Enduring lessons about India from a 70-yr-old classic

Apr 21, 2023 07:22 PM IST

Do Bigha Zamin made a huge impact because it spoke about life not just in India but in all countries which stand on the cusp of agrarian and industrial choices

For someone who is 78 this month, the 1950s are as real as yesterday. More real, in fact, than yesterday, for they are about a time when the lines between true and false, real and fake, were clear. There was more clarity about things then, and less confusion. Our national motto — Satyameva Jayate — spoke for us, our faith. Even those who acted in cinema then were re-creating reality, including the reality of falsehood and deceit in our midst. The real then could enact the false. Today, acting acts real. It needs no skill in acting, it only needs to act being skilled.

Do Bigha Zamin was about life. The use of the past tense there, is wrong. It is about life, about life today. Each migrant worker’s family is that of Shambhu Mahato (Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Do Bigha Zamin was about life. The use of the past tense there, is wrong. It is about life, about life today. Each migrant worker’s family is that of Shambhu Mahato (Hindustan Times)

I know I am generalising. And all generalising is wrong. But I am doing so, with apologies to those that are true in our times — and they are not few — because of my sheer longing for the imaan of those times. The word is translated as true, as trust, as faith. And imaandaar thereby becomes truthful, trustworthy, faithful. But to get a real sense of the word imaan, one has to contemplate its opposite — be-imaan, “be” meaning “without”. Or “sans”. If you know what be-imaan is, you know what imaan is.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of a film that had imaan, was about imaan — Do Bigha Zamin (Two Bighas of Land). Based on a Bangla poem by Rabindranath Tagore called Dui Bigha Jomi, it was made by Bimal Roy in 1953 — exactly 70 years ago — after he was inspired by the Italian masterpiece of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) in India’s first international film festival the previous year.

Roy’s lead actress Nirupa Roy said that Do Bigha Zamin was one film in which she did not need glycerine to cry; she wept because the script made her eyes well up. I saw the film as a nine-year-old and have not forgotten it. I remember seeing it with my mother, and after watching Roy play Parvati Mahato in it and young Ratan Kumar of my age play Kanhaiya, I was shaken to the roots of my kid-being. I knew what happened to that mother and son was real. This film was about no story other than the story of life. Now when I have grandchildren of the age I was then, I can recall every frame in it about the debt-ridden family forced out of its small holding by the greed of a profit-seduced landowner, its misery in the streets and slums of the big city to which it moves and then to its inconclusively sad ending. As I re-hear it now on YouTube, each song from the film refreshes my earlier embedding of it — especially Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke in Manna Dey’s argent voice. The only reason for that is that the film was about reality. Truth in black and white.

“People do not want to see reality in cinema,” it has been said. “They have reality surrounding them all the time…They want to see fantastic things, experience what is beyond their experience, beyond their reach…They want a brief respite from reality, a short escape….” And then I have heard it added: “…Furthermore… they do not watch cinema or YouTube to think… They want to put their thinking minds off… They want to put their seeing eyes on… They want seduction, not reduction.”

The reader need not be troubled with the storyline of the film in this column. She can — may I urge, must — view the film online now. But I would like to say that Balraj Sahni’s acting to Bimal Roy’s direction is about life not just in India but in all countries which stand uncertainly on the cusp of agrarian and industrial choices, compulsions and crises. It is about the dying of imaan in the marketplace of saude (deals).

This 70th anniversary is also the 110th anniversary of its hero Balraj Sahni’s birth (May 1, 1913) and the 50th anniversary of his death (April 13, 1973). Sahni’s acting was not separate from his thinking, his thinking was not distinct from life around him.

Do Bigha Zamin, I said earlier, was about life. The use of the past tense there, is an error. It is about life, about life today. Each migrant worker’s family is that of Shambhu Mahato. Those who say film viewers should be shown fantasies, not realities, are those who would want to make migrant workers and all those dispossessed of their roots, their rights when they conflict with vested interests, invisible.

I started by recalling the 1950s. I will conclude by recalling the 1970s and another mind-wrenching film in which Sahni works wonders, Garm Hava. Made the same year as his death, 1973, this is the 50th anniversary of that film also. Every Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi must see the film again this year. If only to ask: Who gained by India’s carving up? Who suffered? Who suffers to this day?

The question is important, for it is real. As real as suffering is real. Therefore, no acting is needed to enact it.

We are in Balraj Sahni’s debt. In the debt of his Marxist commitment, his personal and professional integrity, and his patriotism, which was no different from his humanism, all of which were his imaan.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi , a former administrator, is a student of modern Indian history The views expressed are personal

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    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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