Monday, November 11, 2013

Aspiration, then and now - from Naukri to Fukrey

[Did this column for Democratic World magazine]

The other day, I was watching the 1954 Bimal Roy film Naukri, with the young Kishore Kumar in an uncharacteristically solemn role as a job-seeking naujavaan named Ratan, who travels from his village to the big city (Calcutta) but encounters disappointment at nearly every turn. The film contains many plot elements we might think of as clichés of a cinematic past - the beloved sister suffering from TB, the widowed mother, the arrival of a letter bearing exam results, the long 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 trying to take the tide at its flood.

The main markers of that new world were a naukri or job (which often went to less deserving people with “connections”); a much-coveted makaan or house of one’s own (the first song in the film is “Chhota sa Ghar Hoga”, where Ratan dreams about having a small house under the clouds, with a golden throne for his mother); and the ladki, girlfriend or wife (often the girl in the window across the lane, essentially inaccessible until job and accommodation have both been secured). There was tremendous idealism and hope, which sometimes went sour and turned into equally strong cynicism.

Understandably, male bonding featured strongly in this universe too. In Calcutta, Ratan boards in the ominously named “bekaari block” in a small hotel, a space he shares with other unemployed men who have been here longer than he has. One lovely scene has him humming a song to himself about his joblessness, while writing a letter in his room; soon, heads pop up from behind the partition and the other boarders start singing – humorously but also poignantly – about their travails. One of them, played by the then-young character actor Iftekhar, warbles “Main collector na banu aur na banunga officer / Apna baabu hi bana lo mukhe, bekaar hoon main”. (“I couldn’t become a collector and won’t become an officer / At least give me a job as your assistant or baabu.”)

Watching that scene, I was reminded that more than 20 years later, the same Iftekhar played a man in a position of privilege in Deewaar: the rich businessman-cum-smuggler who gets his shoes polished by a little boy on the footpath, a scene that sets the stage for the classic Bachchan line “Main aaj bhi phenke huye paise nahin uthaata.” (“Even today, I don’t pick up money that has been tossed at me.”) In the fantasy world where movies can converse with each other across time, it is conceivable that the two men are the same person: that the frustrated youngster of Naukri found a way to operate outside the law until he achieved everything he couldn’t achieve honestly, eventually arriving at a position from where he could guide the next generation through equally dubious routes.

Social aspiration – the need to move up in the world, to bridge the divide between want and privilege – has always been an important theme in Indian films, and how could it not be, in a society where the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged is always so large. The theme has taken on various shades in very different types of cinema: from social realism of the Naukri kind to black comedy (as in Satyajit Ray’s Jana Aranya, about an innocent man drawn ever deeper into a vortex of amorality) to Angry Young Man dramas inspired by the mythological epics, and even comedies that conceal serious themes beneath a frothy exterior.

Given the changes in Indian society in the past two decades (especially after economic liberalisation) and the concurrent changes in our cinema, it is tempting to think that the world depicted 60 years ago in films like Naukri has faded. That is nonsense, of course. And even if mainstream Hindi films tend not to venture into villages these days, the basic emotions and internal struggles experienced by the characters in those stories are still very much in place.

For instance, one of our best films of the past decade, Dibakar Banerjee's Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, was not about the village-city dichotomy – it was about a subtler divide within Delhi itself, what getting to wear fashionable clothes to an exclusive hotel or mall can mean to someone who grew up in a cramped house in a poor neighborhood. The narrative, about a West Delhi boy who grows up to become a master thief, understands the spiraling nature of class aspiration and upward mobility, and the tricks of survival in a dog-eat-dog world where the kindly, “God-fearing” family man who befriends you and encourages his little son to call you “maama” might have a dagger ready to plunge into your back.

Many old films like Guru Dutt’s Baazi and Raj Kapoor’s Awaara featured street naifs being led into an impossibly lavish world but (just about) retaining their personal integrity; not becoming “corrupted” by wealth. Some of this idealism has vanished in our own times, where films like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Special 26 are founded on a more complex sense of social justice: in an inherently unfair world, they suggest, it is okay for the underprivileged person to reach out and grab what he can. But there are also some fine films about youngsters who choose to stay on the “right” path, or who momentarily get swayed into doing something underhanded but gather themselves just in time.

One of my favourite recent examples of a good-hearted, well-observed film about aspiration was Mrighdeep Singh Lamba's Fukrey, about four boys dreaming of a bright future. Here, the main goal is admission to a good, smart college, and given the premise Fukrey could so easily have been an Indian version of American horny-teen films from the 80s - a desi Porky's - but even when two of the boys talk about the hot girls they will find in college, the film isn't gratuitous about it: the scene is more about fearfully approaching a strange new world, wondering if they will gain acceptance (and it is reminiscent of a girl from a conservative background in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! watching short-skirted college-goers with a mixture of envy and distaste). When these boys mispronounce words (“negotion” for “negotiation”) or say “voilin” when they mean “guitar”, or when one of them tries to be “cool” by pretending he knows what a French kiss is, the film isn’t mocking them: it invites us to see where they come from and where they want to be. When they are temporarily seduced by the dark side, getting a chance to peddle a drug that fetches an unimaginable Rs 3,000 per goli (“Mere maheene ka ration!”), we can see that this is potentially a magic pill, the panacea for all their problems – it allows us to empathise.

But throughout, we recognise their capacity for intelligence and decency too. Scenes like the one where the Sikh boy Lali prays in a gurudwara, asking for admission to college and even giving God a list of his specific requirements, may be played for humour (a little kid watching him cheekily says “Roll number bhi likhwa de!”), but they have a sense of character and circumstance built into them. Lali speaks in slang, wears torn jeans and a colourful T-shirt and is very evidently a teen of the new millennium, but at this moment he evokes the Ratan of Naukri, smiling and keeping his spirits high as he walks from one door to another, running his fingers over the “No Vacancy” signs.

[Extended posts on Naukri and Special 26 are here and here]

1 comment:

  1. Social aspiration – the need to move up in the world, to bridge the divide between want and privilege – has always been an important theme in Indian films

    Yes. It is a persistent theme right from the days of Achut Kanya and Kismet right upto Oye Lucky Lucky Oye.

    Interestingly it really isn't such a strong theme in Hollywood cinema. Partly because America is a far richer country but also partly because American cinema is decidedly more conservative in its tone than Bollywood cinema.

    One example I recall is Preston Sturges' film Christmas in July which deals with an episode in the life of a lower middle-class couple with high aspirations. It is interesting how Sturges adopts a very conservative tone and mocks the high aspirations of the couple. Sturges equates success with having the right attitudes, being a productive member of society, raising a family and projecting the right value systems.

    Bollywood's treatment of a similar couple would be vastly different emphasizing the disparity in outcomes, the absence of a level playing field and downplaying the moral pre-requisites for upward mobility.