Vittorio De Sica released his Bicycle Thieves in 1948 based on a 1946 novel by Luigi Bartolini. The film was set in a post-World War II scenario where a poverty-stricken father searches for his lost bicycle without which he would lose the job taken up to support his starving family. Bicycle Thieves, though received both positively and negatively by viewers, would become one of the best-known works of Italian neo-realism.
Bimal Roy saw the film in 1952 at the International Film Festival in Mumbai and while returning home on the train, he had decided that his first production would be as stark which would involve shooting on location. Bimal Roy had been working in the film industry for nearly two decades and had directed his first film in Bengali in 1944, but with Do Bigha Zameen Roy would seal his place as one of the directors who shaped Indian film history. His wife Manobina Roy recalled him as being very excited while instructing his unit to come up with a story just after the screening of Bicycle Thieves.
Thus, Do Bigha Zameen was based on Rickshawala, written by Salil Chowdhury, who was a staunch leftist and had also composed the music of the film and Bimal Roy’s Parineeta which was released in 1953. Chowdhury’s story was about a farmer who roamed the streets of Kolkata, desperate to earn Rs. 235 to save his two acres of land. In the end, he lost his land to industrialization, which signified the new post-independent India of the 50s. Roy’s film was one of the earliest films which conceived the parallel cinema movement in India. The screenplay was written by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, while Kamal Bose was the Director of Photography. The lyrics were composed by Shailendra.
The name of the film was taken from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Dui Bigha Jomi. According to critic Philip French of The Observer, the alternative title The Bicycle Thief is misleading, "because the desperate hero eventually becomes himself a bicycle thief" which is what happens in the character of Sambhu’s son Kanhaiya played by Rattan Kumar. Roy had initially planned to cast Jairaj or Trilok Kapoor as the lead, however, his assistants had insisted on Nasir Hussain. In an interview with the Times of India, Roy’s wife mentioned: ‘Then he saw Balraj Sahni in Hum Log (1951) and decided that he was his Sambhu.’ This decision was met with a lot of protests as people couldn’t conceive how Sahni, who looked, spoke, and dressed like an Englishman in Hum Log could fit into a character of a poor rickshaw puller. However, Sahni lost weight and learned to pull a rickshaw with ease from the local rickshawalas (just like Sambhu does in the film) and practiced each day with a ‘fat person’ sitting on the rickshaw as Jagdeep mentioned in an interview. In Bhisham Sahni’s book ‘Balraj: My Brother’, is mentioned that Balraj encountered a rickshaw puller who was living the very story that was being shot, except, unlike Shambu who spent three months in Calcutta, this rickshaw puller had been in Calcutta for over 15 years in an attempt to save his two bighas of land. Here is how Balraj described the moment of epiphany: “Then I, as it were, imbibed the soul of this middle-aged rickshaw-puller within me, and stopped thinking about the art of acting. I think the real secret of the unexpected success of my role lay in this. A basic rule of acting had come my way suddenly, not from any book but from life itself”
When Roy chose Nirupa Roy, who had acted as a devi in many mythological films, to play Paro, that choice was also criticized since the latter character brought the goddess down to earth and humanized her. She wept in real for her scenes in the film, saying, "this is the first film I didn't use glycerine for tears." Roy filmed Parineeta and Do Bigha Zameen at the same time in Kolkata. When Meena Kumari, who played Lalita in Parineeta saw the stills of the film, she insisted on being in the film upon which Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the film’s editor, and scenario writer, asked her if she’d do a cameo and she agreed. Thus, she played Bahu who wrote letters for Paro to Shambhu and was seen in the lullaby ‘Aa ja ri aa, nindiya tu aa’. It was the only guest appearance in her entire film career. Jagdeep who was cast as Lalu ‘Ustad’, mentioned ‘Bimalda had seen the rushes of Phani Mazumdar’s Dhobi Doctor where I had played the junior Kishore Kumar and Asha Parekh had played junior Usha Kiran. I played a rather tragic role where I had to shed tears all through the film. Bimalda decided then and there to cast me in Do Bigha Zamin’. He later asked Roy as he mentions,
‘“Dada, you saw me in a weepy role, but you have cast me in a light-veined role. Why so?”
“Jagdeep,” he replied, “one who can make people cry can also make people laugh because his comedy will have a lot of depth. He is bound to succeed.”’
Songs seemed to be the only area where Roy deviated from the neorealist cinema. “Bimal Roy’s works stand out for their photography. He took great care to reveal the light source and introduced a sense of time. More importantly, it connected one to reality. You could tell what time of the day a situation was taking place,” filmmaker Shyam Benegal said of Roy’s work in Bimal Roy The Man Who Spoke in Pictures, edited by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Anwesha Arya. Italian neo-realism gained force since the films being produced in Italy did not portray anything ‘real’. With the advent of India’s independence, the theme of nation-building needed to be portrayed on the reel. Such ‘social’ films replaced the mythological films which were being produced to invoke people to take part in the popular struggle. India being a primarily agrarian economy, the love for the land, the evils of the zamindari system, and the exploitation of the agrarian community due to their inability to read were prominent issues. The depiction of the city as immoral has always been prominent even in colonial India with depictions of Victorian architecture that contrasted against the innocence of the village. The city is imposing and intimidating: As Sambhu and Kanhaiya enter Calcutta, the camera cuts to shots of the immense Howrah Bridge. Then there is a montage of shots – trams, crowds, the honking of cars — where the speed and fluidity of city life are implicitly contrasted with the leisurely and rather predictable pace of village life. A double-decker bus appears to be a double-storied house on the move. The slum is the only community that can share the village dwellers’ sorrow and joy.
Do Bigha Zameen earned Bimal Roy the first of many important accolades that he would receive the rest of his life, as he won awards for Best Picture and Best Director at the Indian Filmfare Awards at Metro Theatre. As he stepped down from the stage, Raj Kapoor hugged him saying, ‘Dada aapne to kamaal kar diya!’ It was not an immensely successful film at the box-office, but it was very well received at international film festivals such as Cannes and Karlovy Vary. Balraj Sahni was already a known entity in the film world, but Do Bigha Zameen launched him into the first rank of actors. He wrote, “When, one day, I die, I shall have the satisfaction that I acted in ‘Do Bigha Zameen’”.