Murmurs of a Different Dream: Progressive Writers and Their Contribution to Indian Cinema

There was a phase, a period of wild expectation and tumult, when Progressive Writers and their inheritors ruled Hindi cinema.

This is the fifth article in a series on the history of the Indian film industry. Also read: Part I Part II | Part III | Part IV

“Youth is not the name for poetic ecstasy and sighing over the coyness, perverseness and vanity of the fair sex, it is the name of idealism, courage, endurance and sacrifice.”

∼ Munshi Premchand, speaking at the first Progressive Writers Conference held along the sidelines of the Indian National Congress session in Lucknow, 1936.

War clouds were forming over Europe when Munshi Premchand stood up to deliver his presidential address at the Progressive Writers conference, held at Lucknow on the sidelines of the Indian National Congress session, in April 1936. His quest for a career in films ended a year earlier when his film The Mill Mazdoor, written for Ajanta Cinetone was banned by the censor board in Bombay and pulled out from theatres elsewhere.

The rise of Nazism coinciding with the final chapter of the struggle for independence provided a sombre background for his remarks, that were probably informed by his own experience with an industry that was then obsessed with slapstick, stunts and theatrical flights of fancy. For the film goers in Bombay, Hunterwali, Frontier Mail and Diamond Queen by Fearless Nadia were the bigger draw.

It was a time of contrasts, the 1930s. In 1932, Rashid Jahan, Sajjad Zahir, Ahmed Ali and Mahmudduzafar released a collection of short stories, titled Angare. Angare scoffed at the obsequiousness of the middle class, the social ills and the stuffy patriarchy prevalent in the society at that time. It was promptly banned by the colonial administration and was called a “filthy pamphlet” by the All-India Shia Conference.

Mulk Raj Anand’s first novel, The Untouchable, was published in 1935. It painted a searing image of the oppressive caste system in India. Anand and the authors of Angare would together lay down foundations for the Progressive Writers Conference and its offshoot, the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA).

Progressive Writers in Bombay, 1946: Sultana Jafri, Ismat Chugtai, Vishwamitra Adil, Ali Sardar Jafri, Krishan Chander, Mahendranath, Mumtaz Hussain, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Habib Tanvir. Picture courtesy: India-Pak Heritage group

Their inheritors would go on to storm the bastions of the film industry in the 1940s and shake its foundations, replacing the slapstick and soapy fare prevalent at that time with content infused with social consciousness, purpose, hope and a sense of impatience and anger with the powers that be. Armed with the heft of their pen, a worldly outlook and the power of language, which was Urdu, they would set out the socialistic vision for India in images and stories, thus doing the heavy leg work for the founding fathers of the newborn nation.

But back in the early to mid 1930s, they were just about getting started. Khwaja Ahmed Abbas had landed in Bombay and was working as a journalist. Majrooh Sultanpuri had just opened a dawakhana at Sultanpur. Sahir Ludhianvi was coming to terms with the separation of his parents and the rupture that it caused with his father, who represented, for him, his first brush with a feudalistic mindset. Krishan Chander had just got his first short story, ‘Sadhu’, published, and Jan Nisar Akhtar had taken to academics and teaching in Gwalior. The stage in Bombay stood empty for them in the 1930s, awaiting their coming, as they, together with many others who would follow in their footsteps, observed the events as they unfolded.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

On October 1, 1938, German armies walked into Sudetenland, thus inciting a conflagration that would eventually lead to the Second World War. Shortly thereafter, in August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact sealed the tactical alignment of unlikely bedfellows, Nazis and the Communists. Both Hitler and Stalin wanted to buy time, but in a very indirect way, this event would create ripples within the socio-political scene in India. The communists and the vocal denizens of the Congress Socialist Party thought that Stalin had pulled out a trick from his bag by tactically aligning with the Nazis to see out imperialism.

Lord Linlithgow, in the meanwhile, had by then committed India and its vast resources, human and economic, yet another time, to the Second World War. Outrage burst through in the streets. A wave of civil disobedience imperilled the authority of the colonial administration. But then, in 1941, Germany binned the treaty and launched Operation Barbarossa – a full scale invasion into Russia. The uneasy alliance between the Communists and the Congress gave away, with the likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz joining the Imperial Army decisively to fight the menace of Nazism. The Congress renewed its pressure on the war administration through the “Quit India” movement.

Since films were subject to heavy censorship and the country was not yet independent, the Progressive Writers Association tread a delicate space by equivocating Imperialism and Nazism as a common enemy of the oppressed nations of this world.

The Progressive Writers Association moved to Bombay by 1943. Film studios, theatres, coffee houses, newspaper offices and mushairas were frequented by the likes of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Chetan Anand, Mehboob Khan, Rajinder Krishen, Inder Raj Anand, Saadat Hassan Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Kaifi Azmi and Jan Nisar Akhtar, to name just a few. All through the 1940s, and well into the ’50s, they poured into Mumbai Central, from Lahore, Amritsar, Malihabad, Sultanpur Ludhiana, Lucknow, Gwalior and many other mofussil towns of India, to change the idiom of the Indian film industry for years to come.

They wrote plays for Prithvi theatre, became film publicists, lyricists, story writers, scenarists, screenplay and dialogue writers, and gave the best of their creative energies to engender progressive thought, to recast the idiom of Hindi films so that it reflected the demands of a country that was undergoing the pangs of a very painful re-birth. They triggered a wave of stories, films and songs that challenged the status quo, asked questions about institutionalised oppression and shaped the ethos and thinking of the newly independent country. They gave the tattered soul of the country, bloody from Partition and the fratricide that followed, a reason to dream for another day.

Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, stung by the scenes of people dying, during the Bengal famine, on the streets of Calcutta, let loose his angst in films like Dharti Ke Laal. Chetan Anand cloaked the imperialist as the bourgeois in Neecha Nagar. Jaagte Raho mocked the fake urbanism amongst the naked social realities of the time and Awara, again written by Abbas, served as a pean to the virtuosity of the poor, the disadvantaged.

For a nation that needed the balm of harmony following the devastation of partition, Sultanpuri presented: “Tu Hindu Banega na Musalman Banega, Insan ki aulad hai Insan Banega”. To the people who had lost everything on that glorious morning of Independence, Ludhianvi wrote “Woh  subah kabhi to ayegi”.  Shailendra, who met Raj Kapoor at an IPTA event for the first time, wrote “Mujhko ye narak na chaihiye, mujh ko phool, mujhko preet, chahiye. Mujhko chahiye bahaar”,

The progressive writers combined the rotting feudalism of Do Bigha Zameen (1953) with the optimism of a new nation, with Naya Daur (1957). They prefaced the simmering anger of Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) with the idealism of Satyen Bose’s Jagriti (1954). They alternated between Nehru’s vision of India and the simmering bitterness and inequality that remained unresolved and unquenched despite the dawn of independence. The latter shone through a slew of films from Guru Dutt like Pyaasa (1957), Kagaz Ke Phool (1959) wherein Ludhianvi and Azmi breaking the hegemony of the Tarz or tune, over words, by giving us poetry on celluloid. Ye kooche ye neelam ghar dilkashi ke” and “Dekhi zamane ki yaari”  are examples of such gems.

“Mother India” 1957, was significant for many reasons. Mehboob Khan idolised Nehru and this movie is a homage to his socialistic vision for the country. The film introduced two powerful images that would continue to dominate the film industry for decades, the “Angry young man” and the “All sacrificing, idealist, benign mother”.

The 1950s were a golden age for films and filmmaking, not just because of the brilliance of the songs, locales, stories, drama and romance. It was golden because the kernel of progressive thought that pulsated the environs of Bombay inadvertently pumped the vitality of its essence, as poetry, stories, song and dance, into the veins of the Indian heartland through the mofussil cinema halls and radio stations that dotted the countryside. It was golden because at its most vulnerable, the films may have played a role in preventing the country from succumbing to its darkest instincts.

The business of films can have its moments of idealism and this can, in exceptional cases, sit in sync with commercial motives as well, but as the ’50s turned to ’60s, the freshness of independence was fading. Idealism gave way to rock ’n’ roll. Tally Ho” (China Town, 1962) was the way the youth wanted to groove. People wanted to see the world through the eyes of their debonair heroes and heroines as they romanced in Darjeeling, Shimla and Kashmir. They wanted the leading pair to walk away into the mist hand in hand to new beginnings. Social issues could wait for another day. The struggle against “new” imperialism, apartheid, the civil rights movement, Woodstock and Vietnam war bypassed the Indian sub-continent as aspiration supplanted social justice and realism.

As the stories changed and with them the tunes and locales, our progressive writers let their natural talents rip through their scripts, dialogues and lyrics. Some of them attended parties into the wee hours of the morning and drank to the towering nature of their success. They gathered hangers on, formed coteries, engaged in ego spats, worked and partied late into the night at their newly acquired sea facing abodes.

But brilliance was always an inspiration away. Ludhianvi, ever the socialist, wrote,

“Zulm phir zulm hai, badhta hai to mit jaata hai
khoon phir khoon hai, tapkega to jam jayega.

(Oppression is but oppression, it cannot surge without being wiped out.
Blood is but blood, let out, it will eventually clot.)”

as Congo slid into kleptocracy with the arrest and eventual assassination of Patrice Lumumba, in 1961.

Sultanpuri managed to get himself imprisoned in 1951 by Morarji Desai, then chief minister of the Bombay Presidency. Of all things, this was for criticising Nehru as the daas or slave of the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, Desai did not rise to the occasion to deserve these lines written by Sultanpuri,

“sutūn-e-dār pe rakhte chalo saroñ ke charāġh
jahāñ talak ye sitam kī siyāh raat chale

(Light up the lamp poles with severed heads,
until this night of tyranny rages on).”

These  were meant for the coloniser. But when the situation demanded, he could also come up with: “Cat mane billi, rat mae chooha….”  For “Dilli ka thug” (1958).

The effervescent ’60s ended with a sting in its tail, that is, the emergence of the elaborate family drama. Tragic father, dispersed families, conflicted brothers, strong mother and an all-black, no white, villain figure. B.R. Chopra’s Waqt (1965) heralded this change in the filmic language. The romantic musical gave way to thrillers like Ittefaq (1969) and Aadmi aur Insaan (1969) with a new breed of filmmakers led by the Chopra brothers (B.R. and Yash) leading the charge. This new setting required a blend of idealism and tainted innocence, which our progressive writers did well to adapt to.

New names came to the fore: Anand Bakshi, R.D. Burman, Indeevar, Gulshan Kumar, Kadar Khan and many others saw that sliver of opportunity as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s. Gulzar burst into the scene as the heir apparent to progressive writers. He would carry their torch of visual poetry, allegorical, insurgent, devastating and simple, all at the same time. Ludhianvi paged back to his magnum opus of poems Talkhiyan, published way back in the 1940s to give us the album “Kabhie Kabhie” (1976) – “Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon”

The progressive writers had come to town, changed the syntax of the language of films, but they had become a part of it too.

By the early ’70s, the rumblings of a nation that had failed its early promise were showing through. Raging inflation, unemployment and cronyism intermingled with inequalities that stayed inured from the promise of the democratic franchise. The romancing in the hill stations and the rock ‘n’ roll did not cut it, when the nation was outraged by war, a nuclear test, abolition of the privy purse and a near totalitarian grip of Indira Gandhi over the ruling party, and by extension, India.

It was in these circumstances that a police official’s son from Indore, an actor who had not quite made it, met up with the estranged son of one of the leaders of the Progressive Writers movement. The first was Salim Khan, and the other was Javed Akhtar, son of Jan Nisar Akhtar. They met on the sets of Sarhadi Lootera (1966), a film in which Salim was playing one of the leads and for which Javed was the clap boy cum assistant director. As the scriptwriter of the film went missing very early on during the making of the film, Javed rehashed the dialogues on the set and that is when the association between the two began. Javed brought the frustration, chutzpah, depth and antipathy together with the gift of language that was his inheritance, to the relationship, whereas Salim was the master in developing the story, and characters and the critical set pieces that moved the story forward. Together, they would rewrite the template for Hindi films for the next three decades.

Salim-Javed duo during their early days together.

Salim-Javed brought a language that was unheard of before, in films. The stories they wrote were fast moving, pulsating thrillers. Their screenplay sizzled with confrontational set pieces. Mother vs son, son vs father, brother vs brother, hero vs villain, friend vs friend. But the icing on the cake were the dialogues: “Main aaj bhi pheke hue paise nahin uthata…”

It is difficult to translate this one. This rage, arrogance and impertinence could be born only out of vulnerability and hurt. It was a far cry from the idealist hero that Hindi films had seen so far. They needed someone who could capture this new hero with the urban bearing, baritone and tones of grey. That person was Amitabh Bachchan.

The scene from Deewar: “Mere paas ma hei”.

In Bachchan they found the rage, simmering intensity and the vulnerability required for the Hero of that time. The string of Bachchan starrers that took shape through their pens – Majboor, Deewar, Zanjeer, Sholay, Trishul, Kala Patthar and Dostana defined the ’70s and the ’80s. The industry got so addicted to the duo and Bachchan, that they overdid all of them. By the ’90s, Salim had retired, Javed had turned to writing lyrics for friends and family and Bachchan was licking his wounds from an inconsequential brush with politics and business.

The burden of carrying the flag for progressive, socially relevant cinema moved into the hands of Shyam Benegal, Sai Paranjape, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza and others. They squeezed in an odd matinee show or two among a deluge of senseless potboilers.  A romantic interlude in ’80s with films such as Betaab (1983), Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981), Love Story (1981) and Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) served briefly as a diversion to the rampant encroachment of violence and formulaic set pieces unleashed by the unworthy inheritors of the Salim-Javed legacy.

A few survivors from the earliest era of idealism saw through this phase as well. Majrooh Sultanpuri had everything covered from K.L. Saigal’s “Jab dil hi toot gaya”(1946) to “Akele Hum Akele Tum” (1995). Inder Raj Anand who started off with writing scripts for Prithvi Theatres in the 1940s closed with the Bachchan hit Shahenshah (1988). Ramanand Sagar, an avid IPTA activist, who wrote the script for the Raj Kapoor starrer Barsaat (1949), was also the one who sowed the seeds of Hindu political revivalism through the 1980 Doordarshan serial Ramayan. The arc of history can sometimes become a huge, all encompassing, uncomfortable, tent.

The ’90s were a blur, a virtual khichdi with a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” mentality pervading the industry. Quantity, not quality, became the norm. Dialogues were written on the sets, with one-upmanship reigning between the various stars that crowded the potboilers.  The songs were bawdy with plagiarism being the norm. As if to keep pace with this degeneration, Harshad Mehta turned up at a press conference in 1992, to show how he bribed the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao a total sum of Rs 1 crore.

With the looming threats to the viability of the medium, the closure of cinema halls and the improved means of ensuring the integrity of content produced through digital encryption, big production houses today are complex forward integrated dream factories. Their story departments create stories through workshops and storyboards. Bound scripts are back in use. Plot pivots are workshopped, and focus grouped. There is no Khwaja Ahmad Abbas who would invest in a story and make it into a film because he believes in it. Films often get sold before the shooting begins. Actors are co-collaborators and share the brickbats and bouquets of the film’s failure, in commercial terms. Controversy is not always good for business, and no one really wants to know who really wrote the script.

Today’s leading script writers, scenarists, dialogue writers and lyricists require a different sensibility, and they are not bigger than their projects, unlike Salim-Javed. Our script writers today do not engage in geopolitics, nor do they write words of outrage on the happenings of the world.

It was a phase, a period of wild expectation and tumult, when Progressive Writers and their inheritors ruled Hindi cinema. Today, their ghosts have been exorcised and their voices are mere whispers in forgotten lanes which still carry some of their imprints.

Manoj Kumar is an England-based information security specialist who moonlights as a blogger with interests in cybersecurity, pop culture, politics and films.