Mere Desh Ki Dharti: 25 memorable films that celebrated India



Ajay Devgn in the title-role in Tanhaji—The Unsung Warrior. Photo: Universal Communications / Concept PR.

India achieved Swarajya or Independence all of 75 years ago. Cinema, as a mirror of society, predictably came out with the glories of our freedom struggle. First off the grid was Shaheed (1948), a fictional saga of a martyr. Soon, we made movies on Rani Laxmibai and Shaheed Bhagat Singh.

The horrors of Partition were prime consequences of newly-gained freedom, and portrayal of national integration became one more facet of the Hindi patriotic film. Disillusionment with the system and rampant problems like corruption and employment also came in. The wars with China (1962) and Pakistan (1965 and 1971) naturally featured as they dominated the Indian psyche. And in the 1980s, terrorism raised its ugly head and has remained the hydra-headed monster in cinema and beyond.

With bio-pics and realistic dramas both going mainstream, there was a welcome shift in Hindi cinema in this genre to movies also commemorating lesser-known deserving names in patriotism. Similarly, notable happenings of national importance in war (The Ghazi Attack) and peace (Airlift) were also documented.

Pop patriotism as a genre remained viable all through, with espionage movies of all shades and caliber coming in, from Farz (1967) down. And since the Kargil War and also the fresh hopes from 2014 for a new India, patriotism in cinema is on the upswing, and welcomed in every hue.

Even on OTT, the new emerging medium of entertainment, we witnessed some standout patriotic series like the Special Ops, Avrodh and The Family Man seasons or Rocket Boys.

On the occasion of Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, we look at 25 memorable films on various aspects of desh-prem. Most of these films succeeded at the all-important box-office, all-important obviously because any messages they might have or the stories they told needed to reach the maximum audience. Regretfully, some did not make the commercial grade, but in terms of what they had to express, remain important and memorable.

A Wednesday! (2008 / Director: Neeraj Pandey) Super-Hit

When a cockroach enters your house, you stamp it. That was the credo of the patriot (Naseeruddin Shah) with a back-story, who located terrorists with a unique plan even as an ace cop (Anupam Kher) tried to trap him. Neeraj Pandey’s brilliant drama of a common citizen acting against terrorism, encouraged him to step into the espionage zone with spy stories like Baby, Naam Shabana and Aiyaary.

Akshay Kumar and Nimrat Kaur in the dramatized real story, Airlift. Pic: Publicity Photo

Airlift (2016 / Raja Krishna Menon) Hit

Immigrants may forget their country, but the nation will not—India will (literally here!) go out of the way for them. This was the part-fictionalized story of a Kuwait-based Indian businessman,who helped the Indian government evacuate thousands of fellow Indians (the real-life number was 170,000!) back home to safety when the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait war broke out. Akshay Kumar played the tycoon in one of the best of his many patriotism-oriented dramas.

Border (1997 / J.P. Dutta) / Super-Hit

J.P. Dutta faithfully re-created the battle of Longewala in the 1971 war. The key actors all played real soldiers and the armed forces helped out the filmmakers with knowledge about facts as well as with arms and ammunition. The film not only was the highest grosser of 1997 (making nine times its cost!) but also picked up multiple popular and National awards. It is considered the only authentic war film after Haqeeqat.

Chak De! India (2007 / Shimit Amin)  Super-hit

A disgraced Indian hockey player tries successfully to redeem his lost honor by coaching the Indian national women’s hockey team. He motivates them to think ‘India’ rather than their varied provincial and communal origins—and the motley assortment of girls do him and the nation proud. Produced by Yash Chopra, and broadly inspired by real sagas, the film featured the most realistic performance ever of Shah Rukh Khan.

Dharamputra (1961 / Yash Chopra) Success

The protagonist is a Muslim hater from a Hindu family who discovers that he was an adopted child, and a Muslim himself. The film was awarded the National award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, with Shashi Kapoor playing the lead in this B.R. Chopra production directed by Yash Chopra.

Gadar – Ek Prem Katha (2001 / Anil Sharma) Blockbuster

In its execution, it was almost like a comic book full of action. But the authenticity in detailing and the emotional voltage made Gadar—Ek Prem Katha a truly memorable saga about the role of religion in bringing peace among nations. As a corollary, it also studied the horrors of Partition.

Haqeeqat (1966 / Chetan Anand) Success

A National award winner again, Haqeeqat is widely considered as the finest Indian war film. Based on the 1962 war where a small platoon of soldiers was pitched against a bigger Chinese force in Ladakh, it also explored the humane side—the impact war had on the soldier. Chetan Anand dedicated the film to the soldiers in Ladakh who lost their lives. From the memorable music, the song Ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyon still remains a benchmark.

Kesari (2019 / Anurag Singh)  Hit

Akshay Kumar played a valiant Sikh, who along with just 20 others from his battalion, resists a 10,000-strong Afghan battalion in British India. They decimate almost 900 of them before the last Sikh is killed! The title (meaning ‘Saffron’) described the color of the Sikh regiment’s turban, and this war drama used considerable fictional license to add to the emotional quotient.

Lagaan (2001 / Ashutosh Gowariker) Success / Super-hit overseas

In the late 19th century, a brave coterie of villagers led by Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) courageously accept the British challenge of defeating them in cricket (of which they hardly knew anything!) so that the heavy burden of agricultural tax (lagaan) can be waived off.

Mission Mangal (2019 / Jagan Shakti)  Hit

India’s successful mission to Mars was achieved after a lot of pain. The team was dominated by women but assembled by a male scientist (Akshay Kumar). The story, part-dramatized again, showed the potency of the struggles each of the woman went through, including in their personal lives, and how triumph came for the 2013 Mars Orbiter Mission after a near-defeat.

Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (2018 / Abhishek Sharma)  Hit

Another momentous occasion for India was its first nuclear explosion in 1998, conducted by the Indian Army and signaling its entry into the very elite nuclear club. The thrill of how it was conducted without the world’s knowledge as a masterly move was demonstrated in this John Abraham production and starring vehicle.

Purab Aur Paschim (1971 / Manoj Kumar) Success

Manoj Kumar sent the powerful message to NRIs that they should not shed Indian culture when they migrate to the West. He emphasized this through a family story that begins during the struggle for Independence, and categorically stated that each culture was best for its people. The film was a tepid success when released but has grown into a cult film since.

Alia Bhatt plays a ruthless Indian spy in the dramatized real saga, Raazi. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

Raazi (2018 / Meghna Gulzar) Hit

The daughter to an extremely patriotic soldier agrees to marry his Pakistani friend’s son, as that family too is from their army and she can siphon key intelligence to the Indian armed forces in 1971. She undergoes training and is ruthless in her execution of duty, even though she finds the in-laws very loving. This film was the biopic of a real woman, whose identity has been hidden.

Rang De Basanti (2006 / Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra)  Success / Hit overseas

A British girl is intrigued by the story of five Indian revolutionaries in the freedom struggle and decides to make a film on them. In India, she casts five students in their roles and the film narrates the changes in their lives and attitude as they learn the truth about these patriots. What happens next forms the story.

Road To Sangam (2009 / Amit Rai)

Around 2000, an urn containing Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes was discovered in a bank locker in Orissa – one of the 23 in which his ashes were divided to be immersed in holy waters all over the country. And Gandhi’s family had to struggle through red-tape to get it in their possession and then carry out the immersion.From here, the film took an ingenious fictional route to highlight how both Hindus and Muslims united for the great cause. The film was treated like a small, offbeat film and got lost amidst mainstream films. But it won several international awards, including three in the US.

Sarfarosh (1999 / John Matthew Matthan) Hit

How does terrorism flourish in India? Who are the internal enemies? How does a cop operate in his battle against ultras? All these questions and more were powerfully looked at and answered in the gritty story of betrayal and determination that prophetically released just weeks before the Kargil war erupted.

Manoj Kumar as Shaheed Bhagat Singh in the film he wrote and acted in, Shaheed. Photo: Trailer Video Grab.

Shaheed (1965 / Kewal P. Kashyap) Hit

The only successful film among four movies made on the iconic freedom revolutionary Bhagat Singh, Shaheed was penned by Manoj Kumar, who also played the title role and had a creative hand in this gripping saga of love for the nation.

Param Vir Chakra winner Captain Vikram Batra was immortalized by Sidharth Malhotra as Shershaah. Photo: Hype PR

Shershaah(2021 / Vishnuvaradhan) OTT release

Released on OTT for obvious reasons, this film grittily narrated the story of Param Vir Chakra recipient Captain Vikram Batra and his role in the Kargil war. Sidharth Malhotra excelled in his essay of a soldier who laid down his life to protect his battalion.

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020 / Om Raut) Super-Hit

Tanhaji, Shivaji’s favorite foot-soldier, left his son’s wedding to fight the battle for Kondana Fort, which would have given Mughal emperor Aurangzeb a foothold on the entire country. Shivaji’s famous line, “Gadd aala pann sinhva gela (The fort is ours but we lost the lion)” came to life in this blockbuster saga that had one more ace: the magnificent visual effects were all done indigenously. Ajay Devgn was hero, producer and VFX head.

The Ghazi Attack (2017 / Sankalp Reddy) Hit in Telugu / Success in Hindi

The Ghazi Attack explored another 1971 saga—of how an Indian team destroyed the Pakistani submarine, Ghazi, that was going to target the pride of the Indian Naval seas, INS Vikrant. While the original Telugu version was a big hit, the Hindi dubbed one did moderate business. Brilliantly directed, the film is an epic reminder of one of the key reasons why India won the war.

The Kashmir Files (2022 / Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri) Super-Hit

Based on hundreds of hours of video and audio recordings of displaced Kashmiri Pandits and the horrors they faced in their home state in 1992, this was a scathing indictment of the filthy politics that not only allowed the world’s biggest genocide to happen but also cunningly concealed it from the nation and the globe. Every scene, however gruesome, really happened, and the film moved even non-Indian viewers across the world.

The Legend Of Bhagat Singh (2002 / Rajkumar Santoshi)

Ajay Devgn excelled in this 2002 re-telling of Bhagat Singh’s life and death, making it the only film to win critical acclaim amidst two co-releases on the same subject. Rajkumar Santoshi provided fresh insights and no-holds-barred revelations into what Bhagat Singh and his comrades went through. However, the film did not do well.

Upkar (1967 / Manoj Kumar) Blockbuster

When Shaheed was shown to the then-Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, he was so moved that he requested Manoj Kumar to write another film—this time on his slogan Jai Jawan Jai Kisan. Manoj wrote the entire script of his debut directorial on his return journey by train and gave us a historic movie on what the farmer means to his country. Sadly, Shastri did not live to watch it. Mere desh ki dharti lives on as the ultimate patriotic song.

Vicky Kaushal in URI—The Surgical Strike. Photo: Spice PR

URI—The Surgical Strike (2019 / Aditya Dhar) Super-Hit

What happened after Pakistan’s treacherous attack on our sleeping soldiers at Uri and how a ruthless surgical strike was organized by our armed forces with the backing of a bold Indian government as a retaliatory measure became an exhilarating drama that captured the imagination of the masses, classes and media in the General Election year.

Veer Savarkar (2001 / Ved Rahi) Hit wherever released

With its release politically scuttled, except for in Maharashtra and Jammu & Kashmir, this crowd-funded film was a crackerjack thriller, reflecting Veer Savarkar’s excitingly eventful life. Shailendra Gaur, a brilliant theater actor from Delhi, played the title-role. The Hindi film was researched and presented by the legendary Marathi singer-composer, Sudhir Phadke.

12 Benchmark Patriotic Songs

Manoj Kumar enacts Dulhan chali in Purab Aur Pacchim. Photo: Trailer Video Grab.
  1. Ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyon / Haqeeqat
  2. Ae watan ae watan / Shaheed
  3. Bharat humko jaan se pyara hai / Roja
  4. Chana zor garam / Kranti
  5. Chhodo kal ki baatein / Hum Hindustani
  6. Chitthi aayi hai / Naam
  7. Dulhan chali / Purab Aur Pacchim
  8. Hum laaye hain toofan se / Jagriti
  9. Mere desh ki dharti / Upkar
  10. Sandesen aate hain / Border
  11. Teri mitti / Kesari
  12. Tu bhoola jise / Airlift


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