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Naya Daur: The race between man and machine

The BR Chopra classic starring Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala turns 60 this year.

Sonal Pandya

Naya Daur (1957) was producer-director BR Chopra’s most successful project. The film, starring Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Ajit and Jeevan, came out in a banner year for Indian cinema. Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, V Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Barah Haath and Nasir Husain’s Tumsa Nahin Dekha were all released that year. Facing stiff competition from Mother India and LV Prasad’s Sharada (1957) at the Filmfare awards, Naya Daur walked away with the honours for Best Actor, Best Story (Akhtar Mirza) and Best Music Director (OP Nayyar).

Dilip Kumar

The film began production with a hurdle. Initially, Madhubala was cast as Rajani and even shot for the film for 15 days. But then the unit was to travel to Bhopal for an outdoor schedule (much of the film was shot outdoors) and Madhubala’s father, Ataullah Khan, refused to allow her to travel as he feared for her safety.

Chopra had to replace Madhubala and he chose Vyjayanthimala who had already appeared with Dilip Kumar in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955). Ataullah Khan was upset with Chopra’s decision, but before he could take any action against BR Films, the producer-director sued Madhubala for dropping out of the project. Chopra had already paid Madhubala an advance for the role and his lead actor Dilip Kumar backed him.

Dilip Kumar reportedly called Ataullah Khan ‘a dictator’ and admitted his love for Madhubala but said the film had to be shot in Bhopal during his testimony. When the film was premiered, the judge also agreed that inclusion of the Bhopal outdoor shoot was important to the film and sided with BR Chopra. Both Ataullah Khan and Madhubala lost the case, but Chopra dropped the charges when he realised the actress could face a prison sentence. The case and the ensuing publicity ended the relationship between Madhubala and Dilip Kumar.

Written by Akhtar Mirza, the story of Naya Daur pits man against machine. Dilip Kumar played Shankar, a happy-go-lucky tongawallah who steps up when his way of life is threated by Kundan (Jeevan), the zamindar’s son who has recently returned from the big city. Kundan wants to set up a bus service to replace the tongawallahs. He introduces modernity to the small village by bringing a car and adding an electronic saw at the mill, effectively taking away jobs from the long-time workers.

Ajit and Dilip Kumar

When Shankar and his fellow villagers plead their case in front of the zamindar, they are turned down by Kundan. Instead, he challenges them to a race between Shankar's tonga and the bus. The rest of film follows the highs and lows as Shankar prepares for the big race, loses his friend Krishna (Ajit) who switches sides, and gains the support of Rajani (Vyjayanthimala), his love. The film’s finale is a thrilling race between tonga and bus, a David and Goliath tale, which gets resolved with a little bit of ingenuity.

Naya Daur reflected the Nehruvian politics of the time – the villagers want change but at the same time don’t want to give up their old ways. Yet, they are also willing to reach a compromise. Director BR Chopra portrayed their struggle in a real and honest manner. Chopra’s younger brother Yash was the assistant director on the film. Vyjayanthimala, who stepped in for Madhubala, gave a strong performance as a young village woman who holds her own against Shankar and his friend Krishna, both of whom fall in love with her. Rajani knows what she wants and makes her choices accordingly.

Dilip Kumar turned down the project when he was first approached for the film. When another project with Gyan Mukherjee fell through, he agreed to do Naya Daur. BR Chopra had also gone to Mehboob Khan in the hope that the master would direct the film, but Khan felt the film would work better as a documentary than as a feature film. The film celebrated 100 days and Mehboob Khan was invited as chief guest for the event where he readily admitted his earlier misgivings about Naya Daur’s script. Incidentally, Khan beat out Chopra for the Filmfare award for Best Director with his own iconic feature film, Mother India.

A superhit soundtrack of nine songs composed by OP Nayyar accompanied Naya Daur. The film was instrumental in popularizing Asha Bhosle as a leading singer with five popular songs, including the duets ‘Maang Ke Saath Tumhara’ and ‘Reshmi Shalwar Kurta’ with Mohammed Rafi and Shamshad Begum, respectively. Nayyar, who won the Filmfare award for Best Music Director, his only win, included his trademark tonga song in the soundtrack.

Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala with Daisy Irani

Like the classic Mughal-e-Azam (1960) directed by K Asif, Naya Daur was digitized and redone in colour for a re-release on 3 August 2007, 50 years after it was first released. But purists and fans agree the magic of the original black-and-white endures.