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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 48, November 22, 2014

The Nehru Daur

Saturday 22 November 2014, by Shyam Benegal

I remember the first time I saw Nehru.

It was soon after the police action that liberated Hyderabad from Nizam’s rule. I must have been about 12 at the time. A friend of mine and I were walking towards a disused golf course close to my home where we often played cricket. It was early in the morning. Two horsemen came cantering along on their horses. One was General J.N. Chaudhuri who was the Military Governor of Hyderabad at the time and the second was Jawaharlal Nehru. He looked like a bronze god. The second time I saw him was several years later at an Inter-University Youth Festival in New Delhi. He gave an extraordinarily inspirational speech which in fact changed the course of my life.

The early years of Independent India were times of great optimism. Nehru was the great hero, with his film star good looks and his charming manner. Also, he was an extremely inspiring leader, particularly for young people. Nehru in his youth was greatly inspired by the Russian Revolution. He travelled to the Soviet Union with his father in the late 1920s and was most impressed with the idea of the social engineering that he saw being attempted there. He was all for creating a new society but not necessarily by altogether dismantling the earlier economic and social structures. He substituted the ideal of socialist society with the term socialist pattern of the society which was described as a mixed economy with space for both private and public sector. He wanted a self-reliant India rather than attempting to make it self-sufficient.

Many mainstream film-makers were impacted by the optimism of the early Nehruvian years. The films of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas (‘Jagte Raho’, ‘Awara’) and others such as B R Chopra (‘Naya Daur’) were critical of the present but were extremely optimistic of the future. Their films were essentially Nehruvian in concept.

Another important development in the Nehruvian era were the creation of the three cultural academies—Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi and the Sahitya Akademi. The Film and Television Institute was founded during Nehru’s tenure. The FTII was designed to train film-makers who would create films that would reflect changes taking place in Indian society rather than turn out escapist fantasies which were the staple of mainstream cinema.

The impact of Nehruvian thinking was felt most significantly in Bengali, Malayalam, Kannada and Oriya cinema before it was felt in Hindi films. These films were clubbed together by the press and described as parallel cinema.

Most of the early graduates of the FTII, began to make films that were far more original and reflected social and aesthetic attitudes and views very much their own rather than being influ-enced by popular mainstream cinema of the time. Among the notable film-makers, who made their mark were Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan in Kerala, Girish Karnad in Karanataka, Nirad Mahapatra in Orissa among others. As far as Hindi cinema was concerned, there were film-makers like M.S. Sathyu and myself.

Hindsight criticism of Nehru has become fairly fashionable today. Nehru’s contribution, according to me, was a foundational one and contributed hugely in making India an independent-minded democratic country. What Nehru did was help open up minds to different kinds of thinking and to possibilities whose significance can never be underestimated.

My film ‘Ankur’ was essentially about social change. So was ‘Manthan’ while ‘Bhumika’ was about the liberation of women from the oppression they suffered in the traditional patriarchal society of our country. ‘Kondura’ was about breaking free of traditional superstitions that held society in thrall.

These were all influenced either directly or obliquely by the Nehruvian views on social change—the idea that one cannot develop society and move forward without actively helping to make far-reaching social changes.

These views are as relevant today as they were yesterday.

(As told to Mithila Phadke)

(Courtesy: The Times of India)

The author is a renowned film-maker.