6 July 2017

Will it dawn on us?

My Mirror column:

Watching a 1950s film with Sahir Ludhianvi’s utopian lyrics involves mapping the grave distance we have travelled away from that utopia.

Last week, feeling utterly saddened by the state of the nation – recurring incidents of mob violence against Dalits and Muslims in the name of defending the cow, and a jingoistic nationalism that treats any criticism of the government or of India as an unpalatable betrayal – I found myself humming the words of a Sahir Ludhianvi song: “Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi, woh subah kabhi toh aayegi; In kaali sadiyon ke sar se, jab raat ka aanchal dhalkega; Jab dukh ke baadal pighlenge, jab sukh ka saagar chhalkega...” [In my tragically inadequate translation: ‘That dawn will come someday, that dawn will come someday; When these dark ages will shrug off the veil of night; When these clouds of sorrow will melt, and the ocean of joy brim over...’].

I remembered the song being from a Raj Kapoor film called Phir Subah Hogi, but I hadn’t watched it since my childhood. So I found myself on YouTube, discovering that it was a film directed in 1958 by Ramesh Saigal, with a plot based very loosely on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Kapoor plays Ram Mehra, a penniless law student in love with a poor girl called Sohni (Mala Sinha) who, in a bid to redeem a watch he has pawned, ends up unintentionally murdering the villainous pawnbroker.

Kapoor’s Ram is a dreamy-eyed do-gooder who wanders the streets of Bombay dressed in the classic blazer-and-trousers uniform of the 1950s Hindi film hero, coming to the aid of exhausted cart-pullers and injured children alike. The film contains many of the tropes of the 1950s film: the poor but khuddaar hero, his mother (here an unseen figure in the village) who does all she can to support his education, a city full of cold, calculating rich men without a conscience in sight.

Another familiar 1950s trope is that of the hero’s best friend, provider of companionship and comic relief. That figure here is the impeccable Rehman, who in one of those effortless nods to Hindu-Muslim friendship that characterised so many films of that era, plays a Muslim by the name of Rehman.

The film is full of soulful socialist angst, and nothing embodies it more than Ludhianvi’s lyrics. Among the finest Progressive poets to have ever composed for Hindi cinema, Ludhianvi outdoes himself here. Apart from the melancholic-utopian title song, the film offers two stellar examples of his style of critique – pointed, but with an undercurrent of humour.

In the first, Ram, ejected from his tenement for non-payment of rent, tries to find a place for the night. His journey from park bench to pavement is accompanied by a sardonic take on a nation that boasts of inroads into China and the Arab world while its educated youth – and its labourers – are homeless: “Chino-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara/Rehne ko ghar nahi hai, saara jahan hamara.”

The song’s gentle delivery belies its sarcasm: “Patla hai haal apna, lekin lahu hai gaadha; Faulaad se bana hai, har naujawan hamara; Miljul ke is vatan ko, aisa sajayenge hum, Hairat se munh takega, Sara jahan hamara [Our state is pretty thin, but our blood is thick; Each of our young people is made of iron; Together we will decorate the country, so much that the whole world will look on in amazement.’]”

Later, as Ram’s romantic and other desires are crushed by a cruel world, he half-stumbles into a posh party – another classic Hindi film trope – and begins to sing “Aasmaan pe hai khuda, aur zameen pe hum; Aajkal woh is taraf dekhta hai kam. Aajkal kisi ko woh tokta nahi, chahe kucch bhi keejiye, rokta nahin; Ho rahi hai lootmaar, phat rahein hain bam... Zindagi hai apne apne bazuon ke dum. [God is up in the sky, we’re on the ground; These days, he doesn’t look this way much. He doesn’t interfere with anyone these days, you can do anything, he won’t stop you; There’s looting and bombs exploding... Life is a matter of might is right.]”

Call me a sad-eyed left-liberal, but I was comforted by the film’s secular-socialist vision – and struck by how much Ludhianvi’s words resonated with my present-day political desires. He bursts the balloon of an inflated nationalism, and offers a language in which to mourn an India in which packs of Hindutvavadi goons roam free, picking on defenceless Dalits and Muslims.

Imagine my surprise, then, on discovering that LK Advani and AB Vajpayee went to watch this film at Imperial Cinema after the Jan Sangh had received a particularly bad drubbing in the 1958 Delhi municipal elections – and that Advani often reminisces about how they returned certain that their political fortunes would also see a new dawn.

It is possible that good fiction and poetry is simply so capacious that we can all find our desires echoed in them. But given the BJP’s talent for appropriating, misreading and parodying our finest nationalist symbols – from Gandhi to Ambedkar to Nehru’s tryst with destiny speech – it feels like the truth lies elsewhere.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 July 2017.

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