Duniya Na Mane (1937)

Published - August 11, 2017 01:40 am IST

I still remember “Duniya Na Mane” that I saw as a young student at Lahore in 1937. By this time Indian cinema had passed through the earlier phase of mythologicals, action thrillers and song dramas. New Theatres of Calcutta had established its supremacy with films like “Devdas”, “Mukti” and “President” which dealt with contemporary life. The Prabhat Film Company led by V. Shantaram could no longer sit back with their period films and decided to bring about social awareness through films. They took a gigantic leap with their historic production “Duniya Na Mane”. A great social classic, the first one on the empowerment of women, it denounced the dowry menace and the evil custom of old men virtually buying young brides. Eight decades have gone by and I am still waiting to see a film as revolutionary, daring, genuine and sincere in addressing a social issue related to the treatment of women in Indian society. Considered to be one of the best films made in India, it has left a permanent mark on the pages of film history and also on the minds of the audience of my generation. No wonder, highly acclaimed by the media it was then shown at the Venice International Film Festival.

The film made in Marathi as well, titled “Kunku”, is based on the amazingly progressive novel “Na Patnari Goshta” by Narayan Hari Apte (1889-1971) who also wrote the script. Published in 1920s, the novel had created a stir in orthodox circles, objecting vehemently to the depiction of a wife refusing to accept her husband. Deeply interested in the condition of women in Indian society, Shantaram had advocated women’s liberation in his period film “Amar Jyoti” (Eternal Flame,1936). So he boldly took up the novel for filming, ignoring the apprehension of his company partners about its commercial failure for offending conservative Hindus.

MADRAS: Mr. M. Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, presenting a memento (a replica of a gopuram in silver) to Mr. V. Shantaram at a function to felicitate the latter on his completion of 50 years in film industry, at the University Centenary Hall in Madras on August 09, 1971. 

MADRAS: Mr. M. Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, presenting a memento (a replica of a gopuram in silver) to Mr. V. Shantaram at a function to felicitate the latter on his completion of 50 years in film industry, at the University Centenary Hall in Madras on August 09, 1971. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES/S. KOTHANDARAMAN

The story revolves around a young orphan Nirmala (Shanta Apte) living with her uncle and aunt who want to marry her off to an old widower Kakasaheb (Keshavrao Date). Accompanied by a young man Kakasaheb comes to see Nirmala and approves her. Nirmala believes she is marrying the young man but is terribly shocked at the wedding ceremony to discover that her future husband Kakasaheb is old enough to be her father. She also learns that her uncle had taken money for giving her away to the old man. She is enraged and decides to assert her rights as a woman and bravely fight this injustice to her and teach a befitting lesson to everyone responsible for her marriage. She is reminded of the dictum learnt from her parents, ‘One may endure suffering but must challenge and fight against ’injustice.’

Fighting spirit

Declaring that he is old enough to be her father, she refuses to give her husband conjugal rights and confronts every situation daringly. Tormented by her husband’s aunt behaving like a street mother-in-law, she fights back and asserts her status as the housewife commanding the household. With exemplary behaviour, Nirmala displays a fighting spirit for her rights, she makes her old husband realise his mistake and feel a sense of guilt for doing grave injustice to her. She also gives a stiff thrashing with a cane to his stepson Jugal (Raja Nene) for his misbehaviour with her as well as with his father.

She forces him to seek forgiveness and fall on his father’s feet. Kakasaheb is overwhelmed and is full of admiration for Nirmala. His daughter Sushila (Shakuntla Paranjpe), a noted social reformer visiting the family, is impressed by Nirmala and disapproves of her father’s marriage. Kakasaheb deeply repents and addressing Nirmala as his daughter, seeks forgiveness from her, releasing her from the marriage bond. On hearing from Nirmala that the society bound by tradition and custom would not accept this he commits suicide, leaving a note that she is free to remarry.

Shanta Apte, ‘a woman of rare mettle’ has been referred to as a woman who ‘symbolised women power both on and off the screen’ and was acknowledged as a role model for college students in her time. She played her role to perfection. Keshavrao Date’s performance is exceptional in portraying an old husband’s dilemma and predicament in the circumstances. Shantaram makes the film mostly realistic and creatively employs the symbols of the old clock and umbrella to convey the mental struggle of the old widower, conscious of his wrongdoing. He eliminates the background music in the film, retaining only natural sounds. A wooden ruler and metal utensils are used to generate sound for the songs. The instrumental music accompanying the songs is provided through playing of gramophone records.

The film music is scored by K.V. Bhole known for his innovative approach in composing and recording. The film is remembered for some of its popular songs by Shanta Apte whose singing style included spontaneous gestures and eye movements. These were ‘ “Ek tha raja ek thi rani”, “Jai Ambe Gauri Maiyya and “Yahan pe aake har ek apni nirali duniya bana raha hai”. For the first time an English song, “Let us then be up and doing” by H.W. Longfellow is included in the film.

“Duniya Na Mane” is a shining example of the work of a committed filmmaker Shantaram who chose a theme that was unusually provocative for that period. For the first time on the Indian screen a spirited woman is shown revolting against injustice. According to the noted film historian B.D.Garga, “‘Duniya Na Mane’ remains Indian cinema’s first uncompromising social statement, which, without becoming a dull reform tract, was also exciting cinema.”

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