Ram Singh, played by Dilip Kumar, enters a rural landlord’s home where an occult ritual is being performed to treat a plague-stricken child.
“Main munne ko aspatal le jaane aaya hoon,” he announces, disrupting the ritual. I have come to take the child to the hospital.
In the next frame, we see Singh admonishing Sushma, played by Nalini Jaywant, for delaying her son’s treatment and relying on occult care. “Jahil, apni akalmandi ka nateeza dekh rahi ho?” Ignorant, are you seeing the result of your smartness?
In the 1953 Dilip Kumar-Nalini Jaywant starrer Shikast, the exchange is set in Kundan Garh, a village ravaged by the plague epidemic. The local hospital is rapidly filled with infected patients. The film’s director Ramesh Saigal uses the epidemic as a 10-minute subplot to push the multi-layered story. In the process, the film became one of the very few works in Hindi cinema where an epidemic has found a place in the narrative, even if it isn’t central to the story.
Shikast, which literally means defeat, could not win box office approval. Even in retrospect, it has gone largely unnoticed in Dilip Kumar’s filmography. That’s despite the fact that it was the last of the only two films that Dilip Kumar did with Jaywant, an actress he rated very highly for her craft. However, in a world grappling with a new pandemic, the film can be revisited for a very different reason: it’s one of the very few Hindi films to have woven the scourge of an epidemic into the larger canvas of storytelling. In a strange way, Shikast has been denied its due and attention even in this shortest of lists.
The use of the epidemic is as much a plot device as it is a polemical instrument in the film. Ramesh Saigal has been known for speaking his left-leaning mind in his work, as evidenced in his later films like Phir Subah Hogi (1958). In Shikast, he uses the plight of a landless peasant Manglu and his daughter Sundariya, a domestic worker at a landlady’s home, to convey the class divide seen in the epidemic-inflicted scourge. As different facets of the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded over the past year, two scenes are worth recalling.
First, when Manglu requests that Sundariya be relieved of her service because someone is plague-stricken in her employer’s house. The recognition of equal needs of domestic workers and their employers to be protected from disease, or the need for employers to share information about their infection, is a question which surfaced in discussions around the class dimensions of Covid behaviour in recent times. The film positions it in a rural setting and feudal work space. Manglu’s plea is summarily rejected and he is shown too powerless to protest. It’s only after being infected with the plague herself that Sundariya is forced out of the house. She dies while being treated by Ram Singh in the village hospital.
As Manglu mourns his daughter’s death, he juxtaposes her fate with that of the landlady’s son, who is also infected. However, as mentioned earlier, if Manglu’s poverty claimed his daughter, the landlady family’s ignorance came in the way of her son’s treatment. Far from seeking medical help, his treatment is held hostage to superstition. As the story unfolds, he is rescued and treated by the leading man of the film. In a story with many strands, it’s useful that the leading man is a doctor as well as a landowner, an evolving reformer, and forlorn and brooding lover trying to make bridges with the lost love of his childhood.
Released in 1953, the film had a few scenes in which the dialect used is similar to Awadhi, spoken in the central part of Uttar Pradesh. Three years after the state abolished the zamindari system, the film’s portrayal of the oppressive practices of landlordism might be a comment on the need to support the young republic’s resolve to end it. It’s also possible that it is a reminder of landlords still having wanton run in the region. With the epidemic as one of its many subplots, the film narrated an unusual love story with disturbing notes on poverty, ignorance and disease in rural India.
Neither Dilip Kumar in his autobiography Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow nor economist Meghnad Desai in his work Nehru’s Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India has talked at length about Shikast. The film has been relegated to fleeting mentions in both the books. In the latter, however, Desai applauded Nalini Jaywant’s performance as the embittered widow. Desai even talks about the film being loosely based on a Sharat Chandra novel. Perhaps he had Palli Samaj in mind. This is a seemingly off-mark assertion. Wajahat Mirza’s story for the film does not show much resemblance to the novel, even if cinematic liberties are allowed.
There are three other films which could be said to have an epidemic as a subplot.
Two came before India attained independence: V Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946) and Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946). In the former, an epidemic is one of the many challenges Dr Kotnis faces in China while treating the troops. In Neecha Nagar, the social realism movement in cinema is put to use as KA Abbas uses an epidemic as a scourge inflicted upon the underclass by acts of avarice and apathy of the powerful. In a more commercial venture, Phool Aur Pathar (1966), the epidemic enters as a plot device to push a tale of evolving relationships.
Prodded by the latest pandemic, recent studies have shown that in the past two centuries, India has lost millions of lives to a number of epidemics. Many of them found their chroniclers, but many still remain untold stories. In the realm of popular culture, epidemics have generally escaped the narrative canvas of Hindi filmmakers. In the very few which used them as subplots, Shikast served as a cinematic microcosm of the epidemic experience in a feudal setting.
As social scientists now talk about in pandemic-hit rural India, filmmakers have to mirror their time, space and medium to narrate rural encounters with the pandemic.