Monday, July 13, 2009

Do Bigha Zameen, Umberto. D and the Bicycle Thieves: Where Do Bigha Zameen falters

Originally written for The article has been orginally published here

The distinction is important. Amongst good, very good and great. Because, something which is merely good sometimes seeks to shelter and glow amidst the presence of myriad mediocre works, where it stands apart on a strictly relative plane, nudging mediocrity by an iota. And we often confuse and consequently, equate it to as great. Great it is not, mediocre it could have been, but to its credit, it is only good. This is true with respect to Do Bigha Zameen.

I was delighted to find a copy of its DVD in my University library. Having recently seen Umberto D., and earlier in year The Bicycle Thieves, the comparisons amongst the movies is inevitable as these three were not only made around the same time, but even their principal plot point was same – poverty. The predicaments of characters, vacillating needle between right and wrong, the unusual friendship that only poverty can give rise to is similar too.

Do Bigha Zameen dives straight into the problems of farmers, where the babus never give a moment of respite to the farmers. A world where farmers not only live on Zamindar’s money but also on their mercies. The stark contrast between the cunningness of rich and naivety of poor is portrayed effectively. The first half an hour establishes and exposes the grave problem of the protagonist. But, not before showing a fleeting glimpse of romance between Sahni and Nirupa Roy(My first movie, where no one called her Mataji). Fabulous scenes such as: When he coaxes her, and then drags her deceitfully to get drenched in rain. And when they talk like two love struck teenagers in the field, much to the surprise of a fellow tiller who thinks and suggests romance has no role after marriage. Nice observation, interestingly juxtaposed.

Then, Shambhu (Sahni) moves to Calcutta in order to earn quick cash so that he can save his land. His mother, as he calls those two bighas. The city life slaps him and treats him like a proverbial step child. Then the movie moves into the maudlin zone. And sadly, stays there. Bimal Roy along with the dialogue writer injects maudlin, over the top dialogues scene after scene, and paints a more sorry picture than required where the characters speak out aloud their problem. What could have been some quiet, poignant scenes of sharing sorrow turns out to be loud declaration of love and sacrifice.

Performance wise, the kid is so unbelievably shoddy that he takes the sheen away from what could have been very poignant last 15 minutes of the movie. His performance is a walking, talking guide of the many Don’ts in acting for child actors. Infact, Bollywood had its share of horrendous child actors, mainly in many Amitabh Bachann movies, where a 8 year old’s mouth was filled with such wisdom that you wondered whether to cry or die. Or, both.
Nirupa Roy’s performance is a delight. Her portrayal of a typical coy Indian housewife is not only accurate, it is heartwarming too. Specially that scene where she is dictating the content of the letter to be sent to her husband, and even a remote suggestion of little romance in the letter makes her shrink in veil. Amazing, little scene. Balraj Sahni is spot on as an idealist farmer, though he gets a bit jarringly repetitive towards the end as he sings paeans of morality every second scene with his son. But, that is just a minor blemish to a very controlled and believable performance.

Contrast it to the relationship between the father and son in the Bicycle Thieves, where there is no histrionics on play, the sorrow has bound the father-son together, and they don’t wail over their problem every now and then. Even in Umberto D, what is possibly the last meeting between Umberto and the Maid, when she knows that Umberto has resigned to fate, there is a only a faint eye contact; small, insignificant promise of keeping in touch, and things move on. Just like life.

While the protagonist of De Sica’s two movies are realistic, edgy individuals, Roy’s Shambhu(Sahni) is just too good to be true. So, when the landlady threatens to throw out Umberto of the house, he doesn’t cry or fall at her feet evoking sympathy from us. Instead, he retorts. His pathetic condition doesn’t rob him of any manipulation a perfectly flawed human being is capable of. Making him ordinary makes the story real, and his struggle all the more important and relevant. The character’s constant see-sawing between the two sides of morality in De Sica’s two movies makes them more interesting as compared to Do Bigha Zameen’s linear characters. There is no battle in Do Bigha Zameen, in fact a uni-dimensional, rigid, too idealistic approach by the characters that raises a huge wail whenever the line of morality is crossed.(Although the kid’s moral does sway a wee bit towards the end but his redemption comes gift wrapped in such a pathetic fashion that you wished it never happened in the first place!). There is no wrong in portraying idealist people in a world where they are misfits. It would have elevated the movie to a new level had it been achieved without being preachy, or without highlighting the halo of every character.

The penultimate shot where Shambhu clutches a piece of land, but isn’t allowed even that is touching. Here not much words are exchanged, but even then the director so effectively captures the essence of the scene. I wished the movie had more of that, but it sadly falls in the categories of many merely good movies which could have been great.

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