Friday, February 24, 2012


Ritwik Ghatak and Bimal Roy
Ritwik Ghatak remains a key IPTA figure in the cinema of the fifties in more ways than one. Making films in Bengal he created a new aesthetic parallel to the realism practiced by Ray in which many time-frames alluded to each other spanning myths and contemporaneity in sensuous melody and drama. He also worked in Bombay. He is credited with the story of Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir (1957). Madhumati, in fact, transforms Ghatak’s fascination with multiple time-frames into the popular mode. This is a story of rebirth, encapsulating the encounter of the different times of the tribal, the feudal and the modern, much in the same way that Ajantrik (1958), Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) or Subarnarekha (1962) do. Memory that recalls past social formations in a continuum with contemporaneity is woven into a complex but popular narrative, bringing together the IPTA talents of Ghatak, Bimal Roy, Shailendra and Salil Choudhury. There is also a paradoxical insistence on the materiality of memory. ‘Is duniya mein koi cheez nahin mithti’, says Madhumati. The film is about the continuance and passage of the material spirit in the bodies of Dilip Kumar and Vyjantimala through tribal, feudal and modern selves. The talents of Ghatak and Roy in the framing and picturisation of songs is amply evident through the film. Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen in Madhumati in many ways foresees the wonderful song picturised in Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar (1961): ‘Aakash Bhora’.  In both songs the protagonist gazes at the hillside and sings with wonder at the beauty of nature and his oneness with it. In Bandini, Bimal Roy uses sound in a manner that is remniscent of Ghatak. Sound passes from literality to the realm of the symbolic. Just as the crackle of rice boiling and cooking comes to signify Nita’s mother’s machinations in fixing up Gita’s marriage in Meghe Dhaka Tara, so does Roy use the three-leveled sound of a train whistle and iron being hammered in two different tones in the sequence succeeding the death of the heroine’s father, in which she realizes that the husband of the woman under treatment in the hospital is the man she had been in love with. Roy creates a design in which the sound reaches a pitch.  This is followed by silence and poison being poured; the iron sounds and whistle emerge again, to signify the excessive stress and trauma the heroine is going through, causing her to resort to murder. An incidental sound from the diegetic reality is thus ‘lifted’ to the realm of the symbolic. 

Bimal Roy’s contribution to a democratic cinema in the framework of the Bombay industry cannot be overemphasised.  He brought together several talents from the IPTA in his films. Ghatak,  Balraj Sahni, Salil Choudhury, Hemant Kumar Mukherjee, Hemen Gupta, private secretary to Subhash Chandra Bose and a radical, whose Kabuliwala (1961) he produced. Ashraf Aziz speaks of Shailendra’s contribution to Roy’s films: “Yet another significant influence on the young Shailendra was Bimal Roy; the lyrics of Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Madhumati (1958) and Bandini (1963) were principally written by Shailendra and given musical form by Salil Choudhury and S. D. Burman. All Bimal Roy’s movies were drenched in melancholy and anguish; the selection of Shailendra to give poetic expression to Bimal Roy’s subdued, autumnal and frequently fatalistic films was entirely appropriate. Also to the point was the fact that the plots of these films unfolded in the Ganges basin or neighbouring areas whose ethos Shailendra understood only too well”.

The coming together of IPTA concerns (the economic travails of the peasant with the small land-holding) and neo-realist cinema is clearly felt in Do Bigha Zameen (1953). If war-torn Italy, or post-War Italy were the themes dealt with in neo-realist cinema, Roy concentrated on the fate of the displaced and the dispossessed. In Do Bigha Zameen, it is drought and indebtedness that leads the lead protagonist, a farmer with a small holding, played by Balraj Sahni, to migrate to the city in search of work. The rich farmer, plans to sell off land to builders; Balraj Sahni’s little plot comes in the way. The love of the farmer for his small piece of land and his attachment to it, causes him to refuse selling it, despite his indebtedness. He goes to the city in search of work and becomes a rickshaw puller. The whole family has to shift to the city; the land is taken over because he has not been able to pay his debts. Balraj Sahni imparts a sense of realism through his acting, which creates a counter-balance to situations which are often melodramatic in essence. What the film shares in common with the neo-realist vision, is the focus on the dispossessed, including the children, and the submergence of the individual fate under the large indifference of the city. What it shares with the Hindi cinema of the time is the creation of the ideal community of subalterns, in the peasant community in the village, as well as a small city within the city. The communitarian ethos of the peasants is expressed mainly through songs choreographed by Prem Dhawan: ‘Apni kahani chod ja’, in which as Balraj Sahni leaves his village the farmers sing and engage in different kinds of labour and the joyous rain song after drought ‘Hariyali sawan dhol bajata aaya’. The ‘community’ in the city, in the chawl, is headed by a woman whose bark is worse than her bite. The film also remains focused on the fate of its lead protagonist; the loosening of the grip of what Deleuze calls ‘sensory-motor perception’, a dominant characteristic of neorealist cinema, is rare. The camera, observing from a distance, Pina’s death in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and moving on, without the narrative lingering in any way on the death of one of its lead protagonists, is not to be found here. However, there is a moment of the loosening of the cause-effect cycle, when Meena Kumari, a well-to-do woman who helps the protagonist’s wife (Nirupa Roy) out, sings a lullaby, ‘Aaja ri aa, nindiya tu aa’, which Nirupa Roy, expecting her second child in impoverishment, listens to, in a break from the chores and worries of her life. 

Ideological Horizon
The IPTA had an extended influence, creating what Pavel Medvedev/Mikhail Bakhtin called an ‘ideological horizon’, which was broadly shared by members and well-disposed non-members alike. According to Medvedev/Bakhtin, every epoch has its own ideological environment. This environment is material, existing ‘between us’. All art forms occupy their own specific spaces in this environment. Every creative work signifies, reflects and refracts this ideological environment. Many ideological paths converge in this environment, creating an ideological horizon:  “The artist seeks that material which lies at the point where several ideological series intersect. The greater the number of intersecting ideological paths and the more varied their ideological interest, the more sharply the material is perceived. 

Within aspirations of the ideological horizon of every epoch, there is a value centre toward which all the paths and aspirations of ideological activity lead. This value centre becomes the basic theme or, more precisely, the complex of themes of the literature of a given epoch…. 
The ruling themes of every literary epoch are always those which pass through all the spheres of ideological creation….

Art, in being oriented toward the common value centre of the ideological horizon of the epoch, not only does not loose its specificity and individuality as a result, but, on the contrary, only reveals its full power in this way”. The ruling themes of the ideological horizon after Independence were three: Gandhian ideals of non-violence, social equality of castes/creeds and secularism; Nehruvianism defined above all by institution-building, and Marxism, with its focus on the problems of social justice to the working class and the poor peasantry and the need for unity and collective action. These three themes were themselves not monolithic, with clear-cut distinctions, but created a specific ideological horizon, in which the underprivileged, the dispossessed, the displaced, the marginal were the dominants. The Nehruvian vision which shaped the ideological horizon of the fifties, at least in the post-Independence institution building stage was itself not a monolithic vision. Given the presence of a Marxist line in Nehru’s thinking, its coming together with the IPTA line did make the ideological scales weigh down in favour of a left orientation in the horizon. Ralph Russell writing on the early years of the PWA notes that ‘… within months some of the most prominent writers of verse, prose-fiction and literary criticism had declared their sympathies for the movement, including not only those on the left, but Congressmen of predominantly Gandhian outlook …, and men of not very articulate political views at all. This wide support for a movement being formed by avowed communists looks more surprising in the 1970s than it did in the India of 1935. At that time a political climate was forming to which the nearest parallel the West can offer is perhaps provided by the years from mid-1941 to the end of the Second World War. In those years the necessities of the war against fascist Germany, Italy and Japan, fought in alliance with the Soviet Union and with a China in which nationalists and communists were formally in alliance, made communism respectable and evoked ardent expressions of radical populism from even the most unlikely quarters”.   This explains the orientation of the narratives towards the dispossessed and the displaced in the films of the fifties, contributing to the ‘gold’ of the ‘golden era’. 

  A song like ‘Mera joota hai japani’ (Shailendra / Shri 420 /1955) could only be born of a vision in which there was a knowledge of the world outside, of an anti-imperialist and anti-fascist struggle, and a pride in India’s new, independent, non-aligned position within it. Even in a film like Naya Daur (1957), that calls for a Gandhian negotiation in the installation of machines in the place of man-power, there is a rousing call to collective action in Sahir Ludhianvi’s song ‘Saathi haath badhana’. As M.S. Sathyu points out, “At the time of independence and after that, there was a lot of hope in the country. There was a dedicated leadership in the country. If that failed, people still had an alternative in the Left, which was really strong, and was the largest party after the Congress. However, in the course of a decade towards or so, both the socialists and the communists split within their own parties and became splinter groups”.

The other significant aspect of this ideological horizon was the very notion of  ‘the people’16. The word ‘people’ in the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association stood for the modest and small-landed peasantry, the working class, the middle-class on the threshold of slipping into lower socio-economic strata. Malini Bhattacharya observes that “It is surprising that today one hears of ‘proletarian theatre’ or ‘socialist theatre’, but not of people’s ‘theatre’. Surely it is only through the realization of the idea of a people’s theatre that one can even come to contemplate the subsequent phases”. This notion of ‘people’ prevalent in the practice of a progressive theatre was also present in the cinema of the post-independence period, contributing to its ‘golden’ aura. “ ‘People’s theatre’ had aimed to establish a cultural link among various social strata, into which, in a  class society the ‘people’ are divided. There are wide cultural gaps and even contradictions between them; yet in a semi-feudal society, the lives and the interests of the urban middle class, the urban working class and the various ranges within the agricultural population from the rich peasant to the agricultural labour have at least a minimum of common ingredients which alone can serve as the basis of a ‘people’s theatre’”. It is this point of view of the subaltern on society and social justice that directs the narrative drive of the films of the fifties.

The Raj Kapoor persona in his home productions and the Dev Anand persona in the Navketan productions of the fifties and sixties in fact bring together different energies of the ‘people’. These are ‘composite’ personae, with many significations in one character. Raj Kapoor’s ‘Raj’ in his films, for instance, stood for the ‘global dispossessed’ (Chaplinesque tramp), an outsider to the city (migrant from a small town or village, who knows not the ways of the city) and marginal (lives in the chawls). It is probably the benign coming together of the global and the local, the rustic, the outsider, who quickly adapts to the city, but insists on his ethical values, that audiences in socialist states, states under the yoke of colonialism, and newly independent nations responded to intuitively, and made Kapoor’s films of the fifties so popular abroad, in different continents. Dev Anand’s modernity was of a different order: social marginal, but insider to the city and street smart, best exemplified in Navketan’s Baazi, Kala Bazaar (1960) and Taxi Driver (1954). His body does not carry the imprint of rural India, or the small town. Baazi was as important a narrative as Awaara, in charting the narrative of the desperate underdog, pushed to the wall, who takes to a life of crime to get ahead in life.  If Raj in Awaara (1951) is inscribed in mythic and social references and arguments, and experiences the dilemma of choices, the protagonist of Baazi, is unfettered by such mythic and moral dilemmas and consequently has a nervous edginess that the Raj Kapoor persona lacks. 

All this is not to attribute to IPTA an originary role in moulding the narratives of the fifties and sixties. On the contrary. It is as if a matrix of viewpoints existed that engendered different narratives. Often the more radical viewpoints were subsumed into a reformist or institution-building ending, but not before the subaltern / the marginal / the criminal spoke at a trial – literal or metaphoric – that had the feel of a ‘people’s court’. The climactic scenes in Raj Kapoor’s Awaara and Jagte Raho (produced by him and directed by Shambhu Mitra) immediately come to mind here. At the crucial moment of speech and address, to the people as well as to their conscience, a passionate plea is made for social justice. The film-text, therefore, has many pressure points that encapsulate the different articulations of the ideological horizon, Nehruvian, Gandhian, and Marxist.  



  1. Author: Prof. Rashmi Doraiswami,Jamia Millia Islamia,Delhi

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