In the 1954, the year of the first Indian Filmfare awards, the film that took home the glory of both best picture and best director was about to become more than just a national treasure. Do Bigha Zameen, the latest directorial offering of a relatively minor Bengali newcomer, told a story that was not familiar in the tinsel-lined halls of Bombay filmdom. Without a glamorous period backdrop, without elaborate dream sequences, and without clearly enunciated moral take-home points, Do Bigha Zameen cannot be readily categorized with contemporary village epics such Mother India (1957) nor socially-conscience critiques like Shree 420 (1955) and Pyaasa (1957). With such a new vision of Indian cinema, stylistically and socially, Do Bigha Zameen hit a broader audience, becoming the first Indian film to win the Prix Internationale at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival.
But what is all this hype about? What makes Do Bigha Zameen so radical and why does everyone always bring it up in discussions of must-see Bollywood films? The film is directed by Bimal Roy, a prominent member of the post-colonialist Bengali intelligentsia, who was directly influenced by another radical film movement sweeping Europe: Italian Neorealism. Like other great Bengali directors of his day, ie. Rhitwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy was fascinated by the work of Italian pioneer Vittorio de Sica and his masterpiece Ladri Di Biciclette (1948). The film is the defining work of Italian neorealism, marked by a deliberate attention to the “everyday,” the feeling of an invisible, unhurried camera whose shots and mis-en-scene are carefully constructed, but have the naturalness of a documentary. The Italian neorealist movement glorified without ornamentation the lives and suffering of “ordinary” citizens. It gave importance to the unimportant and evoked sympathy without the crutches of melodrama.
Now I’ll argue that among the Indian film influenced by the neorealist movement, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy is perhaps the truest to the legacy set by Ladri di Biciclette. To fully appreciate that unique style of film-making, you must see Ray’s Aparajito. Do Bigha Zameen blends the line between neorealism and commercial–similar perhaps to the films of Guru Dutt, but without the poetic grandeur. Starring the classiest of men, Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy (yes! she did play the heroine before becoming a stock mother-figure actress in the 70s!), Do Bigha Zameen, tells of the hard work, misfortune, and desperate measures taken by a family who is cheated of their land by a greedy mill owner. The film follows the father and son’s trip to Calcutta from their idyllic village to earn enough money to pay their debts–only to discover the harsh realities of urban poverty instead.
Like Ladri di Biciclette, the film also explores the evolving relationship between a father and son, of how the dynamic changes when a child grows up quickly and a mutual level of forgiveness that comes with a more mature relationship. With scenarios by Hrishikesh Mukherjee (who also did the screenplay for gems like Anand!), it’s clear that “realism” is given a healthy splash of Bollywood exaggeration. When the going gets rough for this family, it just spirals into greater and greater tragedy–the loss of property, becoming victims of robbery, illness, and a car crash. A heavy-handed background score encourages the audience to evoke sympathy and fear, as well as a handful of painful histrionics rendered by the cutesy child actor. But all in all, the real triumph of this film is in the conclusion.
At the end of Do Bigha Zameen, there is no real outcome. Like with Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, it ends with a single shot of the family, moving on into the distance. The journey we as an audience have witnessed is but a chapter in their lives that we know will be marked in the future with similarly unresolved troubles. But it also carries a kind of hope with it, not that all will be right in the world, but a hope that men and women like these are survivors and will find a way to persevere, even if that does not mean coming out on top. It is what sets this film apart from the Raj Kapoors of the world. And that is, I think, the message that hit home with millions of Indian viewers in the dissatisfied liberated world.
The film takes its name from a Rabindranath Tagore poem “Dui Bigha Jomi.” In the original poem, a poor farmer begs his landlord to not make him sell his ancestral plot of land. But the cruel landlord insists, while the farmer famously begs (as in the film adaptation) that the land is like his mother–and how could anyone sell their own mother? Do Bigha Zameen, however small, carries the price of a man’s honor, and for the poor farmer, this cannot be bought by mere money.
Also of note, a young Meena Kumari plays a minor role as a benevolent landlady who agrees to to help the family with their debts (before further disaster strikes, rendering her offer useless). She had been on set of Roy’s earlier film, Parineeta (1953), when she heard of the production and loved it so much, she begged to participate. Of particular and slightly disturbing note is the facial hair on her upper lip that the costume and make up department didn’t do something more about. You think it blends in because you can’t really see it in person, but it shows up on black-and-white film stock like a dark shadowy menace. Gets ‘em every time.
– Mrs. 55