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.