(This review first appeared in the Live Mint newspaper)
Film-maker B.R. Chopra's Naya Daur, reincarnated in colour, is still relevant to us. The script pitches people against profit, evoking familiar human struggles. The onslaught on peoples' livelihoods and survival has gained serious dimensions ever since the movie was first released in 1957. As special economic zones threaten to edge poor farmers out from their traditional vocation; as sprawling shopping malls raze the livelihoods of neighbourhood vendors; and as the business of retailing challenges the existence of small-time traders, the symbolic battle between machine and hands has seemingly reached a collision course. Naya Daur had only scripted the contours of a simmering social discontent, the myriad conflicts surfacing today reflect the real story.
All is well in an almost idyllic village that hums to its daily rhythm-between small farmers, sawmill workers and horse cart owners. No sooner does the benign mill owner leave on a pilgrimage than the rhythm turns into chaos, as his city-bred son smells profit in his father's business. A new machine at the mill throws workers out of their jobs and the introduction of a bus threatens to wean the cart owners out of their vocation.
Salted with several absorbing sub-stories, Chopra's Naya Daur, the heart-in-the-right-place classic, questions the human cost of progress. By pitching man against the machine, the story may not have come up with the perfect solution to the eternal struggle between the capitalists and the masses, the humanist issues it raises nevertheless remain timeless and urgent.
Should a movie like Naya Daur matter to a growing middle class that is busy plucking the fruits of growth? Does the fight between men and machine hold any relevance when mechanization has become a symbol of progress? Will rich lyrics and haunting music capture a generation that survives on an overdose of remixed music with nasal overtones? The elusive answer is: The taste of the pudding lies in eating it.
The movie may superficially seem like an anti-machine Luddite creed, with its poor, tonga-riding protagonist winning an all-important race against the rich bus-riding capitalist. However, deep down the protagonist delivers a message of inclusive growth when he says: "We don't hate the machine, but it should secure our daily meal as well."
He thus debunks the myth that what is good for business will eventually trickle down enough to be good for the rest of us.
Chopra manages to deliver the final punch when the mill owner reprimands his son: "You took a right step, but in a wrong direction!" Stretch these words to understand the nature of expanding businesses of the day and their collusion with the powers that be and one gets a glimpse of the anti-democratic feudalism in its most raw and naked form-just as the kings and the nobles of old sucked dry the resources of the people they claimed to own.
True to its title, Naya Daur stays ahead of the times. Between rustic romance and earthy camaraderie, between nature's rhythm and haunting melodies, between villainous overtures and defiant postures, the movie never loses direction of its script. Its climactic race between the tonga and the bus, reminiscent of the chariot race in Ben-Hur, not only reflects sheer technical excellence, but demonstrates the triumph of human spirit that in all fairness has been laid to rest.
O.P. Nayyar's timeless number, Saathi haath badhana, is an invocation to the youth for collective action towards dignified living. The message is loud and clear for countless youth who may have either become deaf to the abusive outrage as they take calls at the bustling call centres or may have been conditioned to take solace in being cyber coolies for their clients. Naya Daur reminds us to raise questions on the increasing corporate control over people's lives and livelihoods.