When we seek out very old cinema, we usually watch the celebrated classics first. Moving from one safety net to another, we construct narratives about how things used to be. For instance, it has become a cliché to say that the years just after independence were a time of Nehruvian idealism, best represented by Raj Kapoor’s early work. Black-marketers and other villains did exist on screen, and film-makers like Bimal Roy dealt with evils such as caste discrimination, but there was usually a strong note of affirmation in the end: Principled nation-building was presented as a real, sustainable goal.
Later, this conventional narrative has it, the erosion of those dreams was depicted in more hard-edged films such as Satyakam (1969). And a generation after that, young people who had never first-hand known the idealism, only the disillusionment, could make jet-black satires such as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983); it was now possible to laugh openly about our woes.
Occasionally, however, one stumbles on an old film that resists attempts to fit it into a linear historical pattern. Such a film might show that the distant past wasn’t as dewy as many of us—traumatized by the deluge of bad news in our own information-loaded times—like to imagine.
I’m thinking about S.S. Vasan’s Mr Sampat, which I was introduced to at a recent talk by film historian Anil Choubey, and later watched in full on a faded YouTube print. Based very loosely on R.K. Narayan’s novel Mr Sampath: The Printer Of Malgudi, this 1952 film is outwardly breezy in tone: Its title character, a gentleman rogue played by Motilal, spends all his time conning people and slipping away whenever things get hot (“Have to go,” he says in English. “I have an important engagement. Cheerio.”).
Yet this is also a cynical satire, and some of its best moments involve performances staged by an activist theatre group and its popular female lead Miss Malini (Padmini)—it is here that the film sounds a clarion call for change while also exhibiting an awareness of how deep-rooted society’s problems are.
Mr Sampat is full of funny vignettes, and it spares no one: The hypocrisies of politicians are lampooned, but so are the double standards of regular people who hide alcohol in bottles meant for Ganga jal. An old man fondles a necklace as he utters repetitive gibberish about the plight of the poor. A neta wearing a Gandhi cap makes flowery speeches; a rabble-rousing Communist proposes kranti (revolution) as a fix-all remedy, but still says little of worth (“If we see anyone hungry, we will tear the skies asunder,” he bellows, and the camera rotates dramatically as if to mock his hubris; canted angles are used in this scene, parodying the famous “Russian tilt” in the films that so many early socialist Indian directors loved).
Little wonder that poor people sing about there being no place—“Kahin bhi jagah nahin”—for them anywhere. Buses are overcrowded, so are hospitals, and even jails. We would die and go to hell, one man says, but even there, God would tell us “jagah nahin”.
One of my favourite sequences begins with another song that has obvious resonance today. “Achhe din aa rahe hain (Good days are coming), hurrah!” exult a group of dancers. This is the precursor to a fantasy scene set a decade later, in an utopian India of 1963. Time-travelling to this glorious new place, Miss Malini and a friend watch as people pick up things at a store and deposit the money in a box (no cashiers needed; everyone is honest), and ping-pong tables fill a police station (no crime; the police have little else to do). Let’s stay here and not return to 1952, the friend says, to which Miss Malini replies: Oh no, this 1963 is just a dream; it is up to us to go back to our time and work hard to make this dream a reality.
That sounds like plain old-fashioned message-mongering, but Mr Sampat’s dominant tone is not so simple or naïve. The Achhe Din song has a coda where the singers wonder sarcastically where the promised days are. Here is a film made at a time when the optimistic cheer of azadi (freedom) was at its peak, and the first of the Five Year Plans had just been launched—yet it is startlingly irreverent in tone. By the last scene, Mr Sampat no longer seems so much like a charlatan; his attitude to life appears almost reasonable in a world where, if you’re honest and poor, good times are always just around the corner, but always just out of reach.
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.