Monday, September 16, 2013

The bekaar in the big city: on Bimal Roy’s Naukri

Parts of Bimal Roy’s 1954 film Naukri reminded me of two great scenes from films made in the silent era’s last days: the opening sequence of King Vidor’s The Crowd, with people and vehicles thronging the streets of New York and the rapt camera gliding up the side of a skyscraper, then moving in to reveal countless worker ants at their desks (see video below); and the equally kinetic shot in F W Murnau’s Sunrise where two town-dwellers, the Man and the Wife, get their first view of the approaching city through the windows of their tram. The couple, sullen, distrustful and occupying separate spaces in the vehicle (understandable enough given that one of them has recently plotted to murder the other!), must now huddle together as they dodge traffic and find walking space on the footpaths: this new place is so overwhelming that it unites them.

As Naukri’s title credits end, the camera cranes up to gawk at a tall building, presumably with offices and employment opportunities in it – an apt image for a film about the big city as a place of opportunity and terror. In fact, the protagonist Ratan (Kishore Kumar) will make two long journeys over the course of the story: first from his village to Calcutta, and later to the much more distant Bombay, where he will have to contend with people speaking to him in unfamiliar tongues (Marathi, Parsi). His horizons broaden, but he also becomes more isolated (though the film has a deus ex machina in reserve for him).

Naukri contains many things we now think of as clichés of a cinematic past (whether they were clichés in 1954 is another question): the beloved sister suffering from TB, the widowed mother, the sanguine young man convinced that he will soon get a good job (he is BA Pass with distinction, after all) and overturn his family’s fortunes, the arrival of a letter bearing exam results, the arduous journey that begins with tearful farewells and a bullock-cart ride to the railway station. But these were understandable concerns of the “social” cinema of the post-Independence decade, when so many films were about young people from modest backgrounds entering a new world and taking the tide at its flood, or becoming corrupted or cynical.

Ratan’s fantasy (expressed in the film’s first song “Chhota sa Ghar Hoga”) of having a small house under the clouds, with his sister sitting on a silver chair and his mother on a golden throne, turns out to be nearly as unworkable as little Sujata’s dream – in one of Roy’s best films – of visiting a magical kingdom. Arriving in Calcutta, he is disappointed because the job he thought was his has gone to someone else. Things are far from dire at this point – more chances will presumably come along soon, and meanwhile he is boarding in a small hotel with a genial group of other young men – and yet, for all his optimism, we are warned: past the twilight hour, the “Bekaari block” he is living in resembles a perdition where men who have been unemployed for months play cards, bicker, gossip, vent frustrations late into the night. One of them, clearly a terrible singer, does his riyaaz, and though the scene can be viewed in comic terms it has a dark side – the man is like a ghoul shrieking into the void.

I was intrigued by the way Naukri moved between documentary-like neo-realism and the more dramatic tropes of mainstream storytelling: this is very much a scripted, incident-driven story (with some nice use of songs - I especially like this one, with the young Iftekhar singing "Main collector na banu aur na banunga officer...apna babu hi bana lo mukhe, bekaar hoon main"), but there is also plenty of location shooting, including shots of Kishore Kumar clinging to crowded buses and negotiating the madness of south Bombay during rush hour – scenes that have a slice-of-life quality to them. For all these points of interest though, this is a patchy film. It's easy to engage with at a basic level: that is more or less assured by Kumar’s likeable presence in nearly every scene, and the fluid storytelling abilities of Roy and his talented crew (Nabendu Ghosh, Salil Choudhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Asit Sen among them). But I was often unsure what mood it was reaching for. 

Ratan is determinedly cheery to begin with (his philosophy of life is that he must keep smiling and hoping, because if he looks at his predicament too closely he might sink into permanent despair) – so much so that when a genuine tragedy occurs relatively early in the film, it is glossed over, to jarring effect. He recovers too quickly, gets back to his jovial ways and begins a romance with a girl (Sheila Ramani) in the “saamne waali khidki”. (A parallel is established between the young man’s search for “naukri” and “ladki”– it is clear that he needs a job if he is ever to become a householder, or even a responsible boyfriend.) But then, in film’s the final section, since a dramatic climax has to somehow be reached, misfortune atop misfortune piles up to the point where there seems no option other than a suicide attempt at the railway tracks.

This creates structural unevenness, and a related problem is that it requires the story to keep manufacturing hurdles for Ratan, which is sometimes done in ham-handed ways. At one point he writes a letter to his girlfriend, telling her he has to go to Bombay for a job, and foolishly attaches his appointment letter with it, without making a copy or even bothering to memorise or note down the company name and address. Of course, the letter falls into the hands of the girl’s irate father, who feeds it to the kitchen stove after giving it barely a glance. The intention here is to make us feel concerned about Ratan’s fate, but instead one feels like smacking him and saying “You idiot, what were you thinking?” (Given his pride about having passed with distinction, I was reminded of the Peter Medawar quote about the spread of secondary and tertiary education creating a population of people “who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought”.) The situation also leads to an incongruous bit of slapstick comedy where Ratan has to work out what the long and convoluted name of the company is.

The stories that Bimal Roy used for his more reformist cinema lent themselves to a certain degree of didacticism anyway, but here a facile tone in some of the early scenes makes way for an excessively solemn one towards the end, and that mix didn’t really work for me. Other Roy films in a similar socially conscious vein – Sujata and Parakh, notably – do a better job of establishing a pitch and sticking with it. Naukri is still an engaging movie, but by the time we arrive at the solemn voiceover at the end, beseeching the viewer (apparently) to provide jobs to deserving young men, one can’t help feeling that Ratan’s misfortunes stem more from his own incompetence than from societal unfairness. I have read approving comments about Kishore Kumar playing a "serious role for once" in this film, compared to the "buffoons" he played elsewhere – but I think some of those intentionally comic characters would have handled certain situations more efficiently than poor Ratan does.

[Here's an earlier post about another film that combines documentary-like footage with dramatic storytelling, Jules Dassin's The Naked City]


  1. Naukri contains many things we now think of as clichés of a cinematic past (whether they were clichés in 1954 is another question): the beloved sister suffering from TB, the widowed mother, the sanguine young man convinced that he will soon get a good job

    The fact that we think of these things as cliches is indicative of how desensitized viewers have become over the years. These circumstances aren't cliches even in 2013. One only needs to visit a small town and look around.

    I remember the way Aamir Khan made fun of this in his preposterously idiotic film - 3 Idiots. Movie makers these days are more concerned about the evils of rote-learning, evils of "arranged marriage" and other trivialities than the miserable condition of most Indians - who live in one of the world's poorest countries.

    The common refrain is - "Hey. The Audiences want fun. They don't want hardships and messy realities being shown on the screen". It's the old moral of Sturges' Sullivan's travels. But then I find these American analogies too facile. US, even in 1941, was a stinking rich country - a lot richer than 2013 India! In fact India today is about as rich as US was in 1870 (in per-capita income terms).

    This has to reflect in cinema. It's a shame that it doesn't.

  2. @ Shrikanth - Just for this reason, it becomes very difficult to make a film on India and think it is representative of an average Indian.

    So many people complain that modern day Bollywood movies do not show "middle-class" characters like Sai Paranjpe and Hrishikesh Mukherjee showed. I remember reading somewhere that Golmaan and Chupke-Chupke were shot in Mukherjee's bungalow in Bandra. Middle-class folks in 1970s certainly couldnt afford a bungalow and that too in Bandra.

    At best, those directors showed characters who were more real in terms of character development and that's why it seems more "realistic". Even those directors showed very very urban characters.

    Btw, I liked the bit of trivia on 1870 per capita income in US. Yes,I myself get surprised when folks say India is just 50-60 years behind the US. If Hollywood films of 30s and 40s are to be believed, financially and socially (in terms of women being free) US was a lot better than India of 2013.

  3. Pessimist fool : There are some facts more startling than what I just mentioned. How about this?

    - India in 1970 was poorer than UK was in 1600.

    Look I'm no bleeding heart liberal myself. Not saying all cinema should be serious and "realistic" - whatever that means.

    Having said that it is important that artists think hard about this country of ours and attempt to understand its people every now and then.

    In classic Hollywood, we had numerous screwballs and romances on the screen yes. And yet, the artists back then (very money minded artists mind you) also had time to think about issues of great import -

    Movies that taught us about America, its landscape and its people. Films like The Man with the Golden Arm, The Man from Laramie, Fury, You Only Live once, The Great McGinty, Miracle of Morgan's creek, Canyon Passage, Beyond the Forest among others. There's nothing quite like all this in Indian cinema.

    Indian cinema by its very nature is small-minded. From Raj Kapoor to Ranbir Kapoor, Indian cinema has been preoccupied with boys, their girls, their mothers and fathers, the lack of "sexual freedom", arranged marriage vs love marriage, working wife vs homely wife and other such small stuff.

    And things have worsened over the past 30 years. One does get to see greater variety of themes in the 50s/60s than we do in mainstream cinema today.

  4. @shrikanth, you are absolutely right in advocating for the realities of life but with no disrespect i would like to remind you the basic need for going to cinemas, only and only thing is fun and different type of movie caters to different people's needs and mean fun to them, so i would differ with your acusement of today's generation being more fun loving in this hectic life schedule.

  5. so i would differ with your acusement of today's generation being more fun loving in this hectic life schedule.

    Not "accusing" anybody. Moreover there can be a lot of fun even in movies that don't concern romances of twenty-somethings.

    The Hollywood movies I mentioned in the previous comment are a lot of fun. Commercial movie starring big stars. Those aren't off-beat efforts.

    Indian mainstream cinema wasn't always like this. The mainstream bollywood of 50s/60s was fairly wide-ranging and explored several facets of Indian society while staying within the song-and-dance paradigm.