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Loss & Longing: The Migrant Story in Hindi films

05 Sep, 2020 | Long Features by Cinemaazi Team Member Nichola Pais
Dharti Ke Lal (1946). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives

Hindi cinema, despite a fondness for fluff, is no stranger to the grittier, more realistic realm of the migrant worker. Early Hindi films, in particular, have chronicled the challenges and the occasional triumphs of this integral though near-anonymous section of society. With India’s agrarian economy moving towards increasing industrialisation, cinema of the 40s and 50s tellingly explored themes of urban migration and its resultant consequences. The big city enticed with its promise of livelihood and a better future. Reality, however, bites hard. Displacement comes with its sobering challenges. Loss of identity is just part of the problem. Even a space to sleep on the pavement at night has to be fought over as it is ‘booked’ by someone else. The city offers migrants the lowliest of menial tasks, with the lure of crime beckoning as a possible option. Eventually, sharing a small room packed with other migrants, being poorly paid and in debt…Dreaming of returning home to loved ones, and the familiar, soothing landscape - and yet rarely able to take that step, the migrant is bound inextricably to the metropolis that feeds him even as it demands a high price in return. While the village roots the lives of its own with moral codes and customs, it fails to provide sufficient means of living, the wings to soar. The city then finds it all too easy to exploit the innocence and ignorance of its new dwellers. The migrant’s story is thus invariably one of sweat and tears, and occasionally blood as well.

Hindi cinema, despite a fondness for fluff, is no stranger to the grittier, more realistic realm of the migrant worker. Early Hindi films, in particular, have chronicled the challenges and the occasional triumphs of this integral though near-anonymous section of society.
It is compulsion rather than choice that largely propels the shift to the big city. In Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953), it is Shambhu Mahato (Balraj Sahni)’s inner need to save his small landholding of two acres (do bigha) that he will not dream of selling – the land is his mother; can anyone think of parting with it? Served with a court order to pay the zamindar Rs.235 in three months, he is left with no choice but to head to the city to clear his debts. He must leave his pregnant wife, his son, and ailing father behind, to try and accumulate that amount in Calcutta. Similarly, K A Abbas’s debut directorial Dharti Ke Lal (1946), set during World War II and the 1943 Bengal famine, narrates the story of a family of sharecroppers in Bengal who have no choice but migrate to Calcutta to eke out a sustenance. Abject poverty and the promise of paying work in K A Abbas’ social drama Do Boond Pani (1971) is what prompts the newlywed Ganga Singh (Jalal Agha) to leave behind his family to join the construction of a dam. Again, it is drought in their village that compels farm labourers Vasant (Nana Patekar) and Soma (Yadav) to move to Bombay in Sai Paranjpye film, Disha (1990). For Kalu (Guru Dutt) in the noir comedy thriller Aar-Paar (1954), it is his need to escape the taint of being an ex-convict that sees him flee his hometown in Madhya Pradesh for the welcome anonymity of the city. In the imagination, the city is that shimmering symbol of hope, the answer to a poor man’s prayers.
 
Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
At first glance, the city sparks awe – how can it not? The huge expanse of the Howrah bridge, trams moving, cars honking, people everywhere… Calcutta impresses the simple Shambhu and his son Kanhaiya. Why, even a double decker bus seems to be a double-level moving house!
At first glance, the city sparks awe – how can it not? The huge expanse of the Howrah bridge, trams moving, cars honking, people everywhere… Calcutta impresses the simple Shambhu and his son Kanhaiya. Why, even a double decker bus seems to be a double-level moving house! The speed of the city is in stark contrast to the predictable and slow pace of the village left behind. In Shree 420, the chirpy migrant Raj (Raj Kapoor) arrives all gung-ho from Allahabad to the city of Bombay to seek his fortune. He sings of his staunch Indian heart, even though the shoes might be from Japan, and the trousers from England. But it doesn’t take long for his confidence to take a beating. The city’s frenzied mass of humans and traffic throws him completely. It doesn’t help that a beggar he chances to meet scornfully prophesises a tough time for him because he, Raj, presumes to land employment on the basis of his education. He is told that the city of Bambai is not for simpletons. And Raj gets his first lesson in the ways of the city as he goes on to slip on a banana peel, and has his pocket picked! Shambhu and Kanhaiya fare no better, as a thief strips them of all their possessions. Innocence and money lost, in one fell swoop. 

The city also makes the migrant all too aware of his shortcomings, whether it be language, dress or deportation. The switch is not as easy as giving up the dhoti for the Westernised trouser. Somehow, the shortfall comes through… Witness Bhootnath, the protagonist of Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Fresh from the village, the day after his arrival in Calcutta, he is taken to meet a prospective employer. Bhootnath ensures he is turned out well for the occasion, shod in a new pair of shoes. Unfortunately, they squeak loudly every time he moves! Eventually, he turns up for the interview, shiny shoes held in his hand. A picture that speaks volumes…
The city also makes the migrant all too aware of his shortcomings, whether it be language, dress or deportation.
The city’s lessons are best learnt swiftly, preferably before nightfall. Where does the homeless migrant go when it gets dark and night beckons? The pavements of the city provide a helpful though hard bed to get through the night. An undisturbed sleep, of course, is not necessarily a given. Raj’s attempt to settle down on the pavement is blocked by the spot’s actual ‘owner’ – resting privilege belongs to the early occupant who has already claimed occupancy rights. Shambhu and Kanhaiya must grab what rest they can at the base of a large statue. Even more tragic is the case of the migrant worker in the Amit Mitra and Sombhu Mitra directorial, Jagte Raho (1956) who is unable to find work even as night falls. That he does not have a place to lay his head is secondary – he first and foremost yearns for a drink of water to slake his enormous thirst. The residents of the residential complex he enters, mistake him for a thief. He is chased from one flat to the other, trying to escape getting caught. Not the stuff a restful night is made of… 
 
Jagte Raho (1956). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
Where does the homeless migrant go when it gets dark and night beckons? The pavements of the city provide a helpful though hard bed to get through the night. An undisturbed sleep, of course, is not necessarily a given.
Housing in the metropolis remains an insurmountable problem where real estate is a priceless dream. The migrants in Sai Paranjype’s Disha do manage to find work in a mill and yes, a roof over their heads too – a small room which they share with 39 other males from their village. Owning one’s own home in the city remains out of the grasp of most. Despite having settled in Bombay, Lalulal (Jalal Agha) in Gaman finds himself unable to even rent a decent home. He must live in a shanty, one that is awaiting demolition by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. This inability to secure a place of one’s own becomes a cause for shame. It also causes untold misery to the migrant couple in City Lights (2014), Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao) and Rakhi (Patralekha), who invest all their savings into a house in the city but find themselves duped, even as their dream and their life unravel quickly.
 
Deewaar (1975). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives


Good intentions are severely tested by the big city and not all can afford to pass with flying colours. Kalu (Aar Paar) is keen to change his sweetheart’s father’s prejudiced view of him and prove he is worthy. However, it is not long before he ends up getting embroiled with a criminal gang and becomes their getaway driver. Raj goes on to discover that honest work is not easy to find. Instead, he finds ‘success’ as a conman and a cardsharp, as he assumes the fake identity of a maharaja. In Awaara, the protagonist, who, along with his mother, is thrown out of his home as an infant by his father, makes the journey from Lucknow to Bombay, where he grows up to become a petty thief. The more recent Deewaar (1975), said to be inspired by the true-to-life history of gangster Haji Mastan, shows the protagonist journeying to the city as a young boy. He graduates from polishing shoes to working as a coolie, till he finally enters the underworld. Similarly, Satya in the film of the same name (1998) is also a migrant to the city, who finds work in a dance bar, and goes on to befriend Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpayee). He is inducted into the underworld gang – and there is no turning back. Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar’s Ram Saran Pandey (Manoj Bajpai) is a simpleton who leaves his village for Mumbai to earn a living, promising his parents that he will call them to the city once he finds his feet there. He finds work as a car mechanic but things go downhill when he is thwarted in love and decides to discard his innocence, becoming a don. Crime evidently quickly embraces a nowhere man who has nothing to lose.

The stories of the migrants hold up a harsh mirror to society’s inherent injustice. The city, with its separate worlds of the haves and the have-nots, can be a crash course in dehumanisation. The conflict between the upper city, inhabited by the affluent, and the lower city, which is the abode of the poor labourers and the unemployed, is a constant. Faced with the grim reality that he is ill-equipped to find any suitable work in the city, Shambhu is left with no option but to become a ‘beast of burden’ – a rickshaw-puller (Do Bigha Zamin). This reality is driven home hard when he is enticed by the promise of a higher fare by a man if he can catch up with his beloved’s rickshaw. At one point, the occupant actually raises his hand as if he were using a whip, to goad Shambhu on faster, and faster, till collapsing point. The dehumanisation is complete. Ironically, even as the poor migrant in Jagte Raho is hunted from one flat to another, he witnesses the double standards and the ugly dealings of the so-called respectable and rich section of society, conducted clandestinely behind closed doors. 
 
Aar-Paar (1954). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
The stories of the migrants hold up a harsh mirror to society’s inherent injustice. The city, with its separate worlds of the haves and the have-nots, can be a crash course in dehumanisation.
Yet even in the midst of deprivation and isolation, warm bonds can be forged. It is a little girl (Daisy Irani) in Jagte Raho who talks to the hunted migrant and instils self-belief in him, inspiring him to face the adversity that awaits him. His quest ends on a note of fulfilment at daybreak when his thirst is assuaged by a woman (Nargis) drawing water from a well. Her non-judgemental, unquestioning gentleness is the balm that soothes his damaged soul and perhaps restores his faith in humanity. In Shree 420 it is the chatty fruit vendor who reaches out to the homeless migrant Raj, giving him two bananas on credit saying, ‘It’s okay, I’ll just pretend that my son ate them,’ she tells him. Touched, he tells her, ‘Tum kelewali nahin, dilwaali ho!’ She is also the one who helps him find a spot to sleep at night on the pavement. Needless to add, it is Vidya, the beautiful school teacher, who eventually becomes Raj’s moral compass. Eventually, despite its selfish and heartless reputation, connections are forged over shared experiences, and hope blooms. 

Migrant experiences have been brought out vividly through song. Top of the head, is the delightful Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan from CID (1956). Picturised on Johny Walker as he traverses the city, he croons, ‘Kahin building, kahin traame, kahin motor, kahin mill/ Milta hai yahan sab kuchh, ek milta nahin dil…Zara hat ke, zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan’. You can find everything in the city, the song tells us, but heart. The song Bambai Bambai Bam from Disha, shows a group of workers comparing their pleasant village memories with their current city reality. One worker sings about leaving paradise and ending up in a hellhole, while another moans that the children they left behind have forgotten their fathers’ faces. A white topi-sporting man, a city denizen, informs them that they are ungrateful uninvited guests, and are welcome to go back!

                                                                                             
Migrant experiences have been brought out vividly through song.
Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman, dealing with the futility of urban migration, includes some of the most poignant songs as it tells its story of a migrant from Uttar Pradesh, who tries to find a foothold in his new life as a taxi driver in Bombay. Seene mein jalan, aankhon mein toofaan, rendered by Suresh Wadkar, expressed the migrant’s alienation and shattered dreams, as it wonders why everyone is so troubled in the city. Ajeeb saneha mujh par guzar gaya yaaron speaks of the strange urban experiences including alienation and anonymity. The Kaifi Azmi-penned Mere watan mein pani nahi to zindgani nahi plays evocatively in the background in Do Boond Pani, as almost an entire community leaves their village in Rajasthan to become migrant workers due to the conditions of water scarcity, leaving just one family in the village. Do Bigha Zamin features another searing migrant song - Dharti kahe pukar ke, apni kahani chod ja, kuch to nishani chod ja, kaun kahe is aur, tu phir aaye na aaaye… Trying to inject music and lightness into the depressing situation, Shree 420’s Dil ka haal sune dilwala plays out amidst the community of pavement dwellers, as Raj sings, ‘What should I do, my face is such that I look like a thief/ One day while I was walking without even ensuring who I am, a policeman tied me up and took me away’… His co-pavement dwellers commiserate with his predicament. They know just what he means. Searing in its sarcasm, Cheen-o-Arab Hamara (Phir Subah Hogi, 1958) sees lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi parodying two poems of Allana Iqbal – Saare Jahaan Se Achha Hindustan Hamara, and Cheen-o-Arab Hamara. Raj Kapoor, a homeless migrant in the city to pursue his education, is depicted roaming around and settling down on the pavement for the night, as he sings, “Rehne ko ghar nahin hai, saara jahan hamara.” The song stirred up considerable controversy for criticising the government’s failure to address real concerns. 

                                                                                            
Searing in its sarcasm, Cheen-o-Arab Hamara (Phir Subah Hogi, 1958) sees lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi parodying two poems of Allana Iqbal – Saare Jahaan Se Achha Hindustan Hamara, and Cheen-o-Arab Hamara. Raj Kapoor, a homeless migrant in the city to pursue his education, is depicted roaming around and settling down on the pavement for the night, as he sings, “Rehne ko ghar nahin hai, saara jahan hamara.”
No happy endings are guaranteed, when it comes to migrant stories. A cornered Deepak Singh pays with his life, to ensure his wife Rakhi and their daughter Mahi can return safely to their village (City Lights). Do Bigha Zamin offers no moment of redemption for the beleaguered Shambhu, who has shed his blood to collect the money to save his land but spends it to save the life of his wife, Parvati. The heart-wrenching last scene shows the three of them standing by a fence which encloses a new factory coming up on their land. Even as he picks up a small clump of earth, he is accused of ‘theft’ by the watchman. A victim of circumstance, Ganga Singh (Do Boond Pani) dies preventing a disaster at the dam construction site. Yet the film ends on a positive note with the dam being built, bringing greenery to the dry village, even as Ganga’s wife bears a son and lives on in the village. In Gaman, home, the village, remains a mirage for Ghulam Hasan (Farooq Shaikh), who has left his hometown Lakhimpur Kheri, in Uttar Pradesh, and his wife (Smita Patil) to migrate to Bombay. Moving from cleaning taxis to driving one, he is still unable to save sufficient money to visit his family in UP, nor can he bring his family to the city. He decides to return home but is unable to take that crucial step, as he remains ‘imprisoned’, so to speak, in the city of dreams. A bleak future spent endlessly driving his cab is all that seems to await him.

And yet there are notes of hope. Raj in Shree 420, has been led into shady work by unscrupulous persons. However, having lived with footpath dwellers in his initial days in the city, he empathises with their desire for a roof over their head. He is eventually able to stand up for what is right and expose the frauds trying to deprive people of their savings deposited for a flat. Like-wise, all ends well for Kalu (Aar Paar) who is able to rescue his sweetheart, Nikki, win her father’s approval, and also have the gang caught. These heroes have managed to imbibe the sharpness of the city necessary to outwit the system, even as they find their feet in its turbulent waters. The city that calls its homeless, vagabonds, even as it cuts throats in the name of ‘business’… (Beghar ko aavaara yaha, Kehate hans hans/ Khud kaate gale sab ke kahe is ko business) can be home only for the privileged few. 

 

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