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.