Agni Pariksha and Chhoti Si Mulaqat
|Don't get me started.|
1) Kirit, a gentle and calm man (Uttam Kumar), gently and calmly loves Tapasi, a confident and bold woman (Suchitra Sen), even as her traumatic memories threaten their relationship, and
2) this story is primarily about Tapasi and her ethical turmoil and the performance of it by Suchitra Sen. Uttam Kuamr is in the film, but it absolutely belongs to her.
In Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation, Sharmistha Gooptu talks about this film in particular balancing its native audience's desire for both traditional and modern, embodied by the bonds of marriage and romantic love. Both are valid and both must be upheld. I have to admit that I find this to be a cop-out of the highest order both in this film and in the remake: why bother to have characters live with their decisions when instead you can just slap together a happy ending? This is not learning to combine tradition and modernity. This is magically getting both without sacrificing any of either, maybe even as a reward for undergoing some of the mental work of trying to find compromise. In that regard, I wonder how much this works as a sort of escapist or wish-fulfillment technique for contemporary audiences. It's just as outrageous a convenient coincidence as finding your long-lost friend/sibling/parent. For all of the occasional snobbery in discussions of Bengali cinema about how much better its stories are than those in Hindi cinema, this could be straight out of Manmohan Desai or Yash Chopra.*
The Hindi version has even more WTF in addition to the child marriage and the upholding of both the tradition and those who advocate it. As is absolutely no surprise, Chhoti Si Mulaqat is fond of stalking=love as Ashok (Uttam Kumar again) tries to wear Rupa (Vyjayanthimala) down over at least three meetings. She only changes her mind after she learns that he took her photo ages ago without her knowledge and kept it by his bedside. Romantic! Rupa is furious at her mother, who represents modern thought by refusing to acknowledge the child marriage, finding a lawyer who assures them of an easy divorce, and basically demanding of her daughter "You're so educated. How can you believe in this crap?"
More significantly, the film ends with the horrifying revelation by Ashok that he has for awhile known the most important piece of information in the story (the fact that they are each other's child marriage) but has been withholding it from Rupa. (Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation states that Kirit knows it too, but since I couldn't tell that without subtitles, I'm not going to discuss it.) He calmly stands by while she is publicly humiliated and suffers emotionally and psychologically as she tries to reconcile a past she never chose with competing paths in the present; his excuse is that he wants her to choose to act on values and tradition rather than on romantic attachment. In a contrast that may or may not be very telling about each cinematic culture, Gooptu's description of Kirit's choice to remain silent in Agni Pariksha is because he wants Tapasi to genuinely love him, not just to hold to a traditional practice in which she had no willing participation—that is, the Bengali hero in 1954 needs his heroine to be modern enough, whereas the Hindi hero in 1967 needs his heroine to be traditional enough. Chhoti Si Mulaqat thus makes it crystal clear that the tradition of child marriages and women having to stick with whatever marriage they were assigned by their elders, no matter what other options they may want to pursue or whom they actually love or even know, is unalterable. Thirteen years forward, centuries back.
Also WTF but of much less relevance to anything that matters is the strange Shammi Kapoor-esque acting by Uttam Kumar in the beginning of the Hindi version. I suppose Shammi is as good a role model as any for portraying stalking=love, but it is a 180 from the typical Uttam Kumar hero-giri in his Bengali movies, even in things like Saptapadi or Chaowa Pawa in which the heroine hates him before growing to love him. Which is fine, but it's very strange (as is seeing him in color in this time period). Not to mention the addition of comic relief (an atypically annoying Rajendra Nath) and a frenemy vamp (Shashikala in a glorious bouffant), both of which are so grating and unnecessary that I really am not going to mention them any further.
As you might expect, the Hindi version also includes more and longer songs. They provide the one thing I thoroughly like better about the remake: the title song, which features not only a shimmying Vyjayanthimala in a glittering white sari and gems but also Uttam Kumar doing his absolute darndest to keep up with her—and mostly succeeding, in my opinion. I'd love to know more about his decision to do this song; I don't think I've ever seen him dance at all in Bengali movies, and certainly not with anywhere close to this much energy and actual choreography. It's a gift I didn't know he had and I'm thrilled that someone had the bright idea to unwrap it on camera and now I will stop with this analogy.
Immediately before this song is a reminder of the other major facet of the Hindi film that improves upon the original: resources. As Madhulike Liddle mentions in her post on Agni Pariksha, the Hindi version clearly has many more of them at its disposal. I actually noticed this first in the clothes: in the Bengali original, Uttam wears a tuxedo that, as Amrita says on our Bongalong blog, looks like he's playing dressup in his dad's clothes. It's miles too big, the seams are puckered, and the hem is lumpy. In the Hindi version, his tux looks like this:
I also looooove the dream (nightmare) sequences in both films and think they work well in both contexts. Both depict the heroine in physical harm and use male figures to augment the danger (note the groom on the left in the first image below).
One detail that didn't make the jump to the Hindi version nearly as well is the telephone, which in Agni Pariksha becomes a threat because Tapasi doesn't want to deal with who/what is on the other end, and it gives Suchitra Sen an opportunity to do her some of her famous (at least between Amrita and me) freak-out act!ing!
I don't prefer the look of one film over the other—both have visual strengths. The mountains and fog in the early part of the love story in Agni Pariksha are simply beautiful, even if some of them are painted, and they create an atmosphere of worry and uncertainty that will be picked up in dialogue and faces later in the film. As with many black and white Bengali films, most of the styles still look classy sixty years later (with the exception of the tuxedo mentioned above). Its props and techniques aren't charming because they're smaller-scale—they're charming because they create mood and setting for the story that make sense. Chhoti Si Mulaqat has location filming, with blue skies and bright snow mirroring Rupa's disposition as an adult. I will never not love a filmi bouffant or 1960s knitwear, but some of the makeup is garish in technicolor.
I've become accustomed to the Uttam-Suchitra dynamic of calm depth and drama-o-rama, and I think it was really smart of Uttam to have Vyjayanthimala keep up that balance (he produced the remake) because it keeps him free to do the nonchalance that he does best. The two heroine characters have different tones, and the actors bring these out. If you need a woman to stand tall and stick out her chin and refuse to be bullied by your opinions and yell back at you, Suchitra Sen is definitely the one to call, and I love how she portrays characters who refuse to back down. But Rupa is different from Tapasi in this regard: she's a bubblier, livelier person, and I love how Vyjayanthimala has such a mischievous gleam in her eye in certain scenes. It's probably fair to say the characters show a sort of woman/girl dichotomy, again indicating that the Hindi version is even less interested in depicting or valorizing independent, adult females.
Both of these films are great examples of why "women-centric" is such a frustrating term. Agni Pariksha and, to a lesser but still important degree, Chhoti Si Mulaqat focus on their heroines. The writers and directors give the women time and energy to think through complicated circumstances and make their own decisions. In fact, multiple generations of women have significant power in the stories: the girls' grandmothers are ultimately responsible for allowing and supporting the child marriages, and the girls' mothers are key figures in protesting the worth and validity of those marriages. But none of that means that the films as texts are particularly feminist, progressive, or even egalitarian. A story that was truly interested in having women in charge of the decisions that affect their lives would not marry them off as children and blind them them from the complete knowledge of the situations that entrap them. It is Kirit/Ashok who holds the final card, and in both cases he plays it in a way that upholds his power to shape and approve of the heroines' choices.
But hey, they make for good gifs.
* Are there any Hindi masala films that have a long-lost spouse among the hero's generation (so, not the parents in Waqt or Amar Akbar Anthony)?