The Way We Were: Premchand’s lost months in Bombay

Premchand arrived in Bombay on May 31, 1934. He was 54 years old, a father of three, the country’s most famous living Hindi writer — and a man in dire financial difficulties. The losses were piling up at the Saraswati Press he’d been running since 1923; his two weekly publications, Hans and Jagran, were bleeding money. On the eve of his departure to Bombay, he wrote to a friend, “A drowning man was extended a hand, and has grasped at it.” The helping hand was the offer of a one-year contract by a film company, Ajanta Cinetone. It was a somewhat persistent offer; they sent him two telegrams! They wanted him to write stories on which they would base films. He would be paid eight thousand rupees.

But he left Bombay in less than a year.

On the occasion of his 140th birth anniversary (which was on July 31), it’s worth looking at this singular chapter in Premchand’s life, for a number of reasons. Much of what he said about the film industry would ring true for decades. The one film he worked on had a very brief and dramatic life.

The Bombay stint also revealed what should have been a foregone conclusion. This very simple man who lived for his sahitya and came from the highly literary milieu of Banaras, found no happiness in either the commercial world of Hindi films, or the big impersonal metropolis.

Two biographies — one by his son Amrit Rai, translated into English by Harish Trivedi, and the other by Madan Gopal, the man often called ‘Premchand’s Boswell’ — recount in detail his Bombay days. And his wife Shivrani Devi’s memoir, Premchand Ghar Mein, gives us endearing domestic details — that he couldn’t sleep the night before the journey to Bombay, for instance, afraid he would miss his 4 am train and upset about going alone. (Shivrani Devi had two weddings to attend in Allahabad and would join him only in July.) Soon after he arrived in Bombay, Premchand wrote to her: “It is a very fine place, with clean roads and airy houses, but I don’t like it here.” He rented a three-bedroom flat in Dadar for fifty rupees a month and ate his meals at a nearby hotel.

Given his work ethic, Premchand diligently went to the studio every day. He was writing the film Mill/Mazdoor. The talkies had come to India three years earlier (Alam Ara, 1931), and after a predominance of mythological and devotional cinema, it was now time for the social film.

Mill/Mazdoor fell in this bracket: A mill owner leaves his textile mill to his son and daughter. But the son is a debauch without a care for workers’ welfare. His sister, the exact opposite, is in love with a mill worker, and leads the workers in a strike against her brother. Premchand was persuaded to play a cameo and the film was shot on location at a cotton mill, unusual for the time.

But when the film went to the Censor Board, Byramjee Jeejeebhoy, president of the Bombay Mill Owners Association and a member of the Board, led the decision to ban it. Luckily, the film was cleared for release (with one cut) by the local Censor Board in Punjab, but on the first day a crowd of almost 60,000 workers arrived at the theatre, and massive crowds continued to turn up throughout the week. The police and army were called in and the Punjab government banned the film.

A similar fate befell Mill/Mazdoor in Delhi when — inspired by the film — a mill worker lay down in front of an owner’s car! Eventually the government of India banned the film altogether. Though—in keeping with Premchand’s Gandhian views—the film advocated peaceful protest and amicable partnership between the striking worker and owner, it was considered too dangerous. The thugs hired to break up marches, the profligacy of the owners—it all hit too close to home.

The film’s unhappy fate in some way mirrored Premchand’s own life in Bombay. He wasn’t making much headway with the novel he was working on (Godaan). He had also started smoking too much and his health, always delicate, had begun slipping. By December 1934, he was fed up. He wrote to a friend: “I had come into this line as I saw in it some prospects of achieving economic independence, but I can see now that I was mistaken and I am returning to literature again.”

He had a rather uncomplimentary assessment of the film industry: “It is useless to expect any reform in Hindi movies… Those who control it… are concerned only with profit.” He called it “a great money-making machine.” In his words: “I had gone there with certain ideals but I found that the cinema people have certain readymade formulas and what lies outside those formulas is taboo.” He also discovered that Hindi wasn’t even widely or well-spoken in film circles. In a letter to his friend, the writer Jainendra, he wrote: “I have to tell them the meaning of the story by translating it into English.”

And so by the third week of April, 1935, Premchand was back home in Banaras, where he finally finished Godaan, his last masterpiece. Though financial problems continued to dog him, he soldiered on, as he always had, right up to his death in October next year. And what of Mill/Mazdoor? The print cannot be found; the film is lost forever.

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