"Dead machinery must not be pitted against the millions of living machines represented by the villagers scattered in the seven hundred thousand villages of India." So wrote Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, as a title card at the opening of Naya daur ("new era") declares. And so begins a movie that indeed pits milling machine against woodworker, bus against tonga, unthinking mechanized progress for its own sake against the value of human teamwork. It is in no way a fair fight. In the real world, obsolescence of traditional ways of life may be an inexorable consequence of modernization. In the movies, though, the rugged salt of the earth always get their romantic, improbable victories over the sneering, cravat-wearing forces that would cast them aside in the name of greed. And such victories are always satisfying.
Shankar (Dilip Kumar) and Kisna (Ajit) are the best of friends, village boys who grew up together. Shankar makes his living as a tonga driver. Kisna chops lumber for the local mill owner (Nazir Hussain), who treats his workers with tremendous compassion, and reiterates his belief that his money and the workers' labor are in symbiosis, neither superior in value to the other. The mill owner leaves for a pilgrimage, though, and his son Kundan (Jeevan), who takes over operations, doesn't see things the same way - he brings in machines and fires all the woodworkers. Meanwhile, the bond of friendship between Shankar and Kisna is threatened when both fall in love with Rajni (Vijayantimala). Believing that Shankar has tricked him out of his chance with Rajni, Kisna allies with Kundan, who hires a bus to put the tongewale out of business. When the tongewale confont him, Kundan challenges them to a race. If your tonga can beat my bus to the temple, he says, I'll send the bus away and you can have your business back. Shankar accepts the challenge. But first he will have to get all the villagers working together to build a shortcut road for his tonga to outpace the bus. And the fire of Kisna's rage burns brightly enough to threaten not just this ambitious public works project, but Shankar's very life.
My friend @maxqnz described Naya daur as "the Lagaan of its time." The comparison is not merely apt - Lagaan clearly owes a great debt to Naya daur, and even quotes from it. For instance, in one scene, a boy asks Kisna to carve a stick and ball for him out of a hunk of lumber. The scene in which Shankar accepts Kundan's challenge to the race - the incredulity of the other tongewale, and Shankar's speech about the value of taking some action over taking no action, however long the odds - also seems echoed in Lagaan. Both movies feature the unlikely triumph of a ragtag bunch of villagers against sinister outside forces that senselessly oppress them. In both movies, the livelihood of the village is at stake. In both movies, a man is driven by unrequited love to betray the villagers and serve as a double-agent for the enemy, and is later moved to redemption by the magnanimity of the hero. And in both movies, the heroine does little beyond smile and pout charmingly as the hero brings the villagers together for their victory against the odds.
So the similarities between Lagaan and Naya daur are much more than superficial. Lagaan is one of my all-time favorite movies, and as its antecedent, Naya daur matches up very well as an entertaining and inspiring fable about unity and courage. I have never been a great Dilip Kumar fan - his acting style is often smug and mumbly, and he makes me think too much of Shah Rukh Khan to be of much appeal. Here, though, he is relatively natural and charming enough. Shankar's friendship with Kisna is delightfully portrayed, and one's heart breaks for Kisna when a misunderstanding drives them apart. Indeed, Ajit as Kisna nearly steals the show from Dilip Kumar - he is startlingly handsome, and his expressive face shows tremedous emotional range, from innocent joy to malevolent, jealous rage.
There is some rich symbolism in Kisna's arc. In his unholy alliance with Kundan, Kisna sabotages a bridge that the villagers have built at a key point along the road that Shankar's tonga will take in its race against Kundan's bus. After Shankar's sister sets Kisna on his path to redemption, he works feverishly to repair the beams he has removed from the bridge, and ends up supporting the bridge with his own bodily strength as the tonga passes overhead during the race. Thus the villager's ultimate success rests literally as well as figuratively on Kisna's redemption and the power of his friendship with Shankar. Without that bond, there is no victory.
Like Lagaan, Naya daur is punctuated by a number of excellent songs. While through most of the movie Vijayantimala's charm is as wasted as Gracy Singh's, her magnificent dancing skills are well displayed.
The most inspiring sequence in the film comes in the superb song "Saathi haath badhana," in which the villagers - men and women alike - work together to build their literal road to victory. This song has a terrific modern-sounding refrain combined with a classic midcentury filmi melody, along with lovely visuals.
There's lots of pure entertainment too, including a song tailor-made for me, "Reshmi salwaar kurta jaali ka," in which a cross-dressing girl romances another girl.
I've been told that a colorized version of Naya daur was released fairly recently, and that's obviously the version the above clip comes from. The black and white original of this song does not appear to be available on YouTube, and it's a pity, because the music track is better (it lacks the strange synthesized chords that fill out the sound but don't match the folks tonality of the tune at all), and it also has a couple of shots that are missing from the color version, such as the delighted head-bobbing of this enthusiastic fellow, which pretty well conveys how I felt while watching the song:
Jeevan cuts a fine villainous figure as always, with his outlandishly effete clothing (has anyone ever looked more ridiculous in a pair of Jodhpurs?) and his ever-present riding crop, with all of the attendant phallic symbolism.
What more can you ask of a Hindi movie than charismatic stars, excellent songs, and a rich, unsubtle populist message of unity and the importance of preserving traditional village values in the face of modernization and westernization? Naya daur begins with the words of Gandhi and ends in Gandhian triumph, offering a full complement of romance, buddy-pyaar, villainy, betrayal, naach-gaana, and a even few Johnny Walker pratfalls in between. It's about as perfect a midcentury filmi experience as there is.