On the 100th year of Indian cinema, a celebration of the indelible movies that influenced this writer.
Jawaharlal Nehru observed that the influence of cinema in India surpasses that of books and newspapers combined. Its sway has only grown since his passing: week after week after week, it delights, informs and stirs millions. Its portrayals are very often kitschy and over-the-top, but it reflects popular social concerns of its times, discusses ideas, and is both shaped by and shapes popular cultures. Its pull extends to diverse audiences, especially to young people, of all social classes, cultures and education. In a country which produces more films than any other, it is also the biggest window to the world for large masses of unlettered working people.
The celebrations of 100 years of Indian cinema set me thinking of which Indian films have most influenced me in my growing years. I recalled nostalgically many films, both art-house and popular, some of which I will describe in this and later columns, as my personal tribute to an art industry which has nourished my mind, heart and soul.
On the top of my list stands indisputably Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, or Song of the Road which remains — along with Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard — my all-time favourite. I still remember how enraptured I was when I first saw it as a young man: my discovery of the sheer beauty that cinema is capable of, its visual poetry, its deep humanism, its gentle humour, and its insights into the wonder and bewilderments of childhood. The portrayal of the fortunes of the family of an impoverished village priest, seen through the eyes of the child Apu, carries within it universal themes of loss, hope, selfishness, generosity and love. Ray’s vision — recurring through his later films — combines lyricism, aesthetics, compassion and philosophical wisdom, and is a national treasure.
The most moving recreation of the enormous human costs of India’s Partition is M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa, the story of a Muslim family in Agra in the years immediately after Partition. The ageing patriarch Salim Mirza — essayed with towering dignity and empathy by Balraj Sahni in his last and finest portrayal — is determined to continue to live in India, even as many in his extended family migrate to Pakistan to build their fortunes. But in the ‘scorched winds’ of prejudice of the years just after Partition, his resolve slowly and heartbreakingly crumbles, as his family falls apart, his business collapses, his daughter commits suicide after being abandoned by a young man who migrates to Pakistan, and he is charged with espionage against India.
The last sequence of the film is iconic and I often recount it when I speak to young people about my understanding of the integral place within secular India for its minorities and oppressed people. Mirza’s family is leaving on a tonga for the station to catch a train to Pakistan. On the way, Mirza sees a procession of red flags, and stops his tonga. He asks his family to return home, as he joins the procession. He seems to say: India does belong to the Muslims as much as to anyone else — but their future is secured best not if they organise under ‘green flags’ of separate identities, but instead if they build solidarities with other oppressed groups.
My daughter often complains about the number of times I made her watch Bimal Roy’s Do Beegha Zameen (Two Acres of Land) in her growing childhood years. She tells me she watched it seated on my lap when she was five, and again when she was eight, and yet again when she was 15! She wept each time, but always fell asleep before the end. This neo-realist film depicts a small farmer’s struggle to retain his tiny piece of land which a city industrialist wishes to acquire for establishing a factory. The final image of the film, when the farmer watches the factory rise on what was his land, is haunting, and captures the experience of an estimated 60 million people who have been forcefully displaced from their lands for mines, industry and urban development. The film has ironic relevance even today, exactly 60 years after it was made, when we have still not established a just and humane way to meet the land hunger of industry in ways which are just and compassionate to famers and farm workers who till the land.
In the film, the farmer migrates to Calcutta, where he pulls a rickshaw in a desperate futile bid to collect money to save his land. Years later, when I was posted to Mussoorie, memories of the film may have partly impelled me to help build a group of young civil service recruits to end the practice of hand-pulled rickshaws in Mussoorie.
Another film which I would watch and debate with my students — civil servant trainees in the Mussoorie Academy — is a harrowing, morally complex meditation on corruption and the dilemmas that confront every public servant. In Satyakam — which director Hrishikesh Mukherjee rates as his best film — the protagonist enters adult life when India became free. Steeped in Nehruvian idealism, he studies to become a civil engineer, and joins government service. There he battles rampant corruption, but life-long remains fiercely, uncompromisingly honest.
However, he suffers badly because of his principles: his career collapses, he is isolated and ostracised, and is falsely framed. His childhood friend advises him to compromise even a little, at least to overlook the corruption that he sees around him, but he remains stubborn. Eventually he dies broken, leaving his wife and young son penniless. Yet they resolve to adopt his life choices, and this before he dies is his only affirmation.
A film that says goodness may cause life-long suffering, yet is worth pursuing for its own sake, is more philosophically sophisticated than you would credit a mainstream Hindi film. But films like this — many films — over the years speak to you of life, suffering, injustice, goodness and hope – and some enter your soul.