Or Ogni Porikkha, if you want to be phonetically correct.
Over the last twenty-odd years, I’ve heard countless Bengalis rave about Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen as the ultimate onscreen romantic couple. I’ve seen both of them act (separately) in a few (admittedly Hindi) films, and have been very impressed.
So, finally: an Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen film, and one that was a big hit too. Agni Pariksha: ‘trial by fire’.
The story begins in the house of Mr Banerji (Kamal Mitra, identified by Sharmi—I need help identifying the cast in this film! The only people I can recognise are Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen). Mr Banerji and his wife Chitra (?) are off to visit her aunt in Mussoorie, while Mr Banerji’s elderly mother (?) is taking her three grandchildren—Mr Banerji’s offspring—with her to their ‘ancestral village’, their hometown.
The three children, the teenaged Tapasi (?) and her younger brothers Siddharth ‘Siddhu’ (?) and Amitabh ‘Amit’ (?)—whoever heard of Bengali boys with pet names that were such civilised contractions of their actual names?!—are excited at the thought of going off with Grandma. Tapasi, in fact, decides to borrow some of her mother’s saris on the sly, so that she can wear them in the village. Frocks and skirts, as she tells her father, will be so out of place in the village.
Chitra is not at all happy that her mother-in-law is taking the children to the village. Her mother-in-law is, in any case, not a big favourite with Chitra: Chitra thinks the old lady’s a stick-in-the-mud with fuddy-duddy ideas that belong in the 10th century. The fact that Mr Banerji’s father left all his vast wealth to his widow rather than to Mr Banerji just makes Chitra even more bitter.
Anyway, Chitra and Mr Banerji go off to Mussoorie, while Grandma arrives in the village with Tapasi, Siddhu and Amit.
Here, an old friend of the family, Mr Kanti Mukherji (?), invites Grandma and the children over to his home for some religious ceremonies centring round the installation of some idols. The group lands up at Kanti Mukherji’s palatial home (he’s the area’s wealthiest zamindar, a multi-millionaire landowner who’s highly respected). Mr Mukherji takes one look at Tapasi—who’s dressed up in her mother’s wedding sari for the occasion—and is immediately enchanted.
While the children go off to participate in the festivities, Mr Mukherji asks Tapasi’s Grandma for Tapasi’s hand in marriage to Bulu (?, he at least conforms to the principles of pet name selection!), Mr Mukherji’s grandson and his sole surviving heir. Bulu is summoned, and is introduced to Grandma; it turns out he’s studying at the Presidency College in Calcutta.
Grandma is rattled by Mr Mukherji’s proposal, but he uses emotional blackmail to finally get her consent. In any case, says Mr Mukherji: it’s not as if Tapasi and Bulu will get married right now; only when they’ve grown up.
The festivities over, Grandma and the children have gone back to their own home when a servant comes to fetch them back to Mr Mukherji: he’s dying (he’d admitted earlier that he has cancer). They arrive, and Mr Mukheri springs a surprise: he wants Tapasi and Bulu married, now. Before he dies.
Grandma is easily swayed, and before they know it, Tapasi and Bulu are married, and Mr Mukherji is dead.
Tapasi’s father arrives in response to his mother’s telegram to him and is flabbergasted to find his little girl married. He takes her back to Calcutta, where Chitra—hastily summoned—arrives, to rave and rant and swear that she’ll wipe out all signs of Tapasi’s idiotic marriage.
This traumatic incident has many fallouts. A grieving Grandma bequeaths her entire wealth to Tapasi, whilst allowing Rs 500 to be sent every month to Banaras, where Grandma now retires.
Tapasi herself seems to have settled back into life as an urban schoolgirl. The only problem is that when she absently scribbles in her notebook, she goes on writing Bulu’s name. And she’s keen on learning how to drive; in fact, just the other day, she’s been on a drive all the way to Presidency College…
…where, though she hasn’t met him since their disastrous wedding, Bulu too is thinking of Tapasi, absently writing her name when a friend asks him to test a new fountain pen.
But then, disaster strikes again. Mr Banerji, plagued by sorrows and by Chitra’s incessant nagging, has a heart attack and dies.
12 years pass, and the next we know, Tapasi (now Suchitra Sen) is holidaying in Mussoorie, staying with her siblings and her mother at the house of Chitra’s aunt and her daughter Lily (?). One day, Tapasi’s out in the hills by herself when she meets a stranger (Uttam Kumar).
His name’s Kirit Mukherji, and he’s a sweet, gentle man who tells her that the fog’s so thick, she’d better stay put until it clears. Which, of course, could take hours. Tapasi agrees, and when he asks her if she’s the well-known singer Tapasi Banerji (yes, Tapasi’s made a name for herself in the years gone by), she admits to it, and even obliges him by singing a song.
Back home, Tapasi finds herself the object of much envy. Her ‘aunt’ Lily is openly jealous that the very wealthy, well-travelled Kirit Mukherji (who’s lived abroad for the past 10 years and has only recently come to Mussoorie) spent 2 whole hours with Tapasi. Lily’s mother tells Tapasi that Tapasi must introduce the entire family to Kirit—in the hope, obviously, that Kirit will fall for Lily. Tapasi’s mother is happy.
And who wouldn’t be? Over the days that follow, Tapasi becomes increasingly friendly with Kirit. They spend a lot of time with each other, wandering in the hills, talking, Tapasi singing and Kirit listening.
Tapasi tells Lily that she isn’t in love with Kirit; but all evidences point to the contrary. Especially when Tapasi gets a telegram summoning her to Calcutta—and visits Kirit late that evening to bid him farewell for the time being. Doesn’t this mean something more than mere friendship? Kirit thinks so, and from the note that Tapasi leaves for him (giving him her address in Calcutta) it seems she thinks so too.
Kirit moves to Calcutta, and is invited to a party at Tapasi’s home. He’s a hit with Tapasi’s friends, and when he invites them to an outdoor party he’s hosting, everyone gladly agrees.
Kirit’s party turns a bit sour when a bunch of hooligans, leering at all these fashionable women, tries to gatecrash the party. Kirit shows a bit of muscle and shoos off the miscreants, winning himself much praise—and Tapasi’s thinly-veiled affection. She makes it pretty obvious that she is in love with Kirit, and he reciprocates.
Later that evening, though, things turn topsy-turvy. Kirit is driving Tapasi home, and has to stop the car along the way to allow a marriage procession to pass. Tapasi, looking out at the bride and groom—both mere teenagers—recoils in horror, suddenly reminded of her own long-ago wedding.
Bulu. Kirit. Husband. Beloved. The past. The present. Which will Tapasi choose?
And oh, the symbolism. Like Sita and her agni pariksha, Tapasi (very aptly named; ‘tapasi’ means ‘she who does penance’) Tapasi too ends up going through the flames of misery in order to emerge, hopefully, unscathed. Tapasi’s misery—her tormented existence, caught between a husband she doesn’t know, and a man who means the world to her—is, like Sita’s, not of her own making; it is the result of external forces. In Tapasi’s case, her grandmother’s and Kanti Mukherji’s ludicrous decision, followed by Chitra’s obstinate refusal to accept the marriage. But it is Tapasi, eventually, who must atone for all their sins too and face up to her destiny.
This isn’t a path-breaking film (in fact, it can be considered pretty regressive in its condoning of child marriage), but it’s entertaining, and if you’re at all a lover of romances, there’s plenty here to leave you dewy-eyed. Very pretty.
What I liked about this film:
Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. Include me in the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen fan club, guys! These two are so good together. They look perfect, but more than that, it’s the chemistry between them—the playfulness and affection, the understanding, the emotional bonding, the passion… what more could one want from a convincing romantic couple onscreen? Superb.
What I didn’t like:
The entire premise of the film—the justification of child marriage, that it is all right for people to be pushed around and their lives changed irrevocably simply because they happen to be too young to fend off elders who’re “doing it for your own good”. Ugh. Not nice at all.
Some inexplicable flip-flops that characters do in the course of the film. For instance, Amit seems neutral towards Tapasi’s relationship with Kirit through most of the film; then, in one scene, he spews venom and seems to disapprove thoroughly; and the next time we see him, he’s back in Tapasi’s camp. And towards the end of the film, another character does a sudden and unconvincing about-turn that had me rolling my eyes.
Little bit of trivia:
Agni Pariksha was a big hit the year it was released. Its success prompted Uttam Kumar to, 13 years later (didn’t anyone tell him the number 13 is supposedly unlucky?!), remake it in Hindi as Chhoti si Mulaqat. He produced the film, which was directed by Alo Sircar and starred Vyjyantimala opposite Uttam Kumar. Chhoti si Mulaqat was a resounding flop and nearly bankrupted Uttam Kumar.
So how does Agni Pariksha compare with Chhoti si Mulaqat? Which is better? And why, possibly, did Chhoti si Mulaqat sink so badly while Agni Pariksha was such a hit?
Considering that 13 years (and what seems to be a fair bit of money) separated Agni Pariksha from Chhoti si Mulaqat, it’s hardly surprising that the latter wins in the more superficial details: more glamorous and obviously more expensive. The scenes in Shimla, for instance, are definitely shot there, on ski slopes and green hills; Agni Pariksha’s outdoor scenes are pretty obviously against backdrops painted with hills.
But other than that advantage, Chhoti si Mulaqat falls well behind Agni Pariksha. For instance, its hero, Ashok, is not half as likeable as Kirit. Ashok is rather more the typical Hindi film hero of the 60’s (and to some extent the late 50’s): a self-assured, conceited young man who relentlessly pursues a girl until she cracks. Ashok’s pursuit of Rupa in fact almost smacks of stalking at times. And he emerges, ultimately, as a somewhat manipulative and self-centred individual whose actions are governed to a large extent by concerns other than his love for Rupa.
Kirit, on the other hand, is portrayed as a caring, warm gentleman. His relationship with Tapasi is emphatically not of pursuer and pursued; I could easily relate to why Tapasi would fall in love with a man like this: he’s understanding, kind, and doesn’t try to bully her into loving him. And his actions, as he finally reveals, stem largely from his love for Tapasi. On the whole, a far more mature man than Ashok.
Agni Pariksha is like that too: more evolved than Chhoti si Mulaqat, more progressive. That child marriage motif is there, of course: but it is suppressed by the highlighting of Tapasi and Kirit’s relationship, which becomes the central focus of the film. Chhoti si Mulaqat goes overboard when it comes to the revelation of Rupa’s past, what with everybody ostracising her. Similarly, the emphasis on a wife being forever bound to her husband—even if merely in name—gets tedious in Chhoti si Mulaqat, with Rupa being lectured (even by Ashok himself) on how nobody can come between a man and his wife—not even if the husband beats the wife, as they witness one day when a fisherwoman is abused by her husband.
Agni Pariksha has more to recommend it. Though there are frequent mentions of how a Hindu woman, bound by the shastras to her husband, must always remain his, there is Kirit’s gentleness, Grandma’s own (occasional) remorse, and—most importantly—Kirit and Tapasi’s love story, to balance it. There is also the fact that Agni Pariksha is uncluttered when compared to Chhoti si Mulaqat: it has no irritating comic side plot and no vicious vamp (though Lily does pass some snide remarks) vying for the hero’s affections. And there is the fact that both Tapasi and Bulu are more adolescents than children when married—old enough to be infatuated with each other, even if not in love.
My theory is that this somewhat more balanced approach, and the superb chemistry between Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, was what made Agni Pariksha a hit. Also perhaps the fact that this was more than a decade older than Chhoti si Mulaqat—India, I assume, had moved on by 1967 and was less amenable to seeing films that glorified child marriage.
If you want to watch Agni Pariksha online, it’s available (with English subtitles) on youtube, starting with part 1.