The Great Bengal Famine, a holocaust that obliterated nearly 3 million Bengalis in a span of a year or so is mostly forgotten and undiscussed. The first film to illustrate the tragedy of the famine was Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth, 1946) by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. Silhouette Editor Amitava Nag looks back at this classic.
World War II had been the biggest catastrophe in the history of mankind in the last century. Understandably, the massacre and dehumanization of individual life got reflected time and again, even today, in literature, painting and cinema. In this milieu the Great Bengal Famine of 1943-44 which was man-made, masterminded by the British ruling India then, gets overlooked. The famine notoriously obliterated nearly 3 million Bengalis in a span of a year or so, a slow death from malnutrition and hunger. A holocaust without a doubt, mostly forgotten and undiscussed, it barely got its due recognition in cinema.
One of the earliest shadows of the famine fell in Mrinal Sen’s Baishey Sravana (The Wedding Day, 1960). Sen later shrugged off his classical filmmaking style when he embarked upon a disturbing journey to find out how the past embodied the present in Akaler Sandhane (In Search of a Famine, 1980). In Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973) Satyajit Ray dealt with the changing humanity in the face of famine as compared to the unyielding grandeur of nature.
However, the first film to illustrate the tragedy of the famine was Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth, 1946) by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and produced by Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). IPTA was a Leftist organization with the goal of propagating cultural awakening through social depictions. Earlier, it was its theatre productions which did bring forth the devastation of famine most notably in Bijon Bhattacharjee’s Nabanna. Quite obviously, Dharti relied on Bhattacharjee’s texts – Jabanbandi along with Nabanna and infused Krishan Chander’s story Annadata into it. Most of the cast and crew of the film were related to IPTA including actors Sombhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra and Balraj Sahni and Ravi Shankar who composed the music.
The film engaged a collective effort from script to post-production commensurate with the collective farming leading to a dream harvest that it depicted. Due to war regulations on the city of Calcutta, most of the outdoor city shots were managed within the studios in Bombay and the village was set up in Maharashtra. Influenced by the theatre legacy there is no mistaking of the lighting, acting, dialogue and even composition specially in outdoors that lend heavily from the realist stage rather than realist cinema. Even the symbol-laden song ‘Bhukha Hai Bengal’ drew heavily from the realist trends IPTA was experimenting in stage. To seek traits of neo-realism in Dharti is hence an unjustified and futile endeavour.
At the heart of the film was the rural family of Pradhan who lived with his wife, sons Niranjan and Ramu and daughters-in-law Binodini and Radhika. The elder Niranjan played by Balraj Sahni was the most level-headed and throughout the film he resented and opposed the idea of selling plot of land to greedy money-lenders in lieu of petty cash. Later, it was he who mobilised the farmers back to the village from Calcutta and inspired them to collective farming. The film depicts how at the face of crisis social relations crumbled first and led to a breakdown of familial and personal relationships. Mistrust and selfishness took over the humane emotions as Ramu drifted away in Calcutta in search of a job and his newly-wed wife Radhika prostituted herself.
The film was the first Russian-dubbed Indian film which had a distribution in Russia. It was probably been screened in China and parts of Europe as well. Yet, in India it had a dismal fate. It is known that the film was released in one theatre in Bombay and had one successful show with packed audience. On the same day communal riots started and there couldn’t be a second show of the film! It is painfully ironical that a film that depicted a strong Hindu-Muslim unity was stalled due to a communal disharmony. Probably, with the partition of India on religious grounds, IPTA’s portrayal of accord soon seemed distant and dream-like.
At the film’s end when the villagers moved back to re-establish their settlements and celebrate the harvest through collective farming, Abbas kept Ramu and Radhika out of the milieu. Were they, in selling off their land and cow (both equated to mother symbols as provider of sustenance) and finally the ‘woman’, fallen to such abyss that even the striking lessons of people’s empowerment couldn’t include them? It is interesting since from the 1950s, with the rise of the concept of the emerging nation-state the flight of the individual from the village to the big city had been championed. Ramu-Radhika unfortunately couldn’t fit into the city, nor could they be embraced in the honest simplicity of a rural collective society.
India’s cordial bi-lateral relationship with Russia started in 1955. Hence Dharti Ke Lal’s advocating of collective farming didn’t get accepted at an official level at the time of its release. Nor was the film in accordance with the dream of a new modern nation. It is a pity that the film-viewing, predominantly urban audience of the time probably failed to empathise with Niranjan and his fellow farmers. Yet, it remains a film of importance for future scholars to look at time and again.
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