Manoj Kumar’s Kranti and the ‘masala-national’


At 3 hr 7 min Kranti is arguably the longest masala pleasure in Bombay film history short of the somewhat longer Sholay. Unusually for Salim-Javed a pure masala potpourri with its lost and found twists, its high-pitched drama and hyper-theatrical dialog, its romance and tragedy, is grafted onto the epic political canvas of 1857. The result is not simply a period piece with a masala soul but a profoundly mythic fusion of the heroic and historical, and an all-inclusive ‘pre-figuration’ of the post-colonial nation state. If this last might be considered masala’s secret kernel or that which is always implicated in the masala project Kranti might be labeled the perfect site for launching forth this entire thematic. Manoj Kumar’s film is in essence the culmination or ‘truth’ of the less charitably named ‘formula’ tradition.*


Kranti is a textbook example of everything that the masala mode is at its best and everything that it is ostracized for in the current age. For masala at the present moment is that which cannot be accessed or even remembered squarely on its own terms. The high drama and ‘rousing’ entertainment coupled with all the picaresque qualities that are abundantly on display in Kranti is what defines the very essence of this mode which is remarkably flexible to the exact degree that it highlights all of its ‘bricolage’ elements.** Manoj Kumar’s film then offers a whole ‘summary’ of not just masala core features but also the nod to various Hollywood ones. From Moses-inspired tropes to expressionist horror set designs, from costumes that hearken to the attire of Renaissance European princes as much as they do to more ‘local’ village gear or women rather too erotically clothed in ‘Indian’ wear as opposed to ‘Western’ more or less contemporary gowns elsewhere, from palaces that seem like medieval European castles with forbidding dungeons at one end and royal, gaudily decorated courts suggesting ‘Oriental’ exotica at the other, from naval vessels that jump out of Ben-Hur with their slave ‘rowers’ to chariots and carriages that belong to different histories of the European past, from sword duels to B movie ‘cat-fights’ to William Tell-like archery contests, and of course all the familiar thematic features from love triangles to Rostam/Sohrab-like father-son conflicts or the easy blending of religious and ethnic identity which in addition to offering the obvious melting-pot dream equally exhibited those ‘transitional’ stages from an older system of naming political identity to a newer one, all of this intoxicating ‘collage’ happening as it were on recognizably Indian soil which is itself imagined with a mythic quality which one rarely comes across in the annals of masala cinema elsewhere if at all. Masala derives its soul from such disparate elements. It is as if all manner of anachronism and all modes of representation become naturalized in the masala universe. Everyone is ‘at home’ in this world which as a film form seems able to absorb an infinite and sometimes contradictory set of influences.***

Indian masala cinema has always been profoundly popular in many newly emergent nation-states from Asia to Africa to the Caribbean. This cinematic mode became for many parts of the ‘third world’ the exemplary one to investigate not just the debt to the colonial order of the past but also the means to interrogate the newly formed ‘post-colonial’ nation-states It is quite true to state that masala cinema tends toward the broadest definition of ‘universalism’ but this happens ‘within’ the bounds of the nation-state. This brand of cinema is always on the side of greater representation and ‘more’ democracy. What it subverts however is the ‘statist’ understanding of democracy with its necessarily limited and bureaucratic categories. It does not though seek revolutions within the existing framework which is why those period pieces as precursors of the existing nation state are always so handy as ‘topoi’.

And for this ‘idea’ of an Indian nation-state quasi-mystically imagined as ‘eternal’ and ‘continuous’ in at least the post-Independence period masala becomes the ideal vehicle of cinema. It should also not be forgotten that this cinema gains ascendancy at a precise inflection point in India history. In a sense masala operates after the event. This great ‘universalist’ project is a little late even at its peak. It eventually loses its luster as the politics of the nation lurch evermore toward less fluid categories of social identity. But this dynamic begins much earlier and masala would seem to offer a final Nehruvian resistance to it or a valiant attempt to arrest the political splintering of the age.****

Kranti is perhaps in the final instance a mausoleum. Ironically, ‘1857’, a year of defeat, becomes the ultimate resting place for masala’s last hurrah. Certainly Kranti is a work that caps off an entire tradition. From this film to Ghajini it is a tale of two museum pieces. One premised on the other. What was ‘remembered’ in Ghajini was only the remembrance of Kranti..

[a question to be pondered… inasmuch as masala was ‘repressed’ beyond a point, and one that continues to this day, it was a proper ideological move.. to wish away another conception of the political]

*
Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey therefore was exactly the right idea. Where Mehta erred however was in not going the entire way and uneasily marrying a ‘biopic’ with historical romance. In a film that is otherwise remarkably rich for its themes and so on the ‘mode’ becomes problematic. But this itself isn’t surprising given the inherent critique of capitalism (globalization?) here. It is as if Mehta had to pay homage to the Hollywood Braveheart/Rob Roy tradition to arrive at the ‘Kranti’ of his moment.

**
Therefore to suggest that masala has been borrowing from all sorts of traditions is to completely miss the point. The exemplary film in this regard is again Sholay where from the Hollywood Western to more native traditions everything is a part of the mix.

***

Much would have to be clarified about this but this too is one of the ways in which masala can be connected to the (non)conventions of Shakespeare’s drama.
****
The figure of Amitabh Bachchan as the site of this universalist ‘conceit’ can scarcely be overestimated. Perhaps he was the beginning and end in this sense. Notice how Kranti features Dilip Kumar and not Bachchan. By that point Bachchan had become his own authentic myth and could no longer be circumscribed by the demands of Kranti’s framework. A few years later when Bachchan attempted his own British masala in Mard this was simply the latest exercise in the ‘economics’ of the ‘one man industry’ and not a serious attempt to recode the legacy of masala as Kranti certainly was.

17 Responses to “Manoj Kumar’s Kranti and the ‘masala-national’”

  1. Haven’t seen Kranti, but will do so in order to better approach this piece.

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  2. loved this movie, as long as it was. its one of the most entertaining masala films i’ve ever seen. you don’t feel the 3+ hours one bit. GF, you should definitely see “kranti”. you won’t be disappointed.

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  3. mksrooney Says:

    havent seen kranti for long long time.. and for above piece after reading it.. it makes for an interesting watch.. also other things like mp, bachan, dilipji .. were great to read

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  4. This was the last and final installment from Manoj Kumari’s Bharat-centric vision, which spanned movies from Purab-Paschim, Shor, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan to Kranti. I think Kranti was also his biggest BO hit, it was almost ATBB maybe.
    After Kranti, he just went downhill and never recovered.

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    • yes it was a big one though it was his only film that had a Salim-Javed script. It was the second biggest grosser of the year, tied with Lawaaris. The top spot went to Naseeb. Incidentally I don’t like any of the other Manoj Kumar films (Shor is of course different). Kranti was more profitable than Naseeb probably because the latter was sold at a massive price, the highest until that point, it was nonetheless a blockbuster but Kranti and Lawaaris were both more profitable. Naseeb-Lawaaris released three weeks apart and both were blockbusters. Hard to think of another example from any other point in Hindi film history where two films became so big with that brief a gap between the respective releases. Of course Bachchan the very same year had three other hits in Yaaran, Barsaat ki ek raat, Kaalia. The only disappointment that year was Silsila. This wasn’t a man but a god!

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      • I think RKAM too is iconic wrt Manoj Kumar’s conrtibution to Hindi cinema. The music of that movie is simply awesome. With his vision of a patriotic India, he somehow weaved this thread through an assortment of issues such as corruption, war, poverty etc in this huge multi-starrer.
        The music was simply awesome, and off course Zeeniebaby was to die for in this movie as well!
        Outside of MMD’s vision of a secular India (which you always refer to), IMO Manoj Kumar was the only other director who accomplished the masalazation of this genre successfully.

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      • Also, regarding selling price, I remember once reading an article that Manoj Kumar always had difficulties in trying to sell his films. Most distributors never bought the concepts, being that they were diff from the mainstream trends of those days, and also they were all made exorbitantly. But time and again he reaped gold for those who backed him.
        Lekin, jab beta jawaan ho gaya, to usko star banane ke chakkar mein, Manoj Kumar maara gaya.

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    • I think he had another Bharat-centric film after this (“Rajtilak”? Not sure about the title). It was a crap film.. nothing there to match Kranti…

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  5. I really enjoyed watching this movie. One of the thrills of such movies of yesteryears is that they are genuine multi starrers and the excitement of watching so many stars together is really something!

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  6. Akshay shah Says:

    Catching up on every review and comment posted on satyamshot in the last few days, and Q, the movie you’re referring to is Deshwasi! This was produced by him and directed by someone else. Hema was there and if I remember correctly manoj has a extended guest role in the movie which was a launchpad for the super untalented kunal goswami!!!

    Involved farmers, mandirs, gold and snakes!!!!!:)

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  7. Akshay shah Says:

    As for manoj kumar- I grew up in a houshold of manoj kumar fans so films like shaheed, upkaar, purab aur paschim, roti kapada aur makaan (an all time classic IMO despite the atrocious rape scene), and kranti!!!

    Clerk is better viewed as a comedy! The lyrics and music are so depressing and often amusingly funny! Kumar was out of touch by the time he made clerk! Jai hind sealed the deal and a new patriot arrived with sarfarosh which released on the same day:)

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