Anu Kapoor, Sreela Majumdar, Deepti Naval, Manohar Singh & 300 stage artistes from Bihar

Director & Producer - Prakash Jha
Story & Dialogue – Shaiwal
Camera – Rajan Kothari
Music - Raghunath Seth

The film reveals the problems of bonded labour in a village in Bihar. Exploitation of the lower classes by those wielding power is brought out in almost documentary style.

‘Damul’ (Bonded until Death), produced and directed by Prakash Jha under his own banner of Prakash Jha Productions, is a stunning comment on the happenings in contemporary rural India. The story of the film, which is set in Bihar, dwells on the all-round exploitation of the backward communities and the atrocities perpetrated on them by a handful of powerful men who operate the ‘Panha’ system, ‘Panha’ meaning shelter and protection. The landlords trap potential bounded labourers into committing petty crimes (mostly planted) and then grant them shelter and protection when the police arrive. The labourers are left with no choice but to do the landlords’ bidding – they steal for them and pay back the loans, the stealing being mostly confined to cattle.
Though ‘Panha’ provides the thread line to the story of ‘Damul’, the film also takes a very close look at the rural milieu and the developments therein – caste conflicts, atrocities on Harijans, labour problems and political pollution.

Madho Pnade (Manohar Singh), the mukhia (village chief), is a Brahmin and a very powerful landlord. His younger brother is an overseer who has been given the contract to construct a canal. There is rivalry between Madho Pande and Bachcha Singh (Pyare Mohan Sahay), a Rajput, who is waiting for an opportunity to settle scores with the former. At the time of the local election, Bachcha Singh induces old Gokul, a Charmar (cobbler), to oppose Madho Pande, although Gokul is a apprehensive and wails ‘bahot khoon kharaba hoga’ (a lot of blood will be spilled). On the polling day, the overseer and hired goondas prevent the Garijans from leaving their basti and exercise their right to vote. A complaint made to the presiding officer falls on deaf ears. Madho Pande is elected. There is great jubilation in the victor’s camp in the shape of a grand feast and a nautanki dance performance to boot

The standing crop in the field of Sanjeevan (Annu Kapoor), the son of deceased Punia Chamar, is being sheared at the instance of the Munshi of Madho Pande. The bullocks are also being led away. Sanjeevan runs to Madho Pande, who pretends as though he knows nothing of the whole affair. The Munshi refers to the loan taken by Punia which has remained unpaid. Finally, Sanjeevan agrees to pay back the loan, about which e knew nothing, and puts his thumb impression on a blank sheet in the ‘wahikhata’ of the landlord. Back home, Sanjeevan’s wife (Sreela Mazumdar) upbraids him for having put the thumb impression on a blank paper.

Comes the time when Sanjeevan is accused of theft. A police Jamadar arrives and he heavily bribed. Sanjeevan hides in Madho Pande’s house and is given shelter and protection after which the young man agrees to steal cattle for the landlord and thus repay the loan.

Around this time, Mahatmain (Deepti Naval), a young widow returns to the village from Banaras where she had gone for an abortion. Though she is a keep of Madho Pande, she is a spirited woman. On her return, she tries to spurn the landlord’s advances but does not succeed.

Sanjeevan’s brother-in-law Nageena also gets involved in the cattle theft racket. On one occasion, Nageena is hit by a bullet. Sanjeevan brings the body to Madho Pande’s house and tells the Mukhia that Nageena has given his life for his (mukhia’s) sake out the landlord retorts by saying that Nageena has been killed while stealing.

At the canal site, there is trouble. The labourers, not happy with the low wages being paid by the overseer, prepare to leave for Punjab. Helping them make the trip is Bachcha Singh. As they wend their way to the railway station, they are mercilessly fired upon by the overseer and his hired men. Many of them are killed, while the rest run back to the basti where their huts are set on fire. When Madho Pande learns of the incident, he asks his brother to disappear from the scene. He then has a dialogue with Bachcha Singh and agrees to all his terms. Bachcha Singh, who has been all along using the Harijans as pawns in his game of power politics, is now a changed person.

A case is made out that dacoits raided the basti and were responsible for the killings and burning. The Magistrate accompanied by newsmen arrives on the scene to conduct an inquiry. A Minister also arrives and blames the opposition for encouraging terrorists and assures the residents that everything will be all right, that each and every culprit will be apprehended and tried.

Everyone in the village knows what has happened but does not have the guts to come forward and name the perpetrators of the heinous crime. Finally, Mahatmain decides to come out openly and make a statement before the authorities. Madho Pande learns of her resolve and arranges to bump her off and sees to it that Sanjeevan is arrested for her murder. Sanjeevan is tried and sentenced to death by hanging.

On the day Sanjeevan is to be hanged, there is a congregation at Madho Pande’s house where someone asks as to what could be the last wish expressed by Sanjeevan before hanging. There is some derisive laughter but it is cut short when Sanjeevan’s wife deals a mighty blow to the Mukhia with a huge knife. The mukhia collapses and writhes in pain while the others in gathering try to hold back the angered woman with all their might.

‘Damul’ is almost documented life in the firs half it picks up seed and momentum and achieves dramatic intensity of a high order. Most of the time, the photography is in low key in keeping with the backdrop and the nature of the theme. Parkash Jha’s direction is competent and his treatment of the theme is deft and skilled. He has been able to extract superfine performances from the artistes, almost all of whom are new to films. Rajen Kothari’s photography and Raghunath Sheth’s musical score are other assets of the film. The story by Shaiwal, who has also written the dialogue, is quite moving.

Manohar Sigh quite Madho Pande, Pyare Mohan Sahay as Bachcha Singh, and Annu Kapoor as Sanjeevan are very impressive. Sreela Mazumdar as Sanjeevan’s wife attracts notice. Deepti Naval’s brief stint as Mahatmain is adequately enacted.