Manthan – a tale of the milk revolution in India

Mero gaam katha paare 
Ja dudh ki nadiya baahe 
Ja Koyal ku ku gaye
Mare ghar angana na bhulo na …

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Smita Patil in Manthan Image Courtesy – wn.com

The song captured the mood of the movie and indeed won Preeti Sagar, the singer better known for ‘My heart is beating ..’ in the movie Julie, a Filmfare Award as well. Amul eventually adapted it for a television commercial using footage of the movie focussing on Smita Patil. Indeed an appropriate tribute as the original song was literally a title track showcasing the railway track of a small town in Gujarat and didn’t feature her.

The production of the movie is a story in itself – Dr. Kurien’s journey on his road to becoming the ‘Milkman of India’ started in the early 50s in Anand, a small town in Gujarat. The milk co-operative movement gathered enough steam to be replicated in all districts of Gujarat and eventually created structures like Amul and the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd.(GCMMF) in 1973. The 500000 farmers who were associated with GCMMF contributed Rs. 2 /- each to fund the movie.

The movie became a great success on release and was a key tool used by Kurien and team to promote the co-operative framework in villages across India. Exploitation by middle men and feudal setups that dot the rural landscape were familiar templates for people across the nation and they were instantly able to relate to the tale.

The movie features Girish Karnad as Dr. Rao, a milk expert who arrives with a small team in a small village with the aim of setting up a milk co-operative society. The story is fiction and not based on Dr. Kurien’s own exploits, but its setting is familiar. It is about generating change at the grass-roots, but it surprisingly doesn’t feature any of the dynamics of Dr. Kurien’s struggle in Anand i.e. Bombay Milk Scheme, the political undercurrents, the official babudom. It draws only on a single strand where Dr. Rao takes on a local milk dairy owner (Amrish Puri donning the familiar guise of a villain) who has a monopoly and exploits the farmer to the hilt.

Smita Patil has been cast in a typical role – a feisty rustic woman who has to battle her ‘good-for-nothing’ alcoholic husband and rely on the milk she produces to take care of her small child. She does not trust Dr. Rao initially and feels that he will con her. Eventually she understands his genuine work and becomes a supportive force in getting her community to support his initiative. Her daily routine is that of a face in the crowd – of countless village women who could narrate similar tales of hardship and fortitude.

Smita Patil, the familiar face of the art movies in the 70s, aced the role as usual. No wonder Amul chose to feature her montage in their ad that ends with a line mentioning, ‘Every morning 17 lac women across 9000 villages, bringing in milk worth Rs. 4 crores, are now celebrating their economic independence thanks to the co-operative movement called Amul.’

The movie ends on a filmi note – Dr. Rao feels defeated and victimized as he has to leave the village as the Government has transferred him. He doesn’t even realize that his efforts have taken root, characters played by Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil won’t give up on their dream and the co-operative movement has started its onerous journey for self-respect and sustenance. The movie was driven by the ideas of Dr. Kurien and Shyam Benegal – possibly they intended to show struggle and self-reliance as the themes so as to motivate many others to follow suit; so no needless glorification of the key protagonist, Dr. Rao who in a way beats a final retreat from the scene of action.

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