From ‘Mother India’ to ‘Mission Mangal’

By Damini Kulkarni

18 September 2019

Homegrown technologies at the service of Indian nationalism in Hindi cinema.

From the poster of ‘Mission Mangal’ (2019)

Jagan Shakti’s 2019 film Mission Mangal endorses a brand of theatrical nationalism meant to appeal to a nation – encouraged by a Prime Minister with a penchant for performativity – that is looking for ‘big bang’ moments in history: visually and narratively spectacular events that are discursively produced as radical points of departure from an inadequate past. Mission Mangal reproduces Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Mars Orbiter Mission – which marks the country’s first interplanetary expedition – as a similar ‘big bang’ moment, one that is meant to herald a new era of technological self-sufficiency and development and consequently, an elevated sense of national pride.

Mission Mangal follows several films, such as Kesari (2019), Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (2018), Gold (2018) and The Ghazi Attack (2017) that conform to a trend of aggressive nationalism that has enthralled popular Hindi cinema – and political discourse – in recent times.  But it is also a reminder that Hindi cinema has historically been implicated in the task of reproducing a particular mythos around Indian nationhood. In each era, Hindi films have identified the most popular contemporary idiom of Indian nationhood, and altered their ideological thrust to orbit around it.

Since India has consistently been regarded as ‘developing’ and technology is seen as a metonym of development, it is hardly a surprise then that Indian nationalism is frequently powered by the evocation of homegrown technology. Hindi films have repeatedly attested to the idea that homegrown technology, when harnessed in service of the nation, is the terrain on which the Indian penchant for tradition reconciles uneasily with its desire for modernity. Consequently, discourses on Indian nationalism in popular Hindi cinema have also been tied to temporally specific ideas of technological progress.

Technology and post-independence nation building

In Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), a self-sacrificing maternal figure Radha (Nargis) bears the violence of conflict between the country’s traditions and independent India’s steps towards modernity. This finds direct expression in the opening sequence, when she raises a lump of soil to her craggy, weather-beaten face, and her tired reverence for the Indian soil is juxtaposed with a series of energetic images that depict electric towers, heavy machinery at work, and the construction of dams and bridges.

This conflict reaches resolution when Radha is called upon by a group of men wearing white kurtas and Gandhi caps (as film theorist Ira Bhaskar has observed, proclaiming their association with the Indian National Congress, the ruling party at the time) to inaugurate a new dam in the village – because she is “everyone’s mother”. The narrative emphasises that Radha has performed arduous physical labour – tilling the soil by tying herself to the plough, and nourishing fields by laboriously drawing water from a well – earning the right to become the harbinger of the technology that now renders this labour unnecessary. The new dam in the village, when inaugurated by this self-effacing old woman, who is regarded as the embodiment of ‘real’India, is perfectly emblematic of traditional India’s steps towards the Congress government’s idea of development.

As several commentators have observed, Mother India’s images represent the idea of Indian development espoused by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and independent India’s first few Five Year Plans, which laid emphasis on industrialisation and the construction of dams for water and electricity. Film theorist Brigitte Sculze asserts that Mother India “creates its own language for painting Nehru’s concept of progress”. As such, Mother India’s images of a nation under construction contributed directly to the government’s nation-building exercise.

Nargis went on to become a member of Rajya Sabha, where she soundly criticised director Satyajit Ray for “exporting poverty” to the West without depicting “modern India”. So powerful was the equation between technology and developing a nation, that when she was questioned about the ideological character of modern India, her response was the same as the central image of her most popular film: “Dams”.  Thus, Mother India sets an enduring blueprint for Hindi cinema, establishing it as a strong medium to further the government’s narrative of nationalism and development.

Technology in an era of disenchantment

The role of technology – and, by association, the idea of increased speed – in keeping pace with global developments is depicted in The Burning Train (1980), in which a dedicated Indian engineer, Vinod (Vinod Khanna), designs a superfast train that outpaces its foreign counterparts (incredibly enough, even the Japanese bullet train), to complete the journey between Delhi and Bombay in 14 hours. The technology that powers the fictitious train is supposed to be representative of India’s victory over its immediate neighbours. This national triumph is underscored by the strains of “Saare jahaan se accha, Hindustan hamara (Better than the entire world is our Hindustan)” that serenade the train as it rolls out of the station for the first time.

It is superbly ironic, and perhaps also instructive of the inherent contradictions of its time, that The Burning Train borrows from the Japanese film The Bullet Train (1975) and visual conventions of several Hollywood disaster films like The Towering Inferno (1974).

Regurgitating the government’s rhetoric in cracking down on the railway strikes of the early 1970s, the film regards the Indian Railways as the “lifeline of India”. Therefore, the Indian railway engineers’ technological innovations are tantamount to progress of the entire country. The Burning Train ends with a note which states that the film is dedicated to the “people of India”, especially those employed by the Indian Railways, and goes on to attest that the “soul of India” has “remained uncorrupted”. The assertion exalts homegrown technology, making it the sacred heart of the Indian nationalist project. It speaks to a country galvanised by the Emergency in 1975, and simultaneously provides a counter to public discourses on increased corruption and disillusionment, that had begun to gain currency.

The idea of indigenous technology as the incorruptible soul of an undivided India is cemented by the film’s stuffing of Indians hailing from various regions and religions into the train. The superfast express, and by extension, the technological innovation it symbolises, becomes a container that unites a diverse country that is attempting to find a common rallying point.

Film theorist Madhava Prasad notes in The Ideology of Hindi Film that the 1970s marked the advent of a differentiation of audiences on gender, age and class lines. The inclusion of obviously stereotypical figurations of people hailing from several parts of the country thus also reflects the ways in which film audiences were becoming increasingly disaggregated.

Unifying technology in a decade of divisiveness

In The Burning Train, an internal enemy in the form of a jealous colleague sabotages the technology – and Indian nationhood – because his personal ambitions are thwarted. Mr. India (1987), on the other hand, locates the threat in an external enemy who hopes to exploit the country’s preexisting fault lines, but is stopped by the use of homegrown technology. While innovative technology is the ultimate goal in The Burning Train, it merely becomes the means to an end in Mr. India.

Mr. India’s military dictator Mogambo (Amrish Puri) bides his time on an island off the Indian coast, hoping to rule over the people of the country. He is counting on the tendency of Indians to “fight amongst themselves” on the basis of “language, religion, and caste” and “become willing slaves”, and is sure that the country will fall into chaos as soon as he unleashes a small measure of violence within its boundaries. Mogambo’s unwavering belief is a reflection of the socio-political atmosphere in India in the 1980s, which has been regarded by historians as the decade in which religious divisiveness firmly instituted itself within mainstream politics.

However, Arun (Anil Kapoor), with the help of a gadget invented by his father, is able to spoil the foreign villain’s ambitions. The gadget is a funky-looking gold bracelet, which renders its wearer invisible. It allows Arun to style himself as Mr. India and correct the many crimes being facilitated and committed by Mogambo.

The gadget is marvelously effective in the hands of Arun, who was orphaned when he was young and looks after a platoon of homeless children. He doesn’t have a rooted past, but has a rich history in the legacy of his father. He also does not have a well-defined private sphere in the form of a conventional family. These factors make him an acceptably neutral agent for the technology that is meant to be used in the “service of mankind”. Thus, Arun’s Mr India, who speaks a language that has been systematically universalised in the country, becomes the ideal candidate to channel a piece of homegrown technology that will become a rallying point for a divided nation.

Despite the apparent secularity of Mr India’s identity, the film also contains several references to Hindu mythology. Arun’s Mr India, in one particular episode, is especially incensed at Mogambo’s henchmen for selling a priceless gold idol of the Hindu god Hanuman to a ‘videshi’ – an English-speaking foreigner. The event, like several others in the film, is designed to exhort Indians to “learn from their history” and unite against common external foes who are keen on dividing their ranks. Mr. India, like Mother India thus sees indigenous technology as a path that leads the country to liberation from its colonial past.

Technology in the shadow of postcolonialism

Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990), on the other hand, examines the ways in which India’s colonial legacy interrupts any meaningful technological and scientific progress in the country. Dr Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapur) invents a vaccine against leprosy, and well-meaning journalist Amulya (Irfan Khan) publicises his work. However, as a result of the public attention, the government-employed doctor’s work falls victim to professional jealousy and bureaucratic delays. Dipankar is denied credit for his invention, and he is forced to ‘surrender’ before a panel of inquiry that is out to penalise him for his scientific breakthrough. In the meantime, a British scientist who is looking to recruit talent for a Chicago-based laboratory courts Dipankar. Since Dipankar is more concerned about the well-being of all of humankind than any singular country’s progress, he moves to the United States of America to pursue his research.

Ek Doctor Ki Maut is a fictionalised version of the story of Dr Subhash Mukhopadhyay, who was denied credit for his invention of in-vitro fertilisation.  Perhaps because it is inspired by a true story, the film is able to effectively address the discourse on the issue of brain drain, focusing on the adverse impacts of emigration of skilled workers from the 1970s onwards. Popular rhetoric framed the outward movement of the ‘brightest minds’ of the country, particularly healthcare workers and software professionals, as a tremendous blow to the progress of India. Emigrating scientists and doctors were often cast as ungrateful to a government that subsidised their higher education.

Ek Doctor Ki Maut also examines the various ways by which the Indian bureaucracy kills the patriotic sentiments of its people. Dipankar’s wife Seema (Shabana Azmi) is initially against her husband pursuing his work abroad – “If everyone goes away to pursue their work, then what will happen to this country?” she asks. Amulya also publishes the story of Dipankar’s invention story because he hopes to inspire Indian scientists to wrestle with ‘bureaucratic pressures’ and work within the country. However, Seema’s and Amulya’s commitment pales in the face of the system’s antipathy. Ek Doctor Ki Maut thus demonstrates the porousness of geographical boundaries and valorises the universality of scientific progress as a tool for the betterment of humankind.

Rooted technology in the age of globalisation

In Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004), India-born scientist Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan) is employed by The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States. But racked with guilt over abandoning his childhood caretaker Kaveri Amma (Kishori Ballal) in India, he returns to India to take her back with him, only to find she has moved to Charanpur with his childhood friend Geeta (Gayatri Joshi). Mohan then travels to the remote village of Charanpur and is struck by life in rural India. He decides to do something for the welfare of Charanpur and eventually sets up a small hydroelectric power plant to address the frequent power cuts the village faces. Although he then returns to NASA to complete his project, he finally decides to settle in India with Geeta and Kaveri Amma.

Although Swades, like Mother India, champions the idea of generating electricity by using hydro-power, its political vision is inspired by Gandhian humanism over Nehruvian ideas of industrialisation. Gandhi’s and Nehru’s visions of progress have repeatedly been juxtaposed for their contradictory positions, but Swades attempts to merge the two by reflecting the Nehruvian affinity towards technology, and the Gandhian emphasis on self-reliant villages.

This curious blend is keenly visible in the character Dadaji, an old man who fought for Independence and now teaches at a school. He is symbolic of a desperately hopeful nation that is unable to let go of its painful past because of its troubled present. Mohan develops a relationship of abiding respect for the erstwhile freedom fighter and the old man, in turn, hopes that the young professional will be the harbinger of change. When Mohan succeeds in ensuring an uninterrupted power supply to the village, Dadaji dies. This is symbolic of the idea that the old guard can finally rest, since the younger generation has now accepted the onus of ensuring technological progress and prosperity. Mohan’s and Dadaji’s mutual respect also charts the relationship between a hopeful old India’s willingness to shed its past and accept modern, technology-driven plenitude.

Swades also suggests that the idea of traditional India, valourised for so long in popular Hindi cinema, is flawed and inadequate. The ice-cream-loving, pleasure-seeking Kaveri Amma, who dishes up tasty meals and massages infants with dexterity, but hunkers down to watch Hindi cinema, is suggestive of the embodiment of a new idea of traditional India. Humorously, she initially confuses NASA with nasha (addiction), but is later efficiently able to narrate the utility and purpose of satellites to an admiring crowd of villagers.

The characters in Swades neatly summarise the contradictions inherent in the reconfigurations of Indian technology-driven nationalism at the turn of the millennium – a country too old to catch up with rapid evolutions in technology, too young to participate in the carnival, but eager enough to chafe at being left out.

Duplicitous technology in polarised times

It is amply evident that Mission Mangal is by no means representative of an entirely new cinematic practice in India. However, as it carries forward Hindi cinema’s legacy of mobilising homegrown technology in the service of a temporally specific discourse on nationalism and development, it espouses a freshly sinister and insidious form of nationhood that centres itself on a stubborn rewriting of historical realities.

Consider this for instance: the Mars Orbiter Mission began – and was publicly announced – during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure. It successfully entered the Mars orbit a scant few months after Narendra Modi was elected prime minister. However, in a maneuver that has been identified by several film critics as duplicitous, Mission Mangal surgically excises Singh from its narrative, and provides a theatrically spectacular platform for a speech by Modi in its closing credits.

Further, while Mission Mangal, like The Burning Train, attempts to transform its spacecraft into a vehicle of Indian diversity, the slippages and absences in its visualisation of this metaphor are unwittingly emblematic of the polarised atmosphere in present-day India, where certain communities are being systematically disenfranchised.

The space saga reserves a marginal and compromised place for Muslims, as reflected in its treatment of Neha Siddiqui (Kirti Kulhari), who is asked to “adjust to vegetarian food” when she is (generously) offered a place to stay at an elderly Hindu couple’s home. On the other hand, Hindu symbolism dominates the narrative, most glaringly with the inclusion of a panditji who performs rituals at ISRO before the rocket launch. This act, coupled with frequent allusions to the significance of Mars (the titular Mangal) in Hindu astrology, frame the creation of homegrown technology, as well as the conquering of space, as an extension of Hindu religiosity.  The inclusion of Hindu symbolism in this manner also resonates with the myriad of fantastical claims made by several political figures of the Bhartiya Janata Party in recent times – assertions that bizarrely attempt to link Hindu mythology with modern science.

In addition to the overtly Hindu symbolism, Mission Mangal also links ISRO’s attempt to conquer territory in space with the Indian army’s efforts to safeguard Indian territory back on Earth. It imbues the development of technology with an aggression and competitive fervor normally associated with military activities.

The politics of technology

Unlike war or sport – two common devices of nationalist projects – technology can move from the realm of spectacle and leak into the material everyday realities of people, ostensibly improving the quality of their lives and cementing their bond with the nation state. Since it is often directly implicated in development discourse, the surface of technology is available not only to broad and general inscriptions of patriotism, but also to temporally specific etchings of nationhood. The ability to manifest in this manner in the public consciousness has turned it into a powerful motif in the promotion of nationalism in Hindi cinema.

In his seminal essay ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics?’ Langon Winner is guided by the argument that some technologies are inherently political, while some are rendered political by their arrangement. Popular Hindi cinema testifies to the idea that homegrown technology, brightly inscribed with nationhood, has a politics that is pliable to many revisions and mutations depending on the way that its identity is constructed in cotemporary discourse. It is rendered political merely by evocation.


~Damini Kulkarni is pursuing her PhD at the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Savitribai Phule Pune University. Her work has appeared in publications such as Economic and Political Weekly, Film Criticism, Film International, and Scroll.in, among others.

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