The last two months have seen vast numbers of Indians coming together and fighting the establishment over certain laws. In a politically-charged climate like this, it is difficult not to look back into history for similar stories. One such story, is the 1952 movie Anand Math starring Prithviraj Kapoor, Geeta Bali, Bharat Bhushan and Ajit.
The story is based on the famous novel of the same name, by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. It talks of the Sanyasi Rebellion of the 18th century, when sanyasis and fakirs in northeast India rose against the British Raj, which was plundering the region even as it suffered from acute famine and drought.
While the nature of the actual rebellion is disputed — some historians say it was an all-Hindu uprising, while some say it was simply an anti-imperialist movement, and still others dispute its authenticity — the film and the book show it as an all-Hindu, anti-imperialist, nationalist movement.
Chatterjee’s book and the film, directed by Hemen Gupta, tell the story of a once-rich landlord, Mahendra Singh, who is forced to leave his home and migrate with his wife and child in search of food and sustenance as hundreds die due to hunger, disease and in the hands of the British. While on the hunt for food, he and his wife run into trouble and are saved by an underground group of sanyasis, who call themselves santaan.
Led by Satyanand (Kapoor), the group fights the British with planned attacks and helps the poor in any way they can. They convince Singh to join their cause, but fighting for a larger cause is not that easy. Their well-intentioned plans are fraught with personal obstacles — forbidden love, guilt, and the constant conflict between choosing country over kin.
The film has nationalistic overtones and documents the struggle of fighting for a nation-wide cause in detail. The santaan is loyal first to the motherland (hence, they are its santaan or offspring) and only after that loyal to their brothers-in-arms. In fact, they even take a vow of celibacy, which is tested as the story unfolds and reveals the sacrifices the protagonists make. Geeta Bali, as Shanti, is the striking voice of contradiction — the one who asks, “Does country really have to come before kin? Isn’t your kin your country?”
Anand Math also gives us our national song, Vande Mataram. Written by Chatterjee in the book, the film uses it as a resounding anthem for the sanyasis’ movement and as a theme throughout the film. Sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Hemant Kumar, the song helped the film achieve cult status and fuelled a sense of nationalism in Indian audiences after its release.
Anand Math was Kumar’s Bollywood debut as well as that of actor Pradeep Kumar, who plays a minor role.