Tracing a sense of community feeling over 50 years of sensation

Published: Thursday 15 January 2004


-- Mehboob Khan was a man of contradictions. The emblem of his film company was a hammer and sickle, accompanied by the voiceover that read a popular couplet that proclaimed Allah's will to be final. In 1957, Khan made arguably the most definitive film -- Mother India. It opens with a shot of two larger than life mother symbols -- Nargis and the soil. As the camera zooms out and the credits appear, a combined harvester and a tractor rolls by, followed by a tableau of shots of power supply lines, construction of bridges and roads. A khadi-clad bunch goes up to the old woman and tells her that an irrigation canal has reached the village, and ask her to inaugurate it. The Nehruvian dream -- Mehboob was a great admirer of the first prime minister -- is brought to completion by the image of a dam, an important theme in several films from the 1950s.

The other great directors of the era are also remembered for some memorable depictions of village life. Bimal Roy's 1953 Do Bigha Zameen had the protagonist coming to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to earn enough to secure the release of his land mortgaged to the landlord, and losing everything in the bargain. This ran counter to the 1955 Shree 420, which had Raj Kapoor as a young villager come to the city to try his luck. He, unlike Bimal Roy's protagonist, returns successfully to the village. Both the films showed the protagonist battling it out in the slums of the big city. The portrayal of the slums was, however, quite complex. It was a rough space where the innocence of the villager was tested against the rough-and-tumble of city life. But it was also a space where fellow migrants formed a community, a village that defied the city in its very core and maintained its sense of community. The protagonist invariably gets help in these slums, help which is not forthcoming from the large bungalows behind tall walls, where the heroine often lived with her family. The name of the hero in the films of this era was very rural -- there was Raju, Shyamu, Krishna, Shankar and Birju, among others. Naya Daur, though not set in a village, is a film about a small settlement with a very rural character. Its residents run into a problem when their employer begins to mechanise, making them jobless. The film ends with the hope of reconciliation labour and capital.

The heroes of these films had certain distinct qualities that made them larger than life. He was also the doctor or the engineer who went to the village to help build a new India. The nation-building imagery was so intrinsic to cinema that one can easily assume that popular cinema was an offshoot of the freedom struggle.

Leanings to the left
The reasons for this large number of films with rural themes are not difficult to trace. For one, a lot of the people writing these films -- the likes of Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailedra and Kaifi Azmi -- had Marxist leanings. The country had recently got freed from British control, and the desire to create a new nation was very much alive. Some of these writers came from well-to-do families and were rebelling against the status quo that the older generation represented. Kaifi Azmi, for instance, was from a feudal family in Uttar Pradesh. He was a member of the Communist Party and the Indian People's Theatre Association. He lived in a commune established by the party, and began writing scripts to help run the commune. No wonder the rebel son of a feudal family was a common hero. The films they wrote reflected their ideological leanings. Besides, the Bengal famine of the 1940s had brought a large number of villagers to Calcutta, drawing the city's attention to the plight of the villages. Migrants in cities
The cities themselves were flush with migrants from rural areas. Though they were urbanising fast and were lapping up the fashionably urbane Dev Anand and the sophisticated Dilip Kumar, they could relate to issues of the villages. Most filmmakers, too, were first generation migrants to Mumbai. Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Delhi-based filmmaker/writer, cautions against any notions that popular cinema truly reflected rural India in the mid-20th century. He says a lot of the rural representation was ideological.

The man who came to symbolise ideological representation of the true Indian villager, however, was Manoj Kumar. The overpowering theme of Manoj Kumar's films was patriotism, whether it was set in the village (Upkaar) or in the transboundary experience of NRIs (Purab Aur Paschim). In fact, in large parts of the country he was known as Bharat Kumar, the name of the character he plays in Upkaar. The films borrowed a lot from Bimal Roy's realistic depiction of the villages, but a major point of departure was the patriotic baggage and the intermittent messages of family planning. Manoj Kumar became the celluloid avatar of the Green Revolution that began in the 1960s. It was the image of the self-sacrificing farmer who was producing bumper crops to wipe out the national shame of C Subramaniam being sent to the US beg for food. Another reason for the young nation's pride taking a beating was the confrontation with China. Manoj Kumar took it upon himself to restore that pride. He became synonymous with Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's call of 'Jai Jawan Jai Kisan'. The song Manoj Kumar is most readily associated with, 'Mere desh ki dharti...', was a renewal of faith in the productivity of our soil and our farmer. The idea of the farmer who could speak English but still dressed in khadi was internationally reassuring. This farmer didn't sell his crop to the village moneylender and fought with fellow farmers who hoarded foodgrain so that there were no food shortages in the city. In the 1960s, all the food grown on the country's soil belonged to the country.

Enter the dacoit
A variant theme of the village drama that went on to become a genre of its own was the dacoity film. Mother India had dealt with the dacoity issue at length, establishing Sunil Dutt as the archetypal rebel from Chambal. But one of the earliest films to deal with the subject at length was Raj Kapoor's Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai. It posed the Hindu Vaishnav ethic of Raju, a well-meaning, idealistic member of a singing community, against a trigger-happy bunch of dacoits. Coming at the time of a campaign influenced by Vinoba Bhave to get dacoits to surrender, the film opens with tough men looting a village, and the next sequence takes us to the dwellings of the dacoits, where they live just like any other villager with their wives and children. The hero of the film is a scared young man who has the courage of conviction to save the police from the dacoits and the dacoits from the police -- and both from themselves. The climax has the hero managing to get the dacoits to surrender to save the lives of their womenfolk and children.

The film attacked a lot of clichs about dacoits. But the dacoit film developed along the lines of revenge. Here were the inklings of the anti-hero that would so dominate later day popular cinema. Sunil Dutt, the personification of this genre, had such durability that his son Sanjay Dutt has also made a career out of the anti-hero. 1975
But the most prominent dacoit film came in 1975. Sholay by Ramesh Sippy was one of the watersheds of Indian cinema. Here was a story set in the village with several larger than life characters. The lead duo of two petty criminals, Jai and Veeru, take the viewer through the experience of living in a village to capture a dacoit. In the process, we see two petty criminals develop a desire to become farmers and stay back in the village. Today's filmmakers recognise that the writers of Sholay, Javed Akhtar and Saleem Khan, were again people who had travelled in villages. In fact, one of the biggest phenomena of Sholay was the creation of a new kind of villain in Gabbar Singh, who was much more rustic than his 'smooth' predecessors -- Pran, Ajit, Kanhaiyalal, K N Singh. The way Gabbar enjoyed violence took the viewer to another plane. In fact, in the first two weeks of its release, Sholay was labelled a flop because there was no reaction to the film. Only later did people realise that the silence was due to the audience not having seen anything like that before.

The love of violence and mistreatment of women became hallmarks of the hero in the 1970s, especially with regard to the phenomenon that became Amitabh Bachchan. The rural names of the hero had changed to the more urban Vijay and Ravi. By this time there was a clear shift in the filmmakers, too: the interest in villages was waning.

Raj Kapoor had moved away from his Nehruvian phase to the image of being the showman who made the likes of Bobby and Satyam Shivam Sundaram. The children of the first generation migrants to the city had grown up. While the village was not as potent a presence as it had been a generation ago, it was still there, lurking in the background. But now there was little talk of the hero going back to the village. Also, the nature of his heroism had changed from two decades ago. Gone was the submissive, innocent stereotype of the 1950s or the self-sacrifice of the 1960s. The 1970s hero had forgotten most of that -- except what he needed to remember to take revenge. It is not that films were not set in villages. But the major banners were regularly looking elsewhere.

Bollywood Westerns
The 1970s and the 1980s saw a peculiar morphed village in the films featuring Feroze Khan. It was inspired by the Hollywood Western. In fact, the rustic scene in Satte Pe Satta was also from the Western. Another variation of the village in films was seen in the films featuring Sachin (Nadiya Ke Paar and Geet Gata Chal). But the most ridiculous depiction is reserved for tribals and nomads in popular cinema. The tribal song sequence is a favourite set-piece, allowing the filmmaker to show skin and outlandish attires. In fact, the tribals are often used to convey provide images of savagery and fear. The 1976 Kabeela shows a Feroze Khan dressed like John Wayne. The film opens with an introduction of tribes, depicting them as incomplete strands in the chart of human evolution.

The consciousness of village issues also came in films not set expressly in the village. Saagar is a very engaging confrontation between large fishing trawlers and small fisherfolk. Kala Patthar, inspired by a major mining accident, became a statement in justification of nationalisation of coalmines. In both the cases, the hero was somebody who fought for the rights of the vulnerable. In several ways, these films touched upon issues of economic policy without resorting to the burden of the established norms of representation of villages.

For forests' sake
The late 1970s saw the inclusion of forest in the concurrent list, paving the way for the Forest Conservation Act. 1979 saw the release of Kartavya, which showed Dharmendra as an honest divisional forest officer who fights with a tiger to save a little girl. The film opens with an elaborate speech by Ashok Kumar on the importance of the ecological balance and the need to conserve wildlife and forests.

By the time Manmohan Singh's economic reforms started to roll in the early 1990s, Govinda had become a sensation, especially in the films of David Dhawan. The 1990s also saw films made in southern India storming the northern markets as well as Hindi dubs of Hollywood films like Jurassic Park. The market was changing faster than ever. This period also saw the success of a mix of romantic-social drama, beginning with the success of the 1994 Hum Apke hain Kaun, a very long marriage video on 70 mm. Two of the most important films to build on this were Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). With the NRI becoming more important than ever before due to the foreign exchange they brought with them, the multiplex film was born.

NRI mentality
Dilwale... is a very interesting study in the NRI mentality that today's filmmaker is so desperate to capture. It opens with a middle aged Indian migrant in London describing how out of place he is. He craves to get back to his land of origin. On receiving a letter from his friend in Punjab, he announces that the family will go back and marry his daughter (played by Kajol) to his friend's son. He announces pride at the fact that his daughter has meekly submitted to his will, a mark of Indian culture. Against this is the character of the young man (played by Shahrukh Khan), also a migrant, who plays rugby, drives fast cars, and has blended in. His claim to the role of the protagonist is that he is cool, that he has attitude. His name: Raj Malhotra. In fact, the protagonist of the multiplex film often has names like Raj, Rohit and Rahul, a clear shift away from the Vijays and Ravis of the 1970s and the Shankars and Rajus of the 1950s. Of course, Kajol's father -- him with the dream of returning to the fields of Punjab -- does not think he is eligible for her. The girl on her part is totally submissive to the will of her father. As the father returns to his roots in Punjab, these contradictions are presented as part and parcel of 'Indian culture'.

Some other recent depictions of villages in popular films worth noting are in Mahesh Manjrekar's Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hai and Apoorva Lakhia's Mumbai Se Aya Mera Dost. The former has Govinda playing Ganga, a rich man's son brought up by a shepherd couple because he has to be kept away from his blood relations (and close to sheep) till the age of 25. A major part of the film is set in the village, but there is very little of village to see. Its presence is very iconic. We see only one house other than Ganga's, and that belongs to Sanwali, his love interest, played by Sonali Bendre. The rest is merely real estate for the all-too-familiar dance numbers that make the Govinda version of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Mumbai... is a standard masala film with some interesting cinematic twists in the narrative. You see the protagonist and his friend watching people of a Rajasthani village who are watching The Matrix on cable television. The plot revolves around a love affair set in conflicting urban and rural sensibilities. The urban protagonist Kanji, played by Abhishek Bachchan, stays back in the village in the end. His introduction of cable television has left a deep impact on the village. The villagers you see are very believable, and yet fantastically comic because one is too used to seeing idealised notions of a village in popular cinema.

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