Thursday, July 31, 2014

File Under? Saptapadi (1961)

Saptapadi probably isn't the be all-end all of Bengali popular cinema of its time.

There are other films with better soundtracks. Saptapadi only has two songs, one of which is kind of a mistep. There are certainly others with better dialogues exploring philosophical and social topics. Even just out of the director's other films, Barnali easily wins in this front. The style is inconsistent between the 3-ish acts. The beginning brings to mind Ray or Ghatak, the last 30 minutes, a wartime romance such as Hollywood turned out in spades in the 40's. The middle is something nearing a perfect balance between the two; that is, if you don't mind Shakespeare in the Park or whispers of impending doom. Also, disturbing content warning: Chhabi Biswas again terrifies with deeply misguided religious ultimatums. [I formally request that Ray's Devi be re-categorized as a horror film so that everyone knows to watch with a friend and not late at night alone, thanks.]

My smile is SO bigger than yours...
But . . . I'm fairly certain that the director Ajoy Kar (also of Saat Pake Bandha and Harano Sur) is a genius, though. Because, despite the fact that I was pretty sure it was all going to end horribly, I couldn't stop watching. Even when I hated moments of it, I loved that I hated it. I loved that it had the ability to make me miserable and wildly happy in a ten minute block of time. It is a film that deserves its very own category. While this might just be the de facto answer when one can't invent the right box to hold something, I do think that Saptapadi is unusual for a lot of reasons. Maybe it won't seem as special after watching more Bengali cinema or delving deeper into the context of that cinema (my copy of Gooptu's "An Other Nation" should be arriving any day now), but I doubt it.

One of the things that sets it apart is the Bengali/Anglo-Indian, Hindu/Christian, romance. Unlike later Merchant-Ivory stories with similar themes, Saptapadi is the tale of two Bengali-speaking protagonists, Krishnendu and Rina. The culture gap, then, is more of a sub-cultural gap. It's not THAT far of a jump between them. Both characters have been presumably brought up in Bengal. Both characters attend the same school. Both are well-fed and well-clothed (though Rina Brown seems to have money to burn). The questions of whiteness and brownness (and whether it's actually at all relevant to their lives) is dealt with in earlier stages of their relationship. Ironically, even their college performance of Othello serves to erase their perceived differences. Krishnendu donning blackface in order to play the brooding Moor . . . after he has already been called "blackie" numerous times . . . is a hilarious way to show color as a spectrum, rather than a convenient false-dichotomy. One also gets the feeling that the problems of Desdemona and Othello represent a conflict that "other people" will project upon them, not a race dilemma they actually feel personally.

Obviously, then, the eventual chasm between them must begin at the fissure of religion; more importantly, parental religious strictures. At first, when one of the two is asked change religion, it is handled nonchalantly. One character says "The only religion I believe in is the religion of mankind. There is no difference between temple and church in that religion." Progressive, right? Unfortunately, this early humanistic philosophy doesn't manage to make it out of the film undiluted. It's muddied by Rina and Krishnendu's fathers' use of religion as an instrument of manipulation. By way of resolving that interference, the role of religion in the character's inner journeys later becomes similarly forced.

Terrifying Chhabi Biswas. Don't let him in, honey, don't! 
Yet, humanism is still present in symbol, if not in substance by the final minutes.

*Slight spoilers ahead*

One member of the couple converts to the other's religion, and the other member turns out to be less different in "race" than it may have appeared. The bridge between them is built through a natural weakening or merging of the qualities that had once differentiated them and a magical letter resolving all misunderstandings. These denouement lines are heavily drawn, but the picture is still an encouraging one. "People are not all that different," the film seems to say. "It is only their worlds that keep them apart." 

There's something about Ray's films that makes matinee idols feel like the everyday Joes you see on the commuter rail. OK, Nayak is literally about just that, but you know what I mean. Ray exercises a formidable democratizing force in his films. Big stars instantly transform from gods to men. For his camera does not worship, but reflect. Perhaps because of this, neither Soumitra or Uttam's first appearances on my radar (both in Ray films) convinced me of their individual worth. Ray's story was all that mattered. And when all must be sacrificed for the sake of the story, sometimes (most of the time maybe?) an actor's charisma is the first to go.

And this is exactly why you can't just watch art cinema, or serious cinema of Bengal. 'Cause then you'd seriously be missing out on a treasure: Uttam Kumar. It's clear from my brief wanderings in silver-screen Kolkata that Uttam's best avatar didn't quite make it much past Nayak. Even in the latter, his perfection is waning. But in Saptapadi? He practically eclipses everyone else. Even Suchitra (whom I like without reservations) struggles to out-sparkle him, an attempt that is not aided by the shaky writing for her character. There are a lot of great things about him that I can't put into words yet, but I am impressed by how he is able to be completely present in a scene with his lead actress and tease out the humor or the pathos in the tiniest of interactions. And because he's tuned into the scene, he doesn't repeat the flashes of charm or engaging mannerisms in the same order. Also, he knows how to wait for the right moment to reveal said charm. Timing, ladies and gentleman. The man had it in spades. Though you may [and probably will point out] that he is the most revered actor of Bengali cinema for a reason, I will counter with the point that there are many *cough* MGR *cough* other regional superstars of the period that I do not "get" in the slightest.

Obviously, I'm still hyperventilating about this film. I'm sure everyone who has seen it is going to roll their eyes and say, "Of course you liked it. It's drama, melodrama, melody ... it's Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen at the pinnacle of their onscreen-partnership. It's got an inter-cultural relationship, a college-storyline, a motorcycle song, and hot doctors. And Anglo-Indians and Shakespeare and swing-dancing."  Well, I did like it, OK? You don't have to be so smug about it, all you hypothetical readers. Gosh. 

7 comments:

  1. Miranda, when I first saw 'Saptapadi' on my blogroll, I thought you had sourced the K Vishwanath's Telugu film of the same name. :) Then I come here and see that you are talking about the Bengali film.

    I watched this years ago, on Doordarshan, when they showed regional films on a Sunday afternoon. Can't say I remember much of it, though your synopsis brings back certain scenes to mind. I should really watch this again.

    Thanks for reminding me of it. I will let you know what I think when I eventually get around to it. :)

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    1. Funny, I almost made mention of Viswanath's film here, since I'm planning to watch that soonish [now that I've seen the Hindi remake I'm curious]. But I've actually had the Bengali film in my YouTube queue for almost a year...tho I had no idea what it was about or who was in it at the time. Now that I've seen it, I know that this is totally the type of film I would have loved catching on a Sunday afternoon as a kid :)

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  2. I started watching this once, a long time ago. Got to the Shakespeare scene which seemed very weird - Suchitra's voice suddenly changed (Jennifer Kapoor apparently dubbed the English dialogues for her while Utpal Dutt dubbed for Uttam) and there was loads of drama - and then my DVD gave out. And it's always remained in my memory as "that film where Suchitra suddenly talked in a high-pitch childish voice"!

    If it is on youtube, and subtitled, I'll give it another try. That screencap of Uttam Kumar in a hat, gazing upwards, is rather tempting me. Hope I get past Othello this time!

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    1. I had read somewhere before watching about the dubbing and the old-fashioned declamation style. So when I watched this particular scene, I first kind of chuckled, and then just focused on the interesting subtext between the main characters. I vaguely think that this Othello scene was also in Shakespeare Wallah (?) played by Felicity Kendall and her father. (Which I find more uncomfortable than weird dubbing, but I know Felicity said that it was normal for them as actors to separate from that kind of thing.) One of many points of contrast between the two films, if I'm remembering right. If not, there's still a lot of other things I'd like to compare storywise whenever I rewatch SW. Also, Utpal Dutt as the voiceover for Uttam is a hilarious image.

      I'm gathering that you may have a soft spot for Uttam? If so, I can't imagine you wouldn't like this one the second time. He is quite yummy in it, if you didn't catch the "drooling" tone through this whole post. :D

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  3. I do have a soft spot for Uttam, though I must admit that after much debate with my self, I have settled that I like Soumitra better. But I am always open to argument and yumminess... Enough of Uttam, and who know, I may change loyalties. I notice that you still haven't picked your side!

    Shakespearewala I have seen only once and then I was rather distracted by Shashi! So I do not remember the Othello scene. Maybe on my next watch, if Shashi promises to stay in the background, I can pay more attention to such details... ;-)

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    1. Ahhhh, burning hypothetical questions. I think I'm leaning towards Uttam. Yumminess, without all the soul-searching on hyper-drive (I probably produce enough of that on my own). In this delusional world where I have the choice between the biggest male stars of Bengali cinema: I will say that if I was with someone *like* Soumitro in real life, it would be nothing but drama, all the time. Too much brooding, not enough action. Whereas, Uttam would be able to disarm my volcanic moments far better. It reminds me of the distant but related choice: Vinod or Dharmendra? The first might be too melancholic, the second too self-indulgent. And in real life, I'd be more likely to end up with someone *like* Amitabh anyway (and he's not even on my list).

      It's kind of ironic that one of the most distracting stars chose some of the meatiest screenplays. Shashi has been in more demanding storylines that one can't remember because of his presence, than anyone else I could name. Like, were there other people in Kalyug? I couldn't tell you. :D

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    2. Actually, Dharmendra's not on my list either, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate his hunkiness from time to time.

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