Friday, August 22, 2014

Three-Course Countdown: Soumitra

Since I have a bunch of Bengali films to catch-up on, I figured I would borrow BLB's formula of grouping the Uttam/Soumitra starrers separately. And this "what to expect" countdown format has met with previous reader approval, so I will just continue it here.

3. Pratham Kadam Phool (1970)

Two people (Soumitra Chatterjee & Tanuja) get married w/out financial independence and the support of the woman's family. But will the pressures of joint family existence and limited funds destroy the marriage?

Speed bump(s):

Monstrous mother-in-law may induce PSTD. Tanuja's character suffers from both blandness and entitlement. Listless soundtrack.

I've only been watching Bengali films for a short time. But I already feel I've seen this plot recycled a fair bit. The parents of a middle class to upper class woman make an engagement without her consent ... while all the while, their "surprisingly" modern, educated daughter is off building her own future and her own romantic partnership. The two marry or continue their relationship in defiance of their parents wishes, and have to deal with the fallout of poverty, bad accommodations, etc.

actual subtitle, suspect (circular) reasoning
I'm not sure what to call this cosmopolitan, bank account-conscious, youth-oriented romance, but it definitely IS its own category. It's also not a plot I've seen much in Hindi films (which more often than not are concerned with "bringing the parent's 'round" to the lovebirds' point of view), so I have to wonder if it is unique to Bengali cinema of the '50s-'70s.

This film doesn't seem to exemplify either the best or worst of its class. It just sort of slaps a bunch of
mundane problems on the griddle and proceeds to scramble them into something rather unsatisfying. There's certainly something worthwhile in the portrayal of the "small misunderstandings turning into big misunderstandings" arc, especially when the woman is allowed to HAVE misunderstandings ... to run off petulantly and then return to her old household position without ingratiating herself at everyone's feet. For me, it also felt like a semi-realistic window into the daily struggles of Bengali middle class existence. However, I didn't especially enjoy the view.

Worth it if you want... 

*Domestic Soumitra. There's a lot of mussed dhoti/kurta action, and a lot of bedroom scenes attuned to both the irritation and intensity of a relationship playing out in a small space. AND Soumitra studies. A LOT.

*A feller who looks like a genetic combination of Dev Anand/Uttam Kumar [confusing] and acts as the third party in a perceived love triangle

*Disillusioned Kolkata youth.

*Claustrophobic domestic drama. The dynamic between all the bahus and the mother-in-law and the seven or eight year old son of the oldest brother & his wife (who likes his new auntie best) may appeal to the Indian TV serial addict.

Where to find with subs: on Angel DVD


2. Khudito Pashan (1960) 

A tax accountant (Soumitra Chatterjee) moves to a rural town and rents the local haunted mansion against the local's warnings. Did I mention it was haunted? And like in any proper Indian haunting, there's a beautiful, incorporeal lass involved.

Speed bump(s)

Half of this film is Soumitra walking slowly through shadowy corridors, sometimes following ghosts, but mostly sounds. Not especially cheerful.

As is Soumitra's wont, he once again manages to make his own face look like a stranger to the audience. This is not the soulful Apu, or the moody intellectual of Barnali. It's a man with an obsession, who we find interesting because of his obsession, not because of anything special about his own personality. He's essentially a paper-pusher, and there's something delightful in watching him struggle to focus on his pile of documents when there is A HAUNTED HOUSE visible from his office window.

So, yes, I liked the film as a late-night "thriller" with a relatable hero. But even more, I liked it for the analogies that grew upon me later. Not to put words in Tagore's mouth (chee chee chee!), but this story about a fixation on a past world that you can see, but never actually touch, this feeling that you belong to another time, this romance with a person and a place long gone over the mundane realities of the present ... it applies über well (maybe uncomfortably so) to classic film obsessions.

Worth it if you want...

*An atmospheric, aristocratic ghost story, with less plot and canoodling than Madhumati, and (a lot) less Madhubala than Mahal. Ok, no Madhubala at all. I wouldn't want to put out a false advertisement. [Though, a charismatic female lead would have elevated this film from good to really good.]

*Waifish Soumitra, staring at the horizon for hours on end, and waking up in all sorts of strange places.

*More Tagore interpretations!

*Some sensitive camera-work from Tapan Sinha and crew.

*Kathak dances and a mughal-ish costume drama that Makes. You. Wait. For. It. (But you will probably appreciate it when it finally gets going.)

Where to find with subs: Angel YouTube channel, full movie available to rent.


1. Ghare Baire (1984)

Civilized local zamindar (Victor Banerjee) is a cultured progressive, and wants his educated wife (Swatilekha Chatterjee) to have a chance to to stretch her wings. After some encouragement, he introduces her to his visiting friend, a swadeshi leader (Soumitra Chatterjee). This being Soumitra, it doesn't take long before sparks fly, both inside and outside the mahal.

Speed bump(s)

Kissing. Is this going to be a problem for you? Be honest. Also, I have the feeling that Swatilekha is not necessarily an actress with broad appeal.

There are multiple dilemmas here, embodied by the three main characters:

1. The zamindar. He wants his wife to become a full person, a full citizen, a woman with choices. Not in a small way because without the choice to love someone NOT him, what value does her love have? Similarly, he wants to see the liberation of his Motherland; but he knows that this will mean his own displacement and much suffering to the poor and landless before it brings prosperity.


2. The swadeshi leader. He talks a great talk, and his speeches rouse the people to move, both for good and ill. He doesn't care which--as long as things shift and change. He professes to be a near-ascetic, casting off the comforts of the Raj. But in secret, he siphons off money and indulges in many cultured habits. He is friends with the zamindar, and stays at his mansion for free ... all the while stirring up the people against him and wooing the lady of the house.


3. The wife. She is caught between her commitment to her husband and her fascination with her husband's friend, between the comforts of her life and the demands of swadeshi, and between supporting her husband's house and her lover's movement. It's invigorating (both for her and for us) to be set free for a time, able to use her mind in a game of wits/flirtation with another sharp intellect. And it's the ill fortune of her time that she must pay for even these simple pleasures, that she must be caught between a comfortable cage and a perilous freedom.

If you haven't seen this film, it's probably clear that someone will have to sacrifice something here ... and it probably ain't gonna be the politician.

Television audiences today are mad for political dramas. House of Cards, Scandal, even Game of Thrones ... they all promise titillation and current commentary, dipped in a heavy marinade of cynicism. Our news cycle may be politically obsessed, but we don't idolize our current leaders, we see them as people, just like us ... maybe even more prone to weakness than the average person. Weakness? "Hopefully!" a million viewers answer. Obviously, the Internet generation, and even the post-Woodward & Bernstein generation takes for granted the political figure's vulnerability to media exposure. But that doesn't mean that past generations trusted their leaders a whole lot more than we do. No matter when we live, it's in looking back that our gaze petrifies--that we tend to immortalize rather than humanize the great leaders of the past. In Ghare Baire, we have the rare privilege of experiencing both a contemporary critique by Tagore, and a hindsight critique from Satyajit Ray.

For Satyajit Ray, and perhaps Tagore before him, idols are dangerous things to have. But in this story, there's at least one thing more dangerous than an idol: freedom. Here we are told that there is a dark side to every leader, and a risk involved in even the smallest of liberations. Perhaps this is an easy thing to say on prime time television or in a gotcha news item, but it's not easy to say when you are talking about outdated issues that have already been "settled" (like independence for countries and, you know, the female sex).

And, for anyone who's ever worked in politics, in grassroot movements (*ahem* me) I imagine you understand the naive adoration of the protegee for the leader, the messiness and expense of causing a tempest in a teapot, and the disillusionment that comes after realizing that you were so caught up in the romantic fervor of revolution that you forgot the people who are really, truly, real.

Worth it if you want...

*To never look at the world the same way again.

Where to find with subs: For select Satyajit Ray classics, sometimes my Hulu Plus Criterion access is exactly what the filmi doctor (who's inevitably either my estranged lover or sorrowful family member) ordered.

4 comments:

  1. Of the three films you have listed, I have watched (and loved) only Ghare-Baire. Will keep an eye out for Khudito Pashan. I love Tagore's stories, and I really like Tapan Sinha as a director. Thanks for the reccos.

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    1. Ghare Baire is pithy and complex and kind of sexy. So good :) Khudito Pashan probably won't disappoint, either, as long as you expect slow and dreamy.

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  2. Ghare Baire is the only one that I have not yet seen! And I do so want to look at the world in a new way. ;-) (Aren't you supposed to snort cocaine for that? Didn't realise Ray would do as well!) Satyajit Ray does like his housewives to fall for Soumitra, doesn't he? :-)

    All I remember about Khudito Pashan is that it was very pretty. Time for a re-watch.

    Pratham Kadam Phool is the film where a reluctant Tanuja goes out to work? She is reluctant because she believes that her husband must do the earning? Or am I confusing it with another Soumitra-Tanuja film? If the former, I was so pleased to see that the "fallen woman" (Tanuja is suspected of having an affair with her boss who happens to be her ex-fiance) is merely asked to leave her job, not thrown to the dogs, like she would've been in a Bollywood film.

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    1. Compared to the buzz of the stately longings and affairs-of-the-glance of Charulata, Ghare Baire is a Ray-acid trip. Soumitra definitely honed his housewife wooing skills over time ;) And I really like the fact that this time, the wife actually is depicted as going through with the affair. These stories of Tagore/Ray never turn out well, but you might as well have fun while you can...

      You are right about PKP--altho, there are multiple films with similar storylines--in this one, Tanuja's character decides to go to work because the awful MIL keeps wants more income for the household, and makes up stories about how Tanjua and Soumitra's characters haven't been paying for their share of the utilities. Tanuja's character does go to work for Soumitra's friend--there is a subplot where the entire neighborhood kind of accuses her of having an affair (something that may have crossed her mind, but she never acted on) with friend/boss fellow, which is kind of the last straw. I don't think she's a very likable character, but it's super nice that the film doesn't blame her for all the nonsense. The problems are sort of pinned on their circumstances and the mother-in-law, and she never really has to apologize ...nor does she seem apologetic at the end.

      So far, I'm finding that Bengali commercial cinema even doesn't have all that high opinion of parental opinions compared to youth opinions, and women don't always have to throw themselves under the bus for small misunderstandings. Quite lovely :) I've seen enough bus-flattened women in Hindi films to last me a long time.

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