1936 was an extraordinary time in Indian history. To capture the drama of that period in one single article is virtually impossible and so this two part series is but a humble attempt to review one of the most popular movies of that era in the background of socio-political realities of the time.
In today's installment we shall take stock of the backdrop in which Achut Kanya appeared. Part II will recapitulate the movie itself and the destiny of the characters involved.
The 1930s was a tumultuous period in Indian history. Mahatma Gandhi's Civil Disobedience movement a few years earlier had resulted in the Government of India Act 1935, which meant that India was at least partly administered by Indians. As India took the first, tentative steps towards self rule, Indian society too was undergoing a transformation. One of the burning issues of the day was the subject of untouchability.
The fight against untouchability under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar had emerged as a significant socio-political force in the late 20s. The round table conferences in the early 30s had resulted in the creation of seperate electorates for untouchables, before Gandhi's fast unto death resulted in a compromise, whereby 18% of the seats would be reserved for untouchables within the general electorate (the precursor to the reservations that would appear several years later).
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While Dr. Ambedkar's movement went from strength to strength, M.K. Gandhi too started his own movement for removing untouchability. Whereas the former set out to empower people of the lower castes, the later attempted to purge upper caste Hindu society of the curse of untouchability.
Indian Cinema in 1936
Untouchability was one of the most significant topics in the social discourse of the time. Inevitably, the cinema of the time would reflect those undercurrents.
The 1930s was a period when Indian filmmakers consciously took up socially relevant themes. Reformist movies like Shejari (1935- on communal harmony), Amar Jyoti (1936- on women's empowerment) and Manoos (1939- about alcoholism) were pretty much the order of the day.
Like Indian society, Indian cinema too was undergoing a profound transformation. With silent films being made as late as the early 30s, language cinema was pretty much in its infancy in the mid 1930s. Filmmakers accustomed to dialogue less cinema were just beginning to adapt to the challenges posed by the new medium. Many prominent faces of silent cinema like Master Vithal, Dinshaw Bilimoria and Sulochana (who would make a brief comeback) started fading away. Filmmakers were still grappling with the challenges posed by the new medium of talkies.
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It was in this environment that Bombay Talkies emerged in the mid 30s.
Bombay Talkies Limited was formed in 1934, the first Indian film company to be listed in a stock exchange. While Rajnarayan Dube gave the company financial muscle, the studio was the brainchild of Himanshu Rai (1896-1940). Passionate about cinema, Rai threw his life and soul into his work, to the neglect of his personal life.
His wife Devika Rani was the leading star of that era. With Sulochana (aka Ruby Myers) and Zubeida nearing the end of their careers and the likes of Fearless Nadia yet to emerge as a significant force, Devika Rani was the undisputed superstar of Hindi cinema in the mid 30s. While her professional career flourished, her personal life with Himanshu Rai was in shambles. It was rumoured that she was having affairs behind his back.
Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), staring Rani and Najmul Hassan, was the first movie produced by Bombay Talkies. It was also the first ever mystery film in the history of Indian cinema. As it happened, the release of the movie was soon followed by an even greater twist off screen. This time, it was in real life.
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The shooting of the next movie, Jeevan Naiya was already underway, when the Rani and Najmul Hassan's on-screen romance spilled over into real life, a story I have already recounted the story in my earlier article. Suffice it to say that the machinations that followed ended in the ouster of Hassan, who was replaced by Bombay Talkies' 24 year old lab assistant Kumudlal Ganguly, who was given the screen name Ashok Kumar.
And so the 24 year old Ashok Kumar found himself acting opposite Devika Rani- an awkward, boyish looking rookie opposite the prima donna of that era. Not that it mattered- the movie was Devika Rani's, with the 24 year old just making up the numbers. In keeping with the spirit of the time, Achut Kanya was based on the subject of untouchability.
The stage was set for one of the earliest super hits in the history of Hindi cinema.