Unemployment movies have been an important subset of city films from the 1950s right through the 1980s
It’s only 1954, but hope has already started curdling in post-independent India. “No Vacancy" signs are severely testing Ratan Kumar’s optimism, evidenced by his brave smile and the ability to break into song at will.
Bimal Roy’s Naukri tracks Ratan’s near-hopeless attempts to support himself and his mother and ailing sister in the village. His qualifications come to nought, and the only plus of living in a cheap boarding house in Kolkata is the attention of the woman next door. Roy doesn’t share Ratan’s positive attitude—Naukri takes its cue from Do Bigha Zamin, released the previous year, and is relentlessly downbeat about the future of bright young men like Ratan and the ability of cities to provide for them.
The need to earn a living is the leitmotif of every movie about migration and every gangster drama. Unemployment movies have been an important subset of city films from the 1950s right through the 1980s. The rotten state of things in 1970s India led to two trilogies each by Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, which examine joblessness, social unrest, ideological tussles between leftism and capitalism, gender wars and the disintegration of the family unit (only Bengali cinema could have produced two trilogies that are different in treatment and temperament despite being set in the same city during the same time period).
K. Balachander’s Varumayin Niram Sivappu (Poverty Is Red in Colour), made in Tamil in 1980, simplifies things for audiences. The enemy is socialist India, which doesn’t allow smart, upper-caste men like Rangan (Kamal Haasan) to find work. Balachander specialized in examining the morality issues facing middle-class Tamilians, so it’s not surprising that his celebrated movie, which was remade in Hindi as Zara Si Zindagi, addresses his vote bank. Politics aside, Varumayin Niram Sivappu is, like many other Balachander movies, suffused with crackling dialogue, memorable scenes and superb performances. In the most well-known sequence, Rangan and his friends, who don’t want to lose face before their neighbour, bang their empty vessels and slurp and burp through a non-existent meal.
Haasan headlines another memorable 1980s treatise on joblessness. Singeetham Srinivasa Rao’s beautifully judged semi-silent Pesum Padam (1987), released in Hindi under the title Pushpak and Telugu as Pushpaka Vimanam, takes its cue from Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie.
Pesum Padam has a musical score by Ilaiyaraaja and background sounds, but its characters communicate through their faces rather than their voices. Haasan’s unnamed jobless graduate kidnaps a drunken businessman (Sameer Khakhar) and takes his place in the plush suite at the five-star hotel Pushpak (actually Bangalore’s Windsor Hotel). Our hero assiduously woos the daughter (Amala) of a magician performing at the hotel but sets aside some time every day to take care of the bowel movements of his prisoner. The story’s preoccupation with matters of excretion is telegraphed in an early sequence in which Haasan loses his place in the daily morning queue for the communal toilet.
If any of these movies were to be made today, their characters would have been holding a pink slip rather than a rejection letter. These days, unemployment has become a mid-career phenomenon.
What happens to a laid-off man with a family to support? In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (2008), Ryuhei’s first reaction to his sudden sacking is to lie. Unable to face his wife and sons, Ryuhei pretends he still has a job. He leaves his home with his briefcase every morning and hangs around parks during the day. He eventually finds work as a janitor at a mall.
Tokyo Sonata toggles between Ryuhei’s plight and the emotional meltdown of his other family members, so the story feels over-plotted at times, but it retains its starkness even in the most tragic moments. The best one lasts a few seconds. Ryuhei, accompanied by his new colleague, stands motionless and wordless in front of a toilet that has been assigned to him. For Ryuhei, as well as countless movie characters before him, shit truly happens.
This fortnightly column looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.
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