Call of the countryside

The recently released Summer 2007 is set in a village. M. L. Dhawan looks at films on rural India

In Lagaan, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and his fellow villagers protest against increase in land tax.
In Lagaan, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and his fellow villagers protest against increase in land tax.
Sohail Tatari’s Summer 2007 raises the issue of suicides by farmers.
Sohail Tatari’s Summer 2007 raises the issue of suicides by farmers.

Since the success of Yash Raj Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, rural settings have become fashionable in Hindi cinema. However, the overdressed farmer families in these films appear more like an NRI filmmaker’s idea of rural India. Filmmakers like Bimal Roy, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani etc have tried to capture the toil and struggle of farm labourers.

Of the new breed of filmmakers, Sohail Tatari’s Summer 2007 brings back the focus on rural India. The story is of five young doctors played by Sikander Kher, Gul Panag, Uvika, Arjan and Alekh, who like many of their generation, are unaware of the ills afflicting rural India. Their month-long posting in a village turns into a soul-searching journey. They confront their own fears and complexes in the circumstances of the village. They have to make a choice — to leave the mess just as they have found it and get away from there or get involved and bring about a change. In this process, they undergo a metamorphosis and realise that there is much more to do than living in isolation. The film raises the issue of suicides by farmers.

In Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004), Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan), a project manager at NASA, returns to India to find his roots and so begins his journey into the heartland of rural India. He realises that by understanding the societal complexities he can make the villagers better their lot. When he looks into a classroom and overhears the old teacher talking to his pupils, he is touched by their moral values.

Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) is set in the latter half of the 19th century in a drought-hit village in North India. When Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthrone), a British officer of the nearby cantonment, demands double the usual land tax from the villagers, the representatives of the farmers oppose him. Captain Russell then challenges them to a game of cricket with his team as a condition to waive off the ‘lagaan’. Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a young villager, accepts the challenge and builds his own team of villagers and finally wins the match.

Manoj Kumar in Upkaar tackled the issue of the consequences of the farmers leaving agriculture and moving to cities. Upkaar represented Bharat, the farmer who uses his education to bring about a change. His Ram was not the oppressed farmer of Do Bigha Zamin or a Mother India. He was educated and never compromised on his dignity. He was an ideal farmer. The story of a man and the land both named Bharat struck a chord with the viewers.

In the India of the 1930s-40s, the theme of the struggle of the peasant against the all-powerful zamindar became very popular. In Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Shambhu Mahato (Balraj Sahni) has to move to Calcutta with his son to earn money to retrieve his mortgaged land from the zamindar. He refused to sell his land to the landowner who wanted to construct a factory there. But by the time he is able to arrange for the money, it is too late and the site of his now demolished house is fenced off by a barbed wire. The watchdog of the zamindar prevents Shambhu from carrying even a handful of soil from the land.

In Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (1976), which was financed by members of the Farmers Milk Cooperative in Gujarat and the National Dairy Development Board, Dr Rao, a veterinarian, is sent to the village to set up a milk cooperative. The local powers are not willing to let him succeed. But Bholla — a Harijan (Naseeruddin Shah) manages to unite the villagers and convinces them that the cooperative was for their own good. The film emphasised that the change in rural area should be brought by social groups and those who are the most oppressed can save themselves by getting united.

Nishant (1975), another film by Benegal, focuses on the power of the rural elite. In a village, four brothers who are the local zamindars are a terror in the village. When Girish Karnad, a teacher, is transferred to the village, his young wife (Shabana Azmi) is kidnapped and raped by the brothers. The teacher is told to go away with his son and forget his wife, but he sets about awakening the conscience of the villagers. During a religious ceremony at the haveli to obtain the blessings of the zamindars, the crowd becomes violent and riots break out. All the zamindars are killed, including the teacher’s wife.

In Benegal’s Ankur (1973), Surya (Anant Nag), the young son of a zamindar leaves his studies and supervises his lands. He has his young wife in the city. Alone in his ancestral house in the village, he starts seducing the maidservants. Surya seduces Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) after her deaf and dumb husband Kishtaya (Om Puri) runs away when caught for stealing palm liquor. Surya’s physical relation with Lakshmi comes to an end when his wife comes to the village. Lakshmi finds herself pregnant but refuses to get the child aborted. Lakshmi’s husband returns and goes to Surya to ask for work. Surya, in his guilt, thinks that he has come to accuse him and starts beating him up mercilessly. Lakshmi rescues her husband and curses her ex-lover as well as the system he represents. The film ends with the scene in which a young boy throws a stone at the window of the mansion and the screen turns red — a sign of awakening.

Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), a remake of his earlier film Aurat (1940), was an illustration of a rural woman’s fight against male oppression as well as a celebration of a farmer’s will to save his land from domination by external forces.