The Householder (1963)

Okay, one last post for Shashi Fest.

There’s something a little strange about seeing a film you’ve heard so much about. An English film, but with a primarily Bollywood star cast? With a story line that wavers between the usual hiccups of a middle class urban couple, doing the painful transition from carefree single existences to married life—and an American, floundering about as he tries to reach for a higher spirituality? Part Indian, part foreign outlook? And all of it with its roots in the Manusmriti, which says that of the four states of man, that of the grihastha (the householder) is the most important…?

It’s 1963, and with the songs of Junglee blaring in the background, a young couple—Prem Sagar (Shashi Kapoor) and his wife Indu (Leela Naidu)—go to Mehrauli for the wedding of an acquaintance. There’s a certain charm about the expedition: Indu has happily discussed with Prem what she’ll wear (her blue sari? Or the pink? And with her golden earrings), and now, they go off in the bus, he in his achkan, she in a pretty sari.

There’s an easy affection between the two of them, but—as Prem, trying to make small talk with the dispirited bridegroom—says, it wasn’t always like this. When they first got married, things were very different.

And so begins the actual story. It’s not even a story, really; more a series of vignettes that shows the slow evolution of a marriage. Prem lives in Delhi, surviving on the Rs 180 per month that he makes as a college lecturer. His constant crib, to anyone who’ll care to listen, is that one cannot possibly survive on such a pittance; and with a wife? Impossible. And when that wife is a shy thing, with nothing to recommend her—she can’t even cook properly—there’s really nothing to be said for being married.

It isn’t as if Prem is nasty. He just doesn’t realise that Indu, till now a sheltered and somewhat pampered girl-woman who has spent most of her life chewing sugarcane or swinging under the gulmohar tree with her cousins and friends, needs time to adjust. Prem’s admonitions—that she must learn to economise, that her daal isn’t as good as his mother’s, that she shames him by eating too much too fast at a tea party—only make Indu feel more lonely, more alone.

There is, fortunately, the maternal sweetness of Mrs Saigal (Achla Sachdev), the wife of the landlord (Pinchoo Kapoor). Mrs Saigal is always there to listen to Indu, to give her advice and tell her that things will turn out all right. It is Mrs Saigal, in fact, who cottons on to the fact that Indu is pregnant, and it is Mrs Saigal who is the first to give Prem that happy news.

And Prem, panicking at the thought of being a father, decides that the best way to ensure the good health of Indu and the household is to summon his mother (Durga Khote). Ma arrives, and from then on, the little household falls apart—and comes together, too, as Prem grows protective of his wife, trying to shield her from the sarcasm and insensitivity of his mother.

Of course, from the way the film begins, it’s obvious that this is one marriage that has managed to surmount the initial barriers of two strangers who’ve gotten married with not the least notion of what marriage really means. They live together in a small rooftop house, separated into sections by curtains, but they’re not, in essence, one. Since their servant does much of the work, Indu finds herself at a loose end all day long, trying to bear up with her mother-in-law, or succumbing to the joys of trying out pretty bangles being sold by an itinerant vendor…

…while Prem spends his time teaching at a college. The college is headed by the pompous Mr Khanna (Romesh Thapar), who lives on campus with his bossy wife (Indu Lele), who scolds Prem for stepping on her newly dry-cleaned carpet, for coming home to deliver a letter, for speaking up when he’s not spoken to: for just about everything, in fact.

Prem’s colleagues are all much older than him. There is Sohanlal (Pro Sen), who lives so far away that he has to cycle to college everyday, bringing his lunch with him because he can’t take the time out to go back home for it.

And there’s the history professor, Mr Chaddha (very ably portrayed by Harindranath Chattopadhyay), a cantankerous old man who spends much of his time glaring at Prem and threatening to complain to Mr Khanna about how undisciplined Prem’s students are.

Prem’s only other friend is Raj (Prayag Raj), who by virtue of being married three years and being father to a little girl, is (in Prem’s eyes, at least) someone to be looked up to. Raj, though, is too caught up with his own life, too dismissive of his own overworked wife, and too proud of the fact that he is employed by the government, to be able to understand the problems Prem faces.

But then, two new characters enter the story. One is the Swami (Pahadi Sanyal), a guru who is kind and wise and all that Prem would like to be:

And there is the American, Ernest (Ernest Castaldo), whom Prem first meets at the Jantar Mantar, with Ernest running madly along the inside of one of the structures there…

… and with whom Prem falls into a strange conversation, with both of them carrying on a monologue: Prem talks of India’s development, of five year plans and industries and whatnot, while Ernest talks about spirituality and how India helps souls grow. Despite the seemingly at-cross-purposes trend of their first meeting, however, Prem and Ernest become good friends, and though Prem appears to find Ernest’s extremely earnest quest for the ultimate truth a little puzzling, he’s willing to listen, and to help—and perhaps get some help for himself?

This is what The Householder is all about: a young man and the relationships he’s caught in. As a son who is expected to be dutiful, an employee who is expected to work hard and not ask for increments, a friend who must be loyal and not demand too much of one’s time and energies. And most of all, as a husband who should be able to be a friend and companion to his wife. Our householder struggles bravely on, juggling personal and professional lives, occasionally buckling under the many pressures he has to face—and eventually, at least, winning the support of one person who’ll stand by him always.

It’s a sweet film, and though there are a considerable number of peripheral characters (Prem’s mother, the Saigals, the Khannas, Raj and his wife, Ernest and the people he stays with, the Swami, etc), the focus is on Prem and Indu. They begin the marriage as two shy, confused individuals who aren’t quite sure about the finer points of being married. So shy, in fact, that they turn outwards for support—Indu to Mrs Saigal, Prem to Raj or Sohanlal—when in need of a shoulder to cry on. It is only as their marriage progresses, and as the intrusive third person (Prem’s mother) becomes irritating, that Prem and Indu begin to draw nearer.

Interestingly, The Householder also draws a parallel between the lives of Prem and Ernest. They’re outwardly two diametrically opposite young men. Prem is Indian, conservative, conforming, labouring for every single rupee he can get. Ernest is American, a free spirit (yes, he may not look a hippie, but his mad outlook on life is pretty much headed that way), and with obviously enough time and money to be gadding about the world looking for nirvana. Despite this contrast, they’re united in their quest for something higher: Ernest looks for spiritual freedom, Prem looks for—what? He says it’s spiritual freedom, but it just may be a closer, deeper relationship with the girl he’s married and come to love.

A good film, definitely worth a watch.  This is the first Merchant-Ivory-Jhabwala film I’ve seen, and if this is anything to go by, I’ll be seeing more!

What I liked about this film:

Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu. Their acting is excellent, and the chemistry between them perfect. It’s so easy to believe that Prem is shy (he looks away awkwardly when Indu’s shadow falls on the curtain while she’s undressing), or that Indu is missing her home, or that they’re beginning to be comfortable enough in each other’s company for her to make a joke, or for him to try and steal a kiss… very sweet.

Delhi, circa 1963. I’ve known Mehrauli only as a crowded, built-over area studded with tombs and havelis that have been swallowed up by later settlements. To see it like this was a joy:

And this, near the Red Fort:

What I didn’t like:

Some of the secondary characters, like the Khannas or the people Ernest stays with, are too one-dimensional; they end up being caricatures that irritated me a lot. Midway through the film, whenever any of these people turned up in a scene, I found myself waiting for when the story would go back to Prem and Indu. They, and their relationship, is what makes The Householder.

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32 thoughts on “The Householder (1963)

  1. This sounds so very cute! I like Leela Naidu…she was so pretty na, and was a great actor as well. And that shy-Shashi scene you described is so sweet.
    I haven’t seen the movie, but when I reached the point where you mentioned Sohanlal, Mr. Chaddha and Raj…I was wondering if so many characters were necessary. But I guess, the (one-dimensional and irritating) presence of all these makes the Prem-Indu part all the more special, as you end up waiting for their story to continue.
    I have heard so much about the Merchant-Ivory films, but never seen any of them. I’ll have catch hold of them soon – I was just making a note of them last night while I was doing my Shashi Special post –
    Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie, The Householder and Pretty Polly.

  2. sunheriyaadein, you’re so right… I guess the annoying presence of all those characters help make the Prem-Indu parts more special! It’s a very likeable film, do try and get hold of it.
    Interestingly, the first of the Merchant-Ivory films I ever heard of was Bombay Talkies and that too because my parents had a record of it. I remember this lovely song on that record which went Typewriter tip-tip-tip…karta hai, zindagi ki har kahaani likhta hai. I had no idea what the film was about (this was when I was about 5-6 years old), but it had my vote because I liked the song so much!

  3. Awww… Shashi was so adorable in this – when he wasnt telling his wife that she wasnt as good as his Maa, that is. Dont you think Leela Naidu is a bit too beautiful for this part? Its hard to believe that any hubby of hers wouldnt be too busy thanking his lucky stars for such a lovely bride, to have any time left over to pick faults in her! ;-) Jokes apart, I did like Prem-Indu’s initial marital awkwardness – so very natural under the circumstances, and their scheming to get rid of Mom, in the end, was so cute.

    This film needs to go back into my DVD player, soon. I completely missed that the Swami was Pahadi Sanyal and the “experienced” friend was Prayag Raj!

  4. Yes, I guess if I was married to someone as gorgeous as Leela Naidu, I’d probably overlook all her shortcomings! Seriously, though, I think both Indu and Prem have been portrayed in a way that makes them very easy to relate to – it wouldn’t be easy having to stay with someone who was virtually a stranger, and the shyness and hesitation of both is so natural. Lovely! And their giggly conspiring to get rid of the mother is delightful. I also love the scene where he’s bought that little scrap of pink blouse material for her, and takes it out of the cupboard to look at it and stroke it, because he’s missing her so dreadfully…

    Now I want to see it again.

    • Lolz.. yes. I think both these characters looked so adorable and charming that you really wanted them to sort things out soon. As you said, with a wife like Leela Naidu, you wouldn’t mind waiting for her to learn things taking her own time

  5. I’ve always meant to watch this film, or at least read the book, but never came to it!
    it sounds to be a nice film!
    I’ve only read one book from Jhabvala, but forget its name now. That novel was also based in Delhi and about marriage and joint families. It was cute in a Hrishikesh Mukherjee sort of way.
    It scraped certain problems but let them get solved on their own. Although one can accuse her of being superficial it has its own sweetness.

  6. Ever since Shashi Kapoor got the Filmfare award this year for lifetime achievement, he has been on my mind. He looked so frail and ill that I wanted to watch his films and bring back the good looking actor to my mind.

    So I watched Jab Jab…, and Raja Saheb.
    It seems there’s a real gem waiting to be watched.
    I do like such sweet simple tales. Though I wonder if their speaking in English will reduce the affect a little. Does it? Can one really relate? Obviously you did, but I’m wondering. Especially when the story is so traditional. Can’t imagine the ma-in-law communicating in English either.
    I don’t mean ‘how do they know the language?’ …it’s just…I hope you get the drift. And I seem to be rambling. :-/

  7. Thanks for the review. It looks promising and will probably watch this movie if I get a chance. Leela Naidu looks ethereal and Shashi of course, we all know is an attractive man. Indians communicating in English is very natural for me, be it a grandma or a two year old. As a matter of fact it is easier for me to envision a grandma speaking pukka English than a 20 year old with a crush on Ranbir Kapoor.

  8. I didnt know that the Shashi Kapoor- Merchant nexus dates back to the 60s. The last of them that I saw was The Deceivers, and it had Pierce Brosnan in the lead role.

  9. I loved reading this, i’ve never really delved into the whole Merchant ivory films, they’re quite hard to get by 1 plus i ‘m not too sure if i’ll like them, but this sounds lik and interesting and well thought out film

  10. I understand what pacifist means.
    It is always walking the fine line while putting the english language in the mouth of actors in a traditional indian story. Maybe it is not so odd for non-Indians but more so for Indians. In the Merchant-Ivory films I’ve seen it seemed so normal (the accent, the flow of the words) that one hardly had a feeling that they are speaking in a foreign language.
    But their are other films, where it seemed very, very odd!
    A very good example though in a book is that of Vikram Seth’s A suitable Boy,w here he has chosen the words for the situation and character with such a care that they don’t sound out of place. More than that it gives the reader a feeling as if the characters are speaking in their mother tongue. Some of the lines, you could readily translate word-to-word in English, without sounding foolish

  11. harvey: You know, I can agree with what you’re saying about it being sometimes superficial – I felt that bits of the film were unnecessary and in any case too shallow to make an impression (especially the eccentricities of the people Ernest was staying with). But the relationship between Prem and Indu was so beautifully shown, I eventually forgave the rest of the film!
    Oh, and PS: The Suitable Boy is one of my favourite IWE books! Love it.

    pacifist: Raja Saab and Jab Jab Phool Khile are so similar, isn’t it? The basic story – makeover – is much the same, and of course with Nanda as the heroine in both… I get a sense of deja vu.
    also @harvey and @sophy: Yes, Indians speaking in English can be a bit strange in places. For me, personally, it’s not unusual, since I grew up in a family where English was the main language at home. But what I found a little disconcerting and hard to believe in The Householder was that:
    a) Some of the cast seemed uncomfortable with English – Achla Sachdev or Indu Lele, for instance. Shashi Kapoor, Leela Naidu, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, Pahadi Sanyal, even Durga Khote – were all right, but some of the others appeared indistinct and with too strong accents.
    b) And this is what made it seem sort of contrived to me – our normal, daily conversations, even when in English, are sprinkled with lots of Hindi. Here, only the mother’s occasional “Hey Ram” was in Hindi; everything else was English, which didn’t ring true. In contrast, I was thinking of Being Cyrus, which, while in English, has enough vernacular to be believable.

    sophy: Yes, I can imagine a grandmother speaking much more pukka English! My nani would have been horrified with some of what passes for English these days! ;-)

    Hero Heeralal: Ah, I remember reading a review of The Deceivers; not very promising, as far as I recall. How’s it, in your opinion?

    bollywooddeewana: Yes, I’ve been sort of avoiding the Merchant Ivory films so far – I’ve always had (perhaps the mistaken) impression that they’re a sort of neither-here-nor-there version of India: not as stereotypically exotic as the West believes it, not as Indian as it really is, but somewhere in between. This one was cute, though, so maybe I should get around to seeing a couple more!

  12. Found it quite good, also because I came to know the origin and the real meaning of the word ‘thug’, which later came to mean just a swindler or a cheat. Thugs used to be a cult of clever and ruthless murderers who’d target caravans carrying good money etc. They’d mix up with them and then kill them by strangling when they’d be asleep. The British govt. brought this cult to an end, but I had read nothing about it in history books, so found it quite interesting.

    Syed Jaffery was very good in the movie. Brosnan is good too, and so is Shashi Kapoor in his small role. Story seemed improbable when Brosnan, a Bristisher, is asked to masquerade as a look alike of a deceased poor Indian who died after prolonged illness. I mean, how could the two have looked alike?

    But worth the time and money nonetheless. At least I can say- another Merchant Ivory one that I saw (though all are not good of course; Perfect Murder starring Naseer was pretty ordinary.)

  13. I remember watching Perfect Murder – I’d forgotten it was Merchant Ivory, it was so forgettable. Didn’t like it one bit!

    From your description of The Deceivers, I’m probably all right with not seeing it. Brosnan masquerading as an Indian? Ahem. And since I already knew quite a bit about thuggie (my sister, who’s a historian, had done a lot of research into thuggie and Sleeman’s efforts to suppress the practice, and for a few years everybody at home was subjected to long lectures on what it was all about)… so I wouldn’t even gain anything in the way of learning something I didn’t know!

  14. I take it you haven’t seen _Before the Rains_ then. I just heard about it. Like you, I haven’t been a fan of Merchant-Ivory for the same reasons you outlined–neither here nor there and somewhat contrived and self conscious. I’m willing to give both movies a try because it’s really been so long. I’m curious about the Santosh Sivan photography besides in BTR.

  15. No, I haven’t seen Before the Rains, though I’ve heard of it. Might just give it a try: if for nothing than to check whether firang portrayals of India (as far as Merchant Ivory is concerned) are any better now than they were about half a century ago.

  16. I loved the film.Not only for its story and the sublime humor but also for photographing Delhi in a manner that is rare. Few cities have been photographed so beautifully in cinema.
    Satyajit Ray was responsible for editing this movie although the credits don’t say it and this makes the movie all the more historic.
    Leela Naidu was one of the most beautiful women to have ever walked on earth and an actress who was vastly under-used. Perhaps, Hindi cinema was not doing the kind of films she wanted to do. Plus, she kept travelling with her equally excellent poet-husband Dom Moraes. I am waiting for the book by Jerry Pinto on her life.
    And yes, I told Shashi Kapoor when I met him at Prithvi that – The Householder was the his film I liked best (although there are few other more important films he did). He said- “Thank You”, smiled and added ” That was a long time ago.”

  17. Only today, I was mentioning to my sister (who’s involved in helping design an exhibition on Delhi through the ages, at IGNCA) about Delhi in popular culture – especially cinema. Having said which, there was only one film I could think of which showed Delhi beautifully: The Householder.

    And yes, Leela Naidu was beautiful – though I agree that perhaps a bit of a misfit in Hindi cinema; she probably didn’t want the run of the mill roles, and they probably couldn’t find roles in which she would fit. The only two Hindi films of hers that I’ve seen were both fairly offbeat: Anuradha and Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke.

  18. Hello Madhu,
    I had been inspired by you to see and write about The Householder, and somehow forgot to come and tell you about it!
    It’s quite interesting how different our two perspectives are! You focus almost entirely on the young married couple, and what they suggest about the difficulties of starting in life, whereas I was sensitive to James Ivory’s stance about “spiritual India”: in fact I felt that what he was doing was contrasting the pursuits of an ordinary Indian couple (let’s say: in search of love) and those of Western spiritualists (also in search of love, or their own idea of it), and see what comes out of it. Your description made me think there’s more to the movie than just an experiment, but certainly Ivory nevertheless wants to say that love and spirituality (even in its ascetic forms) can be found more in the everyday efforts to conform to one’s duties, and satisfy oneself of one’s lot, than seeking truth and awakening in faraway lands. Better to work and live where destiny has placed you, than wander afar in search of a reality that (in its essence) is foreign to you. In short, truth and harmony are in finding yourself within your community, among those with whom you share your culture and country. India’s spirituality is for Indians, not for Westerners, who have their own. The swami even says that spirituality should not be forced on oneself, that there are times in life when it could be practised, but certainly not at the expense of one’s obligations as a husband, father, teacher etc. Perhaps one might even say there is as much spirituality in honestly performing one’s tasks as father, teacher, etc. than becoming the follower of a guru. Especially if it’s to the detriment of one’s engagements.
    What do you think?
    cheers
    yves

  19. Hey Yves, thank you for telling me about your post – I’ll be going off to read it as soon as I’ve finished this comment!

    I suppose perspective depends a lot on social circumstances, one’s own interests, and so on. (It’s like an old anecdote I sometimes recount to explain how two people can view the same thing in diametrically opposite ways: my older cousin, who’s an Army officer, told me the story of the musical The Sound of Music when I was a child. The way he told me the story, I got the impression it was a war film – so was very surprised when I actually got around to watching it!)

    I guess, since for me personally ‘being a good person’ means being considerate, sincere and kind to those around me (in other words, as you say – ‘honestly performing one’s tasks as father, teacher, etc.’) rather than seeking nirvana, The Householder‘s crux was the story of how Prem manages the leap from being a nervous and somewhat inept bridegroom to a husband who can inspire confidence and love in his wife. In other words, not just someone who preaches spirituality or righteousness, but practises it.

    Off to read your post now!

  20. Yes, Sharmi: it’s a sweet story, definitely worth watching! Plus I personally think Leela Naidu is more believable here (I think she was more comfortable with English than with Hindi…? She was half Irish, as far as I recall. Or half English. At any rate, not 100% Bharatiya).

  21. Thank you for this review, Madhulika. I am a Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala fan and this is one of my very favourite films. Shashi Kapoor’s work in international cinema was far more substantial than what Bollywood actors today are doing in “Hollywood” films. And Shashi Kapoor was so modest about his work. I liked ‘Heat and Dust’ and ‘In Custody’ too, though I did not like ‘Bombay Talkie’ that much, except the “Typewriter” song and the very haunting theme music by Shankar-Jaikishan.

    • I liked The Householder too, Hansda. I must admit to having seen very few Merchant-Ivory films, and a couple of those were back when I was too small to understand them. Don’t much care for Bombay Talkie – which I saw only last year, and mainly because of the typewriter song. That’s really great. :-)

      One of their films that I liked (but no Jhabwala connection there) is A Room with a View. Witty, fun, romantic.

  22. Hi, Madhulika. Yes, ‘A Room with a View’ is a fabulous film. In fact, I watched it as I was reading the Forster novel! This made me notice one thing: that Merchant-Ivory’s film adaptations are, usually, direct, page-by-page adaptations of books they are based upon. Both ‘A Room with a View’ book and film open in a room without a view in that Italian pensione. I also absolutely loved ‘Howards End’ and ‘Le Divorce’. ‘Le Divorce’is such a charming film. I loved it for its moments. Another fabulous film which comes to mind when I think of films directly adapted for screen as they appear in print is the Keira Knightley-starrer ‘Atonement’, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel. The film looks just like it was lifted from the book and placed on screen. A very nice effort. :-) By the way, Madhulika, I think ‘A Room with a View’ has a Jhabvala connection. I think she won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Just check out this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Room_with_a_View_(film)

    • Okay, now I must watch Le Divorce too – whenever I get the time! Didn’t know about the Jhabwala connection to A Room With a View (mainly because I didn’t bother to check), so thank you for that. I haven’t read the book, but it was certainly an extremely enjoyable film.

      I remember us talking about Atonement on FB – we were discussing Romola Garai and what a great actress she is. :-)

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