Monday, January 20, 2014

Saat Pake Bandha

[Spoilers, the biggest of which will be marked in situ. Also, I don't know why the images are different tones—they're from the same DVD played on the same laptop.]

It's 50-odd years old, but Saat Pake Bandha resonantes with realness. From its meet-ordinary (crankily, on a bus)
and passive-agressive glaring over newspapers
to its dissolution contained in a small apartment, lives are changed and ruined without any hint of spectacle or grandeur. The story suggests that, as in our world of non-scripted people and situations, the responsibility for its sadness is widely distributed. The central character, Archana (Suchitra Sen), is a bright student who marries teacher* Sukhendu (Soumitra Chatterjee) despite seeming to have reservations about him. I say "seeming" because I don't think there's any actual dialogue from her about her feelings for him before their marriage, and when her father picks up on their budding romance, her face does not exhibit any kind of pleasure or eagerness at the idea of marriage.
Sukhendu buries himself in claustrophobic work habits and is prone to easy slights and sulking.
Archana's horrifyingly snobby mother meddles in the young couple's daily lives and mental states. Her father, who knew Sukhendu when he was younger, is blinded by the idea of his daughter's happiness rather than thinking carefully about the probable reality of the couple's future. Sukhendu's aunt, who is his only non-professional relationship (he mentions no friends or other family), clearly babies him in the classic manner of older women and younger men in Indian films.
Of course this is advice for Archana, not for Sukhendu. 
Before the fault lines in Archana and Sukhendu's life start to crack open, Saat Pake Bandha reminds me of Pride and Prejudice. Their second meeting is a party where Sukhendu is haughty and huffy when he thinks someone has disrespected him and Archana hides her laughter over his behavior. Archana plots and gossips with her sister—she mouths "bus se ruffian" to her sister as she indicates Sukhendu with her eyes—
and is much more fond of, and much closer to, her gentle, silly father than she is of her screeching, adamant mother. Like Mrs. Bennet, her mother is teased and dismissed by other members of the family
Archana signals her father that her mother is being dramatic again.
but is strongly motivated by wanting to establish the best life for her daughter. Her definition of what is best is not wholly in tune with Archana's priorities and she most certainly does not know when to let people identify and address their problems themselves. 

In contrast to Lizzie Bennet, Archana seems not to recognize her own faults. As serious a flaw as this is for a character to have, I have to say it's thrilling to see a young woman presented this way. She is generally confident and looks people in the eye, and when she returns to school and seeks a job later in the narrative, she is successful. She doesn't apologize for anything and, even better, she expresses anger at both her mother and her husband to their faces. In the "now" portion of the film (the rest of it is flashback), she says no one understands her—implying that not only is she an individual who can be understood as a discrete entity but also that other people should try to do so. The flip side, of course, is that nothing is her responsibility. Look at these dialogues.
The above are all in arguments with Sukhendu.
This is addressed to her mother.
This is retrospection at the end of the film.
If this film has a villain, is it the heroine? Again, what an amazing difference that would be from the overwhelming proportion of film stories I've seen. These dialogues keep me from being completely sympathetic to Archana, but they also make her more empathetic—we've all tried to block out our own culpability in failing relationships. I wonder how this film resonated at the time of its release (1963). It's easy to imagine, then even more than now, educated women from happy, vibrant homes finding themselves in much constrained (and in this case, socially and economically lowered) circumstances after marriage feeling utterly trapped and bitter. We see at other points later in the story that Archana is perfectly capable of taking care of herself when she needs and wants to, and I am unclear why she doesn't demonstrate more thoughtful agency in her marriage.

[Spoiler!] Fascinatingly, she is also not rewarded for making the choice to try to recommit to Sukhendu after she moves out of their apartment. Here she is pounding against the silent door.
A film heroine being spurred by reminders of her marriage vows to beg a man to take her back is one thing; him not answering is quite another. I don't think I've seen a film (Hindi or Bengali) that resolutely lets marriage bonds and home break in such a way unmitigated by sacrifice for friend or country or other such noble factors. I do think the film is trying to show the power of formalized bonds (or vows?), but I'm less sure that it says bonds are the same thing as actual relationships or the people in them. If you have seen this film, can we discuss what to make of what the new resident of the apartment tells Archana and what this says about the film's attitude about women's individuality, choices, and responsibilities? [End spoiler.]

The home is an important concept in this film. Archana and Sukhendu smile together in their home very rarely; they are happier, freer, in moving vehicles and while traveling.
Sukhendu has interesting dialogues about this: he tells her early on that he didn't see her clearly until he returned home from the party and opened his window, and on their honeymoon he says that his dream before meeting her was to travel the country, "with just a bag around my shoulder. Like a modern day gypsy who is out to touch all of history." To me, this indicates a person who shouldn't be a householder, to be responsible to anyone else. I know, I know, social conventions, etc., but maybe he could have waited at least until he'd made a few more big trips? Sukhendu also much prefers interacting with Arcahana at home to socializing with her family, and I don't think the couple ever goes out socially on their own (to the movies, etc.). The flat they live in when married is the same one he had when single, adding another layer to the sense that Sukhendu is somehow intruded upon by the decision to get married and that Archana is ultimately foreign, maybe even an invader. Again, this is not a person who is ready to share or alter his life. The smiling moments at home are only in the beginning of their marriage. Soon the two are sleeping in separate rooms and avoiding eye contact.
After my second watching of this film, I think I would label Sukhendu as a person unable to sustain emotional engagement or stand up to the interference and judgement of a community (note his disregard for the rules and public opinion on the bus the first time we see him). He's probably an introvert at a massive scale, drained by the very presence of other people, preemptively defensive of what they might think of him. If he and Archana had their own house away from all their relatives and with separate bedrooms, they might have had a shot. As is, in 1960s Calcutta, with family and neighbors and not enough literal or figurative space for Archana to have her own life as well, they are doomed. 

Director Ajoy Kar (seen on this blog at Saptapadi and my beloved Barnali) fills the film with little points of comparison that highlight these characters' success and failures, their moments of bravery and withdrawal. My favorite, which I only noticed on my second viewing, is Sukhendu's little dialogue about first seeing Archana clearly when he wasn't even in her presence but instead at home in front of his open window, which is bookended late in the film by Archana running away from their flat to her parents' house and flinging open a window, I think implying that she too, after time passing, has seen things clearly. Two parties to celebrate exam results also mark the beginning and end of their relationship. Her simple domestic yet caring task of mending and smoothing down his kurtas shows their teamwork at the beginning of their marriage, 
but over time there is less tenderness between them in the action, and later she literally rips his shirt in frustration at his misunderstanding of her actions and ignoring of her needs, leading to the scene that a fellow Soumitra fan sent me before I'd even heard of the film.  
 photo soumitrashirt.gif
How many heroines get to do this?
And in one of the images above you see part of an exchange the two have about Sukhendu's persona in their lives in Calcutta: she says there he wears a mask, but on their travels she has seen him without it for the first time and begs him to leave the mask jettisoned. He tells her is she ever sees him with it on at home, she can "rip it off mercilessly"—which, as just mentioned, she does, and he then the costumers leave him that way, battered, exposed, maybe even ruined. 

This is such a well-constructed film that even if I didn't find anything special in the story or performances, I would earnestly recommend it. Happily, there is so much to appreciate and think about. Soumitra Chatterjee is a sort of flip side of the bookish, quiet, thoughtful character he plays in many other films from the early and mid 60s, making Sukhendu into a fragile, inflexible person who, instead of being a villain, is devoid of intention towards the woman he has chosen to bond himself to. Suchitra Sen, who even in the handful of films I've seen her in has had moments of sheer lunacy in the ACT!ING! department, is wonderful, showing range without excess and strength without overpowering the other actors, the story, or the characters' context. She comes across as old enough to be figuring out how to be an adult but young enough that her stumbles seem natural. I do not know the names of the women who play the aunt and mother, but they too are very good, showing the falsely benevolent and viciously deliberate faces of interference. Pahari Sanyal is probably my favorite Bengali film uncle**, and he makes Archana's father believably tender, with the moments of emotion and weakness that softness can entail. Careful attention is given to design, describing the two major sets (Archana and Sukhendu's flat and Archana's family's home) with story-appropriate artifacts, some of which even become major symbols. All of this comes together in perfect support of a story that shows dissolution with so much dimension and so poignantly. 

To end, a bit of happy-making juxtaposition: Soumitra Chatterjee, the best thing since sliced bread. 

* He's not her teacher, fortunately.
** I do not consider Robi Ghosh an uncle. He's a full-on star in my world. Utpal Dutt too, of course.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Farooq Shaikh (part 1 of 2, probably)

Dipti Naval's face says more than I ever could about Farooq Shaikh (though I will give it a try over the weekend). 
From The Indian Express (photo by Amit Chakrvarty).
And like so many of the great Hindi film actors, just when I thought I understood his filmography, I stumbled across Peechha Karo, in which he disco-dances in a glittering jumpsuit. 
Not the quintessential Farooq Shaikh imagery, to be sure, but for right now, my dil needs some balloons.