BR Chopra's Naya Daur: the prophecy of a new India

Publié le 22 Septembre 2012

The Brave New World of Naya Daur (New Era, BR Chopra 1957) opens with a striking quote by Mahatma Gandhi:

Big-tree.JPGSo 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.

MotherlandThe 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.

LabourerOf 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:

Religion of moneyAll 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.

Profits and lossesBecause 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:

Ars-longa-vita-brevis.JPGVijayanthimala 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.

cheap manNow 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!

UnityMeanwhile 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!Famous reporterBut 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 Naya Daur page, you’ll find developments about the contributions of the movie to the theme of development and progress. For example Upperstall believes that “the film is unable to take a clear stand between the Gandhian dislike of machinery and the Nehruvian plan for modernization.”  People quote this passage:

machine se koi ber nahiin order to uphold the view that BR Chopra sacrificed the higher ideals of politics to the baser ones of entertainment. But it isn’t because a message is associated to leisure that it becomes less important. It isn’t because the human worker community hasn’t condemned all the machines that they have abandoned their ideals. Besides, Gandhi’s message seems rather balanced: it’s true that machines are “dead” compared to living people, and, as he writes: “machinery to be well-used has to help and ease human effort”. Of course the film has this famous race at the end, where the “machine” (the bus) is pictured as the dark baddie:

 Kundan's busAnd this could tend to demonstrate that the film-maker is indeed more interested in the spectacular and escapist dimension than in the clear message about what progress means for India. But in fact, Naya Daur’s message is neither a denunciation of modernity, nor a plea for consensus. I think what BR Chopra (and Akhtar Mirza his screenplay writer) was conscious of the particular reality of India in the 1950s: a country where Independence under Nehru meant development, power and influence, but at the same time where the human and rural dimension was still very much a key factor: the film tries to suggest a model of development that might help the decision-taking elites to choose a path that would take advantage of all the forces in presence, while at the same time preserving the spiritual legacy of Mahatma Gandhi on self-rule: “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:

spectators of the Manager's showManipulated 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.Wickedness and madness

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.

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

Commenter cet article

harvey 24/09/2012 13:55


Is holding hands generally, sexual in anyway? When does affection lead to sex? These are questions which don't have fix answers.
Humans as social beings need human touch. Some need more, some need less. What is allowed and what is not depends on the social norms, which are not uniform. Some of my male relatives in India
often hold my hand if they want to say something secretly or jovially and as far as I can discern there was and is nothing sexual about it. For men who love men (you see, I am deliberately
avoiding the word homosexual here) it could be a foreplay but in most cases it isn't.

yves 24/09/2012 14:50



Hm. I quite agree when you say that men holding hands can mean nothing more than affection, and pleasure coming from touching is something which we all know (and sometimes miss because some
societies publicly disapproves of it), but perhaps the question then is more: what in Indian culture allows or encourages men to public display this affection, when in other cultures it would be
construed as ambiguous or open homosexual? What's special in India?



harvey 24/09/2012 11:16


Well Yves, amity between men, doesn't have to mean homosexuality like the western world knows it. You have been to India and might have seen men holding hands and at times even caressing each
other's hands but that doesn't mean they go to bed with each other. Some may do, but not all of them. Indian men, particularly in the rural societies, are still allowed to show more intimacy to
each other than to the opposite sex. This would be seen as blatant homosexuality by western (read European and American) eyes, but it need not be always the case.
There are many layers to homosexuality just like there are many layers to sexuality itself.

yves 24/09/2012 13:22



Thanks very much for this nice little comment Harvey, it's true that I now remember younger men in the streets holding hands, and I even remember people explaining this practice to me! In fact
this is very interesting: do you believe this holding of hands between men is sexual in any way?



Nivedita 24/09/2012 00:49


I loved Johnny Walker in this film and his "main bambai ka baboo" song is one of Rafi's best. And of course that beautiful "maang ke saath" duet. 

yves 24/09/2012 13:26



So did I Nivedita! The more I see Johnny Walker, the more I appreciate him, because his style of humour rather bothered me at first. I think he had established with his audience an unwritten
contract of "it's me again folks!" and everybody knew that when he was there, they could expect a sort of ironical stance of his, based on previous experiences seen in previous films.



harvey 23/09/2012 21:33


"such amity among men being a little disturbing in such an unsophisticated environment"

Why that?

yves 23/09/2012 21:53



Hi Harvey, well because I somehow believe that homosexuality is more hidden and shameful among less educated fractions of society: do you think I'm wrong?



bawa 23/09/2012 10:41


The first time I watched this film was when Indian state TV broadcast it in the 70s. We happened to be have there at the time an old schoolmate of my father's, who had emigrated to Canada, who
was very excited at the opportunity of rewatching it. The songs were very familiar of course, and we had a great time watching it together.


Talking it over in the end, my Dad's friend commented that at the time they had loved the film but had been very disappointed with the ending. They could see it coming, but they did not like the
easy way out the Director had taken and they thought it was unbelievable, and playing up to some sort of romantic concept of ruralism. He said he wished that the writer could have thought a more
daring "third way". As young people of the time, it was not a type of India, rural or urban, that they wished to see.

yves 23/09/2012 19:11



Hello Bawa, I can see why some people, prhaps of the younger generation, would have wanted a more frontal opposition between rurality and modernism: the film's careful compromise, even if it's
coated with an idealism which can seem too "romantic", nevertheless represents a path which must be more realistic and progressive: machinery and progress are inescapable, but the worst is never
to come, and attention to a more human form of capitalism is precisely where government help and legal framework can make a difference.



Banno 23/09/2012 06:58


I think it's one of the most relevant films, as well as entertaining ones, made in Indian coomercial cinema. It's been a long time since I watched it, so it was good to read your post, and have
my memory refreshed.

yves 23/09/2012 19:13



Thanks Banno, commercial indeed but filled with ideals that seem very much absent in most of today's productions.



Ashok M Vaishnav 23/09/2012 05:43


The period of 50s, and to some extent that of 60s, in the Hindi Film Era was indeed the period where films based on a social theme were considered master key to its commercial success. The story
writers, lyricists or the directors themselves carried profound impact of India's Independence Movement or Socialist or Communist movements of Europe.


There were quite a few Producers who would take up very serious social themes, relevant to the then Indian Society. But only a few could blend the elements of commercialism - songs , love, family
conflicts - with the social theme well. As a result, either the film would be very heavy on its social message or may be more of a commercial movie.


Naya Daur, was in this sense was a true reflection of Daur, trend, of that period. BR was quite an accomplished director as well, hence he was able to strike a fine balance between the base of
idealism and superstructure of commercial cinema, e.g. introduction of the character of Jhonny Walker with his mandatory song sequence.


 

yves 23/09/2012 19:20



Well put Ashok; indeed there is this well-balanced combination of idealistic romanticism and socio-political message which would be difficult to strike in today's cinema, probably. People have
gotten used to purely emotional or special effects cinema, and wouldn't be patient enough which such ideals. Another example (on top of the one you mention with Johnny Walker) of the movie's
balancing act is Vijayanthimala's presence and the romancing with Shankar: in itself, the story doesn't need her, but her character is part and parcel of the representation of the new Indian
humanity which was trying to model itself on the scialist example (cf the BR Chopra's opening logo).