Ram: Guys, please stick together. This place is new to me. I may get lost.
Sanjana: Come on Ram.
Friend 1: Are you a kid? What nonsense! He thinks it’s the Kumbh Mela
This conversation takes place quite early in the 2004 blockbuster “Main Hoon Na”. Ram Prasad Sharma, a major of the Indian army, is on an undercover mission at a college in Darjeeling, a hill station in north Bengal. He goes to watch a film, “Sholay” (1975), with his new friends and is tasked with buying the tickets. As his friends disperse — to get popcorn and other refreshments — he asks them to stick together. The throwaway line is one among the many references to popular Hindi cinema of the 1970s to which this film pays self-conscious tribute.
The lost-and-found trope was a popular one among filmmakers, write National Award winners Balaji Vittal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee. Tracing the popularity of the genre to “Kismet” (1943), they name several films that use this narrative device — “Waqt” (1965), “Kati Patang” (1970), “Mera Gaon Mera Desh” (1971), “Samadhi” (1972), “Yaadon Ki Baraat” (1973), “Zameer” (1975), “Khel Khilari Ka” (1977), and “Manzil Manzil” (1984). One can, of course, add “Ram Aur Shyam” (1967), “Seeta Aur Geeta” (1972), and “Amar Akbar Anthony” (1977) to this list. Film critic Rashmi Doraiswamy, in her essay “’These Days’ of Our Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Hussain” (2004), related the prevalence of this theme to the trauma of the Partition: “It functions often as a trope of the trauma of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, of displacement, uprootment [sic] and the losing of one’s kith and kin in the mayhem.”
The lost-and-found narratives started becoming less popular as the 1980s, progressed. “(S)tarting the late 1980s, perhaps with the advent of computers, the ‘lost & found’ theory was ‘decommissioned’ from Bollywood,” write Vittal and Bhattacharjee. “(I)n today’s age where even a Pizza delivery boy’s ID is verified before entering a residential apartment it is unlikely that someone claiming to be the ‘lost’ one would be accepted without due diligence of DNA tests and biometrics. And ‘finding’ the ‘lost’ would be far easier today as the lost person is likely to pop up as ‘People you might know’ on Facebook.”
While getting lost is still quite common at the Kumbh Mela — the major Hindu festival celebrated in 12-year cycles at Haridwar, Nashik, Ujjain and Allahabad (Prayagraj) — staying lost is almost impossible. Modern communication technology has made it possible to stage a quick reunion even if one loses one’s family or companions. But, did people ever get lost in the Kumbh Mela, even in Hindi popular films? As I began to research for this column, I could not think of any, and reached out to friends and acquaintances. The most obvious answer was “Do Anjaane” (1976), where Amit Roy (Amitabh Bachchan) is found by Sumesh Dutt (Pradeep Kumar) and his wife (Urmila Bhatt) after he has been pushed off a train by his friend Ranjit Mallik (Prem Chopra). Dutt and his wife adopt him as their son, whom they had lost at the Kumbh Mela years ago, though of course, he is a different person.
Others pointed to “Mela” (1971), starring real-life brothers Sanjay Khan and Feroze Khan as Kanhiya and Shakti, two screen brothers who lose each other at a village fair as children only to be united, after much turmoil, as adults. But the fair at which they lose each other is not the Kumbh Mela but an event at their village. Eventually, novelist and film buff Madhulika Liddle pointed me towards the 1954 Kishore Kumar-Usha Kiron-starrer “Adhikar”. A child is lost by her foster parents at the Kumbh Mela and found by her stepmother, though they are unaware of the relation. Stock footage of a Kumbh Mela at Allahabad (Prayagraj), with people taking the holy dip, elephants and other animals on display as well as the procession of Naga sadhus, are inter-cut with the song “Maati kahe kumbhar se” as the distraught grandparents of the lost child search for her.
Over the past month, similar images saturated news media as India continued to celebrated the Kumbh Mela in the northern city of Haridwar, even as the deadly second wave of Covid-19 ravaged the country. In an editorial on May 8, the Lancet gave a fuller picture of the monumental human suffering in the country: “The scenes of suffering in India are hard to comprehend. As of May 4, more than 20.2 million cases of Covid-19 had been reported, with a rolling average of 378,000 cases a day, together with more than 222,000 deaths, which experts believe are likely to be substantial underestimates. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and health workers are exhausted and becoming infected. Social media is full of desperate people (doctors and the public) seeking medical oxygen, hospital beds, and other necessities.”
It laid the blame squarely at the door of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which “allowed religious festivals to go ahead, drawing millions of people from around the country, along with huge political rallies—conspicuous for their lack of COVID-19 mitigation measures.” Denying scientific evidence, Modi’s government allowed the Kumbh Mela to go ahead this year. In popular Hindi films, those who are lost are also found. Some through song and dance, like in “Yaadon Ki Baraat” (1973), or the totem of a child’s toy, like in “Amar Akbar Anthony” (1977). It is almost a narrative ritual and a sort of resolution to the anxiety of displacement that Doraiswamy identifies. But there is no resolution to the anxiety and loss that so many Indians have gone through over the past two months. It will leave us scarred for years.
Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel, Ritual, was published in 2020. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.