New Cinema Movement and the
"no land's man": questions of land
in Ankur and Aakrosh

by Soumya Suvra Das

Tracing the "no land's man"
before the advent of the late sixties

Moving from Eric Hobsbawm to Benedict Anderson to Partha Chatterjee, the concept of “nation” has referred to a collective historical identity that became an instrument of resistance against colonial and theocratic oppressions, giving rise to sovereign citizenship and a state. Virdi (1993) refers to Iain Chambers' Border Dialogues: Journeys in Post-modernism (1990) as she interprets popular Hindi cinema’s portrayal of nation in terms of the cultural and political imagination of the ruling elites. [open references and endnotes in new window] She points out how cultural artefacts and non-print media create an “elite hegemony” of the ruling class. In this way they endorse a kind of nationalism that remains in a constant process of reinventing itself. Land remains at the heart of this process of creation and re-creation of an Indian identity even after independence. Land and its meaning undergo negotiations with structures of power either by consolidating or providing challenges to that power.

Two significant films, taken as representatives of the era of post-independence land reforms, clearly indicate how 50s Hindi films attempted to address the land question as a locus of national identity. In one, Mehboob Khan's Mother India of 1957, the spirit of a unified geo-political identity lies in the motherhood of a peasant woman representing the holy land, a place (Nehru's "Bharat Mata") where people share an organic relation to the land irrespective of diverse ethnicities and differences in culture. That film overtly disseminated a sense of pride in national identity by affirming an enduring memory of the past as the nation’s unique and quintessential identity while envisioning a present based on consent to a common life. French philosopher Ernst Renan would view this as a nation and its people committed to a “large-scale solidarity.”

On the other hand, Bimal Roy's 1953 classic Do Bigha Zameen rejected that kind of projected nationalist imagination because it diffused questions of land ownership. Roy’s film interrogated the very state of “peasantry” and its plight within India’s transitional society, one of bourgeois dominance of the ruling elites of the Indian National Congress. Unlike Mother India, Bimal Roy's film excluded iconic images of land reform’s historical success under the new government. Rather, Do Bigha Zameen depicted common peasants’ plight in India’s new era of capitalist development as a sovereign state. The concept of land was converted into some sort of a property, something which can be measured in terms of money. That denoted a huge change in the Indian way of life and how people looked at land. In the story arc of this film, Shambhu Mahato, the protagonist of Do Bigha Zameen, considers his land to be a mother. But in order to pay off his debt, he is forced to sell his two acres of land. The businessman and the moneylender force Shambhu to sell off his land and become a labourer, dispossessing him from his own way of life. Shambhu denies such a proposition claiming his land to be his mother. “By selling the land,” the businessman, grabbing Shambhu's land, says with a sneering laugh, “the mother will become the father.”

A similar theme is traced in Dharti Ke Laal, a film made by K.A. Abbas in 1946 using a backdrop of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 that claimed the lives of millions. In this first feature film made under the banner of IPTA —Indian Peoples Theatre Association, the oldest cultural forum initiated by the Communist Party of India—the Samaddars, a family of farmers, join an exodus of the peasant community to the city in search of food, eventually becoming part of the reserve army of labour [1] similar to the Mahatos in Do Bigha Zameen.

Historically, the fate of India’s agricultural community-at-large came about through deep-seated changes in the nature of capitalism that took place toward the end of the nineteenth century. The question of land relations as portrayed in cinema cannot be understood without looking at the political economy of the land laws passed by the British in India. These laws, the most prominent of all being the Permanent Settlement, not only shaped national consciousness but aided the formation of a new hegemonic class. With this kind of political process at work, where a traditional community undergoes an historical change, a displacement where modernity with all its trajectories opens new ways of seeing life, it became a progressive imperative to locate the people of the land as legitimate/legitimized citizens of the nation. For the purpose of this essay, I have coined a term for the peasantry in their new status in a pun on the common term: no-man's-land. Here, the appellation "no land's man" delineates a category of the transitional peasantry in its historical specificity. In this light, Dharti Ke Laal is one of the first Indian films trying to use cinema as a vehicle for social, historical and political consciousness. This script not only traces the plight of the modern day peasant-turned-labourer, but directs the struggles of these "no land's men" (the peasant community along with the Samaddar family) toward collectivity, thus keeping their faith in a socialist future (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1995).

Shambhu and his family looking at the construction of the mill on their own land in Do Bigha Zameen. Bhookha Hain Bangal (Bengal is hungry) song in Dharti Ke Laal directs the struggles of these "no land's men" (the peasant community along with the Samaddar family) towards collectivity, keeping their faith in a socialist future. Image from Nivedita Ramakrishnan in her blog http://cinemacorridor.blogspot.com.

In the late 1950s this new urban identity of the erstwhile landless peasants failed to make itself relevant in the popular imagination of Hindi Cinema in the wake of the Second Five Year Plan. Concerns over peasantry, who were the locus of national identity, faced a complete erasure in popular cinema from the late 1950s to the end of the next decade. Prioritizing industrial development by the Indian State became the ideological foregrounding of a new bourgeois cinema that saw the emergence of some sort of a class interest divorced from agrarian concerns. Popular Hindi cinema of the 60s became obsessed with a certain bourgeois nationalism that also influenced the way it saw land relations and patterns of ownership. From Mother India in 1957 to Waqt in 1963, Hindi cinema saw a stark visual shift with a rural mise-en-scene, giving way to urban spectacles of the new bourgeoisie. 

This shift can be analyzed through Partha Chatterjee's reading of Nehruvian development: that is, films provided an imaginary path, a “new theoretical work” for the necessary reconstruction of the very idea of nationalism. For Chatterjee, rapid industrialization aided by the vehemence of state-capitalism shaped a notion of two large groups/classes —a progressive one (the group which aligned itself with the scientific and economic interest of the Nehruvian equations of national development) and a reactionary one (a group which did not align itself with such aspirations). The political economy’s transition from the fifties to the sixties has been called Passive Revolution (Prasad 1998) and notably this period saw the emergence of what Vasudevan would call Transitional Cinema.

In Transitional Cinema, issues of agrarian reforms, peasantry, and consciousness of rural life ceased to dominate India’s projected national character. Chatterjee's category of progressive Indians seemed to be the future of the nation. This class began to manifest itself in popular films through characters who were closely linked to the newly formed institutions of the state (the judicial and the military) along with industrialists who were elite upper-caste Hindus. This bourgeoning script emphasis in transitional cinema turned land into an absent entity in Hindi films for years to come. Protagonists hailing from bourgeois background turned out to be the only existing class to focus on within the rapidly developing nation. Most of them were shown as descendants of righteous landlords who have become industrialists in this new era of capitalist development.

In this light, transitional cinema saw the rise of the family romance—a self-sustained genre that revolved around love stories, inevitably culminating in marriage. Families, family secrets, family inheritance and lineage played a key role in the resolution of such narratives. A kind of sub-genre, which Rajadhyaksha calls “lost-and-found,” became a popular trope in family romance where revelation of the protagonist's royal inheritance became a marker of his social acceptance; such a story arc resulted in a narrative resolution devoid of critical or historical interrogation Transitional Cinema treated questions of inheritance and ownership of land as ahistorical, something that is natural, heralding the emergence and legitimacy of this new class.

Nasir Hussain’s Tumsa Nahin Dekha in 1957 and Dil Deke Dekho in 1959 and Shakti Samanta's Kashmir Ki Kali in 1964 are some of the major hits of this genre, with Shammi Kapoor starring in the lead in all of them.

Shammi Kapoor discovering that he has royal blood in his vein in Tumsa Nahi Dekha (1957). Shammi Kapoor as the successor of a royal family in Dil Deke Dekho (1959).

In Tumsa Nahi Dekha (1957) and few years later in Shankar Mukherjee's Jhumroo (1961), an imagology (a term borrowed from literature referring to an ideological kind of imagery) depicts certain communities of local tribes, feeding the audience with a socio-political construct of these marginalised communities through presenting a pattern of image culture, thereby evoking ideas of stereotypes and giving rise to imaginations, ideas and Vorstellungsbilder (performance pictures) in order to create national typological fictions (Beller 2007).The habitats of tribal and rural communities get reduced to mere visual pleasure, and the films’ settings are turned into exotic locations, where the Hindi-speaking protagonists have their adventures. In films like Tumsa Nahin Dekha or Jhumroo, an entire tribal community is mocked at and caricatured, their leaders often shown as goons; their only narrative purpose is limited to action sequences with elite, righteous protagonists. Their engagement with the new nation that aspires to be industrious became “weak” in the sense that the lifestyles, values and concerns of these marginalised communities become irrelevant to the larger goal of nation-building.

As is clear, these ideologically manipulated representations of a marginalised “other” were paired with dominant, monolithic representations of the Hindi speaking, educated, progressive, Hindu, bourgeois protagonists owning the stakes of a modern nation. Such protagonists continue to dominate the mise-en-scene and scripts of Vijay Bhatt’s Hariyali Aur Raasta, Lekh Tandon’s Professor (both in 1962), Samanta’s Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) and B.R.Chopra’s Humraaz (1967). The property-owning elites not only own erstwhile peasant lands but also have a territorial ownership over historically disputed regions of India, like Kashmir and Darjeeling [2]. For instance, in Humraaz, lands of working-class ethnic groups of Darjeeling are represented-under-erasure through the plot device of a military takeover. The film depicts a military contractor who loves to hold boisterous drinking parties for his army officer friends on his lavish property yet whose aim is to keep his daughter from marrying someone in the army, as he wants a son-in-law to whom he can hand over his estate.

Exotic Darjeeling locale as a theme in the upper class drama of Hariyali Aur Rasta (1962). The protagonist with the lush mountains of Darjeeling in the background of Hariyali Aur Rasta (1962).
Protagonist in the film Professor (1962) visiting the Royal Mansion of a Hindi speaking elite woman in Darjeeling. The military contractor is partying with his army friends and talking about his business in Darjeeling in the film Humraz (1967).

This form of bourgeois cinema created a certain abstraction of national identity that suppressed other identities, the "no land's man," either through stereotyping (through imagologies) or through absence. However, the opacity of such national bourgeois culture then came under harsh interrogation by the films of the New Cinema Movement (henceforth NCM) which can be said to have revived the question of the "no land's man." That is, it critiqued the very legitimacy of the Nehruvian project as well as the tropes of Transitional Cinema that dominated mainstream culture till the late sixties.