20 Films That Make us Believe Freedom is Priceless

By Pickle  August 10, 2020

Saibal Chatterjee

Freedom is nothing if it does not make a difference to the lives of the people who make up a nation. In the manner in which politics and the power dynamic often pan out, ordinary voices are barely heard above the din of rhetoric and empty bluster. As India, the world’s largest democracy, completes 74 years as an independent nation, we draw up a list of 20 films from around the country that celebrate people power in the face of daunting challenges. These films remind us that independence isn’t just about the rulers; it also draws meaning from those who build the nation with their toiling hands and throbbing souls, and from the change agents and activists who are on the frontline of the battle to protect our liberties and rights as citizens.

HirakRajarDeshe (Bengali, 1980)

The film was a celebration of free thinking, people’s power and the healing quality inherent in music

Director: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Tapen Chatterjee, Rabi Ghosh, Utpal Dutt, Soumitra Chatterjee,
Santosh Dutta, Ajoy Banerjee

Streaming ON airtelXstream, hoichoi

Satyajit Ray’s sequel to his 1969 children’s musical fantasy Goopy GyneBaghaByne, three years after the end of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, painted an alarming portrait of the ways of a despot. The protagonists, the magical musicians Goopy and Bagha, reach the kingdom called Hirak, where they find great suffering and starvation among the people even as the heartless tyrant hoards enormous wealth. The king’s ministers are yes-men, all dissent is ruthlessly crushed, and rebels are captured and put through a brain-washing machine. A teacher, the only character in the film who does not deliver dialoguesin rhyme, enlists the support of Goopy and Bagha in a rebellion against the authoritarian ruler. The film was a celebration of free thinking, people’s power and the healing quality inherent in music.

Kathapurushan (Malayalam, 1995)

The freedom struggle, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the advent of the world’s first democratically elected Communist government in Kerala and the declaration of Emergency provide the backdrop for the drama

Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Starring: Vishwanathan, Mini Nair, Aranmula Ponnamma, Narendra Prasad, Urmila Unni

Streaming ON Youtube (unofficial)

The protagonist of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s masterly film,which probes the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of attempts to chain it through the means of regimentation and political conditioning, is a man who values his freedom more than anything else. Kunjunni is born with a stammer but he is endowed with an inner strength that helps him turn every experience into a new beginning. He falls in loves with the maid’s daughter but is forced to separate from her as political changes rob the family of its wealth, his mother and grandmother pass away, he is disillusioned with party politics, and strays into Naxalism and is arrested and tortured by the police. Through his experiences, Kathapurushan explores the history of post-Independence Kerala. The film moves back and forth between the particular and the universal. The freedom struggle, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the advent of the world’s first democratically-elected Communist government in Kerala, the Naxalite uprising, the declaration of Emergency and the Left’s return to popular favour provide the backdrop for the drama.

Iruvar (Tamil, 1997)

Iruvar tracks the intense intertwining of cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu through the account of the life and times of two friendsturned-foes

Director: Mani Ratnam
Starring: Mohanlal, Prakash Raj, Aishwarya Rai

Streaming ON airtelXstream, hoichoi

Mani Ratnam’s 1997 political drama (which, presumably under pressure, was pitched as “not a true story”) traced the rise of three Tamil Nadu chief ministers (M. Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa) via a series of crucial state elections. The film, starring Mohanlal, Prakash Raj, Aishwarya Rai (in her first big screen appearance), Revathi and Tabu, tracks the intense intertwining of cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu through the account of the life and times of two friends-turned-foes who went on to becoming towering figures both in the world of entertainment and in guiding the destiny of the state. Iruvar, which won several international accolades, ranks among the Chennai filmmaker’s most accomplished works, marked by impressive technical skill.

Mudhalvan (Tamil, 1999)

A chief minister, under constant fire from a truculent television journalist who thrives on asking hard questions, dares the former to run the state for 24 hours

Director: S. Shankar
Starring: Arjun, Manisha Koirala, Raghuvaran, Vadivelu, Manivannan

Streaming ON Voot

S. Shankar’s Tamil potboiler, which the director himself turned into the Bollywood film Nayak (2001) with the Hindi dialogue penned by Anurag Kashyap and Anil Kapoor playing the role essayed by Arjun in the original production, delved in a hyper-dramatic fashion into the popular disillusionment with the political class and conjured up a story aimed at collective wish fulfilment. A chief minister, under constant fire from a truculent television journalist who thrives on asking hard questions, dares the former to run the state for 24 hours. The hero accepts the challenge. Although he faces many pitfalls in his way, the protagonist does such a wonderful job that his popularity shoots through the roof and he sweeps the next polls.  

Sarkar (Tamil, 2018)

A story about electoral malpractices and create awareness about the rights of the people in a functioning democracy

Director: A. R. Murugadoss
Starring: Vijay, Keerthy Suresh, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Radha Ravi

Streaming ON Netflix, SUNNXT

The Tamil film written and directed by A.R. Murugadoss, taps lead actor Vijay’s cult status to tell a story about electoral malpractices and create awareness about the rights of the people in a functioning democracy. The star plays an NRI businessman Sundar Ramaswamy who returns from the US to cast his vote in the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections only to find that his vote has been fraudulently cast by someone else. He launches a fight against an electoral system that allows voting frauds. But that isn’t the only front on which the hero has to wage a war. Two powerful and corrupt politicians, the state chief minister and his brother, are opposed to the crusader. The latter enters the electoral fray himself to stop the politicians from getting away with their misdeeds. Sarkar makes a strong case for electoral reforms in the country. 

HazaaronKhwaisheinAisi (Hindi, 2003)

It is a rare Hindi film dealing with the eventful Emergency years during which many young people jumped into the bruising battle for the creation of a more just society

Director: Sudhir Mishra
Starring: Kay Kay Menon, Shiney Ahuja, Chitrangda Singh

Streaming ON Netflix

Set in the 1970s, in the years before and after the Emergency promulgated during the reign of Indira Gandhi, Sudhir Mishra’s evocation of a turbulent period in Indian political history revolves around three Delhi college students, two boys and a girl, who go their own ways after completing their education. One of the boys, driven by revolutionary zeal, becomes an ant-caste activist, the other sets up an office in Delhi to pursue his business goals. The girl leaves for Oxford for higher studies. A few years later, their paths crossagain in the cauldron of a people’s movement that severely tests their idealism as the nation witnesses sweeping political and social changes. HazaaronKhwaisheinAisi– the title comes from a poem by Mirza Ghalib – is a rare Hindi film dealing with the eventful Emergency years during which many young people jumped into the bruising battle for the creation of a more just society – a movement that is still on even as it comes up against ever stiffening resistance from the powers that be.

Bhootnath Returns (Hindi, 2014)

A ghost contests and election and wins

Director: Nitesh Tiwari
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Parth Bhalerao, Boman Irani, Usha Jadhav, Sanjay Mishra, Brijendra Kala

Streaming ON Youtube movies

In Bhootnath Returns, the electoral system is projected in a relatively positive light but the corrupt politician still comes out looking as shady as he has ever been on the big screen. Amitabh Bachchan, playing a benign ghost, takes on a shady politician and wins. The Election Commission, impressed with the film’s messaging, advised state governments to grant it tax exemption. What did Bhootnath Returns suggest? That only a ghost stands a chance in the hurly-burly of fictional poll battles.                                 

Newton (Hindi, 2017)

It revolves around a battle of attrition on the frontline of Indian democracy between an earnest poll official and a security force commander

Director: Amit V. Masurkar
Starring: Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Anjali Patil, Raghubir Yadav

Streaming ON Amazon prime

Amit V. Masurkar’s political black comedy revolves around a battle of attrition on the frontline of Indian democracy between an earnest poll official and a security force commander, both charged with the same job but driven by contradictory compulsions.Newton is a low-keybut telling exploration of the workings of the electoral process. A newly recruited government official leads a small poll team under paramilitary protection to a remote, violence-prone part of Chhattisgarh that hasn’t voted in years. The man, earnest to a fault, has unwavering faith in the electoral system and is determined to ensure a 100 per cent turnout despite the heavy odds that he is up against.The CRPF commander, in contrast, is more interested in getting out of the jungle with his men before sundown. It is an all-out face-off between earnestness and cynicism.

Court (Hindi/Marathi/Gujarati/English, 2014)

The film lays bare the anomalies of lumbering judicial system that is ill
equipped, if not outright reluctant, to serve the powerless

Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Starring: Vira Sathidar, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Pradeep Joshi, Usha Bane

Streaming ON youtube

Chaitanya Tamhane’s remarkable debut film is a scalding narrative that lays bare the anomalies of lumbering judicial system that is ill equipped, if not outright reluctant, to serve the powerless. Narayan Kamble (played by real-life activist ViraSathidar), feisty Dalit folk poet, is accused of abetting the suicide of a Mumbai manhole worker found dead in a noxious sewer.He sings of inconvenient truths and exhorts the downtrodden to fight for their rights.He is charged with inciting the impoverished municipal worker to take his own life.Tamhane develops this absurdist plotline into a caustic indictment of how insensitive law enforcement seeks to grind people into submission. The screenplay, marked by impressive acuity,reveals the deeply ingrained prejudices that breed skewed notions of sedition and national interest.

Nirbachana (Odia, 1994)

The film laid bare several bitter truths in one sweep about the connection between rural distress and electoral skulduggery in the world’s largest democracy

Director: Biplab Ray Chaudhuri
Starring: Bhima Singh, Durlav Singh, Bikash Das, Bidyut Prava Patnaik

Not available for streaming

In an Odisha village surrounded by stone quarries, the headman, contesting a state election, announces a bribe of Rs 100 for each vote. An impoverished couple – their son is about to wed and they need every extra rupee – ‘adopts’ a tuberculosis-afflicted beggar, their eyes on the money his vote will fetch. Before polling day, the old man’s condition worsens and he has to be carried through the quarries to a hospital. They lose their way and stray into a dynamite blast. The beggar is blown to pieces.That, in a nutshell, is the plot of the 1994 Odia-language film Nirbachana (Election), adapted by director Biplab Roy Chowdhury from a story by Bengali writer Prafulla Roy. This remains one of the most savage takedowns of rural elections ever. The film laid bare several bitter truths in one sweep about the connection between rural distress and electoral skulduggery in the world’s largest democracy.

Panchavadi Palam (Malayalam, 1984)

A political satire takes sharp potshots at the political scenario in Kerala

Director: K. G. George
Starring: Bharath Gopi, Nedumudi Venu, Sukumari

Streaming ON Youtube movies

Spearheaded by a trio of great Malayali actors, Bharat Gopi, Thilakan and NedumudiVenu, K.G. George’s political satire takes sharp potshots at the political scenario in Kerala. A politician wants to have a perfectly serviceable bridge demolished so that a new one can be built in its place and named after him. A rival politician opposes the plan until he figures out that the relocation of the bridge would lead not only to the construction of a new bridge but also the laying of a new road. The contracts for the road and the bridge are given to two separate contractors, one owing allegiance to the party in power, the other enjoying the support of the opposition. The opportunistic arrangement leads to the construction of a bridge that does not last long.     

Sinhasan (Marathi, 1979)

The film depicted the helplessness of the man in the street faced in a
socio-political environment where his/her voice counts for nothing

Director: Jabbar Patel
Starring: Nilu Phule, Shriram Lagoo, Mohan Agashe, Nana Patekar, Satish Dubhashi, Jairam Hardikar

Streaming ON Youtube Movies

Sinhasan, a seminal Marathi political drama scripted by Vijay Tendulkar (on the basis of two novels by journalist Arun Sadhu) and directed by Dr. Jabbar Patel, forayed into the unstable world of a chief minister struggling to retain his authority over a state in the grip of drought, rising prices and youth unrest. The film depicted the helplessness of the man in the street faced in a socio-political environment where his/her voice counts for nothing. Although true to the the realities of the period that it is set in, Sinhasan, which featured some of Marathi cinema’s finest actors (Nilu Phule, Dr. Shriram Lagoo, Mohan Agashe) resonates to this day because of the universality and timelessness of the truths that it so powerfully articulated.   

Swades (Hindi, 2004)

Swades told a story of hope, courage and the power of collective will

Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Gayatri Joshi, Kishori Ballal

Streaming ON Youtube movies

Written, produced and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, Swades was a worthy follow-up to his Lagaan. It is justifiably regarded as one of the most ‘complete’ Bollywood films ever made. A NASA scientist of Indian origin returns to his roots and inspires his remote north Indian village to produce its own electricity. Swades told a story of hope, courage and the power of collective will. Shahrukh Khan’s un-starry star turn and skilled blend of social philosophy and mainstream entertainment made it a film to remember.

MeeSindhutaiSapkal (Marathi, 2010)

Incredible true story of a woman who surmounted a series of personal
misfortunes on her way to emerging as a celebrated social worker who
devoted her life to taking care of abandoned, homeless children

Director: Ananth Narayan, Mahadevan
Starring: Tejaswini Pandit, Jyoti Chandekar, Upendra Limaye, Neena Kulkarni

Streaming ON YUPPTV

In this remarkable Marathi biopic, actor-director Ananth Narayan Mahadevan tells the incredible true story of a woman who surmounted a series of personal misfortunes on her way to emerging as a celebrated social worker who devoted her life to taking care of abandoned, homeless children. Born in a cattle-grazing family and married before her teens to a much older man who left her, Sindhutai overcame major obstacles to raise funds globally for an orphanage. This inspirational, uplifting film serves to showcase the admirable spirit of a woman who refused to be cowed down by social circumstances loaded against her. Its efficacy stems from the realistic approach of the storytelling, which steers clear of overstatement of any of the facts of the heroine’s life.

Hu Tu Tu (Hindi, 1999)

The film probes the genesis of youth disaffection

Director: Gulzar
Starring: Nana Patekar, Sunil Shetty, Tabu

Streaming ON Disney+hotstar

In poet-lyricist Gulzar’s last directorial venture, which probes the genesis of youth disaffection and the rise of militancy, the mood is dark. Young people, frustrated with the way the nation is run, are angered enough to conspire to not only kill others but also themselves if the need be. They have turned into ticking time bombs.Two of the principal characters in Hu Tu Tu, a rural schoolteacher-turned-politician and her mendacious mentor, are faces of the politics of expediency that has impacted the electoral sphere. “Politics naukrinahinhai, business hai, bahut bada business (Politics isn’t a job, it is business, big business),” says the woman. At the other end of the film’s spectrum is a Dalit activist and poet (played by Nana Patekar, who also had a role in Dr. Jabbar Patel’s Sinhasan) who articulates the frustrations of the people in his songs, one of which goes: “Ghaplahai bhai ghaplahai (It’s all a scam).”

Dev (Hindi, 2004)

Dev was a piercing commentary on the fractious times that we live in

Director: Govind Nihalani
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Fardeen Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Om Puri, Amrish Puri

Streaming ON Disney+hotstar

Govind Nihalani plunges headlong into the world of policing, politics and popular disenchantment in this story of two senior police officers, lifelong friends, who finds themselves caught between a powerful politician. One of them is upright and law-abiding, the other is willing to compromise with principles. Circumstances take an unfortunate turn and a young law graduate and a beautiful young woman are dragged into a violent spiral that pushes the city to the edge. Innocent lives fall prey to the machinations of politicians bent upon fishing in trouble waters. With fine performances from Amitabh Bachchan, Om Puri and Kareena Kapoor, Dev was a piercing commentary on the fractious times that we live in.      

Leader (Hindi, 1964)

One of the earliest Hindi films that addressed the nexus between crime and politics

Director: Ram Mukherjee
Starring: Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Jayant

Not available for streaming

One of the earliest Hindi films that addressed the nexus between crime and politics, Leader was based on a story by Dilip Kumar. The actor plays an educated young man, Vijay, who edits a tabloid that specializes in provoking debates and questioning the status quo. He has disdain for self-serving politicians and revels in delivering combative speeches aimed at arousing the general public. He is accused of murdering a leading politician. Director Ram Mukherji’s film raised pressing issues that the people of India, a nation that had gained Independence less than two decades earlier, had begun to face as a result of unfulfilled promises. A little over a decade later, the Angry Young Man, embodied on the screen by Amitabh Bachchan, was born. Leader was the film where Vijay (the name of the male protagonist in a slew of 1970s and 1980s Bachchan films such as Deewar, Trishul and Shakti) was born.

Peepli Live (Hindi, 2010)

The film narrate a story rooted firmly in the depressing realities of rural India

Director: Anusha Rizvi
Starring: Omkar Das Manikpuri, Raghubir Yadav, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Naseeruddin Shah

Streaming ON Netflix

Writer-director Anusha Rizvi’s debut feature, a disarmingly simple but remarkably powerful film, is a major triumph. She taps the strength of the medium to narrate a story rooted firmly in the depressing realities of rural India, but without ever going into paroxysms of self-righteous indignation.Peepli Live lampoons an entire range of usual suspects — voyeuristicmediapersons, smarmy bureaucrats, scheming local-level political goons and self-serving rulers, all of whom want a piece of the sleepy village where a farmer is about to kill himself so that his family can survive. Thanks to the film’s nifty blend of humour and bathos, it does not slip into diatribe mode. It instead acquires the spiky edge of a pulsating yet biting satire that exposes the hypocrisy that informs our attitude towards the agrarian crisis that has been pushing farmers into a debt trap.

Dr. Prakash Baba Amte – The Real Hero (Marathi, 2014)

Biopic about social activist Baba Amte’s son, Dr. Prakash Amte, a selfless doctor who has devoted his life to the uplift of the tribal people of the forests of eastern Maharashtra

Director: Samruddhi Porey
Starring: Nana Patekar, Sonali Kulkarni, Mohan Agashe

Not available for streaming

Starring Nana Patekar in the eponymous role, this film, written and directed by SamruddhiPorey is a biopic about social activist Baba Amte’s son, Dr. Prakash Amte, a selfless doctor who has devoted his life to the uplift of   the tribal people of the forests of eastern Maharashtra. Aided and supported at every step by his wife, Mandakini, a role played by Sonali Kulkarni, the doctor is a shining example of what community leadership can achieve when it is channeled into the work of making a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable. Hemalkasa, the dense forest where Dr Amte works, is today an unparalleled success story.     

Antarnaad (Hindi, 1991)

The film tells a story of the lives of several individuals residing in two villages who practice Swadhyaya – a ritual that involves the study – and
understanding – of the self

Director: Shyam Benegal
Starring: Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Girish Karnad, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri

Streaming ON youtube movies

The odd one out not only in this list but also in the oeuvre of the veteran filmmaker ShyamBenegal.Antarnaad does not address either the social or the political so much as the intensely personal. To highlight the experiments of spiritual teacher and activist Pandurang VaijnathAthavale, which hinged on social change driven by a sense of the divine, the film tells a story of the lives of several individuals residing in two villages who practiseSwadhyaya – a ritual that involves the study – and understanding – of the self. Five people – including a poor fisherman, a smuggler and a widow looking for revenge after the death of her husband – undergo profound changes. The film has a cast that includes Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda.    

Indian (Tamil, 1996)

Director: S. Shankar
Starring: Kamal Haasan, Manisha Koirala, Urmila Matondkar, Sukanya

Not available for streaming

A vigilante action film elevated by Kamal Haasan’s bravura performance in a dual role, Indian revolved around a former freedom fighter who mutates into a violent crusader against crime and corruption. The protagonist employs an ancient martial arts form in his mission against the wrongdoers. The Shankar-directed film was until the late 1990s the biggest box office success in the history of Tamil cinema. Indian has a message to convey, but it is laced with popular ingredients aimed at the masses. Special effects, elaborate song and dance routines, action sequences and of course the lead actor playing two distinct characters captured the imagination of the audience. The cast of Indian includes Bollywood actresses Manisha Koirala and Urmila Matondkar. A Hindi version of the film (titled Hindustani) was released nationwide.     

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Shahid’s Kabir Singh Becomes Top-Grossing Film of 2019

Finance Minister Proposes FDI Norm Relaxation in Media

Media & Entrtainment as Champion Sector Figures in the Economic Survey 2018-19

Indian Cinema’s Steady Rise on Global Stage

Glimpses of the future

IFFI Marching Towards 50th Edition

Cannes or Netflix? Is Netflix an acceptable remediation for Cannes’ decades-long little regard for Indian Cinema?

Play Small & Live Long Did Wonders for Me

Shooting Locales in India – Delhi

The Constant Truth in an Ever Evolving Content Business

CII-Pickle Big Picture Summit 2015 issue

Elevating Eros Now to New Heights

Shooting Locales in India – Dadra and Nagar Haveli

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