Singing in the dark: Patriotism at the cinema
Supreme Court judge Justice DY Chandrachud, who helmed the landmark judgement on Right to Privacy, has recently questioned a 2016 court order making it mandatory for the National Anthem to be played in cinema halls.
While questioning the logic behind forcing every Indian to ‘wear his patriotism on his sleeve’, Justice Chandrachud added: "Next thing will be that people should not wear t-shirts and shorts to movies because it will amount to disrespect for the national anthem...where do we stop this moral policing?" He further observes: "There is no mandate that people should stand up when the national anthem is sung in a cinema hall. This is obviously because a cinema hall is a place for entertainment...people go to cinema halls for undiluted entertainment... Society needs entertainment."
Patriotism should never be forced down people’s throats. The job of the courts is to ensure that the government of the day observes and functions under the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution. The job of the government is to deliver better lives for its people and to facilitate the conditions for this to happen. That being achieved, the proud citizen becomes an automatic corollary.
What happens now is that people either enter the hall after the advertisements and national anthem are over, or they stand up reluctantly, still glued to their phones, while the anthem perfunctorily sails by the ear. It serves little function.
Small patty in a big bun
Film buffs say that films should be watched in the theatre. This is what happened when I last went to watch Newton at the local PVR cinema hall. A good half hour of advertisements preceded the film, followed by Tagore’s song. The interval saw another half an hour of ads. The film was only about an hour and forty-five minutes long.
I felt like I was in prison, serving other people’s ends. For the theatre owner, I was the captive audience she could force feed commercials for an hour. For the state, I was the captive citizen through which the state and court could express its own patriotism. Where was the entertainment, the very reason I was here? It was the small patty in a big bun.
We think differently at different ages. In my early twenties, while waiting for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to start at Bombay’s Regal cinema (or was it Sterling), I refused to stand up for the anthem. I was in staunch rebellion. My parents were worried I’d get into trouble with the Marathi Manoos present in the audience. They stood, everyone did, I sat, and fortunately, the moment passed without incident.
Growing up in Allahabad, my neighbours were a joint family of six brothers and one sister. The large household had an institutional touch about it. There was a system of weekly points for hygiene, using swear words etc. One of the house rules at the Dixits was that all the children, of varying ages, had to stand at attention (height-wise) every time the national anthem came on television (not just on Republic or Independence day). While I was not going to have any points cut, being somewhat exempt from the house rules, I still did it. One doesn’t rearrange the furniture while in another persons house.
Why just cinemas
My experience of the national anthem in cinema halls is that it is totally plastic. For one, we are not obligated to sing it, only stand. That kills it. Then, the fact that it’s a recording further destroys the experience. If it has to be done, put a live band in every theatre and make it mandatory for everyone to sing in unison, hand on chest, North Korean style. At the moment it’s more a rag-tag bunch of people standing half-heartedly in a darkened room. There’s a touch of the sinister to it. Perhaps the lights can be turned on for the duration of the singing (or standing). It might just save the physically challenged from being beaten up by overzealous patriots.
Why stop only at cinema halls and why not at the beginning of every train journey? Just imagine entire bogeys humming along, hitting the high notes. In each and every restaurant in the country. Before every kabaddi league and IPL match. Perhaps before every concert, an ode to the tradition of anthem rock. There is an element of randomness in settling on cinemas as the site for proving our patriotic credentials.
I’m reminded of that other charming artifact of patriotic nation building - the Pledge. Composed by Subba Rao in 1962, the national pledge is an oath of allegiance to the Republic of India. We recited this more often in the school assembly than the national anthem. It was shorter to execute and avoided the problem of most boys ‘singing’ like crows in multiple voices.
Now you can put words in a boy’s mouth but you can’t stop him from swallowing some. In a boys’ school that had just turned co-ed, some of my fellow classmates diligently refused to say the word ‘sisters’ in the line: ‘India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters.’ Amongst the student body agreement prevailed, perhaps wrongly, that all Indians couldn’t be one’s sister—that this would get in the way of getting hitched in the future. Incest wasn’t an option.
National Anthem's symbolism
The significance of a National Anthem lies in its symbolism. It stands for your country; it can also stand for whatever is wrong in your society. We have a right to register our protest as citizens, using the anthem as a legitimate symbolic weapon. This, in India, has never been the case.
On a wet Monday morning in 1969, at the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival, Jimi Hendrix unleashed a distortion-drenched version of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. As Andy Cush writes in Spin:
‘Right around the time someone singing along would be getting to “o’er the ramparts we watched,” Hendrix began to slyly use the music’s own martial bombast to reflect the violence carried out under his nation’s flag. He held a keynote a little too long, applied a little more pressure to his Stratocaster’s tremolo bar, and sent the pitch slowly downward as it rung out. It was a subtly unsettling effect, like the moan of an animal in distress, or an air-raid siren. He quickly abandoned the original tune completely, turning the music to a literal interpretation of the lyrics: bombs bursting in air, rockets lighting up the night. The rumbles and wails also conjured up images of war that don’t often make it into anthem lyrics: screaming children, tank treads trundling forward. Ordinary performances of “Star Spangled Banner” run about two minutes long or less. Hendrix played for twice that long, enumerating the ugliness behind the American glory that the song is meant to represent.’
In contemporary times, American football player Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand for the national anthem in every San Francisco 49ers game he’s been a part of. Instead, he kneels in protest. Several other players have joined in since, provoking much Twitter outrage from the last great American patriot, Donald Trump, and some NFL executives.
Like Hendrix was protesting the use of napalm against Vietnamese civilians, Kaepernick is saying ‘Black lives matter', that white police officers should stop shooting black people dead on the streets of America (and getting away with it).
Kaepernick has stuck to his line, telling NFL Media in an interview: ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.’
Kaepernick has been called a traitor and lost endorsements, though the then president, Barack Obama, backed him saying: ‘I believe that us honouring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation. But I also always try to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion.’
Jimi Hendrix and his band were threatened with violence if they played ‘Star Spangled Banner’ during a tour stop in Houston.
The National Anthem is a powerful symbol, which has been used by those who really care for their society to make a trenchant point about injustice. It’s a moot question, whether someone who cares enough to protest injustice is a traitor, more than someone who goes through the motions of the anthem and goes back to her corrupt smug life.
When the courts make it mandatory for us to sing the National Anthem, they should be aware that it’s also opening the doors for concerned citizens to protest against wrongs, perceived or real. Is the cinema really the place to do all this?
(The writer is a social commentator and the author of Eunuch Park & The Butterfly Generation)