A brief (alternate) history of India — the rangeela years
It’s not really clear why President Nehru’s third term is considered the rangeela years. Perhaps it’s a reference to the introduction of technicolour spectacles — Ashoka, Jodha Akbar and such like — of the era, or more generally, the introduction of colours to Desi films.
As every school kid knows, Desh has the largest film industry in the world. And despite every major state having a film industry of its own, Desi film means only one thing. But Lahore wasn’t always the film capital of India, let alone the world.
Like most other industries in British India, the film industry begun in Calcutta. These days Calcutta films are associated with the largest porn industry in the world, but until the early 1940s, Calcutta was the only place in India where movies were made. Then two things happened.
During the second world war, Calcutta was within the striking distance of Japanese bombers, and many industries moved out of the city. That was what set off Calcutta’s decline. Lahore’s rise, a decade later, is now stuff of legends. A young accountant named stole 50,000 rupee from Prithvi Raj Kapoor and fled. Disgusted with the corruption in the city, Kapoor swore never again to make a film in Calcutta.
He returned to his native Lahore in 1939, and the rest as they say, is history. Others followed him. And then, during the 1950s, the government stepped in, making propaganda films to push the Nehruvian agenda. A former Pathan army jawan starred in most of these, often playing the idealistic youth fighting against injustice. Yusuf Khan was Lahore’s first superstar.
Perhaps it is the colour movies that gave those years their colourful name. Or perhaps it was President Nehru himself. From his young days, Joe Nehru was a notorious womaniser. He was alleged to have bedded Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, and his relationship with Gayatri Devi — Maharani of Jaipur — earned him the moniker Rangeela Raja when he became president. Perhaps it was the president’s colourful personal life that symbolised those years?
Perhaps. Of course, now we know that his most famous affair — with the wife of the American president, himself quite a lady’s man — was in late 1961, well after he was re-elected for a fourth term.
Recall, as Jinnah’s foreign minister, Nehru had a large presence in the world scene, securing India a permanent seat at the UN at the end of the war. In the 1950s, he emerged as an iconic leader of what was then called the third world. He sent troops to Korea to restore the South Korean regime, but then pulled the troops out when Doug MacArthur moved against the North Korean regime. He recognised Red China and coined the term Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai — more about this later. And then, during the Suez War, he tore up the 25 Year Pact with Britain and ordered IAF to bomb British-French-Israeli ships and tanks.
Americans tried very hard to woo Nehru to their side in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with John Kennedy making his first overseas trip as president to India in early 1961. Mrs Kennedy were to visit India several times that year, ostensibly for various humanitarian and charity missions, perhaps with other diplomatic/strategic assignments, and now we know, there was an intense human drama too.
Even as Nehru loomed large in the global scene, he drifted away from the national affairs. By the end of the 1950s, with economy growing at a rate never seen before or since, prosperity seemed within grasp to large number of Indians. But this India was hardly the Noble Mansion Nehru wanted to build. Unspeakable poverty and grotesque inequality remained, indeed worsened. Worse, hardly anyone in public life cared.
With Nehru busy with the global affairs, Vice President Liaquat Ali Khan took to running the day-to-day affairs of government. The nation was shocked when he was found to be embroiled in massive corruption scandals. Khan had to resign, along with a dozen or so ministers. A united opposition might have ended Congress dominance in New Delhi. But the opposition was hardly united. HS Suhrawardy, the new vice president, was even more adept at political arm-twisting and wheeling-dealing, using three Ms — madeera, maag (Bengali slang for prostitutes) and money — to buy off the opposition. Meanwhile, with Krishna Menon — a fire brand leftist — as his foreign minister, Nehru continued to project his global revolutionary image to the left.
At the beginning of the 1960s, India like the outrageous party that went far too long, and the revelers were refusing to see the ugly make ups on their faces. Perhaps that’s what the ranngeela refers to. Well, the daylights would soon break open, and President Nehru and his country was about to see the ugly realities.
But that’s for another day.