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The Migrant on Celluloid

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Jan 12, 2024

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Nikal pade hain khuli sadak par apna seena taane
Manzil kahan, kahan rukna hai, uparwala jaane

--Shri 420 (1955)

When the Covid-19 lockdown was announced in 2020, millions of Mumbai’s migrants, at the mercy of an indifferent government for transport, took matters into their own hands and embarked on the very long walk back to their villages. The starvation- and death-punctuated trudge, recreated in Madhur Bhandarkar’s India Lockdown and Anubhav Sinha’s Bheed, was among the grimmest migrant tales to come out of the Hindi film industry.

Displaced people and their stories have been part of Hindi cinema and its songscape right from the 1940s. The first film to take up the subject was the 1946 Dharti Ke Laal, directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. Set during the Bengal famine of 1943, the film dwelt upon the mass exodus of starving peasants to Calcutta. Dharti Ke Lal sowed the seeds of neo-realism as well as the migration theme in Hindi cinema, the most famous subsequent example being Bimal Roy’s poignant Do Bigha Zameen (1953) about a peasant’s struggle to save his land.

Migration as a theme inevitably spilled over into mainstream cinema. Abbas himself, as the screenwriter of Raj Kapoor, wrote protagonists who were forced by circumstances to come to the big bad city in Shri 420 (1955) and Jaagte Raho (1956). Navketan’s Taxi Driver (1954) featured the debonair and very urbane Dev Anand as part of Bombay’s proletariat and Kalpana Kartik as the village girl who comes to the city, bedazzled by the prospect of becoming a famous singer. Embellished by lilting songs, the lite version of heavy issues endured. Mainstream cinema had no use for the neo-realism of Dharti Ke Lal, but its glamorous actors, and particularly lyricists and composers, took themes like migration, poverty and unemployment far and wide.

Leaving home and hearth behind, the celluloid migrant would move now to Calcutta, now to Bombay, although mostly the latter. While in the village, the city was a seductress for him with wildly chimerical images (“Suna hai Calcutte ki hawa mein paise udte hain,” says an awed character in Do Bigha Zameen). Bombay too was a consistent El Dorado, its streets paved with gold. Jaadu tone ki bajariya mein, maya ki nagariya mein/ Jhatpat badle muqqadar ka lekh babua sings the UP migrant in Don. The same metaphor finds mention in Sai Paranjpye’s Disha where a character reiterates: “Bambai maya nagri hai, paise barsati hai”. But harsh reality dawns all too soon.

The first blow is encountered as soon as the migrant steps off the train and walks headlong into the city’s housing crunch. Sahir Ludhianvi’s iconic lyric Chin-o-Arab hamara/ Hindustan hamara/Rehne ko ghar nahin hai/Saara jahan hamara from the 1958 Phir Subah Hogi echoes this despair, a particularly stinging line going Jitni bhi buildingen thi /Sethon ne baant li hain/ Footpath Bambai ke hain aashiyaan hamara. However, the footpath is often no aashiyana either: it’s a precarious space from where the migrant is shooed off by overbearing policemen or menacing slum lords, as in Shri 420, where Raj Kapoor is asked for a pagri, a hefty Bombay rent advance, in return for some pavement space.

As the migrant makes a little money, he moves to the one-room tenement or kholi pictured in a host of movies from Do Bigha Zameen to the 2023 Mast Mein Rehne Ka. But the conditions are sub-human. Disha (1990) depicts 40 mill workers living in a decrepit little room and sleeping in shifts. Thirty years later, the Covid-19 lockdown brought out the true horror of this reality when poor migrants, robbed of the outdoors, discovered how difficult it was for a multitude of people to live in a hot and claustrophobic tin-roofed shanty. The migrant’s release from the slums was the expanse of the city, its seashore, even its crowded roads, but the lockdown deprived him of this last relief.

 

Trading the deprivation of the village for the indifference of the “heartless” and “corrupt” city, the former was nonetheless regarded with some nostalgia by the celluloid migrant, its only villains being unemployment and a subjugating zamindar. In the parallel cinema era, more layers were added to this realism. Films brought out the stark and brutal actuality of Indian villages, and nuances like caste oppression entered the picture. 

 

In Gautam Ghose’s Paar (1984), the protagonist, an unlettered labourer from the musahar caste, is forced to flee after a series of events that begins with villagers getting together to ask for the implementation of the minimum wage. Their basti is set on fire by the high-caste landlord, who scornfully asks the village schoolteacher why a Brahmin like him is getting involved with low-castes and educating them on their rights. In the earlier Gaman (1978), a group of higher-caste villagers casually mentions that the harijan basti was burned down because the members dared to ask for higher wages. “They popped like corn,” says one laughing.

Neither a fantasy about the city nor a lament about its hardships, ‘Dharti kahe pukar ke’ is a cry to the departing peasant from the land he is leaving behind

As movies changed, so did the depiction of the migrant. While earlier migrants were earnest and honest even in the face of immense adversity, the later ones surrendered whatever scruples they might have had in order to survive. From the petty pickpockets of earlier films to the subsequent sharpshooters and mafia dons, the criminal migrant flourished, particularly as crime increasingly became a glamour element in Hindi films. One of the most famous examples is Deewar, in which Amitabh Bachchan builds up a vast illegal empire; almost as famous is Satya (1998), whose faceless migrant, after a few hard knocks, blends seamlessly into a crime syndicate that becomes his identity.

Satya kicks off with a commentary on Mumbai, the inescapable backdrop of most migrant stories. “Mumbai… aisa shahar jise neend nahin aati,” it begins. This personification is rife in Hindi cinema, where the city takes on an almost human persona in the mind of the migrant—temptress and beast alike, now a lover, now a death trap for those caught in its spider web. Disha’s Nana Patekar, narrating a Panchatantra story, likens it to a “sher ka gufa” that will gobble up anyone who enters, while a character from Satya 2 declares, “Mumbai shehar ek aisi shaksiyat hai jo us mein basne waale har ek ki taqdeer ke upar apni khud ki taqdeer likhti hai.” In Shri 420, an embittered Raj Kapoor pronounces, “Bambai ko koi nahin khareed sakta… Bambai sab ko khareed leti hai aur apna kaam nikaal kar kisi raddiwaale ki dukan mein phenk deti hai.”

Along with the powerful ‘Bombay dialogues’, film lyrics too memorably dwelt on the city and its migrant perspective. Bombay inspired a multitude of Hindi film ballads, the most iconic of these being the 1956 ‘Ay dil hai mushkil jeena yahan’ from Guru Dutt’s crime caper, CID. The great rush to the gold-paved city was gathering speed in the mid-'50s, and Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics captured the ethos eloquently. Indeed, it was Majrooh who seems to have sowed the germ of the “heartless Bombay” cliche in the verse that went, Kahin building, kahin traamein, kahin motor kahin mill/Milta hai yahan sab kuch ek milta nahin dil/Insaan ka nahin kahin naam-o-nishaan/Zara hatke, zara bachke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan.

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Other poets touched other cores of a man’s helplessness and alienation in the city. Gulzar’s Ek akela is shahar mein/Raat mein ya dopahar mein/Aab-o-dana dhoondta hai/ Aashiyana dhoondta hai encapsulates the desperation for shelter in a city without space (the sunshine version, ‘Do deewane shahar mein’, brims with exuberance on the attainment of this elusive shelter). Shahryar's moving Seene mein jalan, aankhon mein toofan sa kyon hai/Is shahar mein har shaks pareshan sa kyon hai is another quintessentially Mumbai vignette, though not actually written about the city: it’s a famous ghazal that Muzaffar Ali used to perfection in Gaman.

Migrantspeak that was less profound but full of earthy common sense made for a chartbuster in 1978—Anjaan’s ‘Ee hai Bambai nagaria tu dekh babua’ from Don, in which the UP migrant even goes into the etymology of city locales (Koi bandar nahin hai phir bhi naam Bandra, Church ka Gate hai, church hai laapata!). To be sure, he also outlines the inequities of the city and the fact of people coming from far and wide to test their fate, but the tone is, for a change, one of hope and good cheer.

 

For me, the most unusual migrant song remains Shailendra’s beautiful ‘Dharti kahe pukar ke’ from Do Bigha Zameen. Neither a fantasy about the city nor a lament about its hardships, ‘Dharti kahe pukar ke’ is a cry to the departing peasant from the land he is leaving behind. Voiced through his fellow farmers, it urges him to uplift his wilting spirits and be happy like the sky and birds and flowers around him.  But there is also a note of foreboding: Apni kahani chhod ja/Kuch to nishani chhod ja/Kaun kahe is or tu phir aaye na aaye.

The migrant’s kahani is as uncertain in every film. From Shambhu Mahato in Do Bigha Zameen to Ghulam Hasan in Gaman to Vasant in Disha, all want to return to the village but are fated to remain in, or return to, the city’s slums to earn their bread. In real life, Mumbai’s embittered migrants also vowed never to return to the city after the lockdown but eventually did. Reel life or real life, the capitulation remains a heartbreaking testimony to the migrant’s unchanging story.

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