In a few days Independence Day will arrive, and as run-up to it patriotic songs will be played all over the place, and leading that playlist always is Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle heere moti, from the film Upkar (1967).
With this film, Manoj Kumar made his debut as director, reportedly after then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri asked him to make a film around his slogan, Jai Jawan Jai Kisan. It was soon after the Indo-China (1962) and Indo-Pak (1965) wars and a dose of healthy patriotism was in order. (The film was dedicated to Shastri.)
Manoj Kumar played a farmer called Bharat, who loves his land and his country. His brother Puran (Prem Chopra), however does not share his sentiments. He goes to the city to study and is corrupted by the drinking-partying ways of the other students. He is attracted to a doctor Kavita (Asha Parekh), but she goes to the village to work with the poor, and falls in love with the idealistic Bharat. She comes from a rich family, but her mission is to help the needy. Puran is the opposite, and wants to break away from his family to run after money made by any means. Much to the grief of his mother Radha (Kamini Kaushal), Puran goaded to turn against his brother by the smuggling and black-marketing villains Dhaniram and Charandas (Kanhaiyalal and Madan Puri). He demands his share of the family land from Bharat, who gives it all, with the request that he cultivates it and does not not sell it.
Later, when the war with Pakistan breaks out, Bharat joins the army to protect the country—playing both jawan and kisan in the film. He is taken prisoner or war, and when he escapes it is to devastation of the villages by the border. He is found in badly-wounded condition by the one-legged Malang Chacha (Pran), who has been a friend of the family since Bharat was a child. (In a moving and dramatic scene, Malang draws water from a well to quench Bharat’s thirst, but the bucket comes up full of blood.) Malang dies trying to protect Bharat from the murderous Charandas, who has been stealing from the dead. (Pran, who used to play villain till then white-washed his image with this film, and went on to become a popular character actor, playing noble roles.)
Bharat’s life is saved, but he loses his hands. By this time, Puran realizes that he had been misled, and regrets the way he mistreated his family. When Bharat recovers, the first thing he sees is Puran ploughing the field. The prodigal has returned.
The melodrama may seen overdone by today’s standards, but Manoj Kumar caught the mood of the country then, and wrote the kind of bombastic script and dialogue that appealed to the audience and turned Upkar into the biggest of the year. The film was shot on outdoor locations, and the production design was heavy with symbolism. It may seem over the top now, but the imagery was effective.
Manoj Kumar also filled the film with many social issues that were important then and remain so—family planning, medical aid for the poor, equitable distribution of food, respect for the farmer and the land, and a strong anti-war message.
The film had a terrific music score by Kalyanji-Anandji; apart from Mere desh ki dharti (written with feeling by Gulshan Bawra), there was the melancholic Kasme vaade pyar wafa sab, picturised on Pran; Deewano se yeh mat poochho, Aayi jhoom ke basant, Gulabi raat gulabi.
After this film, Manoj Kumar made patriotism his calling card and came to be called Mr Bharat. He directed other films like Purab Paschim, Shor, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Kranti, but none matched the raw emotional sincerity of Upkar. It won multiple awards that year—National and Filmfare.
The film was made over half a century ago, but seen today, it is still as gripping as it is meaningful.