In 2020, India witnessed the abominable suffering of migrant labourers during the COVID-19 pandemic. High School student Swechcha Dhara Dasgupta remembers the films of Raj Kapoor and wonders how relevant they are even today in portraying the plight of the migrant labourers.
The current COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has impacted all sections of the pan-Indian population certainly, but perhaps the worst affected were the migrant labourers – stranded far away from home, exemplifying a humanitarian crisis. We, from the safety of our homes and upper-middle class privileges, saw their tragedy unfold across newsprint and digital pages – and sighed at a crisis that seemed unknown and unheard of to us. However, the plight of migrant labourers, though worsened greatly by the lockdown, has existed since the early years of Post-Independence India – when the Partition as well as the economic upheaval caused by the departure of the British forced many out of their homelands to cosmopolitan cities for work – the tragedy has continued, undeterred, ever since.
Art and cinema have always held the mirror of candour to society – and the crisis of migrant labourers is no exception. From Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen in 1953 to Muzaffar Ali’s melancholic Gaman in 1978 and later Sai Paranjape’s Disha – myriad explorations of the plight of migrant labourers have illustrated the arthouse celluloid. One filmmaker who brought the plight of migrant labourers onto the popular commercial cinema and spun tales of their misery through quintessential Bollywood tropes of song and dance was none other than Raj Kapoor, the master showman.
Raj Kapoor’s directorial debut Awara (1951) is in itself a poignant portrayal of the migrant labour crisis. The film portrays the protagonist’s mother, played by Leela Chitnis, being forced to migrate to Post-Independence Bombay after she is abandoned by her husband, in search of work along with her infant son. Leela and her son struggle to earn a bare living, with the young boy working at odd jobs like ‘shoe polishing’ to sustain his education. However, the want for scarce food and the lack of empathy of the metropolis slowly drives young Raj into the criminal underbelly of the city – with the scene in jail, featuring Raj laughing at the ‘roti’ he is given to eat (a reference to a prior scene, when Raj is convicted as a thief for trying to steal a ‘roti’ for his ailing mother), and the dialogue “Agar yeh roti bahar mil jaati toh andar ana hi nahi parta” taking a scathing look at the plight of migrant labourers in post-Independence India, and perhaps even today.
Shree 420 (1955), arguably the best of Raj Kapoor’s works, is also a bittersweet look at the life of migrant labourers. Five minutes into the film, Raj Kapoor is singing Mera joota hai Japani as he travels from his home in Allahabad to the city of Bombay in search of work – and finds place in the decrepit ‘chawls’ of the metropolis. However, in economically devastated post-Independence India, honest work is hard to come by and a political nexus exists to deviate young men into criminal trades. Raj becomes a con man under the influence of this political nexus, and abandons his migrant identity for a life of riches.
However, the migrant identity is embraced again through Raj’s redemption arc – which begins with the cinematic Ramaiyya vastavaiyya song, the title’s Telugu phrase existing as a nod to various non-local cultures that exist within the umbrella of the cosmopolitan Bombay. The song in itself sees him embrace the migrant identity of the non-city culture, joining in the rustic Telegu song as opposed to the urban glittering Mud mud ke na dekh which symbolised the seduction of city life for the migrants.
Raj Kapoor’s cinema is a political statement unto itself – with its socialist and reformist themes. The films blended with the pro-Soviet outlook of the Nehru government, ambivalent despite the official proclamation of Non-alignment Movement and were also released in the USSR, earning immense popularity there. Both Raj Kapoor and Nargis and their brand of realistic yet commercial Indian cinema became a global phenomenon in the Second World.
Raj Kapoor’s cinema is a milestone in the history of celluloid, certainly. However, even close to 70 years after their making, the films remain relevant, some of the scenes are a reality across the nation even to this date. That is an immeasurable success for a filmmaker and artist for sure – but probably, an unfathomable failure for a nation and its rulers.
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