Balraj Sahini in Do bigha zamin (1953)

Balraj Sahini in Do bigha zamin (1953)

Bimal Roy, one of India’s foremost film-makers, made many great films including Do bigha zamin, which is one of Roy’s best works and is a remarkable film by any standards. It brings together Roy’s neo-realist form of Hindi cinema’s melodrama with his deeply felt political concerns, to form a great study of human values and dignity among the poor.

Do bigha zamin explores the real impact of money-lending on the peasant farmer, as he becomes enslaved by his debts. Driven to try to raise money to pay off his loan, Shambu (Balraj Sahni) leaves his pregnant wife (Nirupa Roy) and elderly father to head for Calcutta. His young son smuggles himself onto the train and helps his father as a shoe-shiner. Robbed on their first day, the couple soon remake their village ties by finding surrogate families in the city: Dadi as their mother and Rani as an elder sister to the boy. Shambu’s experience of helping a sick man leads him into rickshaw-pulling. While terrible accidents befall the family, the film avoids easy answers to the serious problems facing the urban migrant. Roy’s melodrama is restrained, and he uses few devices of the Hindi film, with songs kept to a minimum, placing the emphasis instead on the black-and-white photography of realistic sets and wonderful footage of contemporary Calcutta.

The main strength of this film lies in the performance of Balraj Sahni as Shambhu. Sahni is regarded as one of the greatest actors of Indian cinema, both during his lifetime and with hindsight. He rarely appeared as the Hindi film hero but usually, as he said, as ‘all those fathers and uncles’, often taking roles in films dominated by the outstanding female stars such as Nargis and Meena Kumari. While Sahni’s younger brother, Bhisham, became one of the great figures of modern Hindi literature, Balraj had a variable career in theatre and cinema, as well as working for the BBC in London before independence. Despite his own elite and educated background, Sahni is totally plausible as the desperate but determined peasant, his physical movement accurately reproducing that of a labourer, while his facial expressions are restrained and powerful.

One scene in this film is particularly resonant, its images condensing the narrative of the invisibility of the poor and the way the rickshaw- pullers are seen as little more than draught animals. A middle-class woman, arguing with her lover, leaps into a rickshaw. The man follows her and they egg the pullers into a chase, where the pullers seem to be running after the extra money itself with no other sight in mind. The rapid editing by Hrishikesh Mukherjee adds to the speed of the chase and the desperate pursuit of a few extra coins. During the race, Shambu’s rickshaw overturns and he is severely injured, but the couple pay no attention.

The setting of this film in the Bengali village and Calcutta of the 1950s inevitably invites comparison with Ray, and the differing merits of the Hindi film and the ‘art’ film.

Cast and Production Credits

Year – 1953, Genre – Drama, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Bimal Roy, Director –Bimal Roy, Music Director – Salil Chaudhary, Cast – Murad, Ratan Kumar, Tiwari, Balraj Sahni, Nirupa Roy, Nana Palsikar, Nazir Hussain, Noor, Kusum, Hiralal, Misra, Rajlaxmi, Dilip, Nand Kishore, Jagdeep, Mehmood, Paul Mahendra, Navendu Ghose, Sunil Das Gupta, Ashit Sen, Shelly Banerjee