Dharti Ke Lal (1946)
Director: K.A. Abbas; Writer: K.A. Abbas, Bijon Bhattacharya, Krishan Chandar; Producer: Indian Peoples Theatre Association, K.A. Abbas, V.P. Sathe; Cinematographer: Jamnadas Kapadia; Editor: D. Vishrambhai; Cast: Sambhu Mitra, Usha Dutt, Balraj Sahni, Damayanti Sahni, Anwar Mirza, Tripti Bhaduri, Hamid Butt, Pratap Ojha, Rashid Ahmad, Randhir, Zohra Segal, Mahendranath
Duration: 02:03:08; Aspect Ratio: 1.312:1; Hue: 220.000; Saturation: 0.030; Lightness: 0.146; Volume: 0.147; Cuts per Minute: 6.236; Words per Minute: 50.744
Summary: Based on Bijon Bhattacharya’s plays Nabanna and
Jabanbandi; Krishen Chander’s short story
Abbas’s directorial debut launched a major trend of
‘realist’ cinema. The film is set during WW2 and
the 1943 Bengal famine (a traumatic event often
used as source material by left cultural movements)
and a growing ‘nation-building’ ideology. Made
during the war, the novice cast and crew were
accorded a special licence for a war-effort
contribution. The only film actually produced by
the IPTA (although it later informally supported
several other films), the film is based partly on
Sombhu Mitra’s landmark production of
Bhattacharya’s play Nabanna for the IPTA. It
narrates the story of a family of sharecroppers in
Bengal: the patriarch Samaddar, his elder son
Niranjan and his wife Binodini, and the younger
son Ramu with his wife Radhika. Despite a good
harvest and rising grain prices during the war,
Samaddar loses his property to a crooked graindealing
zamindar. Ramu, his wife and their
newborn baby go to Calcutta followed soon after
by the rest of the family along with thousands of
similarly dispossessed peasants. The film intercuts
Ramu’s frantic search for work with his wife’s
descent into prostitution. Before dying, the
patriarch enjoins his family to return to their native
soil where the farmers get together and, in a
stridently celebratory socialist-realist ending, opt
for Soviet-style collective farming. Ramu is
excluded from their world. The film’s highly
stylised and symbol-laden realism proved extremely
influential. It appears to have found a way of
narrativising the 1943 famine which set the pattern
for many films moving from depictions of
deprivation in the country to suffering in the city,
e.g. Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul (1950) and
Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953). It
also initiated a new type of melodrama able to
marry actuality to psychoanalytic and political
anxieties and desires, as in Abbas’s scripts for Raj
In the crucible of my imagination, the dramatic episodes of Nav-Anna had merged into two other equally creative masterpieces - another, and shorter, IPTA play Antim Abhilasha (His Last Desire) and Krishan Chander's immortal story Anna-Data (The Bread Giver), and all three would go into the screenplay of Dharti ke Lal, the film I would make about the Bengal famine. I started writing it that very night and had finished the first sequence by the early hours of the next morning - K.A. Abbas, 'Children of Hunger', in 'I Am Not an Island' (New Delhi: Vikas, 1977, pg 266-267)
The film was released at Bombay's Capitol theatre and apparently did quite well in its first few weeks.
Song: Suno manuva naiya ke
'Suno Manuva Naiya Ye' - the boatman's song
K.A. Abbas writes:
The People's Theatre enthusiastically welcomed the idea of producing the film on my script. Inevitably, the responsibility of the production of the film Dharti ke Lal devolved on me. With my oId friend and colleague VP Sathe by my side as my associate producer, I had no hesitation in undertaking the task. It was he who had thought of applying for a licence in the special category under which three (then) non-professionals - the IPTA, Uday Shankar Culture Centre and Chetan Anand were allowed to produce their films -Dharti ke Lal, Neecha Nagar and Kalpana. It was with the help of N.M. Joshi, the veteran Labour leader, and a member of Parliament, that we were able to secure the licence.
Actually, Neecha Nagar and Dharti ke Lal were produced in Bombay, almost on parallel lines, with several artistes in common. The direction was assigned to me but I chose three associate directors to help me - and they were Shombhu Mitra (a very talented actor and director from the Calcutta IPTA playing the identical role in Nab-Anna), the late Balraj Sahni, and P.K. Gupte, a Marathi stage director of repute. We had decided to take only non-professionals in the cast. I had to think back of the play Nav-Anna and chose Tripti Bhaduri as the younger daughter-in-law. Damyanti Sahni (Balraj's first wife) was to be the elder daughter-in-law. Usha Mehta, a young girl, also came from the Bengal IPTA to act the old wife of Samudder Pradhan, playing an identical role in Nav-Anna. The great Ravi Shankar, then composer for our IPTA's central squad, was to be the music director, and the late Shanti Burdhan the dance director.
We were producing a totally diifferent kind of film in India, and so had to set traditions and precedents. Four hundred rupees per month was fixed as the maximum wage and two hundred rupees was the minimum. No fancy hotels for our articles. Shombhu, Tripti and Usha - the three from Calcutta were billeted in out flat, with Mujji as the girl's chaperon and Hindustani tutor. We had a competent make-up man Tahmane to put on beards and wigs, where necessary, but for all the scenes in the city, every day mud mixed with water was sprinkled with a hose on the clothes and faces of all the artists! K.A. Abbas, 'Children of Hunger', in 'I Am Not an Island' (New Delhi: Vikas, 1977, pg 269-270)
Introduction of the family. The village of Aminpur, its Mukhia Samaddar Pradhan (Mitra), his own sons Niranjan (Sahni) and Ramu (Mirza), his wife (Dutt), daughter-in-law, and Ramu's favourite, the cow Lakshmi. Based on Bijon Bhattacharya's classic play Nabanna, originally staged in using a revolving stage, with a few key locations. Malini Bhattacharya writes of how 'Shambhu Mitra, the co-producer of the play, points out how the episodic character of the play was maintained even after the editing'.(Malini Bhattacharya, 'The IPTA In Bengal', Journal of Arts & Ideas. no. 2, 1983 (http://dsal.uchicago.edu/books/artsandideas/toc.html?issue=2
Introduction of the character of Usman: Samaddar and Usman (Butt), the two patriarchal figures in the village, eventually provide the familial coherence that would extend to the entire village in the end. The somewhat complex character of the elder daughter-in-law Binodini (Damayanti Sahni) is also introduced. She is childless, and this point is repeatedly rubbed in by her mother-in-law.
Introduction of the first reference to Radhika,who will soon marry Ramu and enter the family. Most of the fictional sequences are book-ended by the conversation between Samaddar and Usman.
This is an important sequence: the condition of rural plenitude from where the downfall will be always measured. The film takes us through the entire first harvest: a plentiful harvest but portents of trouble. Parched earth, clouds, rain, sowing, harvest. The sequence ends with the both the landlord and the trader: the two evils of the village and the source of all troubles.
The sequence begins with the Pradhan selling his crop for a sum very much lower than what he should have got. The greed of the hoarder, whose hands are shown in expressionist silhouette grabbing one grain, reveal most of the melodramatic language with which the film would be suffused.
Amartya Sen has argued that
"the Great Bengal famine of 1943 was a 'boom' famine. Food output did not fall very much anywhere, and in general was quite high. But the economy - fed by immense war-related expenditures - was subjected to powerful expansion of demand in general, and demand for food in particular.. But the bulk of rural Bengal faced sharply rising prices with money incomes that were not at all comparably higher. Speculative withdrawal of rice supply at a later stage added fuel to the fire of this unequal expansion which was already causing misery to many. The most affected groups were the rural labourers, particularly agricultural labourers, but the shifts also affected other groups in the rural economy selling services and crafts to the
local market. The exchange entitlement mappings took deep plunges, forcing these occupation groups into starvation. The story is made grimmer by the military policy of destroying
large boats in the coastal region of Bengal - fearing the arrival of the Japanese (who, incidentally, refused to come for other reasons) - and also the removal of rice stocks from three districts - again with the object of starving the elusive Japanese. These added to the entitlement decline, and indeed the fishermen and the
river transporters were the two most affected groups in proportionate terms, but this was an added impetus in a movement that was leading to a famine anyway, affecting primarily the large population of landless rural labourers all over Bengal. Since the famine was largely a result of trade entitlement failure rather than of direct entitlement failure, the groups that suffered least
were those whose trade entitlements were guaranteed, and those who did not need to purchase rice. The former included the population of Calcutta protected by a system of rationing of food at heavily subsidized prices,
and the latter included peasants and share-croppers who, while poor, were the least affected group in the rural economy of Bengal -
Amartya Sen,'Famines', World Development. Vol. 8, pp. 613-621,1980.
The indebtedness grows. The family is forced now to borrow grain for whatever they can give in return for it. The growing debt is cut over the celebrations of Ramu's marriage to Radhika, necessarily curtailed by the growing poverty.
Ramu and Radhika (Tripti escape to the village fair. Very much an idiom derived from the Bombay Talkies, where Abbas began his career.
Jai Dharti Maiya Jai Ho. Classic IPTA song, with Shanti Bardhan's troupe in full evidence. This is the first of three major performances by the Little Ballet troupe in this film.
Song: Jai Dharti Maiya Ho
Radhika is interrogated as to where she went: and how come she is eating pan. Radhika's own separation by her modernity from the other two women would lead to her having to pay a major price later in the film, when she is forced to sell her body for food. It will also be what will exile her and Ramu from the village, in the film's end.
The first direct evidence of major food hoarding. The grains, expropriated from the villagers, would be taken to Calcutta, and thence into a world market.
This is an important set of sequences: it first established the conjugality of Ramu and Radhika (soon to be broken), Radhika's desirre for literacy - in the melodramatic idiom it also means that she will soon 'break away' from the family. The school teacher Dayal Kaka (rashid) is introduced: he plays the teacher-seer-madman in the film.
Dayal Kaka's school is now closed, since most of the villagers have left for the city. Ramu and Radhika begin to learn how to read.
Explicit reference to Gandhian principles, with the charkha, and the nationalist 'we are Indian, India is ours', a line that was at vairance with some of the COmmunist Party's thinking, but closer to Abbas' own interest in Gandhi.
Radhika's desire for literacy begins her outcast condition.
Only to be saved by her pregnancy. Continuing the melodramatic idiom, Radhika's pregnancy signals to the childless Binodini that her own time in the family could well be over.
High mleodrama, as Radhika's giving birth to a boy, followed by the close-up on Binodini's face, is followed by the deluge sequence.
The film's famous deluge sequence. The sequence is contrasted with Binodini's own barrenness, and her working out all her feelings towards Radhika's baby boy, whom she will eventually rescue. This already foretells something of the film's end. Dayal-Kaka's own character is also furthered: his home is washed away, his wife will soon die, leading to his insanity.
Rising indebtedness of the family. The jewellery is sold, and finally so0 is the cow Lakshmi. The only thing left is the land, which Niranjan will not sell. This becomes the last straw for Ramu, who will now leave the family and be the first to move to Calcutta.
Song: The beete sukh ke din
Ramu's abandonment of his family, and his departure. The Beete sukh ke din song. A classic bit of 'song picturisation' by cinematographer Jamnadas (Jimmy) Kapadia, with the near-dark lighting, and the close-up of Tripti Bhaduri's face.
The final straw: they have no choice but to sell the only thing they now have left, their land. Showdown with the landlord, who asks for sexual services from Radhika
A brief intercut into Usman-chacha's own home: his daughter-in-law is dying, and there is suspicion all round, as to what each of the small group of villagers have remaining. His son Aziz confronts Samaddar's family, and finds they are now only boiling grass.
The peasants' move to Calcutta. As a story of the famine, and more particularly of refugee migrations into Calcutta, this sequence ranks with the other famous migration to Calcutta in Nemai Ghosh's Chinnamul (1951).
K.A. Abbas writes about his own experiencing of the horror: Towards the end of the year 1943 (or it might be the beginning of 1944) I went to Calcutta, the city of horrors.
The horrors began right from the Howrah railway station. Gaunt and skinny refugees lay everywhere-outside the waiting hall from where they had been driven out several times, along the footpaths, on both sides of the great Hooghly Bridge, right in front of the posh hotels and glittering shops of Chowringnee. They were young, old, men, women, children with bloated stomachs, dark-eyed babies dying of rickets. They had no energy even to move about, you couldn't call them beggars for most of them didn't have the energy even to extend their hands for alms. At most they could only piteously cry out "Maago... Phaan do!" (Please, give us some rice water).
This cry became the dirge of Calcutta, the battle cry of a legion of the lost. Wherever you went, you heard the same feeble whine:
Maago... Phaan do. Maago.... Phaan do! Maago... Phaan do!!
Death stalked the sidewalks. People lay dying in front of the luxury hotels, expensive restaurants, middle class eating houses, in front of the sweet shops and bread shops and milk shops.
Often the glass partition was all that separated the hungry destitutes from the rich display of food. And yet no one had the strength and the will-to hurl a stone and break this fragile wall ofglass.
Everywhere, the stench of death! On roads, in parks, on footpaths, people lay dying-peasants uprooted from the soil who had trekked hundreds of weary miles in the hope of getting a morsel of food, and were now quietly dying. Some did not have the strength to utter that piteous dirge Phaan do-Phaan do! And it seemed that with them Bengal, with all its rich heritage of political dynamism, and cultural flowering of art and literature, was dying, too.
K.A. Abbas, 'I am Not an Island', pg 264.
All the hopelessness, the helplessness, the tragic inertia, the degrading, dehumanising process of begging for food, scrounging for scraps, of desperately, selfishly fighting for leftovers like dogs - all that was there, etched in dramatic black and white. But the very fact that it was there - on the stage - that artistes with a sensitive social conscience had portrayed the tragedy of their people, had in it not only emotional catharsis of the Greek tragedy, but the glimmer of hope for the future. It was more than a play; it was the reaffirmation of human values on behalf of the people of Bengal, the people of India. In the play - in its title The New Harvest itself - there was the message of hope, that out of the black night of suffering and despair, will emerge the dawn of the new collective awareness that will ensure a better life, a life of dignity, to the people. The New Harvest was not only the agricultural harvest of a rice crop, grown by collective effort, but the new harvest of ideas and ideals that must ultimately grow out of the soil of repression and hunger and destitution.
K.A. Abbas, 'I am Not an Island', pg 266-267.
The Indiancine.ma Khazana
The Sethji (legendary Hindi movie baddie K.N. Singh), who hoards the grain from Mahajans who are moving it from villages into cities, is a direct ancestor of the Sonachand Dharmanand character (Nemo) of Raj Kapoor's famous Shri 420 (1955) also scripted by Abbas. See the sequence excerpted below:
Malini Bhattacharya writes of the original play, Nabanna, to which this entire sequence appears to bear close fidelity:
"Nabanna's... presentation of a political thesis has to be much more indirect. A greater individualization of characters was absolutely necessary, and this made it all the more difficult to present the historical typicality of the dramatic situation through them. For instance, Pradhan Samaddar, the central character is not just an individual peasant, or a statistical entity; he represents, though unconsciously, an analytical outlook on the crisis in the life of the Bengali peasant in 1942-43. The famine which devastates his family is not an accident, a natural disaster, but a man-made situation; and the individual woes of Pradhan have to be linked with this situation through the dramatic form. So it shows a misunderstanding of the intention of the play to complain, as some critics did at the time, that it is highly improbable for one single family to go through the vast range of disasters that the Samaddar family did. But that such criticism could be raised probably shows that the difficulty of the task was reflected in the body of the play itself and the typicality of the situation could not be fully realized within the play. It also probably meant that, at least so far as the urban middle class audience was concerned, the play offered more of an appeal to their sentiments, which was aroused by the personal aspect of the misery of Pradhan and his family, than to their critical faculty.
The abrupt ending of the scene breaks up the single-track movement of narrative, and transfers the audience with great flexibility from one aspect of social life to another, from the woes of the peasants in their village homes to the hoarder's den, from relief kitchen to charitable dispensary, from the wedding feast to the beggars scrounging for food near the dustbin, from the child dying of malnutrition to the village-wife being approached by the city tout, so that although the main focus is on Pradhan and his family, the approach to their problems is a multilateral one and the sensationalism of individual scenes gives way to an analytical linking up of the different segments of social reality. The limitations of naturalism are not wholly done away with, but in certain respects they are transcended. Unconcern with the naturalism of stage props was signified by the simple canvas backdrop that was used throughout the play, though again, naturalistic effects were not altogether discarded".
(Malini Bhattacharya, 'The IPTA In Bengal', Journal of Arts & Ideas. no. 2, 1983 (http://dsal.uchicago.edu/books/artsandideas/toc.html?issue=2
'Ab na zabaan par taale dalo' The actual documentary shots that Abbas took of Calcutta are all in this sequence.
Abbas' actuality footage; documentary shots
Abbas refers to the three shots in this sequence as the only ones they were able to illegally take in Calcutta:
Originally, we planned to do the entire outdoor shooting on Calcutta's pavements, and to stage the massive hunger march with the help of the Kisan Sabhas of the province. We even went to Calcutta with our camera equipment and some of our artists, hoping to call the others when necessary. The city, however, was still under military occupation, and we had to retreat. We could only surreptitiously take two shots-one showing the hero (the younger son (played by Anwar Mirza) plying a rickshaw - and a shot of one of Chowringhee's palatial hotels and the dustbins in front of it with some scrounging urchins around it, and with American GI's and British Tommies strolling by. A few minutes later we were hauled up by the military police and, pretending not to have taken any shot yet, we escaped with a warning that no shooting would be permitted anywhere in the city or the province without prior submitting of the script and the plan of the shooting to the civil and military authorities. -
K.A. Abbas, 'I am Not an Island', pg 270-271.
The Sethji's radical socialite daughter expresses her outrage: leading to Abbas producing one of his classic metaphoric dissolves: the Sethji grids a glower into the ground, which dissolves onto the face of Radhika's child.
Radhika, who is again propositioned, is about to sell herself. She claims to be married, sees her reflection in the water. In melodramatic terms, this clearly sets the stage for the return of the missing Ramu...
...who returns into the film on cue. He is now a rickshaw puller, drinking with his buddies. The intrecutting, as characters miss each other, lose each other or come across each other in the crowds of the city, remind you of the other major city movies that are to follow: Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen and Abbas' own famous Munna and Shaher aur Sapna.
The dissolve again. The transfer of the child from Radhika to Binodini, presaged in the film's very beginning, is now taken forward.
Entry of Shambhu, and also of the Kisan Sabhas.
Radhika has finally sold herself, in return for milk for the child. Her own exile from the family is presaged.
Vignette briefly featuring Zohra Segal as an upper-class social worker.
The film now moves into its properly propagandist IPTA gear: Shambhu is the catalyst: the people of India should know that Bengal is starving.
Song: Bhookha hai Bengal
Bhookha hai Bangal. The song itself as well as its performance was the original work of major IPTA musician Binoy Roy, who organized the Bengal Cultural Squad to 'sensitize about the impact of famine on the people and to collect money to support the victims'. The Squad traveled through the breadth of the country presenting their choir ‘Bhookha Hai Bengal’ created by Vamik Jaunpuri and other songs and plays. Musician Prem Dhawan , drum player Dashrath Lal, singer Reva Roy, actress Usha Dutt were also a part of the Squad. http://www.iptaindia.org/
The death of the Pradhan. In his death, presented as a hallucination, he also outlines the glorious future that the film's socialist-realist ending will also now move towards. The family shall return, there will be plenty, and all worry will be over. The family will soon do exactly that. Not all the family, though.
The family decides to return. Major sequence shot in silhouette, when Radhika hands over her child to Binodini who will raise it as her own: thus realizing one of the predictions that was associated with the storm that had originally displaced the family. Radhima will stay back. The child will be brought up to believe that his mother died in the famine.
The use of 'coincidence' has been discussed inn tragic structures: the major example is in Ghatak's Subarnarekha, when the brother meets his sister in a brothel. Ramu, looking for a woman to sell to a customer, now meets Radhika and is reunited with her. However, both are 'fallen'. Radhika was only able to save the child from a similar fate by handing it to her sister-in-law who will bring the boy up as her own.
The film now evokes its Soviet inheritances by making a major plug for large-scale kolkhozy-style collective farming. Niranjan takes the lead, and gradually persuades recalcitrant farmers to work collectively.
Ramu and Radhika, the fallen ones, exiled, are now intercut in their anxiety about themselves and their individual future, with the farmer collectivization initiatives which will turn therural economy around
The decision to go for collective farming is taken. The role of Usman and the teacher Dayal Kaka in regrouping under a new benevolent patriarchy is significant.
Dayal Kaka's school is reopened, but the teaching is now different from what it used to be. Dayal kaka is perhaps the only person left who knows Ramu's and Radhika's son.
It is significant that the new prosperity is told to us by Ramu, who has heard of what is happening, Within the moral universe of the film, Ramu will tell us the story, one from which he had exiled himself, over a classic socialist-realist montage of happy farmers tilling their soil.
The finale: and the Shanti Bardhan Little Ballet troupe in full flow.
Radhika now holds Ramu back: they cannot re-enter. They shall retain the memory of the past