DO BIGHA ZAMIN / TWO ACRES OF LAND (Dir. Bimal Roy, 1953, India)

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INTRODUCTION

The influence and enduring character of some films are unquestionable and Bimal Roy’s 1953 masterpiece ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ was one of the first mainstream Indian films to receive international acclaim; it was awarded the Prix Internationale at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. Though it clearly was intended as a melodrama aimed at a mainstream audience, the artists involved with the production of the film were not only inspired by a common ideological belief in socialism that defied the conservatism of Indian cinema but they succeeded in demonstrating how genre could be subverted and adopted as a tool to address wider inequalities and afflictions. The film’s influential and landmark status was even supported by one of the most revered and internationally renowned film makers, Satyajit Ray:

“With his very first film Udayer Pathe (Hamrahi in Hindi), Bimal Roy was able to sweep aside the cobwebs of the old tradition and introduce a realism and subtly that was wholly suited to the cinema. He was undoubtedly a pioneer. He reached his peak with a film that still reverberates in the minds of those who saw it when it was first made. I refer to Do Bigha Zamin, which remains one of the landmarks of Indian Cinema.”

Ray’s endorsement of Roy’s introduction of ‘realism’ to mainstream Indian cinema seems to suggest that much of the cinema before had been bereft of such a vital aesthetic quality but of course this is simply not the case. However, Bimal Roy’s approach to cinema extenuated the realism aesthetic that had evolved out of the post war Italian neo realism movement. Similarly, Roy was deeply moved by how film makers like De Sica and Rossellini had effectively rewritten the rules of cinema but the shattering realisation was that such an ideological breakthrough had occurred within the parameters of the mainstream. Roy understood how De Sica had made the seemingly impossible marriage of art and commerce a daring reality in the face of a bankrupt Italian society, and he had done so on his own personal terms.

INDIAN PEOPLE’S THEATRE ASSOCIATION (IPTA)

It is difficult to discuss films like ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ without making reference to the Indian people’s theatre Association (IPTA) and acknowledging the debt Indian cinema owes to such an influential organisation. Formed in 1942 as a response to the social crisis brought on by the Quit India movement, the IPTA’s primary objective was to use theatre as means of addressing the many problems taking hold of society. Many of its initial members unashamedly declared their staunchly anti colonial views and espoused a Marxist point of view that argued for a cinema based on socialist principles. K A Abbas, Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak and Salil Chowdury were just a few of the members of the IPTA who would later become influential figures in their own right, reiterating the ideological imperative of cinema acting as voice for social change. The partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan shattered the IPTA’s desire to bridge the differences between Hindus and Muslims in cities like Bombay, resulting in communal rioting and the establishment of deep sectarian divisions that exist even today. The IPTA had received much criticism at the time from conservative sections of society, accusing the organisation and its liberally inclined members of being effectively an offshoot for Marxist propaganda who harboured unrealistic dreams of turning the Indian peasants into organising a widespread socialist revolution.

SOCIALIST CINEMA

In terms of pioneers who paved the way for a new kind of cinema in India, the figure of Khawja Ahmad Abbas (K A Abbas) proved to be crucial in realising the possibilities of a similarly inspired movement to that of neo realism in Italy. Released in 1946, ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ (Sons of the Earth), is generally considered to be the first mainstream Indian film to have outlined the notion that cinema could act as didactic force in the lives of audiences. Surprisingly, even though ‘Bicycle Thieves’ is regularly cited as a key influence in the aesthetic and ideological choices taken by Bimal Roy when directing ‘Do Bigha Zamin’, it had yet to be released when K A Abbas embarked on ‘Dharti Ke Lal’, which perhaps suggests that the neo realism movement in India was running parallel with that of Italy. If this is true then maybe the emergence of socialist political organisations and theoretical Marxist writings after the Second World War was a universal phenomenon experienced by the intellectual circles of many cities.

The directorial debut of K A Abbas, ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ (1946), documented the 1943 Bengal famine, an avoidable tragedy that criticised the failures of the British colonial government. The film was also notable for the presence of another affiliated member of the IPTA, the formidable actor and star ‘Balraj Sahni’, who would later collaborate with Guru Dutt of all film makers and collaborate most importantly with Bimal Roy on ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ as the impoverished Sambhu Mahato. ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ also expanded the boundaries of distribution for Indian films, securing for the first time distribution in Russia for an Indian film and underlining the socialist sympathies that some felt were recognisable in a film organised around Marxist principles. It seems deeply ironic that in his later career a film maker like K A Abbas would help to launch one of the biggest and iconic of Indian film stars, Amitabh Bachchan, in ‘Saat Hindustani’ (1969), inevitably paving the way for a more commercially minded type of cinema that would come to dominate the 1970s. K A Abbas has argued that the commercial potential of ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ was largely jeopardised by the social turmoil of the impending partition of India:

“It was released … in one theatre in Bombay,” Abbas said, “and on the same day the communal riots started [Hindu-Moslem caste conflicts]. Our first show was full, all the shows were fully booked … The second show never got started…”

K.A. Abbas (1914-1987), Carol J. Slingo, Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, p.99 http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC33folder/KAAbbas.html

BALRAJ SAHNI

Many of today’s Indian actors seem reluctant to get into any kind of debate concerning personal political beliefs as it may affect potential box office, but those who are able to do so are usually the ones with the capacity to articulate their concerns and use cinema as a platform for propagating leftist ideology. Balraj Sahni was a prominent member of the IPTA and an outspoken Marxist who starred in many neo realist films that challenged the constraints of studio film making in which melodramatic elements were regularly given precedence over other ideological and aesthetic concerns. Sahni was a widely respected figure within the film industry and remained politically active throughout his career. In today’s terms, Sahni would be considered somewhat of a method actor and many of his memorable performances in films like ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ and ‘Kabuliawala’ demonstrate a physicality that is strikingly authentic. In preparation for the role of ‘Sambhu Mahato’, Sahni spent time with rickshaw pullers in the city, immersing himself in the social milieu of his impoverished character and underlining his consummate and realist approach to performance. Though Sahni may have been politically active, he was also deeply affected by the partition of India and the devastating loss of life.

Unlike his contemporaries, Sahni was very selective in the films he choose to star in and though this may have prevented him from achieving widespread recognition as a powerful Indian film star, his body of work expressed a consistency in terms of cinema that was aligned to his own political and social commitments. It is a shame that Sahni is better remembered by today’s generation for his patriarchal role in Yash Chopra’s 1965 ‘lost and found’ multi-starrer, ‘Waqt’. The death of his daughter at an early age seemed to have an impact on him personally and his visit to Pakistan after the trauma of partition was exorcised in a book. His literary talents were shared much more emphatically by his brother, Bhisham Sahni, who was one of India’s most respected writers and whose novel, ‘Tamas’ (Darkness), would later be adapted as a screenplay for a much acclaimed and controversial TV series on the partition.

THE DEBT TO NEO REALISM

The closer you scrutinise the many different new waves or movements that have emerged since Italian neo realism and it becomes starkly apparent how films like ‘Bicycle Thieves’, ‘Umberto D’ and ‘Paisan’ continue to be influential in terms of what it actually means to capture and observe reality with an honesty, authenticity and truthfulness. Examine any sequence from ‘Umberto D’ and it is difficult not to notice how De Sica’s treatment of the aging professor edges close to becoming purely sentimental. Many of the Iranian new wave film makers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Darius Mehrjui were also indebted to the traditions of neo realism but unlike De Sica’s dependency on music as tool for manipulating the emotions of the spectator, Iranian cinema rejected such artifice in favour of purifying cinema and pushing the ideas of Zavattini as far they would go.

Though Bimal Roy embraced the aesthetics and ideological principles of neo realism, he was constrained by the reality of having to work within a set of limitations as ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ for all it’s socialist ideals was nevertheless a studio film. Working within the conventions of social/family melodrama genre, Bimal Roy integrated songs into the narrative which in the eyes of purists went against the stylisation and escapist nature of what neo realism was trying to oppose. However, apart from this musical compromise, ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ is closer to the work of De Sica then it is to many other neo realism films, especially when you compare the humanist depiction of the relationship between Father/Sambhu and Son/Kanhaiya. The parallels are striking when compared to ‘Bicycle Thieves’, most significantly perhaps in the idea of the son having to work tirelessly so that he can support his father’s desire to reclaim the ancestral land which rightfully belongs to him. Also consider how cynically the film represents the city; like ‘Bicycle Thieves’, the city is depicted as a labyrinth that literally consumes Sambhu’s aspirations and subsequently corrupts his courageous but illiterate wife, Parvati. Contrast that with the almost lyrical and perhaps over idealistic picture of rural village life and it is plainly obvious that Bimal Roy seems to condemning the speed of modernisation and urban life as something out of control, ravaging those who simply cannot keep up with the pace. The denial of any kind of satisfying resolution to the poverty of Sambhu is also what makes ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ such a powerful film.

THE ENDING

Not many Indian films aimed at a mainstream audience had at the time dared to defy the expectations of audiences who had become accustomed to the familiarity of the melodrama, but the film’s downbeat ending in which we see Sambhu, his wife and son looking out, despairingly at the overwhelming image of a factory being built on the land that has effectively been stolen from them is a moving confirmation of Bimal Roy’s success in being able to integrate neo realist influences with the traditional trappings of the Hindi melodrama. Ideologically, the pessimistic ending illustrates that social oppression is something monolithic, inevitable and a hegemonic extension of industrial change and capitalist triumph.

ISHAQZAADE / LOVE REBELS (Dir. Habib Faisal, 2012, India) – Star Crossed Lovers

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Its too early to say whether or not Habib Faisal is a solid mainstream filmmaker but on the basis of the two films he has directed to date including Do Dooni Char & Ishaqzaade, he has certainly tried to take on the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema and give audiences something a little different. Ishaqzaade is a Yash Raj production and was expectedly well marketed, performing surprisingly well at the Indian box office. The slate of Yash Raj films released over the last two years have been somewhat disappointing and while they have branched out into different genres, the quality of scripts has been uneven. Habib Faisal was a scriptwriter before becoming a director and he continues to write for Yash Raj projects. Ishaqzaade is also written by Habib Faisal and that seems unusual in the context of mainstream Indian cinema since most films use a script typically credited to an array of writers. Ishaqzaade can be interpreted as a contemporary updating of Romeo and Juliet and the story of the star crossed lovers who are fated by their warring families remains largely intact. Given the current sorry state of mainstream Indian cinema, Ishaqzaade is a film that has a lot going for it including an energetic style, vibrant locations, solid performances and an ending that makes good on its promise of fatalism. With Do Dooni Chaar, Habib Faisal dealt with the day to day problems faced by the middle class of India and such an interest in social themes is evident again in Ishaqzaade but in the shape of religion. The story of Romeo & Juliet is given a topical variation by bringing into play communal politics, pitting two political families (The Chauhans & the Qureshis) against each other. In the midst of such intense hatred that goes back generations is the twisted love story of youngsters Parma Chauhan (Arjun Kapoor) and Zoya Qureshi (Parineeti Chopra). In many ways, the characterisation of Parma and Zoya are stereotypical and are familiar enough to us from other romantic films but the religious divisions transforms the characters into potent political symbols of sectarian strife visible in some parts of India. The great compromise when it comes to mainstream Indian cinema is the inclusion of song and dance sequences. In his first film, Habib Faisal succeeds in bypassing such a tradition and although he tries he hardest to keep songs to a minimal in Ishaqzaade, the ones he does use are both insignificant to the narrative and unmemorable. Had he been able to eliminate song and dance sequence altogether, the film might have been stronger for it but then this would have inevitably changed the type of film being made from mainstream to art film.

Thankfully the narrative of the film doesn’t suffer from the film of two halves syndrome plaguing so many Indian films of late – this means the first half is light hearted whereas the second half is dominated by heartache; I guess its the perfect emotional mix for the masala film genre. An interesting departure is the way the intermission is used. Many films use the intermission as a crossroads in terms of narrative and romantic films in particular use the intermission to convey a predictable dilemma facing the main protagonist – usually related to having fallen in love. Habib Faisal departs from such formulaic hyperbole by using the intermission to frame Parma’s successful plan to marry Zoya and have intercourse with her, thus giving his family the edge in the election race. It is a bold and inventive use of the intermission and takes the material into an unfamiliar territory. The discovery of Parma and Zoya’s secret marriage which was carried out by Parma as a way of exacting revenge on Zoya for her humiliation at college at first creates more hatred between the two families. However, once the families realise that their political reputation and domination could come to an end, they come together to eliminate Parma and Zoya. Such an alliance demonstrates a wider point about religious divisions and political power and the way the two interconnect and depend on one another in today’s India. Rather than embrace Parma and Zoya’s secular marriage, the families reactionary stance reveals a reactionary ideological perspective that promotes a culture of intolerance. What Parma and Zoya’s union represents is the progressive face of middle class India in which the youth will have a decisive role to play in the erosion of such traditional and repressive values. Ultimately, Parma and Zoya’s marriage poses a threat to the political power structure which is in place and it is political interests that must be protected, even at the expense of a premature youthful liberalism.

Similarly like recent films such as Ishqiya and Omkara, the city is nowhere to be seen and director Habib Faisal opts for a rural ‘lawless’ geographical landscape of old colleges, brothels, over sized family mansions and depilated railway carriages. It is a rustic terrain that seems fitting for the ancient rivalry that exists between the two families. Zoya is a feisty and spirited female character who seems trapped in such an overly male dominated world. When she tells her brothers that she has dreams of becoming a politician like her father they laugh, mocking her enthusiasm as foolishness. It is only when she is disgraced by Parma does Zoya realise that the value of honour is sadly more important than her happiness or even existence. Such a reactionary response from the two families yet again taps into the feudalistic mentality still prevalent in rural India. Yet it is a feudalism that wins votes and appeals to the traditional sentiments of the electoral. The film also seems to deconstruct the male arrogance of a youthful figure like Parma who is transformed from vicious, hot headed demagogue into a symbol of religious tolerance – any romantic notions of heroism are nowhere to be seen, replaced by an aberrant banditry. The turning point for Parma is the death of his mother who is executed by his uncle who heads the Chauhan family. From thereon Parma promises to uphold his mother’s dying wish, to protect Zoya. Interestingly, the matriarchal figure yet again resurfaces in relation to the actions of the fallen male hero and this aspect seems to invoke the conventions of traditional Indian cinema from the 1950s onwards.

In terms of the ending, the film opts for a bloody shoot out which results in Parma and Zoya taking their own lives, thus adhering to the fatalism of Shakespeare’s classic tale. In fact, it feels more like an ending inspired by films such as Thelma & Louise and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in which the main protagonists have no means of escape other than self destruction. In the case of Parma and Zoya, their rebelliousness threatens the norms of the feudal, sectarian world so they must be eliminated for the status quo to prevail. Ishaqzaade is a deceptive work, posing sophisticated and pertinent ideological arguments that are smuggled into the fabric of what appears to be a pedestrian boy meets girl love story. So perhaps we can conclude by saying in the words of Martin Scorsese that Habib Faisal is a director as smuggler, working in personal themes and social preoccupations into the fabric of his films. It seems like a perfectly sound argument why the mainstream can in fact be a perfect arena for testing out more unconventional ideas on a wide audience in the most deceptive of manners.

MASHAAL / THE TORCH (Dir. Yash Chopra, 1984, India) – Ashes to Ashes

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The death of Yash Chopra led to a surge of online film canonizing that seemingly celebrated his populist work at the expense of creative flourishes such as Mashaal and it is a film that is often overlooked in his oeuvre. I’m not entirely sure or convinced if Mashaal has been completely reclaimed from the past. However, I want to argue for its importance as one of Yash Chopra and screenwriter Javed Akhtar’s most ideologically complicated and realist works since the film’s prescient socio-political content hinted at the potential of Chopra’s wish to transcend the directorial persona and romantic style of cinema with which he had become synonymous after the commercial success of films such as Silsila and Kabhie Kabhie. In an attempt to demonstrate both range as a filmmaker and also depart from the romanticism of his past films, Mashaal was in fact a return to the angry young man films of the 1970s with which Chopra had made his name. Shakti (1982) is generally regarded as the final film in the first cycle of angry young man films, lasting from 1973 to 1982, since it saw an end to a sustained creative script-writing partnership of Salim-Javed.

Although Mashaal was released in 1984, Amitabh Bachchan had almost completely reinvented himself with the cinema of Manmohan Desai and this meant the angry young man persona had faded from the screens and resonated less with cinema audiences. Perhaps this explains why Mashaal is never really discussed in such terms since its release in 1984 meant it was more of an anomaly and stand alone work rather than constituting part of a cycle of films. I’m hesitant to argue that Mashaal should be repositioned under such a category since it may interfere with the achievements of the film, unfairly attributing them to familiar criteria that have become strongly associated with the angry young man films. Nonetheless, the ideologies of Mashaal extend from the angry young man films since the involvement of scriptwriter Javed Akhtar is evident throughout the narrative of a crusading newspaper editor up against a powerful underworld don and politician. Mashaal was one of Javed Akhtar’s first solo projects after the break up with Salim Khan for which he wrote the story, dialogue and lyrics.

The film is based on a well known Marathi play titled ‘Ashroonchi Zhali Phule’ (Tears That Turned into Flowers), which had previously been made into a film, Aanso Ban Gaye Phool (1969), with Ashok Kumar. It came of little surprise to me that the role of Raja (eventually played by Anil Kapoor in one his first roles) was originally written for Amitabh Bachchan. It was in fact first offered to Kamal Hassan who turned it down, claiming the role was secondary in comparison to that Vinod Kumar played by Dilip Kumar. While song and dance had become integral to the films of Yash Chopra, such spectacular elements were subordinate to Mashaal’s more realist tendencies. The role of a man who refuses to compromise his political integrity echoed a similar role Dilip Kumar had played in Shakti. However, unlike Shakti in which Dilip Kumar’s character of the honest incorruptible police officer never compromises his beliefs, Mashaal shows us a much darker and pessimistic representation of the middle class individual.

Rather than simply posing the question about the loss of political integrity, we are shown at first hand the transformation that Vinod Kumar undergoes, leaving behind his past and becoming an underworld don. A key thematic is the role of the media especially the press industry in questioning the abuse of power. As part of a newspaper company Vinod Kumar is fired when he attempts to implicate S. K. Vardhan (Amrish Puri), a prominent politician with ties to the underworld. This construction of the middle class professional acting as a conduit for socio-political corruption echoes the anger of Vijay and similarly comes from a sub proletariat urban space of the bustee/slum. It is only when Vinod adopts an independent editorial policy and is free from institutional constraints is he finally able to speak freely and tell the truth about Vardhan’s corrupt dealings. However, such independence makes Vinod much more susceptible to attacks from Vardhan who acts with total impunity in his retributive actions, persecuting Vinod and eventually burning down his tiny print operation.

Mashaal was made with Indira Gandhi still in power and Vardhan’s immunity could be seen as an extension of the state. In many ways, Vinod Kumar recalls most clearly the character of trade unionist Anand Verma from Deewaar, another man of political integrity, who is also coerced to compromise his beliefs. The story of Vinod Kumar is intertwined with that of Raja (Anil Kapoor) who comes to symbolise the slum and most politically the sub proletariat. The departure with Mashaal when compared to the first cycle of angry young man films starring Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay is the film’s concrete attempts to situate the representation of the sub proletariat in an authentic topographical depiction of the slums. Such an explicit connection between the sub proletariat and an appropriate space may in part have been influenced by the impact of Indian parallel cinema on mainstream films. Ideologically, it is within the slums that Vinod finds a new place in society since his rejection by the middle class seems to suggest that it is the underclass who refuse to judge him. Initially, Vinod is antagonised by a gang of youth led by Raja who are unemployed, impoverished and marginalised from mainstream society. Vinod’s intervention and subsequent rehabilitation of Raja does seem preposterous but the point being made here is certainly valid since Raja’s transformation from delinquent to reporter underlines the paramount role of education in helping to liberate an oppressed underclass. Whereas such an articulation of education as liberator is evident in the character of Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) in Deewaar, Raja’s elevation from the slums makes him more sympathetic unlike Ravi who as a police officer becomes an inadvertent extension of the state.

The sequence that is often discussed occurs midway through the film, taking place on the desolate streets of Bombay and witnessing Vinod trying desperately to flag down passing vehicles and screaming for help as his wife slowly dies on the footpath. Dilip Kumar is powerfully emotive in this sequence yet its immediacy comes not from Vinod’s cry for help but the reactionary silence from a heartless city, which is indifferent to such pain. Silence in the context of Indira Gandhi’s reign becomes politically demonstrative of a much wider malaise prevalent at the time. The most extreme transformation and one that can only happen within the realms of the Hindi melodrama is Vinod’s radical descent into the underworld. Like Vijay in Deewaar, it is only by transgressing certain norms and adopting the rules of a system based on individualism, destruction and capitalism does Vinod eventually reach his ultimate goal of confronting Vardhan. However, it is a transformation fraught with an incriminating bind from which Vinod cannot escape, complicating his status within the eyes of the audience.

CHENNAI EXPRESS (Rohit Shetty, 2013, India) – Postmodern Masala

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This is an uneven action comedy from the Manmohan Desai school of filmmaking. Director Rohit Shetty is one of Hindi cinema’s most bankable directors and while it is tempting at first to lump him together with the likes of Sajid Khan, his postmodern sensibilities are much more palatable. While competency may not seem much to embrace, Chennai Express just about works and does so because of two very straightforward reasons: SRK’s star image and the intertexts to Tamil action cinema. Although it harbours the notorious problem of being thirty minutes too long, Chennai Express is an event film that arrived on Eid and has gone on to break numerous box office records. On a cynical level, it is a tentpole blockbuster purely out to make money, but we could say the same about most mainstream Hindi films. SRK has reached that point in a star’s career whereby self reflexivity has become a source of on screen humour and off screen critical commentary. Underneath the contrived situations are a site of postmodern intertexts that riff on the on screen Rahul persona cultivated by SRK and while postmodernity as a mode of address may be more common in mainstream Hindi films, it still demands a level of cultural capital from audiences.

In my opinion, Hindi ‘masala’ cinema operates on a number of levels with audiences and its not as simplistic as the narrative some of these films venerate. Since my knowledge and viewing of Tamil cinema is a cinephile blind spot, I probably missed a lot of these so called regional intertexts. It was only later I discovered the father is played by a famous Tamil actor and political activist Sathyaraj, who incidentally has more screen presence than both SRK and Deepika combined. I don’t object to ‘masala’ cinema since it is the lifeblood of populist Hindi cinema and offers more reliable entertainment than many of the Hollywood blockbusters currently clogging up cinema screens. In terms of thematic trends, Chennai Express could be situated amongst recent films like Singham and Dabaang since they all chart a ‘return to the rural’ by re-presenting the village as not only a symbol of tradition but a reminder to audiences that India has been masked over by a new post liberal shift. In many ways, the reinstatement of the village in the landscape of contemporary postmodern Hindi cinema could also be seen as a reactionary attempt to recall more conventional, if not, regressive iconography.