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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Popular Melodramas of 1950s and their Engagement with the Nehruvian Politics - Prakash K ray

चवन्‍नी के पाठकों के लिए प्रकाश के रे का यह लेख.... 
“..planning does not mean industrialization alone; on the other hand, it embraces the entire national life.”                -Nehru (Nehru’s speech at Delhi University, in The Hindustan Times, 15 February, 1939.)

It is often argued that the popular melodramas of the 1950s failed to portray the reality of India in an apt manner since the film industry was too busy in projecting the nationalist myths created by the new government under the leadership of Nehru. The Centenary Year of Indian cinema offers an opportune occasion to revisit the cinematic scenario of the Nehruvian era, that is widely considered our cinema's Golden period. Realizing the great potential of mass media, particularly film, the government established various institutions and ordered vast set of rules and regulation. In 1949, the Film Enquiry Committee called upon the film industry to contribute to the responsibility in the course of nation building and strengthen the government. The government expected that Indian cinema will work for ‘national culture, education and healthy entertainment’ towards ‘a national character with its multifaceted aspects.’ The government also tried to control cinema through economic measures and control and of course, censorship. B.V. Keskar, perhaps the longest serving minister (for 10 years) of I&B even stopped the broadcasting of film music on AIR.

I argue that, in spite of these guidelines and restriction, the popular films of 1950s engaged with the Nehru era in a mature manner. I base my paper on these films- Sri 420, Awaara, Do Bigha Zameen, Pyaasa, Mother India and Naya Daur. On one hand, some of these films overtly endorse the nationalist discourse of the state while others bitterly critique it. But I will assert that the endorsement is very careful and positive. In the beginning, I will discuss the ideas of the era which is commonly known as the era of hope. Later, I will examine the narrative structures of the films and their engagement with Nehru’s politics and policies.

The foundation of Nehru’s politics is his work The Discovery of India which is an effort to invent tradition in the realm of modern nationalism. The book claims that the Indian civilization is superior and there is a continuity of thousands of years and despite vast diversity ‘[S]ome kind of a dream of unity has occupied the mind of India since the dawn of civilization.’ 

According to Partha Chatterjee, the ideological reconstruction of Nationalism under Nehru’s leadership ‘is an ideology of which the central organizing principle is the autonomy of the state; the legitimizing principle is a conception of social justice’. In order to provide social justice for all under this nationalism it was needed ‘to create a new framework of institutions which can embody the spirit of progress or, a synonym, modernity’. Nehru writes in 'The Discovery of India'-
“It is the scientific approach, the adventurous, and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind- all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.”

Nehru, right from the formidable years of struggle for Indian Independence, supported heavy industrialization to solve the problems of poverty and strengthen the political foundations of the independent nation. He asserted ‘any argument as to the relative merits of small-scale and large-scale industry seems strangely irrelevant today, when the world and the dominating facts  of the situation that confront it have decided in favour of the latter.’

Nehru, after meeting a group of peasants in 1920 realized a grave ‘responsibility’ and felt ashamed and , at his ‘own easy-going and comfortable life’ and ‘petty politics of the city’; he also felt distressed at ‘the degradation and overwhelming poverty of India’.

This responsibility directed the policies of his government which were firmly based on scientific and technological projects and concepts.

Nehru’s belief in ‘the spirit of the age’ drove his planning and policies. But Nehru was also open to the challenges. Modifying his earlier views on industrialization, he said, in a Congress meeting in 1957, ‘planning essentially consists in balancing: the balancing between industry and agriculture, the balancing between heavy industry and light industry, the balancing between cottage industry and other industry. If one of them goes wrong then the whole economy is upset.’

To remove the obstacles or thwart the protests against his policies, Nehru was not averse to use force- ‘everything that comes in the way will have to be removed, gently if possible, forcibly if necessary. And there seems to be little doubt that coercion will often be necessary. But… if force is used it should not be in the spirit of hatred or cruelty, but with the dispassionate desire to remove an obstruction.’ So the state violence became a rational instrument for the progress of the new nation.

Sunil Khilnani has opined that the real achievement of Nehru’s rule was the establishment of the state at the core of India’s society. Enlarged state ‘aspired to infiltrate the everyday lives of Indians, proclaiming itself responsible for everything they could desire: jobs ration cards, educational places, security, and cultural recognition. The state thus etched itself into the imagination of Indians in a way that no previous political agency had ever done.

The state and its charismatic leader were convinced and confident about their mission and achievements. Nehru exhorted at the sight of Bhakra-Nangal dam- ‘Probably nowhere else in the world is there a dam as high as this… As I walked round the site I thought that these days the biggest temple and mosque and gurudwara is the place where man works for the good of mankind. Which place can be greater than this, this Bhakra-Nangal?

And this fascination of new temples, mosques and gurudwaras compelled India to fall in love with the concrete in the 1950s.

The ambition of the Nationalist state under Nehru’s leadership to transform Indian society was scripted in the cities and taken to the countryside. This modernity took India and its habitants to an arena of complexities and contradictions. Khilnani observes, ‘India’s cities house the entire historical compass of human labour, from the crudest stone breaking to the most sophisticated financial transactions. Success and failure, marble and mud, are intimately and abruptly praised against one another, and this has made the cities vibrate with agitated experience. All the enticements of the modern world are stacked up here, but it is also here that many Indians discover the mirage-like quality of this modern world. This experience has altered beliefs, generated new politics, and made the cities dramatic scenes of Indian democracy: places where the idea of India is being disputed and defined anew.’

And this changing landscape of the cities compelled the filmmakers to look for complex narratives told in simple fashion of melodrama. It was not only nostalgia for simple and virtuous life in the countryside or in cities but also a quest for the lost innocence and an assertion of an art form for its place in the grand festival of nation building.

It is remarkable that a tramp like hero dressed in clumsy clothes, of Shree 420 represented the politics of Nehru, who was suave, neatly dressed in the most forth right manner. The song ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’ says:
nikal pade hain khuli sadak par apna seena taane…
hai manzil kahaan, kahaan rukna hai, upar waala jaane…
naadaan hain jo baeth kinaare poochhen raah watan ki
chalna jeewan ki kahani
Rukna maut ki nishaani…

This reminds of the famous speech of Nehru at midnight of 14-15 August, 1947-
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.
At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”
At the outset the belief about city is reflected through the number 420 written on the milestone. The number in Indian Penal Code is related to bluff, cheating and forgery. The use of this popular metaphor indicates to the common belief about the city, about Bombay in particular, as a crooked place.
In the very first scene, the city is chaotic and in a mess. Seeing everyone rush, Raju exclaims- ‘is everyone residing in Bombay deaf!’ His initial encounters with the city show his uneasiness and his ‘innocence’ looks incompatible with the city culture. It seems that the boy from Allahabad, which is the central city of Indian nationalist movement, and the financial capital of India are incompatible. The beggar places his observation in direct words- ‘these blind and deaf men do not see anything except money. Here, buildings are made of concrete and hearts are made of stones’. Throughout the saga of survival, the film emphasizes the importance of virtue and goodness. The city is alienating but the protagonist is hell-bent to make it own and that too, without loosing his noble sensibility.
Then there are migrant homeless labourer who provide the shelter to the protagonist. Solidarity is made on the basis of shared misery. The provincial solidarity among the migrants is depicted metaphorically as ‘ganga mai ke bachche sab bhai bhai hain’. The name of benevolent old lady, herself a migrant and ‘resident’ of footpath is Ganga. This name evokes two kinds of memory- one, about the native place i.e. the United Province, and another of the shared heritage. It is also a quest for sacredness in the sea of darkness.  The talk among these people dreams of ‘bhookhe nango ka raaj’. The name of the protagonist is Raaj or Raju who brings a new lease of life on the footpath. The song ‘dil ka haal sune dil waala’ talks about the lives of poor people in the city and tells how the rich and the police create hurdles for them. The song and scenes immediately after depict the plight of the homeless.

The female lead, Vidya, is an epitome of virtue. Her modest house has two pictures on the wall apart from her late mother’s- a big framed picture of Nehru and a smaller one of Vivekananda. For the new nation, these two figures are the ideals that the nation is set to follow.

In one sequence, a politician cum corrupt businessman talks about the greatness of swadeshi, dharma, sanskriti, man ki shanti, atma, and desh. But Raju talks about Hindustani dil and the need of bread. This is definitely an endorsement of Nehruvian outlook but it is also one of the main principles of the national movement.

The name of other lady character that is fond of Western/ Modern/ de-cultured is Maya. In the song rammaya vasta vayya, the labourers compare their villages and the city.

The street is the arena where loss, gloom, and also romance find a place to unfold and to get expressed.

The housing is presented as a central problem in the city. The corrupt businessmen try to make money by fooling poor people on the pretext of providing cheap houses. The poor people after realizing this go for cooperative project. The film ends with the image of a new colony which is planned and fit with essential amenities. The end image of the film profoundly asserts Nehru’s planning and his politics of social justice. The film despises the corrupt and anti people elements of the society that were considered the greatest enemy of the country by Nehru.

The tramp of Sri 420 is again present in Awaara with his vision of new India. This film also depicts the slum life and asserts that the lack of basic facilities compels the poor to commit crime. The film also highlights the problem of unemployment in the city. The song ‘awaara hoon…’ presents the everyday happenings in market and streets. Once again the villains are criminal elements and old values. The city of Bombay here, like the previous film, is divided between the haves and the haves not. Using mythological metaphors, Raj kapoor highlights the plight of women in the song ‘zulam sahe bhaari janakdulaari.’

But the films are always not cozy with Nehru’s idea of the new India. Do Bigha Zameen unearths the darker side of the model and its class nexus. The protagonist of the film, like the previous two films, migrates to the city, this time Calcutta, to earn some money. Influenced by rumours of opulence produced by modernity, the lead character says- ‘kalkatta mein paise hawa mein udte hain’. This city is again chaotic and unfriendly to the villager. Homelessness is again the big problem and solidarity among the homeless migrants is highlighted. The vigilance by the government agencies over poor people sleeping on footpath or in public spaces is underlined. This aspect is depicted in Rajkapoor’s films too. Through the fight over water, the film represents the toughness of life in slums. Poverty and alienation of the city is reflected in the words of the lead- ‘paise ke bina saans lena bhi mushkil hai’. The plight of the poor is also represented through the handicapped labourer, old rickshaw-puller, child-workers etc. The film shows the continuous struggle of survival for the weaker sections in the city but, unlike, the previously discussed films, this film does not provide any ‘tryst with destiny’ solution.
Through the song ‘Ghazab teri duniya’ the working class articulates its grievances to god against the powerful. All three films consider the city as pardes and the native place as des. It denotes the uncomfortable relation with the ideas of modernity. 

Another mega hit of the decade is Naya Daur. Its narrative centers on the debate over mechanization of the traditional industries. The film begins with a quote of Mahatma Gandhi praising the labour of man. The film presents a village in its entire colours. The film does not consider the city differently from the above three films. The son of the village industrialist is a city-returned person and obsessed with modernization and profit. He brings trained people to operate machine from the city and now unemployed villagers go to the city in search of jobs. When the son advises them to go to the city for better life, the lead character says- des waalon ko pardes bhejna chahte ho. The presence of the reporter from Bombay is a sane representation from the city while the son represents badness of the city and modernity adopted by the state. The film ends with the call for a balance between the traditional skill and machine. As I have mentioned earlier, by this time, in 1957, Nehru was also considering a balanced approach.

The film also hits out at religious orthodoxy which comes in the way of development. In the sync with Nehru’s secular and humanist politics, the protagonist opposes the plan to build a temple in the way of the road. He accuses the upper class of using religious and communal feelings for their own vested interests. He emphatically asserts- ‘aadmi ke raste mein bhagwan bhee ayega to bhi main rukunga nahi’. He describes religion as something which shows the way, not the one which obstructs it.

Pyaasa, like Do Bigha Zameen, is bitter. It criticizes the affairs going on around and provides no sweet answer. The gloom of the era is presented through hunger, unemployment, despair at brothel, beggary. The song ‘jinhe naaz hai hind par wo kahan hain..’ directly accuses the power and the society for the miserable condition of prostitute.

The super hit film of the decade, Mother India is considered cinematic translation of the Nehruvian politics. Through the trio of women, farmers and development, the film despises mahazani system and violent rebellion against the oppressive structure of the society. For being so close to the ideals and policies of Nehru, the film is even called ‘ the cinematic Discovery of india’.

While discussing these films, we should also keep the melodramatic characteristics in mind- the indulgence of strong emotionalism, moral polarization, overt villainy, extreme actions and situations, overt expressions and a judgement in favour of virtue. With the polarization of good and evil, the melodrama reveals the presence and operation of good and evil as real forces around us and calls upon to confront and expel the evil to maintain the social order.The use of song and dance and other elements from various artistic tradition also must be underlined.

It is right that the nation was in the owe of Nehru and hoped that a new era would unfold under his leadership but it should also be noted that various political forces were supporting Nehru and also criticizing him when need. The role of left-leaning artists and influence of IPTA should not be overlooked.
The study a person like Nehru who was “greater than his deeds and truer than his surroundings”and the cinematic representation of his policies demand more rigorous language and analysis. It can be said that Nehru’s mission was noble but not the path and cinema engaged with him in solidarity as well as critically. And before going after these films, we must consider the time and the limitation of the medium. If we cut the film from its time and specific context, we may loose the importance of it as an art form and as an instrument in the process of social change.


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