Feeling nostalgic for the songs my parents used to play at home when I was young, I looked up one of my favorites from Anari (1959):
Now, this movie suffers from all of the contradictions of Nehruvian socialism — populism mixed with aggressive state-led industrialization. And it produces this interesting affect: sympathy for the poor, but only when they are beyond reproach, and already happy despite their hardships. (The heart of the movie is a plot about a poor boy who falls in love with a woman who he imagines to be poor but who turns out to be rich, mimicking the pattern of the middle-class’s feeling about the world: loving and hating the rich simultaneously; ditto for the poor).
This pattern of romanticizing poverty has a long trajectory in Indian art, and it seems to be a mix of religious ideas about karma (which easily turn into neoliberal ideas about “merit”) alongside a deep-rooted resignation about poverty’s durability.
This song has the standard mix of ideas from the late 1950s that characterized Nehruvian liberalism: the poor are really rich where it counts (माना अपनि जेब से फकीर हैं/ फिर भि यारॊं दिल के हम अमीर हैं); the poor are naturally capable of solidarity — you’ll notice how everyone he comes across in the movie is either visibly worse off than he is or substantially better off and incapable of sympathy (किसी का दर्द मिट सके तो ले उधार); the poor are capable of incredible acts of self-sacrifice which double nicely as metaphors for a self-effacing love (किसी कि मुस्कुराहटॊं पे हॊ निसार); and even if there is no solace in the real world, something better awaits in a perpetually deferred and perhaps metaphysical future (के मर के भि किसि को याद अयेंगे/ किसि के आंसुऒं मे मुस्कुरायेंगे). The point is to educate the middle-class into caring about its poor fellow-citizens, or at least to make them feel like their small acts of charity are actually meaningful and not simply self-serving if not irrelevant.
It also helps the middle-class to hate the rich (of whom they are jealous) with an extraordinarily confident self-righteousness (the rich characters in this movie commit the crimes, of course):
Despite the heavy does of liberal feeling (and the crisis in the movie is resolved by a return to law and order if I recall correctly — the police eventually get the evidence that Raj Kapoor‘s character didn’t poison his landlady) there is something of a social justice critique that undergirds the feeling that the movie sets out to establish. But the point of the film and so many like it seems to be to take that understanding of the social crisis that is poverty and transform it into something interpersonal, something experienced at the level of character, so that surviving or failing in the world is in the most basic sense a test of character and morality (and beauty). The world is tough, films like this believe,but as long as you suffer in the right way, you’ll make it … perhaps this is also the reason that the middle-class both loves these movies and hates the poor: no one can actually live up to the standard set for the suffering poor in cinema. There is also something really patronizing in the idea that to find beauty in the poor is an act of love.
The formal features of the song are also charming. Character is established early with a close-up of Raj Kapoor not stepping on a bug, easily playing with children who recognize his internal goodness, standing as an arrogant and obviously expensive car walks by (the rich can’t be bothered), talking to a beggar (who actually gives him some of his change), helping a blind man (I want to say something about how all the actually poor in the movie have to be really dark while all of the central actors are fair-skinned), etc. These are all the features of the Christ-like poor man; the Christian imagery in the movie is pretty clear, too, with Raj Kapoor praying to a crucifix in the final scene in the movie.
It has to be an itinerant song, a Chaplin-esque dandy walking through the world who experiences class divisions at every turn. And the refrain “जीना इसी का नाम हैं” (“This is what it means to live”) is about as close as you can get to saying “the poor will always be with us” while feeling like you are saying the opposite (“the poor aren’t really poor at all”).
I’m still a sucker for this stuff.