Tuesday, June 24, 2014

If you love something, cage it: Baghini (1968)

Let's say you enjoy Bengali films well enough. You have a high threshold for bad picture quality and subtitle problems. And you like Soumitra Chatterjee and Rakhee Gulzar and will watch either in pretty much anything. And if that's all true, it's also a given that you also browse YouTube like a pro. If you are all these things, you probably will happen upon Baghini (Tigress, 1968). When you do, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me what THAT was all about.


[Chotthe Thakur] or Chiranjeeb (Soumitra Chatterjee) is currently the overeducated/undersocialized head of a bootlegging gang that the local police chief is strangely obsessed with taking down. Thakur is obsessed with doing good by his own people . . . the women and men working the late boozerunning shift. They also seem to be people living on his ancestral lands, but that's rather vague. One of those people is Durga (Sandhya Roy), the newly orphaned daughter of one of the Thakur's moonshiners.

The young woman on whom the film turns, from first to last frame, and the Tigress of the film's title.

When first we meet Durga, she is telling off her father and other village men . . . and chases them out of her house. She soon makes up with her father, who apparently has been trying to get her married and settled down. When he has the poor sense to mention his plans again, she replies, testily:

But she is not all bite and scorn. In a haunting pastoral number sung by a wandering sage, she is compared to Radha, burning up with passion by the riverbank. For the audience, there's an added value to this song--though being sung over her in a montage sequence, Durga clearly hears it all. She knows she is being versified, and appreciates it. She knows she is something special. 

It's an idea that certainly comes to her mind a few days later, as she sits on the same riverbank watching her father's ashes smolder. . . the sole emissary of her family into the next generation. 

Obviously, this is a woman carrying the weight and potential of a lot of metaphors: wild predator, sensualized lover, orphaned daughter, mother goddess. Unfortunately, the film doesn't know what to do with this boiling pot of symbols. (I mean, would you?) 

Enter Soumitra to try to bring some needed focus. Running from the police one night, he finds himself hiding out in Durga's hut. She tells the police off and discourages them from searching her house. It's a lucky break for the Thakur, who turns out to be a strange mix of civilized [he is a college educated, former revolutionary according to the police] and outlaw. 

They strike up a banter that is probably flirting in their world--a fiery argument with a lot of "Is this appropriate?". . . "I'm not married" . . .  "Why should I tell you's" and "how stupid do you think I am" thrown back and forth. The Thakur goes on his shadowy way, and Durga is left with the beginnings of a plan. It's cemented the next day, when she starts to receive offers both for unwanted marriages (all the available men in the general area are vile) and prostitution gigs. It seems like a good time to take up her father's old position in the Thakur's liquor smuggling gang. 

I was really excited about this turn of events. Two antiheroes for the price of one! One of them a virginal young woman? (Instead of the usual courtesan?) Not to mention the wife of the Iftekhar-like police chief, who spouts some pretty interesting dialogue about criminals having good "reasons" for what they do . . . and then accuses her husband of only fulfilling his duty blindly/fanatically. 



But, by my tone, you can probably guess that this film didn't really carry these themes to fruition. Lots of spoilers ahead.

Once again, either the censors demanded a moralistic ending (if you guessed that this film ends in Bengal's version of Central Jail, you'd be right). . . or two different people were responsible for the two halves of the film. What could have been an interesting commentary on good criminals/bad cops theme . . . was either screwed by the subtitles or just plain screwed. Because one never really understands why the police chief is so set on taking down Chiranjeeb's gang, or why he is so inappropriate in his methods/bad at it. Half of Baghini's scenes involve policemen forcibly entering people's homes, stabbing their merchandise to find smuggled goods, and detaining people without cause. (Their actions are decidely similar to the goondas who keep storming into Durga's home, but the meaning in this is left for the audience to suss out.) Also, there are a whole lot of convoluted scenes of Soumitra trying to rearrange smuggling schedules and payment transfers. 

 Thakur indulging in 'ol college pastimes. Finally, a scene I understood.

Durga's role in the black market business is also annoyingly vague. Maybe that's my ignorance, but it's possible that this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Perhaps we are supposed to feel her own identity crisis, her confusion about her place in the world. She's part of the gang, but she's also important to the Thakur for other reasons. Reasons that he never says aloud, except to ask her not to leave him. Perhaps he thinks the sunset bike-rides say enough? 

There being nothing to write home about and no home to write to, she channels all her frustrations into gaining the Thakur's trust and setting up her usual stalkers [yes, they practically consider it a job] to be shown up by the Thakur on several occasions. She's trying to point out that she has a very influential angel on her shoulder, understandable. However, the film seems to condemn her as a "tease" . . . as this only fuels one of the stalker's feelings into a frenzy. A frenzy that leads to *spoiler* an attempted rape and his death by Durga's hands. 

A brief moment of happiness as she tries on new clothes with her black market wages. I'd like to see Sandhya in a role where she gets to smile more often, she is stunning. 

If you're so inclined, you could have some long conversations about the scenes spotlighting women in the community who have been used, abused, and cast aside by men in the smuggling industry . . . or the storyline of the saintly, enlightened woman who is ignored by her husband (the police chief). And there's a lot of goings-on about dowries (that I didn't completely get), how nobody ever has enough money to get married. These women must choose between starvation, or "partnering" with black marketeers until they wear out their welcome and are cast off at a brothel. (But there's really only one courtesan in town of note, and that's the blink and you'll miss her awesomeness, Rakhee.) 

And this is where Thakur junior's arc is given precedence over Durga's. While Durga schemes to keep from being raped [how dare she] and to keep the Thakur from being caught red-handed with the biggest shipment of them all . . . Chiranjeeb is growing more saintly by the day, and secretly setting things in motion to give up smuggling and arrange for the the comfortable life of some of the women in his gang. He also seems to be planning to marry Durga. But he doesn't tell her, of course. 

People who insist on maintaining large personal bubbles are bound to have communication problems. 

Things seriously go south on Durga's final smuggling trip. Durga kills the attempted rapist, and of course, this is MURDER capital M [no such thing as pleading self-defense in Indian films, ever!] and of course she will go to jail or be hanged for it. Or so the police say, with a sad twinkle in their eyes. They're just happy that someone is going to jail. 

Chiranjeeb has grand visions of taking the fall for Durga (he really is a nice guy at the end of the day) but she's already confessed. The only thing left is to visit her behind bars and finally express his feelings. With vermillion and some pat words about how they will buy their future with a few years of jail time. *Ahem* HER jail time. 

The tigress: doubly tamed. 

So yes, although the women in this film are flesh and blood . . . and their hardships and survivalist choices are presented as something they cannot really be blamed for [props], there is no alternative presented. Except to suffer for other people's crimes and hopefully find someone nice who will wait for you to get out of jail. 

2 comments:

  1. Aaaargh! I'm glad you sat through this, so I can safely miss it.

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    1. Yesssssss. So frustrating, mostly because it had so much potential to say something important, esp. given the set-up.

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