‘Do Bigha Zamin’/‘Two Acres of Land’ and Migration in Indian Cinematography
By Amrit Gangar
Shortly after independence, India, a socialist, secular Republic and the largest representative democracy in the world, adopted the Soviet model of five-year national developmental plans. Alongside the emergence of big dams and big factories, which the Prime Minister Nehru called the temples of modern India, started large-scale migration of people from feudally oppressed and economically emaciated villages to cities – teeming cities, cities full of dreams, to use Baudelairean terms. One of the earliest artistic/cinematic renderings of peasant displacement and their subsequent migration to metropolitan cores of post-colonial India was Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1952), a film about the peasants of Bengal and their losing battle for survival against avaricious landlords.
Do Bigha Zamin follows a debt-ridden peasant, Shambhu, who, oppressed by rural feudalism, migrates to Kolkata to earn two hundred and thirty five rupees, within two and a half months, to save his tiny piece of land from the wily landlord’s clutches. The zamindar or landlord whom Shambhu addresses as sarkar (government or administrative authority) has wickedly jacked up the amount that Shambhu had to repay him. Shambhu and his teenage son, Kanhaiya, come to Kolkata as complete strangers, and are caught up in an urban melee. It’s a different world; a world of commerce and trade, of urbanite difference and indifference. Father and son have great difficulty in negotiating the uncaring, hostile sounding space. On the very first night when they try to sleep in an open space, the city robs them of their meager belongings bundled in a torn piece of cloth that also contained little hard-earned money. When the policeman dioesn’t let them sleep on the street, they, however, find shelter amidst a group of pavement dwellers, and, eventually, in Lalababu’s basti, among other workers. After a series of accidents which repeatedly thwarts Shambhu from saving the necessary amount, he, with his wife Paro, who follows her husband and son to the city in sheer desperation, and their young son Kanhaiya return to their village, their roots, under tragic circumstances. A factory is being constructed on their land and they are not allowed to keep even a handful of dust. Robbed of their only means of livelihood, they are shown at the end of the film to be walking away from the site of their land.
Do Bigha Zamin as a cinematic enterprise, however, is much more complex than is manifest in its storyline. For filmmakers faced with problems of poverty and destitution in post-colonial India, Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves, screened in the first International Film Festival of India in 1952, opened up new horizons. Do Bigha Zamin was one of the results, still considered a marvel of neo-realist methods. However, an evaluation of the film’s technical, methodological aspects, and its paradigm-shifting place in Indian cinematography are beyond the scope and purpose of this brief article. What I would like to focus on is its unique rendering of the spatial divide between the urban and the rural, in the process of which it applies a fresh lens on the rural and rural subjects. In this, Do Bigha Zamin belongs to a particular lineage of Indian cinematography which traces the rural poor in their acts of leaving homes, negotiating and claiming the city space, and leaving their mark in however small ways [Editor’s note: See Suvadip Sinha’s article on Gaman & Disha in this issue.]
As Keith and Pile state in Place and the Politics of Identity (1993),“all spatialities are political because they are the (covert) medium and (disguised) expression of asymmetrical relations of power” (168). The divide between the city and the country is not only physical/geographical, but qualitative, and therefore, political. It is also a paradoxical divide in the sense that ‘local’ workers in many parts of India move out in search of livelihood while ‘migrant’ workers are brought in, indeed preferred, as they are cheaper and subject to exploitation with impunity (Editor’s note: see “Invisible City-makers”, Sharma & Khandelwal; this issue. Hyperlink). Rural-urban is, therefore, a divide that has to be reproduced, again and again.
And yet, the city as the archetype of redemptive possibilities occupies our imagination. With artists of many vocations and avocations, the city, however, has long elicited contradictory emotions. Kolkata, where the human drama of Shambhu and his family unfolds, is no exception. Consider early Bengali poet, Baldeb Palit (1835-1900), expressing mingled attraction and repulsion: “At last, before my very eyes, Calcutta/Capital of India under British rule!/Wherever I turn I see/Brick, brick, brick and more brick”; Manik Banerji (1908-56) showing Calcutta “as distant glittering ideal for benighted villagers in his novels and stories – in Tale of City Life (Shahar Baser Itikatha) or Tale of a Puppet Dance (Putul Nacher Itikatha)”; and Jibanananda Das (1899-1954), a migrant from Barisal, finding a troubled niche in the city, and, yet, struggling with “the vapid, venomous touch/Of tram tracks stretched out beneath my feet like a pair of primordial serpent sisters.” This tenuousness is witnessed among later poets like Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012), who was passionately in love with Kolkata and, yet, experienced it like a dead weight around his neck, or the poet, Dipen Das (1913-85), who wrote that “Calcutta is like a black snake/The tail writhing in the Lake/The head on Haora Bridge.”
In contrast, popular Indian cinema of the time had generally been creating a straightforward binary between the village and the city, the rural and the urban – idealizing the former against the latter. Creating a kind of utopian romanticism, it fabricated the city as a peculiar site of unequal battle between urban vice and rural ingenuousness. Roy deviated from this stock formula in important ways. First, the rural, from where Shambhu and his family are displaced, is shorn of idolized imagery; rather, it is shown in its naked avarice. In the portrayal of the zamindar and his cronies, the futility of post-independence development for the impoverished peasant is evident. This village-level zamindar sarkar wants to grab Shambhu’s land to set up a mill (ironically named The Great Janata Mills Ltd. i.e. the people’s mill) because, as one of his cronies says, the (national level) sarkar wouldn’t let zamindari or landlordism exist and exploit. In the newly liberated country, the village level sarkar knows how to play his crooked game and win. As Vijay Mishra comments, though the questions of power, privilege and caste are rendered somewhat ambiguously, Do Bigha Zamin is an allegory of the persistence of feudal structures in postcolonial India. Law doesn’t protect the poor peasant. Nor could the oppressed peasantry fight injustice and exploitation in solidarity. Shambhu and his family are the norm in this sense. The story goes that during shooting in Calcutta, Balraj Sahni narrated the story of Do Bigha Zamin to an old man. At the end of the story, the man, “very weak in health with shaky teeth protruding out of his mouth and face full or wrinkles”, cried and told Sahni, “This is my story, babu, this is my story!” In deviating from formulaic story line of contemporary Hindi popular cinema, Do Bigha Zamin challenged the audience to take note of issues of class, poverty, and the still feudal core of independent India. The rural-urban divide was also rendered artificial.
Secondly, Roy puts the worker in the city at the front and centre of his enterprise. In Hindi popular cinema of the fifties, besides Roy, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt had their encounters with the city in their own characteristic ways. In Bengali cinema, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak frequently set their stories in the city, and the city of Kolkata takes on a life of its own through their cinematic lens. “However, in Satyajit Ray’s most pessimistic film, in Raj Kapoor’s tamashas, in Guru Dutt’s chronicles of despair, there’s a sense of an important, if hopeless, battle being fought. In Bimal Roy’s film, the scale of battle itself is reduced – a rickshaw’s race to death to save two meager bighas. The value of the city in human terms is examined and rejected because it is irrelevant to the peasant” (Masud: 26).
Do Bigha Zamin is also one of the few attempts in cinema to view the city from the point of view of the casual laborer and the city proletariat. As Masud suggests: “[T]his is Calcutta seen through the eyes of an uprooted non-Bengali peasant who has come to Calcutta to earn money and save his land from the capitalist landlord”. This is the Calcutta of harsh pavements, slums, and over worked rickshawallas. Here, a worker, who has lost one of his legs, while working in a factory, battles with horrible nightmares, and a shoeshine boy claims the footpath outside the Grand Hotel as his home and bedroom. The space, as Lalu Ustad tells Kanhaiya, ‘belongs to them,’ meaning himself, and also the street urchins, the coolies, the dog with scabies and the occasional cows and buffaloes. This is a space that Shambhu and Kanhaiya navigate on a daily basis, which ultimately is more important than the reality of it being a losing battle for them. It is the workers’ response to the city life and its exploitation that rings in the ironic song sung in Lalababu’s basti: “Ajab teri duniya, O, mere Lala/ Kadam kadam dekhi bhul bhulaiya (Thy world is strange, oh! God/At every step there is labyrinth!),” carrying, I think, the so-called illiterate, rustic, working class’s verdict on the exploitative, ruling class. Shambhu’s ethnic identity remains debated among scholars. He and his family could be from ‘any space whatever’ in a very broad Deleuzean sense, but it is their working class root that is crucial for appreciating Roy’s camaraderie with workers. Do Bigha Zamin continues from his earlier Udayer Pathe (Awakening, 1944), which was also a bold critique of the increasing polarization between the working class of Kolkata and its urban rich.
Empathy with the plight of workers/peasants, and overt disruption of the rural as a site of purity and refuge while also faithfully narrating the desire for return makes Do Bigha Zamin a pivotal work in the cinema of migration, anticipating what would become a motif in popular Indian cinema: the villager eking out a livelihood in the city. The city, thus, continues to be the predicament of the rural poor [Editor’s note: See Suvadip Sinha’s piece in this issue, for an interesting take on Peepli [Live]]. All big cities in India nest modern high rises with the segregated (rural) bastis and slums. All big cities, in this sense, are ruralopolis where millions of immigrants are piecing together the desired amount of money to liberate themselves. Kolkata prominently represents this ruralopolis, so does Do Bigha Zamin.
And yet, the film is not only about the urban and the rural, or the act of migration that simultaneously disrupts and reproduces this divide, or an experiment in neo-realism for that matter. It is a complex combination of what a post-colonial, post-independence, pro-development nation building milieu molded into the framework of neo-realist cinema could achieve. In its powerful rendering of the asymmetrical relations of power between the spatialities we call urban and rural, the haves and the have-nots, and its underlining of the political nature of spaces, Do Bigha Zamin belongs to the oeuvre of Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (World Down Below, 1946), and K.A. Abbas’s Dharti ke Lal (Children of the Earth, 1946), based on a play on the Bengal famine of 1943. It also anticipates what we are witnessing in post-liberalization India at a catastrophic scale, i.e., an ever-deepening agrarian crisis and unprecedented migration of rural poor to the urban core.
Being Chhinnamul or Uprooted is a perennial tale of the displaced, of the migrant under natural or man-made circumstances. The labor moves to produce a surplus for someone else as deception of crony capitalism grips us, and the two acres of land turns into a special economic zone for a global economy! Globalization is a migratory metaphor of our times!
[Note: Chinnamul / The Uprooted (1950) was a seminal film narrating the story of a massive group of peasants from East Bengal who, after Partition of India (1947), had to migrate to Calcutta. Ritwik Ghatak had acted in this film directed by Nemai Ghosh].
Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based film scholar, writer, curator, and historian. An in-depth article on Do Bigha Zamin and its critical role in Indian cinematography could be obtained by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.