I made such a mistake doing a Westward the Women post for International Women’s Day. Granted, it’s a good film, and highly recommended—but does it really teach a woman anything substantial? Knowing how to harness a mule or drive a wagon isn’t all there is to life. So here’s compensation: a film replete with lessons for women (and men, too). There are do’s and don’ts for just about any situation in life, including—though never stated—filmmaking.
Bhabhi begins at an old man’s deathbed. He’s attended by his weeping sister (Durga Khote) and his eldest son Ratanlal (no idea who this actor is). Ratan has three younger brothers—Ramesh, Rajan and Baldev `Billu’—all of whom his father leaves in Ratan’s care, along with a debt of Rs 1,000, for which their home has been mortgaged. The father pops off, but when Ratan goes to the creditor, a lawyer named Motilal (Bipin Gupta), to promise to pay off the debt, Motilal insists the money was given as a loan. He is kindness itself and offers to help when Ratan expresses a desire to begin a small business.
Armed with a letter of recommendation from Motilal, Ratan goes to a cloth merchant in Mysore. He is received with even more kindness, and soon begins hawking cloth from door to door.
Years pass. Ratan (now Balraj Sahni) is a successful and wealthy cloth merchant. Ramesh (Jawahar Kaul) is on the way to becoming a lawyer, and Rajan (Raja Gosavi) will be, as Ratan puts it, `in just a few days’, a doctor. Billu (Jagdeep) is studying in college, and Ratan—a widower—is trying unsuccessfully to bring up his motherless infant.
The obvious solution is for Ratan to remarry. His new bride is Shanta (Pandari Bai), a college-educated woman who, on discovering that Ratan left off his schooling after his father’s death, hides the extent of her own education. Lesson #1: A woman cannot be more educated than her husband. Even if she is, she can be considered a dutiful wife only if she pretends to be less educated.
Fortunately for Ratan, baby and household, Shanta is loving (cloyingly so), maternal and a homebody.
Some years have passed. Ratan’s son, Mithoo (Daisy Irani) is now about six years old. Shanta and Ratan don’t have any children of their own. Lesson #2: A truly virtuous second wife won’t have any offspring who may possibly distract her from lavishing her affections on any stepchildren she may have.
Ratan’s siblings, however, have made little progress. Ramesh has just qualified as a lawyer; Rajan is still working to be a doctor; and Billu’s still in college. From what I can tell, this is a singularly dumb family. Shanta’s cousin Lata (Nanda) who lives with them, seems to think so, at least of Billu: she sings Tie lagaake maana ban gaye janaab hero to him. Lata, by the way, was married and widowed as a child; she doesn’t even remember being married, and is a bundle of pranks.
Ratan’s employee Munshiram (Shivraj) comes to Ratan with a request for a loan—he wants to get his daughter Mangala (Nalini? Don’t know) married. Ratan offers a happy solution: Ramesh will marry her. But Ramesh is in love with Motilal’s daughter Tara (Shyama, looking gorgeous). What’s more, Motilal approves of the match. Lesson #3: As an eldest sibling, you can boss around your younger brothers and sisters to the extent of deciding whom they’ll marry—without even considering asking them first. [I’m not an older sibling, so can’t get to try this, sadly].
Caught in a dilemma, Ratan conjures up another solution. (This guy is good at thinking on his feet). Rajan, the brother labouring to be a doctor, will marry Mangala. Lesson #4: Read lesson #3, above. Ditto. (Maybe I should rename this lesson #3a).
Anyway, Mangala seems quite content to find herself suddenly engaged to someone different. Lesson #4 (really 4): A good woman quietly accepts whoever she’s told to marry—even if her bridegroom changes to someone else the next day.
Ramesh-Tara and Rajan-Mangala get married the same day, and as they’re entering the house, Shanta emerges with aarti thali in hand to welcome them. She welcomes Ramesh and Tara, but Lata races forward when Ratan and Mangala are to be welcomed, and insists on doing the aarti herself. The neighbourhood women, crowding around Mangala, tut-tut about Lata’s inauspiciousness. A widow, and welcoming the bride? Not done. By the time Rajan arrives, Mangala’s belching fire.
Lesson #5: A girl who’s bovine-docile one day can change into a harpy the next. All she has to do is get married.
Mangala is such a harridan, she soon drives Rajan off; he returns to medical college. But Mangala doesn’t stop at that. She rails at Lata, complains to Shanta (who personifies the `water off a duck’s back’ idiom: no raving and ranting can make her leave off her fixed smile) and cribs to Tara. Tara is initially unbiased and prone to tell Mangala to take it easy, but Mangala works away at it, and Tara gradually becomes anti-Shanta/Lata/Ratan/whoever.
Lata, meanwhile, has been spending her time playing with Mithoo and Billu, flying kites, plucking roses from the garden (roses which Billu forbids Mangala from picking for her pooja), and being cheeky to Tara and Mangala.
Tara finally loses her temper and bursts into the kitchen to complain to Shanta about Lata. Lata, who’s also sitting there, continues to tease Tara and Mangala, but Shanta brushes it off with a beatific smile. Lesson #7: A smile may not be always appropriate (in fact, as in this case, it can be inflammatory), but it’s what a good woman resorts to when faced with a quarrel.
Tara accuses Shanta of indulging Lata, who as a widow, shouldn’t be enjoying herself in this shameless fashion. Lesson #8: A widow, never mind if she doesn’t even know she’s a widow—or was ever married—must never smile or sing or fly kites.
Lata, in that horrific moment, realises the futility of her joyous life, and goes off to change into a white sari (how on earth do people in Hindi films unearth white saris at the drop of a hat? Do they keep them tucked away in a cupboard to be pulled out at a moment’s notice?). Unknown to Shanta, Lata also writes to the brother (Om Prakash) of her dead husband, asking him to come fetch her, since she’s family.
Lesson #9: Family is people whose dead relations you were once married to; never mind if you don’t even remember your spouse or that you were married. People you live with and love (and who love you) aren’t really family.
Lata’s brother-in-law and his tyrannical wife (Manorama) are pleased to be getting an unpaid maidservant to look after their house. Their son (Agha), who works with his father in a small-time nautanki, is neutral. He does protest when Lata’s put to work, but he’s ignored. Lata spends her days sobbing her eyes out while she goes about sweeping, scrubbing, cooking and getting thrashed by the sister-in-law.
As if that wasn’t enough cause for anxiety, Tara’s brother Jeevan (Anwar Hussain) begins brainwashing Tara and Rajan into getting Ratan to divide the property four ways. Ratan, after much soul-searching and sorrowing, agrees and the division happens. Ramesh gets the family firm; Rajan is given a bungalow; Billu gets other property; and Ratan keeps the village house, to which he now repairs, with his aunt, Shanta and Mithoo.
In the meantime, Rajan has begun drowning his sorrows in drink. Ratan falls very ill, and Shanta’s at the end of her tether, both emotionally and financially, though she smiles bravely (or irritatingly—depends on how you look at it) through it all. She even travels to lecture Rajan on how he’s disappointed them all by taking to drink. Rajan, from that moment, is a changed man, repentant and resolved to do better. Lesson #10: Even if you don’t have money to save your family from starvation, you must travel long distances to stop younger siblings from wandering off the straight and narrow. And if you cough up a suitably effective harangue, even a drunk can suddenly become sober.
This is the happy half of the film. There’s more to come: more angst, more sheer evilness on the parts of Jeevan and Lata’s in-laws, more family misunderstandings that keep people away from each other. And there are many more lessons, including one that’s been reinforced in films all the way from Munimji to Haathi Mere Saathi. Lesson #11: Always train your pet to do just about anything. You never know when it’ll come in use.
At which point, nauseated at the very memory of this film, I’m going to take myself off. With one last lesson, Lesson #12: good songs do not a good film make. Neither do a good lead actor and a so-so supporting cast when the basic story is preachy, depressing, and utterly painful.
What I liked about this film:
The music. It’s by Chitragupt, and absolutely lovely. The beautiful Chal ud jaa re panchhi is probably the most famous, but there are lesser gems too, including Kaare-kaare badraa, jaa re jaa re badraa.
Jagdeep. As Billu, he’s one of the few people in the film who’s tolerable. True, he does have some fairly weepy and emotional scenes, but he’s refreshingly, genuinely funny.
What I didn’t like:
My usual favourites, Balraj Sahni, Nanda and Shyama (why did she get so many of the beautiful harridan roles? Bhabhi; Beti; Bahurani; Chhoti Bahen; such a lovely woman should’ve done more of the Aar Paar and Barsaat ki Raat roles)… even these people can’t save Bhabhi. Like Om Prakash, Manorama and Agha, they’re wasted: their roles are screechy and harsh, or weepy and self-sacrificing, or half-wittedly light-hearted, or just generally one-dimensional. As for Pandari Bai and Raja Gosavi: their accents go for a toss and become very strained in some of the emotional scenes. Probably not an issue if you’re depending on subtitles to see the film, but if you know Hindi (as I do), then it can make you wince (as I did).
The story. All the old clichés, of the ever-suffering, ever-smiling mother figure of the bhabhi; the strident bride who snatches her husband away from the bosom of his doting family; the conniving and greedy brother-in-law with an eye on the wealth; the patriarch who will do anything to bring his family back together again—are all here. And as if that wasn’t enough, the tale’s sprinkled liberally with other social messages, all of them hammered hard and long. Some, like that of the treatment of widows, are progressive and laudable, but the way they’re presented is so awful, it’s really not worth the time and effort.