Bollywood Rewind | Do Aankhen Barah Haath: Of optimism in cynical times

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V Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath is the story that believes hope and faith can change the world but we are probably too cynical to believe in those promises.

In this weekly column, we revisit gems from the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week, we revisit V Shantaram’s 1957 film Do Aankhen Barah Haath.

Ten years had passed since India won its hard-fought independence and the country was young, hopeful, and ready for a glorious future. 1957 was the perfect time for V Shantaram to release his uber optimistic film, Do Aankhen Barah Haath, which captured the zeitgeist of a nation. The film tells the story of an open prison experiment as jailor Adinath, played by Shantaram himself, takes six of the most dangerous convicts of his prison and relocates with them to a farm. He cooks for them, works on the field with them, and cares for them like his own family to prove that with love and respect, even a killer can be transformed. This unique experiment is said to be inspired by a real-life story that happened in the 1930s, as is claimed by the opening text.

As the film begins, we are introduced to Adinath as the kind of jailor who does not believe in violence, even when his life is at stake. He chooses six hardened criminals, who have all committed brutal murders, as he takes them to Azad Nagar, where they can all live in an open house without locks and live a comparatively liberal life. He aims to transform their violent nature so they can be a part of civil society. Within the first few minutes of them leaving the jail compound, one of the prisoners nicks some food from the local market and the rest, gather around to eat it. Adinath appeals to their conscience, and lo and behold, they throw the food away after just a few exchanges. My cynical self chuckled a bit at the scene as I found it highly unlikely but it later got me thinking if it spoke about my bleak world view or the filmmaker’s sense to see the good in every person.

The prisoners are shown to be men with dark pasts, yet their collective actions are often those of obedient puppets. From tying their own feet with shackles so they can fall asleep as they are used to, to farming the land on their own, they are followers in desperate need of a saviour. The jailor, or better yet, their master, trains them to follow his orders and turns them into excellent workers. In a significant scene in the film, the prisoners decide to slice Adinath’s throat but change their minds at the last second. The bone of contention here is that one of the prisoners gets to have his children at Azad Nagar while the others are separated from their families. After their morality is appealed to, the prisoner, whose kids became the center of this debate, throws his children out of the house and blames them for the mess. Since this is supposed to be an emotionally transformative scene, all prisoners unite and decide that they would help in raising the kids.

It is here that we start seeing the loopholes in Adinath’s plan. Even though Shantaram might not have intended this, his characters aren’t transforming into rational beings, but are just turning into fanatics who have their blinders on. Adinath is not waving a wand to turn them into better individuals, but taming them. In another significant sequence, the prisoners get drunk and try to rape Champa, the woman selling toys who often visits their house to look after the kids. Prior to this scene, they are constantly letching over her but being inebriated pushes them further. Adinath intervenes, and so the men turn to him with weapons in their hands. The situation gets diffused somehow but as audience members, we realize that it is almost impossible to change someone’s nature, or what one might call ‘fitrat,’ but this is certainly not what Shantaram intended.

Shantaram’s message is here is quite simplistic – if you spread the message of love, it will change the world. But watching the film today comes with its fair share of cynicism. We know the world isn’t as black and white as Shantaram expects us to believe with Do Aankhen Barah Haath but it is understandable why a young country like India, back in 1957, would have needed that hope. For a society that was still learning to be independent after centuries of colonialism, we needed aspirational stories and Do Aankhen Barah Haath was just that. The plot of the film seems unrealistic in this day and age, and probably was unrealistic back then as well, but for both these eras, it is a story of hope and looking for good in other humans.

Speaking of optimism, Do Aankhen Barah Haath is the film that gave us the prayer “Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum.” Much before many of us learnt that there was a filmmaker named V Shantaram, or he once made an experimental film in the 1950s, we knew the words to this song. Written by Bharat Vyas, the verses of the song talk about the imperfections of humans, and their dependency on the higher power to lead them towards light. Composed by Vasant Desai and sung by Lata Mangeshkar, the song carries the theme of the film as it underlines faith as the strongest power.

Do Aankhen Barah Haath is a historic film for Indian cinema as this was the first film from India that won at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival and also won at the Golden Globes. While watching the film today, you might find some of the performances a little theatrical in nature but it is still the essence of the film that counts. From a technical standpoint, the film’s use of light and shadow in pivotal scenes is a masterclass in cinematography. Cinematographer G Balkrishna and director Shantaram effectively use light in the scene where drunk prisoners decide to attack Adinath with farm tools. You don’t see their faces here, but only shadows of big men who aren’t themselves, or so the storyteller believes.

Do Aankhen Barah Haath is the story that believes hope and faith can change the world but this is not the story for our cynical times.

Do Aankhen Barah Haath is streaming on YouTube and ZEE5.

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