Both the BJP and the Congress promising cash transfers and minimum income schemes ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections just goes to show our country has changed woefully little from the time of Manoj Kumar’s hit 1974 social drama Roti Kapda Aur Makaan.
The film captures the desperation of the country to break away from the cycle of unemployment and poverty. Released a year before Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan captures the struggles of a family of five to make ends meet. Indira Gandhi’s slogan Garibi Hatao is said to have inspired the film. Interestingly, that is what her grandson Rahul Gandhi is also promising now with his NYAY scheme that will guarantee minimum income for the poorest 20 per cent families in India.
Perhaps that is why the song Mehngayi Mar Gayi from the film still rings true. With the spectre of welfare freebies turning inflationary, it can be considered a song of the times.
Bharat, played by Manoj Kumar, is the eldest son of the family and is an engineering graduate looking for a job. The film captures the simmering desperation of India’s educated youth trying to land a salaried job.
The movie directed, produced and written by Kumar, sees Bharat carry around his engineering degree in his pocket as he sets out for job interviews every day. The purposelessness of this hard-earned degree is epitomised in the film when Bharat burns his degree at his father’s funeral pyre, unable to pay for his treatment. The scene hints at the Indian disillusionment with the ‘Nehruvian’ dream. Bharat tells us that it is not just him suffering from unemployment, but a class of people.
The atmosphere of joblessness, despair and denial of human dignity has also turned the youth cynic with little hope from a corrupted society. This is captured in the character of Bharat’s younger brother, Vijay, played by Amitabh Bachchan. He knows there is no job waiting for him after he completes his graduation and is hence not afraid to make money from unethical means, unlike his virtuous brother.
Tulsi, played by Moushumi Chatterjee, is a daily wage worker who represents the double oppression women have to face — economy and patriarchy. She is raped by the affluent men in her slum and is offered food, clothes and shelter in return. While, Sheetal, an ambitious woman played by Zeenat Aman, is frustrated by her boyfriend Bharat’s unsuccessful and debt-ridden life.
Roti Kapda Aur Makaan stands out for not just portraying the economic and financial hurdles of the poor and the middle class, but also of the rich. Shashi Kapoor’s Mohan Babu is a successful industrialist, but he too is burdened by increasing taxes levied on capitalists like him by a socialist government, an important commentary on Indira Gandhi’s then Congress government.
Collapse of the Indian dream in technicolor
The film is regarded as the revival of Manoj Kumar, best known for melodramas. After hit films like Purab Aur Pachchim (1970), Shor (1972), he followed it with Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, which turned out to be the highest grossing film of 1974.
While songs like Haye Re Majboori and Mehengai Mar Gayi are weaved into the social, financial and economic dilemma of the film, Main Na Bhoolunga, one of the iconic songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh, is what makes this film a complete Bollywood-ised social drama.
Unemployment post Independence and Partition have been favourite subjects of cinema. Around the time Kumar was working on this film, auteur Satyajit Ray had already dealt with the topic tastefully and with a stronger narrative in Pratidwandi (1970), while Ritwik Ghatak would take it a step further with Nagorik (1977). However, Kumar’s film lives on for its greater mass appeal due to its drama and star cast.
Roti Kapda Aur Makaan symbolises the collapse of the great Indian dream envisioned by citizens when Congress came to power in 1971 with a majority.
Watching the film in 2019 adds to its essence and reminds us that all is still not well. But now we want Roti Kapda Aur Makaan plus internet, as Murad in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy writes on a wall.