Screenwriting

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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Bowie’s Birthday Party – A Script

FADE IN

INTERIOR – MAIDS ROOM, CHAPMAN HOUSE – MORNING
Lyn (thin,30+) and Sally (chubby,30+) are drying wet hair of a golden terrier with a hairdryer. The terrier does not like it.


LYN (ANXIOUSLY)
Looks like Bowie or not?
SALLY
Looks golden, Bowie was golden. I am telling you Mrs. Chapman won’t even notice….
LYN (INTERRUPTS)
Shut up Sally! We have lost her dog, her Baby Bowie and that too on his birthday.
SALLY (AMUSINGLY)
Hah! Old Mrs. Chapman will go nuts again if she….
LYN
Shut up will you! Thanks to Carlos, he brought this dog.
SALLY (IRRITATINGLY)
Yeah, yeah! All we had to do was colour his hair with my hair colour.


Carlos (Fat,40+), Mrs Chapman’s Chauffeur, comes in their room at this point.


CARLOS (GRINNING)
(LOOKS AT THE DOG)
Bloody hell! She looks like Bowie now.
LYN AND SALLY
She?
CARLOS
Yeah! She’s my neighbour’s… they call her Emily or Mily, something like that.

LYN
Listen Carlos, try to find Bowie, he couldn’t have gone far… we can’t hide this from Mrs. Chapman for too long.

CUT TO:

INTERIOR – THE LOBBY, CHAPMAN HOUSE – MORNING
Mrs. Chapman (70+, white hair, elegantly dressed) is holding and caressing the dog.

MRS. CHAPMAN
Why is his hair still wet? And he smells awful. What soap did you use?
LYN AND SALLY
Mrs. Chapman….
MRS. CHAPMAN
(HANDING THE DOG BACK TO LYN)
Give him a bath again, and hurry up, the party will start soon.
(TO THE DOG)
Baby Bowie would not like to smell bad on his birthday, right? Right
Bowie?
(TO LYN AND SALLY)
Don’t forget the white bow!

CUT TO:

EXTERIOR – LAWN, CHAPMAN HOUSE – DAY
The lawn is beautifully decorated, the theme is golden and white, tables are set and the giant white cake looks too good to eat. Other servants are seen running here and there.

After half an hour, the guests start arriving and Mrs. Chapman, holding the duplicate Bowie in her arms like a baby, greet them one by one. Her high-class friends have brought bouquets and gifts for Baby Bowie.
The golden-haired dog with a white bow complements the party’s theme.

CUT TO:

Everyone is standing around the table, singing; it is time for the birthday dog to cut the cake. Mrs. Chapman is holding the dog who is irritated and is trying to free itself.

MRS. CHAPMAN
Aw! Baby Bowie is too excited for the birthday song to end.

People in the party laugh in chorus. Mrs. Chapman tries her best to hold the dog in her arms.

MRS. CHAPMAN (MAINTAINING THE SMILE) (CONT’D)
Baby Bowie, manners please! You are 3 years old now. Big boy!

Everyone laughs again. The dog whines.

MRS. CHAPMAN (CONT’D)
I think Baby Bowie wants all of us to enjoy the cake as soon….
(THE DOG JUMPS)
B-O-W-I-E! Ah!

The dog lands straight on the delicious white cake and then runs across the table, spoiling everything, jumps down and runs away. Mrs. Chapman is in a shock; almost all the guests first burst into laughter and then suddenly suppress it and copy Mrs. Chapman’s expressions.


CUT TO:

EXTERIOR – LAWN, CHAPMAN HOUSE – DAY
The party is over, most of the guests have left, two ladies have stayed back to console Mrs. Chapman who is drunk and looks extremely depressed.

MRS CHAPMAN
(SITTING ON THE DESERTED GRAND TABLE)
How could Bowie do this to me? Why?

Mrs. Chapman’s friends look at each other, they don’t know what to say.

MRS. CHAPMAN
Why Bowie? How could you leave me too?
(TALKING TO HERSELF IN WHISPERS)
How…? Leave me… for a waitress?

At this point Lyn and Sally approaches Mrs. Chapman to tell her the truth, as Carlos has brought the real Bowie back.

LYN
Mrs. Chapman, we found Baby Bowie… Carlos found him… we wanted to tell you… before the party… but….
MRS. CHAPMAN (DRUNK)
Bowie!

Looks at the dog in Sally’s arms and then takes him. She makes him sit on the table and starts caressing him.

CUT TO CLOSE UP:

Standing to a side, Carlos whispers to Lyn and Sally –

CARLOS
Did you tell her?
LYN
She is drunk….
SALLY (LAUGHINGLY)
Good for us!
LYN
Shut up Sally!
CARLOS
Where is my neighbour’s dog?
LYN
She ran away… Oh! We completely forgot.
CARLOS
What?

While the three of them are talking to each other, Bowie starts barking. They then see that the other Bowie (Emily) has come back and both the dogs are barking at each other.

CUT TO:

Coming out of depression, Mrs. Chapman now looks irritated.

MRS. CHAPMAN (SHOUTS)
Shut up Bowie!

CUT TO:

Bowie runs to and fro on the table and barks at Emily who keeps running around, barking back at Bowie.
Mrs. Chapman again shouts at Bowie on top of her voice; Carlos runs after Emily.

CARLOS
(NOT TOO LOUDLY)
Emily! Mily! Emily!

Both the dogs are barking angrily at each other. Sally can’t control her laughter.

LYN (ANGRILY)
What is wrong with you?
SALLY (LAUGHINGLY)
Don’t you get it? Mrs. Chapman’s first name is Emily. And old Mr. Chapman’s nick name was….
LYN
Bowie!

Carlos repeatedly calls out the name ‘Emily’ and finally gets hold of her. Both the dogs are still barking at each other. Mrs. Chapman loses her senses and starts shouting loudly.

MRS. CHAPMAN
Shut up! Stupid dog! Shut up! Damn with your birthday party and damn with you all. Bowie, are you happy now? Happy! You have spoiled everything once again.

CUT TO:

LYN
Oh! I think we should call Dr. Mathew.

As Lyn rushes inside to call the doctor.

SALLY (AMUSINGLY)
Hey! I didn’t wish Bowie.

Mrs. Chapman’s two friends, totally confused, finally leave.

Carlos takes Emily away and Sally runs to protect Bowie from Mrs. Chapman who, in her rage, is now attacking him with the cutlery.

FADE OUT

Bowie, how was your birthday celebration?
Image from Pixabay.

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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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Jagte Raho – Staying awake of the social realities

Film Analysis

Poster of the film Jagte Raho (Stay Awake).
[Source – Wikipedia]

Raj Kapoor, the showman of Hindi cinema, has given dozens of super hits as an actor, a director and a producer. What made it possible, other than his brilliant performing skills, is the richness of the story, good quality of screenplays and earnestly written dialogues in the majority of his films.

One such film is Jagte Raho (Stay Awake), written and directed by the legendry Sombhu Mitra, along with Amit Maitra and screenplay by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas.

A social satire, this 1956 film is about a poor villager – we meet Raj Kapoor in his famous Chaplinesque avatar, though in a dhoti this time – who comes to the city with the hope of making a better life. Jagte Raho happens in real-time i.e. in a single night’s time when the protagonist feeling thirsty enters an apartment block and is simply presumed to be a thief. Thus, begins the epic cat and mouse chase where not one but many thieves are caught apart from the protagonist, who is reminded by a little girl that if he is not the thief then he should not worry at all. The poor villager then leaves the building and the chaos behind and meets Nargis (guest appearance) in a temple who finally gives him water to drink.


Setting the Tone and Overshadowing

Without wasting a second, the tone of the film is set – it is night time in the city and the watchmen are roaming the streets shouting ‘jagte raho, jagte raho!’ Who are they asking to stay awake… themselves, the residents, the thieves or the viewers? Perhaps the message is for all.

We then meet the protagonist who is searching for some water to drink. When a watchman finds him kneeling against a fire hydrant, he rebukes and pushes him down, calling him ‘Chotta kahin ka’ (petty thief) going just by his shabby look and threatens him of dire consequences if he saw him there again. This is overshadowing i.e. what is going to happen later on in the story is subtly hinted right in the beginning – the poor villager is going to be framed as a thief.


The First Song

With roughly seven minutes into the film we are presented with the first song. A drunkard (played by Motilal), lost in his world, sings these sarcastic lines –

“Zindagi Khawab Hai, Khawab Me Jhuth Kya Aur Bhala Sach Hai Kya… Sab Sach Hai.”

Translation – Life is a dream, in a dream what is a lie and what is a truth… everything is a truth.

Songs in Hindi films are different from the Western Musicals, for it does not only elevate the emotion of the scene, but takes the story forward in every possible way – introducing new characters, hinting of what is approaching, adding to the underlying theme of the story.

Here, the drunkard returns in the story, not able to distinguish between a man and a container, between his wife and the poor villager. Thus, touching the theme of the story – the elite ‘dressed in silk’ are either busy drinking or hoarding money, while the poor ‘a tramp’ is crushed even if he asks just for some water.

Jagte Raho’s hit music is given by Salil Choudhary and the lyrics are written by Shailendra and Prem Dhawan.


The Conflict

The main conflict in Jagte Raho is between the honest and the fraudster, between the poor villager and the hypocritical lot. The protagonist stumbles upon the secret world of the civilized city men complexing the conflicting situation further.

His first few encounters occur with the young lovers, the gambler who tries to steal his own wife’s jewellery and the drunkard; these situations are comic as wells as sensitive, highlighting the predicaments of the so-called upper class.

The movie then takes a dramatic turn as the Police are called for an investigation. A journalist, disappointed on finding that the information about the dacoits is false, has to make do with a resident’s photograph who is arrested for brewing liquor illegally in his apartment. This causes a silent alarm bell to ring for many residents; a Punjabi song highlights this beautifully –

“Oye aiwe duniya dewe duhai/ jhootha pondi shor/ te apne dil to pooch ke vekho/ kaun nahi hai chor/ te ki mein jhooth bolya, koi na…”

Translation – The world appeals for no reason, the liar makes a hue and cry. Why don’t you ask your heart, who is not a thief! Hey, have I lied? No!

The poor villager finally meets the biggest thug of all, a foreign return business man who mints fake money with help of a few others; when the thug finds out that the villager knows all about him, he first tries to kill him, but with the residents knocking on his door, he quickly fills the villager’s pockets with all the fake money and pushes him out through the window.

Hanging to a pipe, the poor villager is attacked by the entire society with stones until he empties his pockets and showers the crowd with the fake money; the residents immediately forget the poor villager and fight amongst themselves to collect the notes.


Culmination

The climax holds its intensity till the last scene, though the verbose speech by the poor villager on the terrace mars the impact of the silence he maintained until then. Scenes like juxtaposing the image of Christ to the bleeding poor villager adds to the melodrama.

A little girl is rightly chosen by the writer for speaking the truth as children rarely hesitate from doing so. The poor villager realises the truth and then looking fearless, he walks out; neither the Police nor the residents notice him; the situation is frantic as all the criminals in the building are getting arrested one by one.

It is early morning now and he finds a lady singing in a temple –

“Jaago Mohan Pyaare Jaago/ Navyuga chumein nain thare…”

Translation – Wake up dear Mohan, a new day is here to welcome you.

The film ends here as the lady gives the poor villager water to drink.


Writing Style

Jagte Raho is not a hard core mystery or a thriller yet it endeavors to keep the viewer throughout on the edge. Following the linear structure, each scene has a micro story that is disrupted by the protagonist for he unknowingly strips the ones who are masked.

Though an off-beat topic was selected by the RK Productions, it was made sure that this film is liked by the masses; hence, the script is full of slapstick comedy, songs and dramatic visuals.


Theme

The theme of Jagte Raho is jagte raho; the makers are warning all to stay awake for the real criminal lurks within every individual, who waits just for an opportunity to overpower you. In the film, the poor villager tries to steal the counterfeit money, but his consciousness jolts him and he does not take the money. His consciousness is in contrast to the collective consciousness of the public.


Conclusion

While a satire, Jagte Raho chooses only partially the realistic approach to narrate its story. In fact, the majority of the characters, including the protagonist, are clichéd and some even come across as frivolous and yet, as a whole, the film engages and entertains. And so, keeping in mind the era in which it was made, this film stays to be a good study for a screenplay writer.


[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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Mother India – Epic tale of an ordinary woman

Film Analysis

Nargis as Mother India. [Source – BollySpice]

Mother India (1957), a benchmark in Hindi film industry, glorifies our country, which had then seen just 10 years of independence; it celebrates the Indian women – a daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, an individual and the goddess; and in the most dramatic, impactful manner it presents the magic of cinema.

This epic film is written by Wajahat Mirza (who also wrote the dialogues for Mughal-e-Azam), S. Ali Raza (who wrote films like Aan and Andaz) and Mehboob Khan (the director). It was a remake of Mehboob Khan’s film titled Aurat (1940), based on the story by Babubhai Mehta, to which he profusely added a strong sense of nationalism – like in the song ‘Dukh Bhare Din Beete Re’ we see an outline map of India literally drawn on the land using haystacks, with people inside, waving joyously and Radha, along with her two sons, standing at the centre on a pedestal, with sickles in hands.

Though 172 minutes long, with a total of 12 songs (by Naushad; lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni), Mother India has a very well written, crisp screenplay. It begins with the protagonist, Radha, an old lady, considered as the mother of the entire village, taking the audience into a flashback, as if saying, ‘come, listen to my story’.

We see now a younger, beautiful Radha who marries Shamu. At first, she comes across as a shy and subservient bride, her husband being her lord, but wait until Radha hears about the loan that Shamu’s mother took from the devious moneylender, Sukhi Lala, right then Radha confidently offers her jewellery, her gold bangles to pay off this debt.

The tussle between a family in debt and a corrupt loan shark, between Radha’s values and absolute degradation of every moral standard, only intensifies as the story moves ahead. Radha’s family grows, their needs increases, but so does Sukhi Lala’s interference and with Panchayat’s support he declares his right on Shamu’s farm and its produce.

Birju, Radha’s second son, is a rebel right from the beginning – he wants his farm and Radha’s gold bangles back at any cost. Foreshadowing this, Birju troubles Sukhi Lala as a kid, not ready to give him the harvest, calling him a thief and grows up to become Sukhi Lala’s doom.

The tight plot doesn’t give respite to the viewer for Radha has not one but many battles to win; Shamu’s arms are crushed in an accident, humiliated by Sukhi Lala for living on his wife’s mercy, he leaves Radha and their four kids forever; after passing away of her mother-in-law, Radha faces natural disasters – flood and storm hits her land and takes away her two youngest kids.

With only Ramu and Birju as her family now, defeated, she goes to Sukhi Lala and begs him for a morsel of bread. In this highly dramatic sequence, Radha, who had decided to compromise, eventually doesn’t allow Sukhi Lala to violate her; she has a dialogue with the goddess Laxmi –

“Devi, Radha k roop mein aate hue laaj na aayi… mere roop mein aayi ho to apni laaj lut-te hue bhi dekh lo… hanso nahi… hanso nahi… sansar ka bhaar utha logi Devi, mamta ka bojh na uthaya jayega… Maa bankar dekho, tumhare panv bhi dadmaga jayenge…”

(Translation – Goddess now that you have come in my avatar, witness how you are dishonoured. Don’t laugh! It is easy to nurture the whole world and truly difficult to be a mother, try being one, even you’ll falter.)

Radha looks weak at first – like the mother who is expected to sacrifice and is thusly, worshipped – but after talking to the goddess within her, she remembers her individual self; Radha stands up, crushes the evil and soars like a phoenix.

She raises her kids into fine young men; she gets Ramu, a man of principle, married, but worries for Birju, the stubborn son. Once again foreshadowing is used here – Radha warns Birju not to trouble any girl or else she won’t spare him, in fact, after the Holi sequence when Birju tries to get Radha’s bangles back from Rupa (Sukhi Lala’s only daughter) and the whole village beat up Birju for being so insolent, then Radha promises the entire village to punish Birju herself, kill him if need be.

Bloodthirsty, Birju joins some dacoits, kills Sukhi Lala and abducts Rupa. When Radha tries to stop him, with a rifle in her hands, Birju doesn’t listen, sure that his mother can’t harm him; Radha shoots him down – Birju dies in Radha’s arms after giving her the gold bangles.

Here the flashback ends; Radha opens the gate of the irrigation canal, allowing the muddy reddish water to flow in the fields, symbolizing bloodshed that she and the whole nation had witnessed for freedom.

Every scene, every dialogue, every song makes this film nothing less than an epic poem. The three love stories, in its limited space, bloom beautifully – Ramu and Champa represent ‘love’ that triumphs; Birju and Chandra, both opposite in nature, represent unfulfilled love; Radha and Shamu, unite to face separation forever, represent ‘love’ that sacrifices.

Throughout the film, the characters stick to their traits and yet, each character grows. Ramu fights Birju to protect Rupa in the end; Sukhi Lala begs Radha to save his daughter, but still doesn’t say a word about the debt; Birju leaves the village to become a dacoit, hitting his mother when she tries to stop him; and Radha, a mother becomes Radha, a woman and sacrifices her son for a girl’s honour. That is why these characters are still remembered, they repeat their traits, their flaws, just like we all do.

A 21st-century screenwriter could be reluctant to accept Mother India’s melodramatic approach, but what cannot be resisted is its great storyline, life-like characters and true representation of Hindi cinema.


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


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