Post- war world cinema has been undoubtedly influenced by the Italian realist wave – be it the hard-hitting social commentary by Rosselini and Visconti or the soft delineation of day-to-day struggle by De Sica. After all, it gave birth to India’s greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray! India, too, was quick to join the bandwagon and as a result, produced some terrific neo-realist films. Although a bit melodramatic, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953) may well be called the Indian answer to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1947).
Shambhu (Balraj Sahni, the Indian Humphrey Bogart) is a petty farmer who is happy with his two acres of land, his wife Parvati (Nirupa Roy) and his son Kanhaiya (Rattan Kumar, who would go on to become the star in Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish (1954)). Things are smooth until his tract of land comes under threat of industrialization – A scheme spearheaded by the zamindar and loan shark of the village Thakur Hamam Singh (Murad), who tricks Shambhu into either paying up a huge amount of money or relinquishing the claim on his land. As a result, he is forced to go to the city with his son and earn the required sum of money, leaving his father and wife behind in the village. Shambhu takes a range of jobs – from a coolie to a rickshaw puller – just in order to earn those few hundred rupees. Kanhaiya, too, tries to lend a helping hand to his father. The rest of the film follows their harsh life in the city of Calcutta, their hopes, struggles and the denouement of their exertions in a very pragmatic and undecorated fashion.
The ending, a poignant and satirical visual assembly, is a bit sorrowful contrary to the popular happy ending concept prevalent during its times. A very daring move by Roy that tests the comfort levels of the audience – an idea that would be given an in-your-face execution later in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1957). The score by Salil Chowdhary, who also provided the story for the film, is low-key and does not manipulate the emotions of the viewers for most part of the movie while the restrained camerawork matches the intensity of its lead.
The consummate screenplay by to-be-legendary director Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who also edited the film, handles many social themes with ease. The issue of internecine twin migration among the rural and urban not only becomes an integral part of the narration, but also serves as an eye opener for the hundreds of villagers who abandon farming in the dream of making it big in the city. Its counterpart, where agrarian lands are scathed, drained and made lifeless in the name of industrialization and development, is also subtly critiqued.
The most positive aspect of the film is the accentuation on upholding of one’s dignity and self esteem in the most perturbing situations. Though Shambhu could have executed his task easily in more ways than one, he opts for the most ethical choice of all – hard work. This universal theme of strong moral stand against a tide of corrupting influences would be seen in hundreds of movies that followed, more famously in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), which stands at the pinnacle of American Neorealism.
The indivisible nature of the family, all of whose members work towards the fulfillment of a single objective, which is a feature of the traditional Indian society yet universal in application, is a motif in the film. All of the members – Shambhu, his wife, his father and son – intend to alleviate his situation and try to contribute in every way possible. Another theme in the film that is characteristic of the then rural India is the issue of illiteracy among small time farmers that results in their economical exploitation by the money lenders and zamindars. On slight deliberation, it is easy to see that the root of Shambhu’s afflictions is his naiveté towards the legal issues of debt and interest. This issue would be lapped up later by Mehboob Khan’s Oscar nominee Mother India (1957).
Bimal Roy distributed the film abroad in the name “Calcutta – The Cruel City”. Indeed, the shattering image of Shambhu overtaking a horse cart as his customer offers more money for going faster shows how humans and beasts are considered no different in the cities. The film carries a recurring contrast between the warmth of bucolic life and the sheer frigidity of urban living throughout. Shambhu is consistently snubbed and ridiculed when he asks for a job in the city whereas he was offered a Hookah in the village without even asking.
Mahatma Gandhi said that the soul of the nation lies in its villages. What happens if the soul is ripped apart by the existentialism of its body? It is evident that Do Bhiga Zameen has been influenced by and influenced tens of masterful movies spanning different geographical, linguistic, social and temporal backgrounds, but still has a firm foot in its culture. This testifies that cinema knows no barriers and can be ecumenical but at the same time, be uniquely encoded in its culture. To paraphrase film theorist André Bazin – “it is both pre-translated and untranslatable”.