Little known facts about well known people : Munshi Premchand (1880-1936)

Did you know that the one and only film written by Premchand had to be banned from releasing in some cities? This was not for reasons that we usually associate with film censoring these days, but because the film ‘Mazdoor’ was too real!

All of us have read at least a couple of stories by Premchand in our school books. Idgah and Bade Bhai Sahab are stories that stay etched in memory. But the socially conscious and celebrated writer whose literary career spanned three decades with 14 novels, 300 short stories, and countless articles and essays, and who was hailed as the ‘Qalam ka Sipahi’ (Soldier of the Pen) and ‘Upanyas Samrat’ (Emperor of Novels), did not survive long professionally in the world of Bombay cinema. This is among the little-known facts about the well-known and much-loved author Premchand.

In this month of July, which is his birthday month, let’s remember some interesting facts about the brilliant author:

The early struggles of Premchand

Born as Dhanpat Rai in July 31, 1880 to Ajaiab Lal and Anandi Devi in Lamhi village near Benares, Premchand was the fourth child of the family, born after three sisters, of whom only one survived. His father was a clerk in the post office and the family was not very well to do. Contrary to his name, which meant ‘master of money’, Dhan or money did not come Premchand’s way throughout his life.

Premchand’s mother died when he was eight and his father also re-married around then. Dhanpat was treated rather badly by his stepmother, and this is reflected in some of his stories. His father died in 1897 when he was barely 17 and Premchand lived in various places like Bahraich, Kanpur, Pratapgadh and Benares, teaching in school and giving private tuitions to make ends meet.

How Dhanpat became ‘Premchand’ the writer

Dhanpat Rai had an uncle who was quite wealthy and who called him “Nawab.”  Based on that, Dhanpat assumed the name ‘Nawab Rai’ for his earlier writings. His very first novel is said to have been loosely based on his uncle’s life but it never got published. His first published novel was about corruption among temple priests and was called Asrar-e-Ma’abid in Urdu (“Secrets of God’s Abode”), and was printed in a magazine as a series.

Dhanpat’s collection of patriotic short stories Soz-e-Watan was published in 1907, was serialized in Zamana magazine and later published as a book. It was banned by the British a couple of years later and the copies of the book were burnt. It was then on the suggestion of a publisher that he began to write as Premchand. Munshi was added to his name by people at some point, either because he was a teacher or because he was a writer-scholar.

Being a prolific reader, and a sensitive soul, Premchand was acutely aware of the social and economic conditions of the country and, in his writings, he found an outlet for the expression of his strong sentiments. His second marriage was to Shivrani Devi, a child widow, which was quite a bold step in those days. Premchand worked for a while in a book shop and his first real job was as a teacher in a government school at the salary of Rs 18 per month.

Soon after completing his B.A. from Allahabad, Premchand was promoted to being a Deputy Inspector of Schools at Gorakhpur. But just then, like many young people in those days, he responded to the call of Non-Cooperation by Gandhiji and gave up his job in the school to turn his focus full-time to writing. With his wife and two children, he returned to Banaras and started a printing press called Saraswati Press, where some of his books were published.

The ‘Mazdoor’ film saga

In 1934, Premchand went from Benares to Bombay to try his luck in the film industry. In those days, the job of scriptwriting for films was highly lucrative with the promise of Rs 8000 per annum and an annual bond. He joined a studio called Ajanta Cinetone and was asked to write about the problems of the mill workers, which was a major social issue in those days. Premchand’s writings were always linked to real life problems and contemporary ills of society so this was very much his terrain. He wrote a script for a film called Mazdoor in which he also played a cameo role as the leader of the mill workers. The plot was about a family of mill owners, in which a brother and sister inherit the mill after the death of their father. The son exploits the mill workers whereas the sister supports the mazdoors and leads them to strike against the management.

But when the film was sent to the censor board, it was stuck as it was said to be too provocative. The head of the censor board also happened to be the head of the Mill Owners Association in Bombay.

Unfortunately, no prints of the film have survived though some photographs and details of the cast and crew can be found online.

the-mill-mazdoor
(Source: mahalmovies.com & filmheritagefoundation.co.in)

A scene in which the sister incites the workers to strike against her wayward brother evoked inflammatory responses across the country especially in Bombay, the hub of textile mills, and the film had to be pulled out of the theatres, in many cases through the use of force. Yet, the film remains a stark and accurate portrayal of industrial life in those times, as well as of the predicament of the workers then.

Ironically, workers at Premchand’s own press in Benares were inspired by the film to strike against the non-payment of wages.

Many films have been made based on Premchand’s stories over the years.

Premchand’s final advice to writers

For aspiring writers everywhere, it is perhaps worth sharing the gist of Premchand’s speech delivered at the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) on April 9, 1936 at the Rifah-e Aam Hall in Lucknow. His speech, called Sahitya ka Uddeshya (The Aim of Literature), was heard by a rapt audience comprising both young and established writers from across the country. In simple but powerful words, the greatest storyteller of his time told the audience that good literature can only be founded on truth, beauty, freedom and humanity and that his definition of literature was simply ‘the criticism of life’. And since literature is nothing but a mirror to its age, therefore its definition, scope and contents – just as much as its aims and objectives –must change with the times.

Premchand lived only a few months after this speech. He leaves behind a rich repertoire of work that gives accurate descriptions of the people, values and social-economic conditions of his time.

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