Portraits, Government and Hindi Cinema

A still from the movie Jolly LLB (2013) where the portraits of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pt. Nehru and Sardar Patel are visible on the wall.

There is a famous phrase that ‘devil is in the detail’ and interestingly since law school lawyers are encouraged to have an eye for detail. For a lawyer like myself, this eye for detail does not stop at legal documents and has often transgressed to other parts of my life as well. One such aspect is movies, and I am popular among my friends for pointing out the most obscure details in a movie. These range from spotting a copy of ‘Discovery of India’ in the opening scene of Article 15 to remembering the ringtone of John Abraham’s cell phone in the movie Force.

However, I believe my eye for detail has been at its best, while spotting and identifying portraits of political leaders in the movies. Usage of portraits and images of leaders is a standard practice while depicting scenes in court rooms, police stations or government offices. Often directors put up portraits of leaders that are in synch with the ruling government and its ideology. This practice has parallels with real life as well, as governments throughout the years have issued instructions to put up portraits of incumbent constitutional functionaries and also leaders that comply with their ideology or can bring political gains. In this post, I shall analyse this trend and developments throughout the years, in both reel and real life.

I shall first discuss the law regulating display of portraits and photographs in government offices and thereafter, its politicisation. I shall also discuss how display of portraits has evolved throughout the years in Hindi cinema.

  1. Law on Display of Portraits/Images:

The Constitution of India is silent on displaying portraits or symbols in government offices. Interestingly, there is no statutory law governing this field as well and hence, the law on the subject has largely been regulated by Executive instructions issued by respective state governments.

Before highlighting the law in some states, I must point out that the exception to this norm is a Direction issued by the Election Commission in the year 2009. The Direction issued to the Cabinet Secretary, Rashtrapati Bhawan and Chief Secretaries of all state governments and union territories, prohibits the display of photographs of Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and other political functionaries. The direction, however, allows the display of images of national leaders, poets, and prominent historical personalities of the past, and the President of India and the Governors.
The Direction reads,

It is clarified that while the photographs of Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Ministers and other political functionaries should not be displayed, this instruction, however, is not applicable with regard to the images of national leaders, poets, and prominent historical personalities of the past, and the President of India and the Governors. It is further clarified that in case of any doubt in this regard regarding removal of any photograph or images, the issue may be referred to the Chief Electoral Officer of the State/Union Territory concerned before taking action in the matter.” (dated 1 April 2009)

I call this Direction an exception, because it has rarely been followed and the states continue to issue their own directions which are contrary to it. For instance, in response to an RTI by activist Dahyabhai Chouhan, the government of Gujarat stated that government offices in the state are allowed to display photographs and portraits of only Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, incumbent President and the Prime Minister, Mother (Goddess) India, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee.  

In Tamil Nadu, the display of portraits of leaders is governed by the government order dated 24 October 1990. It reads,

According to the orders contained in the Government order first read above the portraits of the following may be displayed in public offices and Buildings.

1. The incumbent President of India
2. The incumbent Prime Minister of India
3. Mahatma Gandhi
4. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
5. Saint Thiruvalluvar
6. Aringar Anna
7. K. Kamaraj
8. C. Rajgopalachari
9. Thanthai Periyar

The Government direct that the portrait of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar can also be displayed in Public Offices and building in addition to the portraits mentioned earlier.”

The government’s response to an RTI reveals that the list also includes former Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi and all former chief ministers.

While the above directions have always been non-mandatory, as of late governments have started making them compulsory. For instance, as per DNA-India in the year 2015, the ruling BJP government in Maharashtra issued a direction to hang a photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in all government and semi-government offices. This includes offices of ministers, ministers of state and even the Bombay High Court.

Earlier this year, similar instructions were issued in Assam and Madhya Pradesh. In fact, the Madhya Pradesh order made it mandatory to include the picture of the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan along with the Prime Minister.

One may arguably find politics in these mandatory decisions, as both the Prime Minister and Chief Minister in these states are from the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and having their leaders on display in government offices may have a favourable impact on the public. Similarly, in the year 2018 the Uttar Pradesh government passed an order making it mandatory to display the picture of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in every government office. This direction arguably had political motives, as the government’s spokesperson (who was also the state’s health minister) Shri Sidharth Nath Singh blamed the opposition for neglecting the principles of Dr. Ambedkar and promoting dynastic politics. This can either be seen as a benevolent move to give much needed recognition to Dr. Ambedkar or as a political gimmick to garner Dalit votes.

I must point out that the decision on whose portrait is hung at offices, vests solely with the government of the day. Often litigants have approached the Courts to obtain directions to hang portraits of a certain leader, but the Courts have shied away from entering this policy domain. For instance, in R. Jayakkumar v. State of Tamil Nadu, 2021 SCC Online Mad 1478, a petition was filed before the High Court seeking directions to display portraits of incumbent Prime Minister and President of India in all government offices and public buildings in the state. However, the Court refused to intervene. The Court’s approach in such matters is best expressed in its opinion in S. Karunanidhi v. Union of India (2015 SCC OnLine Mad 1106) where it observed,

It is only for the Government to take a decision as to the display of the portraits of the leaders and personalities but not for this Court to direct the respondents to display the portraits of only particular persons and remove others. As such, this Writ Petition is liable to be dismissed.

2. Portraits/Photographs in Hindi Cinema-

A good director is lauded for her/his accuracy in portraying real life. Therefore, while recreating scenes depicting a courtroom or a police station, directors hang portraits of political leaders, taking a cue from real life. During the Congress regime in the first few years of independence, portraits of Pt. Nehru along with Gandhi Ji were a staple in every movie. For instance, in the iconic movie Waqt starring Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore etc. (released in 1965) Gandhi Ji’s picture hangs above the Judge in the court room.  Similarly, in the movie Kanoon starring Rajendra Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Nanda, Mahmood etc. (released in 1960) Pt. Nehru’s picture adorns the walls of the court room.

A still from the movie Waqt (1965) where the portrait of Gandhi hangs above the Judge.

Pt. Nehru and Gandhi continued appearing in movies during the Congress regime under Mrs. Gandhi as well. Their pictures were spotted on the walls of the police station in movies like Zanjeer starring Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bhaduri and Pran (released in 1973) and in the courtroom in the movie Kaalia starring Amitabh Bachchan, Amjad Khan, Pran and Parveen Babi (released in 1981).

A still from the movie Kaalia (1981) where the portrait of Nehru and Gandhi hangs above the Judge.

Pictures of Mrs. Gandhi also started featuring in movies, during the Congress regime under Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. She was spotted in the courtroom in the movie Meri Jung starring Anil Kapoor, Nutan, Meenakshi Sheshadri, Amrish Puri, Javed Jaffrey etc. (released in 1985).  

A still from the movie Meri Jung (1985) where the portrait of Indira Gandhi hangs in the courtroom.

With changing times, alternatives to the Congress government were emerging in the Centre. For instance, in the year 1977 for the first time a non-Congress government was formed by the Janta Party. This trend also started a practice of recognizing non-Congress leaders or leaders not conventionally promoted by the Congress. Dr. Ambedkar (the chief draftsman of the Indian Constitution) was one such leader. He was conferred the Bharat Ratna by the Janta Dal government belatedly in the year 1990. In my opinion, this award should have come earlier. Sardar Patel, Subash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad were other such leaders.

This change was reflected in movies as well. For instance, Dr. Ambedkar and Bose became recurring figures alongside Nehru and Gandhi. In fact, Ambedkar became a staple in cop movies and has been spotted in court rooms and police stations in successful movies like Garv starring Salman Khan, Arbaz Khan, Shilpa Shetty etc. (released in 2004), Dabangg Series (starring Salman Khan), Singham series (starring Ajay Devgn) etc. Bose and Bhagat Singh were featured in movies like Singham (released in 2011), Rowdy Rathore (2012) and Shahid (2013) etc.

A still from the movie Garv (2004) where the portrait of Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi hangs above the Judge.
A still from the movie Singham (2011) where the pictures of Dr. Ambedkar and Bose hang on the walls of the police station.

The year 2014 shall go down in history as monumental for many reasons including the formation of a BJP-led NDA government at the Centre with a clear majority. The year 2014 shall go down in history as monumental for many reasons including the formation of a BJP-led NDA government at the Centre with a clear majority. This brought about an ideological shift towards the right from a leftist Congress regime. Pt. Nehru who was popular with the left, was unpopular with the right. Leaders of the BJP have often reviled Nehru and blamed him for many of India’s problems.  This political change of winds arguably played a role in the mindset of the movie makers as well because Pt. Nehru’s appearance in movies witnessed a drop since the BJP’s rise to power. For instance, he was missing in major and important movies like Pink (2017), Mulk (2018), Article 15 (2019). In movies, where Pt. Nehru’s portrait/image is present, it is small in size, out of focus and barely visible.

Concluding Remarks:

The BJP has favoured historical figures like Sardar Patel, Bose, Bhagat Singh etc. over the traditional Nehru-Gandhi duo. It has had a difficult time dealing with Gandhi, since a significant section of its vote base dislikes Gandhi for his alleged pandering to the Muslims post-independence and particularly during the partition. This is visible from their support of Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassinator. Since the last few years, hashtags like #Godseamarrahe (long live Godse) trend on Gandhi’s death anniversary.

This change has been reflective in recent movies as well. For instance, in the movie Bell Bottom (released in the year 2021), the protagonist a Raw Agent (played by Akshay Kumar) after successfully freeing passengers of a hijacked flight from Dubai, tells the nation’s leader that ‘Sir you said we come from the land of Gandhi. I humbly add Sir, we also come from the land of Bose’. This dialogue is in response to an accusation of use of violence by Kumar, despite coming from the non-violent land of Gandhi.

Movies are a medium of expression which reflect the society. Therefore, it is but natural that politics over political leaders spills into cinema. In my opinion, recognizing the efforts of political leaders is a step in the right direction. It was a failure of the Congress governments to not honour leaders like Patel, Ambedkar, Bose and others, in the same manner as they probably honoured a select few leaders. Each one of them had a huge role to play in India’s independence and its position today. While that may be true, honouring one does not justify dishonouring others.  I sincerely hope that the politics over portraits and leaders stops and the contributions of all our leaders are recognised, without considerations of political ideology and political parties.

Views are personal.

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