A new Hindi film, Emergency, directed by Kangana Ranaut and also starring her as former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, has run into trouble even before its release, with the Congress expressing reservations about how it portrays Mrs Gandhi. While the Emergency, a 21-month period from 25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977 when Mrs Gandhi suspended fundamental rights, imprisoned political opponents, and ruled by decree, is a significant event in India’s post-Independence history, it is somewhat of a lost moment in mainstream Hindi cinema. Only a few films — Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Sudhir Mishra, 2003), Indu Sarkar (Madhur Bhandarkar, 2017) — have attempted to depict or engage with it.
While writing about the effects of the forced sterilisation campaign and relocation of Delhi’s citizens to the eastern fringes of the city, anthropologist Emma Tarlo, in her landmark book Unsettling Memories (2003) claimed that the Emergency was “a lost moment” for historians and political scientists. She felt this amnesia was a result of socio-political processes deliberately initiated by the Congress after it was re-elected to power in 1980. The Congress, led by Mrs Gandhi, had been handed a shocking defeat in elections to the central parliament in 1977, a moment often described as a glowing example of India’s democracy.
Tarlo’s claim, however, is only partially correct. It is true that the Congress did try to erase the memories of the Emergency through various means. For instance, the party apparently acquired and destroyed several copies of the report produced by a commission, headed by Justice J C Shah, that enquired into the excesses of the Emergency. Others, such as sociologist Smriti Sawkar, have shown how Mrs Gandhi’s government also engaged in “spectacular politics”, by organizing spectacles such as the Asian Games in New Delhi (1982), the Festival of India in Britain (1982), the launch of the Maruti Suzuki “family car” (1983), and the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Delhi (1983) to win back public confidence it had lost because of the Emergency.
However, by the time Tarlo published her book, there had been several significant interventions in the history and analysis of the Emergency by journalists, political scientists, and historians. Among these, perhaps the most significant one is leftist historian Vijay Prasad’s 1996 essay “Emergency Assessments”, in which he uses Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s prison diaries to evaluate if the Emergency was a “fascist moment” and also traces the rise of the Hindu right in India. Historian Ram Guha also writes extensively about it in his monumental work India After Gandhi (2007).
The Emergency has had a similarly chequered career in Hindi cinema as well. Soon after it was revoked in 1977, Amrit Nahata, a Congress MP accused Sanjay Gandhi of stealing and destroying all the prints of his film <Kissa Kursi Ka>, which had caricatured Mrs Gandhi’s regime. Sanjay and Indira Gandhi’s information and broadcasting minister V C Shukla were sentenced by “a lower court to two years’ imprisonment for destroying the master negative of the film… He filed an appeal in the high court. But at one stage his bail was cancelled and he had to spend some nights in jail,” writes journalist Coomi Kapoor in her book The Emergency: A Personal History (2015). By 1980, however, Indira Gandhi was back in power, and as Elliot Stein reported in Film Comment, Nahata withdrew his case against Sanjay Gandhi.
Two other mainstream films — Gol Maal (1979) and Khubsoorat (1980) — both directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee engaged with the Emergency, or at least with the idea of authoritarianism. Gol Maal, a classic now, is possibly the first Hindi film to refer to the Emergency. In an early scene, the protagonist Ramprasad Sharma (Amol Palekar) takes his friends out for a picnic to celebrate a promotion at his job. One of his friends announces that he has three tickets to an India-Pakistan hockey match and only two of them can go for it. There is a bit of a commotion among the friends when the friend with the tickets silences them: “Just because the Emergency is over doesn’t mean you will behave with such indiscipline.” Discipline was a catchphrase for the Emergency.
Ramprasad’s overbearing boss Bhawani Shankar’s (Utpal Dutt) obsession with his moustache would have reminded the audience of Hitler — in fact, Deven Verma, playing himself in the film, does refer to the German dictator in the final scenes of Gol Maal. Similarly, Nirmala Gupta (Dina Pathak), the matriarch of the family in Khubsoorat, who runs her household with unrelenting laws, would have reminded a contemporary audience of Mrs Gandhi. Nirmala’s law-bound household is disrupted by a young, rebellious relative Manju (Rekha). After Khubsoorat, however, the Emergency almost disappears from Hindi cinema, possibly because of the fate of Kissa Kursi Ka and Amrit Nahata.
This silence would be broken briefly only in 2005, with the delayed release of the critically acclaimed film Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi, directed by Sudhir Mishra. The film seems to take its cue from political historian Sudipta Kaviraj’s suggestion that the 1970s in India should be thought of not as a decade but as a longer period when Indira Gandhi dominated the political landscape in the country, starting in 1966 when she first became prime minister and ending 1984 when she was assassinated. Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi begins in the early years of the decade and focuses on a love triangle between Siddharth Tyabji (Kay Kay Menon), Geeta Rao (Chitrangada Singh), and Vikram Malhotra (Shiney Ahuja), all students of Delhi University. It traces their lives over the tumultuous decade, ending soon after the Emergency when all of them are irreconcilably altered. In retrospect, one can think of this film as part of a large nostalgic repackaging of the 1970s in Bollywood, with films like Action Replayy (Vipul Amrutlal Shah, 2010), Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (Milan Luthria, 2010) and Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007).
Since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected to power, there has been a renewal of interest in the Emergency — both academic and in popular culture. This is partly a result of the government’s activities — in 2015, it commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, highlighting the role of Hindu leaders as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the resistance to it. Several senior leaders of the BJP, such as former finance minister Arun Jaitley and current member of the Rajya Sabha Prakash Javadekar were imprisoned during the Emergency, and Modi himself had taken part in the anti-corruption Navnirman Movement in his home state Gujarat in 1974. However, the government’s critics have also compared its tenure to the Emergency because of diminishing press freedom, backsliding democracy, and rising religious intolerance.
This renewal of interest has been reflected in academic works as well. The most significant of these is India’s First Dictatorship (2021) by political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and historian Pratinav Anil. Jaffrelot and Anil use the theory of “sultanism”, developed by Juan Linz and Alfred Stephan, to explain the personality cult around Mrs Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency. Besides the provocative title, Jaffrelot, in an interview with The Wire, described the current political climate in India as “sultanism”. Historian Gyan Prakash in his book Emergency Chronicles (2019), building upon Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s theories of political power, describes the Emergency to be a “state of exception”.
Despite the renewed interest in the Emergency, Bollywood has been slow to catch up. Two recent films that focus on or reference the Emergency — Indu Sarkar (Madhur Bhandarkar, 2017) and Baadshaho (Milan Luthria, 2017) — have been disappointing. While some critics have identified the first film as a sort of pro-government propaganda, the second one is a vapid heist drama that caricaturises Sanjay Gandhi and Maharani Gayatri Devi. One can only hope that Emergency will not add to this heap. But considering Kangana Ranaut’s recent work that hope does not shine too brightly.
Uttaran Das Gupta teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. His novel, Ritual, was published in 2020