The Metaphor of Bicycle Thieves

Cycle, a Marathi film, is a story that unfolds in Bhugaon, a village in Konkan, Maharashtra, circa 1948. The protagonist is Keshav who is an astrologer whom people consulted mostly in times of distress. Keshav provided guidance about his client’s future by studying his horoscope. Quite often if the client were to be in financial distress, Keshav not only used to offer his services pro-bono but also partake of a meal with them. Being a kind and noble soul, Keshav had earned respect and goodwill in his community.

His grandfather, Gopalkrishna was an Ayurvedic doctor who was equally respected for medication and treatment of his patients. A British army officer, one such beneficiary of the doctor’s treatment; gifted Gopalkrishna his cycle while leaving India. Gopalkrishna during his final days bequeathed the cycle, distinct in its bright yellow colour, to his grandson Keshav, the protagonist of the story. 

The imported cycle was a rarity in Bhugaon, and Keshav was proud and possessive of it. Once when Keshav and his family go to watch a Marathi play, his cycle is stolen by two petty thieves, Vitthal and Tukaram. The next day, while riding in the adjoining village, the cycle develops a flat tyre. They go to the puncture shop for repairs, the shop owner recognizes the cycle and its original owner. To avoid any confusion, the thieves claim they are Keshav’s cousins and Keshav has lent the bicycle to them for a few days. Believing them, the shop owner refuses to take any fees for the repairs. On the contrary, he hands over ₹6 to the ‘cousins’ which he owed Keshav. Wherever these two thieves go, they were treated with exceptional hospitality, whether with meals, tea/coffee, or even with an overnight stay. At a school, they were invited as the chief guests, to deliver a motivational address to the students. With each passing day and with such touching incidents their conscience starts pricking. Initially, it was the fear of getting caught; but now it was the affection and love triggering guilt and shame.

In the meanwhile, Keshav was stricken with grief. The only thought which haunted him was why did he lose the cycle and how he can recover it. His wife entreats him to consult an astrologer who says, “Keshav, do you really feel I can tell you the whereabouts of your stolen cycle? People do not expect to hear the truth, but need consolation and encouragement about a brighter tomorrow when they seek counsel from an astrologer.”

While returning home, Keshav realized his approach as a soothsayer with his clients was no different. More than an astrologer, he was a psychologist, a counsellor telling people with encouraging advice like: this time is not right for youthis too shall pass, don’t get emotionally involved with things, do your best and leave the rest, handover your burden to the Almighty, he will take care of you, etc. 

Lost in his thoughts he came across a ramshackle house, walls cracked, valuables scattered all over and the rooftop blown over by a cyclone. To his surprise, he found the house owner quite composed. When Keshav enquires about the tragedy, the house owner says, “Last year when I was going through difficult times; I came to you for guidance, I still remember what you said then, don’t get stuck with things.” It was a moment of revelation for Keshav and his attachment towards his cycle. As a Zen master says ‘when my hut got burnt, I had a clear picture of the moon.’

Bicycle Thief by Vittorio Di Sica was released in 1948. Italy had gone through severe hardship post World War II and was plagued by recession, inflation, and a high rate of unemployment. The protagonist of the film is Antonio Ritchie, an unemployed youth for the last two years. After considerable struggle, he manages to get a job to paste cinema posters on poles and walls. Having a bicycle was a prime requisite for the job. Antonio manages to convince his quarrelsome but loving wife Maria to sell the bedsheets she received as a gift during their marriage, in order to purchase the bicycle. Now Antonio is all set to start his job with a bang. Within a short time, on the very first day itself, his bicycle gets stolen. Antonio is frustrated, runs from pillar to post, at last manages to trace his bicycle and nab the thief. However, nobody believes him, neither the people around, nor the police. And, for lack of evidence, Antonio is not able to regain his bicycle.

As he was walking along with Bruno, his 8-year-old son, he sees a bicycle parked alongside a wall. Antonio’s instincts get the better of him, and he attempts to steal it. To his misfortune, he gets caught and is given a sound thrashing. Bruno intervenes and saves his father from the matter getting worse. More than the thrashing, Antonio is hurt that he has cut a sorry figure before his son. On that fateful day, having lost his job, his bicycle, and his self-esteem before his son, Antonio was in total despair while returning home. Bruno while following his dad, picks up his father’s crumpled hat lying on the road; cleans and straightens it, and with a smile puts it on his father. 

Even though Bicycle Thieves by Sica was made in 1948, and Prakash Kunte’s Cycle in 2017, both films depict life in the late 40s. Italy went through the ravages of World War II, whereas India did not. The thief who stole Antonio’s cycle may have had his own compulsion, like Antonio who tried following suit.

The act of stealing a bicycle is shown from a different perspective, of how attachment to worldly things creates pain, of the pricking of their conscience, that makes Vitthal and Tukaram return the bicycle back in the village, even though not required. Keshav realizes his faith in the Almighty. He returns home with his retrieved bicycle, and he now keeps it afar. In his courtyard, he sees another bicycle. His family members and friends congratulate him for recovering the cycle. While touching the mudguard, he sees the yellow paint is wet. Everyone wants Keshav to be happy. The bicycle was just an excuse to make him happy.

One film discusses the inherent goodness, while the other is about the helplessness of people, which may be an outcome of their prevailing circumstances. Can we be judgemental about what is right and what is wrong? In a way, it is a story for all of us, where someone steals our idea or improves upon our original idea and does not give us credit for the original. In between black and white, there are multiple shades of grey. If you steal from one source, it is theft; if you steal from multiple sources, it is plagiarism or research. ‘Bicycle’ is just a metaphor!

Note:

  1. Bicycle Thieves: Is a 1948 Italian neorealist film directed by Vittoria De Sica. Considered as one of the Top 10 All-Time great films; it had  a major influence on Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
  2. Cycle: Is a 2018 Marathi film directed by Prakash Kunte written by Aditi Moghe and produced by Sangram Surve and Amar Pandit and was screened at Cannes Film Festival

Image Source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/c5/6e/be/c56ebed6c368d900b30bded63548280e.gif

1 thought on “The Metaphor of Bicycle Thieves

  1. Aalhad Parulekar

    Excellent article, dad! Italian films have a flair for subtlety in the message they convey (eg: movies by Roberto Benigni). You masterfully demonstrated how the bicycle is a metaphor for something larger than itself. This article struck a chord with me because of my penchant for bicycle riding, which is well known to you. ☺️

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s