Saturday, April 27, 2024

50 years of Roti Kapada aur Makaan

I was asked to write something for the Times of India about 50 years of Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada aur Makaan, and this led me to a revisiting of (and a part-reappreciation of) the 1970s work of “Mr Bharat”. MK was already seen as a somewhat mock-worthy figure in “modern”/”liberal” circles when I was growing up in the 1980s (I loved his Kranti as a child, then made fun of it as an established writer decades later without even taking the trouble to revisit it) – and he is even more unfashionable today. But there are things about his work – and his heartfelt approach to it – that I now find quite stirring. (And this is without even being able to relate to his major emotional fuel, patriotism.) He was also in his prime a very good stager of song sequences, full of good visual ideas (which sometimes fell short in the execution, partly because of the technological limitations of the time). I recently had rewarding conversations with a couple of friends about the women in his films too.

More on that some other time - the Roti Kapada aur Makaan piece is below...

Even for big fans of mainstream Hindi cinema, Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada aur Makaan can seem a strangely under-the-radar film today. “Strangely” because it was a huge hit fifty years ago – the biggest of 1974. It had an A-list cast, including, in one of his most striking supporting roles, Amitabh Bachchan, who was already well into his long-hair-and-sideburns phase. (This was after Zanjeer had pushed Bachchan to stardom, but before the superstardom that would come in the next two or three years.) There are some memorable songs, memorably visualised – and there is even a second-half subplot featuring the protagonist Bharat (inevitably played by Manoj Kumar himself) and his policeman brother, which anticipates the siblings-on-opposite-sides-of-the-law plot made iconic by Deewaar a year later.

And above all (to deploy the cheesy opening credit that the film uses for Shashi Kapoor), RKM was an unabashedly patriotic, sentimental film made during a specific moment in the nation’s history. A time when rising unemployment for even well-educated youth, and the perceived ineffectualness of college degrees, had created much frustration – adding a bitter taste to the late 1960s election slogan of “roti kapada aur makaan”.

Other political films about disaffected youngsters had been made in the previous few years, such as Gulzar’s Mere Apne, pointed and sardonic, and with a hard-edged ending. But Manoj Kumar’s lens was different, and this is what he was saying in his trademark style, combining an initially dark tone with an eventually upbeat one: things may be wrong with this country, but if we maintain our personal integrity, and trust in the democratic process, the tide will turn. There is despair in the film’s set-up – the key characters go through major trials – but there is also a clear sense that the story is arcing towards the light at the tunnel’s end.

The early scenes gradually reveal the roti, kapada and makaan motifs and how these necessities can, in the wrong hands, become a trinity of demons, used to suppress underprivileged people: three of the villains are traders who use their monopoly to exploit the poor Tulsi (Moushumi Chatterjee) and others. “They tell us to get the slums picked up and shifted,” laments a man whose house is to be demolished, “but they never tell us where they should be shifted to.” (The scene is a reminder of a lyric from the 1953 black satire Mr Sampat – “Narakh mein bhi jagah nahin” – where poor people worry there won’t be enough space for them even in hell.) There are efforts to divide the country: hoarding goods to create shortages, setting a University on fire after radicalising students. The circle of poverty and misfortune is depicted in an exchange between Bharat and his girlfriend Sheetal (Zeenat Aman): “When will things change?” “When I get a job.” “When will you get a job?” “When things change.”

Notwithstanding all this despair, there is an almost touching faith in the nation’s structural integrity and in the idea that our elected leaders will (with perhaps a few missteps here or there) do right by us. In one scene, as the villainous Madan Puri and his henchmen take a short break from their underground activities, Indira Gandhi’s August 15 speech denouncing black-marketing and hoarding can be heard on the radio; meanwhile Bharat, who had temporarily fallen in with the wrong people, penitently gazes at an Indira photo on the wall. With all the talk today about films that peddle only the government’s agenda, it is possible to wonder – especially given that the Emergency was announced only a few months later – if RKM is a little too respectful of sarkar.

The lens seems to be a sincere one, though. In terms of his age and career peak, Manoj Kumar occupies a middle ground between the Nehruvian idealism of Raj Kapoor and the disillusionment expressed by filmmakers of the Kundan Shah-Saeed Mirza generation in the 1980s. But Kumar’s overall hopefulness – and his almost childlike faith in certain ideals – is closer to the Raj Kapoor tone. This may be a reason why he is so unfashionable, or easy to parody, today. His conservatism, his hankering on old-world values and tradition-vs-modernity stereotypes, can seem laughable from the vantage point of today’s woke expectations that cinema should be progressive in a clearly observed way. There is also an understandable unease, given the jingoistic times we live in, about the hyper-nationalism that tells us that India was the birth of civilisation (as the lyrics of a famous song in Kumar’s earlier Purab aur Paschim have it).

But as is often the case with mainstream cinema, one must pay close attention to a film to see the many conflicting energies in it. In RKM, the self-righteous Bharat may be the central figure around whom the others pivot, the glue for the forging of various relationships (“Inn rasmon ko, inn kasmon ko, inn rishte naaton ko…” as the song “Main na Bhooloonga” has it)  – but all the characters represent various aspects and possibilities (or futures) of India. Bharat’s brother Vijay (Bachchan) nearly turns to crime, but redeems himself by joining the army and serves the country in the most dramatic way possible. Their other brother Deepak (Dheeraj Kumar) performs a similar role a little less dramatically, as a policeman. Shashi Kapoor’s Mohan is a businessman who recognises his privileges and pays his taxes even if it means eliminating profits. (Could this be a viable future for a nation that will eventually open up economically? Today we know the answer: no.) Prem Nath, who was a large-hearted Pathan in Kumar’s Shor, now plays a large-hearted, sword-waving Sikh who can take on any number of opponents.

There were always blind spots in Kumar’s depiction of women, most famously seen in his attempts to shame the mini-skirted Saira Banu into becoming a pure Bharatiya naari in Purab aur Paschim – and yet there are also counterpoints, in this and in other films. Sheetal the “materialistic” woman in RKM – hankering for a life of luxury – is arguably the most proactive and sympathetic figure in the film’s climax, while Tulsi (who in countless other mainstream films would only have been deemed fit for death after losing her “honour”) is much more than a shattered victim: she is feisty, banters, hits back at her rapists, and even gets a happy ending.

The occasionally formulaic writing and the structural unevenness are also offset by some powerful visual moments, most of all in the song sequences, which Manoj Kumar was always good at. On one hand, there is a “Mehngaai maar gayi”, which builds in intensity and tempo through its use of long takes, becoming an anthem for the poor. On the other, there is “Aur nahin bas aur nahin”, which moves between Bharat singing sadly in a studio and a party at Mohan’s house. This imaginative sequence combines an age-old love triangle with observations about a country courting hedonism – but it also allows us to recognise the seductiveness of aspiration. In moments like these the film almost transcends the banality of its moralising and the virtuous hero at its core, and becomes a tribute to plurality. For all its old-fashioned tropes, RKM is a reminder that some things – the many contradictions of a big, complex country, our expectations of our elected leaders, the degree dangling uselessly from a pocket – don’t change.

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