Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Guru Dutt, Asit Sen: some of my favourite directors, and all men with a string of poignant, meaningful films to their credit. Not always very happy films, but films that step away from the usual masala of Hindi cinema. Films that, like the classic Do Bigha Zameen, are not about bewigged, gadget-toting gundas and their better-than-good (not to forget immensely strong) nemeses, but about common people with common problems.
Problems like that of a poor peasant called Shambhu Mahato (Balraj Sahni), labouring to till his two bighas of land. A bigha isn’t much—not more than an acre—but for Shambhu and his old father Gangu (Nana Palsikar), those two bighas mean the difference between starvation and staying alive. That land is also Shambhu’s only means of ensuring that his wife Parvati `Paro’ (Nirupa Roy) doesn’t need to work, and that his son Kanhaiya (Rattan Kumar) is able to get at least a basic education at the village school.
The local zamindar, Thakur Harnam Singh (Murad) has troubles of his own. He knows that the government is soon going to abolish zamindari; he’ll be a landowner no longer. His associates—all of them wealthy businessmen—have been encouraging Harnam Singh to get into industry. He’ll mint money, they tell him, if he sets up a mill on his land. The only problem is, bang in the middle of Harnam Singh’s land is Shambhu’s meagre plot.
Harnam Singh, though, has an advantage over Shambhu: Shambhu has been borrowing money from him over the past, and hasn’t cleared his debts yet. He therefore sends for Shambhu, and informs the peasant that in exchange for Shambhu’s land, he’ll waive all of Shambhu’s debts.
Shambhu, to Harnam Singh’s surprise, is adamant: he will not let go of his land. Pay up, then, says Harnam Singh—and that too by the next day.
Shambhu pleads, but it’s useless; he’ll have to pay, or yield his land (on which, by the way, is also his house).
Shambhu hurries home to consult with his father. They get Kanhaiya to do the calculations for them, and discover that Shambhu owes Harnam Singh Rs 65. It seems an impossible sum to pay back within a mere day.
But Shambhu knows that his only hope for survival is his land, and so he gathers up everything even vaguely valuable that they own, preparatory to selling it off. Paro gives up her gold earrings, and their utensils are also sold.
Shambhu, however, is in for a nasty shock: Harnam Singh’s naib, the accountant, (guided by his lord and master) has fudged the books, completely omitting to take into account a year’s free labour from Gangu in exchange for a loan. Illiterate that he is, Shambhu hasn’t demanded any receipts, and so it’s a simple case of his word against that of Harnam Singh and his naib. Shambhu’s debts, says the naib, amount to Rs 235, not the paltry Rs 65 Shambhu’s offering.
The case goes to court, and goes against Shambhu. The judge orders Shambhu to pay back the Rs 235 to Harnam Singh, failing which Shambhu’s two bighas will be auctioned off and the requisite amount paid out of the proceeds to the zamindar. Keeping in mind Shambhu’s extreme poverty, the judge allows three months for the debt to be cleared.
Shambhu is desperate by now; other than the land, he has nothing to sell. But another villager unwittingly offers a solution. He knows someone who works as a `boy’ in Firpo’s at Calcutta, and life in Calcutta, by all accounts, is wonderful. Money literally grows on trees: all you have to do is reach out for it. Shambhu decides to take whatever little money they have and go to Calcutta. Surely he will be able to get a job there.
Paro’s reluctant to let Shambhu go (she’s also just discovered that she’s pregnant), and Kanhaiya begs to be taken along. But Shambhu is firm: he will go, and he will go alone. It’s a matter of a mere three months; and someone must stay back to take care of old Gangu.
On the train Shambhu finds a stowaway: Kanhaiya. There’s no help for it, so Shambhu is forced to take him along to Calcutta. And Calcutta, far from being the idyllic Shangri-La it was made out to be, is a big, bewildering and brash city, where few people have the time or inclination to help a befuddled villager looking for work—any work.
The bulk of the film is about how Shambhu and his family strive to collect that seemingly impossible Rs 235. In the village, Paro picks water chestnuts out of the river so that she and Gangu can eat something…
…while in the city, Shambhu and Kanhaiya fall prey to one disaster after another. Their bundle of possessions—their clothes, and more importantly, the money they’ve hoarded up and brought—is stolen while they’re asleep on the pavement. Kanhaiya falls ill, and Shambhu ends up moonlighting briefly as a coolie just in order to get enough money to rent themselves a small room.
But they’re also lucky, especially in the people who befriend them. There’s the girl Rani, an orphan `adopted’ by the elderly and outwardly gruff landlady. Both of them are very fond of Kanhaiya…
…as is the brash, street-smart shoeshine boy Lalu `Ustad’ (a teenaged Jagdeep), from whom Kanhaiya gets the idea to start working so he can contribute to the family’s kitty.
Then there’s the old rickshaw-puller (Nasir Hussain) who lives in the neighbourhood, and who helps Shambhu get his own rickshaw and a license.
It’s a long, hard three months, but will Shambhu and his beleaguered family manage to pay back Harnam Singh’s Rs 235? Will they be able to save their two bighas of land?
Do Bigha Zameen won the International Award at the Cannes Film Festival; it also won the Filmfare Awards for Best Film and Best Director (incidentally, in the first year the awards, then known as the Clare Awards, were instituted). The beauty of the film lies not in a superb plot, but in the treatment of that plot. The story (by Salil Choudhary) is simple, but the insights it offers into the characters of those who people it, are memorable. Shambhu’s stubborn hold on his dignity in the face of sheer desperation; Kanhaiya’s child-like attempts to help, even if it means doing something he knows, deep down, is wrong—and, miles away, Paro’s growing need for her husband and child—are amazingly touching.
Do Bigha Zameen is, to my mind, a series of vignettes: snapshots of life, both rural and urban. There are little moments of hope and joy: the landlady’s unexpected generosity when she discovers Kanhaiya is ill; the sweetness of a wealthy bahu in the village, who writes letters on behalf of Paro to Shambhu and Kanhaiya; the shy flirtation between Shambhu and Paro before the storm breaks… and the sense of achievement as every anna is hoarded up carefully, added to the till.
This is, ultimately, a film about many things: socialism, the rural-urban divide, the harsh zamindari system—but mostly about human relationships and the will to go on. It isn’t a fluffy, happy film, but it has a certain haunting power that endures.
What I liked about this film:
Need I say more? But:
Balraj Sahni. He brings Shambhu to life beautifully, in all his many emotions: his affection for his family, his pride and dignity, his love even for others (there’s a touching scene where two little girls whom Shambhu takes in his rickshaw to school daily tell him they’ll be walking to school the next day onwards, since their father’s been laid off. Shambhu ferries them anyway, free). This is Balraj Sahni at his best. Interestingly, Bimal Roy faced a lot of scepticism and criticism for having cast Balraj Sahni as a villager. The actor had a very Westernised image, and most people couldn’t imagine him being a convincing peasant. But he is, very much so.
The song Dharti kahe pukaar ke. Vintage Salil Choudhary, and beautiful.
The cameos. Do Bigha Zameen has bit parts by a few people who went on to become well-known faces in Hindi cinema. There’s Jagdeep, as Lalu Ustad:
There’s Meena Kumari, as the bahu who’s kind to Paro (but thankfully not melodramatically so):
And there’s Mehmood, in his first film, as the young man who’s always flirting with Rani:
And how can I, fond as I am of history, not appreciate the glimpses of Calcutta from a bygone era?
What I didn’t like:
The disasters that befall Shambhu and Co. come too thick and fast to be believable. Yes, given that they’re poor, illiterate and in a very tight spot: but surely everything can’t fall apart all at once? Really hard to believe.