Bimal Roy was so enamoured of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), which is a classic of Italian neorealist cinema, that he immediately wanted to make a film like it.
He had reportedly seen the film at the inaugural International Film Festival of India, which was first held in Mumbai in 1952 and was bowled over by what he saw. And why not, considering that it is considered one of the greatest films ever made. He chose Dui Bigha Jomi written by Rabindranath Tagore as the base and Salil Chowdhury, who also gave the film’s music, wrote the story.
The story revolves around a farmer who is forced to become a rickshaw puller on the streets of Kolkata to earn the money needed to save his two acres of land.
Balraj Sahni wasn’t his first choice for the role. The initial cast included Paidi Jairaj, Trilok Kapoor and Nazir Hussain. Balraj Sahni impressed Bimal Roy with his work ethics. He came to Kolkata and interacted with the rickshaw pullers, learnt their lingo, and actually tried his hand at pulling rickshaws. One of the most heart-rending scenes in the film is him racing his rickshaw against a horse carriage in the hope of getting a reward from his client.
Nirupa Roy, who worked usually in the mythological films, was chosen to play Sahni’s wife. Ratan Kumar, who later migrated to Pakistan, played Sahni’s young son. Like the Bicycle Thieves, a major strand of Do Bigha Zamin was around the father and son bond.
While he was all excited about his prestige project, there was a major flaw in the plan in the form of a prior commitment. Roy had been commissioned by Ashok Kumar to direct Parineeta, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel of the same name.
Ashok Kumar wasn’t just acting in it, he was producing the film as well. Bimal Roy reportedly solved the problem by shooting for Parineeta in Kolkata. He retained almost the same team for both Ashok Kumar’s and his own production. Both films were edited by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and had cinematography by Kamal Bose. Both were Roy loyalists and hence work on both the films went on smoothly.
Meena Kumari was the heroine of Parineeta. It’s said she loved the stills from the shooting of Do Bigha Zamin and saw some rushes as well and fell in love with the project. She reportedly asked Bimal Roy whether she could be part of the film in some way. The story initially didn’t have a role for her but a special character was woven in the narrative to accommodate her.
She played the thakurain who helps Parvati (Nirupa Roy) to write letters to her husband. There’s a lovely lullaby, Aa ri aa nindiya tu aa, picturised on her as well. She reportedly didn’t charge any money for the role. It was her first and perhaps her only cameo in Hindi films. Meena Kumari loved children and bonded with the toddler she was seen singing the lullaby to in the film.
It won the All India Certificate of Merit for Best Feature Film at the National Awards, won the International Prize at Cannes, and the Prize for Social Progress at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. His industry peers, who were initially sceptical of the project, hailed Bimal Roy’s vision. Perhaps the best compliment came from Raj Kapoor, who upon watching the film, reportedly said, “I wish I had made this film.”