Every once in a while, we come across movies which leave us thinking about the various shades of the society we live in. These movies from India’s cinematic past have brilliant stories that turn a spotlight on society and its prejudices, while providing entertainment.
Bollywood is known to take a social stance once in a while, where it uses its incredible reach to create awareness and try and actively change the perception of various social practices through the silver screen. Here is a list of some such old movies that exuded social awareness, and were also ahead of their times in many ways.
The movie was released in 1960, and Bina Rai grabbed the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Centred around the tradition of Ghunghat, or a veil which covers the face of women, it was ahead of its time in many ways. The movie was also a critical and commercial success, with a much-appreciated soundtrack.
Anand won the National Award for Best Feature Film, and over five Filmfare awards. It stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna in lead roles, and though it does have romance in hindsight, the movie has a larger message overall. Revolving around Anand, portrayed by Khanna, it shows how a person suffering from intestinal cancer looks past his condition to remain content and happy, and decides to help a newfound friend, Bhaskar (portrayed by Bachchan), find his happiness instead. This one’s soundtrack is again timeless.
Starring Nutan and Sunil Dutt, Sujata explores the concept of caste and its implications for Indian society. It was released in 1959, and centres around Sujata, played by Nutan, who is born in a Dalit household but is then adopted into a rich family from a higher caste. However, some members of this family are displeased by her adoption. The movie also explores her romance with Adheer, a Brahmin young man, and how her caste and untouchability play out in this aspect of her life.
Anuraag is again ostensibly a romantic story, but it largely engages with the theme of eye donation. The movie, starring Moushumi Chatterjee and Vinod Mehra, picked up an issue that required awareness and endorsed it from within the web of a plausible romance. Showing how eye donation can transform a life, the movie left a lasting impression on moviegoers.
Do Bigha Zamin
Do Bigha Zamin was a socialist and anti-capitalist venture. It was the first film to win the Filmfare Award for Best Feature Film, and also the first Indian film to win the International Prize at the Cannes Festival. Starring Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy, the movie’s story is tragic and revolves around a farmer and his only means of livelihood—his two-third acres of land, or “do bigha zamin”. It depicts facets of capitalism that we – as a generation – often take for granted.
Ram Teri Ganga Maili
This film has a storyline similar to Pakeezah; however it does not focus on prostitution. The lead character is a girl named Ganga, and the story is about how society tries to exploit her, and succeeds. The movie showcases the harsh truth about the treatment of women in India. Like many other Raj Kapoor movies, this one too takes a socialist stance.
Even though the plot of the film never directly addresses it, noise pollution is a significant motif in the movie. It also deals with disabilities and poverty in a very nuanced manner. Starring Manoj Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri, the film is remembered for its beautiful songs, like Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai and Pani Re Pani. Outlining the hazards of noise pollution, albeit in a circumspect manner, Shor was quite ahead of its time.
Mother India reflected a lot on life in India post-independence. The film, in a sense, portrayed women empowerment, as the lead character is a mother who never gives up on her moral code, despite being exposed to multiple excruciating trials. With the lead characters played by Nargis and Sunil Dutt, it is an acclaimed classic.
The life and trials of sex workers are central to this movie. As mentioned earlier, the plot is very similar to Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Starring Meena Kumari, Raaj Kumar and Ashok Kumar, the story does complete justice to the theme that escaping the vicious social trappings of one’s life is not a simple task.
There is a lot of debate questioning whether this movie empowers women or not. However, the theme is a little too complex to be easily classified as either. Starring Nutan, Dharmendra and Ashok Kumar, it portrays how the social structure we live in affects our choices. The movie, without fail, has a very strong female character, Bandini. It, in a way, highlights how women propagate patriarchy as well—that women knowingly compromise their happiness for what they consider their duty. However, this again might not be what everyone takes away from the movie. Overall though, the movie does engage with women and their agency.
Do Aankhen Barah Haath
This movie takes us through the journey of rehabilitation of six criminals jailed for murder. It explores an open prison system and talks about the redeemable qualities that people have. People remember the film for its prayer song, Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum.
Movies like these are part of our country’s cultural and art heritage. Unfortunately, few from the younger generation are aware of them, and we are quickly losing their messages and beauty. The Film Heritage Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to preserving such classics of Indian cinema, so that future generations are aware of the contributions of Bollywood toward highlighting and discussing social causes, right from its early years.
The Film Heritage Foundation works tirelessly to conserve, preserve and restore India’s cinematic heritage. You can support their efforts through donations, here.