The Brave New World of Naya Daur (New Era, BR Chopra 1957) opens with a striking quote by Mahatma Gandhi:
So from the start we know that the film is going to be about the biological (bios = life) relationship between men and the Earth, and that this bond takes the shape of a symbolical Great Tree that cannot be shaken off its roots by any man-made machinery, powerful as it might be. Of course the analogy is first social and political (the references to Labour and machinery smack of good old Socialism), but we’ll see that its implications reach deeper and confront the contextual message of 1957 India with a universal problem concerning the way humanity deals with its Mother Earth.
The story revolves around the great character of Shankar (Dilip Kumar - I’d never him seen better inspired) who plays the role of a tongavala, a horse-cart driver whose job is threatened by the village “capitalist”, the saw-mill owner’s son, Kundan (played by Jeevan), who wants to set up a bus service to the nearby temple where the tongas carry the flocks of pilgrims. This is only one of his initiatives – earlier on he introduced an electric saw in the mill, thereby making many working men redundant, and disrupting the paternalist relationship that existed between the community of workers and the saw-mill owner, his father, who leaves to go to a pilgrimage and only returns at the end of the story.
Of course, Shankar takes the lead of the workers’ revolt – who have now turned into proleterians, because the injustice done to them has raised their political consciousness and their identity as an oppressed class. Before the uprooting of their traditional livelihoods, they lived in the Edenic state of collaboration with their revered master, and knew not the evil of the workers’ struggles. Shankar becomes their articulate leader, the one who seizes arms against injustice and faces the oppressive Capitalistic Boss:
All this Marxist lore works well because it is connected not to random masses of whom we know nothing, but concrete individuals whose destinies we are introduced to, and to more deeply allegorical themes as well. First, the theme of the two brothers, which brings the movie, already reminiscent of Mother India, closer to Deewar, where the mother-theme is so important. Shankar’s “brother”, his bosom friend, Krishna (played by Ajit), belongs to the other village community of woodcutters. We wonder why they are such good friends, in fact – such amity among men being a little disturbing in such an unsophisticated environment. But the reason is that this friendship serves a greater purpose: that of demonstrating the thesis according to which industrialisation and capitalistic pursuits rend apart human ties, and that even the “natural” brotherhood of men cannot compete against the individualistic greed for profit.
Because we are watching a Bollywood movie with its ready made package of emotionality and romance, and not primarily a political reformist statement, one of the solutions to the social upheaval will be a romantic one. Interestingly, the opening BR Chopra logo represents a Stakhanovite couple of sorts, ready to march against tyranny:
Vijayanthimala plays Rajini, the village belle that both Shankar and Krishna fall in love with, but, steadfast friends as they are, they decide that this will not jeopardize their friendship and set up a test to know who will marry her. Unfortunately, Shankar’s sister Manju, who secretly loves Krishna, intervenes and tilts the odds in Shankar’s favour, thus igniting the feud which the movie’s main story needed. Of course, this is a romantic trick which serves a lower purpose than the main political intent, but its moral stance (deception is wrong even in the name of love) combines with the main theme of fighting against injustice and for human dignity.
Now Krishna, thirsty for revenge, sides with Kundan the once-abhorred greedy Boss. The latter has accepted Shankar’s bravado bet that he can bring his tonga up the hill to the Shiva Temple faster than the new bus! He says that in three months’ time, he will be ready to show the upstart that the People are the real Power. Of course at first nobody in the village believes he or they can do it, even in three months. He tells them they should build a faster route up the hill, but the work necessary for this feat is such that it would need everybody from the village to get down to it night and day. Shankar tastes the solitude of the brave hero, but soon another bout of injustice from the master turns the heads of his fellow villagers, who feel they now have nothing to lose, and they all start building the new road!
Meanwhile Krishna’s anger is like a seething volcano, and he tries all his scurvy tricks to down the fiery spirit of the village and twice almost succeeds (I’m not telling everything for the sake of suspense!)! The humoristic dimension is also very present, first in the way Dilip Kumar acts and embraces his heroic deeds, and then in the person of a hilarious visitor, journalist Johnny Walker who comes to cover the village feud, and almost inadvertently gives it an importance that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. The villagers can now represent all of India's oppressed!But now to the more serious stuff. If you go at the bollywoodfan’s page (there’s an interesting political discussion in the comments, even if more centred on American democracy than Indian socialism), or the legendary Upperstall's
“Although the word Swaraj means self-rule, Gandhi gave it the content of an integral revolution that encompasses all spheres of life. "At the individual level Swaraj is vitally connected with the capacity for dispassionate self-assessment, ceaseless self-purification and growing self-reliance". (...) In other words, it is sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority. Economically, Swaraj means full economic freedom for the toiling millions. And in its fullest sense, Swaraj is much more than freedom from all restraints, it is self-rule, self-restraint and could be equated with moksha or salvation.” (wiki link)
When Kundan, the mill manager, tries to drag the workers away from their road-building, in the hope that the road would not be finished at the end of the three months, he stages a show with dancers and singers, and naturally everyone flocks to watch it, relinquishing the hard work. And we are shown what happens to the spectators when this diversion occurs:
Manipulated by greed, their humanity degrades and becomes distorted; clearly this isn’t a commentary on the ills coming from mass entertainment, but rather a warning of what happens to man when he abandons his resolve and his dignity (such virtues the villagers had upheld, when deciding to turn their old economic routine into a conscious fight for its defence). Many factors are able to cause such degradation, whether it is machines or systems or ideologies. Machinery in itself is good, but its abuse, its unilateral promotion provokes a dehumanization which the film wants to expose.
I would like to finish by insisting on the opening image of the "majestic tree". Gandhi uses it to describe Humanity which is deeply rooted in the Earth, but the symbolism of the great tree at the origin of Mankind carries with it associations of life and death which are also present in the Bible: when the serpent cheats Adam and Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge, doesn't it want them to transgress an order which we can compare to what is happening in Naya Daur? Doesn't Kundan represent a sort of Agent of Evil bent on disrupting man's original relationship with a spiritualised Nature? Shankar could then easily become a kind a Christ-like figure who would fight for man's final rehabilitation. He could also represent Abel the Earth-minder, this time victorious of his murderous brother Cain, here represented by Krishna). So that the "New Era" heralded by this prophet of Justice and Peace rings like a universal call that comes from the heart of all working men on Earth.