Recalling: DO BIGHA ZAMIN (1953)

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It was with great expectations that I sat down to watch this Bimal Roy classic from the early 1950s. It is was an award winning movie at that time and had received a lot of acclaim, not only in India, but around the world. Also, having recently watched the 1964 war movie Haqeeqat that boasted of a stellar performance from Balraj Sahni, I was completely looking forward to watching another superb performance from him. But contrary to expectations, ‘Do Bhiga Zamin’ ended as a truly underwhelming experience for me.

The movie is about the struggles of a helpless farmer Shambhu (Balraj Sahni in an author backed role) and his family, who have to return a sum of Rs. 250 to the village Zamindar, and have just three months to arrange for it (The actual debt is around Rs.65 but the Zamindar gets the account fudged as revenge for Shambhu refusing to sell his ‘Do Bhiga Zameen’ to him.) Unable to generate funds in the village, poor Shambhu decided to move to the city in hope of getting some work there. Unknown to him his son Kanhaiya too gets on the train by which he is making the journey; and they both reach Calcutta. Once in the city they struggle to find even shelter, and just when you think things can’t go any worse for them, their belongings get stolen (including the bit of money they had).

They end up getting shelter in a basti thanks to a good hearted land lady. Their neighbor, a hand-rickshaw puller, helps Shambhu to get a rickshaw license and soon Shambhu starts toiling hard to earn 2-3 rupees a day. His son too joins him in his struggle by taking up boot polish with the help of a street smart friend Laloo ustad. Just when it looks like things are going all right for them, disaster happens and Shambhu gets severely injured after meeting with a freak accident. And just when you think that all the misery in the world was not enough for the poor family, Shambhu’s father turns ill, his wife is forced to leave the village and visit the injured Shambhu in the city-where she is fooled into a trap by a thug. In the effort to escape from him she meets with an accident. For helping her recover, Shambhu is forced to part with all the money he and his son had earned by the efforts of their sweat and blood- resulting in the auction of their land according to the court order and his father going insane.

The film was a disappointment for me because of a number of reasons. First- it was highly melodramatic. The director was attempting a realistic subject but overdid it by including too many clichés (which might not have been clichés at that time- but even then it is hard to believe that all the problems in the world managed to find the address of the poor farmer Shambhu). Second- the entire tone of the film was theatrical- and the acting looked too in your face and sometimes even amateurish. Balraj Sahni really gave another spectacular performance but the effect gets diluted due to the less than adept supporting cast (Nirupa Roy being an exception). Third- the director took the extreme view as far as industrialization is concerned. The subject offered him the opportunity to propagate a new wave of thinking and break the shackles of illogical traditions and facets of our society, but he failed to capitalize on it. For instance even in an abject state the hero refuses his wife to work and earn some money (while the other women in the village are shown to fine with working for their bread). Similarly he rejoiced when his young kid starts to earn a living by doing boot polish (his spirit is celebratory while it should have been otherwise). The influential people are all depicted as monsters, apathetic to the woes of the poor- and this again is a very generalist view that the director takes.

And lastly, the film did not work for me because the way it culminated. After all the hard work, all the efforts that Shambhu and his kid put in, they are not able to save their land. This goes against the very thing that makes our movies so endearing- the spirit of hope and optimism. It looks ghastly the way they have ended the movie- just to make a point that the rich will keep treading on the hopes and aspirations of the poor to make their palaces of wealth.
However irrespective of the above there are a few sequences which are worth mentioning as individual pieces of brilliant art-
• When Shambhu loses the daily earning from a middle class household for which he used to drop two girls to their school, he still drops them without taking any wages- forgoing other customers from whom he could have made some earning.
• The Shambhu accident scene- A man and lady, who have had a fight, are indulging in a race of their hand-rickshaws (one of them being pulled by Shambhu). When the man offers a big amount to Shambhu to go faster, he puts in his all and unfortunately his rickety rickshaw is not able to handle the thrust- in the process causing a freak accident and an injury to Shambhu.
• The scene when Kanhaiya resorts to stealing in an effort to get some good food for his injured father. And later when Shambhu breaks down after discovering this misdoing on the part of his ‘bachhua’.

Shambhu is shown as such a good and self-less person that it seems like sacrilege when he does not achieve his goal in the end. And as I said that’s where I lost whatever little connect I had with this movie.

Piyush Dewan

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