GUNGA JUMNA – (Dir. Nitin Bose, 1961, India)

The following quote from the entry on Nitin Bose taken from Rajadhyaksha & Willemen’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema underlines his hugely important role in the history of Indian cinema:

‘A key figure in the New Theatres organisation and maker of some of its most successful films. He later introduced a ‘realist’ element (Didi/President; Desher Mati/Dharti Mata) foreshadowing the films of his own student and cameraman Bimal Roy (Udayer Pathey, 1944), and probably Mrinal Sen‘s early films…’

Many would argue that the auteur theory has led to a process of canonisation and discriminates against the contribution of so many peripheral artists. However, auteurism did wonders in helping to excavate and salvage the careers of those invisible directors who worked tirelessly to perfect their craft as filmmakers. The same authorial approach has been applied to Indian cinema but with less rigour and authority. The 1930s witnessed acceleration in quality output, permitting filmmakers to refine their style and with each year it was clear to see their evolution. The films of Nitin Bose are often under discussed and although his status as a pioneering figure is not in doubt, helping the evolution of Indian film language, his authorial status is conflated with the triumphs of the studio system. Revisiting Gunga Jumna after so many years it is transparent to see that in 1961 Nitin Bose was a director working at the peak of his creative powers as a classicist. Gunga Jumna was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s and demonstrates a capacity to merge classical film elements with vivid stylistic flourishes. Produced, starring and written by Dilip Kumar, the story of two warring brothers on opposite sides of society (bandit vs. cop) transformed into a moralistic narrative template for many other populist social melodramas including most strikingly Deewaar.

The powerful narrative momentum is often the way in which the film is referred to in wider critical discourse but we shouldn’t let such conventional readings get in the way of numerous visually inventive and memorable accompaniments that Bose brings to the film. Firstly, the camerawork possesses an infectious vitality conveyed through the notable dolly and tracking shots, which are used sparingly, at key points in the film’s narrative. Secondly, the use of Technicolor and rural landscapes, offers a strong connection with the Earth and village that is realistically presented. In a way, the authenticity of the rural milieu is also dystopian when it comes to the terrain of the bandit and here the film echoes the iconography of the Hollywood western. The intrinsic relationship between the bandit and the rural landscape was a direct influence on films such as Sholay and most recently Lagaan.

Towards the end of the film, the landscape takes on a will of its own and Bose lets us see nature’s mystical powers through the smoke from the funeral pyre that billows into the air, shrouding the villainous figure of the despotic landlord. Lastly, and most influentially, the melodrama nurtured by the narrative conflict of two brothers on opposite sides of the law is a brilliant device for exploring family and the apathetic way in which society criminalises the most vulnerable. Although Gunga Jumna is recognised as a classic and the contribution of Dilip Saab is much celebrated, it is equally critical to extrapolate the brilliance of a film maker like Nitin Bose in the history of Indian cinema.

Here are the final shots to Gunga Jumna, which I found to be both moving and unusually abstract for what is deemed a populist, mainstream and conventional Indian film:

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