Friday, February 02, 2007

FLASHBACK TO THE 50s (PART II)

DO BIGHA ZAMEEN (1953)

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 Bigha....is 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.

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