Film Analysis

Whiplash Victory Tuning

Film Analysis

Andrew VS Fletcher; a still from the film Whiplash.
[Source – denofgeek.com]

Drums can be heard in a long corridor, with several doors on both sides, that runs till the very end and opens into the last room where the drummer is playing… no, say practising, practising like Buddy Rich, practising until corrected, practising until mastered… this incredibly clever tune, ‘Whiplash’.

Damien Chazelle’s 2014 drama film Whiplash revolves around a passionate jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) and his perfectionist jazz instructor (played by J. K Simmons); one dreams of becoming great, the other demands greatness; one is hopeful, the other is ruthless; when out-of-tune, they clash, when in sync, they dance.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement.

T.S Eliot (Four Quartets: Burnt Norton)

Here, T.S Eliot is talking about that state of mind where not so overwhelmed by it, we make peace with it; Whiplash the film is also about Andrew Neiman’s state of mind which when at peace, allows him to create magic, to dance, to play harmoniously perfect.


Whiplash highlights the protagonist’s internal journey beautifully, in fact, that is all we see – Andrew’s internal dilemmas, struggles, failures and the shining sudden victory. The writer-director very carefully places us within Andrew’s mind.

In the opening scene of the film, Andrew is playing the drums alone in a classroom when he notices that the best teacher in the music school – Terrance Fletcher – is watching him.

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Andrew – (stops playing) I’m sorry…

Fletcher – No, stay…What’s your name?

Andrew – Andrew Neiman sir.

Fletcher – What year are you?

Andrew – I’m a… first year.

Fletcher – You know who I am.

Andrew – Yes sir.

Fletcher – So you know I’m looking for players.

Andrew – Yes sir.

Fletcher – Then why did you stop playing?

Andrew Neiman starts playing… then stops.

Fletcher – Did I ask you to start playing again?

Andrew – I am sorry…

Fletcher – I asked you why you stopped playing and your version of an answer was to turn into a wind-up monkey…

Andrew – Sir I thought…

Fletcher – Show me your rudiments.

Andrew – Yes, sir… (Starts playing… stops.)

Fletcher – Double-time swing… (Andrew starts playing) no, double-time… double it… faster… faster…

Andrew Neiman plays… in a few seconds he hears the door shut loudly. Andrew is disappointed… Right then Fletcher comes back inside.

Fletcher – Oopsy Daisy! I forgot my jacket. (Takes his jacket and leaves.)

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Watch the opening scene here –


While the Andrew VS Fletcher drama unveils, Fletcher the perfectionist starts to appear more like Andrew’s inner critic especially in those scenes where he is practising; the setting, the lighting, the mood and the music makes it look like a void where either jazz or Fletcher’s authoritative voice plays dominantly.

“Don’t be harsh on yourself”, we often tell this to ourselves as sometimes our inner critic can harm us more than an outsider. The antagonist, Fletcher, is equally harsh and critical; a student when talking about Fletcher’s reputation mentions how he is known for making or ending one’ career.

So who wins here, Fletcher the antagonist or Fletcher, Andrew’s inner critic? The answer is both.

Like a pompous self that often praises itself, there are scenes when Fletcher praises Andrew; initially friendly, Fletcher encourages him to play well and tells him how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head, and how that incident made Parker work insanely hard; later on, like a strict-discipline-loving-freak-self, Fletcher, during a practice session, throws a chair at Andrew, warning him not to dare spoil his bands’ image.

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Killing it!
[Source – highonfilms.com]

Fletcher personifies Andrew’s obsession to be a great drummer – he works hard, accepts Fletcher’s treatment even when he starts to resent him.

The internal journey of the protagonist overpowers the antagonist, but not in a negative way; it only boosts the antagonist’s authority over the protagonist; it feels like another side of Andrew is working hand in gloves with Fletcher.

The secondary characters too reflect the protagonist’s internal journey.

Andrew does not like his father’s mediocre mentality (Fletcher is the one to fan the flames by mentioning it repeatedly that his father is not a true “writer” and that is probably why Andrew’s mom left him), nor does he understands his girlfriend Nicole’s attitude towards life – how is it that she does not know what she wants in life – he loathes mediocrity and it is evident from his behaviour.

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Nicole and Andrew.
[Source – moviemaker.com]

In a scene where Andrew, his dad and some guests are having dinner, an argument breaks out where his father, talking about the musician Charlie Parker says –

“Andrew’s Father (Jim) – Dying broke and drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 is not exactly my idea of success.

Andrew Neiman – I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was.”

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Watch the dinner scene here –


Even though the secondary characters’ role is nominal, yet this does not weaken the story.

They do have a voice of their own though we do not hear it clearly and that is because the protagonist is not ready to accept their version of the life. Andrew’s obsession does not leave any choice for them but to only listen to him as the core of the film is about this very obsession; the subdued self of these secondary characters, thus, appears to be their actual state.

Andrew is obsessed with the thought of becoming the next great drummer so much so that he refuses to value the external life which consequently starts to fall apart – he has arguments with his father, he also breaks up with Nicole – and this then affects his internal life; he practices day in and out, but one single mistake and Fletcher replaces him with another drummer.

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Giving it all!
[Source – thetake.com]

Unable to thread the needle, Andrew first gets irritated with himself for not working hard enough and later on with Fletcher whom he literally attacks.

The result is that he is dismissed from the music school (the best in the country); devastated, he agrees with his dad and secretly files a complaint against Fletcher.  

When awakened in the external world, Andrew internally goes into a hiatus. The setting shifts from the dark rooms to brighter ones and to open places.

The story approaches the climax and the internal journey, after the short hiatus, takes over once again. Climax scenes are about Andrew meeting Fletcher, who has been expelled from the music school and is now forming a freelance jazz band; he offers Andrew a position.

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Approaching the climax.
[Source – basementrejects.com]

Now the internal journey resumes from the same point of tension where Andrew had left it – Fletcher hates Andrew and tells him that he knows it was he who framed him, but reveals it on the stage, just a few seconds before the performance, leaving Andrew utterly shocked.

Andrew is defeated by the antagonist, he plays the drums foolishly and finally gets up and goes backstage where his dad waits for him feeling sorry; but because Fletcher is not just an antagonist but also Andrew’s inner self, his obsession – it pulls Andrew back on the stage. He starts playing the drums not worrying about Fletcher’s threats.

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Final performance part 1 and 2, watch here –

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This transformation in Andrew may appear to be sudden but is not so; this is an internal transformation that forges gradually.

Andrew transforms in this last scene – he overpowers his fears – he plays flawlessly – so much so that Fletcher recognises his genius at this moment and joins him and together they play a fantastic jazz number (Caravan). As Fletcher reflects Andrew’s inner self, he does not object to this transformation in him and accepts Andrew’s victory quite happily.

Drumming passionately, just like he did in the first scene of the film, Andrew’s story comes to a close; this time he just doesn’t play the tune, he lives it.

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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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Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (That which moves is called a car)

The theatre is jam-packed and noisy; as the lights go off, everyone becomes quiet. The film starts and the opening credits roll – in black & white animation we are introduced to the star cast, Ashok Kumar, Madhubala, Anoop Kumar and a yodelling-dancing Kishore Kumar – with a melodious announcement to get ready for a laughing riot titled Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi.

One of the biggest hits of 1958, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, directed by Satyen Bose, is a classic comedy film which though is 173 minutes long and is more than 60 years old, is still a treat to watch. The appearance of the Ganguly Brothers together for the first time, the unforgettable music composed by S.D Burman and soulful, breezy lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri, all combined, led to its massive success.

While no writing credits, apart from dialogues (by Ramesh Pant and Gobind Moonis), are given in the film, it has a well-structured, strong screenplay. The plot twists and character quirks both intermingle harmoniously to create comedy.

Writing a Comedy

A genre of fiction writing, comedy intends to amuse the audience; the Ancient Greeks defined it as a narrative involving an odd character caught in a challenging situation that inadvertently after making a fool of himself triumphs in the end. With changing times, and different types of mediums, comedy writing has also evolved; slapstick, parody, spoof, satire, irony, sarcasm, farce and dark comedy, these different sub-categories all approach comedy distinctively.

For a comedy story, you would need a solid comic premise, complex, but relatable characters, a risky situation in which the protagonist is caught, a touch of drama, plenty of puns and enough space for character development. Comedies aim not only to amuse and entertain but also to subtly mock the stereotypical stagnant beliefs in the society.

Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi has these elements all in place. Three brothers, all afraid of even looking at women, as if predestined, meet up three lovely ladies who take the lead to bring their story to a happy ending.

Characters

Brijmohan, Jagmohan, Manmohan – The three brothers together run a garage; the two younger ones follow elder brother, Brijmohan’s dictum of not interacting with any woman at any cost (apart from when there is an emergency). They even have a mantra that they chant to shoo ladies away; in the very first scene when their car breaks down and they are unable to find any fault in the engine, they blame it on a beautiful young lady looking at them from a distance. Seeing three men chanting the mantra, finding them weird, the lady leaves; the car starts working then and this reconfirms their theory about women.

They are not anti-women, nor are they disrespectful towards them. For the younger brothers, it is all about following Brijmohan’s rules and for him it is a way to protect his brothers from emotional traumas, something that he had undergone when his lady love left him for a rich man.

Jagmohan aka Jaggu is a fickle-minded, often cunning, but timid guy; obedient and docile in front of Brijmohan, he becomes inquisitive and laid-back when given the charge of the garage and easily passes his chores to his younger brother.

Manmohan aka Mannu is the main lead; he is sincere, dexterous and funny by nature. One rainy night, when he is all alone in the garage, he is forced to repair the broken car of a young lady, Renu, who in a hurry forgets to pay him his due. Next morning he explains to his brothers that he had to entertain that lady as it was an emergency case. Brijmohan highlights it to them that she is a clever person as she intentionally did not pay him anything.

Thus, the story takes a turn as Mannu, in a quest to get his due (5 rupees and 12 annas) follows Renu everywhere, he even reaches her home late at night and when the watchman suspects him to be a thief, Renu helps him to run away, once again without the due amount; such incidents result into the inevitable conclusion, Mannu and Renu fall for each other.

Mannu hides his feelings from Renu as he battles with the unacceptable idea of falling for a woman. He can never disobey Brijmohan, but he cannot forget Renu as well.

Comedy elements never leave the screen space even while dealing with such dramatic dilemmas. Jaggu and Mannu love Brijmohan, they look upon him as a father figure and as their hero. In one scene, Brijmohan, a boxing champion, beats up a giant who was refusing to pay the servicing charges and Jaggu and Mannu both had unsuccessfully tried to tackle him.

Their scenes together are hilarious; whenever Renu calls at the garage, both Jaggu and Mannu start fumbling, telling Brijmohan that they don’t know who she is, when Renu tells Brijmohan to send someone to repair her car, both Jaggu and Mannu refuse to go, though wishing to leave immediately.

Renu – The absolutely stunning leading lady of the film is a modern woman in the truest sense – she is bold, independent, zealous, a bit strong-headed, but sensible enough to differentiate between a fake and an honest person. She likes to drive her car, no matter even if it is late in the night – a big deal in 1950s India. When running late to reach home after giving her dance performance at the theatre, Renu is worried not that her father will scold her for being late, but about the car breaking down in the middle of the road yet again.

There is no question about parity in the film, as the women are given equal screen space and story material; in fact, the women are responsible for taking the story forward. Renu is the one who openly expresses her interest in Mannu, visiting his garage and taking him along for outings. Brijmohan too is unable to refuse as Renu had found a lady’s photo in Brijmohan’s room, purposely she enquires about it in front of his two brothers; a dumbfounded Brijmohan avoids the scene by allowing Mannu to accompany Renu.

Later, when Brijmohan tells Renu upfront that she should stop meeting Mannu, she does not falter and expresses that she is serious about Mannu; impressed by her honest approach, he then approves of her.

Renu’s actions, along with Mannu, become the driving force in the film; through her straightforward, brazen and naïve behaviour, she also adds to the humour.

“Pom-pom-pom!”
Driving the Champion on the streets of Bombay. (Source – bollyviewer)

‘Champion’ car, Model 1928 – This debuting car is more like a sidekick, an accomplice and a recurring motif in the film that talks about the ‘moving forward’ mantra, connects the plot points and even sponsors the happy ending scene. Apart from being the reason that steers Renu’s entry into Mannu’s life, it is given a special Chaplinesque sequence to enrich this comedy.

Mannu and the Champion car participate in a race, competing against many including the villain’s pawn; the start is a bit rocky, but they are determined to win, exchanging an opponent’s hat with a cockerel, throwing bananas at another and spraying water at the pawn, Mannu and the Champion car beat the others with great aplomb.

The car here is a metaphor for life; if the car is running and if you are able to fix it when it breaks down, you are all set, that is all you need to do.

Listen to the uplifting title track of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi now.

Raja Hardayal Singh, the Antagonist – In his first scene, it is evident that his kindness, his beguiling demeanour and his aristocratic attitude is all too good to be true. A fraudster, who had long back managed to rob a rich businessman after marrying his only daughter (i.e. Brijmohan’s lady love, Kamini), Raja Hardayal Singh now has plans to make his pawn marry Renu so as to get all her property.

While his bass, confident and assured tone makes him a dangerous villain, his foolish men and their shortcomings make him appear as a goof. Then again when it is revealed that he keeps his so-called mad wife, Kamini, captive in an old bungalow, he takes his position back to being a ruthless man. But unlike in a novel when such a secret is revealed, the effect stays and changes the mood of the story, here the opposite happens. As it is a comedy, Kamini’s distress does not stay for long rather it triggers the climax and ensures her freedom.

Supporting Characters

These supporting characters, some half and some nicely baked, are a good study of how in a well-written comedy everything contributes to keeping the humour alive without it being overblown.

Maujiya – A junior mechanic cum helper, Maujiya is a happy-go-lucky kid who has very few scenes in the film, but whenever present he doubles the dose of comedy. He is an on-screen audience member who observes the three brothers, their eccentricities, always amused, but also alert of being caught.

Sheela – Renu’s best friend, smart and funny, Sheela is another bold beauty in the film. She falls for Jaggu and finds his buffoonery amusing. While chit-chatting once she happily tells Renu that she would choose a simpleton over a wise guy as she wants her husband to always listen to her; finding these qualities in Jaggu, she makes sure they become friends. Her frankness and wit mark her presence strongly in the film.

Renu’s Father – Like a puppet this character is placed to add humour in a scene or to bridge one twist with the other. A jovial, simple and sweet old man, Renu’s father takes everyone’s words at face value and thus, is shocked to know Raja Hardayal Singh’s reality. He trusts Renu and gives her freedom to choose her life partner.

Kamini – Though she appears later in the second half, she plays a distinct role in shaping the story from the beginning; Brijmohan thinks she betrayed him, but she and her rich father were fooled by Raja Hardayal Singh. Not afraid of anything, she decides to save Renu and Mannu’s life and becomes a catalyst for the climax.

Climax – Renu and Mannu are trapped, Raja Hardayal Singh is ready to marry Renu with his pawn; after a hurried reunion between Brijmohan and Kamini and a comic mime-style scene between Jaggu and Sheela, everyone reaches the same bungalow and a farcical fight sequence begins. Mannu, Renu, Jaggu, Maujiya, Renu’s Father and the half-witted goons create a mockery of a climactic sequence. It is only Brijmohan and Raja Hardayal Singh who behave seriously, fighting to end it for good and all. Sheela who was following Jaggu’s car, contacts police and arrives at the end to conclude the drama.

While in many black and white Hindi films of this era, the ending is usually badly shot as if the villain is in a rush to be jailed, but here the pace is much better. The police capture Raja Hardayal Singh and his team, and the three couples unite; sitting in the Champion car, Brijmohan, Jaggu and Mannu sing the title track of the film, while the three ladies in the front, Renu at the wheel, enjoy and laugh.

Songs – What added to the popularity of this film is its melodious, peppy soundtrack and catchy, honest lyrics. Iconic numbers like the title track “Babu Samjho Ishaare”, “Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si”, “Hum The, Woh Thi Aur Sama Rangeen”, “Main Sitaron Ka Taraana”, “Haal Kaisa Hai Janaab Ka” are all timeless. Songs in Hindi films act as a medium of storytelling, usually sealing the romantic journey of the hero and the heroine, always lyrically taking the story ahead. Here a song, “Hum Tumhare Hain”, picturised on Helen and Minhaj Ansari, though not truly necessary for the plot of the film, is nevertheless a beautiful song. Great singers like Asha Bhosle, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar create magic through their voices.

A melodious meet cute!
5 rupees and 12 annas, the amount that Mannu never got.

Conclusion

With a few flaws and goof-ups, this film is a pure comedy classic, and in fact, the flaws humorously add to its nature. The characters are crafted nicely and each complement’s the other; if the film is a musical instrument, then all the strings are perfectly tuned to produce a hilarious track. Characters perform comedy in pairs and that too, effortlessly; Renu and Mannu’s romantic track is sweet and entertaining, especially their short stint as detectives; Jaggu and Sheela are loudly funny, but not in a bad way; and the three brothers are like three jokers in a comical act. Also, whenever and whoever is paired with the Champion car, we are bound to get our laughter dose out of that scene.

Thus, with a strong and humorous story, quirky characters and crisp pace, this film continues to be a hit.


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Sujata – The Voice of the Unheard

Film Analysis

Film Poster. [Source – Wikipedia]

“Woh humari beti nahi, humari beti jaisi hai”

(She is not our daughter, but we treat her like our own.)

Bimal Roy’s 1959 film, Sujata, sits silently and gracefully amongst his other iconic works, I say silently because of the story’s gravitas and the maker’s devoted yet subtle approach towards the social evil like casteism. Based on the celebrated author and journalist Subodh Ghosh’s short story, the screenplay is written by Nabendu Gosh and dialogues by Paul Mahendra. To the sauntering and soulful music of S.D Burman, lyrics, by Majrooh Sultanpuri, add emotions of innocence, love and pain, making the soundtrack unforgettable.

Revolving around the cursed concept of untouchability, the film presents the real, crude and prejudiced face of the society, iteratively hitting the theme, not only to highlight the flaw, but also to show how we can bring a change.


Story

Sujata, born in a lower caste family (the achoot or the untouchables), still an infant is taken in by a high caste Brahmin family when her parents die and there is no one of her caste in the village to look after her. Thus, starts the first chapter in Sujata’s life where as a curious child she finds it difficult to understand why her Ammi and Bapu treat her and her sister Rama –who calls them Ma and Pitaji – differently, why they never celebrate her birthday, why only Rama is allowed to study and not her.

Anxious and troubled about their decision of giving an untouchable girl shelter in their house, Ammi and Bapu first try to hand her over to someone from her caste, but finding that the man is a drunkard, they change their minds, later when she grows up a little they try to send her to an orphanage, but are not able to see her leave.

In a scene when Bapu falsely says that Sujata has high fever, Ammi goes running to her room and checks her fever only to find out that Bapu was teasing her, he laughs and says that she will have to take a bath now as she touched an untouchable (something which she had said to him in an earlier scene, when he had caressed little Sujata).

Throughout the half an hour long track of Sujata’s childhood, we see many such scenes where the kind couple feel torn between the responsibility they have taken up and the customs they are supposed to follow. Why is Sujata not their daughter even though they have brought her up? The couple avoid this question throughout the film, only to accept their mistake in the end and accept Sujata as their own.


Tittle and the Theme

The feminine Indian name Sujata comes from the Sanskrit word sujaat which means ‘of high birth’. An apt tittle, Sujata, in this story’s context raises the crucial question upfront without much delay – who is sujaat, who is not and who decides it? Throughout the story, the protagonist’s selfless and warm attitude only brings out the noble side of hers; she is a beautiful individual who can win over everything, but does not for she is told it is not her right.

Each and every frame in the film is used to magnify its theme as if trying to convince a stubborn mind that caste does not determine a person’s nature. This is shown ingeniously in one particular scene where an old man from upper caste comes to meet Bapu with his son’s marriage proposal for Sujata; he tells him that he is strictly against dowry, but will accept whatever they gift their daughter, he also makes sure that Bapu helps his son by investing money in his son’s business. All seems well, only until he gets to know that Sujata was born in a low caste family. The old man leaves angrily after rebuking Bapu for trying to trick respectable people like him.


Characters

Nutan as Sujata and Sunil Dutt as Adhir. [Source – Film Companion]

Sujata, played by the charming Nutan, is a vivacious, loving, uneducated, but smart girl who is the back bone of the Chowdhury family, working from morning till night, taking care of everyone’s need. In fact when the hero, Adhir (Sunil Dutt) fails to find Sujata in the house, to meet whom he has especially come, Rama tells him that it is not easy to find Sujata as she works like a clock, non-stop, handling all the household chores with perfection. Sujata’s likeness to the clock is again repeated when before Ammi and Bapu can ask for their evening tea, Sujata brings it for them; her Bapu says, ‘Sujata tu to is ghar ki ghadi hai’ (Sujata you’re like the clock). Clock that tells time, time that one must be aware of in order to work efficiently, thus, drawing a parallel between Sujata and the clock only highlights how essential her presence is in the house.    

The young Sujata, played by lovely Baby Farida, who questioned Ammi and Bapu’s biased behaviour towards her and felt jealous of her sister Rama, grows up to blindly accept her position in the family, position of not the daughter of the house, but of a cared member.

She is best friends with Rama and makes sure that she calls her Didi (elder sister). The relationship is presented very realistically; they fight, play and laugh together. Rama, who is studying in college, loves Sujata as her elder sister, never leaving one opportunity to praise her especially in front of Adhir. While Rama is infatuated by Adhir in the beginning, she, without making a big deal out of it, steps back when she sees Adhir has fallen for Sujata.

For our modern, progressive and educated hero, Adhir, it is love at first sight; he is absolutely smitten by Sujata’s beauty and elegance, he always talks to Rama just to enquire about Sujata and does not hesitate to accept in front of Sujata that he came there hoping to get just a glimpse of her.

Adhir’s love blooms in Sujata’s heart and she dares to dream; his comforting words astound her as no one had ever tried to understand her or even hear her out. Adhir tells Sujata about his dream where he saw her in a beautiful sari, with a Chandramallika (Chrysanthemum) flower in her bun and a red bindi (mark) on her forehead, overwhelmed Sujata says, with a pretty smile on her face, that the meaning of this dream is that Adhir is beautiful. What Sujata means is that one who can paint such a wonderful image of her, one who does not worry about the social labels is indeed a man with golden heart. Later, when the story takes a turn and they are forced to part, Sujata asks him to think that the Chandramallika of his dreams has wilted.

Upendranath and Charu Chowdhury, Sujata’s Ammi and Bapu, and Adhir’s grandmother, played by the terrific Lalita Pawar, who also happened to be a distant relative (aunt) of the Chowdhurys, are the ones who bring a rift between the two lovers. A staunch orthodox, Adhir’s grandmother frowns every single time she sees Sujata, in fact in the very first scene of hers when she picks up the baby mistaking baby Sujata as baby Rama, appalled and angry, she literally throws the baby away who is caught mid-air by the nanny, making a scene for touching an achoot.

It is she who repeatedly warns the Chowdhurys of a calamity that could fall on them for going against their religion and keeping an untouchable girl in their house. Talking about problems Sujata’s presence can cause in finding a perfect match for Rama, she even convinces them to marry Sujata to a widower from the low caste. Hopes of marrying Adhir with Rama overpower her and she gives an ultimatum to the Chowdhurys.

There is not one confrontational scene between Adhir’s grandmother and Sujata and yet it is Sujata who defeats her. When she is praying in the puja room, Adhir comes to tell her that he wants to marry Sujata and the fact that she belongs to a lower caste does not bothers him at all; in her rage his grandmother asks him to leave the house once and for all and decides to break all the ties with him, declaring that she will not give him one penny from her property. Adhir packs his bag and is at the door step when she comes running from the puja room and requests him not to leave, crying and accepting her defeat. She then goes to the Chowdhurys and tells them about Adhir’s decision. It is interesting that she does not have a change of heart; she merely acknowledges that she has failed, still refusing to understand that casteism is wrong. Unlike her, Ammi and Bapu, who have always been in a dilemma for they loved Sujata, but were also bound by social ties, in accepting their defeat also accept their mistake and welcome the change.

Apart from a scene or two where Adhir is explicitly talking about the evils of casteism, every other character portrays their beliefs rather than verbalising it; Ammi and Bapu always stay aware of not hurting Sujata’s sentiments, albeit they end up doing so and even Adhir’s grandmother always indirectly taunts Sujata, as if running away from her shadow. It is the brilliance of Roy and the writers that an ignorant Rama who is truly friendly with Sujata becomes the one who highlights the bias – her carefree and jaunty attitude hits a sharp contrast to Sujata’s ever present burden and shame of being a lower caste girl.   


Imagery and Music

A strong set of images are used to depict Sujata’s emotions in the film; every flower in the garden blossoms and sways when she is happy, the wind is gentle and soothing when she sings, the calm water and the small boat by the Gandhi Ghat (pier) appear like a painting when she is at peace, but when in a turmoil the wind blows madly, it rains heavily and darkness spreads, in fact Sujata herself chooses to be in the dark on two occasions, one when everyone is celebrating Rama’s birthday and the house is lit, roaming outside, she switches off the light and sits in the dark under the tree, second when she overhears Ammi and Bapu talk about Rama and Adhir’s wedding, she quietly agrees to forget Adhir, switches off the light of the hallway and walks away.

The background score and songs further underline Sujata’s state of mind. Jalte Hain Jiske Liye Teri Aankhon Ke Diye, Suno Mere Bandhu Re Suno Mere Mitwa, Tum Jiyo Hazaaron Saal, Saal Ke Din Ho Pachaas Hazaar and Nanhi Kali Sone Chali Hawa Dheere Aana are some of the hit songs of the film. The song Kaali Ghata Chhaye Mora Jiya Tarsaaye where she sings (after closing the door so that no one overhears) –

Hoon mai kitni akelee woh yeh janke/ Mere berang jivan ko pehechanke

Mere haatho ko thame hanse aur hasaaye/ Meraa dukh bhulaye kisee kaa kya jaye

(Translation – If only he knew how lonely I am, if he could hold my hand, laugh with me, it would make me forget all my sorrows, if it happens, how does it matter to you)

– here in saying ‘kisee kaa kya jaye’ (how does it matter to you) it is as if she is mocking all those who see her with disgust while she is just like them, a normal human being, capable of falling in love.


Gandhian and Buddhist Philosophy

The film criticises the act of untouchability time and again, sometimes indirectly and sometimes directly.

Mare kaise? Atmahatya karke? Kabhi nahi! Avyashakta ho to zinda rehne k liye mare.

(Committing suicide? Never! If need arises, die for the purpose of living.)

This is the quote written under Mahatma Gandhi’s statue at the Gandhi Ghat that makes Sujata think before taking any rash decision like committing suicide. Ammi’s words that she is an untouchable girl, born in a low caste family, nothing but a burden on them troubles Sujata so much that she leaves the house in the thundering rainy night and reaches the Gandhi Ghat. The rain drops are made to appear as Gandhi’s tears underlining that he is equally sad. She returns back and slowly the storm within her and the storm outside quiet down.

In another scene, Rama, in a play in her college, acts as Chandalika, the untouchable girl who was detested by all, but the Buddhist monk Ananda, by drinking water from her vessel, liberates her from this curse. Everyone except Sujata is present there and they all, especially Adhir’s grandmother, appreciate Rama’s performance marking vividly the hypocritical outlook of the society.

Also, when Adhir confronts his grandmother in the prayer room, he points towards the portraits of Buddha, Ramkrishan Paramahansa and Swami Vivekanand saying that they all did not discriminate between people and she should understand this simple truth.


Climax

Ammi works herself into a frenzy of rage as her biggest fear comes true, she blames Sujata for coming between Rama and Adhir and poisoning their lives like a snake. Ammi falls down from the stairs and hurts herself fatally. When no one else’s blood matches with Ammi, it is Sujata who asks the doctor to test her blood group. To everyone’s surprise her group matches with Ammi and thus, Sujata saves Ammi’s life.

Dramatically Ammi and Bapu also find out that Sujata is ready to sacrifice herself for them and has already asked Adhir to forget her and marry Rama. Understanding their mistake, discarding their doubts and wholeheartedly accepting their love for Sujata they call her ‘beti’ (daughter) and embrace her warmly, asking her to forgive them. The last scene is of Sujata’s vidaee (farewell), Ammi and Bapu marry her off to Adhir, an upper caste Brahmin, finally breaking the shackles of casteism.


Conclusion

Sujata was nominated for the Golden Palms at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, but it lost to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. This 161 minutes long film that takes ample time to build its world, presents the theme strikingly, always keeping it in the forefront and uses metaphors to magnify its impact could make it, one might say, a tiresome watch. Also the melodramatic tone of the film could bother the minds accustomed to watching fast paced dramas. Nevertheless it is a must watch for not only is this a classic, but also because it is as relevant a film as it was back then in 1959; shockingly we have not changed much, intolerant towards a caste then, intolerant towards a religion now. Roy highlights this issue poignantly and drives the point home, effectively.

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


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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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Mrinal Sen’s Aakaler Shandhane (In Search of Famine)

Film Analysis

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is drought-1745153_1920-1024x683.jpg
Famine.
Image by Carabo Spain from Pixabay

A voice narrates – “7th September 1980, a party from Calcutta, a film troupe is going to a village for shooting. The name of the village is Hatui. The name of the film is Aakaler Shandhane.”

The opening credits roll as we, along with the film troupe in cars, enter the village lane noticing the green fields, blue sky, rough road, dirt and poor villagers who are in full contrast to the vivacity of the song sung by the troupe. This is highlighted by the very first dialogue of the film by a character, a random villager standing on the roadside –

“The gentlemen are here for taking snaps of the famine… but the famine has enveloped us all.”

*

A story within a story, Aakaler Shandhane (1982), is a poignant portrayal of reality and our perception of it. The director (played by Dhritiman Chatterjee) knows and believes in his story, he is determined, his research is complete, he has photographs of the Bengal famine of 1943, of a mini famine in 1959, of 1971 – he says, “remember the Bangladesh war”; he thinks that is what one needs to make a film on Bengal famine.

But the director is absolutely ignorant about 1980, the present time, his time, and so when the Hatui village reveals the crippling similarities between the famine year and the present, the director feels at his wits’ end. He does then what is suggested to him – to leave and complete the film in a studio – for the ‘famine-stricken’ village could no longer entertain any of them.

*

A still from the film; Smita Patil as a village woman.
[Source – mrinalsen.org]

Smita Patil plays the role of a village woman, a wife married to a stubborn husband, who will die, but not bow down; this wife, for the sake of her little baby, accepts the famine, accepts exploitation, accepts filth and brings home a handful of rice and oil to prepare a meal in her dusty kitchen.

The husband goes mad with anger and picks up the little baby, ready to kill his own child for it unknowingly became the cause of bringing blasphemy to their household; Smita shouts and so does Durga. The director says “CUT”. Durga, a villager, standing in the crowd could not bear the pain, afraid for the child she shouted unaware of the camera and the art of acting. Every eye then stares at her, she hides her moist eyes and leaves.

*

Durga lives in the 80s, but finds a resemblance with Smita Patil’s character of the 40s – and why would not she, their lives resonate with gloom, caused by famine and its aftermath. Both are suffering, both have a child to feed, a husband to serve, a famine that torments and a society that reminds of it forever.

Quiet like a candle, Durga becomes a flambeau in the end; burning with rage she asks her incompetent husband what is wrong if the director offered her a role in the film, what is wrong if the role is of a prostitute. She tells him that when a lady, in those ugly famine days, can step out the confines of her house, why cannot she?

The old village schoolmaster asks the same question from all the respectable men of the village, reminding them about their ancestors who were as opportunistic as the film’s womanising contractor.

*

It becomes clear that the famine of 1943 was not just about starvation or five million deaths, it was also about what humans are and what humans can become in trying situations; and that hunger alone did not kill, corrupt minds and hollow traditions killed too… are still killing.

And the most affected were the poor, the weak… the females – they lost their children, their families, their lands and themselves. The director’s attempt to cast a villager for the role of a girl, who is forced to become a prostitute, creates chaos so profound that in no time the whole village starts detesting the entire troupe, no one comes to help, no fans, nothing. What else will a film dealing with the topic of famine bring, but cursed memories of the past? The villager who spoke the first dialogue of the film now comments –

“The gentlemen have created a famine after coming to make a film on famine.”

*

But what about the elite… they are now long extinct. The palace in which the film troupe settles is almost in ruins. There lives a couple – a lady and her bedridden husband – the relatives of the king. While the rest of the inhabitants have left the luxuries of this palace and shifted to the cities, the presence of this couple is also but a mere illusion of the past. When the bed-ridden husband dies, the lady aptly says that everything is over.

Twice there are talks about the photographs of the famine, on one occasion a game is played – one is to guess by looking at the pictures to which period it belongs. When Smita Patil shows a picture that is completely dark, a character says it is the photo of ‘load shedding… power crises’ and everyone laughs, then another gives it a poetic touch and calls it ‘darkness at noon’ and then finally Smita Patil gives it the title ‘past, present and future’; none of them thought that this darkness will eventually force them to abandon the film shoot and leave.

Into this darkness we see Durga fading away at the very end; the narrator tells us that her frail little child died after some time, her husband fled away and Durga was left all alone.   

*

The story structure, which is subtly linear, seamlessly integrates the characters with the plot highlighting the contrast between the film troupe’s “idea of famine” and the actual impact of the many famines still reverberating in the village.

The First Plot Point and the Second Plot Point appear visually the same i.e. both are the scenes where the photographs of the famine are shown and talked about; the former is where the director, confident about his research, is showing his actors the photographs of 1943 famine and telling how while the World War II struck the rest of the world, in their land “people just starved and dropped dead”, in the latter scene, they play a guessing game – “to which famine does the photograph belong”. In both the scenes, the horridness of the famine photographs is seen in stark contrast to the amusement of the film troupe.

The story takes a turn, naturally so, after both these plot points, taking the troupe and the audience closer to the seriousness that the reality of famine holds. In the climax we see that the entire village opposes and loathes the film troupe, the main characters find themselves completely defeated, and neither the modern nor the rural people are able to do anything about the famine that stared at them.

The original brochure of the film.
[Source – mrinalsen.org]

This masterpiece by Mirnal Sen won National Awards for Best Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay and Best Editing; it also won Silver Bear, Special Jury Award at 31st Berlin International Film Festival.   

Aakaler Shandhane (In Search of Famine), searched for an answer, an answer that is still due.


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


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