Adaptation

B for Babette’s Feast and C for Compassion

Babette collects herbs.
[Source – The Criterion Collection]

Believing in a belief, conclusion-loving, pinning the words ‘this way, please’ on a dimly lit – could be dusk, could be dawn – sky, they followed the direction, unchallenged they went for ages, preaching and praying, walking as said… old eyes looking at the sky, chanting the words again when suddenly a dazzling shooting star strikes through the pinned message… which way now?

Round and round… for the fear of going astray.


Setting the fruit plate.
[Source – Vox.com]

In Babette’s Feast a humble group of elderly believers – tired, corroded by time yet hoarding time, finicky, daft and cement strict – are made to taste another route, taste literally, for they are invited to a feast, “a real French dinner”.

This 1987 Danish masterpiece directed and written by Gabriel Axel, based on one of Karen Blixen’s stories from Anecdotes of Destiny, termed by critics as “gastro-cinema at its most sensual and intoxicating”, “melancholy bliss”, and “a classic of literary adaptation”, in its simplicity and candour trespasses the humdrum routine life, and compassionately so… that you feel full.

Receiving an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the first for a Danish film, Babette’s Feast most probably is also the first film ever to be mentioned in a papal document, Amoris Laetitia, as it is Pope Francis’ most favourite film and a recommendation too.

Watch the trailer now –


Story – Meet the sisters

Martine and Filippa, two elderly sisters, in a remote region on the western coast in Denmark, have lived a life of austerity, carefully always measuring the rules set – set in stone, grey and seashore stone, often used to hold the roof, the door, the window, sincere and sturdy stone, set in the 19th century – by their late father, a pastor, who named them after the theologians Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

Following the spirit of Protestant Reformation, the pastor had started a congregation, a group with a mission to follow the followers who followed from the beginning the grand words of the follower. Now long gone, the pastor’s congregation is being carried on, thanks to his two daughters.

Sacrificing themselves for a greater good, the two elderly sisters, when young, were heartbreakers; many suitors attended the mass just to get a glimpse of the two beauties. The suitors dared to fall in love, Martine and Filippa dared to love not one but all, and the pastor loved his rule books.

The pastor with his two young daughters, Filippa and Martine, followed by the Lutheran sect members.
[Source – IMDB]

Yet, two true lovers – a Swedish cavalry officer, Lorens Löwenhielm, and a classical singer, Achille Papin – heartbroken, never stopped loving Martine and Filippa.

When Babette Hersant, a refugee, appears on a dark rainy night, begging for shelter, offering to work as a housekeeper for free, showing Achille Papin’s recommendation letter, the two sisters take her in. Fourteen years pass by and Babette, as a cook, serves Martine, Filippa and the congregation with better meals, deftly using from whatever is available.

The handful of folks who stayed loyal to the congregation – attending meetings, reading hymns, sighing, lamenting, cursing, gossiping – forgot, in actuality, why the congregation was formed. Saddened to see the folks bickering, Martine and Filippa, nevertheless, wish to celebrate their father’s hundredth birthday (a modest supper followed by a cup of coffee, that’s the plan).

Babette serves tea.
[Source – The Criterion Collection]

Babette requests the sisters, and it is the first time she does so, to let her prepare the commemorative dinner – a real French dinner – and also allow her to pay from her own pocket as she has won a lottery. The sisters, thinking that Babette will soon return to France and it probably will be her last time cooking for them, agree with her.

When Babette’s ingredients – exquisite wines, quail, a turtle, a calf’s head, etc., – for the feast arrive, the villagers are dumbfounded and the sisters are scared, regretting permitting Babette for she is turning the modest supper into a fantastic feast.

Sacrifice

A sacrifice is something sacred, holy, often done either to appease a deity or for the sake of others by renouncing something significant. Tied down in such a manner, sacrifice carelessly brings comparison in the framework of our societies.

The old pastor, thus, got lost in comparison. Comparing the text in his rule books with capricious people, he made them march-past, sing, sit and stand like the written word. All hail, now!

The congregation listens to Martine… Hallelujah!
[Source – criterionforum.org]

He couldn’t ever think of letting his two sweet bookmarks, his daughters, step out of his rule books, and the daughters knew, and the daughters obeyed, and the daughters gently broke hearts, and the daughters worked hard to run the congregation, to make the commoners appreciate. Hail and sing and love thy neighbour!

The pastor adored his daughters, appreciated the congregation, and loved the rule books for he identified with it the most.

The daughters surpassed the good old pastor’s attempt to follow a righteous path, for they sacrificed with compassion.

Compassion

Compassion works without failing, ceaselessly, for all and that is it; not divisive in nature, all comparison vanishes when a compassionate eye turns and looks through it.

Martine and Filippa are compassionate, always giving. From young to old age, they lived for others, tending and caring, cooking and serving, all seasons, morning to evening.

Not a sacrifice, for comparison rarely touches them, they quietly live – like the wavy grass, the cold ocean-fresh sand, the smoke coming out of the chimneys in the village, the lit and silent candles – cherishing their duty, performing it with love. Love!

On a dark rainy night, the sisters take Babette in.
[Source – The Criterion Collection]

Love engulfed their old father’s rule books and became Martine and Filippa’s sole guide, without declaring it.

But their habit of following the late pastor often led them to troubled states – the congregation was decaying unnaturally – and the rule books offered no solution. Round and round they went.

Who brought a change then? Who?

The act of giving a wounded Babette a place to rest, recover and serve, turned out to be that shooting star that struck through their fixated way of living… unawares the sisters stirred the scene and ripples of change began. It was a simple act.


Story – Babette’s preparing the feast

It becomes a grand affair, Babette’s feast, with the turtle soup and amontillado sherry, buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream and of course, Champagne Veuve Clicquot 1860, then quail in puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce, accompanied with what the sisters were earlier worried about – they had asked, seeing the bottles of alcohol, “Surely that’s not wine?” and Babette had replied honestly, ‘No, that’s not wine. It is Clos de Vougeot, 1845!’

The sisters don’t say anything when dining, they had made a pact with all the community members, all of them won’t participate in this “witches’ sabbath”, they won’t accept pleasure and commit sin by describing how good the food is… so they eat everything quietly, the salade and dessert and the champagne and then the cheeses, fruits, sauternes, the coffee at the very end with the Grande Champagne cognac.

They chewed, sipped, swallowed slowly, sheepishly at first, then heartily tasting the fantastic joyful scrumptious heavenly meal, though never ever saying a word about the food, they do talk about their differences, mistakes, fraudulence, foolishness, love for the congregation, the old pastor and the lovely sisters.

Full and happy, pleased and welcoming, they then feel good and so, compassionately sing together, holding hands in a circle like little children.

“Mercy imposes no conditions…”, says General Lorens Lowenhielm.
[Source – The Criterion Collection]

The only one who did acknowledge the excellently prepared and presented dinner, is Lorens, Martine’s former lover, a General and married man now, who attends the dinner with his old aunt – the oldest member of the congregation.

Savouring every combination that is served, relishing the elegant, rounded, rich wines, he shares an anecdote about a woman chef, an artist, a culinary genius, who was behind the success of a renowned restaurant in Paris, and how this meal reminds him of the time when he once dined there.

Thanks to Lorens, the others get to know about the intricacies that made every dish so special. ‘Hallelujah!’ They sing together, the old hymns, looking at the night sky, and this once, find only the stars twinkling, not the pinned message.

Bidding goodbye, Lorens shares with Martine –

I have been with you everyday of my life. Tell me you know that.

Yes, I know it.

You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening, I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

Sacrifice

The turtle haunts Martine.
[Source – The Movie Screen Scene]

Food chopped and sliced, butchered and boiled, softened, sweetened and spiced for the feast. The running food cycle does not appear like a sacrifice, one depends on consuming food, until one doesn’t.

The running food cycle turns exploitative when one species begins to burden the others, when storing food becomes the norm, when one has only two-minutes to cook. Nothing is sacrificed other than one’s health in such a case.

Says one of the members of the congregation – “Man shall not merely refrain from but also reject any thought of food and drink. Only then can he eat and drink in the proper spirit.” She then sips the champagne quietly.

The good food overpowering each one of them gradually, humbly, without a desire to win over, makes them forget the yardstick to measure goodness. They forget to compare.

Even though they follow Lorens’ lead – copying his manners, what to eat first and how exactly, for the exotic feast is absolutely new to them – they do so without fear. Conditions imposed faded away when they sat down to eat the meal.

Compassion

Babette once worked as the head chef of the famous Café Anglais in Paris, she is the culinary genius – an exception – Lorens spoke about; her passion for food guided her to experiment freely.

Fourteen years pass by and Babette, a refugee from a revolution that devoured her husband and son, scarred and impoverished her, learns to live, daily, by doing housework and cooking, serving meals to the congregation, learning the local parlance, cracking deals with vendors, experimenting with the home-grown herbs … she learns to live by doing nothing extraordinary.

In daily living, emptying herself of the past, she finds space for the present. Paying absolute attention to her chores, unknowingly she falls for it, and when she wins the lottery, after a little contemplation, she decides how to spend it – by cooking a proper feast for the congregation. Money doesn’t bother her now. She prepares a sumptuous meal, setting the stage well with beautiful silver and chinaware, brightening the mood with candle lights.

Head chef, Babette Hersant – an exception.
[Source – The Movie Screen Scene]

Perfectly, she conducts the performance – what is to be served, in combination with which drink, after exactly which dish – with the help of a local kid and the General’s in-waiting coachman, without taking the centre stage even once. Allowing the two helpers and herself to taste the food and sip the drink at the end, knowing well that the task is done.

Her food transforms all the guests; her passion takes the form of compassion; everyone feels grateful for one little thing or more. With the happy chaps gone, the two sisters come running to thank Babette for turning their father’s hundredth birthday into a wonderful celebration, something to remember her for when she returns back to Paris.

But she is not going back to Paris, says Babette, revealing that she was the head chef of Café Anglais where a dinner of twelve costed just the amount she won in the lottery (10,000 francs). Greatly surprised to know this, the sisters worry for her as she is back to being penniless, Martine says, “Now you will be poor for the rest of your life”, but “An artist is never poor”, says a smiling Babette.

The performance was for the guests as well as for herself, she adds, remembering what Achille Pappin often said, “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.” Filippa, a singer Pappin wanted to rule the French Operas, gives Babette a warm hug, saying it is not the end, that in heaven her art will delight the angels.

Overwhelmed, the sisters speak the language of the book and Babette of her art, that is all they know, but they speak with love. Love!


The Film

Gaberial Axel’s Babette’s Feast has given wings to this lovely short story by Karan Blixen aka Isak Dinesen, feather light, the 102 minutes long film never feels long. It begins like a folklore that gently plays with time – now talking about the father pastor, now the suitors proposing the young sisters and now the sisters, old, running the sect, then introducing a stranger, a troubled lady, on a rainy night… and now we want to know who she is.

Even though a religious sect paints this village in its colours, the story never preaches nor gets dull and overburdened with saddened affairs of the sad souls. Good food keeps them in good mood after Babette’s arrival, earlier they didn’t know the difference, and when they find out, and have to eat what the sisters cook in Babette’s short absence, they protest silently – grimace on face, one old fellow drops the mushy porridge back in the bowl, mumbling.

Until the feast is served, the community second guesses Babette’s every move – after all there’s an alive turtle in the kitchen – which even haunts Martine in her dreams. When the celebrations begin, we the audience also participate actively in it, watching what Babette serves and how the worried old folks react to it, we watch though not expecting much… for such is the art of cooking and shhhhh… Babette’s at work.

The candle dies out in the end… the feast is over, it fed and restored many, words were spoken, words were heard and understood, now there is nothing more to say, the day’s over and the night sky shines with stars for some, with messages for others… and a shooting star striking through again for the one who looks.


A truly lovely tale of everyday passion, magic and miracles.” – Geoff Andrew

A glimpse –

Read more about Babette’s Feast –

Babette’s Feast: A Fable for Culinary France by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson.

On wine and food and a seat at ‘Babette’s Feast’ by Patricia Rogers.


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Metamorphosis: An Arduous Journey

Thematic Analysis of the film The Silence of the Lambs

A classic, critically and commercially acclaimed, and one of the few films to have won Academy Awards in all the top five categories i.e., Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) undoubtedly is a masterpiece.

This psychological thriller is adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel; the screenplay is by Ted Telly and it is directed by Jonathan Demme.

Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling. [Source – Hollywood Reporter]

The story revolves around a young ambitious FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, who is interviewing a serial killer now in prison, Dr Hannibal Lecter or famously known as Hannibal the Cannibal, to get his help in finding another serial killer – Buffalo Bill.

An astute psychiatrist, Dr Lecter, agrees to cooperate only if he is transferred to a prison of his choice.

The situation aggravates when Buffalo Bill kidnaps a senator’s only daughter so as to finish his ‘woman-suit’ made from real women’s skin. Clarice knows only Dr Lecter can help her, but when he escapes from the custody she is left with unclear anagrams and a few hours to save the senator’s daughter.


Thematic Thread Runs the Story

What is that which helps weave the plot, the characters, the motivations, and the milieu in a story as one? What is that which subtly runs the story? It is the theme/ the central idea/ the core of a story. The plot builds on and the characters reflect the theme, solidifying the thought behind the tale.

In The Silence of the Lambs too it is the theme that gives enough space and opportunities to the screenwriter and the makers to explore the story cinematically.

Adapting a novel into a film script is not that easy a task, one needs to fix the storyline, make it crisp and compact, shuffle and alter it without disturbing its soul, rewrite it using the cinematic language.

The poster of the film. [Source – Wikipedia]

The Silence of the Lambs is a great study to understand film adaptation; not even a second of the screen-time is wasted, with every scene we get closer to catching the serial killer and yet, the suspense continues.


Main Themes in the Film

Metamorphosis

Clarice Starling, Dr Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill – the protagonist, the pivotal character and the antagonist – all want to bring a change in their lives; they instigate, obstruct and fight not fearing the consequences.

“Lecter – Was it a butterfly?

Clarice – Yes. A moth. Just like the one we found in Benjamin Raspail’s head an hour ago. Why does he place them there, Doctor?

Lecter – The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis, or pupa, and from thence into beauty. Our Billy wants to change, too.”

Clarice’s first meeting with Dr Lecter. [Source – The BFI]

Stifled by his real identity, Buffalo Bill wants to become a transsexual, and after failed attempts to achieve it via sex reassignment at selected few hospitals, he decides to stitch a woman suit; he kills women and skins them for it. Accepting this gruesome act as his destined journey from being a caterpillar to a butterfly, he treats his victims as mere objects.

He calls Catherine Martin, the senator’s daughter, ‘it’ and refuses to take her as a person.

“Bill – It rubs the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it’s told.

Catherine – Mister, my family’ll pay cash. Whatever ransom you’re asking for, they’ll pay it.

Bill – It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again. Yes, it will, Precious. It will get the hose.”

Though we meet Bill rather late in the film, his deeds speak for him from the very beginning. It is Buffalo Bill’s case that Jack Crawford (from the Behavioral Science Department, FBI) is unable to decode and thus, sends Clarice to meet Dr Lecter in the hope of getting his help.

Dr Lecter sees through Jack Crawford’s plan, but nevertheless decides to play along, one, because this could be his only opportunity to get out of Dr Chilton’s custody and two because he enjoys talking to Clarice, she is like an interesting subject for him.

In his first encounter with Clarice, he understands how desperate she is to get to the bottom of this case, how badly she wishes to catch Buffalo Bill. He astonishes and scares her at the same time; appreciating Clarice’s genuine desire to do well as a detective, he gives her the first hint.

A game of Quid Pro Quo. [Source – Britannica.com]

A change of scene, another place where he could be closer to nature is what he wants in return. Quote –

“What I want is a view. I want a window where I can see a tree or even water.”

And through Clarice lies the way. Playing a game of ‘Quid Pro Quo’, Clarice tells Dr Lecter about the worst day of her life – the day when she tried to save a lamb from getting butchered but failed, allowing Dr Lecter to manipulate her, hoping to gain his trust, determined to know more about Buffalo Bill.

Then, like in the game of chess, Dr Lector moves to check-mate the asylum’s warden Dr Chilton; aware that the abduction of a senator’s daughter by Buffalo Bill could probably be his only chance to escape the life of a prisoner, Dr Lector overtakes both Jack Crawford and Clarice and sides with his ‘nemesis’ Dr Chilton and works out a deal. As demanded he is transferred to the state prison and in exchange he shares his old patient Louis Friend aka Buffalo Bill’s information with the senator.

Confident about breaking away from the makeshift prison at the Courthouse, in his last meeting with Clarice, he, like a teacher, guides a troubled Clarice step by step to understand how Buffalo Bill’s mind works. He asks her to focus on ‘simplicity’ and gives back the case file saying that everything that she needs to know about Buffalo Bill is already in the case file.

Later, he executes his horrifying plan – kills the guards, makes a face mask from one of the guard’s face to fool other officers and once in the ambulance, he kills the medical crew and runs away.

Clarice Starling also wants to bring a change in her life. Her sincere desire to succeed as an FBI trainee is actually, as Dr Lecter psychoanalyse her and reveals, an honest wish for the lambs in her dreams to stop screaming, she wants to save at least one innocent life from getting butchered, she wants to be redeemed. As a child, orphaned after her father was killed, she was helpless and this crippling state of helplessness is what she wants to change forever.

To achieve their set goals, Buffalo Bill and Dr Lecter move forward without any fear, eager to grasp transformation/ freedom, but clever enough to be cautious, while Clarice Starling, vulnerable, anxious yet brave, collects clues, discovers the truth and ultimately meets the butcher before he could make his next kill and ends his journey.


The Strong Feminist Voice

The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastically strong feminist film. It talks about, shows and breaks the “male gaze” beautifully. Clarice Starling is not even close to being a damsel in distress; she is a confident independent individual. Her persona, her fighting spirit breaks the stereotypes we all are usually too lazy, slow and comfy to react to.

Still a student, Clarice Starling is called to be a part of an on-going investigation, but Jack Crawford does not reveal his plan outright. He places her forward as a pawn and waits for Dr Lecter to react, not sure if he will agree to play.

When Clarice confronts him about the same, Jack Crawford says that he did it so as to help her win Dr Lecter’s trust as he would have otherwise simply refused to comply.

Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford. [Source – No Film School]

Working in a field with a male majority, Clarice does not hesitate to raise her voice or correct her seniors. Jack Crawford tells the Sheriff while examining another Buffalo Bill victim, to discuss ‘this type of sex crime’ in private indicating that doing so in a young woman’s presence might be inappropriate; when tries to clarify it later he gets a blunt reply from Clarice – quote –

“Jack – Starling, when I told that sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that really burned you, didn’t it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of him.

Clarice – It matters, Mr Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.

Jack – Point taken.”

To discern what “male gaze” actually is, we, the audience, are placed in Clarice’s position almost every time when Jack Crawford, Dr Chilton, Dr Lecter and Buffalo Bill address her, they see directly in the camera while Clarice looks slightly off the camera, their searing, manipulative gaze falls directly on the viewers.

Anthony Hopkins as Dr Hannibal Lecter. [Source – Cinema Blend]
The disturbing male-gaze. [Source – Dead Cinema Society]

Then there are striking scenes like when Clarice takes the lift at the FBI academy and is the only woman amongst the men who stare at her, also when she tells Sheriff and his men to vacate the room so that she and the FBI team could finish the investigation, every one of them looks straight at her/ the audience, confused seeing a young woman asking them to leave and let her work.

This ‘experiencing’ rather than ‘showing’ of what Clarice goes through in her day to day life, subtly and firmly makes one aware about the disturbing presence of the “male gaze” in our working culture.

Climax! [Source – The BFI]

But here, effortlessly, Clarice Starling becomes the change she and we all wish to see around us. And she does so by simply not giving up – the horrifying experience at Dr Lecter’s cell, the way she is moved in and out of the Buffalo Bill case does not deter her spirit – and when finally she cracks the case and alone faces the mad serial killer, she stands her ground, fighting her way through the darkness, unaware about Buffalo Bill’s night-vision-goggled-eyes following her and fully alert, she fires on hearing him cock his gun. She fires again and again, the dark glass window shatters and light pours in the damp room.

The transformation process concludes here and is in favour of Clarice Starling.


Symbols and Metaphors –

Symbols and metaphors always assist in developing the theme, plot and characters in a story. In movies, it becomes imperative to utilize every bit of screen space to understand the underlying concepts and motifs that cannot always be explained via dialogues.

Death’s-head moth is a symbol of transformation and also of impending doom in the film. In two of the Buffalo Bill’s victims, moth cocoons were found; not his calling card, but it is rather a ritual for him as he killed them in the hope to transform, to break-open his cocoon and sooner or later emerge as a beautiful butterfly.

But as he had to pay for his grisly, despicable acts, in the end, Clarice recognises Jame Gumb as Buffalo Bill when in his house a Death’s-head moth flies by her side and rests silently on a thread roll; she chases him in the labyrinth of a basement and shoots him down.

Ted Levine as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb. [Source – Onthisdayinfilm]

Throughout the film, lambs are used as a metaphor for one who is innocent but is still suffering, for a troubled soul wanting redemption. Clarice Starling’s father, a Town Marshal, was killed by two burglars, and an orphan at ten, she could not do anything but watch.

She grew into a brave individual, but still carries that grief, that state of helplessness within and aims to redeem herself by fighting crime. Dr Lecter understands this; he also sketches the profile of Clarice holding a lamb, showing his growing interest in her.

“Have the lambs stopped screaming”, asks Dr Lecter over the phone on Clarice’s graduation day, leaving her surprised. No longer a prisoner, he assures her that he will not come after her and hopes that she will extend the same courtesy towards him. Clarice does not promise him anything.

With this, a well-knitted story comes to a closure where Clarice sleeps peacefully, in the silence of the lambs, but only in the novel. In the film, Dr Lecter leaves Clarice guessing where he could be and hangs up to follow Dr Chilton in the crowd in the Bahamas. Thus, here Clarice’s journey does not end.


Conclusion

Sound clarity is a must when exploring the thematic range of a story. Clarice Starling’s past and present moves parallelly, an aspiring FBI agent she agrees to be psychologically manipulated by Dr Lecter, not only to be a good detective and win praises from Jack Crawford but to truly help rescue Buffalo Bill’s next victim.

Here, it is the theme that builds the plot, structure and moves the characters; it is the theme that writes the screenplay.

The Silence of the Lambs was the first psychological thriller since Rebecca (1940) to win the Academy Award for best picture. A compelling and clever script, tight direction and impeccable acting both by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins make this film an unmissable classic.

With themes like metamorphosis, good versus evil, feminism, male chauvinism and redemption interwoven into the story, the film transcends the single genre of a psychological thriller.

It raises questions for the individual as well as the society for what is nurtured is what comes out of the cocoon, both a butterfly and a death’s-head moth.

The front cover art for the book The Silence of the Lambs
written by Thomas Harris. [Source – Wikipedia]

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Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam – A tale of role-reversals and downfalls

Film Analysis

The beautiful Meena Kumari as Choti Bahu (Bibi). [Source – bollywoodirect.com]

In the game of cards, the roles of a King, Queen and Jack are determined, but in the real-life nothing is certain, in the real-life the roles often interchange, a King becomes a salve, a Queen a maid and a Jack a conqueror. Bimal Mitra’s Bengali novel, Saheb Bibi Golam (1952), narrates one such tale of a bygone era of flourishing feudalism that ultimately saw its ashen downfall.

The Hindi film Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), keeping the spirit of the novel alive, enriches its impact through the well-knitted, tight screenplay, realistic yet charismatic direction and spellbinding performances.


Adaptation

Literary adaptation to any other medium always changes the story; it inevitably enhances an aspect of it and ignores the other. The audio-visual medium of cinema chooses the part that ‘shows the story’ rather than that which ‘tells the story’. This film has very beautifully matched the tonality of a novel; scenes, transitions, songs and dialogues all combine to give it a mystical forgotten tale-like feel.

Let us see how the first scene is structured in the film:-

The first scene begins with someone flipping through the pages of Bimal Mitra’s novel that fuses into the image of a huge mansion that is now lying in a complete state of ruin; labourers are digging and clearing the place, pulling down the giant pillars; labourers who were once not allowed to enter the royal mansion are now seen shovelling its remains.

Then enters the Ghulam in suit-boot, grey haired and gazes at the ruin that was once a palace, a symbol of rich feudal lords; he does not need to say anything to the audience, his demeanour and troubled look reveal enough, there is a mystery and he is the only one who can narrate it. This is how the film begins, with a long flashback.

Just like a page-turner novel, the film hooks its audience right from the beginning. We know now that the Ghulam survived the downfall, but what about the Sahib and Bibi.


Plot & Characters

The Ghulam

Atulya Chakraborty aka Bhootnath, played by Guru Dutt, comes to the city of Calcutta, looking for a job. The protagonist is as ignorant as the audience about the drama that is yet to unfold and thus, is the best character to relate with.

Bhootnath’s brother-in-law, a teacher who lives in the quarters of the grand mansion, warns him to ignore the ‘bade log’ (big people) just as they ignore all their petty lodgers.

He gets a job in a factory that produces Mohini Sindhoor – vermilion that is supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. The factory owner’s daughter, Jaba, astounds him with her wit and Brahmo Samaji attitude.

Fantastically, the plot and the main character together move this story forward. Bhootnath’s love story begins when he meets Jaba and parallelly the plot reveals the glittering feudal world, seen through Bhootnath’s eyes, building a mysterious charm capturing both his and the audience’s attention – one night, when he hears a painful voice singing about her misfortunes, he wonders about her, who is she? Who is Choti Bahu?

Bibi

The great Meena Kumari played the role of Choti Bahu, the unlucky wife of the younger brother of the two Zamindars. The fact that she is called Choti Bahu by one and all, that no one, not even her husband, calls her by her first name, suggests a lot about her character. She is truly beautiful, elegant, a devoted wife, the youngest daughter-in-law in the family and this is her job.

It is expected from her that she will forever maintain this status and not complaint in any way. After all what is there to complain about? She has everything – silk saris, jewelry, servants and a palace to call her home. That is why when she requests her beloved husband to stay back for one night instead of visiting his mistress, the husband is shocked and reminds her that he is a feudal lord and this is not only his right, but this is how he can earn a good reputation amongst other lords, he even asks her what sort of a lord spends nights with his wife.

Choti Bahu meets Bhootnath and asks for his help; she wants him to get her a packet of Mohini Sindoor so that she can win her husband’s love back and to do it secretly because women of her status does not approve of such methods. At first Bhootnath is struck by Choti Bahu’s beauty, he stares at her speechless, only later to feel pity for her, struck by her helplessness.

As the story unfolds we see how tragic a life Choti Bahu is living, like a bird in the cage. This character is very well crafted. Choti Bahu’s predicament sheds light on the hidden and ugly aspect of not only the society, the women folk, but also the individual.

When Choti Bahu is nearing her end Bhootnath tries to stop her from drinking, he even holds her hand, taken aback by his guts, she says, ‘Main Choti Bahu hun’ (I am Choti Bahu), reminding him his place that of a ghulam. This scene also highlights how an individual creates an identity and then clings to it forever; whoever then challenges her/his identity becomes her/his enemy.

Everyone is a foe for Choti Bahu, everyone who does not understand how dedicated she is, how selfless she is. Though drinking starts to kill her, she, in a troubled and an incomplete way, stays happy thinking that she is following her husband’s order and thus, fulfilling the duty of a loyal wife.

Meena Kumari’s acting heightens the dramatic impact of each scene and every dialogue. The song ‘Na jao saiyan chuda k bainya, kasam tumhari main ro padungi… ro pdungi’ has become eponymous to her. After her track begins, all the scenes are more or less about her. Bhootnath worries for her, Jaba is jealous of her without even having an encounter with her and her husband, indifferent to Choti Bahu throughout, digs his and her grave foolishly with his own hands.

Sahib

Chhote Babu, played by Rehman and Majhle Babu, played by D.K. Sapru are the Zamindar brothers who stay busy in their own silly world – one busy attending the dancer’s performance every night and the other busy either enjoying his royal cat’s wedding or pumping up for a pigeon war with his neighbouring counterpart. Blinded by excess of everything both the brothers bring their own downfall.

Majhle Babu assuming that Choti Bahu and Bhootnath are having an affair takes a reckless step; he gets Bhootnath beaten up and abducts Choti Bahu, murdering her in the end. But it is not Majhle Babu’s arrogance or the social dogma alone that killed Choti Bahu, it is her husband’s doing as well.

It is Chote Babu who made his wife addicted to alcohol, not only by asking her to be like his dancer mistress, but also by not giving her the respect and love a wife deserves. By the time he accepts his fault, he is bed ridden and it is all too late. His misery ends with his death.

The portrayal of the Sahibs of this era facing the collapse of the Zamindari system is written and directed wonderfully in the film. The two brothers come across as truly pitiful characters.


Ending

The flashback gets over and Bhootnath is informed by one of the labourers that they have found a grave on the site. He rushes to the spot only to be completely shocked to see Choti Bahu’s gold bangles on the skeleton; he remembers what she had told him, that when she dies, she should be decked up properly, with vermillion in her head, so that everyone can say that ‘Sati Laxmi’ passed away. Imagining the beautiful Choti Bahu, Bhootnath with a heavy heart steps back from the site; he sits in the carriage next to his wife Jaba and leaves the place.

The ending surprises the audience once again; that Choti Bahu was murdered and buried in the mansion itself is not something that Bhootnath or the viewer would have expected. It also closes two chapters – one of Choti Bahu’s disappearance and the second, of Jaba and Bhootnath’s relationship. They both are shown as a married couple, contrary to the novel’s ending.


Conclusion

Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam is an amazing adaption; it does justice to both the medium of the novel and cinema. Chosen as India’s official entry to the Oscars, it was soon rejected by the academy stating that they sternly forbid showing alcoholic women in their culture.

The concept, quite bold for that period, is actually much deeper than the mere portrayal of a woman as an alcoholic. It has captured that moment in time where the powerful and rich were falling down and the servants were free to do as they wished. It is striking that the suffering labour-class where equally surprised by this change as they too had adjusted well to the feudal system. Bansi, Chote Babu’s personal attendant, jobless after his master’s death, tells Bhootnath that he has started working in the train station and that no one lives in the mansion anymore.

Therefore, the film is not only an interesting watch to study its screenplay, but also for those who wish to write/ make an adaptation, those who wish to study how both plot and characters can drive the story forward and how an individual fits in the larger scheme of things.

In the game of cards and in the real life, every Sahib, Biwi and Ghulam can overthrow the other and win; it is all a matter of time.


[Originally written for the Screenwriters Association (SWA), you can check the same here.]


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