Balraj Sahni devotes several pages of his autobiography to one of his first films, KA Abbas’s directorial debut, Dharti ke Laal (1946). Here, among other behind-the-scenes reminiscences, is an anecdote which especially struck me.
A scene of the film depicts the death of one of its characters, an old peasant who has come to Calcutta to escape the famine in the countryside. In his dying delirium, the old man ‘sees’ the ready crop, fields of rice waiting to be harvested. Around him, his friends and family hover, as the man’s eyes open wide in joy and then, suddenly, he keels over.
It’s a dramatic scene, and was envisioned as taking place under a street lamp, with the light shining on the dying man’s face in his moment of delirium. The set was ready, but somebody had blundered, and the bulb that was supposed to shed its light on the character refused to light up. Abbas, Sahni, Shombhu Mitra (who played the role of the dying peasant), the cameraman and the rest of the crew were in a flap, when a mazdoor—a labourer—suggested an alternative: let the light be provided not by a street lamp, but by the headlights of an approaching car, shining on the dying man’s face. And, as the car moves away, its tail lights should provide the last glow before the man finally dies.
This alternative appealed to everybody, and that was how the scene was filmed. In a film of a decidedly socialist bent, produced by the left-wing Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), it seems very apt that a worker should have come up with a solution to a problem.
IPTA, established in 1943, initially consisted of various cultural progressive groups that came together to use theatre to promote concepts like socialism, equality, secularism, all meshing in with the freedom struggle. While IPTA was, from its inception, hugely involved in theatre at different levels, it also soon ventured into cinema, mostly by way of prominent film personalities (Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Zohra Sehgal, KA Abbas, Salil Choudhary, Chetan and Dev Anand, etc) who were members of IPTA. I haven’t been able to discover if IPTA produced any films other than Dharti ke Laal, but even if this is the only film it made, it’s enough to underline the important role IPTA played even in cinema.
Dharti ke Laal is about the Bengal famine of 1943. Estimated to have caused more than three million deaths, the Bengal famine was a man-made one, brought about not by drought or crop failure but because of predatory administration and British policy (more here). IPTA, its members zealously supportive of farmers and workers, decided to use this famine and the devastation caused by it as the theme for this film, which starred several IPTA stalwarts.
Dharti ke Laal is set in a fictitious Bengal village named Aminpur, where the village headman or pradhan, Samuddar (Shombhu Mitra) lives with his wife (Usha Sengupta), his elder son Niranjan (Balraj Sahni), Niranjan’s wife Binodini (Damayanti Sahni, Balraj Sahni’s real-life wife), and Niranjan’s younger brother Ramu (Anwar Mirza).
Life is tough, there is little grain, and the family, along with their neighbours and friends, are caught between the local mahajan (moneylender) who loans them money and/or grain at exorbitant rates; the zamindar (landlord) who refuses to forego the tax no matter how poor the harvest; and the middle-man (played by David, who seems to have acted as some pretty nasty characters early in his career before he became typecast as the avuncular gentleman). It’s the middle-man who eggs the farmers on to sell their grain at just ten rupees or twelve rupees a maund; it’s a good price, he says, they won’t get a better price…
Life is tough, but not so bad that it’s hopeless. Niranjan’s mother keeps hoping that Binodini, who has not conceived even after five years of marriage, will finally become pregnant. And when they get some money for their crop, they finally have Ramu married off to Radhika (Tripti Mitra), to whom he’s been engaged for the past several years.
Ramu and Radhika are blissfully happy. He takes her, on the sly (his mother and bhabhi will not approve of such gallivanting, even if it’s a question of Radhika going with her husband) to a mela, and though both the older women do get on Radhika’s case when they see her wearing new bangles, the newlyweds are deliriously happy and very much in love.
Radhika’s eagerness to learn how to read and write makes her indulgent husband even go to the Dayal Kaka (Nana Palsikar), who used to be the village school teacher before the school shut down. Dayal Kaka teaches Ramu, Ramu teaches Radhika. It’s sweet, it’s hopeful, and even though one knows the mahajan, the zamindar, and poverty lurk everywhere, one doesn’t remember them at this stage.
Radhika gives birth, and shortly after, things start unravelling. The rains come, and keep coming: the village is flooded, there’s nothing to eat, and nowhere to go.
Even when the rain stops and the family is able to move about, everything to eat is gone. They are forced to sell off their cow, and the women’s jewellery is all sold. The only asset they’ve got left is the land, and a pragmatic Ramu urges his father to sell that. But Samuddar is adamant. Not the land; not that.
Eventually, things get so bad that Ramu leaves the village and goes off to Calcutta, saying that even if he has to beg there, he will. Anything is better than sitting around here and starving.
Stuck in Aminpur, his family teeters on the edge of starvation. Dayal Kaka and Ramzan Chacha, who is Samuddar’s best friend, are in equally dire straits.
There are some heartbreaking moments here, as the village community tries desperately to stay alive. Dayal Kaka, for instance, comes to Samuddar’s home, begging for a handful of rice, just enough so that his little son and his very sick wife may eat. Samuddar’s wife has been pleading with a friend for a handful of rice because they are completely out of food. The rice is given just as Dayal Kaka asks for it, too, and selflessly, Samuddar has his wife give the rice to Dayal.
… but by the time Dayal gets home with that precious handful, his wife and child are dead. He comes back, soaked in the rain, the rice still clutched in his fist.
There is no way they will survive here, and eventually the people of Aminpur leave for Calcutta. They have heard that khichri is being distributed there, and if nothing else, they will beg.
But they do not realize just how much worse Calcutta is. Because here, they are stripped even of their dignity. The rich eat in restaurants outside which the poor starve. Wealthy men, when approached for help, snigger and demand women. The relief kitchens are segregated into Hindu and Muslim relief kitchens, and they turn away anyone who isn’t of their own community, no matter in how dire straits.
Dharti ke Laal was made with some difficulty, because the IPTA members who formed part of the crew and cast took the democratic route of arguing over just about everything. What’s more, many of them did not agree with a lot of KA Abbas’s ideas, which further stalled work. Balraj Sahni recalls that many of the IPTA members involved were Bengali and knew little or no Hindustani; the language barrier made things even more difficult.
Even after Dharti ke Laal was released, its troubles weren’t over: coincidentally, riots broke out in Bombay on the day of its release, and because of the turmoil and the curfew imposed on the city, new films saw almost no audience. The film however was critically and became the first Hindi film to be widely distributed in the USSR, where it was much admired.
What I liked about this film:
The no-holds-barred gritty reality of the story. The high ideals which govern the actions of characters in several similar films (Mother India and Do Bigha Zameen come immediately to mind) are shoved aside by practicality here: when these people are pushed to the brink, they do all they can to stay alive, from begging to pimping to prostituting themselves. Samuddar’s wife, seeing Radhika feeding her baby from a milk bottle, urges the young mother to not feed the baby so much; it’ll vomit, it’ll not be able to drink all of that… and when she cannot take it anymore, she suddenly lunges forward, snatches the bottle and tries to drink the milk, but it all pours out and spills onto the ground.
And yet, there is a slim thread of humanity running through the entire narrative. Binodini, initially opposed to Radhika and later envious of her young sister-in-law, becomes Radhika’s support and confidant. Through all their trials and tribulations, Ramzan is there with Samuddar and his family, as is Dayal Kaka. There is the comfort of shared sorrow, if nothing else.
Part of that ‘realness’ of the film is in that it used many villagers in its cast. The outdoor shooting for the film took place in a village in Maharashtra, and hundreds of villagers acted as extras, especially in the scenes of the migration from the countryside.
Interestingly, Ravi Shankar composed the music for Dharti ke Laal. It has a few scattered songs, of which my favourite one is Jai dharti maiyya jai ho. Bhookha hai Bangaal is another important song, which predates the film and used to be sung by IPTA choirs during and after the Bengal famine in an attempt to gather support for the victims of the famine.
Lastly, some members of the cast. Balraj Sahni stands out, as do Shombhu Mitra and Tripti Mitra. I had never seen Damayanti Sahni onscreen before, so that was a first for me.
Plus, it was good to see some old favourites, people like KN Singh, Nana Palsikar, and David. Zohra Sehgal appears in a cameo as a young woman staging charity shows; Wikipedia lists this film as her debut, but I’m not sure about that, since in the same year, she had also appeared in Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar.
What I didn’t like:
The propaganda in the last few scenes. It doesn’t go infuriatingly overboard, but compared to the rest of the film, it does come across rather pointedly as pushing the communist agenda.
Overall, though, a good film. And definitely worth watching for its importance in the history of Hindi cinema.