Naya Daur is arguably BR Chopra's finest, best known and most successful film. The film is a quintessentially Nehruvian film that fitted in nicely with the new initiatives in economic planning and rural community development in the first decade of Indian independence. As India moved on, in early years of independence, even the establishment of rural life in Naya Daur as against earlier films like Mela (1948) is different. The village shown in the film is now bustling and self-sufficient at the outset with much activity going on. A certain pride in the still developing nation is seen as embodied by the song - Yeh Desh Hai Veer Jawaanon ka. Even the rural hero, Shankar, played by Dilip Kumar is different. Whereas in earlier rural films like Mela, he was a passive, tragic hero, he is now the active, dynamic go-getter who challenges the villain to a race, wins by building a short-cut with the help of his supporters from the village and what's more, gets the girl at the end of the film without having to die at the end.
The conflict in the film arises when Kundan gets an electronic saw and a bus into the village that makes the villagers redundant, leaving them without a livlihood. The film thus compells the viewer to consider the fate of those displaced by the unrelenting march of progress. Thus ironically in the film, it is the 'villain' who favours the nationalist modernization arguement while the hero uses collective strength to overcome the fear of change. At the same time, however, the film is unable to take a clear stand between the Gandhian dislike of machinery and the Nehruvian plan for modernization. And especially since the film, like all of Chopra's films, addresses a social issue but being primarily escapist entertainment, it avoids any solution whatsoever of the Machine v/s Labour problem. It is sufficient for Chopra that the question itself has been posed. In trying to keep a balance, Chopra also has scenes showing the villagers are not anti-progress. They are open to a solution that is beneficial to all.
But even if Naya Daur is a 'socially relavant film' that sees brave and traditional rural heroes taking on the might of modern city-clickers, it primarily remains a mainstream Hindi film at heart showing the triumph of the human spirit. And so social issues aside, it also centres around the romantic triangle of Dilip Kumar, Vyjayantimala and Ajit with songs, dances, fights, comedy - the works but extremely well-blended into the narrative, one must admit. One has to admire Akhtar Mirza's effective screenplay in this regard, in particular the Dilip Kumar-Vyjayantimala track that is extremely well-worked out..
The highlight of the film of course is the climactic bus v/s tanga race which holds up quite well even today as the race is intercut with cheering villagers and has all the drama as Vyjayantimala and Ajit valiently hold up the bridge he had destroyed so that the tanga can go over it. This is because the the race is involving and has you rooting for the underdog and you cannot help but feel good at the end as man finally defeats the machine!
Naya Daur sees fine lead performances from Dilip Kumar and Vyjayantimala. It was BR's good friend Ashok Kumar who suggested Dilip Kumar for the film and put in a word with him to hear out the story. Dilip Kumar, though initially reluctant, agreed to do the film once he heard the story. He is spot on in the film as the sensitive but tough hero, a natural leader of the village who takes on the challenge of development and progress at the cost of humanity, winning the Filmfare Award for Best Actor. Vyjayantimala comes across as that rare breed of Hindi film heroine, one who has a mind of her own. She shows an independent streak in the film - Though Shankar is willing to give her up for his best friend who also loves her, she refuses to be a pawn in their game of friendship. Even later on, she joins his struggle of her own volition rather than it being foisted on her. What's more she has her own ideas on how to ford a stream and risks her life to save the bridge.
Interestingly, Vyjayantimala wasn't the first choice for the film. The film was launched with Dilip Kumar and Madhubala at the height of their romance. A 10-day schedule was held in Bombay which was to be follwed by a 45-day schedule in Bhopal followed by another in Poona. However Madhubala's father, Ataullah Khan, refused to let her go out of Bombay citing her ill-health as the reason though the actual reason was that he thoroughly disapproved of her romance with Dilip Kumar and did not want them to go outsdoors for such a long period of time. Chopra then dropped Madhubala from the film, replacing her with Vyjayantimala. An enraged Ataullah Khan took Chopra to court. The case made headlines as Dilip Kumar sided with Chopra against Madhubala even though he loved her saying the film could not be made without the Bhopal schedule. When the movie was released, the judge saw the film and maintained that Chopra and Dilip Kumar were right. The film could indeed not be done without the Bhopal schedule, he declared. Madhubala lost both, the case and Dilip Kumar.
The lead pair are ably supported by Ajit, Chand Usmani, Leela Chitnis. Jeevan makes a good villain and Johnny Walker lights up the screen whenever he is on. On the technical side, special mention must be made of MN Malhotra's superb on-location photography.
The film is a musical triumph for OP Nayyar and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi. Each of the songs in the film was a raging hit and won OP Nayyar the Filmfare Award for Best Music. Naya Daur sees Nayyar use several Punjabi rhythms especially from the Bhangra folk dances - Udhein Jab Jab Zulfein Teri (Asha Bhosle - Mohd. Rafi), Reshmi Salwaar Kurta Jaali ka (Asha Bhosle - Shamshad Begum) and Yeh Desh Hai Veer Jawaanon ka (Mohd. Rafi - Balbir) besides his signature 'tanga' song - Maang ke Saath Tumhara (Asha Bhosle - Mohd. Rafi). Another extremely well composed song is the Johnny Walker ditty Main Bambai ka Babu (Mohd. Rafi) . But the piece-de-resistance of the film is undoubtedly Saathi Haath Badana (Asha Bhosle - Mohd. Rafi). The other person for whom Naya Daur is a triumph is Asha Bhosle. 1957 was her breakthrough year when OP Nayyar used her to sing the heroine's songs in Tumsa Nahin Dekha and Naya Daur and SD Burman too gave her the heroine's songs in Paying Guest and Nau Do Gyarah as they both groomed her into a playback singer par excellence.
Recently the film was colourized and re-released but did not do well at the box office. The colourization was hideous and is a potent reminder that some classics like Naya Daur are best left untouched. All in all, a fine film by a fine filmmaker.