Labour Day is celebrated but labour class is ignored. This is a grim reality of our modern times wherein the voice, agony and trauma of the labour fraternity is throttled by glitz and glamour of commerce. Though labour force forms the backbone of Indian economy yet politicians, administrators and businessmen have collectively failed to provide concrete resolution to its primeval needs. And alas, Hindi films too have forsaken the class by turning a blind eye to its moving sagas since Indian cinema now largely churns out ‘entertainment’ only.
Barring a miniscule few, most Hindi films are now created for NRI tastes but there was a time when a “mazdoor” or a “kisaan” (a labourer or a farmer) used to be the central protagonist of Hindi films. Highlighting their plight with care and concern, directors provided not just empathy for the have nots but also a certain sensitivity to their woes and wants. The lead in this was given by the conscientious filmmaker Chetan Anand who created “Neecha Nagar” bemoaning the abysmal gap between the rich and the poor as well as the horrible exploitation of the labour class through empty slogans and deceptions. It is indeed sad to note that the issues raised by this 1946 Grand Prix award winner of Cannes Film Festival still remain contemporary and volatile in our democracy.
Taking inspiration, several film makers like Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, S S Vasan and B R Chopra followed suit with films that aroused the social conscience of the nation besides trying to find solutions to teething troubles of the down trodden. As such, there were thoughtful creations like “Do Bigha Zamin”, “Mother India”, “Paigham” and “Naya Daur” which exemplified the multi-dimensional forces working against the interests of the labourer. If “Do Bigha Zamin” touched upon the plight of a farmer and his family hit by a famine, “Mother India” highlighted the evil tentacles of loans that perpetually ensnare farmers to penury; a leading cause of farmers’ suicides till date. Similarly, if “Paigham” gave a clarion call to industrial workers to fight the dubious designs of owners with a united front, “Naya Daur” predicted the dangers posed by machines and technology in uprooting the labour class from its roots. Apart from the above, there were several trail blazers from time to time that sought answers to India’s socio-economic problems within the mainstream commercial structure of song and dance. It almost seemed that our writers and directors were the voice of the down trodden, working class as they spun films like “Gunga Jamuna”, “Phir Subah Hogi”, “Jaagte Raho”, “Paigham”, “Shehar aur Sapna’, “Khandaan” to “Naya Zamana”, “Namak Haraam”, “Kala Pathar”, “Gaman”, “Ankur”, “Aakrosh”, and “Mazdoor” that readily come to mind about poignant portrayal of the ‘workers’ woes.
Today when movies hardly depict the vicissitudes or emotional upheavals in the lives of a farmer, a labourer, a clerk, a taxi driver, a nurse or some other similar characters, we realise that the earlier films abounded with characters that provided deep insights in to our social system. Even at their worst, by just recounting the bonds of friendship between the rich and the poor or similar significant ties, our film makers gave not just hope to many but also an inspiration to viewers to bridge the social gap with love and compassion. What distinguished most commercial pot boilers of the earlier era was that even when the main actors were not representing the working class subjects, they had a number of supporting characters to represent these sectors. The sub-plots of these films would thus convey several important class distinctions as well as jarring disparities of our eco-system and these one off characters too made a significant contribution to the story by raising awareness about societal divides and issues. Just a couple of examples would suffice to support the argument: in “Shikast” the ruthless whipping of a farmer conveyed the tyranny of the feudal system and the agony of bonded labour just as the blinding of a factory worker (Jayant) in an industrial accident in “Beti Bete” exposed the apathy of our corporate empires towards labour welfare.
In a way, such films made audiences aware of the immense problems of our poor masses; they aroused a national conscience for the poor, have nots. Now when our cinema largely caters fantasy and escapist fare on screen, it is palpably clear that movie makers are ignoring the real issues of life and death. By portraying only glossy screenshots of highly glamourised India, films, like television, are now serving a synthetic kitsch.
If cinema is indeed a mirror for society, it must be said that at present it is failing in that duty. Besides entertaining, cinema has a nobler purpose to inspire and move people. It is a powerful tool for social change provided the creators apply their minds to the happenings around them. It has been done before by the likes of Guru Dutt, Vijay Anand, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal and their ilk who presented soulful human conflicts borne out of the harsh realities existing around them. Of course commercial success and entertainment were their goals too but it did not deter them from dissecting relevant social concerns and problems since they understood that “if art does not move people, then art has failed”. By conspiring to focus on packaging rather than improving the content, movie makers are only burning their boats. The drop in footfall in theatres is a warning that stories need to touch hearts not bamboozle the eyes.