You generally don’t associate Munshi Premchand, one of the greatest Hindi novelists, with Hindi Films. But, one of the lesser known facts about Premchand is that he was unsuccessful in his attempt to forge a career as a script writer in the Hindi film industry. The reason was not that he didn’t make the cut, but the fact that he was too good. In fact, such was the power of his pen, that his debut movie- Mill Mazdoor (1934), in which he even had a cameo role, provoked such passions among industrial workers, that it was banned by the Film Censor Board!
Munshi Premchand (1880-1936), whose real name was Dhanpat Rai Srivastav, came from a middle class family in Varanasi. Growing up in a family of modest means, Premchand sustained his love for books by taking up odd jobs. A prolific writer, he took up a job as a teacher in a government school with a salary of Rs 18 rupees a month, to support his literary pursuits.
Initially, Premchand wrote under the pen name ‘Nawab Rai’, and was known for his hard hitting commentary on society. For example, his first novel ‘Devasthan Rahasya’ was a harsh critique on how temple priests exploited poor young women. He was also a staunch nationalist, who vehemently opposed ‘moderates’ like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and wrote extensively in support of the ‘extremist’ leaders of the time like Lokmanya Tilak. However, his story collection ‘Soz-e-Watan’, which exhorted Indians to fight against colonial rule got him in trouble with the British. His book was banned in 1907 and all its copies destroyed. It was because of this that he changed his pen name from ‘Nawab Rai to ‘Premchand’… a name that made him famous across the country.
Despite all the success, Premchand had a tough life. He was plagued by ill-health and financial difficulties all his life, a situation exacerbated by his decision to quit his job at the government school, in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for the Non-Cooperation movement of 1921. To support his family, Premchand even established a printing press known as ‘Saraswati Press’ in Banaras, but that too didn’t help much. Buried under financial woes and chronic ill health, Premchand finally headed to Mumbai in 1934, to try his luck in the Hindi film industry.
In the 1930’s-40’s the emerging film industry in Bombay, was the place to be for writers and poets from all over India. The Bombay studios were offering huge sums of money to script writers. Premchand also took up a job with a film studio, Ajanta Cinetone for a princely salary of Rs 8000. His first project for them was to write a script for a movie called ‘Mill Mazdoor’, based on the rights of the ‘working class’.
The movie’s plot was simple, it was about a young son who inherits a textile mill from his father and exploits the mill workers. His sister, a co-owner, stands with the mill-workers and leads a strike against the management. In the end, the brother goes to prison and the sister restarts the mill and runs it with workers support. The film featured a particularly provocative scene , wherein the sister incites the workers to demand their rights and rise against the management. Munshi Premchand even had a cameo as the leader of the striking workers, in the movie.
The film was ready for release and sent to Censor Board on 5th February 1935. However no one expected the reaction it got. The board was aghast! It felt the film was too provocative and it would inflame audiences. The Great Depression of 1929, had led to the worsening of conditions of industrial workers in Mumbai, and as a result, the city was a hotbed of militant labor activity. The Censor Board banned the movie in Mumbai, as it felt it could ‘damage relations between workers and management’. It was whispered that the man behind the ban, was none other than Byramjee Jeejeebhoy, a Censor Board member, who was also the President of the Bombay Mill Owners Association.
The film Mill Mazdoor was initially released in Lahore, Delhi and Lucknow where it evoked such passions among the workers, that within weeks it was banned there too. Ironically, inspired by the movie, the workers of Premchand’s own printing press went on a strike, as their dues had not been cleared. Premchand’s Bollywood dreams were shattered. His experience of working with the Film industry and the studios was not very good and he wrote a bitter letter to a friend –
“it is useless to expect any improvement in cinema. This profession is organized in same way as liquor trade. ….People are unorganized and lack the sense of what is good and bad… Having given it much thought, I feel it would be best to leave this world”
Premchand returned to Banaras in 1935. Here he wrote another harsh critique of the Film Industry in his essay ‘Cinema aur Sahitya’, claiming that while literature strove for ‘idealism and beauty’, the film industry was ‘only about profits’. Munshi Premchand never got a chance to change his opinion. He passed away in October 1936, at the age of 56.
Sadly, no copies of the movie Mill Mazdoor survive today. However the divide and debate, between high literature and films, continues.
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