Sunday, February 25, 2007


New Delhi (1956)

The first ten minutes, and I begin to wonder if this film is not another Teen batti char raaste, that V. Shantaram production on national integration. Not that I have anything against "Teen Batti.....". On the contrary, it figures on my "to do" list of 50s movies that will appear shortly on this blog. But I don't want an encore on display, either.

Readers may have noticed that I've been intermittently blogging on black and white movies of the 50s. I chose Bollywood, because as a brand it has, like Khadi Gram Udyog and Lifebuoy, remained unchanged over generations. In other words, it is what is called rock solid dependable. No matter what the assortment or order, one can be assured that the blend of love, tragedy, melody and violence will, at the very least, deliver huge comic relief. Where in the world can the heroine's bachao bacho peacefully coexist with the hero's Maa ka ashirwad , behen ka mandatory meri izzat par haat lagaya to mein jaan de doongi and the love interest's compulsory item number that necessitates a chilly winter to sarkaye leo the khatiya.

When it comes to fumbling and bumbling in collage making, Bollywood wins hands down.

So as I was saying, in the course of picking films for the 50s list (suggestions welcome!!) realization suddenly dawns that what I have at hand is essentially an exhibition of exercises in lachrymal training!! So I step back, and pick the odd Kishore Kumar, the odd Shantaram and the odd this and that (thanks are due to Van Pelt Library). And that's how I landed New Delhi.

A few more minutes into the film (after the first ten) and my pick is not so bad after all. For one, the overabundance of cultural integration that was Teen Batti... is severely curtailed. Instead of the ambitious cultural merger across the subcontinent we are mercifully subjected to a smaller goal of achieving unity only in the northie-southie context. In other words, we are left with the Madrasi (this is 50s India, when the south of the Vindhyas was Madrasi territory) and the Punjabi. And what better than the nuptial knot to unite cultures!

So there's Anand (Kishore Kumar), a Punjabi from Jullunder who has to pose as a Madrasi to get an accommodation in the capital city. So provincial are the landlords here, that they look for renters from their own community, prompting Anand to ask yeh hindustan kahan hain and burst into an appropriate song extolling the virtues of the greater homeland.

Through his new Madrasi connections, Anand meets classical music teacher Janaki (Vyjayanthimala). Now with Vyjayanthimala around, can dance be far behind. So she becomes a song and dance teacher. (A word about the dances. They are simply divine.) But no sooner does their romance begin that Anand's father Lala Daulatram (Nasir Hussein) is transferred into the city. Comic scenes follow as Janaki's father wishes to meet him and Anand seeks the help of their gluttonous Madrasi servant in the masquerade. Soon he is caught red handed and in the me lee that ensues, Janaki tries to commit suicide by jumping off into a river (after uttering the stipulated number of nehi nehi-s).

In the city resides another Punjabi gentleman, a Sahukar who loves Janaki as his own daughter. He saves her in the nick of time, drills some sense into her head (if that's possible) and introduces her into society as his niece. A big black mole on her cheek, a salwar kameez-dupatta-paranda instead of kanjeevaram-pottu-flowers, the aiaiohh replaced with ithe-uthe (she even dances a bhangra pale) and she is so convincing that Lala Daulatram accepts her hand for his son. Mrs. Daulatram, too, is also going vari jaaon over her.

In a parallel plot, the Bengali angle is brought in (what after all is national integration if one leaves out the Bong) as Anand's sister falls in love with painter, Ashok Banerjee. Obviously, Daulatram would hear nothing of such an union and promptly arranges his daughter's wedding to a boy from his biradari. Just as the wedding is about to begin, the boy's family shows their true colors and demands a huge dowry. In contrast to their meanness (they also kick Daulatram-ji's pagri which in a mandatory beti ka baap scene he has dutifully deposited at the groom's father's feet) Banerjee, the bong, is an epitome of sainthood. He steps in to offer his wealth to get his beloved married to another man. And not just any wealth mind you, it's his dead mother's jewelery left for his to-be wife. (Oh! how I love Bollywood's penchant for spelling things out loud and clear just so that the audience is spared from exerting their pea sized brain that can be put toward more useful pursuits elsewhere. Thus the dead mother's jewels, in case you had a wee bit of doubt about Bong babu's kind soul.) Teary eyed, Daulatram is finally brought to his senses. The two pairs of love birds are united and the day is saved for cultural integration.

Despite the tried and tested portrayals and the standard dialogues, there are some funny and wonderfully comic moments in the film. Especially in the scenes involving disguise; Kishore Kumar as a Madrasi, his servant posing as his Madrasi father and Vyjayanthimala as a Punjaban. Needless to add, Kishore Kumar's comic timing is great even in the songs. The highlight song of the film is Nakhrewali where he appears in a Fred Astaire like look complete with hat and cane.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Revisioning the past
Early Photography in Bengal 1875-1915 (Malavika Karlekar)

The Zigzag Way (Anita Desai)

Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton)

The Emperor (Ryzard Kapuscinski)

Friday, February 23, 2007


Aurasa: the son a man begets from his own wedded wife is the first in rank.

Kshetraja: the son begotten by the union of a wife with another man according to the peculiar law of the Niyoga.

Datrima: the boy (equal in caste) given away willingly by his mother or his father.

Gudhotpanna: the boy whose father is not known belongs to him of whose wife he was born of.

Apavidha: he who is received as a son, after he has been deserted by both or either of his parents.

Kanina: a son whom a damsel secretly bears in the house of her father belongs to him who weds her afterwards.

Sahodha: the son begotten of a bride pregnant at the time of marriage. If one marries such a bride, either knowingly or unknowingly, the child in her womb belongs to him who weds her, and is a son received with the bride.

Kritaka: the boy a man buys from his father and mother for the sake of having a son.

Paunarbhava: The son born of a woman who had been married earlier and has of her own accord contracted a second marriage and borne a son.

Swayamdatta: He who, having lost his parents or being abandoned by them, gives himself as a son to another man.

Parasava: The son begotten by a Brahman through lust on a Shudra woman.

In addition to these eleven, any man who participates in the funeral ceremony of a departed may substitute for a son

Thursday, February 22, 2007


In his book The Blank Slate, Harvard Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Steven Pinker argues against the concept that all humans are born innately equal. His work has faced severe criticism, not the least because many social scientists fear that dogmas challenging concepts of equality may eventually shift the emphasis from environment to innate ability before the playing field is leveled.

Perhaps critics have been over reacting!

As an Editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004, this is what Pinker had to say in his Introduction to the Volume.

"In anticipating a steady turning of science to the mind and its products I am thinking not just of fancy technologies but of an extension to human affairs of the scientific mindset itself. This does not mean reducing the human condition to genes or neurons or primate behavior but rather seeking to ascertain whether a claim about human affairs is consistent with the facts and with everything else we know about how the world works."

Isn't to "know how the world works" all about the environment and its role. Albeit in a roundabout way!

Here is Pinker on Colbert Report.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007



and now:

W.H. Davies

WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Thursday, February 15, 2007


The maidens were busy with their household chores, and Chandrapida heard with delight the names of these lovely girls and the instructions given to them, such as -Lavalika, spread the pollen of ketaki flowers on the graden trenches; Sagarika, sprinkle jewel dust on the pools of scented water; Rajanika, go to the avenue of tamal trees and place jewelled lamps there; Kumudika, protect the pomegranate trees with nets, otherwise the birds will ruin the fruit; Nipunika, decorate the dolls with saffron marks; Utpalika, take that golden broom and sweep the emerald floors on the banana arbour; Malatika, go paint the roof of Kamadeva's shrine, Nalinika, it is time to feed the swans, give them lotus honey;Kadalika, see that the peacocks are taken to the bath-house, Kutalitika, offer these mango buds to the pigeons; Pallavika, pluck some leaves from the top branches of the pepper tree and give them to the partridges;Madhukarika, weave some garlands with flowers; Mayurika, tell those two kinnaras to stop their music now; Harinika, it is time for you to give the caged parrots their daily talking lessons.

Chandrapida was enjoying the bustle of activity in which these charming maidens were engaged. And then, suddenly, his eyes rested on Kadambari herself. She was reclining on a small couch covered with silk. Two maidens fanned her, and the rhythmic movement of their arms made it appear that they were swimming in the river of Kadambari's beauty.

From Banabhatt's Kadambari (tr. from Sanskrit by Vishwanath S. Naravane)

Friday, February 02, 2007



For me two scenes stand out in Do Bigha Zameen. The first, when the protagonist peasant discovers that his son has turned to theft in desperation and the anger, hurt and sadness that follows. And the second was at the very end when the rural family, comprising of said peasant, his wife and their son return to their village to find a factory chimney spewing smoke where their fields had once stood. They then take turns in pointing out to each other where in this large factory premises might have lain their erstwhile home, their fields, and their kitchen. As they turn to go away, the father thrusts his hand into the fence to grab a handful of earth from his land. But he is shooed away.

Heart wrenching though these scenes were, they gave an aura of dignity and stoicism to the persona of the dispossessed. The underdog who was honest and righteous, had to suffer. But this he did in silence with very little demands from society. No matter how dire the circumstances, for him there would be no deviation from the moral path. Hence the disowning of the son who steals but nary a protest when the state steals his land. Or when he is denied the right to keep a few grains of the earth from his own land, the land that his family had tilled for generations.

This simple categorization of the poor as good and the rich as greedy, corrupt and unfeeling in Do Bigha...may seem very naive today. But in 1952-53, with India's independence only a few years old, its masses in abject poverty, and its middle classes just getting by, this theme was probably a crowd puller. This was also an era when money making through private businesses and enterprise was looked down upon, associated as it was with dishonesty (Profit is a dirty word, Nehru had once said to Jamshed Tata, Chairman of the Tata Group of Industries) and didn't go too well with the righteous, middle class in the employment of the state. And so Do Bigha.... did very well at the box office.

The displacement motif was quite familiar too. The Jawarharlal Nehru government was on a industrialization spree on a series of five year plans, building mammoth iron steel and sundry other plants. Often these structures came up on large tracts of agricultural land but since these "temples of modern India" had the potential to usher in a new age, displacement seemed to be a small price to pay. So in that sense the plot was in tune with the times.

The story runs thus. Shambhu (Balraj Sahni) in Do a small farmer whose land holding happens to fall within the area planned for a huge industrial project. Like most farmers, Shambhu has taken loans from a money lender against his 2 acres of land, so that like the rest of rural India he in under debt. Normally this wouldn't mean a thing since he is able and strong and can cultivate his land to pay off his debt or a portion of it or at least the interest on it. However, now that building the factory depends upon acquiring his land, the contractors pressurize him to pay off his debts in three months.

For Shambhu handing over the title to his land is not merely giving away a piece of earth, it means an end to their way of life. (Since this is Bollywood it is also tantamount to selling one's mother!). But how to save his land from greedy clutches? After some thought he decides to leave for the city earn money by hard manual labor. In this venture he has the support of his wife Parvati (Nirupa Roy) and son Kanhaiya. While Parvati stays behind in the village, Shambhu and son go to the city. Here the duo toil very hard; while Shambhu pulls a hand drawn rickshaw, Kanhaiya polishes shoes. But a series of misfortunes follow and finally the family reunites and returns to their village in the last scene to find their land and home gone.

A scene from Bicycle Thief

Do Bigha....was also one of the earliest movies in Bollywood to be influenced by neorealism. Director Bimal Roy borrowed heavily from DeSica's Bicycle Thief. It was no coincidence that Kanhaiya character was based on DeSica's Bruno, especially some elements of that heart aching innocence. Other themes such as the father-son team, the son watching the father in defeat (albeit handled differently in Do Bigha...Bimal Roy was too talented a director to be given to blatant lift offs) were so reminiscent of DeSica that I had to watch the masterpiece once more. (Will post on it soon!!).

The socialist message that Do Bigha...carried was almost a first in Bollywood cinema. Later, of course, through the fifties, there would be many more films on the subject, notably under the RK banner, movies ranging from Awaara to Jaagte Raho, all celebrating the underdog, and singing hosannas to the factory worker and the farmer, the inheritors of Marx's legacy.

None, however, would hold a candle to Do Bigha....where no matter the poverty, the loss and the deprivation (with small doses of melodrama Bollywood style which detracted greatly from the film) human dignity and righteousness are,for the first time in Bollywoodian celluloid,
in surfeit in the most unlikely of places and in the most adverse of circumstances. And that in itself calls for some celebration.