While still at school, one of my classmates was fond of challenging teachers to tell him which song was the last one played for a film that was showing at a particular cinema hall. Even if a teacher had seen the film at the said theatre and got it right, he would say, “Wrong! I can name the last song played at every show in every theatre and I am just a student. Why can’t you do the same?”
It was a joke he played against every newcomer, student or teacher, flummoxing all those hearing it for the first time. When they couldn’t hazard the right guess, he would reveal the answer with a mischievous smile, “Jana Gana Mana, of course!”
Those were the days when every cinema hall showed documentaries made by the Films Division at the start of every show and the national anthem would be played at the end. Many stood still until the fluttering Tricolour on the screen faded along with the lyrics. But most chose to take advantage of those 52 seconds and rushed out to avoid the crowding at the parking lot that was sure to follow as others streamed out. The disregard for the national anthem got so bad that the government finally decided to drop playing it at the end of the shows to instil more respect in the people for it when played on more solemn occasions like Republic Day, Independence Day or other serious government events.
Then sometime in the 1990s, a popular Bollywood film, 1942, a Love Story, packing all the romance, heroes, villains, and song and dance sequences, was set against the freedom movement. It was a potboiler but at the end of that film, the director chose to incorporate the national anthem. A message scrolled across the screen: “Please stand and wait for the national anthem”. At the preview of the film, I remember many journalists arguing the message should not have been there even if the filmmakers felt patriotic enough to add the anthem at the end. “It is an insult to the people of India that they should be urged to stand and wait. They should be doing it of their own volition. Their respect for the flag should be in no doubt,” one of them said. I, however, thought the filmmakers had remembered how people used to walk out of the cinema halls even as the anthem was playing and that is why they had imprinted that admonition to movie goers.
It was in the early 2000s, when a Congress-led government ruled Maharashtra, that a politician from the NCP approached the state government, which was then encouraging multiplexes, to insist on their playing the national anthem as a condition for tax concessions. There was much debate as many officials remembered the days when people paid scant regard to the national anthem playing in cinema halls and the reason why the playing had been stopped. But then they came up with the idea to have it played at the start of the show instead of at the end. And thus they set in motion a chain of events across the country wherein people still do not stand up for the anthem—some for valid reasons—and others turn violent against those who don’t, equating that disregard with lack of patriotism or some kind of anti-nationalism.
It is my personal belief that the government was right all those years ago in deciding not to play the anthem at the end of each show for it unnecessarily encouraged the people to disrespect it (those days no one labelled those who walked out as anti-national). The anthem should indeed be saved for solemn occasions—for, although the Supreme Court, which first decreed the playing of the anthem across cinemas all over the nation and then made it optional, has not said it is necessary to stand up for the anthem, I believe one must, at all times. But all those occasions must be the kind that will instil a feeling of value for the nation in the people (like Independence Day) and not when they are out for fun and frolic. If they are in the mood for raunchy comedies like the Houseful or Grand Masti series, one would rather not despoil the anthem and Tricolour with naughty thoughts playing in their minds even as they stand up for the anthem.
Moreover, this insistence on playing the anthem in places of entertainment not just generates but also encourages disharmony and enmity between people and the hyper-nationalists who often turn violent against even those who cannot stand up for it. For example, some years ago a couple in a row behind a disability activist in a wheelchair for a spinal dysfunction began to hit him in the back when he did not stand up. They ran away from the hall in Goa when the activist’s wife objected and pointed to his disability—for all their so-called patriotism, they did not even have the courtesy or decency to apologise to the man and his wife .
Over the years there have been many such incidents across cities but the recent one in Bengaluru again brings to mind the encouragement of frivolity for not standing up for the anthem. But it is not unique. Some years ago yesteryear actress Ameesha Patel was called out for the same and she tweeted saying had she stood up, the floor would be full of blood because she was then having a heavy period! Now if you were not carried in and could walk into the cinema hall during your period, you certainly can stand up for 52 seconds. That is simply no excuse. But nor should faux patriotism be imposed on the people.
Senior journalist and political commentator