[B]efore soaring to pan-India—and, indeed, international—fame with Do Bigha Zameen (1953) that spoke of the travails of Shambhu the peasant, Bimal Roy had, almost a decade earlier, in 1944, become a household name in Bengal with Udayer Pathey (Towards The Dawn), his directorial debut in Bengali for Calcutta’s New Theatres, remade in Hindi as Humrahi in 1945. The hugely successful Udayer Pathey, made by New Theatres on the smallest budget, actually became the studio’s biggest earner. The music was by Raichand Boral and the lyrics by Shailen Roy—in addition, the film featured three very memorable Tagore songs.
Bimal Roy’s works all have a distinct flavor of social realism about them, and Udayer Pathey is steeped in that flavor. It is the story of Anup Chaudhuri, an intrepid writer-intellectual who upholds the cause of the proletariat in a system where the balance of power is skewed towards the moneyed class. Just the previous year, in 1943, Bimal Roy had made a documentary for New Theatres on the subject of the moment, the Bengal famine. Thus, Udayer Pathey came about when the rich-poor divide was in plain view, and inescapably so. The famine, the inflation of the war years, and the economic hardships that were the exclusive lot of the poor, had irredeemably polarized the haves and the have-nots into two incompatible camps.
This social divide rings loud and clear in the opening scenes of Udayer Pathey. A luxurious chauffeur-driven car makes its way to a poorer part of Calcutta as the wealthy Gopa Banerjee (actress Binota Bose before she married the film’s story writer Jyotirmoy Roy to become Binota Roy) drops off her poor classmate Sumita (Rekha Mitra, later Mullick) at the latter’s home. Inside Sumita’s frugal home, her mother is at a loss about where to seat the rich visitor who has come to invite her daughter to a niece’s birthday party.
But for all the lack of material wealth in the house, there seems to be an abundance of moral and intellectual wealth. Sumita’s brother, Anup (Anup Lekhak as he is known), quite literally, lives and breathes celebrated minds—the walls of his room are covered in his drawings of Tagore, Bernard Shaw, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Bankim Chandra, Gandhi and Karl Marx. An amazed Gopa reads out from a Tagore poem that Anup has inscribed on the wall, which has the words “udayer pathey” in it—the inspiration for the film’s title. So, before we see Anup, we see the august company he keeps.
We then see Anup (actor Radhamohan Bhattacharya, until then cast only in villainous roles) return home to find Sumita stitching a frock as a birthday gift, and he cautions her against getting too close to her rich friend as he is convinced that her gift will not be appreciated in a society where price is all that matters. Sumita protests that not all rich people can be categorized so, but Anup is dead sure that all rich folks look down upon the poor. Sumita insists, though, that Gopa is different. The unassuming and immensely likable Gopa does seem to be very different from her snooty brethren.
The class divide is laid out in black-and-white at Gopa’s lavish house. The birthday party is on with music and dance, and Sumita sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the rich guests in their finery, and the liveried servers. (Actress Smriti Biwas—whose chubby face I clearly remember in Baap Re Baap, 1955 and Jagte Raho, 1956—dances to the remarkably beautiful Tagore song “Basante phool ganthlo,” very aesthetically picturized with a Nataraja statue, lit with lamps, in the background. I must say that “Basante phool ganthlo,” in this case visuals included, makes it to my category of deeply elevating songs.) The table overflows with expensive gifts, with people busy discussing who gifted what and how much it cost.
Sumita’s discomfort mounts by the minute and is not allayed when Gopa compels her to sing. Sumita’s soulful singing only receives a cold response from the gathering. Then, much to her (and Gopa’s horror), Sumita is accused of stealing from the gift table. A mortified Sumita faints, and Gopa discovers—in the folds of Sumita’s sari—the frock that her poor friend had brought along and was ashamed, perhaps, to leave on the table. The accuser, Gopa’s sister-in-law, is silenced, and Gopa accompanies her distraught friend home. There she meets Anup, who is angry to see his sister return crying and refuses to accept Gopa’s apology on behalf of her family. Anup rubs Gopa the wrong way and, after she leaves, Anup tells Sumita that her insult at Gopa’s house is an insult of all the poor by the rich.
Anup ekes out a living through his writing and leads a hand-to-mouth existence—a fact that, however, does not ruffle him much. When his newspaper editor gives him the lead for a position as publicity officer at Modern Industries Ltd., Anup gives it a shot and meets the boss’s son there who is in charge, Shouren Banerjee (actor Devi Mukherjee), who is impressed by the candidate’s writing talents and extends a job offer. Anup accepts it for the sake of his family though he isn’t exactly thrilled that he has traded the unfettered world of literary writing for the fettered world of publicity writing.
At this point, there is a scene, funny in an understated way, where Anup, his pockets newly full, wakes up his landlord (Tulsi Chakraborty, whose bulging eyes are etched deeply in the public imagination by the movie poster for Satyajit Ray’s Parash Pathar, 1958) in the middle of the night with the rent money. This is in return for the landlord’s demand, earlier on, of the overdue rent from Anup at an odd hour.
Shouren greedily eyes Anup’s writerly imagination and, when Shouren is asked to deliver a speech at the local university’s student union, he orders Anup to write the speech for him, which, he specifies, be peppered with grand words like bourgeois and democracy while also condemning the rich. The dialogue between Shouren and Anup brings out the contrast between the former’s smug, cocky thinking and the latter’s socialist thinking. The cigar-toting Shouren tells Anup that the rich are unshakably at the top of the social order and condemning them is just for the sake of winning popularity from the students. Anup retorts that the rich are at the top only because they possess the means to do so: they buy their way through. When Shouren condescendingly points out that it is the rich who create job opportunities for people like Anup, the latter notes that these jobs barely provide subsistence.
Indeed, as the socialist argument goes, in the capitalist system profits are flagrantly tilted in favor of those who own the means of production. The rich have the means, which the poor don’t, and that is what makes all the difference. The socialist framework of Udayer Pathey plays out in the context of the nationalist struggle against British rule. With economic and political subjugation thus inextricably intertwined, the film’s capitalist-worker divide is concurrent with the ruler-ruled—and West-East—divide of the times. So, in this scene it is not at all surprising that Shouren and Anup, in addition to mouthing ideologically opposing lines, are presented in Western, and Indian, clothes, respectively—and thus visibly positioned as opposites.
Shouren delivers the ghostwritten speech to much acclaim, and soon Anup arrives at his boss’s house to ghostwrite, in the comforts of a fabulous home library, another speech. Shouren shows off his original Jamini Roy painting—and this reminds the viewer of the earlier scene where Gopa sees Anup’s room covered in wall drawings and Sumita explains that her family cannot afford to buy paintings. Shouren says rather proudly that while he has a book collection spanning all subjects, he is too busy to read. Clearly, Shouren owns these status symbols not out of any genuine appreciation but because he has the brute means to buy it all, like a wholesaler does.
Anup sees Gopa at Shouren’s house (in keeping with the small world of filmi melodrama, she predictably turns out to be Shouren’s sister) and realizes that this is the house where Sumita was once humiliated. He resigns from his job right away, actually glad to have the justification to quit working for a rich man. A persistent Shouren, who tries to write the speech himself and gives up, reaches Anup’s house to ask for forgiveness from Sumita and even promises that he will publish Anup’s novel. Anup returns, not so much to see the novel published, but because of his earlier promise of writing Shouren’s speech.
Gopa comes across Anup’s manuscript called “Purbachal” and is totally absorbed by its stark depiction of the lives of the working class. She has questions for Anup who is glad that the book has made her think outside of her class. When Gopa wonders if the homelessness and the poverty are really all that dire, Anup remarks that the very fact that she has to be told about such an obviously grim reality (and does not know it for herself) is disturbing, and indicative of the insensitivity of the rich. From here on, Gopa and Anup warm up to each other. Sure enough, the next time she goes to meet Anup, she wears a simple sari and happily drinks tea from a handleless cup; she also accompanies him to the huts of factory workers.
Meanwhile, Shouren acts foul: he publishes “Purbachal” under his own name. Anup is not shocked, but Gopa is, and she tells Anup that he must confront Shouren. Anup is surprised to see Gopa upset and in tears but he is too disgusted to pursue the matter. He happily realizes that Gopa is very different from her ilk and his regard for her goes up. Shouren’s friends all fawn over him and compliment him on his first-hand knowledge of the hardships of workers. Gopa boycotts the celebration at an expensive restaurant and instead she and Anup attend the workers’ union meet at a hut. Roy juxtaposes the party where food is overflowing and laughter is hollow, with the tension-filled hut where Gopa sees a poor child who has not eaten in two days.
The growing bond between Gopa and Anup is further cemented as they take a stroll together and, appropriate to the context of the moonlight, Gopa sings the soothing “Chander hashi badh bhengeche” by Tagore, with the fog rolling in ethereally. The magic of the scene is unmissable.
When Shouren hears of a workers’ protest in the offing and is told that Anup is behind it, he promptly bribes a worker to disrupt the event. When Gopa overhears her brother, she rushes to the meeting just in time to see a riot break out and Anup hit with a stone. An annoyed Shouren pulls his sister away from Anup, but the damage is done: the newspaper headlines scream of the love between factory owner’s daughter and labor leader. As matters get out of control at the workplace and at home, Shouren’s father, Rajendranath Banerjee (actor Bishwanath Bhaduri), enters the picture and tries to make peace with Anup—buy his loyalties, rather. Anup feels contempt for his boss’ manipulative tactics and refuses to oblige. Shouren then lies to Anup that Gopa is sorry about her friendship with a person beneath her class. Anup’s face falls as he hears this.
A disillusioned Anup sends his mother and sister away to the village, and is planning to leave Calcutta soon. As he tears asunder the newspaper with his and Gopa’s pictures, Gopa shows up and is surprised to see Anup suddenly cold and distant. She clears up his misunderstanding and tells Anup to take her along, wherever he goes. Gopa’s father, meanwhile, desperate not to lose his daughter, tries to fix her alliance with a wealthy friend’s son. He visits Anup and requests him to give up Gopa. Anup promises, but apparently Gopa’s mind is made and she puts on a dour expression when her brother arranges her meeting with the suitor.
Meanwhile, thinking that it is Gopa who has had their demands met, the workers go to her house to thank her and invite her to a felicitation function. Gopa replies that the credit should go to Anup, and the workers reply that he is going away and give her his letter addressed to her father. Gopa reads it and realizes that Anup is going away at her father’s request. She tells her father that she has to meet Anup and when Shouren tries to stop her from going, Rajendranath stops Shouren. The path clear, Gopa rushes to Anup’s house, where the landlord tells her that Anup has gone walking all the way to Asansol (to deal with yet another labor issue). Gopa gets into her car one last time and catches up with the wayfarer on the Grand Trunk Road, quite the solitary figure against an open landscape. Gopa tells Anup that she has left behind all riches to join him in the path of his choice, now hers as well. To which Anup replies that she has not left behind riches—rather, they lie ahead in this new path that she has chosen. As the two joyously walk away hand-in-hand towards the horizon, it is the dawn of a new beginning.
Concluding reflections and a postcolonial reading: Udayer Pathey was, at various levels, an innovative film and one that set the standards for realism in Indian cinema. It was the first New Theatres film to touch upon the theme of socialism and, although the film’s decidedly black-and-white treatment of the rich-poor divide does seem rather simplistic (and predictable in a filmi way), the exposition of class differences was relevant at a time of rising national consciousness, when the country was busy setting aside differences of class, caste, gender, and religion to coalesce against foreign rule.
The battle that Anup wages against the class divide, and in which Gopa joins him, is a stepping-stone to the larger battle against colonialism. The new path that Anup and Gopa together take, in the end of the film, is a path that will create not just the wealth of classlessness but also the wealth of freedom and self-governance.
There is a sense in which the larger nationalist aspirations of the day merge into the film’s socialist aspirations: that Udayer Pathey opens to Jana Gana Mana (a historic first in an Indian film, although the scene is missing in the DVD from Angel—was it originally censored by the British perhaps?), not yet the national anthem in 1944, suggests that the film’s socialist dream is at once a dream of free India—free from the skewed power structures of capitalism and colonialism, both of which alienate and dispossess the worker/colonized. Shouren not just strips the workers of their rights to a dignified life but goes one step further to villainously rob Anup’s intellect and his creativity. This sort of an elemental plundering—or ravaging of the life force—is fundamental to colonialism, which dispossesses not only at the material level, but also, very significantly, at the inner level. Thus the image of Shouren in his western suit, throwing his weight around, unscrupulously appropriating what is not rightfully his, is indisputably in the colonialist mould. Gopa’s rising rebellion and her final desertion of Shouren, one of her own, to join hands with Anup—and the people— disturbs the status quo of the capitalism-colonialism combine and is symbolic of the weakening colonial grip over India. The path towards dawn at the end of the film presages the path towards a new, independent India.
On a minor, lighter, and perhaps irrelevant note: I couldn’t help but notice that people are constantly drinking tea in the film.
And, finally, a question: I have been very baffled about the missing Jana Gana Mana in the DVD from Angel. Did the British cut it in 1944, or did Angel cut it out unimaginatively in recent times? I emailed Angel and here is the response: “… please note that the original Video of Bengali Film ‘Udayer Pathey’ (B/W) was supplied to us by New Theatres itself. Therefore you are requested to kindly contact representative of New Theatres directly to clarify the matter.” So far, I have not been able to locate the contact information for New Theatres. Anyway, I find a very short excerpt of Jana Gana Mana in the film in this video here (starting at 1:21 and ending at 1:35)–which leaves me even more baffled. It does appear to be in the film, after all. Can anyone please throw some light on this mystery?
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to: Forhad Hossain of Fremont, California, for patiently translating the film credits into English for me; and my cousin Vasanti Muthukumar of Bangalore, for reading out the names written in Bengali on the walls of Anup’s room from the screenshots that I sent her.