Midnight’s Children, Infants and Young Adults in Bombay Cinema of Nehruvian India

Museum of Art & Photography

Curated by Kaushik Bhaumik

A slew of films in the 1950s tried to question the outcomes of Indian independence via child protagonists. Some films were mainly about children, others placed them in domestic contexts.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Jawahar', Unkown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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A 'lost' film from 1960- the Lekhraj Bhakri-produced Jawahar starring Balraj Sahni. Nothing much is known about what the film was about.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Boot Polish' featuring Baby Naaz, Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The Raj Kapoor-produced Boot Polish (1954) directed by Prakash Arora is an all-time children's film classic in India's film history. Very directly inspired by Vittoria de Sica's Italian Neo-Realist cinema featuring children, the film is about the vicissitudes of orphans left to fend for themselves in the big bad cities of India.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Boot Polish' featuring Rattan Kumar, Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Lobby card produced for Hindi film, 'Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain' (1966) by UnknownMuseum of Art & Photography

All Kinds of Children

There were films about single protagonists, about siblings, friends and about an ensemble of kids.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Ab Dilli Dur Nahin (1957), yet again produced by Raj Kapoor, and directed by Amar Kumar is another children's film classic of Nehruvian India. It recounts the story of a young boy who travels to Delhi from his village to seek clemency for his father, sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, from the Prime Minister of India.

Photographic lobby still for for the film 'Boot Polish', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Films frequently showed the nation-in-need via the settings of material and physical difficulties faced by abandoned children. The children sleeping in deprived rustic settings as in this still was a shorthand to show how so many children of India lived ins such conditions,

Photographic lobby still for for the film 'Boot Polish', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Adolescents frequently went arrogant and consumerist with a swagger to shore up their hurt against the cruelty of society towards children on the streets. The children's cinema of Nehruvian India frequently qouted deprived childhoods as a source of adolescent juvenile delinquency.

Lobby card produced for Hindi film, 'Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain', Unknown, 1966, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Nehruvian young adults cinema also showed the burgeoning consumerist middle class lifestyles of a modernizing nation. The hockey stick however marks a ruralism of sorts- hockey was mostly a countryside game. And playing hockey sticks as flutes reflected 'tradition;- invoking the Hindu deity Krishna who enchanted cows and women with his flute playing.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Of course, children survived difficult lives by coming together and becoming a community having fun and helping each other out.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Jawahar' by UnkownMuseum of Art & Photography

Familial Scenes

Domestic dramas often dealt with orphaned children being brought up by a single parent along with the melodramatic trope of cruel step-mothers. Or, more interestingly, they placed children as a voice of conscience of a fractious household, showing up the foibles and hypocrisies of the well-to-do.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Jawahar', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Photographic lobby still for the film 'Jawahar', Unkown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Photographic lobby still for the film 'Jawahar', Unkown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Film still for possibly 'Humari Betiyan', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Humari Betiyan is a 1936 film directed by RS Choudhury and produced by Ardeshir Irani under the banner of the legendary Imperial Films- the makers of some of India's biggest silent films and the first Indian talkie film Alam Ara in 1931. The film seems to be about how a woman avenges all the wrongs done against her in a modernizing Princely State setting.

Lobby card produced for Hindi film, 'Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain' (1966) by UnknownMuseum of Art & Photography

With a soul-searching title asking a question of a newly-independent India- 'Where are we going?', Nitin Bose's Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain (1966) was a typical film of its time.

An 'omnibus' film in the sense that the film tried to catch within a single frame all the problems besetting the modernizing middle classes of India- domesticity, filiality, marriage, romance, education, employment, corruption and cynicism. At the heart of the film were a pair of young adult siblings belonging to upper class family and the core of the narrative revolves around an Ozu's Tokyo Story-like scenario of grown-ups treating their old parents badly when they come visiting.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain' featuring actress Nadira, Possibly Babulal Jajodia, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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A film like Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain had an ambiguous subtext of showing the modern urbane upper class woman as hard-hearted and coldly rational bereft of maternal softness. Modernity=hardness. This was a frequent caricature of modernity utilized by Bombay cinema right until the 1970s.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain', Possibly Babulal Jajodia, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Tradition, denoted by the grandparents of the children, comes a-visiting urban Art Deco modernity. The softer lines of traditional cotton clothes of the older generation that crumple easily clash with the hard unyielding minimal lines of interior decor of the home their children have built as do their easy-going body language.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain', Possibly Babulal Jajodia, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Now Oriental softness clashes with the stiff formality of modern clothing and demeanour and the minimal formalism of the furniture and dinner set-up.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain', Possibly Babulal Jajodia, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Children caught between two orders of Indian history- the old and the futuristic

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Karigar', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Vasant Joglekar's Karigar of 1958 stars Ashok Kumar as an artisan-jobber out of work. The film shows the difficulties he faces looking for employment and the troubles he gets into during a trip to the city with his son in search of a job. Here the father and son walk the streets of Bombay, bewildered by urban ways.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin' by UnknownMuseum of Art & Photography

Bharat Darshan (Grand Tour India) and a Brave New World

Single protagonist films frequently dealt with the heroism of the young adult, more often than not bringing out the contradictions and failures of the promise of independence. Fascinatingly, a number of films show a solo all-India trip done by central protagonist of the films that, as in a picaresque narrative, allows for a serial exposé of various social and cultural scenarios, usually negative. Mehboob Khan’s Son of India (1962) is a classic in this vein. Ab Dilli Dur Nahin (1957) in the present collection is a case in point.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Photographic lobby still for the film 'Boot Polish' by UnknownMuseum of Art & Photography

The Nation Revealed

Ensemble films like "Boot Polish" (1954) dealt with the criminalization of young adults, poor, orphans and kidnapees, in a Neo-Realist vein resembling Luis Buñuel's "Los Olividados". The emphasis was on showing up a corrupt society incapable of taking care of its children, leaving them vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a wild history. An unsaid subtext of this genre was the failure of independent India in getting its Midnight’s Children educated. The child in such films was always a generic one, standing in for millions of free Indian children. They were fantasized as being innocent equally capable of asking tough questions innocently or being heroic as only children can be as of being corrupted.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Boot Polish', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Children's cinema sometimes fetishized cruelty of society towards children to the point of caricature in an effort to rouse pathos from spectators.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Very frequently trouble would break up amongst children themselves competing for attention and the resources of life

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Yet another melodramatic trope in Nehruvian Indian cinema's moralism- the city mad after money, thrills, information, and corrupt to the point of absurdism.

Photographic lobby still for for the film 'Boot Polish', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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This scene reminiscent of Luis Bunuel's Los Olividados tries to convey the animal brutality of children and other tribes of have-nots of the streets of Indian cities.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Boot Polish', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Scenes of pathos and the sublime of course made up much of this cinema...feelings of helplessness against destiny ran up against the thrills of young life growing up.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Mastana' by UnknownMuseum of Art & Photography

Music in the Jungle

A very important feature of many of these films was the ensemble songs that kids sang- songs of idealism or just zany comedy.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The annual function day song and performance routine in an orphanage was a staple of this genre

Photographic lobby still for for the film 'Boot Polish', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The idealistic song where children went heroic, arms pointing towards the horizon to be conquered as well as where the sun of a new era for them and the nation will arise from, was also a staple.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Mastana', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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And anything was possible when music met children...the whole world's exotica could be called up to entertain them. Indian children born into world cultures was the ideal of the times.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Mastana' by UnknownMuseum of Art & Photography

A Nation of Orphans and Their Wonderful Vagabond Friends

But the kid-abandoned in the wilderness film also had a wonderful serial sociological element- where the child encounters all kinds of social types and thus in his or her wandering provide us with a synoptic view of the classes and social groups of a newly-independent India.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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A frequent trope in children's cinema- the 'good' idealist bachelor man who is kind to children, and around whom the young ones flock.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Ab Dilli Dur Nahin', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The irony of the jailbird with a heart of gold especially where children are concerned

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Mastana', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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HS Rawail's Mastana of 1954. is probably the most beautiful children's film made in Nehru's India. Starring Motilal it tells the story of a street performer who picks up an abandoned child of a rich family only to face the possibility of losing him when the parents come to claim their child.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Mastana', Unknown, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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The child taken care of by carnivalesque street performers denoting the child growing up amongst free and fun people who are also immensely talented in ways different from the domiciled and literate middle classes. Another kind of India was possible against the staid ways of the elites.

Photographic lobby still for the film 'Jawahar' by UnkownMuseum of Art & Photography

Coda

The nation as an ensemble of lost people who find each other by chance. They look up at the horizon uncertain yet hopeful about what is to come. The flag denotes their unwavering spirit flapping wildly in the wind but with the élan vital of positive life.

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