Munshi Premchand on Celluloid
Filmmakers over the decades have been deeply inspired by Munshi Premchand’s works. Shoma A Chatterji pays tribute to the greatest Hindi author on his 138th birth anniversary, remembering the path-breaking films made on his stories.
Munshi Premchand is perhaps rightly acknowledged as the most outstanding litterateur within Hindi literature. Born on July 31, 1880, Premchand’s real name was Dhanpat Rai Srivastav who came from a very middle-class family in Varanasi. Reading was a passion for him but as the family could not afford to buy books, he would take up odd jobs to buy the books he wished to read. One among these many odd jobs was as a teacher in a government school that brought him a princely salary of Rs.18 per month but he was happy that he could buy books with that amount. A short background of his life will help us understand why he wrote what he wrote – about the downtrodden, the low-caste, the very poor and of course, women.
His first pen name was Nawab Rai because his writing was as sharp-edged as a knife, so perhaps he felt that his acidic and forthright comments on the social system would not be taken positively. His first novel, Devasthan Rahasya, was a scathing and incisive attack on the exploitation of innocent and vulnerable young women by temple priests, a practice that remains as rampant as it was then even today. He got into trouble for his extreme anti-Establishment leanings during the British rule when his short story collection called Soz-e-Watan angered the British government so much that they banned the book in 1907. All copies of the book were destroyed completely and this led him to change his pen name to Munshi Premchand.
Munshi Premchand earned fame with the power of his pen so widely that he became the greatest living author within Hindi literature. But his life was tough because he was forever plagued by health issues and financial constraints right through his life. He quit his government job at the school since he decided to join Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement of 1921. Burdened by financial responsibilities of his family, he began a printing press called Sarasvati Press in Varanasi but that too, did not do well and his financial woes continued. So, he called it quits and left for Bombay to try his luck as a scriptwriter in films.
He got a job of script writer with Ajanta Cinetone. His first project was to write the story and script for a proposed film titled Mill Mazdoor. This was based on the rights of the working class. It was about the son and daughter of a textile mill owner who leaves the mill to his two children. While the son exploits the workers, the sister takes the side of the exploited, underpaid and overworked labour and even incites them to rise against the owners to demand their rights. The brother is jailed while the sister reopens the mill with the support of the workers.
But the reaction of the Censor Board was quite unexpected. The Censor Board felt that against the backdrop of the Great Depression of 1929 that had created a sense of dissatisfaction and anger among the workers, this film could have a negative impact on the management-labour relations. Bombay was already a hotbed of militant labour activity and a movement was on. Rumours were rife that the man behind the holding back of the film was no other than Byramjee Jeejeebhoy, a member of the Censor Board who was also the president of the Mill Owners Association. Its release in Bombay was not permitted. Interestingly, Premchand had played a small cameo in this film.
Stopped from release in Bombay, Mill Majdoor was released in Lahore, Delhi and Lucknow but there too, it was soon banned because it incited striking workers in these cities too and one group of workers who were employed in Premchand’s own Press rebelled against unpaid salaries and Premchand’s dreams of making it in the Bombay film industry were shattered. And he left films for good. He died in 1936 with those shattered dreams without learning the impact of his writing on his readers and filmmakers in India.
This did not stop other filmmakers to be deeply inspired by his works to make films on some of his stories. Agreed that his stories did not have the celluloid frequency that Sarat Chandra Chatterjee enjoyed, but that is perhaps because they were too challenging to be placed on celluloid.
Among the notable films inspired by Premchand’s works, the first three names that crop up are Mrinal Sen’s Oka Oorie Katha based on his famous story Kafan and Satyajit Ray’s two films – Shatranj Ke Khilari and the telefilm Sadgati.
But there are other films based on his stories too. Gulbahar Singh made a televised serial on the life of Munshi Premchand for Doordarshan many years ago. He later made two short films on Premchand’s stories of which one was Sawa Ser Gehoon while the other was Thakur Ka Kuan. But since they were short films not many lovers of cinema or Premchand have got the chance to watch them. One thing common among all these stories is that they explored different layers of human injustice and tragedy where man-made, manufactured poverty that creates a big schism between the wealthy and the poor, between the landed gentry and the poor farmer is eternal.
Add to this Trilok Jetley’s Godaan and you confront a tragedy that is an ongoing violation of human rights in India. This underlines that Premchand’s expression of the raw reality of his time is universal and these truths are perhaps more relevant, prominent and abundant today than they were then.
Shatranj Ke Khilari is an acidic political comment that offers a brilliant example of the interpretations of those events. The film is an adaptation / recreation of a short story by Munshi Premchand of the same title.
Dukhi of Sadgati in Ray’s film version, shot in Black-and-White, is like a brutal attack on the unsuspecting viewer who, if he/she has not read Premchand’s original story, will be shocked at the tragic ending of Dukhi’s sad life. The question that may raise its ugly head is – is Dukhi better off dead, than he was when alive? Definitely, the ignominy of a needless death is deplorable and disgusting in a country that prides itself in being the world’s largest electoral democracy. The film was telecast in 1981, more than 100 years after Premchand was born.
Dukhi, an untouchable, had come to the Brahmin priest’s house to request him to fix the date for his daughter’s wedding and also to invite him for the ceremony. It is not as if Dukhi is among his workers – paid or unpaid. Yet, just because he is a Dalit, the priest burdens him with heavy tasks on an empty stomach that, under the impact of the blazing sun, literally pushes him to death. Then, it is the Brahmin’s turn to feel humiliated. Not a single person in the village is willing to touch Dukhi’s dead body because his caste has not died with him. The priest is forced to discard the dead body. He ties a rope to the body and pulls it from the other end of the rope to throw it away and he has to do it all by himself. What happens to Dukhi’s family? Premchand keeps it open because we all know the end – no one cares. The resonances today are very clear. Every single day we read about a Dukhi dying in every other corner of the country. How could Premchand be so insightful into the future?
Mrinal Sen’s Oka Oorie Katha suggests just the opposite – how some Dalits can themselves bring their own ruin and remain immune to the tragedy happening to the woman in the family. Sen was roundly criticised by Premchand scholars for not showing the famous drunken scene of the father-son with the alms they have collected to buy the shroud (kafan) for the young bride while the dead body of the heavily pregnant Nilamma lies forgotten, with flies and insects invading the corpse’s body. But the point has been made.
If Sadgati demonstrates Premchand’s empathy for the exploitation, social ostracism and financial torture of the untouchable and the poor, Kafan unfolds the other face of the Dalit identity through Venkaiyya and his son Kista whose basic philosophy of life is not to work at all and live by whatever it takes to keep living which can be begging, stealing and finally, living off the earnings of his young daughter-in-law who is pregnant. In other words, the Dalit as an exploiter of his own woman comes across when Nilamma dies while her husband and his father are having a feast on the country liquor bought off the money they have collected for the “kafan” of this young girl. The camera in the final shot zooms in on Nilamma’s face that bursts into flames – a representation of Venkaiyya’s anger. The anger of the oppressed directed towards the oppressors within its own community is focussed entirely on victimising their women and this comes across lucidly and movingly in the film.
Though Doordarshan has a rich treasury of serials and episodic short stories based on Premchand without relocating them within the contemporary world, cinema today, still needs to tap the rich potential hidden in all his stories. Trilok Jaitley’s Godaan also remains a beautiful tribute to Premchand’s story of the same name. The novel encompasses a huge canvas, thanks to Premchand’s exquisite gift of the pen and its power. The novel keeps flitting back and forth between the village and the city and the large canvas makes a film version a tough challenge to meet. So, as the film version had to be condensed to a large extent, much of the core of the original novel remains unexplored. But the film wins over its audience – readers of Premchand’s original of course, through its fleshing out of the story of Hori and Dhaniya, their dreams and their constant struggle to survive in a world that is pitted against them. Several significant characters and sub-plots have been kept subsidiary and marginalised in the cinematic narrative because it would not have been possible to put all this in a single film.
Pipra ke patwa sareekhe dole manwa (Godaan, 1963) Pt Ravi Shankar / Anjaan / Mohd Rafi
In a touching tribute to the great master, Hari Narayan (The Hindu, August 1, 2015) writes: “A socialist, feminist, progressive intellectual much before these terms acquired their modern definitions, Premchand believed in championing the cause of the marginalised – the peasants, widows, prostitutes – through his writing. His oeuvre – 14 novels and 300 short stories – established his reputation as a genius. His reflections in the form of numerous essays provide a glimpse into the mind of the master-wordsmith.”
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