Western cinephiles are often very cynical: films that are emotional and sensitive in nature may be called “manipulative” or “emotional pornography.” It is likely that if Western audiences were familiar with Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin, they would leave with a similar response.
With an exception in its spirited song-and-dance sequences, Do Bigha Zamin is largely reminiscent of Italian neo-realism (it is said that after Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves played at the 1952 Bombay Film Festival, Bimal Roy was inspired to make this film). Dualistic in genre, Bimal Roy expertly reconciles the melodramatic thematic developments with its realist tone. There’s an enormous amount of scope in this project, and it culminates in boldness.
Do Bigha Zamin tells a story of a poor family of farmers who must take drastic measures to save their farm. Once their region finally sees rainfall, after years of drought, their landlord aspires to build a mill that would stimulate the economy of their town. When Harnam comes to Shambu with a proposition to buy out his huge debt in exchange for building on his property, Shambu refuses, telling him that his only livelihood is working what little land he has. Harnam takes this to court, and Shambu is given the opportunity to pay off his 235-rupee debt in three months, or lose the farm and all of his assets to Harnam.
Realizing that he cannot afford to pay what he owes from his meagre crop yields, Shambu decides to move to Calcutta for the next three months, to find employment and send money back to his pregnant wife Parvati, who will stay at home to care for Shambu’s gravely ill father. Against Shambu’s wishes, his young son Kanhaiya sneaks onto the train to Calcutta, and after a fruitless confrontation, Shambu agrees to let him accompany him. On arrival, they immediately have trouble finding employment for Shambu, and are forced to spend their first night in the streets, and are robbed of their few possessions as they sleep. The next day, in a singular stroke of luck, they manage to find a room to rent and Shambu is able to find work as a rickshaw puller, and before long Kanhaiya is able to earn money polishing shoes. Over the next three months, this family becomes victims/perpetrators of a plethora of social issues, faced with poverty, starvation, injury, illness, theft, child abuse, and even attempted rape.
Sixty years later, this film is timely in its depiction of Indian culture. Over 10% of suicides in India are farmer suicides, often motivated by monsoon failure, high debt burdens, genetically modified crops and the modernization of India. At a glance, Do Bigha Zamin‘s bleak tragedy after tragedy may seem contrived, when in fact, it should be a sobering eye-opener. Those who live in Western societies where they are unlikely to experience much real tragedy in their lives would do very well to realize how privileged they are, and films as ambitious as Do Bigha Zamin can certainly ameliorate ignorance and passivity.