You know how every Friday I would go see the new release with my friend Dina? Our new routine is to watch a movie together with Netflix Party every Friday. And we have a long list of weird old movies we have been dying to show each other. So, sorry Internet People! The new movie reviews that are going to be going up, are a lot of weird WEIRD old things. And this one is very weird, I encourage you to read the spoiler section even if you don’t want to watch the movie just to see how WEIRD it is.
Wow! Just, WOW!!! I’d heard about this movie in various places before as having a really unusual group of performances and plot, but never been able to watch it. Now, thanks to Netflix, here it is for anyone to see. Really, watch it! It’s just FASCINATING! Or at the very least, read the spoilers for this review and go “wow, that’s amazing.”
This is a remake of a Bengali film, where’s my Uttam Kumarite’s at??? Woot-woot! Strange complex non-judgemental take on untraditional relationships! Nothing happens until the last 5 minutes and then it all happens at once! You end the film and go “huh. I’m not sure how I feel about any of that, except that I feel weird.” Oh Bengali plotting, you are so strange.
I feel no guilt for missing the Uttam Kumar original, because this has Raajkumar, Raakhee, and Hema in truly perfect casting and amazing performances all around. Especially Hema, this both is and is not the kind of performance I am used to from her. It’s the same village belle character, but facing new and different adversities this time around. Her performance, and her character, is truly unique.
Raajkumar is a little unique. We’ve seen the dissolute Zaminder plenty of times before, but he is interesting with the way he tries to be better, fails, and tries again. And of course the way Raajkumar plays him in that struggle.
And then Raakhee. Pure and perfect, but a little more naive and sweet than even her usual Raakhee sweetness. A painful sweetness, a vulnerable sweetness. It’s not positioned as a strength like it usually is, but a weakness.
There’s some other interesting layers, this is distinctly a colonial era story set up with a present day flashback. The unspoken lesson being “thank goodness the free and easy young people of today don’t have to worry about the crazy money, class, tradition pressure of the past”. And on top of that there are some quick flashbacks going either further establishing the fragility of all these class/money divisions since they can be created and lost so fast. Oh, and urban versus rural, our central household keeps moving between the cities and the villages, being able to reinvent themselves each way.
But mostly it is all about the women! Our hero, our wealthy privileged hero, thoughtlessly destroys the women around him by putting his own expectations on to them. The women appear flawed because he has made them that way, forced them into a position where they cannot possibly live up to his expectations. We watch all three characters struggle in unexpected ways in a net of his own making, unable to break free as the whole world is conspiring to keep them trapped. Until the present day, when everything is easy and happy.
Really, read the SPOILERS! I want people to talk to about this whole thing!
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We start in present day with a bunch of 70s young people going around old monuments in Agra. They are in suits and saris, but they are also casual and joking, and hanging out in public together, no huge pressure of class or gender divide or anything stupid like that. And then they meet a crazy old man hanging around (Raajkumar) and he asks to tell them his story of blood and death that happened right here. FLASHBACK.
The present day was all casual and sunny and safe, the flashback goes straight into violence, so we know that the world is moving forward into increased security and openness and the past was a pit of violence. Raajkumar’s grandfather was a bandit who captured and raped his grandmother to found his royal family. His father was a terrible drunk that he walked in on raping a maid as a child, at which point his saintly mother sent him away to be raised in the city. And then there is Raajkumar himself, an educated man who still enjoys hunting, his dogs, and yelling at his servants.
Raajkumar while on a tiger hunt sees a group of bandits carrying away their treasure. He chases them off and finds a woman, Hema, held captive. He takes her back to the palace and learns she is a widow woman from a nearby village captured by the bandits. He returns her to her family, only for them to beat and blame her for being “spoiled”. He rescues her from them and brings her back to the palace planing to take her to a widow’s retreat. But Hema overhears his plans and instead goes to him that night and they end up having sex. This is the first time Raajkumar has let himself give in to desires after a lifetime of restraint in fear of becoming like his father. Raajkumar takes Hema away from the country palace to the city where no one knows them, gives her the family wedding jewelry, dresses her as a wife, and takes her to a temple for blessings, but does not actually marry her. He tries to turn Hema into a proper wife for himself, starting with teaching her to read, and then classical singing, and so on. But she cannot seem to learn to read, and when she does, she is only interested in ready bad novels. Her singing is terrible, she keeps chewing paan and stomping around the house with her jewelry jingling, and she drives Raajkumar crazy. Although he is also still unable to resist her sexually.
After a decade of this, Raajkumar goes for a ride and hears a beautiful voice. He follows it to find Raakhee giving a classical music concert. She is a middle-class woman, educated up to the 12th standard and would have gone farther if her family had the money, and with a lovely voice and singing training. Raajkumar is entranced. He calls her drunken father to his home and offers to pay him if he will marry Raakhee to him. Raakhee at first is uninterested in this marriage because it is sudden and purely for money, but her father threatens to kill her mother so she agrees. On the wedding night, surprisingly, the couple begins to bond. Raajkumar is interested in her and respectful, and says that she should continue her schooling and he will pay for it. But then they are interrupted by Hema breaking a mirror in her room downstairs. The marriage starts on a bad note.
Raajkumar tries to keep both women happy and separate, while also in the same house. He tells Hema that she still carries the keys for the household and still has her place just like always. And he does not talk to Raakhee about Hema at all, treating her as his new wife and Queen without discussing the other woman in the household. Raakhee is too naive and scared to dare confront him about it, or even ask Hema, and is left to piece together that, somehow, Hema is her rival.
And now, enter Vinod Mehra! Raakhee’s friend from childhood, just returned from studying engineering abroad. Raajkumar likes him right away, they are similarly educated men. He and Raakhee and Vinod seem like they are forming a friendship. Until Hema poisons Raajkumar about it, suggesting that Vinod (much younger than Raajkumar and an old friend) might be Raakhee’s true love. Raajkumar, tormented by these thoughts, goes off on a sudden hunting trip. While he is gone, Hema encourages Vinod to come visit as much as he wants and Vinod and Raakhee become closer. Raajkumar returns and visits Raakhee first instead of Hema, Raakhee is thrilled and gives orders to make his dinner herself and so on. But then Raajkumar sneaks away from her to see Hema again while she is cooking, and she is heartbroken. Hema learns Raakhee is crying and feels suddenly guilty and decides to fix the situation. She arranges things so that Raajkumar overhears her flirting with Vinod, then sets up a big fight with him and declares she does not love him and is leaving. Raajkumar is now theoretically free to be happy with his new young bride Raakhee. Only, the jealously of Vinod is still there, hidden inside, no one from Vinod to Raakhee to Hema even suspects.
Raajkumar and Raakhee go off together to tour the famous historical sites of Agra. Everything is happy, Raakhee is delighted to be alone with him, but Raajkumar still suspects. He calls Vinod to join them and is a charming friendly host, encouraging Vinod and Raakhee to go off alone together so that he can follow and watch them. He believes he sees proof of infidelity. That night, he invites Vinod to go on a moonlight tour of the old Mughal palace grounds. They are dressed in traditional garb, drinking heavily, and Raajkumar is carrying a gun. He tells Vinod ghost stories getting him more and more confused between reality and illusion. They see a ghost and Raajkumar shoots at it, but nothing happens. They see another ghost, of a dancing girl, and Vinod grabs the gun and shoots. This time, she cries out and falls. Raajkumar explains, this was his revenge. He hired an actor to be the first ghost and shot a blank at him. This second ghost is Raakhee, asked to dress up as a prank, and now Vinod has shot her for real. As she dies, Raakhee declares her true love for Raajkumar and he finally believes her. He grabs the gun to shoot himself, Vinod struggles with him, and he shoots Vinod as well. The two innocents died because of his obsession.
The final twist is in the modern day. It is now night time and the young people are still there with the old man Raajkumar. He tells them to stay, because Raakhee’s ghost will walk by at any moment. And then she does! A figure in Mughal dancing garb carrying a picture. Raajkumar raises his cane and says “bang” and she falls. The young people are stunned, and then look again and the woman stands up and walks over to him. It is Hema. She smiles and calmly explains, in a friendly way, that it is the only way she can get Raajkumar to return home with her on full moon nights. And then she gently takes his arm and leads him away.
Isn’t that an AMAZING plot??? The first wife/mistress and second wife confusion and jealousy, the painful love story of two woman who can’t seem to please the man they love, and Raajkumar himself who keeps looking to people outside of himself to solve his problems, who is unable to believe in his own virtues.
Especially Hema. She is the prototypical “evil” mistress in broad strokes. She is a widow, so sexually experienced. And we see her overhear the plan to send her away and then make a decision to go to Raajkumar, which leads to sex and her staying. She loves her jewelry, she loves her power in the home, and she hates the new bride. This is every evil older woman in every movie, straight through to the modern American rom-coms with the “evil fiancee” trope, she’s rich and shallow and doesn’t really truly love the hero as much as the pure new girl that she is jealous of. But that’s not Hema here! The film takes time to show her to us as a real person, so we understand where that insecurity and lashing out is coming from, and that she can feel as much pain and fear as anyone else, even the younger “purer” woman.
Hema’s in-laws are terrible and beating her when Raajkumar rescues her, and before that she was kidnapped by bandits. Her beauty and her body have been a burden for her, something everyone tries to beat out. Raajkumar’s respectful desire is a breath of fresh air. We understand, without any dialogue, why she would want to stay in his lovely home with this supportive man instead of being thrown back to her in-laws, or to a widow’s retreat. Their first night together, it’s not about Hema seducing Raajkumar, or Raajkumar seducing her (although that is how Raajkumar keeps trying to frame it), it is about two willing people reaching out for each other. Raajkumar believes he wrongfully seduced her and therefore excuses keeping her with him in future by saying it is the “right” thing to do. Later, when he tires of her, he starts to rewrite it as Hema seducing him and keeping him with her by her evil female wiles. Just as he tries to rewrite her as stupid and boring once he tires of her and no longer finds her perfect.
Hema wants to read and finally makes it work by finding books she likes, but they aren’t the books Raajkumar thinks she should like so he decides it isn’t good enough. He hires a singing teacher and she tells him that she can’t sing, he insists she try harder and then frowns and leaves the room when she isn’t good enough. She runs his home perfectly, but he doesn’t see that as valuable. She dresses in beautiful clothes, she wears his jewelry with pride, she does everything she can to please him, but he only sees the things she can’t do instead of the things she can do. Raajkumar made her into his “wife” at first, and then turned around and made her into a mistress instead and Hema was left trying to follow along and be whatever he wanted her to be. Until she realizes what he needs most is for her to be the villain he defeats and throws out of his life, so she becomes that villain and lets him destroy her. The twist at the end, it’s not for Raajkumar, it’s for Hema and the people who are watching and making assumptions. She is now caring for him, living her life to make his life easier. And she is willing to literally “play” Raakhee for him, to the point of dressing up like her and re-enacting her death just to trick him into coming home at night.
Then there’s Raakhee of course. Raajkumar does the same with her, sees her as this perfect angel just because she is young and pretty and educated. And then immediately sees her as a villain just because she has a male friend. But she’s in between the two. She doesn’t want to marry Raajkumar, she would rather marry Vinod, because Raajkumar is a stranger. And on the other hand, she comes to truly love Raajkumar, because he is supportive of her, and intelligent, and interesting. She isn’t a perfect bride to love him immediately, but she also isn’t a faithless wife who is incapable of being in love.
Raajkumar describes himself as being half good (his mother) and half bad (his father), but again the film questions that assumption he is making. We never actually see the bad or the good, just as Raakhee and Hema aren’t the angel and devil he makes them out to be. He never rapes a woman in the whole movie, but instead blames himself for giving in and having consensual sex with Hema. On the other hand, he sees his buying Raakhee as a wife as a “good” thing because she is like his mother. He is blind to how what he is doing to Raakhee is still related to what his father and grandfather did when they forcefully took women home with them.
Really, it’s just a fascinating movie! You all should watch it! If nothing else, the ruffled sari blouses that I have never seen in any other film, are not to be missed!