I am here selecting my top fifteen Hindi movies in terms of portrayal of social reality. My criteria is not entertainment or idealism but level of doing justice to realism. I must particularly complement the likes of Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil for championing so many roles portraying realism.
1.DO BIGHA ZAMEEN
In a most artistic manner it reveals the oppression of feudalism or capitalism, brilliantly weaving a set of characters into a plot. The film contains no element of melodrama or fantasy but still hits the core of your soul. Enacting character of Shambu Mahato Balraj Sahni is so much in the skin of the character that you feel he is the actual person. No film has portrayed Indian social reality in such depth and how socio-economic conditions shape the life of a family. I praise the movie portraying how peasants were compelled to work in the cities which is a predominant feature today in India and the third world. India today has lakhs of migrant labour swapping role in working in fields and factories.
The movie emulated the Italian neo-realist style.Inspite of not incorporating fiction like movies’Awaara’ etc it still was a success.Bimal Roy depicted great mastery of craft in inter-weaving scenes and characters and allowing the audience to remain detached ,rather than getting carried away. Perhaps this film missed out on projecting the resultant class struggle or organized resistance which was a dominant feature in those days in India or could have had a sequel portraying theme of revolt. In many ways the film was reminiscent of movie ‘Bicycle Thief. ‘I strongly feel this movie should have had a sequel or atleast remake inappropriate form in the 1970’s 0r 80’s or later in the era of globalization.
The theme of the story is how Shambu Mahato is indebted to Thakur Harnam Singh for a prolonged period.Harnam Singh offers Shambu a price to sell his land to relies his debts but he refuses because the tow bighas of land are his only source of living. Later Shambu is tormented by Harnam and even duped with the his debt magnified in herculean proportions by five times its actual level..Circumstances force Shabu to migrate to Calcutta with his son where he pulls a rickshaw and his son polishes shoes. The scenes when his son literally sells himself for the sake of his father’s survival embezzles in the heart of any sensitive person. Ironically he even resorts to stealing. To earn he is compelled to chase another rickshaw of a colleague when sadly the wheel collapses in the penultimate stages.. Sadly his wife falls ill which forces Shambu to use all his earnings to save her. Satirically on the verge of his mother dying he claims it is a retribution for his wrong deeds.
Back to the village the land is auctioned because Shambu could not pay back the debt and father Gangu becomes insane. The land, now owned by Harman Singh, sees the beginning of mill construction. Shambu and his family return to the village, only to see their land sold and a factory being constructed on it. He then tries to get a handful of dirt (soil) from his land but is stopped by a strongman (security guard). The film ends as Shambu and his family walk away from their former land.
Few movies ever had better scene dissection and direction or a more coherent plot to convey a message. With touches of genius he has woven a plot to illustrate the theme. Bimal Roy must be saluted for this masterpiece which pioneered the cause of championing the rural people. No Movie has ever been a more honest portrayal of the social reality of India. It is praiseworthy that it has nothing in common with European cinema and purely an Indian design. No doubt it has shades of ‘The Bicycle thief’ in the father-child scenes.
Balraj Sahni’s acting performance arguably surpassed that of anyone enacting a common man. It was as natural as water sparking in a stream or a rose blooming. He illustrated that art belonged to the common man and that art reached it’s zenith only when relating to social reality. The expressions of Balraj Sahni defined the character of a peasant in every respect. I doubt there has ever been a more clinical or artistic performance by an actor portraying a peasant, immersing in the very skin of the character. The classic rickshaw pullers race is a symbol of how even an honest man selling his labour could be de-humanised. No actor mastered the art of neo-realistic acting like Balraj Sahni who gave similar performances in K.A .Abbas’s ‘Dharti ke Lal’.Balraj ‘s genius gave a 360 degree somersault to the aristocratic stage acting ,taking feature of simplicity to region snot traversed. The very mannerisms and gestures of a suffering peasant wee portrayed, in accordance to circumstances faced. I cannot conceive a film which is also ends so artistically or poignantly with the faces literally telling the story.Projecting Scene of Balraj Sahni even refused to carry a handful of dirt from the soil is artistic genius personified.
Child artist Rattan Kumar as Kanhaiya is brilliant immersing into the very heart of the grave situations and taking realism to its ultimate dimension. His chemistry with his father has most touching effects .His scene of redemption or retribution with his mother on the verge of dying is one of the finest acting displays by a child artist in Indian films. Even Jagdeep as a child artist enacting role of a shoeshine boy as Laloo Ustad gives great flavour to the plot.Nirupa Roy depicts untold sensitivity in her expressions. The scene when she thwarts the bid of a man from taking her into captivity to rape her is heart touching as well as her working on a construction site and hearing the depressing news of her husband’s accident.
2.SAHIB BIBI AUR GULAM
Sahib Bibi aur Gulam made by Guru Dutt brilliantly stitches a chemistry of characters into a plot illustrating the feudal subjugation of women and how it shapes their lives. No film illustrated the 19th century Zamindar domination of Bengal as aesthetically or intrinsically. It narrated the story of a decadent culture through the prism of Bhootnath,a lower class but educated man in rural Calcutta. He falls in love with the daughter in law of the Chowdhury household, where he gets accommodation. The husband of the Choti Bahu neglects his wife making her resort to alcoholism. In the climax the middle brother orders his henchmen to assassinate his sister-in-law for daring to accompany Bhootnath,whom she persuades to take on a boat ride. The ultimate metaphor of decadence is paying the hird killers with agold ring, not having any personal money. The entire story is told in a flashback when Bhootnath visits the remains of the Haveli many years later finding a skeleton that he identifies.
The songs are classical as well as scene dissection and plot fabrication. There is virtually no element of melodrama. Very stealthily the theme is portrayed reminiscent of te chapers of an epic novel.
However touching or brilliantly portrayed I feel Mother India over projected melodrama and wrongly incorporated trend of dacoity.No doubt at the very root it touched the bondage of the Indian farmers to moneylenders and the merciless exploitation they wee subjugated to.It also portrayed the predominant social relations. Still it did not project the collective rebellion of the faming community nor the opression of women. It glorifies the Indian woman in the manner it portrays Nargis,rather than illustrate how women were virtually enslaved.Infact her asassination of her son depicts a loyalty to the Indian social system which perpetration-feudal exploitation .The accent is on traditional morals and not on the values of liberation from the bondage of the tyranny of landlordism.
In ‘Awaara’ and ‘Shree 420’ Raj Kapoor adopts realistic overtones or Socialist themes with great creativity and inventiveness but overlaps its base with fantasy creating escapism amongst people. Imagine a country bumper or tramp playing cards in the club of the rich or establishing such a relationship in Shri 420.Even if it illustrates exploitation there are powerful elements of fantasy.Awaara brilliantly projects the role of environment in shaping a man’s life but again in many junctures lacks realism.
Movie ‘Ankur’ with touches of genius director Shyam Benegal knits a plot illustrating the feudal bondage of women and hierarchy and how the social order shapes man -woman relationships. Ankur(enacted by Anant Nag)narrates the story of a landlord ,who places his attention on one of his labourers laxmi(Shabana Azmi).Their relationship develops into an affair with Laxi becoming pregnant and bearing Surya a child. The character of Surya has aradical metamorphosis after Surya kills her husband, suspecting that he may disclose the trith in front of the entire village.Laxmi then reverts her guns on Surya and demands a change in the Social system. Anant Nag delivers a most naturalistic acting performance projecting his character with element of subtlety and grace. Even in realism the vibrations of a work of Michelangelo are exuded.
I feel ‘Ganga Jamuna’ of Dilip Kumar did more justice to features of realism than ‘Mother India.’ With subtle craft the variance of the values and lives of two brothers is depicted and love. However at no juncture is there departure from the social conditions that prevailed. The expressions or histrionics of Dilip Kumar told the story.Ganga and his brother live together in a village where Ganga toils to pay fror Jumna’s education. The harmony of their lives is broken when the Zamindar frames Ganga making it imperative for him to turn into an outlaw. Escaping to the mountains with Dhanuo(Vijayantimla)he becomes a dacoit .Ironically brother Jamuna turns into a police officer and in the climax executes Ganga with Dhanno succumbing in the crossfir between cops nad bandits. What I appreciate is that the film touches the core of the soul of the audience in supporting Ganga.With the artistry of the highest degree it projects how a dacoit is the by product or victim f the feudal social system. Ganga is portrayed as a folk hero as he retaliates to punish those who were responsible for his slide. However he dose not lose his yearning for awife and family, with the purity in his heart intact.Dilip Kumar gave powerful shades of realism in his acting by incorporating the very traits of a common village bumpkin ,both in happiness and frustration. I feel Dilip Kumar deserved the best actor award for this performance which took artistic overtones to sublime proportions, instead of Raj Kapoor for performance in ‘Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai.”I staunchly believe Dlip Kumar went into the skin of his character in this film more than Raj Kapoor did as ‘Raju’ in Jis Dsh Mein Ganga Behti Hai.I have rarely seen such level of intensity portraying a common villager as Dilip Kumar did here
In ‘Paar’ the chemistry of a farmer and his wife subjugated to captivity of landlords is superbly portrayed where the duo are forced to swim across a river. The series of twists and turn s or ebb and flow takes realism to depths of the sublime and at the very root illustrates how social conditions shape lives of humanity. Even if made in 1970’s and 1980’s the film showed no escapist tendencies nor bored the audiences. Truly a masterpiece in it’s own right with a most subtle portrayal of social reality.
The film of exploitation in rural Bihar, in which a landlord ‘s men wreck a village and kill the benevolent schoolmaster who was a progressive force in the village. The labourer Naurangia breaks with a tradition to passive resistance and retaliates by killing the landlord’s brother. Naurangia and his wife Rama become fugitives from justice. After many efforts to find sustenance elsewhere, the two decide to return home. To earn the fare, they agree to drive the herd of pigs through the river, causing the pregnant Rama to believe she has lost her baby. But they have to swim across a wide, swiftly flowing river, in which they nearly drown before reaching safety. At the end of the film Naurangia puts his ear to her belly and listens to the heartbeats of the unborn baby.
Raj Kapoor at his brilliant best even if donning the Charlie Chaplin oor tramp image of Raju.Although a small plot it is orchestrated with shades of artistic genius .There could hardly be a better illustration of the apathy towards poverty and the portyral of the emotions of a common man. It threw light on the grim condition of the poor , alienation of the common man and the magnitude of greed and corruption.It also delved into how the poor were virtually looked down upon .Relevant even today with the extent of alienation in the Machine age.Raju projects innocence at its helm .In many ways theme of the English Industrial revolution when workers flocked for work in the big towns and met similar fates.
A poor peasant (Kapoor) from the village, who comes to the city in search of work, is looking for some water to quench his thirst. He enters an apartment complex, whose residents take him for a thief and chase him. He runs from one flat to the other trying to escape his predicament. Along the way, he witnesses many shady undertakings in the flats where he hides. Ironically, these crimes are being committed by the so-called “respectable” citizens of the city, who by day, lead a life totally in contrast to their nighttime deeds behind closed doors.
He is shocked by these events and tries to escape by evading the search parties that are patrolling the apartment building in search of the elusive thief. He is unfortunately seen, and people chase him to the roof of the building. He puts up a brave resistance and then descends by the water pipes onto the porch of a flat. He goes in to find a young girl (Daisy Irani). She talks to him and kindles a self-belief in the peasant, who determinedly tries to face the adversity waiting outside. But when he ventures out of the flat, he is surprised to find that nobody takes notice of him. He eventually leaves the apartment building, his thirst still unquenched. He hears a beautiful song and searching for its source arrives at the doorstep of a woman (Nargis) drawing water from a well. His thirst is finally assuaged.
Mirch Masala superbly portrays the bondage or rural women or subjugation .It infuses realism as few films ever and intensity of the highest magnitude in revealing oppression and spirit of vengeance. Smita Patil gives close to the best acting performance ever taking ferocity and intensity to unimaginabe magnitude. The confrontation between Sona bai and the Subedar has most realistic connotations. The movie illustrates the predominance of anti-woman culture with the villagers forcing Sonbai to giver herself upto the Subedar and thus yielding to muscle power heir condemning her in the village panchayat is testimony of it. The final scene takes confrontation at its boiling point with Sonbai punishing the Subedar.The film most artistically weaves a set of characters illustrating how the predominant feudal culture governs their lives. The women in the factory throwing chilli powder in the eyes of the Subedar gives a progressive finale to the film. With great mastery the scenes are directing depicting Sonbai slapping the Subedar or in turn his tormenting her. The compromising character of the Mukhi is also portrayed with subtle nuances throwing light on how he had to be subservient to the social sytem .although a good person.
A classic psycho-thriller by Ketan Mehta, Mirch Masala illustrates another riveting performance by Patil in the role of Sonbai. Set in pre-independence India, the film tracks the social and cultural climate of hierarchical powers in a village confronting the evil sof the colonial system. In the thick of things is Sonbai, a young feisty woman who thinks with her heart and speaks her mind. Even as her character is introduced, she lays out her confident disposition for all to see, in the way she conducts herself, the way she acts, and just the way she is.
Those around her call her “stubborn”, conservative code for an opinionated woman who can differentiate right from wrong and isn’t afraid to say as much. She is a singular army in herself and dares to take on the cruel subedaar (Naseeruddin Shah), slapping him when he tries to force himself on her. A chase ensues, with Sonbai caught in the eye of a storm. She is condemned by the villagers, having to pay the price for insulting the honour of a “master”, but she stands her ground, unrelenting till the end.
Mirch Masala is essentially a feminist film in many ways, handing immense power to its women and seeking a resolution by way of retribution for all the wrongs they are subjected to at the hands of men.
In the post 1990- liberalization phase my choices are Satya and Mrityudand.
Smita Patil has taken acting prowess to regions of the sublime.She gets into the very thick of the skin of character trying to liberate herself from chains of bondage.The movie is masterpiece in projecting how women are enslaved .
In Bazaar in the role of Najma, Patil explores the issue of women’s agency over their own bodies in Bazaar. The plot of this Sagar Sarhadi film is based on the concept of bride buying, and its black, white and greys are explored through Najma’s reaction to it all.
She is a kind-hearted, perceptive woman wronged by her family who pushed her into selling her body for money. The emotional temperament of Najma is boldly underscored even as men visit her place for availing her services, giving a glimpse into the dilemma she faces about using her physicality in exchange for finances. It sets the tone for the larger picture of bride buying where very young girls go up on sale for marriage – something that deeply disturbs the forward-looking Najma. She is, in a blinding shock, introduced to the pitiful state of women in society, who like her, have no autonomy over the use of their bodies, which are exploited instead to satiate the pleasures of men.
When the bride, Shabnam, played by the wonderful Supriya Pathak, dies by suicide after the injustice meted out to her, Najma holds herself thoroughly responsible for her death, in not having deterred the crime, from a woman to a woman. The audience is left with a sense of dread at the various moralities women have to live up to in the world to have an honourable existence.
Movie does justice to the oppression of the dalit caste and promotes rebellious spirit in oppressed women by championing their cause.
Shyam Benegal’s Manthan was a revolutionary film in more ways than one.. It lit the spark of issues like caste politics, class hierarchy, and oppression of women at the grassroots level. Patil played Bindu, a magnetic character who had the courage to lead the group of marginalised women folk in her village and the grit to raise a child as a single mother.
She is aware of belonging to the “lower” caste but doesn’t let that become an obstacle to her identity that she asserts with much pride. Though her status as a socially powerless woman is exploited in the dirty game of milk politics, as seen towards the end, she overcomes it to dedicate herself to the pioneering work of the White Revolution in her village.
Aside from Patil, the cast boasts of stellar actors like Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amrish Puri. With this milieu of actors, Manthan is that quintessential Benegal film that straddles social history and just enough fiction to constitute Hindi cinema.
I disagree that the co-operative movement was in essence revolutionary success as it did not cut out the tumours of feudalism completely .The Marxist aspect is thrown into oblivion glorifying the White movement .
10/11-AWAARA AND SHREE 420
Both depicted creative genius in portraying social reality and fabricating a plot to manifest socialist themes. Incoprporated a Charlie Chaplinesque form to Indian terrain.Awaara demonstrated how environment and not heredity was the determining factor in shaping a man’s life.
Both films brilliantly weave a plot of a tramp trying to survive and make inroads. It portrays how class nature too determines the role of characters and the opportunist nature and crasless values the capitalist system creates.Shri 420 is more related to Socialism exposing the manipulation of capitalism in its very backyard.Awaara is more of flawed genius in the manner the ebb and flow takes place in the life of tramp with romatic scenes and comedy even having touches of realism.
In ‘Awaara’ and ‘Shree 420’ Raj Kapoor adopts realistic overtones or Socialist themes with great creativity and inventiveness but overlaps its base with fantasy creating escapism amongst people. Imagine a country bumper or tramp playing cards in the club of the rich or establishing such a relationship in Shri 420.Even if it illustrates exploitation there are powerful elements of fantasy.Awaara brilliantly projects the role of environment in shaping a man’s life but again in many junctures lacks realism.Great elements of sentimentalism and melodrama .
- MOTHER INDIA
A classic epic based on the tragedy in rural Indai and the circumstances that shape lives of the rural masses. Brilliant portrayal of the merciless subjugation of the peasantry to the landlords and the day to day hardships of the peasantry. Theme of the novel is how Nargis dons on the mantle of championing motherhood and bringing up her two sons amist the greatest obstacles and hardships.Nargis takes acting intensity to a crescendo .ranging from the joy of a bird singing to the sadness felt in a funeral. The reality of village life is articulately personified.Most admirably Nargis projects spirit to withstand any kind of circumstances and gives a great acting performance.Fine acting performance by Kanhaiaya Laal as the money lender and Rajkumar ,as husband of Nargis.
However touching ,creative or brilliantly portrayed I feel Mother India over projected melodrama or sentimentalism and wrongly incorporated trend of dacoity.No doubt at the very root it touched the bondage of the Indian farmers to moneylenders and the merciless exploitation they were subjugated to.It also portrayed the predominant social relations. Still it did not project the collective rebellion of the farming community nor the opression of women. It glorifies the Indian woman in the manner it portrays Nargis,rather than illustrate how women were virtually enslaved.Infact her assassination of her son depicts a loyalty to the Indian social system which perpetration-feudal exploitation .The accent is on traditional morals and not on the values of liberation from the bondage of the tyranny of landlordism. It dies not award heroism to Dacoit Sunil Dutt for burning the deeds of the moneylender and punishes him for revolting. Morally it does not condemn the vagaries of the social system where landlordism or money lending was not abolished on the ground .Projecting son Rajendra Kumar as good against evil upholds traditional Indian value system.
I have chosen because it perfectly portrays the condition of women in brothel sin term sof seeking freedom from domination.Shban Azmi as Rukmini Bai classically enacts a role of alienating herself and carving a new path .after daughter Zeenat is uncomfortable.
The relationship between Rukminibai (Shabana Azmi) and Zeenat (Smita Patil) is one of the main focuses of this movie; Rukminibai loves Zeenat like a daughter but feels threatened when Zeenat wants to assert her freedom. She eventually alienated herself from all the women who worked for her and had to leave the brothel to eke out a new existence. The film was a dark comedy, teeming with colourful characters like the servant Tungrus (Naseeruddin Shah), a horny photographer (Om Puri), a baba-like figure (Amrish Puri), a businessman with a secret (Saeed Jaffrey), a novice courtesan (Sreela Majumdar) and some other odd characters. Shabana brought out the nuances of a brothel-keeper through her role and was vastly lauded for it.
‘Mrityudand’ superbly portrays the subjugation of women to landlord tyranny in Bihar .It does great justice to the features still intact or inherent in rural Bihar. The movie enravels a plot centering on the theme of interaction of goonda elements intervening forces.Madhuri Dixit as Ketki and Shabana Azmi gave great acting performances. I have rarely seen women assert themselves ever as Madhuri Dixit did at the climax of the film when executing the criminal responsible for eliminating her husband.Madhuri’s face told it all, taking intensity to regions of thunder and lightning. One of the best ever portrayals of a women seeking revenge .In the movie Madhuri’s expressions had the effect of a winter,spring,Summer and Autumn ,being as natural as the flow of stream water. Elements of melodrama or fantasy did nor rob the film of its essence of reality. I complement the direct for fabricating such a script together .No doubt not classical with shades of commercial cinema and romance but most intrinsically illustrating the message.
It is based on a village of Bilaspur, Bihar in 1996. The movie starts with the grisly portrayal of a mob killing of two defenceless women, orchestrated by vested interests, and how village power players later evade administrative inquiries into this atrocity. This incident sets the tone for much of the rest of the movie.
The central characters are a young couple, Vinay (Ayub Khanand Ketki (Madhuri Dixit). They are quickly intertwened into the midst of machinations by several powerful and unscrupulous villagers. Foremost among them is contractor Tirpat Singh (Mohan Joshi), a powerful, corrupt and ruthless man who oppresses poor people and especially women with impunity. Vinay too becomes influenced by Tirpat, and under this influence spirals down a dark road of domestic abuse, alcoholism, and selfishness that alienates his loving wife and tears apart the whole family, despite her best efforts to fight this.
The rest of the movie deals with their efforts to break out of this grip , both within their relationship as well as outside of it, and Vinay’s and especially Ketki’s long, hard, and bloody struggle to confront and defeat the forces of oppression and male domination in the village.
Although not so intense social realty of working class children is brilliantly projected .Story on the lives of two children who first beg on the streets and then are encouraged to eke out a living by a bootlegger.They start shining shoes to earn .The plot superbly portrays the character of children of the poor and how they react to different circumstances. or how different circumstances shape their lives.
Belu (Baby Naaz) and Bhola (Ratan Kumar) are left in the care of their wicked aunt Kamla, a prostitute, (Chand Burque) after their mother dies. She forces them to beg on the streets and takes the whole collection at night, often by beating them brutally.
A bootlegger and neighbour of Kamla, named John uncle) teach them self-respect and to work for a living instead of begging. Both kids start saving from their begging money by giving lesser paise to Kamla, so they can buy a shoe-polish kit and begin polishing shoes.The dual manages to buy a shoe-polish kit and starts the business. But when Kamla discovers this, she beats them and kicks them out of the house.
Meanwhile, John discovers that Belu wants a new frock and Bhola needs a new shirt as their current rags are torn and worn out. Overwhelmed by the emotions to help Belu and Bhola, John Chacha decided to sell unauthorized liquor and gets arrested by the police. The children, on the other hand, are left to fend for themselves. When it rains, and people stop having their shoes polished, the children are in danger of starving. Bhola wishes never to beg again and rejects a coin tossed to him on a rainy night. When Belu takes it out of hunger, Bhola slaps her, and she drops it.
When the police come, intent on taking the children, Belu escapes onto a train, but Bhola is arrested. On board the train, Belu is adopted by a wealthy family, and she is sad for her brother.
Bhola searches for Belu after getting out of custody but cannot find her. After running away from an orphanage, he is unable to find work and extremely hungry and resorts to begging. He encounters Belu while begging at the railway station where Belu and her adopted family are boarding a train for vacation. Humiliated, Bhola runs away, but his sister pursues him. John Chacha has also come to the station to say goodbye and joins the chase, but he falls and is injured. Bhola stops running, and Belu and Bhola are reunited.
The wealthy family adopts Bhola also, and they live happily ever after.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist.Toured India,particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com Emailemail@example.com