Roti – 1942
Films, as we usually know them in our country, explode on the scene with a short-lived fanfare and box office lustre (whether natural or manipulated) and then fizzle out of living memory for ever. But when a film of a seemingly similar breed can go into deep freeze for years and when brought out, can still speak to us in the language of today and about things we are palpably concerned with, it then becomes something to take note of.
Mehboob Khan’s ‘Roti’ made by him in 1942 for National Studios has this quality and feeling. Shifted from its natural setting of the forties and placed in the time eternal, it still looks as if it was made for us today.
Yet its voice is split in two different notes – one of sheer entertainment and other of a living problem. Mehboob’s talent compounds the old formulas to sugar-coat a bitter pill and make it easy to go down the throat. It shows the eternal wedge between the privileged and the deprived, the haves and the have-nots with a marked intensity and realism. And yet the bitter bites have also their sweet sensations. On the bitter side it brings the theory of Marxist socialism and a plea for human equality. Never in a Hindi film has this subject received a more vehement propagating of the message.
The chief protagonist of this is a vagrant tramp, played forcefully in theatrical style by the late stage actor Ashraf Khan. With a Narad-like slyness he sets the rich against the poor and vice-versa, keeping the fire of conflict always on a critically explosive edge. He is everywhere, singing rhetorical songs (tuned by Anil Biswas), speaking fiery words (from the pen of Wajahat Mirza) and poking fun as well as indulging in biting satire. We have yet to see in Hindi Cinema a character so original in conception, so rooted to purpose.
Chandramohan plays Laxmidas, a poor vagabond turned into a ruthless capitalist. His green, cat-like eyes fill the popular notion of sly villainy and he makes himself (though technically the film’s hero) into a thoroughly despicable character as he proceeds from one detestable deed to another, till he meets the symbolical doom of not being able to find food and water with all his wealth. Akhtari Faizabadi (later famous as ghazal singer Begum Akhtar) plays the wronged woman seeking silent revenge, whose love Laxmidas can never hope to win.
In utter contrast are Sheikh Mukhtar and Sitara Devi as the couple from a semi-civilized, but inherently more human, jungle tribe. They and their abode represent the thematic utopia where all live in equality and happiness. With their quaint looks and costumes, their behavior also brings a lot of fun to the film.
It is through such compensating factors that Roti keeps a balance between sincerity to the cause and the enjoyment needed for the audience. The socialistic goal is served in the name of entertainment and not the other way round. The fact that films like Roti were made with a sense of great personal conviction is clear from their texture and durability.
One recalls that when Mehboob later started his own production banner, its emblem became the sickle and the hammer.