This is a classic, if you are talking women lead pictures in India you have to discuss it. But I don’t like it. So this will be an odd review.
This is a film that doesn’t really fit anywhere. It’s a period movie, set about 20 years before it released, and yet you can’t call it a historical because the time period is still so close. It’s a woman in prison movie, and yet we leave the prison for at least half the film. It’s a woman’s picture, but our heroine never interacts with other women. It’s a Bengali movie, but it’s in Hindi. And it has two heroes, one left over from a previous era and one who belongs in the coming era, no one for now. The only thing that truly seems to fit, to belong in every part of the film, is our heroine Nutan. This was her at the top of her fame and power, and her character is the one that is fully understood by the script and by the performer.
I like Bimal Roy, I have no beef with him. I like his Devdas and I like his Sujata. And I like that he came out of the Bengali social films tradition, he makes romances but they aren’t just romances, they are about how every romance is also a statement on and a struggle against society. The problem is that in this case Roy himself doesn’t seem clear on the statement he wants to make with this romance. Or perhaps more accurately, he does not realize that Nutan’s performance and character are conspiring against his statement.
Maybe it is also a bit of self-interested blindness? There are three lead characters in this film, a young woman, a young man, and a middle-aged man. Bimal Roy was a middle-aged man. And he cast another middle-aged man in the role, someone who was also Bengali, also from the early years of film, essentially himself. Isn’t it understandable that the sympathy of the director and the film would swing naturally towards the character most like the director?
But the problem is, this is supposed to be a movie about a young woman. And instead of telling her story with sympathy and focus, it keeps getting pulled over to the middle-aged man who is not intended as the central figure. That is the danger when a man makes a movie about a woman (or an upperclass person about a poor person or a Hindu about a Muslim or any other member of a more powerful group about one who is less powerful). You spend your whole life thinking of things from your side and that of people like you, and the world encourages you to keep thinking that way. And then you sit down to make a movie about someone not like you but you have to constantly fight a lifetime of training in swinging the focus away, to the people like you. This isn’t an issue when a woman makes a movie about a man, or a Muslim about a Hindu, if you are down then you are in the habit of looking up. But when you are up, it is very hard to force yourself to keep your eyes down.
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We start in the present in a woman’s prison. There is a lovely complex song sequence showing the woman singing and working at their separate tasks, and then we meet our heroine, a quiet responsible prisoner who is meeting the new prison doctor, Dharmendra. Dharmendra learns her story which we see in flashback. Nutan was an innocent village girl whose father was involved in the freedom struggle. Ashok Kumar came to stay in their village, an old friend of her father and a hero of the freedom struggle. Nutan fell in love with him. But then he left, and did not return. Nutan was shamed in the village and left, coming to the city and working as a nurse. Which is when she was hired as the nurse for a wealthy hypochondriac woman and learned that woman’s husband was Ashok Kumar. Ashok explained to Nutan that he had to marry her for her money, so he could take the money and give it to the freedom struggle. And now he is trapped forever, married to a horrible woman he cannot love. All of this burns within Nutan until, in a moment of mad weakness, she poisons her patient. She does not deny her crime, and peacefully goes to jail where she is now serving out her sentence. Dharmendra is increasingly drawn to Nutan and finally proposes, telling her he knows everything of her story and still wants to marry her. Once her sentence is complete, she should come to his home village to live with him and his mother. Nutan struggles, but agrees. Only as she leaves the prison to travel to the village, she waits at the station and overhears coughing, eventually realizing it is Ashok Kumar. He is now sick and dying, cared for only by his old servant. Nutan struggles with herself, but cannot resist. She goes to him and promises to always be with him, forgetting her plans with Dharmendra.
There is a simple meaning to the story, the woman are not in a prison of walls and bars but a prison of love. Nutan cannot escape her love, it drove her from her village, it drove her to murder, it drove her to prison, and now it is driving her to a life of sacrifice caring for Ashok. This is an interesting story, how the life of a woman is forever not hers. But the problem is the massive blindspot to the true source of her misery, Ashok Kumar.
Ashok is a truly terrible person in this film. And rather than the movie confronting that, discussing how men such as he destroy women’s lives because they do not see them as people, it is strangely blind to the ways that Nutan was not destroyed by society, or by the inner pain of a woman, but by this one man here who destroys every woman he touches. He romanced and abandoned her. Then he went on to marry a woman for her money, and persuade his ex-girlfriend to kill her on his behalf. Finally, when his ex was preparing to move on to a man who treated her decently, he guilted her into staying with him simply because he wanted a nursemaid.
Because Roy saw himself in Ashok, he kept turning a blind eye to his behavior. The film tries to establish Ashok as trapped, just like Nutan. He falls in love with her but is forced to marry for money. He suffers with a wife he does not love. He suffers when the woman he does love kills for him. And all his suffering is rewarded in the end when instead of being sick and alone, he has a beautiful woman appear to care for him.
Beyond a blindness to Ashok, this is a blindness to the whole social structure that traps women. No, Ashok was not suffering and trapped equal to Nutan, or even his wife. As an upperclass man he had many options in front of him. Without acknowledging that, without acknowledging that this same social structure is why Ashok sees his wife and his lover only in terms of how they can serve him, then this is not truly a story of women.
It wasn’t just Ashok that hit Roy’s blindness, it was also the non-Nutan women. For Nutan, he has sympathy and understanding. But for Ashok’s poor wife, the rich woman who was tricked into marrying a man who hates her so he can steal her money, he has no sympathy. It is Ashok that is wronged in this marriage, Ashok who is suffering, and Nutan on his behalf. The other women prisoners are treated kindly when the camera turns its eye on to them, but also like “others” somehow. We do not get an insight into their struggles and their hearts, the audience is not invited to identify with them, merely to observe them.
There is a difference between a film that tells a woman’s story and a film that takes a woman’s side. This film tells Nutan’s story, that of a village girl who was destroyed by love, but it does not take her side. It never uses the cinematic powers to punish Ashok, or even seems to consider what he did as sins. It does not allow Nutan to grow either, as a protagonist she remains trapped in her childish love for Ashok instead of forming bonds with the other women in prison, or even seeing Ashok for what he really is. The inner world of Nutan reflects what the men around her want it to be, that a woman never feels anger or bitterness towards the men who destroyed her, just endurance and humility. That a woman never talks to other women and comes to an understanding of how pointless men are in her world. This is the story of a woman, yes, but it is not a story FOR a woman, it is still a story for men.