Falling Walls (Girti Deewaaren)

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  • Major Spoilers

Upendranath Ashk’s ‘Falling Walls’ is set, by turn, in 1930’s small town Punjab, Lahore and Shimla and follows Chetan from his brutal childhood through his struggles to make something of himself and find artistic fulfillment. ‘Falling Walls’ is not just an engaging novel for social-history enthusiasts, but is also a rewarding read because of the proximity one often feels to it’s characters, particularly it’s central protagonist Chetan. Daisy Rockwell clearly felt this closeness, as evidenced by both her quite personal introduction to the novel, and the many years taken in translating it -her translation is a labour of love. In writing ‘Falling Walls’ Ashk sought to distance himself from his earlier more fanciful, one-dimensional works of fiction and authentically depict the trials, pleasures and interior life of a younger self- the novel, it appears, is heavily autobiographical. As Ashk himself eloquently puts it in his lively introduction to the 1951 edition of the novel, he wished to illustrate that:

“…man is not artless enough to be a deity; that he is not made of pure gold but is a mixture of alloys; that it is not just his exterior universe that is a boundless mass of complications, but rather that many layers of entanglements exist within him as well, and below these are caves so dark that just a glance at them could cause one to tremble.”

The novel begins in Jalandhar, and we are introduced to Chetan’s family and his prospective wife as well as characters populating his mohalla, who have a more tangential presence in Chetan’s life. It would not be harsh to describe Chetan’s father as a monster. One would be hard-pressed to think up ways in which Pandit Shadiram could be a worse husband and father. Chetan’s sufferings at the hands of his alcoholic father are very substantial and are further expanded upon in the more contemplative Shimla phase of the novel, but his Bhai Sahib has had an even tougher time, and is one of those children rendered almost insensate from the abuse and violence frequently and gratuitously meted out to him. Their mother Lajwati’s life has been truly wretched and her situation is more pitiable than that of her children. Given what she has been through, it’s a real wonder that she remains an empathetic and kindly woman, and never turns into an embittered daughter-in-law torturing harridan.

Bhai Sahab diverts himself by way of chess and cards while Chetan’s natural leanings incline him to take pleasure and respite in a diverse range of pursuits; learning and then writing his own poems and bhajans, acting them out, toy-making, music and drawing. Chetan throws himself into these activities feelingly and wholeheartedly. An anecdote is related where a young Chetan observes that his neighbour is in possession of many birds and keeps them all entrapped in one small cage. Chetan is saddened by the plight of the birds and composes a bhajan exhorting his neighbour to release them. This, he literally sings from his rooftop. The neighbour goes on to sell the birds for a profit, but when Chetan views the empty cage from afar he is elated and ascribes this state of affairs to the transformative potential of his verse. He is spurred on by this perceived victory to compose more bhajans.

The adult Chetan is just as sensitive, impressionable and ambitious, and seeks to emerge from the squalor and despair that surrounds him and distinguish himself in some creative field. Embarking upon a career as a translator and occasional story-writer for a Lahore based newspaper Chetan earns little, but is buoyed by dreams of the future and continues to approach the arts with similar ardour; writing and reciting poetry, attempting a novel, and later acting and learning how to sing and play various instruments. All of these activities he undertakes with gusto, but the results are often not commensurate to his efforts, and are a poor reflection of the passion and sincerity put in. Chetan is also eager to make Chanda (the wife selected for him) his equal in learning and education. His efforts in this area, however, initially gravitate between delivering motivational lectures and getting hot and bothered when prompt answers to his questions are not forthcoming. A complaisant and hardworking Chanda is willing to cooperate. Ashk, does however, also amusingly enlighten us as to the sentiments these efforts on Chetan’s part occasionally inspire. The formerly recreational walks of the the couple are now utilised by Chetan for pedagogic purposes.

“Golbagh’s empty paths, trees, plant flowers, leave, grassy lawns and tar-black streets looked beautiful and dreamlike in the milky moonlight of the month of Kartik, and Chanda tired of listening to the curses and harsh voices of the Changar ladies all day long, was eager to hear the sweet rustling of the leaves….she wanted to sit for a few moments by the side of the road where there was a tiny cannon from olden times on the top of a platform , but her boring husband who longed to be a poet and a fabulist…”

Money remains scarce despite the mutual support Bhai Sahib and Chetan proffer one another. Time, however, becomes less so when a naive Chetan is lured to Shimla by quack Kaviraj. Susceptible to the latter’s false promises and flattery, Chetan arrives in Shimla where he is disabused of any illusions regarding Kaviraj and spends lonely days penning Kaviraj’s book. But, it is also in Shimla that Chetan is able to devote spare hours first to lessons in classical music, and then rehearsing for the play ‘Anarkali’. He is very much invested in both undertakings. The lessons culminate in a classical music recital where Chetan is anxious to display his vocal skills. He is practically jeered off the stage and runs ‘home like a thief in the night’. The play is also a tragi-comic event where the fuming director stalks on to the stage and tears off the glasses which Chetan has forgotten to remove. A maturer, more successful Chetan may, in some years, be able to look back at these incidents with a bemused if somewhat wistful smile, but the pathos generated by these events is very real. At times, in reading fiction, you find characters with which you feel an affinity, or with which you share attitudes and particular personality traits . Chetan is one such character, and you find that he possesses certain tendencies which you have still have not outgrown. There is what Chetan himself describes as his ‘overblown sentimentality’. He is easily hurt and depressed and just as easily happy and euphoric. He has a distaste for open confrontation in some situations and tends to withdraw further into himself. E.g. Though he is seething at Kaviraj’s many deceptions he finds it impossible to openly raise the subject with Kaviraj. Assuming that Chetan is a close representation of Ashk himself, it would be interesting to know how Ashk went from being this fairly diffident young man to later on writing scathing introductions to his works, in which he would lambaste one and all (critics and contemporaries). I will probably have to read the other volumes of the Girti Deewaren (Falling Walls) series in order to find out.

In Ashk’s introduction to this novel, however, his appraisal of some of the observations made by his critics appears to be fair enough. Written with verve, the introduction simultaneously expands on the literary influences which had a bearing on his stylistic and thematic choices. While his influences were diverse, Ashk had a particular regard for Premchand, and specifically cites Premchand when explaining his decision to refrain from writing anything outside the ambit of his own experience. In my view, some writers do need to abstain from wandering too far away from the particular world or worlds they inhabit in order to avoid hitting false notes. Others have strong intuitive powers, and a sort of perspicacity which enables them to not only ‘stand in the shoes’ of very disparately habituated individuals but also understand the most intricate workings of their minds. How they do it, I don’t know, but the most stunning recent example of this I have read is Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’.

In Ashk’s case, his determination to write only what he had direct knowledge of, results in a persuasive and affecting portrayal of the early phases of Chetan’s life. His experiences are often fractured, bitter-sweet and inconclusive, and sort of plaintiveness runs through significant portions of the text. The novel is also set in a time where (more so than today) small indiscretions and acts of thoughtlessness could have very momentous and damaging consequences. Chetan, after some resistance eventually reconciles himself to his impending marriage with Chanda. Their wedding night constitutes the first real meeting between the couple, where they are able to openly speak to and discover one another. Chetan is delighted to find out that his wife is not only more attractive than he earlier envisaged, but has qualities which are conducive to their living a contented and meaningful life together. However, while he has an affection for Chanda, his senses are completely enthralled by her younger cousin Neela. Chetan’s own acute receptiveness to Neela’s charms and, at one point, uncontrolled expression of this desire, cause him to obtusely prompt Pandit Veniprasad (Neela’s father) to start looking around for a husband for her. The lengthy Shimla months intervene between this phase and Neela’s marriage. These months bring Chetan some solitude, some frenetic activity, humiliations, and upsurging recollections of a brutal past carried on into the present. Kaviraj specialises in sexual health, and when Chetan is about to take leave of him, he does dispense some advice which Chetan considers valuable and is desirous of implementing on meeting Chanda again. Chetan is now keen to make Chanda ‘his true partner’ so that the two of them can together ‘find their bliss’. These good intentions are thwarted by a situation, the making of which Chetan has significantly, if inadvertently, contributed to. Because of the careless haste with which the match is arranged, and a misleading photograph of the potential groom, Neela is married off to a painfully ill-suited military accountant, thrice her age, thrice widowered, and utterly uncongenial to her. While Chetan had no knowledge of, or involvement in the getting up of this match, prior to his chat with Neela’s father, Pandit Veniprasad had been in no hurry to get his young daughter married. Aghast at viewing the groom’s visage, and filled with anguish at the role his own idiocy has played in bringing about this turn of events, a bitter regret and emptiness come to settle inside Chetan. Neela’s marriage extinguishes his former ardour, causing him to derisively scoff at his erstwhile plans.

“Chanda was sleeping soundly. Chetan went and quietly lay down next to her. He thought about Kaviraj’s sermon on sexuality; he also remembered his own vow and laughed at himself. Where was that vow now, where was that desire…even lying right next to her he felt they were miles apart, as though an impenetrable invisible wall stood between them…..As he lay staring into the dark void with sleepless eyes, Chetan felt that these walls stood not just between himself and his wife , not just between Neela and Trilok, but that countless similar walls stood between all women and men, classes and castes in this subjugated nation ….there was no end to such walls. ”

It is on this ironic and quite bleak note that the first volume of the ‘Falling Walls’ series ends. Ashk’s novel is a very worthwhile read and I certainly want to know what the future holds for Chetan, Bhai Sahab, Chanda, Neela and Ma.©

Of Human Bondage

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*Please note that the following review contains spoilers

Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ is an exceptional novel. A semi-autobiographical bildungsroman focusing on the emotional and intellectual development of Philip Carey, ‘Of Human Bondage’ easily qualifies as a classic. Philip Carey is orphaned at the age of nine, and falls under the guardianship of his uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable, and his wife. The novel explores Philip’s emotional and intellectual development from his childhood and school career to his years as a student of diverse disciplines. Philip initially studies languages in Germany, and following an attempt at chartered accountancy in London, considers the prospect of becoming a painter. While Phillip’s two years in Paris as an art student are far from fruitless, he feels that he can never be more than a second-rate painter. Returning to London, Philip ultimately decides to embark upon a career of medicine.

The novel so far introduces us to several superbly drawn and utterly believable characters whose lives have traversed Philip’s in some way, such as the masters at Kings school, the complacent self-satisfied Vicar, his loving and fragile wife Louisa Carey, Miss. Wilkinson, the disagreeable yet pitiable Fanny Price, Hayward, Cronshaw etc. However, never have Philip’s thoughts and feelings been so strongly and compulsively fixated on one object as when he meets Mildred Rogers- an anaemic waitress and the devouring, all-consuming love of Phillip’s life. Mildred Rogers has to be one the most vicious characters in all of fiction. She is indifferent to Phillip, and insensible to his attentions and desperate entreaties for her love. Loving him is something out of her power. Yet, she is not above benefiting from his generosity, humiliating him, abasing him, making him grovel before her, and using him to the utmost. Philip’s love is not blind. He sees her for what she is, but a sort of inexorable force constantly draws him towards her. Every time she enters his life and wreaks havoc, he is helpless before her:

“He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her…..He hated her, he despised her, he loved her with all his heart”.

This sort of attachment may seem uncanny and bizarre, but is very convincingly depicted in the novel. You feel for Philip, his self-destructive love for Mildred may be exasperating but you never want to blame him. He loves her inspite of her and inspite of himself. This relationship is one form of bondage Philip eventually manages to extricate himself from. Another force dominating the early part of his life, which Philip also perceives as a form of bondage is religion. His religious education begins at home in Blackstable and is augmented by what he learns at King’ School. Philip suffers from a clubfoot. His faith is first somewhat shaken when as a child he ardently prays that his clubfoot may be miraculously cured, so that he can run around and play like the other boys. His foot remains as it was. However, his real spiritual inquiry begins through his conversations with Weeks and Hayward in Germany. Some of Philip’s concerns will probably find an echo in the private thoughts of many theists of different faiths: what of non-believers? So much of faith seems a matter of chance, the role of fear in the retention of faith etc. At core, however, Philip is unable to believe in the existence of God. To Philip suffering, loss, success and happiness all seem to be so indiscriminately apportioned and he observes that the ‘rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore’. Attending this is his conviction in the meaninglessness of life which he regards as a liberating force:

“Suddenly he realised that he had also lost that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did . Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in him.”

‘Of Human Bondage’ in some ways reminded me of another very different novel: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. The context which informs the strong nihilism underpinning this novel is the communist order existing in Czechoslovakia. In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being” Kundera presents the lightness/weight dichotomy, first postulated by Parmenides in the sixth Century B.C. whereby one acquires a state of lightness by divesting actions or life experiences of any deeper meaning or resonance. These actions are purportedly just the product of an individual’s exercise of his own volition, and have no place or special significance within the larger scheme of things or a “super-imposed grand narrative”. During the Cold War, in the Eastern block the most trivial and minor events were automatically invested with tremendous meaning by being positioned within the exhausted and impoverished State narrative, or being viewed as auguring a predicted turn in the larger dynamics at play. Of course, because the State ‘grand narrative’ was very much at odds with the economic and social realities encountered under Communist rule, this perfunctory or mechanical mode of imbuing events with broader significance had the effect of inducing extreme weariness. It had the effect of rendering life “pervasively, oppressively meaningful” (1). The cynicism and weariness generated by the imposition of a communist order was not confined to matters directly involving the state, but infused all aspects of life. As one critic John Bayley articulates:

‘The only escape from the congealed political kitsch of the regime is into the lightness of total irresponsibility… the regime corrupts totally the private consciousness of the citizens….Communism in practice cannot conquer the private life, but it makes it light and meaningless, weightless and cynical.’ (2)

Yet the response ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ evoked in me was radically different to that generated by ‘Of Human Bondage’. The former novel filled me with a sense of bleakness. For all it’s brilliance a sense of morbidity permeated every page. Kundera’s himself appears to be one of those supremely cynical citizens (or former citizens), whose private consciousness has been corrupted. His vision repelled me and I found myself totally recoiling from the actions of some of his characters. With ‘Of Human Bondage’ you can agree, disagree or have a mixed response to the novel’s underlying philosophy, but you never cease to like Philip. He is a very nice person. Sensitive and thoughtful, the overriding quality you associate with him is kindness. He hurts Norah Nesbit by leaving her for Mildred, but he is never actuated by malice. While your own perspective may diverge from his you never lose sight of the fact that his questions are legitimately grounded, emanate from his own experiences, and don’t have easy answers. A disavowal of faith and belief that he is only responsible to himself, does not induce any difference in the way Philip conducts himself towards others. Philip is of the view that while he no longer believes, he cannot divorce himself from Christian ethics, and that this implicitly informs some of his behaviour. His friend and, to some extent, mentor Cronshaw has a different theory. Cronshaw maintains that whatever good people do, is ultimately for their own pleasure. Taking up pain and hardship with a view to achieving certain results, is merely delayed gratification. He states:

‘It is pleasure that lurks in the practice of every one of your virtues. Man performs actions because they are good for him and when they are good for other people as well they are thought virtuous: If he finds pleasure in giving alms he is charitable; if he finds pleasure in helping others he is benevolent, if he find pleasure in working for society he is public spirited; but it is for your private pleasure that you give twopence to a beggar as much as it is for my private pleasure that I drink another whisky and soda. I, less of a humbug than you, neither applaud myself for my pleasure nor demand your admiration.’

On the face of it, Cronshaw’s argument is sound enough. Ultimately we do things for our own satisfaction. Our ‘pleasure’ in performing a particular service may just be avoiding the guilt or potential regret of not doing it. But obviously numerous complex and even contradictory variables will enter into a decision to do or refrain from doing a particular thing. What is to be gained from reducing these variables and the competing motives which underlie them, and bringing them all under the overarching umbrella of ‘pleasure’? That we do things for our own pleasure may even seem like a trite statement of fact. It’s more interesting to ask why certain things or acts of kindness commonly confer pleasure (on both the recipient and the giver) . The answer seems inextricably linked with some concept of innate morality.

‘Of Human Bondage’ is beautifully written. The prose is sophisticated and expressive without ever sounding verbose. Maugham is aiming at the direct expression of Philip’s thoughts and experiences, and the writing retains a simple elegance. Amongst Maugham’s chief strengths is his understanding of people and his insight into their psychological make-up, and one of the outstanding features of ‘Of Human Bondage’ is just how effectively the diverse characters which populate it are rendered. All of them have something interesting to impart, and you have absolutely no doubt that they were at least partially drawn from real life. Maugham is known to have referred to himself as being ‘in the very first row of the second-raters’. I think he was being modest in the extreme. There is nothing second rate about ‘Of Human Bondage’.©

(1)Terry Eagleton, ‘Estrangement and Irony’, Salmagundi, 73 (Winter 1987)
(2)John Bayley, ‘Fictive Lightness, Fictive Weight’, Salmagundi, no. 73 (Winter 1987)

Agatha Christie

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As a teenager, I devoured Agatha Christie crime fiction. I wasn’t interested in the novels because I had some kind of acute observatory faculty, or was keen to solve the puzzle myself before the author divulged the identity of the murderer at the end. I often didn’t even bother paying much attention to the details (who had an alibi when? Did this suspect’s leeway of opportunity adequately coincide with the time of the murder? etc). I just loved the process of mystification and subsequent de-mystification as the array of suspects were assembled, the motives and opportunities of each duly considered, with the identity of the murderer ultimately being revealed to us (or quite often sprung upon us). Agatha Christie’s puzzles were not always amenable to solving, in the sense of the reader being able to arrive at the answer by adopting a deductive approach and rationally scrutinising the evidence presented, but in the (very few) cases where I did figure out who the guilty party was well before the end, it was always a bit disappointing. It was the surprises which I delighted in.

When I began reading her crime fiction, I had no idea that Agatha Christie was a famous author; I must have considered her novels to be my personal discovery or something. I would not have known that she was the bestselling writer of the twentieth century, (her novels only being beaten in sales by Shakespeare and the Bible), had it not been for the inside covers of her books constantly informing me of this. When I discovered her books, they were simply no longer as ubiquitous as they must have once been. Soon enough though, I was hooked. I didn’t read all of them, but I must have read at least a good fifty of her eighty crime novels. My personal favourites are ‘Death on the Nile’, ‘And Then There Were None’ (being thirteen when I read it, it thoroughly creeped me out then), ‘A Murder is Announced’, ‘The Moving finger’ and a selection of short stories under the title of ‘The Hound of Death’. Unfortunately, I had unwittingly read a spoiler of ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ and thus deprived myself the pleasure of reading what many regard to be Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. Christie’s best can be picked up and enjoyed in subsequent re-readings, but generally, the stuff which totally engrossed and captivated me for much of my teens, is difficult to read and be enthused by in the same way now. E.g. I recently re-read ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ (a novel which intrigued me on first reading) and found it very clumsy and contrived this time round. However, this criticism cannot legitimately be made of most of Christie’s crime novels, which were by and large very well constructed; her best works exhibiting a high level of craftsmanship and ingenuity.

I suppose my present lack of enthusiasm in reading Christie, ensues, in a large part, from the very nature of the crime fiction genre. In the context of popular fiction, character and character development is often believed to be subordinated to plot and narrative. Characters are frequently constructed to serve the specific purposes of the narrative, rather than the narrative constituting a vehicle through with psychological depth and unique human insights can be relayed. (1)  This common understanding of the nature of ‘popular fiction’ does not always hold true. However, I think it is absolutely applicable to most of Christie’s crime novels. Realism and psychological depth are eschewed in favour of ingenuity and skillfulness in plot construction. Hercule Poirot is good enough for a fourteen year old, but by the time you’re through several Poirot novels and are a couple of years wiser, he comes off as a caricature more than anything else. He became a source of considerable irritation to his creator as well, and she toyed with the idea of killing him off, but ultimately refrained from doing so. The characters are, for the most part, two dimensional figures, yet they never quite amount to stereotypes. Christie sketches them with a few succinct lines, but also deliberately imbues them with an attribute which subverts the stereotype (2). There are also gradations in the quality of characterisation amongst Christie’s crime novels. E.g. The characters in ‘Sparkling Cyanide’ or ‘The Hollow’ cannot be termed ‘cardboard cut-outs’ (as Christie’s characters have sometimes been labelled); and it is perhaps more appropriate to think of Christie’s characters as comprising of ‘two and a half dimensions’ rather than two dimensions, as M. Vipond has observed, tongue in cheek. In the later stages of my engagement with her novels, I would think that to create her cast of characters, all one needed to do was the following: take a several small bits of paper and label on each a quality or attribute; ‘ambitious’, ‘charming’, ‘upright’, ‘avaricious’, ‘affectionate’, ‘mercenary’ etc. You would then randomly mix them up in a box, and draw them out by two and three’s. Those three attributes you drew out of the box without looking, would form a character. To Christie’s credit, the formulaic manner in which she approaches characterisation, only becomes apparent after you’ve read a good number of her crime novels, and know what to expect (more in the way of characterisation, rather than in terms of plot). In the beginning the characters appear realistic and convincing enough; their surface quality really manifests itself to the seasoned Christie reader. Christie’s object was to construct an interesting puzzle, the unraveling of which fully engages and satisfies the reader, and in this she was spectacularly successful. Her purpose was not to tackle core existential questions or reveal fundamental human truths.

That is not to say that Christie did not have her own individual perception of the world, or her own moral vision. She did, and these perceptions obviously colour her texts. One critic observes:

“As Colin Watson, John Cawelti and others have pointed out, the enormous appeal of the classical mystery novel of the Golden Age of the 1920’s and 1930’s seemed to lie in its success in providing reassurance for it’s middle-class readers- reassurance that crime is an individual matter, not a social one, that it is logical and soluble, and that it is neat and relatively painless, explicable, and not a matter for collective guilt.”(3)

The above is a fairly common criticism leveled against Christie; i.e. that her texts almost completely fail to advert to the structural causes of criminal behaviour. It is practically always the individual who is deviant; broader society and vicious social dynamics are largely absolved of responsibility for the transgressions of the erring individual. This critique is valid, but only to a certain extent. Christie’s characters were broadly representative of the British middle and upper-middle class; the suspects and murderer are also drawn from this stratum of society.  Some of these suspects or would-be murderers are temporarily in a tight patch, but they are for the most part reasonably well-off.  Each of these people are in possession of moral agency, which they choose not to exercise, in what appear to be, not particularly overwhelming circumstances. Their crimes are mercenary and repugnant, and it is difficult to exculpate them on the basis of deeply rooted structural inequalities or economic deprivation. Mental disease, or genuine psychiatric disorder may have a mitigating effect, or may even exonerate the accused, but in most cases (whatever his/her economic situation) murderers retain some degree of moral agency, and it’s important not to near-glorify them as bastions of individualism, as some writers have been inclined to do. A better way of understanding Christie’s moral vision, and conception of criminality, has been articulated by Julie Aguiar who comments:

“…Christie’s presentation of criminality, or what might be termed evil, in these novels as being not an abnormality afflicting a few, as her predecessors in the genre assume, but an underlying proclivity common to all human beings.” (4)

All the assembled suspects have diverse motives to finish off the potential victim. The temptation is present for all of them, but only one or two (if the murder is a joint venture) succumb to it, and are willing to take life in achieving their ends.

Like billions of other readers around the world, I derived many hours of enjoyment from Christie’s crime novels. If I am unable to read them now, it is partially because I’ve already had too much of a good thing; after fifty novels it’s difficult for her basic template to not seem formulaic to me. There are the issues of characterisation adverted to above, but Christie was extremely effective in what she sought to do; adroitly create a complex puzzle which the reader would become immersed in. The mystery would subsequently unfold with seamless, and sometimes quite dazzling effect.©

(1) Stephen Knight, “..done from within’: Agatha Christie’s World’, in Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (London: Macmillan Press, 1980) 124-125

(2) Earl F. Bargainnier, The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie, (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980) 39-40

(3) M. Vipond, Agatha Christie’s Women” International Fiction Review 8 (1981) 123

(4) Julie Aguiar, “Rethinking Retrospection: Temporality and Criminality in Christie’s Detective Fiction” Explorations: The UC Davis Undergraduate Research Journal 14 (2011): 1-19

Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray

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Charlotte Bronte’s tremendous admiration for William Makepeace Thackeray is well known. Not only did she express reverence for his work and belief in his abilities in biblical terms in her famous preface to the second edition of ‘Jane Eyre’, (1) but her personal correspondence is replete with praise of, and commentary on his novels. I liked Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ but the zealousness and intensity of Bronte’s praise for Thackeray has always puzzled me a little. Several reasons underpin this slight perplexity at Charlotte’s almost boundless regard for the author of ‘Vanity Fair’.

There are radical discrepancies between the two authors in their conception and delineation of female characters; Bronte being far more naturalistic and egalitarian than her contemporary in this respect. Thackeray’s ideal women were not exactly simplistic but were heavily sentimentalised: ‘Amelia’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ is a loving, soft-hearted, doting wife and mother (she, in significant respects, embodies Victorian ideals of womanhood). She is also weak, undiscerning, and possesses no real notion of selfhood independent of her status as wife and mother. Amelia is wholly unintellectual. Thackeray decidedly disliked intellectual women, and while ‘Amelia’ is subjected to significant criticism in the novel, there is no denying that Thackeray was simultaneously drawn to, and in a large part upheld, the model of womanhood she represented.

Thackeray repeatedly sought to distinguish himself from Dickens by his emphasis on ‘realism’: resistance to drawing caricatures and eschewal of too many improbable plot contrivances. (2)  There are important thematic differences between the authors as well. Though Thackeray partially idealises Amelia, ‘Vanity Fair’ exposes the tyranny weak people like her can also exert, their capacity for selfishness and their desire for domination.  In a work of Dickens, it is probable that a character like Amelia would have been uncritically extolled until the final chapter. However, stylistically, Dickens and Thackeray are much closer than is often acknowledged. For all the ‘Greek fire of his sarcasm’,(3) gushing sentimentality is as much a fixture in Thackeray’s work as it is in Dickens. Indeed, in the case of the former, the narratorial voice not infrequently becomes tinged with smugness.  Lest I be misunderstood I do think that both Dickens and Thackeray were genuinely great authors, but aspects of their writing and characterisation do ruffle me.  Their heroines, be it ‘Amelia Sedley’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ or ‘Florence Dombey’ of ‘Dombey and Son’ are a far cry from the ‘Jane Eyre’s’ or ‘Lucy Snow’s’ of Bronte’s novels. Bronte’s work is marked by a naturalism that is not measured up to by either Dickens or Thackeray. She exhibits the interior lives, and interesting and expanded minds of her heroines with a skill, eloquence, and power which is matched by few, if any, of her contemporaries. Bronte’s heroines were highly intelligent, intellectual women (indeed, how could they be otherwise when they often constituted varied versions of Charlotte herself at different stages of her life). As Jane observes as she wanders about the halls and grounds of Thornfield:

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (4)

In Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Shirley’, Shirley (a heroine Charlotte modelled on her sister Emily) Shirley remarks to Caroline:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations—worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama—thinking it fine, divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial—false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.’” (5)

It can safely be assumed that Charlotte Bronte here is giving expression to her own objections regarding the way women have been characterised by her eminent male contemporaries. Indeed the ‘half-doll, half-angel’ woman and ‘fiend’ at the other end of the spectrum sound remarkably like ‘Amelia Sedley’ and ‘Becky Sharp’ of ‘Vanity Fair’.  I actually think that despite Thackeray’s emphasis on ‘realism’ Becky at times appears to be something of a caricature herself. Even amongst the passages of extensive praise for Thackeray, Charlotte did occasionally voice these objections.  She, however, never really expands on this theme. In an 1852 letter to George Smith she writes:

“As usual, he is unjust to women; quite unjust. There is hardly any punishment he does not deserve for making Lady Castlewood peep through a keyhole, listen at a door, and be jealous of a boy and a milkmaid. Many other things I noticed that, for my part, grieved and exasperated me as I read; but then, again, came passages so true, so deeply thought, so tenderly felt, one could not help forgiving and admiring.”(6)

While Bronte had almost unabated enthusiasm for Thackeray’s writing and faith in his calling as the ‘first social regenerator of the day’, Thackeray’s own opinion of Charlotte Bronte and her novels was far more mixed. He was considerably moved by ‘Jane Eyre’ and recognised the genius of the woman who had penned it,(7) but their personal interactions were marked by an uneasiness and perhaps mutual misunderstanding. (8) George Smith, the publisher and close friend of both Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray offers the following significant insight:

“Thackeray’s wit was not a ready one and he had not the quickness necessary for repartee. A clever woman always, and easily, had the better of him in that respect, and, to tell the truth, Thackeray was not fond of the society of what are called “clever women”; women, that is, whom he felt to be critical and with whom talk involved any mental strain. For that reason he did not like Charlotte Bronte, and the two did not get on well together. She was vexed because he, in his talk with her, would never be serious about his literature. He would talk in a bantering and burlesque way, as though he were ashamed of it. But this was only by way of defence against Charlotte Bronte’s earnest and heroic views of the “sacredness” and “dignity” of literature.”(9)

On pursuing ‘Villette’ Thackeray stated “There’s a fire and fury raging in that little woman, a rage scorching her heart which doesn’t suit me.” (10) His condescending and supercilious extended comments on the novel are contained within an 1853 letter directed to Lucy Baxter:

“So you are all reading Villette to one another- a pretty amusement to be sure- I wish I was hearing you and smoking of a cigar the while…. And it amuses me to read the author’s naïve confession of being in love with two men at the same time; and her readiness to fall in love at anytime. The poor little woman of genius! The fiery little eager brave tremulous homely-faced creature! I can read a great deal of her life as I fancy in her book, and see that rather than have fame, rather than any other earthly good…she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with. But you see she is a little bit of a creature without a penny of good looks, thirty years old I should think, buried in the country and eating her own heart up there, and no Tomkins will come…here is one a genius, a noble heart longing to mate itself and destined to wither away into old maidenhood with no chance to fulfil the burning desire.”  (11)

I understand Charlotte Bronte’s regard for William Makepeace Thackeray to a significant extent. I do think he was a fine writer, even if his prose did (not infrequently) lapse into sentimental gush, and even if his female characters were at times poorly conceived. There are numerous passages of ‘Vanity Fair’ which I genuinely admire (most notably the confrontation scene between Dobbins and Amelia near the end of the novel). But I don’t think that the flaws identified above are insignificant, and accordingly I find it somewhat puzzling that Charlotte Bronte hero-worshiped him to the extent that she did. ©

 

 

(1) Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (Essex: Longman, 1991) xxvi-xxvii

(2) Charles Mauskopf, “Thackeray’s attitudes towards Dickens’ writing” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 21 (1966): 21-33

(3) Bronte, Jane Eyre, xxvi

(4) Ibid, 113

(5) Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993): 264

(6) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, (London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1857)

(7) Richard Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray” Bronte Studies 36 (2011): 85-94

(8) Ibid

(9) Charlotte Bronte, “The Letters of Charlotte Bronte: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends: Volume II: 1848-1851”, Margaret Smith ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000): 416

(10) Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray”, 92

(11) William Makepeace Thackeray, The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Gordon N. Ray ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1945-46)

Charlotte Bronte and ‘Dr. John’

George Smith (charcoal on paper)

George Smith as a young man

‘Had I been too hasty? I used to ask myself; and this question would occur with a cruel sharpness after some brief chance interview with Dr. John. He still had such kind looks, such a warm hand; his voice still kept so pleasant a tone for my name, I never liked ‘Lucy’ so well as when he uttered it. But I learnt in time that this benignity, this cordiality, this music, belonged in no shape to me: it was a part of himself; it was the honey of his temper: it was the balm of his mellow mood; he imparted it as the ripe fruit rewards with sweetness the rifling bee; he diffused it about him, as sweet plants shed their perfume. Does the nectarine love either the bee or bird it feeds? Is the sweet briar enamoured of the air?

“Goodnight Dr. John; you are good, you are beautiful but you are not mine. Goodnight and God bless you!”'(1)

These lines extracted from the novel ‘Villette’ are amongst the most poignant I have ever read. They are directed from ‘Lucy’ (a character strongly representing Charlotte Bronte) towards ‘Dr. John’ (her real life publisher and object of love George Smith). As mentioned in an earlier post Villette chronicles Charlotte Bronte’s early experiences as a student/teacher in Brussels. In 1842 Charlotte and her sister Emily embarked upon the journey to Brussels with the intent of learning languages; French Italian and some German, all of which would, the sister’s hoped, give them a competitive advantage when they  returned to set up their own school in England. In exchange for lodging and lessons delivered by Constantin Heger at the Pensionnat, Charlotte taught English at the same boarding school and Emily music. Interaction with M. Heger provided deep intellectual stimulation for Charlotte, and lay the foundation for the strong feelings she came to harbour for him. M. Heger was a married man, and while he was solicitous of the welfare of both sisters, and deemed them to be no ordinary students, Charlotte’s feelings for him were not reciprocated. It is extremely unlikely that Charlotte sought a romantic liaison or affair of sorts with him, but in reading her frenzied and ardent letters to him, he was aware that her feelings had extended beyond the purely platonic realm. He consistently refused to reply to the letters she subsequently wrote on her return to Yorkshire, for fear that it might constitute encouragement.  Constantin Heger is the irascible and irrepressible ‘Paul Emanuel’ of Villette, cantankerous and difficult to get along with, and yet possessing some sterling good qualities.

Heger has been of sustained interest to Charlotte Bronte’s biographers, and they have devoted considerable space to investigating the nature of her association with him. One commentator has even deemed that Charlotte’s time in Brussels’ amounted to “the greatest single emotional experience of her life.” (2) I am inclined to take issue with this identification of M. Heger as the primary and most important love interest in Charlotte Bronte’s life. She probably did love him; Prior to Brussels she had lived a somewhat isolated existence, and he was the first man to leave a forceful intellectual impress upon her mind. However, while Villette, in a sense documents her contrary feelings towards Heger; her mingled respect and disdain, warmth and utter exasperation towards him, the novel is also a testament to her deep and passionate love for ‘Dr John’ or rather George Smith, her publisher. While biographers are obliged to comment on Charlotte’s association with Smith, the relatively little attention devoted to him is indeed surprising, given the strength of feeling ‘Lucy Snowe’ evinces for him and the directness with which this is expressed. ‘Dr. John’ as portrayed by Charlotte Bronte in Villette possesses a highly attractive personality. There are over a dozen allusions in the novel to how handsome and physically prepossessing he is, but more than that he is a thoughtful, feeling, talented and benevolent man. When you read the novel, it’s pretty clear that Charlotte Bronte was crazy about this guy. He and his mother Mrs. Louisa Bretton (a faithful representation of George Smith’s mother Elizabeth Smith) have braved considerable material adversity and Dr. John is a rising physician also living and working in Villette (Brussels). Louisa Bretton had acted as Lucy’s God-mother when the latter was a girl of fourteen, and Lucy has accordingly known both mother and son from childhood. Circumstances throw them apart, and Lucy is again acquainted with Dr. John nine years later when his services are secured by Madame Beck (the directress of the boarding school where Lucy is employed as English teacher). He fails to recognise her, but she soon enough identifies him as the ‘Graham’ of old. It is evident that Lucy admires him deeply and has very strong feelings for him, but she never allows herself to fully express these sentiments; the prospect of their being together is remote, and (she feels) almost ludicrous. Charlotte Bronte remained acutely conscious of her unprepossessing exterior throughout her life, and Lucy Snowe is the medium through which these entrenched insecurities find expression.

For me, any incongruity in their union really arises from Lucy’s temperament, and not her external appearance. Lucy is a solitary figure with a desire to make her way in the world with integrity, and without having to take favours from anyone. She is also rather morbid and, one would think, needlessly inclined to take a pessimistic view of things. Indeed, her fixation with her appearance, and pretty premature conclusion that Dr. John can never be hers, was a source of frustration to me the first time I read the novel. Even looking at the novel retrospectively, persistent self-consciousness and insecurity about one’s looks is something I associate with adolescence, and by the time you hit your twenties you generally become a lot more at ease about your appearance. Accordingly, Lucy’s preoccupation with her lack of beauty, and belief that this removes any chance of marriage with Dr. John, did irritate me a little. Why should anyone be so morose about their prospects, I would wonder: Lucy clearly has a brain, and self-respect; aren’t those treasures in themselves?  I was aware that the novel had been written by Charlotte following a period of deep depression, ill-health, and melancholia experienced on the early deaths of her siblings, but these qualms about Lucy’s characterisation remained. In a November 1852 letter to George Smith, preceding the publication of Villette, Charlotte writes:

“Lucy must not marry Dr. John; he is far too youthful, handsome, bright spirited, and sweet tempered; he is a ‘curled darling’ of Nature and Fortune, and must draw a prize in life’s lottery. His wife must be young, rich, pretty; he must be made very happy indeed. If Lucy marries anybody, it must be the Professor-a man in whom there is much to forgive, much to ‘put up with’.”  (3)

In a subsequent letter she expands on this theme, writing:

“I must pronounce you right again, in your complaint of the transfer of interest in the third volume, from one set of characters to another. It is not pleasant, and it will probably be found as unwelcome to the reader, as it was, in a sense, compulsory upon the writer. The spirit of romance would have indicated another course; far more flowery and inviting; it would have fashioned a paramount hero, kept faithfully with him, and made him supremely worshipful: he should have been an idol, and not a mute unresponding idol either, but this would be unlike real LIFE-inconsistent with truth-at variance with probability.” (4)

If you think about it, it is quite extraordinarily that Villette was written and published at all, given the content it contains. It is an open declaration by Charlotte of her love (indeed passion) for her publisher, love which she knows is not requited (certainly not to the same extent). Smith obviously had regard for Charlotte (a distinguished author and woman of genius) but whether he felt anything approaching love is open to question. Villette is in a large part a study and glowing delineation of George Smith, and was forwarded by Charlotte for publication by him. In Charlotte’s circle of literary friends and acquaintances ‘Dr. John’ and ‘Louisa Bretton’ could very easily be identified as George Smith and his mother. Hence Charlotte’s request that the novel be published anonymously. (5) This request was civilly declined as the name of ‘Currer Bell’ (Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym) was required to generate the requisite interest in the novel and assure sales. I also subsequently learned that Charlotte Bronte’s belief that her looks posed a serious hindrance to prospective marriage with Smith, was not without foundation.

In a letter written to Mrs Humphry Ward almost five decades later, George Smith discusses the sentiment he harboured for Charlotte Bronte:

“No, I never was in the least bit in love with Charlotte Bronte. I am afraid that the confession will not raise me in your opinion, but the truth is, I never could have loved any woman who had not some charm or grace of person, and Charlotte Bronte had none- I liked her and was interested in her, and I admired her- especially when she was in Yorkshire and I was in London. I was never a coxcomb enough to suppose that she was in love with me. But, I believe that my mother was at one time rather alarmed…”  (6)

It is questionable as to how far we can take this communication at face value.  I do not believe Smith when he says ‘I was never a coxcomb enough to suppose that she was in love with me”. That Charlotte was in love with him is plain enough; Villette is a powerful testament to this fact. Was he indeed romantically indifferent to her, their relationship being a “curious one-sided friendship which was half marble and  half life; only on one hand truth and on the other perhaps a jest”, as suggested by Bronte in Villette? There is his insistence in 1850 that Charlotte accompany him and his family on a trip to the Rhine, a proposal which was met with resistance by his mother. (7) There are also, in the written exchanges between them, fragments suggesting that at one stage he had seriously contemplated proposing to her. This was shortly after she declined to accompany his family to the Rhine (chiefly citing her health as the reason), and it is suggested by Sir Tresham Lever, that he was at this point on the brink of proposing to her, but lost his nerve. Parts of their correspondence (some of which was conspicuously withheld by Smith’s family members from subsequent publication) indicates that this was a distinct possibility. (8) All of this precedes Villette, the bulk of which was not written until mid 1852, in which he would have received a very clear indication of her feelings towards him.

Why, moreover, was he displeased on reading the third volume of Villette, where there was a transferal of interest from him to Paul Emmanuel (M. Heger)? What precisely was it that ‘stuck in his throat’? Was it merely a case of hurt ego and thwarted vanity; with George Smith wanting the focus to be retained on him right until the end of the novel? I find this rather puzzling: Charlotte furnishes him with a beautiful and interesting heroine, Countess Paulina de Bassompierre, and he is projected as a chivalric ideal and man of integrity throughout the third volume as well. Did he feel that readers might construe ‘Dr John’s’  failure to ever contemplate marriage with Lucy as manifesting a shallowness of mind? Villette is not written in a manner as to suggest this or to censure him for his preference for Paulina. If George Smith was not in love with Charlotte Bronte, why would he even want a book written which indicated otherwise? Or did his sentiments towards her, actually approximate to something akin to love, and did he feel that she had not adequately understood him? Clearly, there are more questions here than answers. We can really only speculate as to the precise nature and scope of his feelings towards Charlotte, and why he responded with displeasure to the third volume of Villette. When George Smith became engaged to the beautiful Elizabeth Blakeway, the daughter of a wealthy London wine merchant in 1853, this was Charlotte Bronte’s very telling communication to him:

“My Dear Sir,

In great happiness, as in great grief- words of sympathy should be few. Accept my meed of congratulation- and believe me

Sincerely yours

C.B. Bronte” (9)

Smith was a dauntless, enterprising person with a good head for business, and significant literary discernment. He also had a forthright, dynamic personality and cultivated strong professional and personal relationships with several intellectual luminaries of the day:  John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Matthew Arnold, Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope are amongst the list of eminent writers whose works Smith published. He achieved tremendous success as a publisher, and also revived his publishing firm with skill and dexterity when it encountered severe debacles (whether due to the financial impropriety and fraudulent conduct of some of its employees, or events outside Smith’s control, such as the Indian mutiny which affected the company’s external branches). Margaret Smith, in her compilation of, and commentary on the letters of Charlotte Bronte, indicates that later on in his life George Smith did not always live up to Charlotte’s ‘princely ideal’ of him.  ‘Dr John’, however, as depicted in Villette is a very admirable man with many qualities which really draw you to him, and after reading the book, I certainly wanted to know more about the real life personage he was modeled on, even if the real did not always fully match up to the ideal. We can really only conjecture as to the exact feelings George Smith’s entertained for Charlotte Bronte. Perhaps she herself was right when she wrote the following:

‘I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the sky-lights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call. It was not so handsome as the chambers where he lodged his male friends; it was not like the hall where he accommodated his philanthropy, or the library where he treasured his science, still less did it resemble the pavilion where his marriage feast was splendidly spread; yet, gradually, by long and equal kindness, he proved to me that he kept one little closet, over the door of which was written “Lucy’s Room.” I kept a place for him, too — a place of which I never took the measure, either by rule or compass: I think it was like the tent of Peri-Banou. All my life long I carried it folded in the hollow of my hand yet, released from that hold and constriction, I know not but its innate capacity for expanse might have magnified it into a tabernacle for a host.’ (10)

-Lucy Snow divulging her thoughts in the ‘Cloud’ chapter of Villette. ©

 

 

(1) Charlotte Bronte, Villette (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1993), 376

(2) Gina Luria, “Review: Charlotte Bronte”The Self-Conceived by Helene Morgan”Elizabeth Gaskell: A biography by Winifred Geri; Jane Austen and the War of Ideas by Marilyn Butler” Signs, 4 (1978): 374

(3) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1857)

(4) Ibid

(5) Ibid

(6) Margaret Smith, “George Smith, Prince of Publishers and William Smith Williams” Bronte Studies, 36 (2011): 75-84

(7) Tresham Lever, “Charlotte Bronte and George Smith” Bronte Society Transactions, 19 (1977): 106-114

(8) Ibid

(9) Ibid

(10) Charlotte Bronte, Villette, 474

Mughal-e-Azam

screencap 1

Anarkali confiding her fears to her ever optimistic sister Suraiya

‘Mughal- e-Azam’ is a film I have a somewhat odd relationship with. It is a film I (like many others) rate very highly, and can watch over and over again. Yet, as a love story it has never meant anything to me. What then repeatedly draws me to it, despite the minimal emotional impact it has always had? The fact that it is so superbly written. Ninety percent of the film has aptly been described as pure poetry. There are so many stunning lines and exchanges between the characters that leave you going ‘OMG’ or ‘wow…that was some comeback!’ It is an astoundingly well written film, and that is where Mughal-e-Azam’s immortality lies. Though, of course, you have the grand sets, Naushad’s wonderful music, and for many viewers back then the battle sequences were novel and exciting. Obviously, a wonderful script has to be brought to life by good actors, and K. Asif’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ features some excellent performances. I think that the standout performance in ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ is that of Madhubala’s as ‘Anarkali’, followed by that of Prithviraj Kapoor’s as ‘Akbar’, then Nigar Sultana’s as ‘Bahar’, and finally Dilip Kumar’s as ‘Salim’. Why does Dilip Kumar come last in this list of four? Dilip was a very capable actor, so it wasn’t so much a case of him exhibiting poor acting skills (though in my view Madhubala certainly gave the superior performance). It was more to do with the fact that ‘Prince Salim’ as interpreted by Dilip, was not a particularly likeable person, and apparently K. Asif gave him free rein to play the part of Salim as he saw fit. The character of Prince Salim, has a lot to do with why Mughal-e-Azam, for me, does not work that well as a romantic film. But more on that below.

The script for Mughal-e-Azam was penned by Aman, Kamal Amrohi, Wahajat Mirza and Ehsan Rizwi, and these guys made the movie the literary feat that it is. It was very commonplace for people to know the film off by heart, and recite the lines to one another. Even in my home ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ was played repeatedly, and to tell the truth I was always rather bored. As a child, I was scared of Akbar when he was angry, and fled the room in the scenes which featured him fuming. That was really the only response ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ elicited in me…until a couple of  years ago when I saw the film again after a long gap, and appreciated it for the very first time. Soon, I knew it off by heart as well. While I understand it, I don’t feel quite competent enough to translate it, and am also unwilling to make a further hash out of something which already translates very poorly into English. But, because it’s something I wish to share, I will still try, though it is very difficult to narrow down one’s choice of dialogue. The script as a whole is so good that you may as well take down eighty percent of the film verbatim.

My favourite lines from the film have to be the following:

Salim, viewing statue

Salim: Santarash ka dawa yaqeenan sahi tha. Beshak is behpanah husn ki taab pathar hi hila sakta hai. Budho ki khudai tasleem karne koh jih chahta hai

Salim: The sculptor’s claim was indeed honest. Undoubtedly, only stone could withstand and encompass such boundless beauty.  One wishes to concede the divinity of statues.

Durjan: Sahib-e-Alam par budh parasti ka ilzam lag jayaga.

Durjan:  Saheb –e- Alam (the Lord of the Worlds) will be accused of idol worship

Salim: Magar wafa parasti ki daat bhi mil jayegi

Salim: but he will also be lauded for his worship of love

A more literal translation of ‘wafa’ is loyalty, but ‘worship of loyalty’ would not adequately convey what is being expressed here.

_____________________________________________________

These are scenes which I also really admire:

This is the scene where the statue commissioned in honour of Prince Salim, is about to be unveiled. Bahar ( a higher ranking servant of the court) suggests a ploy by which the unveiling may prove fatal to Nadira (about to be conferred the name of ‘Anarkali’).

anarkali statue

Bahar: Kaneez ek tajwees pesh karne ki ijazzat chahti hai

Bahar: The slave seeks permission to present a proposal

Akbar: Ijazzat hai

Akbar: Permission granted

Bahar: Afsano mein hai ki mujasamo ki niqab kushaiya teeron se bhi hua karti thin

Bahar: In fables of old, statutes were unveiled by arrows

Akbar: Khoob, tajwees pasand ai. Shekhu, Afsaane Haqeeqat me badle jaa sakte hain?

Akbar: Well said, the proposal is to our liking. Shekhu (a term of endearment he has for Salim), can fables be transformed into reality?

Salim: Zil-e-Elahi, hukm ki tameel hogi

Salim: Shadow of God, your order will be obeyed

Akbar: Subhan Allah, maloom hota hai ki kissi farishte ne aasman se uttar kar sange mar mar me panah leli hai

Akbar: Glory be to God, it appears that an angel has descended from the heavens and found refuge in marble.

Anarkali: Kaneez farishta nahi, insaan hai

Anarkali: The slave is not an angel, but is human

Akbar: Magar tujhe Budh banne par kissne majboor kiya?

But who compelled you to become a statue?

Anarkali: Aap ke sultanat ke ek ziddi santarash ne jo gumnaami ke parde se nikalna nahi chahta

Anarkali: An obstinate sculptor, from within your realm, who does not wish to come out of the shadows of obscurity

Akbar: Santarash ka yeh anokha fun yaqeenan daat ke qabil hai. Lekin, teer chalte waqt tu khamosh kyun rahi?

The sculptor’s unique art is indeed praiseworthy. But, when the arrow was about to leave the bow, why did you not speak?

Anarkali: Kaneez dekhna chahti thi ki afsaane haqeeqat me kis tarah badle jaate hai

Anarkali: The slave wanted to see how fables are transformed into reality.

_____________________________________________________

After having performed before the royal family on the occasion of Krishna’s birth, Anarkali is besotted with Salim (for reasons best known to her). She is in love with him, but believes that their love has no future. Because of the vast gulf between them in terms of status and rank, she does not want his reputation to be tarnished because of his association with her. Contemplating all of this silently, she has gone into a shell of sorts. Her mother arrives, and questions her on this new desire for solitude.

bahar

Anarkali’s mother: Nadira, tum yakayak is tarah gum sum kyun ho gayi beta? Kahin aana jaana, logon se milna agar chor baithegi, to log kahenge khitaab se sarfaraz hote hi maghroor ho gayi.

Anarkali’s mother: Nadira, child, why have you become quiet all of a sudden? If you leave off going places and visiting others, people will say that having been distinguished with a title, she has become arrogant.

Anarkali: Allah, Majboor ko maghroor kaun kahega?

Anarkali: God, who would call helplessness arrogance?

Bahar (Nigar Sultana) now arrives in their presence.

Bahar: Dushmano ki zubaan kahin roki jaati hai, Behno ki kahaniyan tum kya jaano?

Bahar: Who can stop the tongues of enemies, what would you know of the tales women weave?

Anarkali’s mother: Aao Bahar, zara isse bhi apne saath rakha karo

Anarkali’s mother: Come Bahar, you should keep her close to you

Bahar: Aap fikar na karien main isse apne saath le jaane ke liya haazir huin hun.

Bahar: You need not worry, I have come to take her with me

Anarkali’s motherToh phir samhalo isse, main chali.

Anarkali’s mother: Then handle her, I shall leave

Bahar: Anarkali, kitna khoobsurat hai tumhara naya naam.

Bahar: Anarkali, how beautiful your new name is

Anarkali: Haan, jaise jalte aur pighalte hue moem ka khoobsurat naam Shama hai

Anarkali: Yes, as beautiful a name as that of the flame which burns and melts with wax.

Bahar: Ab shama ban chuki ho to parvano se kyun daaman bachati ho?

Bahar: When you have become that flame, then why evade the moths?

Anarkali: kaise parvane?

Anakali: What moths?

Bahar: Jaise ki hum…kabhi apne Hujre se hamari mehfil me bhi aao.

Bahar: Such as us….sometimes leave your quarters and join our gatherings.

Obviously here, the wordplay present (maghroor and majboor) is lost in translation, but the language throughout the scene (and really, throughout the film) has been so elegantly employed, that it’s just a pleasure to listen to.

_____________________________________________________

Akbar compels Anarkali to put up a facade of opportunism and false love.

Aarzooen barh jayengi

Akbar: Humme yaqeen hain ki qaedkhano ke khaufnaak andhero ne teri arzoo-on me woh chamak baaqi na rakhi hogi jo kabhi theen.

Akbar: I am sure that the fearful darkness of the dungeons has diminished the light of your aspirations.

Anarkali: Qaedkhano ke andhere kaneez ke arzoo-on ki roshni se kum the

Anarkali: The darkness of the dungeons were less than the light of the slave’s aspirations

Akbar: Andhere aur barhadiye jayengi

Akbar: The darkness will be increased

Anarkali: Arzooen barh jayengi

Anarkali: My aspirations will increase

Akbar: Aur barhti hui arzoo-on ko kuchal diya jayega

Akbar: And these heightened aspirations will be crushed

Anarkali: Aur Zil-e –Elahi ka insaaf?

Anarkali: And the justice of Zil-e-Elahi (Shadow of God)?

Akbar: Kamosh! Hum ek lafz aur nahi sunna chahte. Akbar ka insaaf uska hukm hai.

Akbar: Silence! We do not wish to hear another word. Akbar’s justice is his order.

_____________________________________________________

Following on from the ‘Pyar kiya toh darna kya?’/ ‘When one has loved, why fear?’ song where Anarkali has made an open declaration of her love, an internally seething Akbar proceeds as follows.

zil-e-elahi ke faragh dilli se yahi umeed

Akbar: Yeh teri bekhauf mohabbat, ye raqs, ye dilchasp andaz-e-bayan yaqeenan humare inaam ke mustahiq hai.

Akbar: This fearless love, this dance, this engaging mode of expression, is surely deserving of our reward

Anarkali: Zahe naseeb. Zil-ellahi ke faragh dilli se kaneez ko yahi umeed thi

Anarkali: My good fortune. This is what I expected from the largeness of Zil-e-Elahi’s (the Shadow of God’s) heart.

The cool confidence with which these lines are spoken make them stand out. As Akbar calls on the guards to transport Anarkali to the darkest dungeons of the palace, the look of vulnerability, yet pride and longing, Anarkali throws at Salim is noteworthy.

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There has been a verbal confrontation between Akbar and Salim over Anarkali. The Queen (Salim’s mother) Jodha reproaches her son for arguing with his father over a mere court servant.

magar iska soodh mujhse na wasool kijiye

Rani Jodha: Salim, Mahapali ka saamna ek laundi ke liye?

Rani Jodha: Salim, confrontation with the King over a slave girl?

Salim: Nahi! Uske liye jo mere ahad mein khudaar Mughlon ki aabroo aur Hindustan ki malika banegi.

Salim: No! For her who will become the Queen of India and the honour of worthy Mughals

Rani Jodha: Khudaar Mughlon ki aabroo itni halki nahi ki ek naacheez laundi ke barabar tul jaye. Aur humara Hindustan tumhara dil nahi ki laundi jiski malika bane.

Rani Jodha: The honour of worthy Mughal’s is not so light as to be weighed up against a worthless slave girl… And our India is not your heart, over which a slave can preside.

Salim: Toh mera bhi dil koi aap ka Hindustan nahi jispe aap hukumat karein.

Salim: Nor is my heart your India, over which you can rule.

Rani Jhoda: Tumhaare dil pe humara joi ikhtiyar nahi, lekin khud tum par hamara adhikar zaroor hai. Akhir tum humaari aulad ho.

Rani Jodha: We have no right over your heart, but we certainly have rights over you. After all, you are our child.

Salim: Haan mai aap ki aulad hun. Lekin, mujh par zulm dhaate hue aap ko yeh sochna chahiye ki mai aapke jigar ka tukda hun, koi ghaiz ya ghulam nahi.

Salim: Yes I am your child. But in inflicting cruelty on me you should remember that I am a part of you, not a servant or slave.

Rani Jodha: Nahin Salim, Nahin! Tum humari barsoan ki pratna ka phal ho. Humari zindagi bhar ka sarmaya ho. Humare ladle ho.  Magar yeh Rajneeti hai. Tum isme humaari mamta ko awaaz na do. Humari garden mein apni mohabbat ki zanjeer dal kar humme humare farz ke daere se bahar mat kheencho. Humari zimedari aur apne martabe ke lehaz karo. Ruswai aur badnami ke garhe mein mat aao.  Anarkali ko apne dil se nikaldo. Main tumhe apne dudh ka vaasta detin hun.

Rani Jodha: No Salim, No! You are the fruit of years of prayer, the hope of our lives. You are the son we dote on. But this is politics, do not place the noose of your love around our necks, and divert us from our duty. Respect our duty and your stature. Don’t draw close to shame and disgrace. Remove Anarkali from your heart. I bind you by my milk.

Salim: Aap apne dudh ka mujhse muavza maangtheen hain?

Salim: Are you exacting payment from me for your milk?

Rani Jodha: Nahi Salim, Nahin.

Rani Jodha: No Salim, No

Salim: Toh phir u nahi. Wahi aapka dudh jo khun ban kar meri raghon me daur raha hai. Kahiye toh sab aap ke qadmo mein bahadun magar uska mujhse soodh wasool na karien.

Salim: No? That milk of yours which is flowing as blood in my veins. If you wish, I will drain it all at your feet, but don’t exact interest on it from me.

These lines are awesome…but they really translate so poorly into English, ‘don’t exact interest on your milk’? That just sounds so strange in English. Any non-Urdu/Hindi speaker will be like ‘huh?’ What do non-Indian’s make of Mughal-e-Azam?….Most of the time, they must really be wondering what all the fuss is about, and probably simply attribute the film’s status to the scale and grandeur with which it was made.

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After the battle between father and son, Akbar has sentenced Salim to death. Anarkali agrees to forfeit her life in exchange for Salim’s freedom. She will be walled up alive after administering to Salim the scent of a flower which will render him unconscious (and allow Akbar to finish her off without external interference).  Akbar is ordering Anarkali to act in accordance with their agreement.

kaneez kab ki mar chuki

Akbar: Agar aisa na hua to Salim tujhe marne nahi dega aur hum Anarkali tujhe jeene nahi denge.

Akbar: And if this does not happen, Salim will not let you die, and we, Anarkali, will not let you live.

Anarkali: Kaneez toh kab ki marchuki. Ab janaaze ko rukhsat ki ijaazat dijiye.

Anarkali: This slave has been dead long since. Now, release the funeral procession

Akbar: Tum jaa sakti ho

Akbar: You may leave

Anarkali: Shahenshah ki in behisaab bakhshishon ke badle, Kaneez Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar ko apna khoon maaf karti hai.

In return for the Shahenshah’s (King of King’s) endless favours, this slave forgives Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar her blood.

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At the end of the film, where Akbar is obliged to keep his promise to Anarkali’s mother, he releases the Anarkali with these parting words.

shayad tum humme maaf kar sako

Akbar: Bakhuda hum mohabbat ke dushman nahi, apne usulon ke ghulam hai. Ek Ghulam ki bebasi par ghaur karogi to shayad tum humme maaf kar sako.

Akbar: By God, we are not the enemy of love, we are simply slave to our principles. Observe the helplessness of a slave, and then perhaps you will be able to forgive us.

Obviously, the train of thought this exchange leads to is never really pursued in the film: If it were, the premise on which Mughal -e-Azam is constructed would collapse and the basis around which the central conflict evolves would dissolve. If the precise scope and content of Emperor Akbar’s ‘duty’ or principles were expounded, they could be demolished with great ease. Akbar cannot accept Anarkali as his daughter-in-law and prospective queen because she is a mere court dancer. And this view of Akbar’s is never really directly attacked by Salim on the basis of human equality, Anarkali’s worthy character, her courage and loyalty making her a worthy potential queen etc. K. Asif deliberately ensures that his writers consistently portray the conflict as one between ‘farz’ and ‘mohabbat’ or ‘duty’ and ‘love’.  Akbar’s allegiance to a particular (very faulty) conception of what duty entails, is not subjected to vigorous direct criticism in the film. If it was, how then could Akbar ultimately be hailed as ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ or ‘the Great Mughal’ at the end…and this convenient angle which K. Asif has decided to espouse, does work quite well for the film.

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Mughal-e-Azam as a Romance

Coming back to why I have never regarded Mughal-e-Azam as a great love story, this view of the film is strongly connected with my response to the character of Prince Salim. Yes, he confronts Akbar, and orchestrates a rebellion against his father for Anarkali, but all this really just fits into the rhetorical arch of the film: the court dancer who defied the Emperor, and the Prince who relinquished his prerogatives as Prince for his love. Ultimately, both prince and court dancer willingly embrace death in asserting their love for one another etc. But when we look at how he actually conducts himself towards Anarkali, Prince Salim has no humility, or tenderness or warmth as a lover. Granted, humility was probably not the strong point of Mughal princes, but when he says to her ‘Main aaj bulandi aur pasti ke deewar gira dena chahta hun…bhool jao ki tum ek kaneez ho’/ ‘I wish to do away with this wall of hierarchy and class…forget that you are a servant’, this is purely rhetorical. The fact is that the master/slave dynamic is strongly reflected in every interaction between them, even in the so-called most romantic/erotic scene in Hindi film history, where he is stroking her face with a feather. For all his passion for her, a certain imperiousness is ever present in his deportment towards Anarkali. When Akbar imprisons Anarkali, and coerces her into falsely indicating that she never loved Salim, what is Salim’s response? He never considers that she may have been placed in false position, or may have temporary faltered under intense pressure. He calls her a whole lot of nasty things (‘daghabaaz, buzdil laundi, sharmnaak badnaami ki daagh’/ ‘treacherous, cowardly slave, a shameful stain on him’) and then proceeds to hit her hard across the face. Some prince charming. He places the onus of proving love, on a person who is already very vulnerably situated. The modern Indian equivalent to this, is a well to do person falling in love with their maid or driver and saying ‘If you really love me, then shout it out to everyone, take on the world right now….and if you can’t do that, it means your love is a sham, and you yourself are worthless trash’. This is really what his actions amount to. Audiences in 1960, may have been more willing to overlook this, or may have been allured by the ‘grand narrative’ of the film, but ‘Prince Salim’ does not go down well with me.

salim slaps anarkali

Shahzade Salim, You were no prince charming

A key writer of Mughal-e-Azam, Kamal Amrohi, was at this time also directing the film ‘Pakeezah’ which was not released until 1972. Some surface parallels can be drawn between the ‘Salim’ of ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and the ‘Salim’ of ‘Pakeezah’. Both rebelled against authority and defied societal convention for the women they loved. But they were fundamentally different men in terms of how they conducted themselves towards the objects of their affection. ‘Shahzada Salim’ is obnoxious (high-handed, intimidating, without empathy) and ‘Salim Ahmed Khan’ is someone you fall in love with. More broadly, for me, ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ is a film you admire (a lot), but ‘Pakeezah’ is a film you love.

Interesting trivia:

Mughal-e-Azam was in the making for over a decade, and was an intensely anticipated film. You can gain a real sense of what a huge deal the movie was when it finally came out, by watching this fascinating short documentary (the documentary film itself was made in the 1960’s). It is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NE_YZ-LSP0k  The commentary for the two reeler film was scripted by Aman (one of Mughal-e-Azam’s writers) and Shakeel Badayuni  (the man who wrote the fabulous lyrics of the songs of ‘Mughal-e-Azam’). People were queuing for tickets weeks in advance, and spending nights sleeping on footpaths while in the queue. Mughal-e-Azam’s premier was very glitzy, large scale affair and there is considerable footage of it in the documentary film.  I was watching another CNN-IBN documentary on ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and, interestingly, it is noted therein that while the premier was a massive star studded event, the actual response to the film at the premiere was pretty lukewarm….many of the attendees felt that the film was too long and dragged considerably in parts. I actually agree with this criticism to some extent. I also find that the battle scenes, the scene which precedes the battle, and the scene where Prince Salim is about to be finished off with the canon, do drag a bit. However, there is so much else in the film to make you go ‘wow’, and this does make the response of the premiere attendees much less reasonable.  A quite lengthy, more recent documentary on Mughal-e-Azam, containing a lot of interesting trivia can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm3uGr5jgIw

The Colourised Version

Finally, I really disliked the colourised version of Mughal-e-Azam. It wasn’t just a question of limitations in terms of the craft not having been perfected, and the end result looking artificial, but the choice of colours as well- sharp incongruous colours being dashed together. It seemed a case of ‘now that we’re colourising it, let’s put in as many colours as possible in the most unseemly combinations; It doesn’t matter if it looks completely garish, it has to be clear to the audience that Mughal-e-Azam is now in colour!’ Except in the odd scene, the film was not well colourised. It was not even consistently colourised. In the original 1960 release, apart from the ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’/ ‘When one has loved, why fear?’ song, the last twenty minutes or so of the film are in colour, and Anarkali is attired spotless white. It is meant to signify a shroud of sorts as Anarkali has willingly embraced death. In the colourised version, in the scene immediately preceding this (in which she is wearing the same outfit) they have coloured it grey. Not only does it look plain bad, but the symbolism is kind of lost as well. Unfortunately, I have been obliged to provide screencaps from the colourised version as that is the only version available online. The copy of the original (largely black and white) Mughal-e-Azam I own, is actually in the form of an old cassette, which I cannot really obtain screen caps from. ©

recolourisation 2

The white shroud like yet beautiful, dress in the 1960 original version

recolourisation 1

The very same dress in the 2004 recolourised version

Godaan

munshi premchand godaan 1

I thoroughly enjoyed Munshi Premchand’s  1936 novel ‘Godaan’. It’s a classic for a reason, and is different in some key respects, from the 1963 film adaption discussed in my last post. Firstly, Hori is not exclusively the object of pity and frustration the film makes him out to be. His life is indeed full of hardships, and people seek to exploit him from all sides. However, it is not as unremittingly bleak and dismal as represented in the film. A core object of Munshi Premchand, in writing this novel, is certainly illustrating the deplorable condition of the Indian peasantry, and their wholesale exploitation by the landowners and priestly class. However, ‘Godaan’ is not a highly charged political polemic or what one may term a ‘superior op-ed piece’. It is a complex portrayal of Indian rural life in the early decades of the twentieth century. Most of the characters which inhabit the novel are complex personalities, and while the peasants may be at the receiving end of the injustice fostered by the prevailing landlord-tenant economic structure, this does not transform them into martyrs or one dimensional victims. Each character has positive and negative traits, though in the better characters the good predominates. Obviously, though, exploitative conditions and ignorance through poverty, can play a strong part in bringing out the worst in any individual. Even the exploiters, such as ‘Rai Sahab’ (the big zamindar of the village) are multifaceted.

Rai Sahab is keenly aware of how fundamentally wrong the system is, and is cognisant of its dehumanising effect on both the peasant and the landlord. The system crushes the peasant and rids him of the capacity to aspire to anything higher; the sum total of his efforts come down to carving out a meager existence. It also turns the landlord into an effete, despicable creature; gorging unearned wealth, and brutalising poor farmers to sustain that wealth. Rai Sahab himself, is also saddled with dependents, who ingratiatingly flatter him to partake in enjoying the revenue generated by the estate, and do not care for him in the least. Yet Rai Sahib is not strong enough to eschew with dependence on zamindari, and cannot forsake his establishment and the pomp that comes with it; hollow as he knows it to be. In a wonderfully written passage Rai Sahib is candidly divulging his woes to Hori, who arrives at the house on an errand. The passage is almost four pages in length, and I wish I could reproduce it all here, but I will have to make do with just providing some extracts. Rai Sahib proceeds as follows:

“‘You’re probably wondering why the master should be confiding his troubles in someone like you who has hardly two pice to his name.  But to whom can I talk? For some reason I trust you. And at least I know you won’t laugh at me. Even if you do, it won’t bother me. It’s the laughter of equals that’s so hard to tolerate, because it’s so full of jealousy, sarcasm and bad feeling. And after all, why wouldn’t they laugh at me? I have a good time making fun of their misfortunes and difficulties. You just don’t find wealth going hand in hand with sympathy for others. Sure I make donations and perform acts of charity, but you know why? Just to show up those other people of my class. My generosity is a selfish matter pure and simple. That’s how it goes….All these uncles and aunts who have a fine time freeloading off the estate- writing and gambling, drinking and living it up- they’re all jealous of me. If I were to drop dead today, they’d put the most expensive oil in their lamps and light them all in celebration. Not one of them will believe I’m ever unhappy- they figure I have no right to be. If I cry, I’m just making fun of sadness, If I’m sick I’m enjoying it. If I don’t drink I’m stingy. If I do, I’m drinking the blood of my tenants. If I don’t marry and fill the house with turmoil, I’m selfish. If I do get married I’m lecherous. If I really were to be lecherous, Lord knows what they’d say. They’ve tried their best to lure me into dissipation and they’re still trying…

… When there’s jealousy or hatred amogst the poor, it’s because of hunger or self defence. I consider that pardonable.  If someone snatches the bread from out of our mouths we have the right to force our fingers down his throat and get it back….I’m surprised that the blaze of your anger doesn’t burn us to ashes…We seek revenge with the police, the officials, the judges and the lawyers; and, like beautiful women we become mere playthings in their hands. The world thinks us very happy- we have estates, mansions, carriages, servants, easy loans, prostitutes and what not. But a person without moral strength and self-respect is not a man, whatever else he may be. A person who can’t sleep at night for fear of his enemies, who finds everyone laughing at his troubles and no one sympathising, whose head is crushed under the feet of others, who’s so drunk with dissipation that he forgets himself, who licks the feet of officials and sucks the blood of his people- I don’t call him happy. He’s the most unfortunate creature in the world.’ 

…Then Rai Sahib took out the betel box and again filled his mouth with leaves. He was about to say something more when a servant appeared and announced, ‘Sir, the men on forced labour have refused to work. They say they wont go on unless they’re given food . When we threatened them, they quit their jobs and left.’

The Rai Sahib glowered at him. ‘Come with me,’ he he declared, eyes bulging. I’ll put them in their place. They’ve never been given food in the past. Why this new demand today? They’ll get the anna a day they’ll always get, and they’ll damn well do the work whether they like it or not.’

He turned to Hori. ‘Run along now and make your arrangements. Keep in mind what I’ve told you. I expect at least five hundred rupees from your village.’

The  Rai Sahab went off fuming. Hori was puzzled- all this talk about right and goodness, and then such a sudden outburst of anger.”

I think the last part of this passage was a particular stroke of brilliance. Rai Sahib is an intelligent and not totally inhuman person, and here he means what he says. But in continuing to play his part as the zamindar while bemoaning the ills of the system, he becomes a hypocrite. Having been the wealthiest zamindar in the locality all his life, imperious attitudes and tendencies have also, almost inevitably, crept into his demeanour.

There are also elements of humour in the novel (and not just of the dark variety) where members of the peasant class win their own small victories and triumphs. One such scene is when a policeman is about to be called in to investigate the death of Hori’s cow (which his younger brother Hira poisoned out of jealousy). Hori is aware that Hira was behind the death of the cow, and has revealed as much to his wife Dhaniya, who is completely irate and keen to see Hira behind bars. She and her husband practically raised Hira along with Hori’s other brother. Not only does Hira fail to reciprocate, but he also frequently bad-mouths his elder brother and sister-in-law. For her husband, however, it’s a question of family honour, and irrespective of Hira’s deviousness and ingratitude, Hori wants to protect him. An argument on the question of involving the police arises between them, and as it grows louder, nieghbours and eventually the village heads turn up to ostensibly mediate. The truth is that domestic fights become social events in the village, and everyone arrives to watch the tamasha. Following the argument, the bystanders come to believe that Hira did infact poison the cow, and a police inspector is summoned. He wants to undertake a search of Hira’s house, but Hori is desperate to prevent this, and is prepared to pay a bribe to avert it. He appeals to Datadin, the village priest who is present, to intervene by arranging something to this effect. Hori, of course, has no ready cash to pay the bribe, and will have to borrow from the moneylenders (all of whom are present). They are accordingly quite gleeful about these proceedings. They and Datadin take the inspector to the side and start discussing the terms of the bribe. Hori naively and obtusely takes the assurances and professed solicitousness of Datadin and the moneylenders (several of whom are also village heads)  at face value. Dhaniya gets a whiff of this, and intuitively understands what’s happening. This explosive outburst follows:

“‘We’re not borrowing from anyone. If anyone thinks he has to pay, let him do so himself. I won’t give up a single pice even if you drag me to court. When we wanted twenty-five rupees to pay the rent, no one would loan it to us. Today you’re giving out whole handfuls of jingling coins.  I know what’s going on. Your all full of sweetness now that you’re each going to get a cut. Murderers and blood-suckers, that’s what you village headmen are. Interest rates of twenty five and fifty percent, tips and donations, bribes and graft- rob the poor anyway you can!’

The village elders looked as though their faces had been smeared with tar, and the inspector looked as though he had been beaten with a broom. To preserve their dignity, they turned and marched off towards Hira’s house.

‘That woman certainly has guts,’ the inspector conceded when they were on their way.”

You have to read the book, or at least read this particular chapter to really enjoy what has transpired, and it gets even better as the chapter progresses. Premchand probably got a kick out of writing it, and the reader certainly gets a kick out of reading it.  Dhaniya is an incredibly feisty woman, high-strung and fiery but generous hearted. Her spiritedness does come out in the film, but in the novel she’s quite extraordinary.

Jhuniya is admitted into the house, primarily because of Dhaniya.  Jhuniya is the lower-caste widow with whom Gobar (the son of Hori and Dhaniya) gets involved. Learning that she is expecting his child, Gobar leads her to his home and then runs away from the village, deserting her. Hori and Dhaniya first resolve to eject Dhaniya from their home; the consequences of admitting her will be pretty serious for them. They cannot, however, go through with it. Dhaniya is consumed with pity for the girl, and the couple accept her as their daughter-in-law. For this, they are socially boycotted by members of their caste, and the village panchayat levels a large fine on them. To pay this fine, Hori has to procure further loans, and the never ending cycle of burgeoning debt thus begins. Basically, they brave a lot of censure for taking this step, and Jhuniya initially seems to appreciate what they have undergone. Even earlier on in the novel, she appears to be quite a fascinating character during her courtship with Gobar, when she chatters on about her experiences in the city. Accordingly, her subsequent actions took me by surprise. Gobar returns to the village from Lucknow (where he ran away to) a year later. He is earning good wages (much more than most people in the village) and Jhuniya proceeds to poison his mind against his parents, suggesting that they’re just after his earnings. She proposes that they leave the village, and Gobar before doing so, behaves very brutally with his parents. Later, towards the end of the novel, there is a reconciliation of sorts, but she never expresses (or even appears to feel) much remorse for her actions.  In a novel which becomes quite explicitly moralising towards the end, this aspect of the couple’s relationship with their daughter-in-law seems strangely unresolved.

I was reading somewhere that Premchand is at his best when drawing rural characters: their world is one with which he is intimately acquainted, and the wealthier, better educated characters have not been delineated with the same efficacy. I’m personally inclined to agree with this criticism. Miss Malti, Mr. Mehta, Mr. Khanna, and Govindi, are reasonably well-drawn but they (and the trajectories their lives take) do not sustain the same level of interest as Hori, Dhaniya, Gobar, Jhuniya, Sona or Rupa.  The great turn arounds and conversions that take place in their lives, are not all that persuasively portrayed…Premchand, here, seems not to show, but merely tell. I think that Rai Saheb is the best drawn amongst the more prosperous characters.  Mr. Mehta, whom Premchand has posited as a hero of sorts, is a bit of a bore at times.

How does the film compare with the novel?  

I think the film was a worthy effort by Trilok Jetley (its director), but suffered from significant shortcomings, some of which were not really in Jetley’s power to rectify. Exciting as the film medium can be, it has limitations, and these limitations often strongly manifest themselves when it comes to screen adaptations of literary works.   It is often difficult for a film to represent a character’s interiority as effectively as a novel. Indeed, a cinematic adaptation or even interpretation of a novel of the length and wide ranging expanse of “Godaan” entails the condensation of several hundred pages of narrative discourse, dialogue and the internal thought processes of the concerned protagonists into a space of two hours. It is almost at the outset destined to fail. Even if the script writer evinces insight and a high degree of selectivity as to what particular dialogue should be extracted from the novel and made to feature in the movie, time constraints dictate that much of the film must be devoted to just conveying the momentous events which inform the narrative of the novel, to the exclusion of the somewhat more subtle psychological processes underpinning the actions of the protagonists. These are general problems which attend any film adaptation of a literary work, and are the reasons why I am usually not even remotely interested in seeing movies made on books I love. Usually, I’m left feeling indignant, and deeming the film to be an insult to the original text. In the few cases where I prefer the film to the book, chances are that I didn’t consider the novel in question to be particularly good in the first place. In fairness, it’s a tough job to match the original text if it’s good.

Turning specifically to Jetley’s adaptation of ‘Godaan’, I suppose my main problem was Jetley’s rather circumscribed vision for the film. Jetley’s project here, was undoubtedly, to depict the harsh realities of peasant life, the peasant’s vulnerability, and the way in which he is  shamelessly exploitated by those positioned above him in the rural socio-economic structure; whether the moneylenders, the village headmen, the preists, the zamindars, the officials etc. However, in executing this vision he comes close to reducing the peasant couple (particularly Hori) to one dimensional victims, and the zamindar to an out-and-out villian. Many of the nuances, and shades of characterisation in the novel are lost in the film. Jetley has tried to address the problem of time constraints inherent in the film medium, by focusing almost exclusively on Hori’s family, and largely cutting out the well-to-do characters, Malti, Mehta, Khanna, Mirza etc. They are placed in the film more as relief to the unending misery that is portrayed as Hori and Dhaniya’s lot.  Minimising the screen time they received was probably a sensible thing to do. Even so, a lot of time is inevitably devoted to just relating the key events which take place in the novel, with the richness of the text never really coming out on the screen. The actors (particularly Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal) do a very good job, but they are obliged to act  in accordance with the director’s vision for the film, which in this case, was somewhat limited. Even so, there are parts of the film which do touch you; Hori’s collapse in the fields, and Dhaniya’s response, Hori’s response to Ram Sevak’s proposal for Rupa, and of course the ending, where Mukesh’s vocals are also employed. The novel actually projects Rupa’s marriage with Ram Sevak in quite a different light (one which would be largely unpalatable for a modern readership).

The film has also been heavily sanitised; there’s a lot of profanity in the novel…it probably would not have gotten past the censor board. As I stated earlier, Hori is not exclusively the object of pity and frustration that the film makes him out to be. He beats his wife; actually, quite a lot of wife-beating goes on in this novel, and not just amongst the peasantry. In the scene I related earlier, where the inspector is called in to investigate the death of the cow, the argument between Hori and his wife is not simply a verbal argument. He is physically beating her; hitting out at her, kicking her, and this is what brings in all the spectators. It is the last time he ever raises a hand against her, and afterwards he is shame stricken and begs her forgiveness. In reading the novel, you get the impression that wife-beating was pretty common amongst the peasantry back then. Even so, you’re a bit stunned when you read it for the first time, and are left thinking ‘Uh….and this guy is meant to be a sympathetic character?’ Undoubtedly, Jetley was thinking along these lines when he decided to leave scarcely any hint of wife-beating in the film; he want’s you to root for Hori all the way. In the novel Dhaniya isn’t one to take a blow meekly, and the fiestiness and strength with which she responds is heartening…and this is partially why I love that particular chapter; because she triumphs so strongly at the end of it, and esteem for her rises greatly in the village.

In my edition of the novel (the publisher being ‘Vishv Books’), the name of the translator is not given, but whoever translated it, did an excellent job.  For those who haven’t read the book, I would strongly recommend it. It’s a wonderful novel, and gives you many new insights into Indian rural life in the early part of the twentieth century. ©

Raaj Kumar

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Image obtained from Karen Bandal’s ‘Everything Bollywood’ blog.

Raaj Kumar is probably my favourite bollywood actor. While I appreciate the work of several of his contemporaries, and the substantive contribution they made to the cinema of their time, Raaj is the only one I’ve ever felt strongly about. Certainly, in terms of his overall body of work and the number of good films he was a part of, he falls well behind Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand. But sometimes it takes only one powerful performance to leave a strong impression, and win someone’s lasting admiration and loyalty. For me, that performance came in ‘Pakeezah’. I fell head over heels for the ‘Salim’ of Pakeezah, and sometimes when you love a character so much, at least some of that love is transferred on to the actor. Raaj did full justice to his role in ‘Pakeezah’. Indeed, ‘Pakeezah’ would not have been what it is, with any other male lead being cast as ‘Salim’.

pakeezah train

“Badal kar fakeero ka hum bhes e Ghalib, tamashae ehle karam dekhte hain” / “By donning guises, we, Ghalib, view the spectacle of another’s generosity”

Best Films

Thus began my fascination (obsession) with Raaj Kumar. I started digging up on his other films, and have now seen almost all of them (or if the film is too awful to watch I’ve at least seen the parts of the film where Raaj is present). I think that Raaj Kumar’s best film’s apart from ‘Pakeezah’(1972) are ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ (1960), ‘Paigham’ (1959), and ‘Godaan’ (1963). I loved him as the reserved, reticent ‘Dr. Sushil Varma’ silently in love with his nurse ‘Karuna’ (Meena Kumari)  in ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’, or as ‘Ram Lal’ the honest, hard-working but unperceiving mill worker in ‘Paighaam’. The former film was really lovely, but would have been even better if the love between Dr. Varma and Karuna had been allowed to deepen and flourish and take a new route, without the film devolving into your regular love triangle story, in which Dr. Varma’s obnoxious wife is predictably despatched off in the end. It remains, however, a well written film, where the quiet romance which develops between Dr. Varma and Nurse Karuna is lovely to watch. There are some heart-warming hospital scenes which feature good performances by the rest of the cast. ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ also has some wonderful songs.

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Dr. Sushil Varma

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with ‘Karuna’ (Meena Kumari)

‘Paigham’ (1959) is a didactic, semi-socialist, strongly ‘message-orientated’ sort of film.  Its makers did not intend it to be a work of art, and it isn’t one. Yet, I absolutely consider ‘Paigham’ to be a genuinely good movie; being well-written, tightly constructed and showcasing some very good performances. Ram Lal (Raaj Kumar) works hard to provide his younger brother Ratan (Dilip Kumar) with a college education. Ratan who returns to his home town after graduating (with distinction) secures work as chief mechanic/engineer (his position is somewhat ambiguous) in the local mill. Ram Lal is employed in the same mill as a labourer. Ratan percives that the mill workers are being deprived of the wages they are entitled to, and there is also indifference on the part of the management towards their safety and conditions of work. He seeks to establish a worker’s union to demand change and represent the workers claims. The more traditional minded Ram Lal, a good but uneducated man, takes issue with the course of action Ratan proposes. It strikes him as dangerously confrontational, and for him smacks of disloyalty towards their employer. The film engages with the tussle between the two brothers as to what constitutes rightful conduct, in line with the developments at the mill. Ratan’s sweetheart Manju (Vyjayanthimala) is also employed as secretary in the mill. Ram Lal strongly objects to Ratan’s association with her, as her paternity is unknown. This exacerbates the conflict between the brothers. It’s really a movie about the kind of India the makers of the film aspired to see; socialist (yet democratic), equitable, just and relatively classless.  Dilip, Raaj and Vyjayantimala do a wonderful job, and I think that Pratima Devi who plays the mother of Ram Lal and Ratan is very good as well (as she was in Dil Apna aur Preet Parai). Pandharibai, the sweet faced lady who plays Ram Lal’s wife is also good. In both films Raaj gives excellent performances, and is highly convincing and natural in his respective roles.

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Ratan is welcomed home by the family

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Ram Lal and Ratan each exhort the workers towards their respective positions

I will speak at greater length about ‘Godaan’ (1963). Being Raaj Kumar’s own favourite film amongst the seventy odd movies he was a part of (1) it deserves special space, and while I thought it was a good film with brilliant performances by both its leads Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal, my reaction towards  ‘Godaan’ was in some respects quite mixed. The film is based on Munshi Premchand’s 1936 novel of the same name. The novel ‘Godaan’ is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Hindustani literature, and at core concerns Hori (a village peasant) and his wish to procure a cow. The film depicts the exploitative propensities of the zamindars or landlords of the time, as well the oppressive caste dynamics then (and even now) prevailing particularly in rural settings. The hypocrisy of the priestly class, as well as that of the zamindars and  money lenders is amply demonstrated in the film.The press book of Godaan, released in 1963, states the following:

“Go-Daan is the tragic life story of Hori (Raaj Kumar), a true peasant of India. He is a fatalist who has become so, facing crisis after crisis in his dealings with money lenders and the richer classes. And he dies like most men, with an unfulfilled desire. He dies without owning a cow, “The Goddess of Wealth in the House” as the peasants call it…the cow that can be given away in Go-Daan (“Cow-Gift”) after his death.”

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Raaj Kumar as ‘Hori’ in Trilok Jetley’s 1963 ‘Godaan’

My only issue with this description is that Hori appears to be a fatalist right from the outset, before disaster upon disaster strikes him.  He obstinately and obtusely refuses to acknowledge wrong in others, when they actively harm him, repeatedly exploit him, fraudulently appropriate his few possessions (while his family is in dire straits), and penalise him for the sense of humanity he retains and they are devoid of. At the beginning of the film Hori procures a cow on loan which his younger brother poisons out of jealousy, the money lenders apply extortionate rates of interest on loans and cook up the accounts against him. The Village Panchayat levels a huge fine on Hori and his wife Dhaniya for sheltering the lower caste girl who is bearing their grandchild.  Hori and his wife stand by the girl ‘Jhuniya’ in the face of the Panchayat’s opposition, but they are made to pay the price. In order to pay the fine, Hori procures further loans and thus begins a never-ending cycle of burgeoning debt… and this is a very incomplete list of Hori’s afflictions and problems.

What is frustrating is Hori’s standard response to every calamity that comes his way. He automatically reconciles himself to the conduct of those oppress him, without a shade of protest. For him, it is all fate, and there’s nothing you can really do about it. Hori’s perspective is that he and his family belong to a particular ‘biradari’ or community, and they have to bow before its norms, however unfair. His more discerning and spirited wife, sees right through those who exploit Hori and pose as his well-wishers, and obviously finds Hori’s persistent refusal to defend either himself or  his family, maddening. The present order seems profoundly unjust to her, and even Hori’s son Gobar smarts under the strong inequalities engendered by the social arrangements in place. They cannot rationalise these things to themselves, or resign themselves to it all, as Hori can. Right towards the end of the film Hori and his family are almost destitute; all they have is some land that is to be forcibly sold off to pay the mountain of debt that has accumulated. The village priest visits Hori and presents a proposal whereby Rupa (Hori’s youngest daughter) will be married off to the well-to-do but elderly Ram Sevak. The marriage will cost comparatively little for Hori, and they will be able to retain their land. Finally, Hori is disgusted, and his wife Dhaniya is outraged. He says:

Kahan woh thoos bhurra aur kahan meri phool si Rupa! Aaj mere aise din agaye hain ki aap mujhe larki bechne ko kehte hain?

‘That old man and my flower of a girl Rupa! Are times so bad for me, such that you come here asking me to sell my daughter?’

Hori is pained, but here again, as with everything else, he soon begins to reconcile himself to the idea. Thinking aloud to Dhaniya, he says:

Ram Sevak bhurra toh nahi, haan adher zaroor hai. Rupa ke sukh likha hai toh yahan bhi sukh uthayegi , dukh likha hai toh kahin bhi sukh nahi paa sakti.

‘Ram Sevak is not quite old, though he is middle-aged. If contentment is written for Rupa she will find it with him as well, if sorrow is written for her, then she will never find contentment anywhere.’

Dhaniya: var kanya jodh ke hon tabhi byah ka anand hai

‘If the groom and bride are well matched, only then can we anticipate happiness from the marriage.’

Hori: Byah ka naam anand nahi pagli, tapasya hai. Tapasya.

‘The name of marriage is not happiness. Marriage is trial, trial.’

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Hori’s initial reaction to Ram Sevak’s propasal for Rupa

Rupa is accordingly married off to Ram Sevak. The land is not sold, but the debts remain and in a short space of time, Hori works himself to death. At the time of Hori’s death, Dhaniya only has one rupee and four annas in her possession which she gives for the Go-daan (or cow-offering). She brings this to the preist, and as Hori’s funeral rites are being performed, we hear in Mukesh’s soulful voice the following refrain:

Aas adhuri    (Unfulfilled aspirations)

Pyaasi Umariya   (A thirsty age)

Chaaye Andhera    (Clouding darkness)

Sooni Dagariya      (A lonely pathway)

Darat Jiya Bechain    (A pained restless heart)

Darat Jiya bechain    (A pained restless heart)

O Rama    (O God)

Jarat Rahat din Rain    (Eyes perpetually awake)

There is a certain rawness, pain and power in Mukesh’s voice (which he has further modulated to sound like Hori/Raaj Kumar), which here brought tears to my eyes. These poignant lyrics were penned by Anjaan, and are so apt a summation of Hori’s life; his unfulfilled aspirations, his thirst, the clouding darkness, the lonely pathway he has had to tread, his eyes perpetually open with strain and anxiety; slumber is a luxury.

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Hori collapses while working in the fields. Poor Dhaniya thinks that Hori has gone for good. Kamini Kaushal gives a superb performance in Godaan.

The film was made by Trilok Jetley with passion and dedication. The Go-Daan press book states that it had been Jetley’s dream for some years to make a film adaptation of the novel ‘Godaan’, and he paid the highest figure which had ever been paid then for book rights in India, for the purposes of film adaptation. Months were spent on the script and the services of Pandit Ravi Shankar were recruited for the film’s soundtrack. It’s  a pity that a film made with such care should have flopped so miserably at the box office. But, I am not surprised that it fared badly. I am not saying this because I don’t think ‘Godaan’ is a good film. It is a good film, but it makes for a very bleak viewing experience.

I don’t know if it’s exactly the same in the book, but there is also the issue of predictability. When any calamity comes Hori’s way, you know precisely what will happen. Poor Dhaniya, who knows exactly what’s going on and is raging inside, will urge Hori to defend himself, while Hori will seek to avoid confrontation at literally any cost, resign himself to the injustice, and attribute what is happening to fate. At times Dhaniya tries to take unilateral action, but her efforts are undone by Hori. I would have found ‘Godaan’ more interesting had there been some variation in Hori’s responses or some evolution in his outlook. It wasn’t necessary to take him the point where he could think and act like Dhaniya, but his mode of thinking remains uniform throughout. He is exactly the same at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. Perhaps this is precisely the point Munshi Premchand is trying to impress upon us in his novel, decades of systemic oppression, and the ideology that is rammed down the throats of peasants, by those on the upper rungs of society (whether the zamindars or the priestly class) has led to a sort of paralysis in thought, and fear of stepping outside the externally demarcated boundaries, to the point where one afraid to be honest with themselves. One can also think of Hori’s state as a fixed internalisation of the norms which have been dictated to his from the earliest stages of his life. I’m also aware that things which seem axiomatic and self-evident now, such as human equality and freedom to enjoy though fruits of your own labour, weren’t actually that self-evident in the time and place this book depicts.  Even so, perhaps I simply don’t have enough contextual knowledge to be able get into Hori’s psyche and really understand his frame of mind. For this reason and others I ‘ve just got myself a copy of the novel ‘Godaan’, am keen to read it, and may do a separate post on it.

The novel is a pretty large book which features many more characters than those which appear in the film. Understandably, Jaitley has cut it down to deal with the core story which chronicles the trials of Hori and his family. Some of the more educated, prosperous characters which appear in the book also appear in the film. ‘Rai Saheb’, the big zamindar of the village who also exercises functions akin to that of mayor, ‘Miss Malti’ (a social worker), ‘Mr. Mehta’ (an academic and philosopher) and ‘Mr. Mirza’ (another social worker) all feature in the film. Rai Saheb makes fine speeches about how he will be the last one to protest if zamindari goes, and talks about how wrong it is for wealth to be generated on other people’s broken backs. Yet, he continues to live very lavishly and actually pockets the fine which is levied on Hori for offering protection to the lower caste girl Jhuniya. Most of the talk between the better educated classes is conducted in shudh Hindi, and the exchange of ideas which take place between Miss Malti, Mr Mehta and Rai Sahab was largely lost on me. Another reason to read a translated copy of the book.

Raaj Kumar himself has to say about ‘Godaan’:

“Godan’ is the best film I ever acted in. It gave me full scope to get into the skin of a rural character and emote like a villager genuinely does. As it was based on a Munshi Premchand masterpiece, I got my scope to deliver” (2) 

I would differ to the extent that I don’t think of ‘Godaan’ as Raaj Kumar’s best film ever, but the rest I agree to. Both Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal are really excellent in their respective roles. Raaj very effectively projects Hori’s vulnerability, fatalistic outlook and internal resignation. Raaj Kumar is younger than the ‘Hori’ of Premchand’s novel, but by affecting a stoop and exuding a sense of fatigue, Raaj manages to look the part. Strangely, the bulky Mehmood doesn’t look too odd playing his son ‘Gobar’ and also gives a good performance.  In the song ‘Hiya Jarat Rahat Din Rain’ Hori, having recently recovered from physical collapse through overwork, views his surroundings; the land and the animals grazing upon it with their offspring. Suddenly, there enters into Hori the exuberance of a young man (and Raaj looks great in this song). Walking along he comes across the skeleton of a cow and is both visibly distressed, and reminded of his aspiration to have a cow. Raaj emotes wonderfully in the song, which has been very feelingly sung by Mukesh. You can see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vE6-PqX6jhA

Better Films    

Amongst the better films of Raaj Kumar are ‘Oonche Log’ (1965), ‘Phool bane Angaare’ (1963), ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’ (1963) and ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973). These films are not favourites, but they are pretty decent films, in which Raaj gives good performances….and I love Raaj when he acts naturally, before he permanently succumbed to a more theatrical and exaggerated mode of acting later on in his career.  In ‘Oonche Log’ Raaj is a conscientious police officer and the film projects the dynamics at play between him, his wayward brother ‘Rajnikant’ (Feroz Khan) and their father ‘’Major Chandrakant’ (Ashok Kumar) a retired Army major.  Major Chandrakant’s  outlook is somewhat aligned with that of Srikanth’s (Raaj Kumar), but his behaviour is sometimes reminiscent of a certain feudalism which his son Shrikant finds repugnant and rejects (e.g. Major Chandrakant thinks that whipping servants is a wholly legitimate and appropriate means of addressing lapses in conduct).

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‘Oonche Log’

‘Pyar ka Bandhan’ (1963) does draw on a number of clichés, is rather melodramatic in parts and Raaj’s acting is occasionally exaggerated in it. Still, I liked him as ‘Kalu’ the hard-working tange-wala, and devoted elder brother of ‘Sona’ (Kumari Naaz). In ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’, because of his father’s early demise Kalu cannot pursue an education, and becomes a ‘tange wala’ (horse cart driver) to support his ailing mother and younger siblings. He works selflessly and tirelessly to give his younger sister Sona the education he never had, and later to ‘get her married’ to the boy of her choice. In valourising Kalu’s exertions to give his sister a grand wedding party, the film reaffirms the understanding that weddings need be a lavish affair, and that this should appropriately be financed by the bride’s parents or relations. While the arrangement of a dowry often isn’t explicitly adverted to in movies, this theme of conscientious brother striving ‘get his sister married’ is one that has been common in Indian films until very recently, and unfortunately continues to be strongly reflected in Indian society. Kalu’s ultimate motivation in all this is, however, securing his sister’s happiness, and the film is another one of those strongly ‘message-orientated’ movies so common around this time; It emphasises the importance of equal opportunity, female education, and the desirability of creating a classless society. However, I do think that the film’s makers could have shown more foresight in eschewing the need for a grand wedding at all, and thus removing the factor underlying many of Kalu’s worries, and a root cause of a lot of gender discrimination in India.

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As ‘Kalu’ the tange-wala in ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’

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Captain Rajesh courting Usha (Mala Sinha) in ‘Phool bane Angaare’

Both ‘Phool Bane Angaare’ (1963) and ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973) are war films. In  ‘Phool bane Angare’ (I rather like the name: flowers turn to sparks of fire) Raaj plays the part of Captain Rajesh in love with Usha (Mala Sinha), a caring, independent spirited girl who undertakes to support and provide for her widowed mother and younger brother. Mala Sinha (who had me wincing and cringing all through ‘Mere Huzoor’) does a pretty decent job in this film, and the depiction of their initial courtship is quite nice. Rajesh is subsequently called to serve in Korea (am slightly confused about this; initially it appeared that the war in question was the Sino-Indian war of 1962), while Usha remains tending after her mother and brother. This movie is about duty towards one’s family and one’s country in times of crisis, and like ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’, ‘Phool bane Angaare’ isn’t a bad film. ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973) focuses on the conduct of Operation ‘Cactus Lily’ which took place in the backdrop of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. Not being very familiar with Indian Military history, I really don’t have anything to say about the film’s depiction of the war and operation ‘Cactus Lily’, but the film appears to be free from any kind of jingoism. It’s director Chetan Anand goes to considerable lengths to show the essential humanity of the other side, and this is not done in a merely tokenistic fashion. ‘Hindustan ki kasam’ is also notable in that it probably features the last completely natural and unaffected performance Raaj was to give in his career. Because it’s a Chetan Anand film, Raaj’s love interest, to my chagrin, is Priya Rajvansh. The film is rather far-fetched in the second half, but I’m still inclined to place ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ in Raaj Kumar’s ‘better films’ category.

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Returning from a test flight in ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’

Best Known Films

Apart from ‘Pakeezah’ (1972), ‘Mother India’ (1957),‘Waqt’ (1965) and possibly ‘Heer Ranjha’ (1970) are Raaj Kumar’s best known films. ‘Mother India’ is not a movie I personally like much, but it is widely considered to be a landmark film, and while Raaj played a somewhat peripheral role in it, the movie shot him to fame and really got his film career going. Raaj, like many other members of the cast, engages in a fair bit of over-acting in ‘Mother India’. The songs are however wonderful, and Raaj, despite a few bad wigs, is eye-candy in the film. I don’t really think he needed a wig at this stage, given that three years later, in ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ he sported his own hair and looked very handsome. ‘Waqt’ likewise has always struck me as being a nothing film; all glitz and glamour and very little underneath. In 1965, ‘Waqt’, with its strong glamour quotient, may have fascinated audiences, but I don’t know how it keeps contemporary viewers stuck to their seats. Even on a purely ‘masala’ level, I don’t feel that ‘Waqt’ makes for an entertaining viewing. But again, Raaj is eye-candy in it. ‘Mere Huzoor’ (1968) is, I think, a pretty awful film; very artificial, cheesy and affected, in the spirit of most of the 1960’s ‘Muslim Social’s’ that preceded it.  However, because Raaj looks the way he does, I can watch it repeatedly just for him (or rather repeatedly watch the parts where he is present), to the exclusion of everything else (lol…even to the exclusion of what Raaj’s character is actually saying). Other points in favour of the film are Johnny Walker and Manorma, who are both very funny in it.

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Shamu and Radha in better times (Mother India)

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Seeking to charm her Highness (Waqt)

‘Heer Ranjha’ (1970) was a laudable attempt by Chetan Anand to make an a epic film on the fabled lovers of the Punjab; Heer and Ranjha. What is unique about the film is that it is entirely in rhyme. It’s evident that Chetan was trying to offer viewers something novel by recruiting Kaifi Azmi to pen the film in verse. I actually wonder whether Chetan would have been more successful in conveying this tale if he had just stuck to prose, albeit poetic prose. I don’t think that just making things rhyme necessarily elevates the script to the level of poetry. This is not a judgement of Kaifi Azmi’s broader literary abilities (I love a number of the song lyrics he has written, though I haven’t read his poetry or other substantive works apart from this). It is just my response to the script he penned for the film ‘Heer Ranjha’. I thought the script was all right, without being anything amazing. What really destroyed ‘Heer-Ranjha’ for me was Priya Rajvansh. Priya Rajvansh may have been a very nice person in real life, but she was an absolutely atrocious actress, and did not at all look the part of Heer. Indeed, I can say without exaggeration that she is the worst Bollywood actress I have ever watched. The are so few films where Raaj really got to play the romantic hero, and I love him in full-on romantic mode. Indeed, here he acted wonderfully as Ranjha, but to see him have to romance Priya Rajvansh : (  Her being cast as Heer made a film I would have otherwise probably enjoyed, unwatchable. I have mostly just seen those frames of the film where Priya is absent. The film also features some lush cinematography and good songs.

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Ranjha thinking of Heer

His Appearance

With reference to Raaj’s looks, just surfing on the net, I have read a few unflattering appellations being used for him. He has variously been described as ‘Mr. Twisted Ears’, ‘irritating’ or just plain ‘odd’ looking. The truth is prior to ‘Pakeezah’ I never really did consider him particularly handsome, at least not in the conventional sense, and kind of understood where the ‘irritating’ description came from. But, with ‘Pakeezah’ his looks grew on me, and now I am totally on the same page as those who regard him as downright gorgeous. Moreover, then I hadn’t seen any of his earlier films from the 50’s and early 60’s where he was really handsome. He had aquiline, rather chiselled features, and could project an attractive intensity on the screen when he chose to. For me, he’s also the first man to sport a moustache who doesn’t automatically start looking like an ‘uncle’ because of it.  I wish I could see him in his earliest films ‘Rangeeli’, ‘Aabshar’ and ‘Ghamand’. Chances are these won’t be very good films, because Raaj was a new comer then, and probably took whatever came his way. But still, I’d love to see such a young Raaj Kumar.

Decline

Post 1973 came a very steep decline in the kind of films Raaj acted in, and the kind of performances he gave. It’s not as though Raaj hadn’t been a part of bad films before this (indeed, he had his fair share of bad film’s in the 50’s and 60’s as well). What is unusual is how consistently poor these films were, and how they represented a whole new level of awfulness. Raaj, how could you say yes to something like ‘Karmayogi’??..Ughhhh…yuck!  Almost his entire output in the 80’s and 90’s was uniformly terrible. ‘Police Public’ (1990) strikes me as being a marginally better film, but is not what you would call a good movie. Many of these films, even a hard core Raaj Kumar fan like me, cannot sit through (It’s really difficult to even sit through just the parts of the film which feature Raaj Kumar).  Granted the 80’s were a bad decade for movies, but even then I find most of Raaj’s choices, in this period, utterly unfathomable. From what I have read about him, it appears that he was an intelligent, intellectually inclined man and must have known that most of these films were total trash…Why then did he consent to act in them? His acting in these films, moreover, was often very exaggerated and affected. Any excuse for this? This is what Raaj himself has to say:

“….Another film which I really enjoyed working in was ‘Oonche Log’ where I played a police inspector. The story was really brilliant but astonishingly both the films (Godan and Oonche Log) flopped badly. People only wanted me to deliver high voltage dialogues and I was forced to adopt a particular style to cater to the audience…Yes, I know none of my present films have the touch of my earlier classics like ‘Mother India’, ‘Godan’ or ‘Pakeezah’. But I have to survive as acting is my only profession. Today the standards of films have really deteriorated a lot and no director is interested in making a serious film like Mehboob Khan, B.R. Chopra or Kamal Amrohi.” (3)

Basically Raaj is saying that films were his bread and butter, and he had to make do with whatever came his way….Still Raaj, I hardly think you would have starved to death if you had said no to movies like ‘Desh ke Dushman’, ‘Jung-Baaz’ or ‘Galiyon ka Badshah’ (shudder)….I don’t know how you saw your own films without groaning, shutting your eyes and covering your ears. When going to his worst films of the 80’s and 90’s on youtube, I see comments saying things like ‘Raaj Kumar is the KING!’ or ‘Kya Dialogue Delivery Hai!’ Apart from financial reasons, there’s a real chance that Raaj allowed responses like this to get the better of his own judgement.

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A still from ‘Karmayogi’ (ughh) . Seriously Raaj, WHY?

Raaj Kumar: The Man

I really know far too little about the man himself, to be able to provide any real insights here. As stated, from what I have read about him, it appears that he was an intelligent, well-educated and intellectually inclined man. Raaj Kumar, originally Kulbushan Pandit was born in Loralai  (now in Pakistan) in 1926 (some articles say 1927).He came from a large family of nine children. Raaj recalls “I knew no loneliness since I come from a big family. We never needed any outside entertain­ment. We used to sing, dance and fight in our home”. His father was an Army officer, and the family originally hailed from Kashmir. (4)   A recent “documentary” about Raaj Kumar was made, which was actually really awful, and just consisted of the presenter showing footage of his films ( footage easily available to anyone with internet access) and regurgitating verbatim the content of old (and pretty poor) internet articles on him. (5) Scarcely any actual research was conducted. They did, however, also briefly interview his son, and he provides some interesting snippets about his father. Kulbhushan graduated with an Arts degree from the then prestigious Government College in Lahore. He won a gold medal in philosophy, and wanted to go on to study English literature at Oxford. For whatever reason, this didn’t eventuate, and after working for some time as a sub-inspector at the Mahim police station in Bombay, he turned to films. Raaj Kumar’s son Purru speaks of how well before his actual entry into movies, Khulbushan was approached by Sohrab Modi, who wished to cast him as the male lead in an upcoming production. Because Khulbushan was then still interested in heading to Oxford to study literature, he refused the offer. Raaj Kumar discusses how he subsequently entered films in this video interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSDHoB4TBiA

From the above interview in the link provided, it’s evident that Raaj was a very articulate man. A Cineblitz article states “Like any of his stock, he was extremely well read and was knowledgeable on a myriad of subjects. He also had a flair for many languages — English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Kashmiri”. (6)

In the late 1960’s he married Jennifer, an Anglo-Indian air-hostess whom he met on a flight, while travelling to a shooting destination for ‘Heer Ranjha’.  It was love at first sight, and after marriage, he named her Gayatri, in accordance with her kundali. Though Purru states “basically, we’ve been brought up in all faiths. We’d visit churches, dargahs, mandirs and synagogues”. (7) It appears that Raaj was very possessive and protective about his wife and children, and sought to keep them out up the public eye as much as possible. I feel like I myself am now just repeating the content of the interviews I have read…It’s probably best for me to just provide links below to all of these interviews. When I first became strongly interested in Raaj Kumar (over a year ago now) there was almost nothing about him on the internet. Now, a reasonable, if not abundant, amount of information has cropped up on him. It appears that many considered Raaj to be an egotist, and in fairness, that egotism does come out pretty distinctly in a number of his interviews. It also turns out he was scarcely ‘Mr. Shareef’ in real life and before he married Gayatri, was something of a playboy. With reference to his reputation as an ‘eccentric’, I think that Raaj Kumar was an interesting enough man in himself without having to play the part of the ‘eccentric’, whatever his motives (warding off the press, keeping his private life private by creating an alternative external persona, or just grabbing a bit of attention at parties).  In this 1983 Filmfare magazine interview, I think the interviewer K.N.S. probably gets it right when he makes the following observations:

“He seems to enjoy building a maze around him through which it is diffi­cult to move and find the real person. He seems to forget people’s names. His comments, at least as quoted, are brash and provocative. What emerges from these is a composite of someone unpredictable and nearly insufferable. In reality, at least at very close quarters, he is quite a car­ing person when he wants to be one. He has his loyalties and affections. He has his own code of chivalry and honor. His courtesy is faultless. Perhaps at one time he felt misused or ill-used and started building mental self defenses.” (8)

Well Raaj, you weren’t perfect but there were a lot of great things about you. I still know so little about you, and wish I could know more….I wish I could have met you, and told you what an impact your performance in ‘Pakeezah’ had on me. I sometimes imagine scenarios whereby some strange transfiguration of time, I happen to take the seat next to you on a flight or train journey, and then ensues an extended four hour conversation….and in this imagined conversation you obviously aren’t completely indifferent to me. You don’t throw me off with platitudes, but I get to hear what you genuinely think, and we talk and talk about films and books and all kinds of things. You were a very special actor, and are really special to me (ok….now this is getting super lame, but I can’t help myself).  When given a decent script to work with you could really show your acting prowess. In many of your films though, there wasn’t much opportunity for you to show your talents, or extend and test your own abilities as an actor. Your overall range probably wasn’t that broad; I can’t really imagine you doing comedy well, but perhaps I’m just saying this because I haven’t really seen you do comedy. After all, just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it can’t be.  Within your perceived range, you were a unique actor, had an appealing individualistic style, and could give subtle expressions. In the very few romantic roles you did, you exuded a warmth and tenderness and restrained passion on the screen which felt very real. Unfortunately, a number of the movies you were a part of didn’t really demand the subtlety, nuance and finesse you could bring to a performance (acting qualities amply demonstrated in films such as ‘Pakeezah’, ‘Godaan’, ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ and even ‘Heer Ranjha’)…but you were something wonderful; there are no two ways about that. ©

 

 

(1) Ranjan das Gupta, ‘The True Avatar of Mother India’, Friday Review Delhi, The Hindu. 11/7/2008. See: http://www.hindu.com/fr/2008/07/11/stories/2008071150810300.htm

(2) Ibid

(3) Ibid

(4) ‘Raaj Kumar: Memories’ obtained from ‘Cineplot’ (Published in Cineblitz, August 1996). See: http://cineplot.com/raaj-kumar-memories/

(5) NewsX, ‘Falshback: Remembering Raaj Kumar’. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jH4g6hy1Y9A

(6) Farhana Farook, ‘Dad was Bizarre but never boring- Purru Raaj Kumar’. Filmfare (28/01/2013) See: http://www.filmfare.com/interviews/dad-was-bizarre-but-never-boring-purru-raaj-kumarr-2214.html

(7) Ibid

(8) ‘Raaj Kumar’. Interview by K.N.S. in 1983. Obtained from ‘Cineplot’. See: http://cineplot.com/raaj-kumar-interview/

PAKEEZAH: AN UNDERRATED CLASSIC

I have always loved the film ‘Pakeezah’ and in the last year or so have become both utterly obsessed with it…and its hero ‘Salim’ (Raaj Kumar), the unknown lover of the courtesan ‘Sahibjaan’ (Meena Kumari) on whom he confers the name ‘Pakeezah’ (pure). The songs of Pakeezah are widely acknowledged as classics, and for good reason; they constitute one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever composed. However, I strongly feel that the film itself, though well regarded, remains considerably underrated. Any short article or fleeting reference to the movie always states something to the effect of “Pakeezah received a lukewarm reception/flopped upon release, and became a big hit, acquiring cult status on Meena Kumari’s death”. This statement is true to the extent that Pakeezah’s commercial success may, at least partially, be attributed to the premature death of it’s heroine, the talented and extremely popular Meena Kumari. The film may well have flopped otherwise. However, the statement is unjust in that it totally ignores and undermines the tremendous intrinsic merit of the film itself, whether evinced in its poetic, understated and nuanced dialogue, powerful characterisation, authenticity of representation, or aesthetic beauty. The last point is amongst the most commonly mentioned, with the first three scarcely being acknowledged. I do believe the grand sets were integral to the film and important in evoking a certain atmosphere and time period, as well as being a manifestation of Kamal Amrohi’s highly developed and refined aesthetic sensibility. However, the greatness of any film, particularly ‘Pakeezah’, cannot predominantly be attributed to a bunch of exotic and beautifully finished sets. They merely comprise one significant factor amongst several other (more important) ones. In this post I would like discuss some of the more neglected aspects of Pakeezah.

Stylistically, Pakeezah is extraordinarily subtle and understated for a Hindi film, and is heavily metaphorical. Key visual metaphors include the ‘ghungru’ which adorn Sahibjaan’s feet, the train, the entrapped bird which has its wings clipped by the brothel madame (Nadira), and the torn kite which Sahibjaan likens to herself, as “kati hui, namuraad, kambakht” or “torn and uprooted, unnamed, and ill-fated”. Sahibjaan’s friend Bibban (Vijay Laxmi) seeks to dissuade her from building hopes upon the letter penned by her distant lover, and says “yeh paighaam tumhaare liye nahin….us waqt tumhare paon me ghungru nahi bandhe the”..i.e. “this message is not intended for you..the ghungru (dancing anklets) were not bound around your feet then”. Nature vs Artificial civilisation also constitutes an important trope, with the romance between Sahibjaan and the gentleman stranger developing and unfolding in it’s environs, away from the artifically adorned Gulabi Mahal (Rose Palace) or the magnificently constructed bazaar in which the ‘Inhi Logon Ne’ song is picturised. (1) Colour is also key; when in her own element, away from the artifice her profession requires her to espouse, Sahibjaan is usually wearing white. (2) When pleasurably reflecting on her lover’s note with her head leaning on the edge of the fountain, or when with Salim, during their third encounter, Sahibjaan sports white, as does he- a colour representing purity. When she sings of her heartache and unfulfilled prayers at Salim’s (aborted) wedding, giving expression to her genuine grief, she is again in white, as is he.

waterfall 1

waterfall 2

waterfall 3

A seriously neglected aspect of the film is Raaj Kumar’s powerful role and performance as ‘Salim’, the gentleman smitten by Sahibjaan’s beautiful hennaed feet, and who proceeds to take on his grandfather and break away from the family home in asserting his right to love and protect her.  Raaj Kumar has been endowed with an extremely attractive character in the film, being extremely shareef, generous hearted and courageous.  For me, Raaj Kumar as ‘Salim’ is one of the most attractive male protagonists to have ever graced the Indian silver screen. He plays an integral part in many of film’s most powerful scenes. Indeed,  I think one of the most poignant and beautiful scenes both within Pakeezah, and in the history of cinema, is when having broken away from the family home, the couple are standing on a bridge with a picturesque yet roaring waterfall in the background. Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) is aghast and internally tortured at his having forsaken home and family for her sake.

Salim Ahmad Khan: Tum shayad hameesha apne aap ko bhul chuki ho, aur ab mujhe yaqeen ho gaya hai ki tum koi nahi ho sirf meri taqdeer ho. Udhar deko..saara alam tumhaare qadmo par jhuka hai, aur ye subh tumhe salaam karahein hain.

Perhaps you have forgotten yourself forever. Indeed, now I am convinced that you are no one, but my destiny.  Turn that way, the world is bowed at your feet, and this morning offers its salutations to you.

Pakeezah: Lillah! Chup hojaiye. Intne pyar se meri jaan mat lijiye. Main iqraar kiye leti hun, mujhe sab yaad hai ki mai kya hun, kaun hun.

Dear God! Please be quiet! Don’t take my life with so much love. I confess, I remember everything, what I am, who I am.

Salim: Kaun ho tum? Kaun ho?

Who are you? Who?

Pakeezah: Main beqasoor hun. Aap ne yeh samjhaya tha. Aap ayen. Apneh khat likha aur phir aap ne kabhi mujhe chain se sone nahi diya. Haar raat aap mujhe pukaarte hue guzarte rahe. Har roz, meri ruh meri badan se khich ti rahi. Door hi door main aap ki hasrat mein doob kar mar jaati, magar aap ne mujhe doobne bhi nahi diya. Main bhaag jatin, lekin aapke kheme ne mujhe gher liya. Aap agaye, aur aap ki dil ki dharkano ne ye mujhe keh ne bhi nahin diya ke main ek tawaif hun!

I am without guilt. You taught me this. You came. You penned that letter, and then you took away all respite. Every night, you passed by calling out to me. Everyday, my soul tore away from my body. Far away, I would have drowned, consumed by my longing for you, but you wouldn’t let me drown. I would have run away, but your tent encompassed me. You came, and the beating of your heart didn’t even permit me to say that I am a prostitute!

The extent of his love for her, his idealisation of her, and his evocation of all natural creation bowing at her feet, tears at her heart. Her knowledge of her reality, the artificially adorned yet sordid environment from which she has come, compel her to cry out. At the same time, her words ‘Main beqasoor hun’/’I am without guilt’ are a fundamental affirmation of her inherent innocence; her profession is something she was born into, something the film adverts to as ‘dozakh’ or ‘hell’,  with it being near impossible for women entrapped in it to extricate themselves from it.  More important than what is said, in this scene, is what is left unsaid. The way she falls sobbing at his feet, and the tenderness with which he picks her up, after a pause, means much more than all that preceded it. I have always found the part where he lifts up and comforts her very moving, the music in the backdrop also  being key to the effect created. While this film certainly employs very cultivated sounding Urdu, none of the characters are overly voluble in it, and it’s understated character and extensive employment of metaphor is something rare in Hindi cinema. An example of this understatement is where Pakeezah and Salim are riding away in a horse drawn carriage. They are doggedly pursued by a ‘Hashim Khan’, one of Sahibjaan’s former patrons who has recognised her, and attempts to accost her. Salim inquires of Pakeezah ‘Kaun hai ye?’ -who is this? And she responds ‘kis kis ka naam poochenge aap’ –(this is harder to translate but roughly means ‘how many names will you ask of me?’).

tent 1

tent 2

tent 3

Another scene which is both deeply romantic and accurately captures the manners and sensibilities of the era is where Salim enters upon Pakeezah in his tent, who overwhelmed and made acutely self conscious by his arrival, feigns sleep. Having observed her feet, and recognised her he walks outside the tent and addresses her from the other side of it (improvised purdah).  He begins with a ‘tasleem’ (a sort of more ornate word for salaam) and proceeds to ask her about herself. Now, I am pretty sure that the practice of purdah had very regressive implications,  and did severely curtail women’s opportunities and thier capacity to interact with and experience the broader world. That said, this particular scene did for me bring out a certain beauty and charm in it. The respect and courtesy he wishes to accord her, and his desire not to affront her by addressing her directly, is evident in his chosen means to conduct the conversation with her. As he is about to leave the following day she coyly speaks from behind the tent side saying ‘sunye, raat hone se pehle zaroor laut ayega’/‘please return before night fall’ and he smilingly responds ‘zaroor’- /‘most certainly’. It was simply another age. While the movie was released in 1972, it is obviously set in and captures the aura of an earlier period. The total absense of modern forms of transport and utilities (excluding trains and telegrams which had been around for ages) suggests that it was set prior to independence (pre-1947) or even earlier.  It is  just so difficult for people today, to envisage romance of that sort, relations between the genders were far more restricted then but when there was interaction of this kind (which was itself very modest and restrained), perhaps its pleasures and charms can only be grasped at fleetingly by us.

hakim saab 1

The movie is incredibly authentic in how its portrays North Indian Muslim upper-middle class culture of that era. We only see fifteen minutes or so of Salim Ahmad Khan’s family, and yet the portrayal is highly authentic and not overstated. The house (or haveli), the manner and conversation of its inmates, the intimidating visage that is Salim’s grandfather ‘Hakim Sahab’ (played by Sapru) all appear quite true to life. The character of Hakim Sahab was evidently a representation of Kamal Amrohi’s own father, and some of the exchanges between Salim and the head of the household, are verbatim reproductions of domestic exchanges which took place in Amrohi’s own household. E.g. the line “Jo log dudh se jaljaate hai woh chaon bhi pukh pukh ke peethe hain”/”those who are burnt by milk take care even in drinking the froth” and Salim’s response “absos ki log dudh se bhi jal jaate hain”/ “It’s a pity that people are even burnt by milk” constitutes one such line extracted from Amrohi’s own life. (3) Domineering, intimidating and tyrannical patriarchal figures were not, in those days, just the stuff of story books. Many families of that period would have a comparable reference point, and Salim’s actions required great courage and conviction, given the times. His parting lines “Yeh kisi dal dal kohre se bani hui havelli hai..yeh kisi ko panah nahi de sakti hai…yeh bari khatarnaak jaga jai…chalo yahaan se”/”This mansion is made of fog…it cannot offer anyone protection…this is a dangerous place…let us leave here” is a powerful indictment of the society which he seeks to break with – one without compassion, harsh, rigid and rendered fragile by it’s pompous self-importance.

new giggle maid 1

“Tu bya toh kar, mai tujhe kade hi kade pehna dunga”/ “First marry, and I’ll fill your arms with bangles”

giggly maid

“Maine toh apna kar liya, aap ke intezaar mein kab thak baithi rahtein?”/ “I have already done so, how long was I going to hang around waiting for you?”

home 3

I also like smaller details which are etched out and are (and are meant to be) highly suggestive of character. When Salim first takes Pakeezah to his home, the nature of his interaction with the women of the family and others, shows the kind of man he is, and we adore him. His affectionate and playfully reassuring demeanour towards his (I think) grandmother who breaks down crying when she relates that Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar) is ill at a government hopital in Hyderabad. His respect and observance of ettiquete towards the older women of the family, his more casual kindliness towards his other cousin, and lol…his gallantry and amusement when the giggly maid (I think milkwoman) flirts with him.  Yet, she can try to flirt with him so openly and make passes at him without fear, because she knows he’s a decent man. Her overtures will never be presumed upon. I’ve seen the movie so many times that even its minutae is very memorable for me. The scene where Salim takes Pakeezah to the mosque to be married, and she flees from the marriage ceremony crying “Nahi!..Nahi!”/ “No! No!” in response to the Kazi’s (priest’s) solicitation of her consent to the marriage is another powerful scene, as is her return to Gulabi Mahal (the Rose Palace) where she likens prostitutes to adorned corpses, whose souls are dead.

fleeing marriage

The film is not without flaws: Admittedly Meena Kumari is a little too passive in the first half of the film, with the first half being a little too languidly paced. Amrohi has deliberately kept it so, but I do think he becomes slightly self-indulgent at the expense of the viewer. Though not something one would term a ‘flaw’, one also can’t help wishing that Meena was as beautiful in the latter part of the film as she was in the first half. Several of the romantic scenes bear the stamp of her illness and deterioration (and yet succeed in being deeply romantic). I think some of the inflections of tone and acting are also reflective of the demeanour and gravity of an older woman, not the seventeen year old she is playing. Though the song is intensely romantic as it is, just think of the even heightened romantic potential of the “Chalo Dildar Chalo, Chand ke Paar Chalo”/ “Come beloved, let us go beyond the moon” song had Meena been able to show her face, with the camera being able to focus more on this joyous couple, and less on their surroundings. She is so young and beautiful when around all these creepy, dissipated nawabs, but when the real hero of the show comes along, we have a considerably older and very ill Meena Kumari.

chalo dildar chalo

I totally melt at Raaj Kumar’s expression here.

However, these are things that could not be helped or avoided (given the background to the completion of the film; Meena’s separation with Amrohi, subsequent alcoholism and illness). Thank God they still decided to complete Pakeezah! Kudos to Sunil and Nargis Dutt for their intervention. To think that such a film and such songs might never have seen the light of day. Ghulam Mohammad, the music composer of Pakeezah, died in poverty and obscurity well before the release of the film. His  relatively early death, and inability to ever see the huge impact his sublimely beautiful songs would have, remains a real tragedy. For Meena Kumari, completing the film in her condition (she was virtually a dying woman) was no mean feat, and must have required tremendous will power. The film remains an extraordinary achievement for all those involved in it’s making, and though considered a ‘cult classic’ it has not yet recieved the kind of recognition and appreciation it merits. ©

pakeezah bride

(1) Shweta Sachdeva Jha, “Frames of Cinematic History: The Tawaif in Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah” in Narratives of Indian Cinema (ed) Manju Jain. Primus Press, 2009.

(2) Ibid

(3) An interview with Tajdar Amrohi: “Celebrating 40 years of Pakeezah” at Rediff Movies. See http://www.rediff.com/movies/slide-show/slide-show-1-40-years-of-pakeezah/20120305.htm

Charlotte Bronte vs Jane Austen

I am a massive Charlotte Bronte fan, ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Villette’ being my two favourite books of all time. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the position Jane Austen has assumed in the English Literary canon, and where she has been posited relative to Charlotte Bronte; the clever but fairly sedate narratives of the former strangely taking precedence over the powerful literary genius and profundity exhibited  by the latter.

I have no desire to rubbish Jane Austen. She was a skillful writer, her novels frequently being very witty, sometimes caustic and often amusing; pretty entertaining in short. But they were little else. One of the great (and very much understated) shortcomings of Austen’s work was her failure to engage in any substantive way with core questions of morality or any potent underlying philosophy. Matters of form, decorum and propriety retain almost supreme importance in her texts. In advocating the virtues of prudence, circumspection and moderation, Austen is very much in her element, and can be firmly positioned as an establishment figure. E.g. In ‘Emma’  the  propriety and appositeness of Harriet’s union with Mr. Martin is not only affirmed by Mr Knightley’s endorsement of it, but is also evidenced in the extreme perturbation and instinctive distaste Emma feels on later learning that Harriet aspires to marry Mr. Knightley.  For Austen the incongruity of Harriet marrying Mr. Knightley does not just stem from their distinctive personalities; Mr. Knightley being a principled and considerate man endowed with strong sense, and a distinguished mien, and Harriet being amiable but unformed young  girl, deficient in understanding and lacking both independence of thought and action. Their incompatibility also strongly proceeds from their class disparity. As much is evidenced by Emma’s lamentations to the effect of:

“Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! Had she left her where she ought, and where he had told her she ought!—Had she not, with a folly which no tongue could express, prevented her marrying the unexceptionable young man who would have made her happy and respectable in the line of life to which she ought to belong”

Here, the narratorial voice becomes conflated with Emma’s, such that we can quite easily identify the sentiments expressed with Austen’s own. Similarly, the heroine of  ‘Mansfield Park’, Fanny Price, encounters acute discomfort and even mortification, in the course of becoming re-acquainted with her relatively impoverished parents. Fanny’s highly distressed and agitated state of mind throughout the course of her Portsmouth visit does not ensue from any actual ill- treatment inflicted by her nearest of kin. Certainly, Mr. Price was no model of rectitude and paternal solicitude, but what disturbed Fanny was her father’s coarseness of manner, her mother’s lack of refinement and poor management in superintending a large household, and the resultant chaos and disorder.  Most troubling for Fanny was her forced physical proximity to all of this, resulting from the small size of parent’s residence.

She was then taken into a parlour, so small that her first conviction of its being only a passage-room to something better…but when she saw there was no other door, and that there were signs of habitation before her, she called back her thoughts, reproved herself, and grieved lest they should have been suspected                      

Fanny has been characterised as a sensitive and empathetic young lady, who would be very unwilling to make her parents inferior station a subject of reproach. But it is again difficult to overlook the strong classist dimension of her experience, and the element of class prejudice which forms an integral part of Austen’s vision, deeply informing her notions of respectability. The lack of finesse and cultivation Fanny’s family demonstrates, and the cramped nature of their abode, is almost an inevitable adjunct of straightened means, and a paucity of resources.   While it would be unjust to call Fanny a rank snob, her longing and preference for Mansfield Park is predicated on the calm, repose and tranquillity which comes with affluence, and a removed country estate. For Austen, these material assets are necessary to accommodate Fanny’s sedate habits and reflective turn of mind. Even in the more ‘didactic’ of Austen’s novels, the thoughts uttered by her more contemplative protagonists, rarely manifest profundity or genuine sagacity, but border on the prudential rather than moral. What is most puzzling, is the contemporary appeal Austen retains, inspite of her emphasis on station, and heavy leanings towards the status quo. 

Another compelling criticism of Austen’s work is that she merely specialises in what may be termed ‘surface’ slights and incivilities, but has cannot go far beyond this and actually delve into the depth of human experience and feeling which even most ordinary people encounter in the course of their lives. Fanny is admittedly the most pressed upon and harassed person in the Bertram household. Sir Thomas’s stern visage, Aunt Norris’s belittling and cutting allusions to her dependency, Lady Bertram’s constant requisition of her services, and Maria and Julia’s loftiness, all have their due effect. Even so, the trials encountered by Austen heroines, be it Emma or Fanny Price, often assume a trivial sort of quality, and cause the reader to wonder about the complacent and assured world Austen inhabited. Having been termed ‘the only heroine in English literary history to get a headache cutting roses”,  Fanny’s deprivations include having her ride usurped and pony designated for Mary Crawford’s use on one occasion, and being unduly pressurised to participate in the home theatrical on another. For Emma, her rudeness towards Miss Bates on one occasion, and the resultant sense of shame she feels, constitutes the worst experience of her life.

Austen’s disdain for the artificial histrionics and contrived intensities of the fashionable novel churned out by her contemporaries, is understood. However, I believe that Austen goes beyond divesting her narrative of such ostentatious and overwrought kitsch, and actually shuns core dimensions of human experience.  Any sort of depth of feeling, fervour, ardour or earnestness emanating from the heart is quite absent in her sedate narratives. As Julia Kavanagh pertinently remarks “an elopement, a death, a seduction are related as placidly as a dinner or ball, but with much less spirit”.Charlotte Bronte’s own observations on the limitations of Austen’s art are compelling:

She does the business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles by nothing vehement, disturbs with nothing profound; the passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood; even to feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress…..Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman, if this is heresy- I cannot help it.”  

Charlotte Bronte’s novels form a radical contrast to the work of her predecessor. Animation, poignancy, deep and sustained pathos, and genuine wonder at her genius, are the feelings that accompany a perusal of Charlotte Bronte’s work. We are won over by her own earnestness and acute capacity for feeling, and the similar traits she endows her protagonists with. Like Mr Rochestor, we value Jane’s youthful wisdom, her sagacity and the wit and insight conveyed in her discourse. Her animated, yet subtle, sophisticated, yet natural, assertive yet ostensibly compliant conversation and mien, make her a deeply admirable heroine.  Indeed, Bronte succeeds where Austen does not: in representing genuine interiority or the subtle psychological processes which inform human behaviour. Importantly, her work rings true. When Mr Rochestor pronounces remorse ‘the poison of life’ and asserts that “when any vicious simpleton excites my disgust by his paltry ribaldry, I cannot flatter myself that I am better than he: I am forced to confess that he and I am on a level. I wish I had stood firm- God knows I do!”  it smacks of the truth; remorse is indeed the bane of existence and as Mr. Rochester affirms, ‘reformation’, not just ‘repentance’ is its cure. Of course the peripheral characters are no less skillfully depicted, and we retain a strong sense that they too emanate from truth; be it Bessie, Georgina and Eliza Reed, Mrs. Fairfax, Adele, or Rosamund Oliver. 

Surprisingly enough, Paulina de Bassompierre of ‘Villette’ was entirely a product of Bronte’s imagination. Paulina seems so incredibly natural and believable, particularly as a child; we have to applaud Bronte’s intuitive abilities and powers of delineation.  Dr. John of ‘Villete’ is, I believe, one of the most attractive and sorely underrated hero’s of English literature.  Almost as appealing and deeply attractive to us as he is to Lucy Snowe, there is something painfully poignant about her unrequited love for him, and her inward, perhaps premature sense of resignation and knowledge that he cannot be hers. I have more to say about this, and it will form the subject matter of a separate post. But the acute consciousness Lucy Snowe always retains of  her unprepossessing exterior is analogous to Jane Eyre’s observation on first encountering Mr. Rochestor:

 “Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked….I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.”

As noted by one of Brontes’s early reviewers, both heroines, are versions of Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre constitutes a younger, more buoyant and ardent Charlotte Bronte, who has been more fortuitously circumstanced. Lucy Snowe’s situation, is in many senses, deeply analogous to Bronte’s own. Written following a period of  deep depression, ill-health, and melancholia experienced on the early deaths of her siblings, the novel also explores the reality of Bronte’s unreciprocated love, both for her professor in Brussels, M. Heger and her handsome and dynamic young publisher George Smith.  The painful awareness Jane Eyre and Lucy Snow retain of their appearance, is Bronte’s own. Nothing could diverge more from the intense, tumultuous and vehement feelings these women were privy to, than the relative placidity and security characterising the lives of Austen’s protagonists. As stated by the ‘Victorian historical View’ of 1870′

“Tears are bestowed only sparingly upon the heroines, and they are such as a little eau-de-cologne or cold water judiciously served speedily obliterates….sorrow never reaches any great climax and the certainty of a serene conclusion is always present.”

Bronte has been lauded by feminists for her depictions of unconventional,  intelligent, independent spirited women making their way in the world through their talents, without recourse to the traditional feminine allurements of beauty and charm. Even so, Bronte was, like Austen, deeply conservative. However, unlike Austen, her conservatism wasn’t predicated on an adherence to ritual and form, a maintenance of class distinctions, and an inordinate emphasis on propriety and decorum. Bronte was herself deeply religious and tried to bear the tragedies in her own life with a Christian stoicism, and with faith of recompense in the hereafter. For all the grossly misapplied labels of ‘coarseness’, her heroines always acted in a very principled way, and were both inspired and deeply influenced by their religious convictions. Religion typically assumes a perfunctory sort of character in most of Austen’s works. This emphasis on form rather than substance in the domain of religion can be deemed to be more broadly reflective of Jane Austen’s outlook and vision relative to Charlotte Bronte’s. As has been aptly remarked in the ‘Victorian Society View’ of 1866 “Charlotte Bronte wrote like an inspired woman, Jane Austen like a cultivated lady”. ©

   

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