Thanks to new TV channels like Zee Classic and Set Max2, a lot of old Hindi classics have gained entry into our drawing rooms yet again. During the Doordarshan days, we would invariably end up watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi on Aug 15 or Oct 2 every year. Yesterday, I happened to watch Upkar (1967) after many years. Since childhood, the one song that has been an instant recall at the very mention of patriotism has been Mere desh ki dharti.
|A nation resting on the rifles of its soldiers
and hoes of the farmers
Manoj Kumar had written and directed Upkar, a story about two brothers – Bharat (Manoj Kumar) and Puran (Prem Chopra), who choose different paths in life. Bharat, who supports the family working in the fields every day, is educated but chooses to stay back in the village, as he feels that it’s one’s duty to till the land and feed the nation. Puran studies in the city and wants to return to the comforts that come with urban life. Differences crop up between the brothers, after Puran’s ears are poisoned by his uncle and a local trader. Very soon, he demands the partition of their ancestral land. Bharat, in order to maintain the dignity of his land, gives it entirely to Puran and walks away to join the army. War breaks out between India and Pakistan. Puran joins ranks with hoarders and black marketers, who create an artificial food shortage in the market. Bharat gets badly injured in the war and returns, almost bleeding to death. Meanwhile, Puran, realising the malicious intent of his uncle, becomes a government approver and helps the police nab hoarders and black marketers. Bharat needs to be operated upon and his hands have to be cut off. Bharat undergoes great mental agony after he loses his hands in an operation. But the next day, he sees Puran tilling their ancestral land. Bharat has regained the arms, once lost to partition. The favours (Upkar) of the mother earth can now be returned.
|Asha Parekh as Doctor Kavita,
who studies in a city but practices in the villages
|Upkar was the genesis of Prem Chopra donning shades of grey,
before he went on to play villanous roles in other films
Upkar begins where Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed (based on the life of Bhagat Singh) ends and tells the story of a nation fighting its problems after independence. While Shaheed was about the struggle involved in creating a new nation, Upkar discusses the issues involved in preserving the integrity of a young nation state. The film opens with a dedication to the former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Manoj Kumar had shown his film Shaheed to Shastri, who was very impressed with the work and asked Manoj Kumar to make a film on the farmers and jawans of India. It’s with that thought that Upkar’s story was written. After independence, India’s educated elite, especially the English-educated, saw themselves as different from the masses of the country and failed to understand the real issues of India. In such a scenario came Manoj Kumar’s Bharat, who was educated but chose to fight the problems of his motherland. India was undergoing an acute food crisis in the mid 1960s and Shastri had then decided to fast every Monday, a practice, which was replicated by masses across the country in solidarity with the PM. Led by a morally upright Prime Minister, the average Indian was willing to slog an extra mile to see a better tomorrow.
The storyline revolved around most of the burning issues of the 1960s. This generation was born a few years before independence and was also the last torchbearer of Gandhian idealism. This group often came in conflict with the group that was growing restless and wanted to break off from the old rules. Collectivism of India was in direct conflict with the new individualistic culture. Urbanisation had made land a commodity and inadequate agricultural production pushed the nation towards starvation. Rural life has obviously been glorified in Upkar. Urban India has been criticized for encouraging a new class structure, where one section consists of owners and the other of workers.
|Upkar marked the beginning of a new phase in Pran’s career.
As Malang chacha, he made a shift to character roles
Bharat’s battle against hoarders, overpopulation and rural-urban migration constantly resonated with the masses who watched Upkar, who wanted the old idealism to live on. Asha Parekh played the village doctor Kavita, who spoke to the women about family planning and its advantages, a decade before Sanjay Gandhi launched his sterilization campaign. Asha Parekh wanted to be a doctor in real life but ended up in the film industry and hence, was elated to play the role of a doctor on-screen . The rise of demagogues and public rationing is attacked in Pran’s dialogue, “ Rashan (Ration) pe bhashan bohot milta hai, par bhashan pe rashan koi nahi”. Kanhaiyalal, who had made the character of Sukhilala, the evil money lender, immortal in Mother India, repeated his feat in Upkaras well.
|Puran returns to lend support to his elder brother after he loses his hands
and repay the debts of Mother Earth
In the scene where Puran demands partition of the ancestral land, his brother says, almost echoing a wounded nation, “Main Bharat hoon. Hamesha hi batware ke khilaf raha hoon. Main batwara hone nahi doonga.” (I’m Bharat. I’ve always been against partition and I will not let it happen). It was the voice of a nation that had been cut into three two decades back. The release of Upkaralso coincided with the Green Revolution, which changed the face of agriculture for in the northern plains for a long time.
Manoj Kumar went on to make Purab Aur Paschim a few years later, where he tackled the topic of brain drain. Upkar caught the imagination of the nation. In 1968, the film was the top grosser at the box office and won six Filmfare awards, for Best Lyricist (Gulshan Bawra – Mere desh ki dharti), Best Dialogue, story and director (Manoj Kumar), Best Supporting Actor (Pran) and Best Movie. Mahendra Kapoor won the National Award for the song Mere desh ki dharti and Upkar also won the President’s silver medal for the Best Feature film. Many parts of Upkar might seem didactic today but nevertheless, the fears expressed in the movie continue to haunt the country even today. In the end, Upkar is a call to the nation to rise and take collective responsibilities. It’s sad that Manoj Kumar has become a subject for parodies today, with his face palm gesture. But his Bharat continues to be the prototype of a patriotic hero, who takes ownership and delivers for a cause. Let the idealism live on.