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6 films that ride on the humble bicycle – Special

On World Bicycle Day, a look at how the humble two-wheeler has served as a narrative device in some acclaimed films.

Shoma A Chatterji

Indian cinema, much like the urban Indian today, pays scant attention to the bicycle as a mode of transport or an important prop within a story. Is this because the humble two-wheeler does not offer the kind of glamour, chutzpah and romance that posher vehicles like lavish cars, motorbikes, yachts and motorboats do? Or is it because directors do not choose to tell stories that fall back on the bicycle as a mode of transport for major characters?

Maybe all of this is true and maybe it is not. As a tribute to the pedal-powered vehicle, we look at a few films where the bicycle has played a significant role in the narrative, functioning as a means to a better life, an item of prestige in a contest between two groups, or an emotional and sentimental prop for the protagonist.

Italian filmmaker Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), which set the trend for neo-realism in European cinema, used the bicycle as a maker and breaker of the destiny of a young man. The film focuses on unemployment, destitution and financial penury in the aftermath of World War II. The lead character, Antonio Ricci, could lose his chance at a much-needed job and put his wife — who is also working — and son at risk after his bicycle is stolen.

Later, Antonio looks out for a bicycle to steal and finally manages to pinch one, only to be caught and beaten up and have the two-wheeler taken back from him. As the film comes to a close, we discover that Antonio is more distressed about the humiliation his son is witness to than the fact that he will not, after all, get the fervently desired job.

Bicycle Thieves was also about a family going through distressing times, and the relationship between a helpless father and his devoted son.

Cycling as a competitive sport found a place in the wonderful entertainer Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) where a severe tussle of egos takes place between two groups of students who differ in terms of status, class and affluence but not in terms of quality and excellence. Sanjay’s regular practice on the bicycle for an important race shows that cycling demands qualities like discipline, honesty and integrity and acts as an agent of individual and social change.

In this film, it helps bring about a radical change in the character of Sanjay, who was never attracted to competition but makes it his goal to win at the annual race in place of his older brother who is grievously injured. Though the environmental benefits of cycling as a sport are not mentioned anywhere in the film, it comes across with the setting of Kodaikanal. The choice of Kodaikanal as the locus of the story enlarges the canvas and infuses the script with a typically Indian rather than a regional flavour, making the setting conducive to the practising sessions for the cycle race and the final race, too.

Sumitra Bhave, who died recently in her hometown of Pune, stepped into independent filmmaking with a Marathi short film called Chaakori (1992). The 30-minute film tells the story of a young woman, Sita, who is deserted by her husband and is forced to return to her parents. She has to toil all day, like the other village women, while being ostracized by the rural community and her own aunt. One day, the hapless woman sees her cousin riding on a bicycle and dreams of learning to ride one herself. But in the village, where almost all girls and women are illiterate, a girl riding a bicycle is unheard of.

Sumitra Bhave (1943–2021): Filmmaker who continued her social work through cinema

But Sita is determined to do the impossible because she learns that the village is going to have a primary school for girls and they need a young woman who can ride a bicycle so that they can train her to teach the children to ride. She saves a rupee from her daily earnings as a farmhand to bribe her cousin to teach her to ride.

Chaakori was a hit at the Mumbai International Festival of Documentary, Short and Animation Films in 1994. The expression of undiluted joy on Sita's face as she rides away into the fields doubles up as an expression of freedom for a young woman, deserted by her husband, burdened by domestic chores, and oppressed through lack of education.

Shoojit Sarkar’s Piku (2015) starred Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone as a father-daughter duo with the former making the latter’s life miserable with his obsession with his chronic constipation. The duo journey to Kolkata to sell the old man’s ancestral house. However, discovering a bicycle, he suddenly takes a liking for the simple two-wheeler and goes riding through the streets of Kolkata. One day, he takes a long time to return and the family begins to think he has gone missing.

The former superstar enjoyed riding the bicycle on the streets of Kolkata where the unit had parked itself for a little more than a week. It was a very interesting real-life-cutting-into-reel-life situation to discover him cycling stiffly along Red Cross Place during an afternoon shoot and it was difficult to recognize him. Police cordoned off the road as the camera followed his bicycle on a car. He pedalled slowly down Red Cross Place, swerved left and entered Old Court House Street. Bystanders, initially taken by surprise, burst out in delight. Cries of "Bachchan! Bachchan!" were heard as he cycled on. This is important because Bachchan was 71 then and fascinated with the bicycle and wanted to ride it in real life apart from the work in the film.

Prashant Moghe’s Marathi film Cycle (2018) is another cup of tea altogether. In 2016, before it was released theatrically, the film won three awards, including Best Film, at the Kolhapur International Film Festival. The film, produced by Happy Mind Entertainment Private Ltd, also won the Best Director (Prakash Kunte) and Best Script Writer (Aditi Moghe) awards in the 'My Marathi' section. It was released on an OTT platform on 6 May 2021. The film is set in 1958 in a village in Maharashtra.

According to Kunte, the main character is a good man. “So, when he loses his bicycle, his villagers grieve along with him. The thieves, too, are good people in their own way. The way the characters in the film behave is ideal. There is an assumed goodness in people. Nowadays there is not much innocence left in the world,” he said.

In Kunte’s film, the cycle has a profound meaning. “Be it a rich person or a poor person, he or she would have riden a cycle at least once in their lives,” Kunte said. “That is how we centred the story on the cycle. Moreover, the cycle was used widely at the time and is now slowly coming back. The cycle is a metaphorical element in the film.”

Keshavrao is an astrologer who has inherited a brightly painted, yellow bicycle from his grandfather. He loves it as much as he loves his little daughter though his father has issues as his own father had bequeathed it to Keshavrao instead of leaving it to him.

Starring Hrishikesh Joshi, Bhalchandra Kadam and Priyadarshan Jadhav, the film explores the close bond between Keshavrao and the bicycle. The astrologer is very popular in the village because of his good and honest nature. But his identity is closely tied to his bicycle, which he does not allow anyone to touch.

His world falls apart when suddenly his bicycle is stolen by two bumbling thieves who use it to cart their stolen goods. But as they halt to have tea or meals or get the bicycle repaired, they discover the popularity of its erstwhile owner and, slowly, the reports of his passion for the bicycle and his helpfulness towards fellow human beings bring about a change in their lives and lifestyle.

But when Keshavrao finds his bicycle, which the thieves leave behind, he does not take it home because he realizes that too much attachment to material goods is not good. He comes back home from his long search only to find that his family and friends have got him a new bicycle and painted it yellow in a bid to pass it off as his old one. He touches the bicycle and the yellow paint comes off on his fingers. The lovely film has its melodramatic twists and clichés but warms the heart.

God On The Balcony, an Assamese film based on a true story, narrates the story of the middle-aged Khagen Das who has to ride around 14 km to bring the body of his dead wife to the village along with his daughter. In the award-winning film, directed by Biswajeet Bora, Das had purchased the bicycle so that his daughter could go to school. Tragically, the brand-new bicycle is used to cart his badly injured wife to the hospital and when the guard points out that the woman is already dead, Khagen decides to take the corpse back to the village to give her a decent cremation.

The struggle of real people to live despite all the odds inspired God On The Balcony: Biswajeet Bora

When the credits come up in the end, a screen emerges which shows details of similar incidents from real life. At one point, the daughter asks her father, “We all live under the same sky. Then why aren’t we equal?” The father looks at her solemnly and comments, “People are worse than the wild elephants we live with.”