A tribute to Verghese Kurien, the Milkman of India

26th November is commemorated as the National Milk Day in the memory of Dr. Verghese Kurien whose birth anniversary falls on this day. I am paying my tribute to him through this review which is of a movie whose Dr. Kurien himself was a part of.
Hailed as the Milkman of India, Dr. Kurien was the pioneer of White Revolution in India which not only substantially increased milk production in India but also systematized its collection and distribution and a network of milk cooperative societies came into existence through the relentless efforts of Dr. Kurien. This campaign known as Operation Flood, created dairy cooperatives all over rural India ensuring that the milk producers get the right price of the product and are saved from the exploitation of the middlemen. Then prime minister of India, Laal Bahadur Shaastri made Dr. Kurien the chairman of the newly created National Dairy Development Board and the brand Amul (derived from the Sanskrit word – Amulya, i.e., priceless) which came from Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. became famous worldwide.

However no good work could be (and can be) done smoothly in the feudalistic and exploitative set up of India. And that’s shown in director Shyam Benegal’s movie – Manthan (1976) whose story was given by Dr. Kurien himself. Renowned playright – Vijay Tendulkar wrote its screenplay and legendary Shaayar – Kaifi Aazmi wrote its dialogues. This timeless classic film shows the victory of good intentions over the mighty vested interests through the collective might of the masses. It won the national award for the best feature film in 1977 and also the national award for the best screenplay. It’s said that for making of this movie, around 5 Lakh farmers of Gujarat had contributed @ Rs. 2/- each and that fund only was utilized as its production cost.

Appearing to be inspired by the real life experience of Dr. Kurien himself (when he being very young, had undertaken this campaign with a strong will to do something worthwhile despite all the odds blocking his path), the story of Manthan (the churning) starts with the arrival of a vet, Dr. Rao (Girish Karnaad) in a small village, Sanganva (Gujarat). He has been deputed by the government to start a dairy cooperative in that area. His team includes Deshmukh (Mohan Agashe), Chandavarkar (Anant Nag) etc. Quite naturally, the local dairy owner, Mishra (Amrish Puri) who also happens to be the money-lender of the village, is not finding this activity as compatible for his exploitative business. He buys milk from the poor milkmen of the village at very less rates and makes exorbitant profit which is now in danger due to the forming of the cooperative society in the village. On the other hand, the sarpanch, i.e., the head of the local governing body of the village (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), sees the cooperative as another means to further his power and awe in the village. The major chunk of the village population consists of the lower caste people known as the HARIJANs and they look upon not only these high profile exploiters but also the urban incomers as their enemies only, mighty but unreliable. Their leader is a good-hearted but arrogant and short-tempered youth, Bhola (Nasiruddin Shah).

Quite naturally, the path ahead for the idealist young hero, Dr. Rao is thorny and stony. But he decides not to compromise with his ideals and not to get awed by the might of the opposing one. He considers all human-beings as equal and endeavours to involve the HARIJAN (lower caste people considered as untouchables in that era) milkmen in the cooperative society so that the purpose of the cooperative movement is served in the real sense. Bhola first misunderstands him but once seeing his pious intentions, he joins the society with his caste brethren. Dr. Rao also gets ample moral support from a sensible and mature milkwoman – Bindu (Smita Patil). However where on one hand, Mishra is conspiring against Dr. Rao and the cooperative society, the sarpanch after losing the election of the chairman of the cooperative society to a HARIJAN youth, goes against them on the other. Mishra gets the support of the drunkard and wicked husband of Bindu in his evil scheme and he makes many moves simultaneously to jolt Dr. Rao and his endeavors and grind his own axe. The sarpanch finally arranges the calling back of Dr. Rao to his original place through a government order. However by this time, the poor as well as the oppressed masses have identified their collective strength through the inspiration of Bhola and they do not allow the cooperative society to lose its existence despite the return of Dr. Rao and his team.

Manthan is an utterly realistic, yet exemplary movie like many movies made by the great director, Shyam Benegal during the seventies and the early eighties. And that’s the reality of India that finally the rural folks who were poor and downtrodden because of the social hierarchy, recognized their strength and finally made the dream of Dr. Kurien a reality. Though still there are thousands of milkmen in India who sell their milk directly to the consumers, mostly the dairy movement has spanned the country and the milkmen now get the right price of their product through the dairy cooperatives. Vested interests might not have left any stone unturned in discouraging them as well as the dairy cooperative movement as shown quite emphatically in this movie but finally the toil of Dr. Kurien and the masses behind him fuelled by his inspiration, showed its colour.

As per Hubert Calvest, ‘Cooperative is a form of organisation wherein persons voluntarily associate together as human-beings on the basis of equality for the promotion of the economic interest of themselves.’ In this concept of cooperative organization, the thing to be understood is that persons associate together as human-beings on the basis of equality. Every human-being is equal irrespective of his wealth or status or share in the corpus fund of the institution. And that’s what is propagated by Dr. Rao in Manthan which finally leads to the defeat of the mighty sarpanch in the election for the chairman of the cooperative because the vote of every member carried equal weight. And this spirit only has made the cooperative movement a success worldwide, especially in India.

Manthan ably underscores the patriarchal set up of the Indian society where the husband despite being drunkard, irresponsible and good-for-nothing considers himself as the owner of his wife who has to abide by his will only. That’s how Bindu gets distanced from Dr. Rao despite having developed a nice understanding and human bond with him earlier. The director has also quite realistically shown that male-female attraction never fails to show its colour and a woman is always able to recognize the nature of the glance of a male that falls on her.

Manthan is technically superior and the complete rural milieu has got enlivened on the screen because of the shooting of the script in the real life setting of the village – Sanganva alongwith the brilliant cinematography of Govind Nihalani and Shama Zaidi’s praiseworthy art direction. The characters are shown as speaking the same dialect as prevalent in the region and several real villagers have also acted in the movie. Every frame (and every character) appears to be real. The length of the movie is not much but whatever is there, the narrative proves to be thoroughly engrossing for the viewer. There is no laxity or boredom anywhere. Despite being a serious movie, the director has inserted humour too through a scene in the ending reels when Mishra (Amrish Puri) delivers nice talks to the villagers by reading them out from a written paper.

Music director Vanraj Bhatia has made background score according to the mood of the movie. There is only one song – Mero Gaam Katha Paare, Jahaan Doodh Ki Nadiya Baahe in the movie for which Preeti Sagar won the Filmfare award for the best female playback singer. Originally it’s a Gujarati folk song. For the song of the movie, the lyrics were penned by Neeti Sagar. And now this famous song with a clip from the movie, is always used as a part of the advertisement of Amul.

The famous theatre personality, playright and actor – Girish Karnaad has excelled in the lead role of Dr. Rao. The film also features another pillar of Indian theatre – Mohan Aagashe. Many actors who were introduced to the Indian cine-audience through the parallel cinema movement of the seventies are there in this movie, viz. (Late) Smita Patil, Nasiruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Anant Naag etc. and everyone of them has left his / her mark through admirable performance. Abha Dhulia as the wife of Dr. Rao who wants her husband to be back to the city, has got very less dialogues but she also makes her presence felt. Late Amrish Puri with his peculiar dialog delivery, amuses the audience despite being in a negative role.

The experience that Dr. Rao underwent (and perhaps Dr. Kurien as well) has been with me too several times during my career. As rightly said by Bhola to Dr. Rao in the movie that it’s easy to talk about ideals (or begin with them) but the real achievement is to stick to them even when everything goes against the protagonist. The idealism of most of the idealists loses its steam and even its breath midway because they are not strong from inside to endure the adverse times. All the same, the ending scene of Manthan declares loud and clear that an idealist may lose, the ideal doesn’t.

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About Jitendra Mathur

A Chartered Accountant with literary passion and a fondness for fine arts
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10 Responses to A tribute to Verghese Kurien, the Milkman of India

  1. Maya Bhat says:

    Have to watch this movie..

  2. बहुत कुछ बदल दिया कुरियन साब ने !! नमन

  3. matheikal says:

    Had no idea about the connection of the movie with Dr Kurien.

  4. Rekha Sahay says:

    Iit was a wonderful movie and so the review is.

  5. rationalraj2000 says:

    Very nice. Happy to read about this classic and about the legendary milkman!

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