There’s a small and under-publicised film releasing this week, titled 'Union Leader', directed by Sanjay Patel. Except for a film set in the !970s-80s, like the recent 'Daddy', the whole issue of worker-mill owner-union leader seems to have vanished from our films. At one time, when the unions in Mumbai were powerful and filmmakers still in anti-capitalist mode, the 'mazdoor-malik' conflict was the basis of many mainstream films like 'Namak Haram', 'Sagina Mahato', 'Deewar', 'Mazdoor', 'Rang', 'Laadla' and the also parallel films like 'Aaghat'.
An almost forgotten film by Nasir Husain, 'Baharon Ke Sapne' (1967), was set in a mill workers’ 'basti', spoke about the exploitation of laborers by mill owners and an unscrupulous union leader.
With the help of writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, he made a film that somehow managed to a social conscience with mainstream elements like a love story and unforgettable Majrooh Sultanpuri-RD Burman numbers ('Aaja piya tohe pyaar doon', 'Chunari sambhal gori' and 'Kya janoon sajan').
A crisis in the mill worker Bholanath’s (Nana Palsikar) family is caused by the education of his son Ram (Rajesh Khanna), whose BA degree puffs his father’s chest with pride, but can’t get him a job. The people of the 'basti' mock Bholanath’s optimism and Ram’s increasing despondency. Ram’s only sympathisers are his mother (Sulochana Latkar) and his childhood sweetheart Geeta (Asha Parekh).
Like so many Bollywood filmmakers inspired by socialistic ideals, Hussain also portrayed working class struggles – the smoke, pollution and hard work leave the workers poor, ill and desperate but their rich employers care only about their profit.
Bholanath proudly takes Ram to meet the manager of the mill where he works, but Kapoor (Premnath) is cruelly dismissive towards the man who has slaved in his mill for 30 years; the best he can offer Ram is a menial job in the factory. Ram overhears the insulting words uttered by Kapoor and feels even more helpless. A malicious Kapoor sacks Bholanath too, just when he is preparing for his daughter’s wedding. Unable to tell his family that he has lost his job, he leaves home with his tiffin every day and spends the day with a blind mendicant.
Ram goes to the city to look for a job, and is unsuccessful there too. He comes back to his town and takes up the factory job. He does not tell his family that he is back and drowns his despair in alcohol. Bhola is so sure that Ram will get work and send money, that he borrows a large sum from the moneylender for his daughter’s wedding.
Geeta’s uncle (Shivraj) finally gives Ram a sense of purpose by telling him that he must do something for the workers, who slog all their lives without adequate compensation and no security. The union leader is under the management’s thumb, but the workers have pinned their hopes on a labour leader (P. Jairaj), who has come to help them in their fight against the management.
Ram is drawn into the conflict between two sides, each with their own selfish agenda and no real concern for the workers. The film goes off the rails here with its excessive melodrama and political cluelessness; the climax is plain absurd, but can be excused keeping in mind the earnestness that has gone before.
This was one of Rajesh Khanna’s early films, after he had won the United Producers’ talent contest, and had not been spoiled or stilted by stardom. He looked the part and lived it. Asha Parekh, even in simple costumes, looked lovely – the two went on to do other successful films together, like 'Kati Patang' and 'Aan Milo Sajna' (both in 1970).
Sadly, the black and white film (with award-winning cinematography by Jal Mistry) bombed and Nasir Hussain went back to making his colourful romantic entertainers.