The older generation would recall the criticism of the late actress Nargis against our most celebrated filmmaker internationally, Satyajit Ray, saying something along these lines "Ray exports India's poverty to the West." The eminent filmmaker Mrinal Sen says "Poverty is a fact of life in India. My business as a filmmaker is to understand Poverty."
Roughly around 70% of our country lives in poverty. How truthfully have our filmmakers captured poverty in the right perspective and depicted the resulting consequences of a life lived in penury?
I was watching the Satyajit Ray films Aparajito & Apur Sansar recently. The films are like an elegiac verse on celluloid. While unfolding the tragedy that befell Apu at several stages in his life, from a rather young age losing his sister Durga to the loss of his parents and thereafter his wife, the tenor of the films and the visual imagery in particular has a poetic quality about it. How does poverty and poetry merge into a cohesive whole in a realistic depiction can be open to debate. But we must not forget that feature films are not documentaries, and storytelling ought to incorporate several other devices - be it fantasy, lyricism or surrealism to communicate with viewers in newer and newer ways.
Ray as a pioneering depicter of poverty went the lyrical route in The Apu Trilogy, while in his Asoni Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973) he was more stark, probably influenced by the films of Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.
With the exception of his last film (Amar Bhuvan) poverty as shown in the films of Mrinal Sen have a despairing tone (Baisey Shravan, Calcutta 71, Oka Orie Katha ..) even when he attempted narrating them in a light hearted manner (Chorus, Parashuram). Ritwik Ghatak was likewise bleak (Meghe Dhaka Tara, Subarnarekha) as was Gautam Ghose (Paar, Antarjali Jatra), Buddhadeb Dasgupta (Neem Annapurna) and Nabyendu Chaterjee (Aaj Kal Parshur Galpo) and a few others. Mira Nair captured the plight of street urchins of Mumbai to much critical acclaim in her Salam Bombay. Some of the films of K.A.Abbas, Raj Kapoor and Bimol Roy (Do Bigha Zameen) also revolved around the theme of poverty, though at times these filmmakers made use of commercial devices like heightened melodrama and songs to rope in a larger audience. The joys and hardship of the street children were effectively portrayed in Madhur Bhandarkar's Traffic Signal.
In several films poverty has been shown to lead to debasement of the individual (Bicycle Thieves, Oka Orie Katha, Akaler Sandhane, Asoni Sanket) but did we really see a film where the characters rose above their misfortune to a higher strata in society? (Okay, the Dhirubhai Ambani inspired Mani Ratnam's film Guru is a rags-to-riches story as are numerous commercial flicks like Dewaar & their clones)
In the final analysis, poverty is a blur on our society. Filmmakers who use cinema as a weapon for social change can do a kind of association mining of how poverty correlates with debasement, and use the medium to contribute towards creating an awareness and possibly help the cause of alleviation of the social malaise. After all, cinema can truly act as an 'agent provocateur', and can bring about a positive social change.