A Hindi film located in a contemporary rural setting is a rare creature these days. In the recent Guru, the village appears as a scenic and bucolic but narrow-minded and restrictive environment from the confines of which the not-so-fictional hero has to escape to realise his grand capitalist dream, and the village is soon just visually pretty history.
By contrast, any Indian weaned on Hindi cinema’s portrayal of agrarian society may well wonder why the farmers of Nandigram have suffered violence in a cause apparently so lacking in merit. For the image of rural society that comes to us from this cinema is far from idyllic. From the cinema of Bimal Roy to that of Shyam Benegal, the rural world is relentlessly bleak and melancholic: Indebtedness, oppression by landlords and moneylenders, sexual exploitation, and vulnerability to the cruel and unpredictable elements, bringing drought and famine.
Despite these dreadful adversities, however, the emotional attachment of the peasant to his (and occasionally her) land is a constant in the cinema of the 1950s, as we see in two of the earliest and most celebrated films about agrarian society, Do Bigha Zameen (1953) and Mother India, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. Notwithstanding some important differences, what these two films share — an attachment to and a reverence for the land as mother — strikes a nostalgic chord as we view images of the contemporary resistance to land acquisition.
In Do Bigha Zameen, Shambhu pleads with the covetous zamindar who wants his land to put up a factory. The land is the peasant’s mother, says Shambhu, how can I sell my mother? Unequivocally patriarchal, the zamindar throws this bait: With the putting up of the mill, your mother will become your father; and you will sleep well on a full stomach. If a tree, Shambhu responds unconvinced, is uprooted from the soil and planted in gold, can it survive? Ultimately, of course, all his labours in the city cannot save Shambhu’s land and, when the mill is up and running, he is accused of theft as he tries to take away a sentimental fistful of soil from what was once his land.
In the opening scene of Mother India, Radha (Nargis) reverentially lifts a clump of earth to her forehead. She persuades an entire village migrating to escape the drought to stay back, by simply admonishing them for abandoning their mother. In this film, the theme of the land as a nourishing and nurturing mother-force is transposed on to the nation as a whole. When there is finally a good harvest, we see an aerial visual of the harvested sheaf forming a map of India. There is an unambiguous equation between Radha (adored by her children), the land and the nation: They are all expressions of the idea of the mother and the motherland.
While Do Bigha Zameen remains preoccupied with individual misfortune, Mother India manages to weave the personal dimension into a larger narrative of nation-building and national progress. Implicit here is an exhortation to work hard to regenerate the land, for even land condemned as fallow can be retrieved by hard work and made productive. Remember, of course, that this is the period when civic duty is defined as contributing to making the nation strong and economically self-reliant. Self-sufficiency in foodgrain production being a symbol of national pride, hard work and relentless toil are an obligation to Mother India, not simply a duty to one’s own family. As time passes, the symbols of prosperity are not merely an abundance of cattle and green fields, but also the machines — tractors and earthmovers — seen in the opening frame of the film, thus melding the narrative of the parallel progress of agriculture and industry.
Though the metaphor of the nation is strong, the state is conspicuously missing from Mother India. Even when the police and jails are spoken of, they are never actually seen. In Do Bigha Zameen, the court of law is fair and impartial, though not sympathetic; and the police likewise are just law-enforcers doing their job. This innocent and rather touching trust in the state precludes viewing it as an oppressor.
In the films of Mehboob and Bimal Roy, the enemies of the poor peasant were the zamindar, the merchant/trader, the moneylender — and often these were the same person. Mother India presents two responses to his predatory behaviour: Radha’s stoic toil and her son Birju’s enraged violent resistance. Despite the hammer and sickle on the Mehboob banner, it is quite clear that violence is not the favoured path.
In Mother India, the people are participants in development, in Do Bigha Zameen they are victims of development; in neither case are they projected as enemies of development whose resistance to it must be overcome, if necessary by force.
Notwithstanding their tendency to romanticise the organic relationship between the land and the tiller, these were radical films. Turkey actually banned Mother India as a communist film, and it is a telling detail that the hammer-and-sickle insignia of Mehboob Productions was strategically excised from the print sent to the Oscars, where it was an (unsuccessful) entry in the best Foreign Language film category. It is ironical and saddening to see that powerful symbol being deployed in the service of a morally unworthy and ideologically incongruous cause.
The writer is professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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