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Do Bigha Zamin

Do Bigha Zamin(1953)

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Do Bigha Zamin (1953)

It won the International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954 and transformed Indian cinema from a cultural backwater into a force critics could not ignore. Do Bigha Zamin (1953) was no elaborate lighthearted musical gloss on Indian life but a searing dive into the depths of Indian poverty, a heart-wrenching tale of people fighting for a meager scrap of land.

Do Bigha Zamin roughly translates as "two acres of land," and that is what peasant farmer Shambu (Balraj Sahni) wants to hang onto. When the landlord that owns the property surrounding him wants to evict the farmers on his land to build a factory, Shambu's two acres stand in his way. The landlord demands repayment of an old debt and the court gives Shambu two months to find what is, for him, an impossible sum. He and his son leave their farm for the slums of Calcutta. A job as a rickshaw driver for himself and work as a shoeshine boy for his son allow them to make some money, but will it be enough to pay back the debt?

As the son of a landlord, director Bimal Roy would seem to be an unlikely candidate to helm this production. A twist of bad luck, however, made this story very personal. His father, a landlord in East Bengal, died while Roy was in college, and shortly afterwards, Roy was cheated out of his family's ancestral holdings. Roy, along with his mother and younger brothers, was forced to move to Calcutta and live in much reduced circumstances. It was there that Roy's interest in photography brought him to the attention of the filmmaker P.C. Barau, who gave Roy the job of shooting publicity photos. From there he graduated to cinematographer and directed his first film in 1944.

Indian movies then mixed melodrama, comedy and musical numbers in a frothy mix. After World War II, however, international cinema began to take a darker turn. Most notable were the films coming out of Italy directed by Roberto Rossellini (Open City, 1945) and Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief, 1948). These films were called "neo-realist" because they concentrated on the poor and downtrodden and were shot on the city streets. Inspired, Roy decided to make India's first neo-realist film.

Roy went through three other actors before deciding on Balraj Sahni to play his peasant farmer. Sahni had spent the war years in London working at the BBC at the personal request of Mahatma Gandhi. From this lofty station Sahni was forced to actually drive a rickshaw through the streets of Calcutta to prepare for his role, his bare feet pounding the hot pavement. Nirupa Roy, no relation, was hired to play the peasant's shy, traditional wife. The actress was known for her appearances in high-class movies. Here Roy forced her to wear used clothes from the Chor Bazaar and use no makeup. Nirupa found the lack of makeup made her job easier: "I actually did weep, unabashedly, for my scenes in the film....This is the first film in which I did not use glycerine for tears!"

Other than a few songs judiciously placed in the film for the required soundtrack album, Roy made no allowances for anything but realism. Perhaps for that reason, Do Bigha Zamin only did moderate business on its initial release in India, but critics knew they had a masterpiece in their midst. The film won Best Film and Director at the 1954 Indian Filmfare Awards, then went on to success at Cannes as well as the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

Producer: Bimal Roy
Director: Bimal Roy
Screenplay: Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Salil Choudhury (story)
Cinematography: Kamal Bose
Music: Salil Choudhury
Principal Cast: Balraj Sahni (Shambu), Nirupa Roy (Paro), Ratan Kumar (Kanhaiya), Murad Jagdeep (Shoeshine Boy).

by Brian Cady

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