points out, every nation needs a myth to fall back upon, so this narrative works as well as any other. 

The book is also a significant example of our opportunism - whether Hindu or Muslim, we seem to have continually invited outsiders to settle our internal disputes. Here, the film is more sensible - we have Shanthi ask the English soldier she meets (and who offers to set her up as his mistress) who tells her that the British are here to 'rescue' the Indians: 'Why are you bothered about our disputes? We may fight, we may even kill each other, but that's our business.' 

I also found myself wondering how Anand Math would fare if it were prescribed as a textbook today – despite its history, I can see how it would incite more hatred and divisiveness in today’s times.  

But a song from this book became our national song, breathing new life into our national consciousness. Like I said before, it’s a song that is strangely inspirational to me. But I do not find it strange at all, given its background, that Muslim leaders apparently protested its choice as our National Anthem.

*The significance and consequences of the 'Sanyasi Rebellion', of which there are at least three recorded instances, on future revolts and rebellions against the British rule has been intensely debated by historians.

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