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Vikramaditya Motwane’s office in Mumbai’s Aram Nagar was everything I imagined it to be. The WiFi passwords were the names of characters from Sacred Games, the novel on whose Netflix adaptation he was showrunner and co-director. One of the office’s dogs napped under a table that bore a postcard of The Godfather from Ghana, in which Marlon Brando’s character cradles a comically large, cigar-smoking cat. Motwane’s assistants were milling around, exchanging notes on a new series he’s working on, set in the world of 1940s and 1950s Hindi cinema.
Motwane named his production company Andolan Films, after a 1951 movie produced by his grandfather Harnam Motwane. The film is centred on the experiences of the fictional Dutt family, which became a vast canvas on which the story of Indian nationalism was mounted, from its decades of anti-colonial struggle to independence in 1947. It captures the joys, grief and patriotic zeal of the Dutts and their neighbours, interspersed with documentary footage of epochal events like Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha and the Quit India agitation.
The work and triumphs of the Indian National Congress are central to Andolan’s storytelling. In the opening scene, the protagonist Charu Dutt arrives in Bombay, looking for the venue of the Congress’s inaugural session in 1885. A few minutes into the film, noticing a schoolteacher coach his son to commend the British, Charu teaches his son to say “Indian National Congress ki Jai.” Victory to the Congress!
A shelf in Motwane’s office is something of a shrine to Andolan. It bears the original script, its typewritten pages as thin as gauze, as well as a set of stills from the film’s shoot. Some of these feature young actors holding up the Congress’s early version of the Indian flag, with a charkha at the centre. In one shot, a valiant youth clutches the flag as the police unleash tear gas on attendees at a political meeting.
The year 1951 was a busy time at the movies. Films like Awaara and Baazi achieved commercial and critical success. The songs of Albela, starring Bhagwan and Geeta Bali, are beloved to this day. Andolan, by contrast, has gone unseen and unspoken for generations. It hasn’t been extensively studied by film historians, and to learn anything about the film in the popular domain you have to look at compilations like Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema.
On Independence Day last year, Vikramaditya Motwane posted on his Instagram about the film. “Andolan was my grandfather’s passion project, and it was the only film he and the family produced. Its failure put an end to that ‘hobby.’”
I was intrigued, partly because I wanted to understand how his grandfather’s passion for film might have influenced Motwane’s own oeuvre, which includes some of the most critically acclaimed films of the last decade. Over the next few months, we met and talked on the phone to discuss my findings.
A week before my second visit to the office, I’d found a source that Motwane hadn’t heard about: the memoir of a Gujarati actor Krishnakant, who played one of the supporting characters in Andolan. Krishnakant wrote that the film had a “magnificent” premiere, with stars like Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Madhubala in attendance. When I brought this up, Motwane showed me a photograph of Harnam on set, which he thought might have been taken at the film’s muhurat shot—to mark the beginning of the shoot.
His hunch was confirmed by something I came across a few days afterwards: two snapshots of this moment, published in the September 1949 edition of the magazine Motion Picture. The captions noted that at midnight on 14 August, Harnam was at Bombay Talkies, one of Hindi cinema’s leading studios at the time. He was praying for the success of his film, then titled Our Struggle.
During one of our talks, Motwane asked me: “Why are you so obsessed with this film?” I had an answer when he showed me a family tree. I was drawn to Andolan because its story and that of its makers represented a cocktail of business, politics and art that crystallised around the nation’s founding moments.
Sudha and Harnam
hen we’d first spoken, a month after he posted about the film on Instagram, Motwane told me that he knew little beyond the film’s plot, the people associated with it, and the fact that it had performed poorly at the box office. Though a relative gave him a DVD of the film, his family no longer possessed a copy of its print.
In 2014, a fire at Bombay Talkies swallowed the original prints of 60 films. Pre-independence era film stock, made of a highly inflammable nitrate base, was stowed away in the warehouse. All it had taken was a short circuit. Andolan wasn’t a Bombay Talkies production, but its print was also lost in this blaze.
Nearly all of Motwane’s relatives who may have witnessed the film’s making were dead, save one. Sudha Malhotra Motwane, who was 11 at the time, was cast to sing and act in a pivotal scene. Her character, also named Sudha, is on trial for chanting “Vande Mataram.” Sudha meets the charges with defiance and a smile. The judge offers to drop charges if she promises never to utter the chant again. Her father, a court clerk, begs her to accept the bargain. He is at pains to assert that no one in his family would ever say those seditious words. His hysterical declaration is drowned out by a sea of court attendees singing “Vande Mataram.”
“The revolutionary nature of the scene, disturbing the judge and making him get up from his seat—it made me feel good.”
Sudha, now in her late eighties, is Motwane’s great-aunt. She was a singing prodigy but Andolan was one of her first stints in front of the camera. “The revolutionary nature of the scene, disturbing the judge and making him get up from his seat—it made me feel good and I sang with gusto and expression,” she told me in an interview last month. Her memories of the set were very faint, but she recalled the busy environment and how her singing was directed by the flautist and composer Pannalal Ghosh.
“Harnam was an intelligent man,” she said, “an enthusiastic person who decided to produce a film at age 40. And his uncle Nanik was involved too—he spent a lot of time with Pandit Nehru and other politicians. Nanik was jailed at one point. They were part of the freedom movement,” Sudha said. (The Motwanes were close to her family, and she would marry Girdhar Motwane, Nanik’s son.)
Sudha didn’t remember much about the film’s initial screenings, but she was certain about what prompted the Motwanes, a business family that wasn’t entrenched in the film world, to invest in and nurture Andolan: “To honour India’s history.”
Through their public address systems—loudspeakers and microphones supplied to amplify the voices of pre- and post-independence India’s most significant public figures—the Motwanes were first-hand witnesses and documentarians of India’s freedom movement. It was Chicago Radio, Sudha said, that allowed them to put together footage that few others possessed.
Gianchand and Nanik
he company that came to be known for Chicago Radio was set up in 1909 by a man named Gianchand Chandumal Motwane.
Gianchand was born in Larkana in Sindh province, a town now famous as the birthplace of the Bhutto family. After a promising early career in India’s Posts and Telegraphs Department, he started his own business—the Eastern Electric & Trading Co. in Sukkur. He began by importing German flashlights, moving on to mobile power plants, and finally, telephones. Three years later, the business’ growth demanded that he move the company’s headquarters to Karachi. By the 1910s, it had branches in Amritsar, Lahore and Bombay.
Then, Gianchand founded Chicago Telephone Supply Co. to focus on the expanding business of telephones. From the beginning, its customers were prominent: the Government of India and princely states like Travancore and Kolhapur. The Motwane businesses made it a point to underline that they were responding to the nation’s demands through technology and scientific advancement. In an ad published in filmindia in 1939, Gianchand asks, “Young men! What about your future?” The answer: train to be radio engineers at Chicago Radio Institute.
Business boomed for the next decade amid the Second World War and the Indian freedom movement, when the demand for broadcasting increased manifold. Gianchand began to import radio receiving sets and selling them to the Indian public. Soon, his sons Visharam and Nanik were brought into the fold, as well as his grandson Harnam. At the time of Gianchand’s passing, four years before independence, Motwane Ltd. was a 300-employee strong company. The violent birth of nations separated by newly drawn borders resulted in the loss of the Motwanes’ business outposts in Lahore, Larkana and other cities in present-day Pakistan.
In his Instagram post, Motwane wrote about Chicago Radio’s role in amplifying the voices of the leaders of India’s freedom struggle. Much of this had to do with Nanik Motwane, then 27 years old, who developed the company’s public address system. In one photograph taken in 1931 in Bombay, Nanik sits close to Mohandas Gandhi, with a Chicago Radio microphone in the frame. “I saw Gandhi-ji going from platform to platform to address meetings at one and the same place, to enable his weak voice to be heard by large numbers. It was then that I felt that I must find some means to amplify his voice,” Nanik said. Gandhi himself publicly acknowledged the contribution of the speakers provided by Chicago Radio.
Chicago Radio’s supply of microphones and speakers cemented a four-decade-long association with the party and its leaders. Over time, their sound systems became a ubiquitous presence across legislative houses and police, governmental and municipal departments.
Like his technology, Nanik was present at all political events of import, watching history unfold as he personally set up the speakers, tested them and checked their batteries. In 1942, when the British were heavy-handedly suppressing the Quit India Movement, Nanik even provided equipment for a clandestine radio station. Senior leaders of the Congress had been imprisoned but the voice of Usha Mehta, a 22-year-old student at a Bombay college, reached those who tuned in to the dispatches of the underground Congress Radio.
This history is how the makers of Andolan came to be intimate with the course of the freedom struggle, driven by their biggest client. At a couple of points, their film contends with a few of the criticisms levelled against the Congress. One scene shows the ambivalence of the Dutt family over Gandhi’s encouragement to the young men of India to join the British side in the Second World War. “Gandhi is helping—hoping they will give us our freedom in return. But one simply can’t trust these Britishers,” one character asserts. Though two sons of the family decide to enlist, one of their mothers recognises the devastation of war: “Mothers lose their sons, and how many widows are left behind?”
Early on in the film, a sceptic asks Charu Dutt if the Congress’s intentions can be trusted, considering it was a retired civil services officer—A. O. Hume, an Englishman—who founded the party and organised its first meeting. “Good men can be found in every country, in every faith,” Charu Dutt says in response.
In an article for The Independent in 1994, film historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha called Andolan “Indian cinema’s most elaborately constructed nationalist propaganda feature.” He wrote it was made to promote the Congress and was India’s closest attempt at defining “a popular culture of nationalism.” When I asked Motwane about Nanik’s connections with the Congress, he noted that “business families understood the value of being close to the power centre.”
Phani, Kishore and Krishnakant
Andolan wasn’t something that was really spoken about,” Motwane said, “though all of us knew about Chicago Radio—that was the joint family’s shared history.”
The first journalistic mention I found of Andolan was in an October 1950 article. It was authored by a writer named Jag Mohan for one of the earliest editions of the arts magazine Marg.
From the article, I learnt that the film was largely shot outdoors: in Bardoli, Gujarat, and in Bhopal. Nanik Motwane had been making short films on the Congress’s activities, including Gandhi’s march to Dandi, but it seemed that a feature-length fiction film would be more successful. The initial shoots signalled weaknesses in the script, so “dance ballets” depicting history and myth were added during production: in one choreographed sequence, two actors perform Ravana’s deception and capture of Sita; in another, dancers perform rhythmic routines to showcase the story of the Buddha and the spread of his gospel. The second half of the film featured a clip of Rabindranath Tagore from the 1920s, reciting the poem that independent India adopted as its national anthem.
Phani Majumdar was commissioned to direct the film. He came into the limelight with his 1938 hit Street Singer, starring the legendary singer-actor K.L. Saigal. Neither Majumdar, nor the Motwanes, meant for Andolan to be an entertainer. In 1949, Visharam Motwane told the gathering at the muhurat that the film was not being made with an eye on box office returns. They were invested instead in showcasing “national consciousness and the contemporary sensibility,” Jag Mohan writes. This was one of the reasons they cast unknown and debutant actors, and not stars.
“Maybe they needed to adopt a more escapist approach, or focus more on the revolutionary aspects of the script, like Sudha’s courtroom scene, as opposed to narrating episodes from history.”
One among these new faces was Kishore Kumar, then known as the younger brother of the star Ashok Kumar. He plays Ratan, one of the men in Charu Dutt’s village, who delivers the news of Gandhi’s fast unto death to Charu. Other scenes involving his character show the young revolutionary exhorting the villagers to not pay taxes to the British, and standing up to an Indian soldier. In a scene set in the aftermath of communal conflict linked to the Partition, he asks the villagers if this is the example they want to set for their children.
Kishore’s biographers have written about how acting was thrust upon him by his brother, who did not have faith in his singing talent. According to writer Derek Bose, Kishore “sleep-walked” through films such as Shikari and Shehnai, and was panic-stricken on the sets of Ziddi. Roles in films like Sati Vijaya, Kaneez and Muqaddar had gone unnoticed. Yet, it was Phani Majumdar who was bullish about Kishore’s acting skills. “He does not seem to act at all,” Majumdar said to Ashok. “He is so natural.”
Kishore considered Andolan to be a significant career milestone, said Parthiv Dhar, the co-author of a recently published biography on the singer-actor. The film was one of his first steps towards carving out an identity separate from Ashok, and towards cementing his relationship with Majumdar, who would go on to become a frequent collaborator.
The memoirs of Krishnakant, the actor who played the supporting character Rehmu Chacha, give an idea of what the shooting of the film was like. Titled Guzara Hua Zamana and compiled by Biren Kothari, the Gujarati-language book details how the actors were put up in military barracks and woke up at 3am for morning schedules in a cold December. He recalls the painful process of having a beard glued onto his face by the makeup team.
It took some time for Andolan to be released in theatres. “Many trial shows of the film were organised. Distributors as well as invitees were united in their praise for the film. But the distributors didn’t show any interest,” Krishnakant writes. Stylistic simplicity, the focus on historical events, and the lack of a star cast: Krishnakant lists these as reasons for the indifference.
Andolan only performed “ordinarily” at the box office. Krishnakant’s guess was that people had lost interest in the stories of freedom fighters and patriots in the four years between independence and the release of the film. When I asked Motwane if he could attribute reasons for the film’s commercial failure, he speculated that viewers may have been hesitant to relive the struggle of the last few years when the trauma of Partition was still so fresh.
A review of the film commended the film’s intention and spirit, but criticised its “flesh” as being “weak.” The same piece, published in The Times of India, called the attempt to incorporate documentary footage as “deplorably and ludicrously ineffectual.” (“This is not work for amateurs and even the maestros of Hollywood boggle at it,” it continued.)
Despite its lack of box office success, “Andolan was a very ambitious film,” Motwane told me. “There was something there. Maybe they needed to adopt a more escapist approach, or focus more on the revolutionary aspects of the script, like Sudha’s courtroom scene, as opposed to narrating episodes from history. I wonder if my grandfather or Nanik had seen The Great Dictator, because Kishore Kumar’s scene at the end is so Chaplinesque.”
n the years before Andolan, India was mesmerised by films such as Kismet and Dharti Ke Lal. Kismet, made during the Second World War and directed by Gyan Mukherjee, was the first Hindi film to make ₹1 crore at the box office. It was a crime thriller with a strong anti-British stance which included unconventional subplot points like a child born out of wedlock. Dharti Ke Lal, the debut feature of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), was a depiction of the 1943 famine in Bengal.
Between 1947 and 1951, India changed quickly, and so did the landscape of its art, culture and film. The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group started hosting shows; the Films Division and Raj Kapoor’s RK Films were established in 1948. Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani’s Bombay Talkies, which had made the most successful films of the 1930s and 1940s, was in decline.
It was at Bombay Talkies, nonetheless, that the Motwanes and Majumdar chose to make Andolan. A technically advanced studio that birthed a number of escapist films of its time, it launched the careers of actors like Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar. Krishan Chander, one of Dharti Ke Lal’s writers, also wrote the script for Andolan. In his Marg article, Jag Mohan remarks that both Dharti Ke Lal and Andolan share the same aesthetics and intention: “There should be reflected on our screen the most intense impulses and ideas of our people, so that the rich full life of striving and pain and happiness can be sincerely interpreted.”
“The acting styles owed much to the Indian People’s Theatre Association theatre of the 1940s,” Ashish Rajadhyaksha wrote. Many of the plotlines in Andolan share the concerns and politics of IPTA’s plays. In the film’s last few scenes, amid violent clashes in the name of religion, the film shows a pair of Hindu and Muslim friends who risk their own lives to protect each other.
But perhaps Andolan’s politics comes through most evidently in a plotline about a fast until death that explicitly evokes Gandhian tactics. In his advanced age, Charu Dutt embarks on a protest against a priest’s decision of not letting individuals from backward castes into the premises of a temple. The priest says that this decision is god’s and not something he can override. Charu’s protest, which pushes him to the brink of death, ultimately forces the priest to withdraw this rule.
Prints of the Past
ndolan’s obscurity also has to do with the fact that only a limited number of prints of it still exist. One of the owners of a print is Parthiv Dhar, the Kishore Kumar biographer, who recalled purchasing it from a Pakistan-based seller for a hefty amount in the 2000s.
When I spoke about my search to Deepti Anand, co-founder of archiving company Past Perfect, she said that the attitude to film preservation has a lot to do with ideas of what constitutes public heritage. “Public heritage is associated with structures, monuments, architecture,” she said about the limited definition. “For a regular cinema-goer, films were a source of entertainment—a routine activity that would never be valued from the point of view of preservation.”
Since the National Film Archive of India organised a screening in 2017, I was pretty certain they’d have a print. I wrote to them in early November last year and heard back within a week’s time. The print in their possession was a preservation copy—one that I could only access in three weeks’ time.
A month later, I visited the archive in Pune. In the library section, the staff and I put together an exhaustive list of keywords in the hope of finding a book or poster related to the film. ‘Celluloid’ threw up a vast number of irrelevant searches in the database. I leafed through a tattered pamphlet on Bombay Talkies and read through 50 pages on Kishore Kumar’s life, in vain. In the documentation section, I peered at a poster on a computer screen. But this was a different Andolan, released in 1995 and starring Sanjay Dutt, Govinda, Mamta Kulkarni and Somy Ali.
“If you’d come to us before, when the print wasn’t digitised, we may not have shown the film to you. Even one viewing can damage celluloid print.”
But at least I could watch the movie proper, even if it was in an unusual setting of what is essentially a government office, where I was surrounded by stacks of files, equipment used to clean and edit film tape, CD players and a bulky old television.
The copy was a newly digitised “reference file”—a raw, ungraded scan of a print that came to the NFAI in 1998 from Mumbai’s Kine Sixteen Lab. Vestiges of its 35mm past remained: the film’s optical soundtrack and sprockets had not yet been removed, and they came to life as the film progressed. This print shared the astonishing clarity and quality of the stills I’d seen at the Andolan Films office.
“If you’d come to us before, when the print wasn’t digitised, we may not have shown the film to you,” an official at the NFAI, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “Even one viewing can damage celluloid print.”
Memory, like bone and celluloid film, is a brittle thing. Andolan’s Charu Dutt understood this well, telling his children stories about India’s past and the sacrifices that were made for it to have a present and future. Andolan was about the native wresting their story from the coloniser and telling it in their own vocabulary.
Prakash Magdum, a former director of the NFAI, understood this too. To him, it isn’t just the documentary footage contained within the film or its themes that made it significant. “The mere fact of this film’s making, and its place in our history as a country that takes pride in its films and their soft power, would make its loss a glaring one,” he said. The NFAI was one of the state-run film bodies that was merged into the “loss making” National Film Development Corporation on 1 January 2023. Since the decision was made public in early 2022, filmmakers and observers have raised concerns about the lack of clarity about the future of the archives.
The DVD of Andolan in Motwane’s possession was handed to him by a family elder in much the same way that other knick-knacks and photographs are—by relatives who undertake cleaning sprees at home, or are looking for a responsible keeper for the belongings of those who have passed on.
I asked Motwane if archiving was a responsibility he happily assumed, or whether it was thrust upon him as the family’s latest filmmaker. “It was a bit of both,” he said. “I sat with a cousin and put down a family tree. As the joint family transformed into a number of nuclear families who moved out of our bungalow in Khar, they realised they had many photo albums. One day, my dad gave me a pile of books that belonged to Harnam—it included several books on filmmaking.”
He’s still trying to understand his grandfather and the legacy he left behind. “Harnam is a bit of an enigma to me still,” Motwane said. “My father remembered him as being very strict. To some extent, the father figure in Udaan is based on him.”
‘Andolan’ has become a word that resounds repeatedly in his own work. The still logo printed on the office’s walls is the image of a hand holding a Molotov cocktail. But the moving logo is inspired by his daughter—Harnam’s great-granddaughter—riding a bicycle, falling down, learning.
“Riding the cycle was her andolan,” Motwane told me. “I think the revolution will eventually happen, but it comes in baby steps.”