ROTI / BREAD (Dir. Mehboob Khan, 1942, India) – Iconoclastic Origins

Mehboob’s most political work?

Released in 1942, Roti was director Mehboob Khan’s last film before he established his own production company. Given the film’s daring and at times iconoclastic critique of capitalism, it seems almost as if Mehboob sought to make a statement on the potential of subverting studio limitations by smuggling counter-hegemonic ideologies into a mainstream narrative. Mehboob was proved right since the film was a hit at the box office. Roti is a singular film in Mehboob’s oeuvre, equivalently condemning capitalism as an immoral and dehumanising system in which the poor are crushed under the weight of greed. The film is set in an imaginary India in which social mobility is non-existent, replaced instead by a selfish opportunism that involves acquiring power and status through violence, repression and death.

The film opens with a potent montage, brazenly declaring sympathy with the oppressed poor and postulating a visual analogy of a flawed capitalist system. The montage begins with a field being ploughed, a wheat field, then shows the rich eating food, next servants clear the leftovers and finally, and most purposely, the food is thrown into an alley where the poor are waiting to fight over the scraps. The incisive juxtaposition of shots lays bare the indiscriminate cycle of poverty, inequality and exploitation created by capitalism that benefits only a privileged elite. The montage also marks the introduction of the film’s imagined anonymous commentator, a vindictive man, who instigates much of the class discord. The montage ends with a starving old man who is run over and left for dead on the road clutching on to a scrap of roti (bread). It is a despairing image that provokes a cruel laughter by the commentator, prefiguring the later humiliation suffered by Balam and Kinari.

If Laxmidas is a remorseless, hateful and destructive metaphor for capitalism then an oppositional socialist ideology is embodied in the tribal character of Balam. The tribal community, which symbolises rural India, is first introduced with the farmers sharing out the harvest in a notably altruistic method, the antithesis to economic segregation engendered by Laxmidas. Both Balam and Kinari show no concept of money and they live in a world in which their existence is connected to the earth and motivated by rituals. The film’s depiction of the city as a treacherous and wretched that corrupts people from the rural and traditional heartlands of old India was to later find a parallel in other popular Hindi melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s like Do Bigha Zamin. At first Laxmidas refuses to help Balam and Kinari but Darling persuades him to give Balam a job working at one of the cotton mills. Balam, a dignified tribesman, finds the work humiliating and the conditions in the city unbearable. His enslavement to Laxmidas becomes a major source of anxiety and he is led astray, committing theft while Kinari is nearly raped by a brutish foreman at the mill. At one point, Balam wrecks a machine that is set to replace him at the mill, emphasising the incongruity between tribalism (tradition) and capitalism (modernity).

The ending to the film sees Laxmidas fleeing the city with his car full of gold procured through his greedy exploits. His escape with Darling is premature, as they get lost in the desert. In a cruel twist of fate, Laxmidas and Darling come across Balam and Kinari who offer them water. Laxmidas refuses to accept the water since it would mean he would be indebted to Balam for the rest of his life. The decision to rather die of thirst than accept help from Balam is a deeply pessimistic attitude of the way capitalism generates arrogance, superiority and power as false ideals. Roti’s thematic achievements were matched by the equally arresting expressionistic cinematography by Faredoon A. Irani, influencing later films such as Kaghaaz Ke Phool and Awaara. Nonetheless, it is a film that needs reclaiming from the past so that Mehboob’s status as an auteur can be reconsidered in its rightful context.

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