Migration does not make for comfortable viewing. In an unsettling moment in National Award-winning filmmaker Hansal Mehta's recently released City Lights, protagonist Deepak's (Rajkumar Rao) wife, essayed by newcomer Patralekha, goes to a dance bar to look for a job as a last resort. New migrants to Mumbai, Deepak and his wife land in the city from a Rajasthan village, only to realise that the Rs10,000 savings they sent to someone who promised them a house, is absconding, and they are in the city to fend for themselves with just a few hundred rupees in hand.
Inside the dance bar, the meek Patralekha is asked to dish out the moves, and to turn around to display her vital stats. Numb with fear and embarrassment, she complies hesitantly, with a fake smile plastered to her face.
The issue of migration is not new to popular Indian cinema; the Do Bigha Zameen scene where a rickshaw-puller (Bajraj Sahni) races with a horse carriage has been a celebrated one over the years. Cinema of the 50s and the 60s, that gleamed on the Nehruvian socialist ideals, positioned the migrant worker in the centre. BR Chopra's Naya Daur takes the race a notch further by pitting the tonga-riding protagonist (Dilip Kumar) against a bus. Yash Chopra's Kaala Patthar, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor and Shatrughan Sinha, took the migrant struggle to the the dark confines of a colliery.
Away from the polarising migrant conflicts on the popular screen were movies like Bhimsain Khurana's Gharaonda, starring Amol Palekar and Zarina Wahab, that brought the focus on urban migrants. Sai Paranjpye's Disha, with Nana Patekar, Shabana Azmi and Raghuvir Yadav in the leads, was a rare film that did not cement another stereotype, and showed us how the rural migrant grapples in a busy, bustling city and goes back home to face the bigger loss of a slipping identity.
Filmmaker Pawan K Shrivastava's soon-to-be-released feature Naya Pata tackles this loss. "The political class will fuel debates to whet their interests, popular mediums will resort to stereotyping, and we hear a lot about brain drain. But the subtext of this debate — the personal loss of the migrant — is rarely heard," argues Shrivastava.
Mehta feels that migration deals with the plight of the lowest common denominator, and that he felt the need to look at what drives this exodus year after year. "In the Rajasthani village where we shot the opening half, basic amenities that you find in a Mumbai chawl are lacking," he says. His protagonist, who finds work in a security agency ferrying everything from cash to coke, pushes forward this argument the hard way.
While older movies made a hero out of the migrant at the helm of the struggle stacked against odds in the rural-urban divide, contemporary movies, almost always, has him resorting to a far-reaching finality.
Migration movies today usually charter the familiar trajectory of the helpless migrant grappling in a big city, who eventually resorts to something drastic -- murder and prostitution being the two mainstays.
National Award-winning filmmaker Jahnu Barua's Hkhagoroloi Bohu Dur (It's a Long Way to The Sea) and Bandhon were acclaimed for their realistic portrayal of migrants, shorn of melodrama and tackling mundane migrant issues.
"Migration is natural, and is bound to happen. While dealing with the topic, I tend to look at what the poor man will do and how circumstances chase him away from his natural habitat. Survival is more important than political or geographical boundaries."
It is ironic that the Indian film industry is a huge cluster of migrants in itself. Musicians from the northeast, script-writers from north India and cinematographers from the south make up for a neat microcosm. And yet, the Indian movie migrant will still have to travel a fair number of miles to arrive at his destination.