A Bengali lost in Bollywood

Print edition : July 29, 2005

Saif Ali as Shekhar and Vidya Balan as Lalita in Parineeta. -

Opulent settings, lots of music, a central love interest and a dramatic ending - Parineeta is a story altogether different from Sarat Chandra's novel.

WHAT does one expect when one goes to watch a film based on a `classic'? Or at least a well-known book? Does one go expecting a `faithful' retelling of a familiar narrative, in the way people went back to the retellings of epic sub-plots in old-style theatre? Or the thrill of reliving the emotions that would be aroused by a familiar story? Does one expect the pages of the book to come alive on screen?

Of course not. Everyone knows that it is an `interpretation' that is being offered. And never more so than when the book is just a name, and that too a name that one has probably only just become aware of. A book such as Parineeta.

The Bengalis of the generation that stepped into adolescence in the early 1980s read Sarat Chandra as teenagers. Some went back to him later, but not very often to Parineeta, and even less to Devdas. In the previous generation they were household names along with almost all other Sarat Chandra stories. But very few city-bred Bengalis, who were in their teens in the 1990s, have read Sarat Chandra; unless they study Bengali literature in college. A lot of them, of course, had heard of Devdas, because of the films that had been made on it, in both Bengali and Hindi, films that one still gets to see occasionally, courtesy Doordarshan; and of course the story is perfect Tollywood/Bollywood material.

Not many movie-goers are old enough to remember Bimal Roy's 1953 adaptation of Parineeta. But the name of Sarat Chandra is enough to draw crowds, even non-Bengalis who, or whose parents, may have read him in translation. Is it his name that draws them?

Why is it that the young people who find no reason to read Sarat Chandra's Parineeta like Vidu Vinod Chopra's film so much (or at least find enough reason to go and watch it)? Because it is `contemporary'. It has everything that movie-goers would want: opulent settings, flashy clothes, lots of music, a central love interest, motives and emotions that are recognisable, a clear black-and-white pattern of good and bad, a Bollywood-style dramatic ending, and even an intimate scene. It is not too `arty', and yet it is different - no violence, no singing and dancing around trees, no skimpy clothes. And conveniently, there is nothing `Bengali' about the movie (no Bengali groom in a traditional marriage would wear a black sherwani, and certainly not in 1962). So audiences, including Bengalis, used to a Star Plus version of north Indian Hindu culture (the wedding preparations, for instance) can easily identify with the film.

The film pretends to be set in 1962, but like all classic Bollywood products it has a fairytale setting that cannot really be pinned down to a date in history. The way the characters behave and the clothes they wear have nothing 1962 about them; and since almost the entire movie is set indoors, there is really little else to go by. The period furniture, the colonial mansions, the saris worn by the older women in the movie, the first few shots (beautifully taken) of Calcutta (now Kolkata) streets and the river bank do not convincingly evoke a 1962 world - neither for those old enough to remember it nor for people with enough sense of history to guess what it might have been like. And, also, like all classic Bollywood products, the film clearly carries the stamp of its own time.

THE book on which the film is supposed to have been based is a very different proposition. It was published in 1914, when Sarat Chandra had just begun to make a name for himself. Like most of his novels, this one explores emotions, attitudes and social norms that seem more late 19th century than early 20th. The first thing that strikes modern readers, and most likely put them off, is the age of the heroine: Lalita is 13 years old when the novel starts. She is 17 when it ends with the prospect of her marriage, but only 14 when she resigns herself to a life without love, and to the fact that she must lose the man she feels married to for no fault of her own, knowing that she can never stop loving him though he has revealed himself to be a coward, and a self-righteous one at that. In other words, in the context of her time, this 14-year-old resigns herself to a complete wrecking of her life, without complaining and without a trace of self-pity. Lalita in Sarat Chandra's book is a child without a childhood - or at least the kind of experience we would recognise as childhood - handling responsibilities and behaving in a way that would appear to us far beyond her years.

It is rather off-putting. And also unconvincing? Well, until one remembers that 13 was the marriageable age for Bengali girls in the late 19th century, and also in the early 20th in many families. This was also, of course, the time of agitated debates about child marriage, but even people who came out strongly against the practice in their writing could not always take a stand against it in life. Rabindranath Tagore famously married his daughters very young, despite his known views against child marriage. Did girls who were likely to get married at 13 behave like Lalita does? Were they capable of the kind of loyalty and fortitude that she shows? Should we dismiss her as a somewhat holier-than-thou child flaunting values she does not understand, or should we take her as a character located at a particular point in history who is only being true to her time and type? These are not questions that the casual reader is equipped to answer, or would even want to think about. And this seeming anomaly might finish the book for the readers, unless of course the bitter-sweet Mills & Boon-like romance has enough attraction for them to overlook it.

But there is another more fundamental reason why readers might be put off by the book. And that is the character of the hero, Shekhar. Sarat Chandra's tendency to defend weak men in his stories (Devdas being a classic example), clear in his delineation of this character, is one of the reasons why he lost some of his popularity with `intellectual' readers. The way he bends backwards to make acceptable the weaknesses of Shekhar, who appears priggish most of the time and cowardly at some key moments in the novel, is irritating, to say the least. The weaknesses themselves make an interesting psychological study, which is one of the few qualities that make the novel worth reading.

When Shekhar comes back from a holiday with his mother to find that Lalita's uncle has embraced the Brahmo faith, his heart sinks because he knows that now his father will never agree to his marriage with Lalita. He is also intensely jealous when he learns that Lalita's family wants her to marry Girindra (Girish in the film), the young liberal Brahmo gentleman who saved the family from insolvency. But when Lalita tells him that she trusts he will sort things out so that they can marry, Shekhar's heart sinks again, for fear that she may make their secret public, that she might force him to accept responsibility for what he has pledged. He had been heartbroken at the thought of losing her, but now it is the thought of not being able to shake her off that worries him. Then, when he realises that she is not going to press her claim, that their secret is safe with her and that she has set him free, he mourns again for what he has lost and works himself up into a tortured jealousy thinking she is going to marry Girindra.

Three years later, when Lalita and her family come back to their old house for a few days, weeks before Shekhar is to be married, he is righteously contemptuous when she tries to snatch a private moment with him. It is hard to see what Lalita sees in this man, and harder to accept the writer's weak defence of the indefensible. All is fine at the end, the misunderstandings are sorted out and Shekhar and Lalita can get married, but the reader is not at all sure that he deserves her. The paradox is that Shekhar's vacillations are interesting in themselves, in that they shed light on the defining role that male ego can play in a relationship, and on the plight of a generation that by and large had not learnt to stand up to dominating fathers.

THE experience of watching Vidu Vinod Chopra's production is untrammelled by complications of this sort. It is a different story altogether, a much simpler one in fact, except for the central situation: boy loves girl, boy is jealous of a supposed lover and punishes girl, and then all is well once the suspicions are proved false. It is an ancient theme, the stuff of fairytales and folk stories, of countless plays and novels, and of Mills & Boon romances. There is no denying that it is pure cinema.

The theme has been further simplified, thereby made even fitter for popular consumption, by tracing the central conflict not to Shekhar's weak mind but to his father's evil machinations. In the book, Nabin Roy is a more or less harmless if rather greedy gentleman, and is safely dead soon after Girindra takes Lalita's family away for a change of air. He has been demonised in the film, portrayed as a villain in the tradition of Bollywood. This makes it possible to portray Shekhar as the victim of a conspiracy, instead of one of his own weak nature. So that instead of hanging his head in shame, he can strike a heroic posture in the end. Not quite convincing, but who wants Bollywood to be convincing? Bollywood needs a villain to set off the hero, a clearly defined `bad' to reinforce the `good'. Who wants realism when actors like Saif Ali and Sabyasachi Chakraborty can weave such a colourful fairytale? Who cares for deviations from an original few have read when one is offered such splendid opulence on screen? And if there are cynics in the audience who sniff at the bad taste of the drama at the end, well, so much the worse for them.

Most of us are more interested in admiring the undisputed talent of newcomer Vidya Balan.

Some films draw their strength from their actors. Others, such as those of Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal, are directors' films, even if they draw on the best acting talents available. Vidu Vinod Chopra's is a producer's film. Parineeta is what it is because of the way it has been produced, the lavishness of its settings, the tasteful rendering of wealth. There are few other films that people connect with their producers. When it is a `Big B' movie, people do not even remember the director after a while. But Parineeta will always be remembered as Vidu Vinod Chopra's film. I wonder how many in the audience were even aware that it was directed by Pradeep Sarkar.

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