Friday, April 27, 2012

NAYA DAUR (1957)

During the first national elections in the early fifties as crowds cheered Nehru  with Pandit Nehru Zindabad, he would stop them and urge them to say Naya Hindustan Zindabad instead. In tune with the times, it is this Naya Hindustan that formed the backdrop of many of the 50s and 60s films. The Nehruvian march toward modernity, with mega iron-steel plants and huge dams would come at a huge human cost as the new technology temples of modern India came up on agricultural lands and replaced the labor force with machines. Indian cinema reflected these trends; while Do Bigha Zamin showed the plight of those dispossessed of their agricultural land, Naya Daur's premise was the struggle of human labor against the onslaught of mechanization.

And yet Naya Daur does not pit man against machine or the haves against the have-nots. Indeed, it does not pit anyone against the other (at least ideologically it doesn't). As the protagonist Shankar (played by Dilip Kumar) says to the mill owner "garib ko to bus do waqat ki roti chahiye" and "apki jeb bhi bharti rahe aur gareebon ka pet bhi." And later "humko machine se koi bair nehi."  In short, take the middle path. Keep both man and machine. Above all don't upset the apple cart.

That is not to say that the struggle that forms the plot of the film is irrelevant. Far from it. Naya Daur was probably one of the earliest films that juxtaposed class struggle with mechanization and modernization. That in the march toward progress, benefits from technology would be reaped by the few who could afford it in the first place. The mill owner of Naya Daur for instance.

Over the decades this theme would be taken up by Indian filmmakers, but the best works generally emerged from the world of parallel cinema. A classic film of this genre is Jahnu Barua's Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (it's a long way to the sea) where an old boatman loses his livelihood when a bridge is built over the river on which he ferries passengers. The talented Barua tackled the subject with immense sensitivity. In the real world many ways of life do go extinct, and Barua did not falter to show the poignancy of the situation.

But Bollywood caters to a more varied taste!

Back to Naya Daur. The film is set in a basti where folks are in complete harmony with the benign landlord, a bespectacled bearded Nasir Hussain in dhoti and chadar, who doubles as a father figure to his subjects. These men are either employed in benign patriarch's mill or drive tongas for a living. No biradaris, unch-nich or jaat-paat. The people eat together, play together, even pray together. The basti thus becomes the microcosm for the Naya Hindustan.

In celebration of the pan Indian ethos running throughout the film, Vyjayanthimala can wear a half saree or thaavani and dance the bhangra. The dress code is a bit strict in the men's apparel section as the rural folks wear dhoti irrespective of their position and wealth, and the city bred are suited booted. But pro-progress suited booted is not necessarily anti-people. So as a foil to the patriarch's son Kundan (played by Jeevan) who swears by progress-via-machines, there is the city journalist Johnnie Walker. If Mr. Journo's appearance and English khitpit does not bother the bastiwalas it is because his dedication to their cause comes as a part of the package.  

The idyllic life in the basti gets a jolt as the landlord's city bred son takes over the reins of the fiefdom. Obsessed with making more profits, he mechanizes his mills and fires his workers. He even gets a bus to drive passengers around, thus putting the tongas out of business. Challenged to a bus vs tonga race from the station to the temple, Shankar, the leader of the tongawalahs accepts and together with his people builds a short road with a bridge to the temple to win the race. Through all this he has the support of his lady love Vyjayanthimala, who not only lifts the first pail of mud on her head but also puts her own life on line and throws away the stick of dynamite that was intended to destroy the bridge.

But it was funny to see the lady's delicate hands (manicured nails, beautifully designed bangles et al) pick a bucket of shoveled earth and balance it on her dainty head.   

Being part of mainstream cinema there is obviously no room to address the complexities and conflicts of class and modernization. It would be interestingly to see how these hierarchies intersect. Although the villagers are not the silent suffering types and do rise to the challenge, it is only inasmuch as their livelihood is at stake. Unfortunately an understanding of their collective power  dawning on them is never explored. I know this is no place for comparisons but one is reminded of the Naseer character in the last scene of Manthan, where he gleeful proclaims "sosoty aapni hai" (the cooperative society belongs to us); this after realizing that the cooperative society belonged to him and others and not to the shahari babus.
No such fate awaits the bastiwalahs here. Nowhere is their love for status quo more evident as when the statue of a goddess (Maa to the villagers) is found buried in the road construction path. For all the talk of a new order, the villagers fear a curse and change the course of the road. Shankar does protest but the elders prevail. So much for the Naya order!!