Friday, February 17, 2012


This article was first published in the journal ‘South Asian Cinema’ edited by Lalit Joshi. Issue no. 6, 2005. This issue is entitled ‘The Left in Cinema’. 

The movements launched by the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in 1936 and the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1943 were some of the most significant mass cultural movements in twentieth century India. Their effects were felt not only in the fields of literature and theatre, but also in the Bombay cinema of the time. They also exerted an influence on the Indian New Wave Cinema.

The movements were launched when, on the one hand, the struggle for Indian independence, had reached a peak, and on the other, the forces of fascism in the Second World War were knocking on the doors of the Soviet Union. The anti-imperialist struggle was linked to the anti-fascist struggle. The draft resolution of the IPTA conference in 1943 states: “The immediate  problems facing the people are external aggression by the Fascist hordes who are the deadliest enemies of freedom and culture; internal repression by an alien Government which seeks to hold our people in subjection and prevent them from organizing an effective defense of their homeland; rapid disintegration of the entire economic life of our people and particularly the havoc wrought on the morale and the health of our people by the shortage of food and other essential articles; and lastly the absence of sufficient unity among the people’s forces which alone can compel the imperialist to retire, stop the economic disintegration of the country and defeat the Fascist aggressors”.
Despite the fact that the movement developed in leaps and bounds across the country, it had begun to lose its all-India character by the end of the fifties. The reasons for the dissolution of this vibrant movement by 1958 were many. According to Sudhi Pradhan,“The foreign policy of the Government of India, which moved from a pro-American position to a non-aligned stance of great material advantage, managed to create confusion among Marxists, as did the internal policy of five-year plans and other ‘progressive’ measures. This made the parliamentary path seem an attractive alternative, but in turn created its own contradiction within the movement.
The second world conference of communist parties sought to make a compromise between the Soviet and Chinese paths, and this had repercussions on the cultural situation in India as well”. 

However, it is clear from the accounts available that there were many internal reasons as well for the disintegration of the movement. These reasons were ideological, organisational and inter-personal33 The ideological issues included, among several others, the combining of anti-fascist struggle with the anti-imperialist struggle, the urban-rural divide, reformism, revisionism…. Questions of aesthetics and technology were also debated. Utpal Dutt, for instance, has written on the use of folk traditions in productions which was actively encouraged by the IPTA: “Our political theatre has not even approached the problem of creating proletarian myths. … The recent common use of folk-elements, tales, songs – is all geared to comedy, and sound like parodies of the original…. By knocking out precisely that content and using only the score is to replace a vision with a slogan, to misuse folk-lore, to descend to formalism. Form and content are thoroughly integrated in folklore; to divide them is to kill it…. And that is precisely what has been thought worth preserving in the IPTA tradition. The lyrics have been replaced by problems of contemporary politics, invariably satirical, betraying the composer
’s petty bourgeois belief that folk-tunes can only be effective if used comically”. (‘On Proletarian Myths’ by Utpal Dutt in People’s Art in the Twentieth Century: Theory and Practice, Jan Natya Manch, July 1999-Sept. 2000, New  Delhi, p. 330.)
Utpal Dutta

Malini Bhattacharya also refers to the “…debate on technical excellence versus ‘simple and direct art for the people…’ (‘The IPTA in Bengal’, Malini Bhattacharya in Journal of Arts and Ideas, Jan-March, 1983, No. 2, p. 11). The documents point to several organizational problems as well: the functioning of the party-group within the IPTA, the level of intervention of the Party into the functioning of a cultural organization.!According to Pradhan, the movement could not sustain the very momentum it had unleashed. “The resurgence in folk art was thwarted by the built-in metropolitan bias in the IPTA, and the lack of politicization in the ranks of the folk artists and IPTA activists prevented the growth of organization” (MCMI, Vol III, p. vi). Ghatak in his On the Cultural ‘Front’: A Thesis Submitted to the Communist Party of India in 1954, expresses his resentment against ‘art-organisers’: “There is no such thing as Art-organisers; it is a monstrous tautology. No such job exists. The nature of the job indicates that only artistes can handle the job. Non-artistic Art-organisers will solve these problems to the exact extent that Eskimo hunting songs will rouse and guide Hottentots to revolutionary action!” (Ritwik Memorial Trust, Calcutta, 2000, p. 19).

A reading of the material also reveals the existence of interpersonal tensions based on functioning within the IPTA. There is, for instance, Ghatak’s criticism of Niranjan Sen and Nirmal Ghosh for conducting ‘hush-hush’ campaigns against artistes with the IPTA. “1952 was their target year for Utpal Dutta. This genuinely good and highly capable worker had his faults, as we all have, but he has been called an American agent, a Trotskyite…. The splitting of the communist movement through the sixties led to a splintering of the peoples’ theatre movement into group theatres, owing affiliation to one or the other of the Left parties, or having an independent Left disposition. The eighties saw the revival of the need for different groups active all over the country to re-forge the all-India character of the movement.

Chandreshwar in his Bharat Mein Jan-Natya Andolan (The Peoples’ Theatre Movement in India) divides the history of the peoples’ theatre movement into three phases: The first phase (1943-1947), which saw the birth and development of IPTA; the second phase (1948-1958) that encompassed the Indian peoples’ theatre movement after Independence; and the third phase which began in 1986, and continues till today. 

The Extent of Influence

Directors, actors, scriptwriters, lyricists, music directors and dance directors – a large spectrum of the talent that went into filmmaking – came from the IPTA, moulding the vision of the world that the film presented.6 In the IPTA documents on how to prepare for the VII Conference (1953), there is the following section: “Film: Since a large number of IPTA members and progressive writers and artistes are entering into the film world, due to the increasing demand of the people for healthy and realistic films, the present position of the film industry requires special study. 

Delegates specially from Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, who are most concerned with the industry, will form the main body of this Commission, papers for which should be prepared on the following broad lines: Condition of the industry today; how production and distribution are controlled; living conditions of film workers of all categories; Government policy and British and American influence; strength and influence of progressive trends inside the film industry; is there any organized functioning with definite outlook; what suggestions can be made so that Indian films can inspire the people; what should be the role of IPTA; how IPTA and progressive workers should work in the film industry and what should be the relation with their work in IPTA”. MCMI, Vol. II, pp. 106-107. 

Balraj Sahni
The documents of the inauguration also point to the active involvement of several leading film personalities in the IPTA: “Following the welcome address Producer-Director Bimal Roy, Chairman of the Reception Committee, the great dancer Uday Shankar declared the conference open amidst tremendous applause”.   “Following a Tagore song by Hemanta Mukherjee, the Conference was greeted by Sachin Sen Gupta, member of the Presidium”. Ibid, p. 158. . Among the well-known actors who had an allegiance to the IPTA were Balraj Sahni, A. K. Hangal, Utpal Dutt. Well-known music directors included Anil Biswas, Salil Choudhury, Hemant Kumar and Ravi Shankar; song writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Prem Dhawan, Shailendra, Kaifi Azmi were associated with the PWA and IPTA; scriptwriters K. A. Abbas and V. P. Sathe were IPTA members; directors Bimal Roy, Shambhu Mitra, Mohan Sehgal were closely involved with the IPTA, as were the dance directors Uday Shankar and Prem Dhawan (who choreographed songs in Do Bigha Zameen and Naya Daur).

  It is difficult to ‘quantify’ or ‘accurately measure’ the actual nature of the influence of the IPTA on the film industry. The reasons for this are many: Cinema is an industrial art form in which many economic factors, specialized skills and several individuals come together to produce a film. Moreover, the play of the public and private ideological positions taken by people who were associated with the IPTA, the dynamics of  personal beliefs and their translation into creative practice, are also important factors in the evaluation of the ‘IPTA-effect’.  However, it is possible to assume that whether they were members of the mass progressive movements or of the Communist party, whether they were with the movement for a short time or remained, like Kaifi Azmi, committed to Left ideals throughout their lives, the people who passed through the influence of the IPTA, did not easily forget the ideals it stood for in their cultural practice. The IPTA influence could also be felt in the works of filmmakers who were not members but were associated professionally with IPTA activists, such as Raj Kapoor who worked K. A. Abbas, V P Sathe and Shailendra; Guru Dutt who had studied dance under Uday Shankar, whose first film Baazi (1951) had script and dialogues by Balraj Sahni; and who had Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi and  Kaifi Azmi write the lyrics of his films; Vijay Anand and Dev Anand who with their brother, Chetan, set up Navketan…. 

During the riots that occurred at the time of Partition, K. A. Abbas describes how the IPTA, PWA and fifty other cultural organizations came together to remove the mental barriers that were  dividing Bombay into ‘Hindu Bombay’ and ‘Muslim Bombay’.  “The procession was a great success. We had different trucks – one with Prithviraj Kapoor, the doyen of the film industry, and his teenaged sons – Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor – beating the drum. The IPTA truck had Balraj Sahni  and Prem Dhawan and Chetan Anand and Dev Anand. The Urdu Progressive Writers were represented by Sajjad Zaheer, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri.

Kaifi Sahab with Shabana
There were my friends, V.P. Sathe and Inder Raj Anand and Manmohan Sabir”
The Indian New Wave in the ’70s in a sense took up the unfinished agenda of the nationalist movement. Casteism, the empowerment of women, the impoverished state of the peasantry, class struggles, communalism, collective action, the disenchanted middle-class – these were some of the issues that were taken up by this pan-Indian movement. The ‘people’ and their problems now found a more realistic representation in the New Wave cinema. Several artistes who had had links with the IPTA and the PWA were to energise this movement as well: Utpal Dutt (who starred in, among other films, in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, one of the three9 founding films of the movement which began in 1969); Bhisham Sahni (whose Tamas was made into a film by Govind Nihalani, and who acted in New Wave films such as Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho and Tamas); Balraj Sahni (who acted in IPTA activist M.S. Sathyu’s  Garam Hawa/1973), Kaifi Azmi who wrote the dialogues for Sathyu’s Garam Hawa and Kanneshwar Rama (1977) and Benegal’s Manthan (1976); Salil Choudhury who gave music for Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969) and Ramu Kariat’s Chemeen, Ismat Chugtai on whose story Garam Hawa was based and who wrote the dialogues for Benegal’s Junoon (1978) and Shama Zaidi who worked with Satyajit Ray, Benegal and Sathyu on their films. 
K. A. Abbas’ links with the IPTA and his contribution to the Hindi cinema have been written about in detail:  “IPTA had a profound impact on the performing arts and many associated with it later joined films and contributed in giving a new dimension to cinema. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, journalist, film critic, author, was one of the founder-members of IPTA. He wrote an autobiographical film Naya Sansar , about a journalist under pressure from business tycoons.  
 Abbas had another success when he persuaded  V. Shantaram,  who had himself pioneered a number of films of social concern, to produce a film based on his book, And One Did Not Come Back. The film Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946) was about a medical mission which the Congress Party had sent to China. Abbas has many firsts to his credit. His Dharti ke Lal (1949), based on an IPTA play was the first realistic film on rural indebtedness and dispossessed peasantry shown in the context of the Bengal famine. Munna (1954) – the first Hindi film without songs or dances – was about a seven year old boy in a big city”.
The contribution of other IPTA activists to the Hindi cinema, however, are not as well documented. Again, while material is available on the contribution of Bengal  IPTA activists to the Indian New Wave cinema, less is written about the contribution, if any, from other regions.


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