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Challia, Awaara, Shree 420 – the singer Mukesh’s soulful voice is found across the soundtracks of films in an early post-colonial India, narrating the vastly different post-partition life on the sub-continent. With Raj Kapoor, an accomplished actor and producer, Mukesh would go on to play an essential role in forming a young India’s national identity and defining the role of the film industry in the project.

Glamorous celebrities, Mukesh and Raj Kapoor were two of the first Bollywood stars who merged their acts into the fashionable singer-actor duo. Together, they produced numerous films that and box-office hits that idealized modernity and would define the nature of a maturing film industry and the culture of a young nation.

The period from the late 1940s to the 1960s marked a tumultuous period in South Asian history, from independence from British imperialism, to partition and violence across the region. This period also marked the Golden Age of Indian cinema, producing some of the most popular Hindi films, renowned actors, and the melodic soundtracks of Bollywood. These films regularly engaged with the working class and the national confusion of early, post-independence India. Both the film industry and its soundtracks reflected the turmoil of the nation. The South Asian subcontinent’s psyche was literally split following the partitioning of India, and the extreme violence that followed broke the nation’s identity more than the British ever could.

Both the film industry and its soundtracks reflected the turmoil of the nation.

It was during this period that Mukesh, with Raj Kapoor, released a variety of movies and songs that reflected a hope for what an inclusive nationalism would and could look like. Based in already modernized, cosmopolitan Bombay, Bollywood was largely governed by the interests of the socialist-leaning, secular ruling class that governed. The film industry played a key role in determining popular conceptions of state ideology.

Perhaps most popularly in Shree 420, Raj Kapoor acts as Raju, a dicey, ethically ambiguous, yet popular subaltern hero. In the movie, Raju, initially as a Chaplin-like tramp, travels from the impoverished rural areas to the modernity of post-colonial Bombay, where he becomes a trickster, cheating gambler, and eventually a wealthy man.

Raj Kapoor’s character personified the goals of the unemployed, the working classes, the Partition refugees, and the reformist bourgeois classes of all castes who were all searching for prosperity in Bombay’s urban modernity. In doing so, Raju becomes the perfect vehicle for the inclusive nationalism and socialist message that Nehru sought to popularize during India’s early republican period.

The song that resonates the most with this vision in the movie is “Mere Joota Hai Japaani,” where Raju, with Mukesh’s voice sings:

“Merā jūtā hai Jāpānī, ye patlūn Inglistānī
Sar pe lāl ṭopī Rūsī, phir bhī dil hai Hindustānī”

“My shoes are Japanese, these trousers are English;
The red cap on my head is Russian, but still my heart is Indian”

Without dulling the nationalist overtones of the song, Mukesh, combined with Raj Kapoor, constructs a hero that also embraces cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and socialism in a catchy, repeatable doha-like verse.

Several of Mukesh’s other compositions capture similar messages: a unified India that stands in solidarity with other Third World countries – reflective of Nehru’s Non-Aligned Movement – and an India where every citizen has access to international goods, cosmopolitan commodities, and more. Yet, Mukesh’s soulful voice also indicates a wistfulness about the message. He sings of an India that could have been, a nostalgic “what if,” to an inclusive nationalism, rather than a partitioning one.

He sings of an India that could have been, a nostalgic “what if,” to an inclusive nationalism, rather than a partitioning one.

Raj Kapoor and Mukesh return in Jis Desh Me Ganga Behti Hai, a film about Raju (Raj Kapoor), another subaltern tramp-like character who mediates between the motley group of dacoits (rural vagabonds of lower social and class status who steal from the rich and give to the poor) and the police (as with any case, charged with the keeping of “order,” primarily for the ruling class).

In a classic postcolonial encounter between the folk and the state, Raju is able to mediate a peace between the tribal dacoits and the police. Mukesh sings,

“Honthon pe sachchai rehti hai / Jahan dil mein safai rehti hai
Hum us desh ke wasi hai (x2) / Jis desh mein Ganga behti hai”

“Where there’s truth on the lips / Where there’s pureness in the heart
We’re citizens of that country / In which the river Ganga flows”

However, the discourse of this moment is laden with contradictions. While the film still depicts a benevolent State, an important factor in Nehru’s socialism, it labels Adivasi folk as pre-modern and predisposed to violence. Modernity, through integration the by State, becomes the only pathway to morality.

The fact still remains that under Nehru’s socialism, Mukesh sings of a country that is united for the benefit of all: a moral, anti-corrupt, multicultural Indian state, that stood in solidarity with oppressed people around the world.

On an Inclusive Nationalism

Nationalism can be a dangerous politic – it is an inherently exclusionary and hierarchical ideology that relies on the inclusion of certain identities over others.

However, with no British colonizer to unite against, the anti-British character of the ruling Congress party suffered threats of further separation set by the precedent of a Muslim Pakistan. Post-colonial India was fractured by linguistic movements, peoples’ struggles, caste struggle and ultimately a lack of individual national character. It was an era that was defined by difference. Following the break in the Indian national psyche during partition, building a nation-state would have been impossible without the inclusion of all the diverse identities on the subcontinent.

Mukesh has often been criticized for a certain monotony in his music — everything he sings is tinged with a similar sadness. Singing with the pain of a broken heart in “Koi Jab Tumhara Hriday Tod De” and a melodic ode to a lover in “Chand Si Mehbooba Ho Meri,” both take on the tone of a Shakespearean tragedy, regardless of their meaning.

The nostalgic affect in his voice conveys the emotions and hopes of the historically disenfranchised in the new nation-state. Mukesh’s melancholia depicts the failed hopes of a nation following partition, one that struggles to maintain a widespread sense of nationalism – a sentiment that remains today, as Muslims are murdered in Gujarat, Dalits excluded from society, and most recently, largely Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam being deemed “illegal immigrants.”

Similarly, Raj Kapoor’s tramp characters become vehicles for peace and nonviolence that normalizes the saint-like qualities Gandhi practiced. It brings everyone into the folds of modernism, a cosmopolitan vision of a world where India stands for the rights of the downtrodden in the face of corruption and evil. It is joined by Mukesh’s croon, the vehicle for the hope that Nehruvian socialism/progressivism entailed for Indians, regardless of their identity, and unfortunately, also the despair in face of the vast discrimination, violence, and pain in a post-partition world.

The nostalgic affect in his voice conveys the emotions and hopes of the historically disenfranchised in the new nation-state.

In practice, Nehru was not perfect. The results of India’s modernization are contested at best; corruption and capital accumulation allowed the elite aristocracy to thrive, while the rural, poor, lower castes, and tribal peoples suffered. Most notably, the “peace” negotiated by Raju in “Jis Desh Meh Ganga Behti Hai” results in the resettlement of the Adivasi, tribal peoples. The story is a more than apt metaphor of how modernity has always come at a cost, and in the case of Nehru and the Indian state, it has come at the cost of Adivasi tribal peoples, who have been forced off their land for destructive social-engineering projects, like dams and roadways.

The resurgence of violence and exclusion of certain groups from the national project in recent times cannot be extracted from the basis of the historical-political situation in India, where a Hindu-nationalist ruling party, the BJP, seeks to consolidate control through exclusionary nationalism. One of the most targeted icons in the BJP-era can be understood to be Nehru, an ardent socialist and internationalist. Through crisis and violence, Nehru attempted to modernize India. His cosmopolitan vision for the country was built on the basis of an inclusive nationalism, which embraced the various identities that make up the country.

Following the publishing of a draft version of the National Registry of Citizens in Assam, over 4 million Indians remain uncertain of their status in India. In the wake of this action by the government, Raj Kapoor and Mukesh’s vision for a Nehruvian India where all identities are embraced remains a “what-if.” It’s times like this, I clinch their nostalgic dream for an inclusive India close to my heart.