Naya Daur is coming back to screens this week - after 50 years, in full colour. The black-and-white movie by BR Chopra, now digitally re-mastered in colour to be screened in multiplexes, in many ways symbolises the choices that confront generations. It makes me muse about how Bollywood and Indian economy are so closely connected.
While Naya Daur may be an object for entertainment for regular movie-goers, for some like me, the film is about Nehruvian economic policies and the highs and lows it faced.
Director Chopra, in many ways, was a Nehruvian, speaking for secularism, socialism and nation-building. Naya Daur, the Bollywood classic starring Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala, is about a struggle between tonga (horsecart)-drivers and a village contractor who introduces a bus that threatens their livelihood.
In the nice, simple stories of those days, the feelgood message was aimed to please those feared automation and mechanisation, though the march of technology is usually difficult to stop.
Naya Daur was made in 1957, a year after Nehru faced a famous dilemma when independent India embarked on its second five-year plan, the one where a strategy was required for growth after the First Plan healed some of the wounds caused by colonial rule and the Second World War.
"Temples of modern India"
Nehru’s plan executed by PC Mahalanobis was to back the “temples of modern India” in the form of a steel industry and big dams. A few years later, it ran into trouble in a nation where food and agriculture, in hindsight, was seen to be a bigger priority.
Economist Meghnad Desai has spoken of how Dilip Kumar’s screen persona symbolised Nehruvian policies.
As a student, I studied arguments from Amartya Sen (decades before he won the Nobel) on the dilemma of choosing between labour-intensive technologies that would create jobs and the capital-intensive ones that would generate savings to create more jobs and higher incomes for future generation.
Actually, there are no silver bullets to solve some problems. In hindsight, it seems that the public sector that Nehru created, and the Green Revolution for agriculture that his daughter Indira championed a decade later, have both contributed to the “India story” that every two-bit fund manager talks of these days.
It is a delicious irony that a movie on the choice of technology is being repackaged with digital tools, filled with colour and being screened in American-style multiplexes 50 years after Nehru kicked off a Soviet-style development plan.
In Naya Daur, a high point is the building of a rural road by villagers, made memorable in the song, “Saathi haath badhana,” which is some kind of an anthem for the Nehruvian era. A long way from that, World Bank-aided national highways have driven high economic growth in India over the past decade.
Where did these highways come from? Soviet aid or World Bank aid? I think the answer to that is “both”. Nehru and Indira Gandhi followed policies that straddled both Washington and Moscow while speaking of non-alignment. You could call it the middle path.
Notably, Naya Daur (New Age) was released in the same year (1957) as Pyaasa (The Thirsty), the Guru Dutt-starrer about an unemployed youth that questioned Nehruvian nationalism.
Fifty years on, looking back at Nehru’s policies, I find that he must have faced tough choices between marching to a new age and tending to the thirsty.
Movies were then made in black-and-white, and but political choices lay in the grey areas in between them.