May 1, celebrated internationally as Labour Day, has special significance for Maharashtra, marking the day on which the state was created in 1960. The upcoming Zee5 web series Hutatma brings out the story of the journey towards statehood, tracing the linguistic and economic anxieties that paved the way of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement.

Directed by Jayprad Desai and with an ensemble cast that includes Anjali Patil, Vaibhav Tatwawaadi and Abhay Mahajan along with veteran Marathi actors including Ashwini Kalsekar, Mohan Agashe and Sachin Khedekar, Hutatma will be premiered on Zee5 on May 1.

The story is loosely based on a Marathi novel of the same name by Meena Deshpande. Desai, whose credits include the Marathi film Nagrik (2014), wrote the series along with Marathi author Kiran Yadnyopavit.

Desai described Hutatma as a work of historical fiction. “We celebrate Maharashtra Day today on May 1, but we are not actually aware of how Maharashtra was formed, or how linguistic states were formed in India to begin with, or how the actual strife was,” Desai told “All the major events of this period provide a stimulus for my characters and their intertwining destinies. But the characters in the foreground are fictional.”

Hutatma trailer (2019).

The backdrop against which the series is set is ripe for dramatisation. The 29 states and seven union territories that make up the Indian republic are the result of a decades-long process of organisation and reorganisation. When India became independent in 1947, its components were derivatives of the administrative regions that existed during British rule and the former princely states. Demands from across the country to rearrange the states along linguistic lines arose soon after independence.

In Maharashtra, the desire for a Marathi-speaking region to be carved out of the erstwhile Bombay State had been brewing for years, but gathered steam in 1955. That year, the States Reorganisation Commission, set up by the Congress government at the Centre to look into the redrawing of administrative regions, decided against the linguistic division of states. A diverse group of activists and intellectuals, many of them Communists and Socialists, came together to set up the Samyukta Maharashtra Kriti Samiti. Its prominent members included Keshavrao Jedhe, SM Joshi, Acharya Atre, Prabodhankar Thackeray and Shripad Amrit Dange. Simultaneously, the Mahagujarat movement demanded the creation of a Gujarati state. Both movements sought the economically pre-eminent Bombay city (now Mumbai) as their capital.

The ensuing period was marked by massive demonstrations and brutal crackdowns in Bombay. The web series draws its name and starting point from one such bloody event, in South Mumbai’s Fort area, where 15 people lost their lives during police firing on pro-Maharashtra protesters on November 21, 1955. The square in Fort where the protests were held was renamed Hutatma Chowk from Flora Fountain, to commemorate both the struggle for statehood and the over 100 people who lost their lives for it between 1955 and 1956.

In 1959, the Jawaharlal Nehru-led government conceded to the creation of Maharashtra with Bombay as its capital. As Gyan Prakash writes in his 2010 book Mumbai Fables, it was on Dange’s suggestion that Maharashtra’s birth was timed to coincide with Labour Day. Dange, a leading Communist activist, framed the struggle for Maharashtra as one between the largely Marathi working class and a Centre swayed by capitalist motivations.

Hutatma Chowk memorial in Mumbai. Credit: Elroy Serrao/CC BY-SA 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

The many strands of conflict in the story – Centre versus state, working class versus business owners, nationalism versus linguistic identity – are represented through the various characters in Hutatma, Desai said. A key character is Vidyut Sawant (Anjali Patil), a 22-year-old woman whose political agnosticism is challenged when her life gets entangled with the statehood struggle.

Mohan Agashe plays a lawyer who represents victims of police atrocities. Sachin Khedekar portrays the editor of a pro-government newspaper who has to juggle his sympathies for the protesters with his publication’s mandate. “These characters are fictitious, but they are derived from a lot of people, or rather tendencies at the time,” Desai said.

Anjali Patil in Hutatma (2019). Courtesy Zee5.

A polarising player in the story for statehood was Jawaharlal Nehru, then the country’s prime minister. Nehru had first spoken in favour of the linguistic reorganisation of India, but changed his stance after Independence. The Congress leader feared that a country already divided on religious lines and bifurcated through Partition would be further torn apart, Ramchandra Guhra writes in India After Gandhi, his 2007 account of the country’s journey after 1947. Nehru’s character in the Zee5 show is played by Arif Zakaria.

The Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti ended in 1960, but out of its ashes rose the Shiv Sena’s nativist movement against immigrants, Gyan Prakash writes. Prabodhankar Thackeray was an active member of the movement, and his son, Bal Thackeray, tapped into the anxieties of that period for his Maharashtra-for-Maharashtrians campaign. “This issue of Marathi pride is still fresh,” Desai said on the period’s legacy. “It is still being exploited politically. Elsewhere too, there is a conflict between the original inhabitants of a place and the perceived outsiders, which has existed all over the world, and at all times.”

Despite its six-decade-old setting, Desai is confident that the story remains relevant. “Stories are made when they resonate. Time gives a perspective to old events,” he said. “So while Hutatma is set against the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, it tells a story which is timeless and universal. And because this topic has not been dealt with before [on screen], people will be curious to know.”