Thursday, December 8, 2011

A page from Indian film history: Dharti Ke Lal (1946)

A shorter version of this post first appeared as "Life, the way it was" in The Hindu on November 28, 2011. (A note: The accompanying photo in The Hindu is not from Dharti Ke Lal as the caption mistakenly says, but from Do Bigha Zameen to which the article refers.)

The "Bhookha hai Bengal" chorus song in Dharti ke Lal

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s directorial debut film Dharti Ke Lal (1946) begins and ends on an idyllic note, with a sailboat gently wafting across the water in rural Bengal. But what happens in between is the epic ugliness of hunger, poverty, and human suffering. Set against the backdrop of 1943’s Bengal famine in which nearly 5 million people perished, the film documents the anguish suffered by the family of a farmer and his two sons.

The film was a first in many respects. It was the multifaceted Abbas’s first film as a director. It was actor Balraj Sahni’s first major role, and a distinct precursor to his famous role of Shambhu in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953). Theatre couple Shombhu Mitra and Tripti Mitra appeared on the screen for the first time, as did veteran dancer-actress Zohra Segal. It was the first film presented under the aegis of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and starred, for the first time, a non-professional cast of “the people”—from organizations such as the Dhulia District Kisan Sabha and the Navjavan Mazdoor Party, among others.

The IPTA, formed in 1942, brought together intellectuals of the day who felt, in the then context of a growing nationalism, that theatre could be an effective medium for both social and artistic awakening among the people. The worlds of art and nationalism collided to produce plays that helped formulate the public ethic on important issues of the day. Socialist realism—rooted in songs, dance, and drama—was the mainstay of IPTA productions.

It was a shaky time: The war was on, and with it, a rising inflation and the consequent curse of starvation that was the lot of the impoverished. 1943-44 saw an exodus of hungry people from the villages to Calcutta and their disappointment at the apathy of the city dwellers. Many died, while others returned to the villages, forced to rely on themselves. This is broadly the context in which Abbas decided to make his first film that would highlight the people’s power in fighting against the plague of degradation and various institutionalized injustices. Individual empowerment would lead to collective empowerment, which, then, would create an enlightened public psyche that would keep at bay all the greedy zamindars, moneylenders, grain hoarders and other go-betweens of this world.

An advertisement in The Times of India dated 31 August 1946 invited audiences to Capitol Theatre to watch Dharti Ke Lal, “the story that had to be told in all its simple grandeur and stark realism!” The film merged its socialist realism with the new cinematic style of social realism that it helped set off—where the camera’s meaningful engagement with reality meant capturing life the way it was for the poor, dispossessed folks, in all its utter rawness, indeed in all its brutishness and nastiness as Thomas Hobbes would have said.

During his numerous visits to Calcutta around 1943-44, Abbas was appalled by the villagers’ starvation-induced deaths and other miseries that he saw playing out routinely on the streets. A successfully running IPTA play of the time, Bijon Bhattacharya’s Nabanna (The New Harvest), powerfully captured the grimness of the situation while offering hope for a new beginning in terms of rural self-sufficiency. This fuelled Abbas’s desire to tell the story and convey its positive message to the rest of India as well—through the medium of celluloid. After all, a Hindi film on a contemporary issue could have a strong pan-India appeal. Abbas was also influenced by three other works—Bhattacharya’s plays Jabanbandi and Antim Abhilasha, and Krishan Chander’s story Annadata—all of which strengthened his vision of Dharti Ke Lal

Except for a couple of outdoor shots that were filmed in Calcutta—wartime restrictions made shooting impossible in Calcutta—the film was mostly shot outdoors in Dhulia in modern Maharashtra that was the setting for rural Bengal, with city scenes shot in the studios in Bombay.

The film is set in the fictitious village of Aminpur in Bengal, which is home to Samuddev Pradhan, his wife, elder son Niranjan (played by Balraj Sahni), elder daughter-in-law Binodini ((played by Damayanti, Balraj’s Sahni’s wife) and younger son Ramoo (played by Anwar Mirza). Communal harmony is depicted in the form of Ramzaan, Pradhan’s close family friend and neighbour. After a bucolic opening celebrating the expanse of Bengal’s landscape, to the accompaniment of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s music (his second film after Neecha Nagar that also released in 1946), the film immediately cuts to the reality of people’s hardships, signified by plaintive notes on the sitar. Dark poverty and doleful sitar—there is a certain Pather Panchali air about that.

Ramoo is to be married and, to afford the wedding, Pradhan sells off his stock of grains to Kalijan Mahajan, a devious grain hoarder who is busy stockpiling rations to sell later at a steep price. Actor David plays the tout who prods Pradhan to sell his grains to Mahajan. As the days go by, Pradhan’s is just one family that is faced with severe scarcity of food. When Ramoo goes one day to buy grains from Mahajan, he is shocked to notice the latter’s overflowing granary. Indeed, the man from the kisan sabha or farmer’s association had rightly cautioned farmers from giving in to the grain hoarders. Ramoo belatedly realizes the family’s mistake in selling off the grains.  The astute Niranjan had foreseen this situation.

From this point on, Pradhan’s family has no choice but to buy grains from Mahajan on credit in the form of a promised next harvest or by pawning off jewellery, with the illiterate Ramoo leaving a thumb impression on the ledger each time, thus getting more and more entangled in debt. Meanwhile, Ramoo’s new wife Radhika (played by Tripti Mitra) wants to learn to read books and urges her husband to learn so that he can teach her. Ramoo goes to Dayal, the local schoolteacher, and starts lessons that he then imparts to his wife. Illiteracy, which is the reason for the impoverished getting mired deeper and deeper into degradation, is no less a bane than starvation, and the film addresses that issue, as an undercurrent though.

When Ramoo’s baby is born, there is not a morsel of food in the house. The family loses its cow Lakshmi (Ramoo’s pet) to the zamindar for not paying lagaan or taxes in two years. As Lakshmi is dragged away, Ramoo says, “Today the son is not able to save his own mother.” Later, when Ramoo, in a fit of helplessness, tells his family to sell the land (over which the zamindar, the tout, and Mahajan all have a vulturous eye), Pradhan and Niranjan are shocked.

Niranjan reminds his brother of the sacredness of the land and reminds him that “the land is our mother.” In keeping with the nationalist discourse, the land and the cow—that provide sustenance to the villagers—represent the life-giving mother figure, a primal inner force, now threatened by the collusion of corrupt outside forces. The recovery of this inner power—or the ability to protect the mother figure, which, in turn, means protecting oneself—is at the heart of Dharti Ke Lal’s socialist parable. With Ramoo affronted by a slap from Niranjan and breaking away from the family to try his luck at the city, the task of realizing the socialist dream will ultimately be up to Niranjan, who is aware that the scarcity of food is just an artificially created phenomenon by the larger power nexus that excludes the farmer.

With grain hoarders sending away their loot to Calcutta to be sold at astronomical prices, shops in Aminpur all shut down, resulting in sordid wretchedness all around. Dayal sees his family die before his eyes and almost loses his mind. As Aminpur turns into a “bhooton ki nagari” or a place of ghosts, the surviving few decide to brave it all the way to the city to beg for food. And then comes the famous exodus scene in the film, with many dropping dead en route, to dirge-like background music.

In Calcutta, the degradation of the hungry reaches a new low as they squat on the streets outside mansions, begging, scavenging dustbins, fighting with each other for scraps, grunting miserably—while the city around turns a blind eye. The rich dine luxuriously, while outside the glass door, the hungry look on: the disparity is Dickensian. When it is impossible to suffer further, respite comes in the form of death to many.

Moreover, the communal divide is fomented in the form of separate relief kitchens for Hindus and Muslims. As pots clang, Hindus shoo away Muslims, and vice-versa—this is in contrast to the religious unity of the village. The city’s inhumanness is personified in the rich Seth saheb (played by K. N. Singh, as villainous as ever), a grain-hoarding merchant who is permanently busy on the phone, making profitable deals.

Meanwhile, Ramoo who has been working as a rickshaw puller loses his job and, reminiscing about the good old days in the village, turns to alcohol for comfort. Pradhan’s family is languishing: Radhika prostitutes herself in exchange for milk for her child; her mother-in-law, weak and mad with hunger, steals the child’s milk; Pradhan is dying; and an unsuccessful Niranjan watches all this helplessly. 

When Niranjan turns to a kind, conscientious relief worker named Shambhu dada (possibly Shombhu Mitra) for moral strength, the latter says with conviction that the people’s awakening will definitely happen, and that Niranjan, as a tiller of the soil—tillers are, after all, known for their indefatigability—should not get dispirited. It is just that hunger has crushed people’s spirits. The voice of hunger needs to be heard by all of the country for help to arrive, and that should be the mission of the hour. The stage is set for the chorus song, “Bhookha hai Bengal” (Bengal is hungry), a hard-hitting plea for help addressed to the rest of India. On a map of undivided India stand the singers, and, in the background, silhouetted, are images of Bengal’s misery.

As the news spreads to the rest of India, Niranjan has finally some reason to hope for the better, and he tells his dying father about this encouraging turn of events. Pradhan is delusional and sees green fields, clouds, oxen, and a golden harvest. He tells his family and Ramzaan to return home and start life again, and dies. Niranjan resolves to make the golden harvest a reality. Shambhu, too, reminds Niranjan of the power of the people, of their power to help themselves, and Niranjan is convinced.

Everyone returns to Aminpur, except Radhika who despises herself so much they she can never go back home again. Radhika and Ramoo cross paths in a very unmemorable way: when he hears that there are only two items for sale in the market—“woman and food,” in the words of the same vile tout from Aminpur—Ramoo, with no job and no food, forces himself to be a pimp and tries to strike a deal with a woman who turns out to be Radhika. She informs him that his father is dead, and the rest have returned home with their child who has been entrusted to Binodini. Ramoo and Radhika are reunited in their suffering, and Ramoo is deeply pained that he came close to selling his wife.

Back in Aminpur, Niranjan tells his fellow farmers about the new concept of collective farming, where everyone will jointly plough the land, sow seeds, water the crops, and harvest food, and enjoy the fruits of hard work equally; then no land will go unused and no one hungry. The villagers are first taken aback by this radical idea, but then realize that there is no other option, and agree. The sense of togetherness among the people is echoed by schoolchildren who chime in unison: “Hindustan is our country. This field is yours. This field is mine. We will together make a big field, which will be neither yours nor mine, but everyone’s.” This grand lesson in the people’s empowerment pays off as the next harvest turns out to be a dream harvest. 

As the villagers make merry, and sing cheerful songs about the power of unity, Ramoo and Radhika—the wistful outsiders—look on. As the idyllic mood of Bengal’s landscape is reaffirmed, the film ends on a fable-like note with Radhika reminding her husband that as long as the country suffers from oppression and hunger, until then will the flame of their—the outcasts’—memory burn brightly in the hearts of the people of Aminpur.

One wonders at this bittersweet ending: why does Abbas not reintegrate the couple into the social fabric? They have, perhaps, strayed from their roots very far, but do they deserve to face permanent alienation? Perhaps it is Abbas’s way of equating the sanctity of womanhood with the sanctity of land: despite pressures, Niranjan could never be forced to part with his land; in contrast, Ramoo urges his brother to sell the land and, later, tries to sell his wife; Radhika goes one step ahead and sells herself. In the nationalist discourse of the time, women and land were routinely conflated, with each signifying the other, and representing what was sacrosanct. Selling one is the same as selling the other—and both are transgressions of the highest order that confer on the seller an outcast status.

That Dharti Ke Lal’s social realism made it an unusual Indian film for its time is illustrated in a rather interesting anecdote from Abbas’s autobiography. When Abbas visited the Cinematheque film library in Paris in 1955, the librarian told him that of all the Indian films they had received, there was one particular film (without titles) that seemed to stand out in that it was not the typical fighting-dancing movie; she was curious to know who had made it, and what its name was; when she described what she had seen to Abbas, it turned out to be Dharti Ke Lal.

(P.S. I am away from my home turf now. When I have access to my video equipment, I will post the "Bhookha hai Bengal" song and other excerpts that I have with me. Watch this space.)

Image credit: The Times of India, Mumbai, December 26, 2010


  1. Nice really like the vintage....I am curious to know how and where did you get to see this movie.

  2. I saw this film eighteen years ago in Bombay at a screening by a vintage movies society.

  3. Do you have the song "Bhookha hai Bengal" in A/V form. Let me know.

    usha athaley