Serendipity: noun. plural: serendipities. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident; the occurrence of such a discovery. Coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, based on a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendib (‘Serendib’ being present-day Sri Lanka)—the three princes in question often making such lucky discoveries.
And what does this have to do with Chaowa-Pawa (‘To Want and To Have’)? Simply that, while I had set about watching this film because I really, really like the lead pair—Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen—I realized, within the first half hour of the film, that it was a remake of one of my favourite old Hindi films, Chori-Chori (which, as many of you would know, was a remake of It Happened One Night). Serendipity? Absolutely.
I started off thinking this was going to be just another tomboy-turned-domestic goddess story, or a version of The Taming of the Shrew, because when we’re first introduced to Manju Choudhary (Suchitra Sen), she’s throwing a tantrum [and lots of crockery]. At the receiving end is the household chauffeur, who’s just given Manju the news that the car’s engine has conked out. This means that Manju’s plans to go out have been shelved, and she is most upset about it.
One of the servants in charge quickly phones Manju’s father, Mr Choudhary (Chhabi Biswas), at his office, to inform him. Mr Choudhary is a widower, and runs a major newspaper. He is in the midst of checking over the latest edition before it goes to press.
Into this setting comes one of Mr Choudhary’s journalists, Rajat Sen (Uttam Kumar), vastly excited about a scoop he’s managed to get. It’s a brilliant story, he tells Mr Choudhary—only to have his boss (when he sees what the news is) turn around and tell Rajat off. If Rajat had waited a few minutes, he could’ve bought that bit of news for two paise, says Mr Choudhary, showing him the headlines of the latest edition.
Rajat gets an ultimatum: get a really good story, otherwise pack your bags and leave. Mr Choudhary’s had enough of Rajat’s inability to earn his salary.
Rajat is rather glum after this, of course, and things are not improved by his colleagues, who pull his leg. To them, Rajat confides that he would like to become the owner of a newspaper, rather than just a journalist with one. But that requires capital, something Rajat does not possess.
Meanwhile, Mr Choudhary’s received that urgent call from his servant, and has hurried home to calm down his bratty daughter. Manju has been shattering more crockery and screeching at the servants, so everybody’s very relieved to have Mr Choudhary back. He calms her down (Manju is, anyway, rather better-behaved with him), and, as they talk, the reason for Manju’s bad mood emerges.
It turns out that Manju has been wanting to go out simply because Mr Choudhary, against her wishes, has invited someone for tea. This unwanted guest, who is expected to arrive at 4 PM, is Asit, the son of a wealthy friend of Mr Choudhary’s. Mr Choudhary has made it amply clear that he expects Asit and Manju to make a match of it (and Asit is highly amenable to the idea). Manju, however, doesn’t care in the least for Asit, and has been trying to avoid meeting him.
After some arguing, Manju informs her father that she has already phoned Asit and cancelled the tea party, giving the excuse that Mr Choudhary had some important business to attend to. [Why, then, was she throwing a fit and wanting to get out of the house? A little slip in the scripting here, I think].
Mr Choudhary is, unsurprisingly, very annoyed. He tells Manju off, and then tells her that she’d better get ready. He has to go out of town for several days, and he wants her to accompany him. And she has no choice.
It’s only when they’re well-ensconced in the train compartment, and the train is chugging along, that Manju discovers her father has been one step ahead of her. It emerges that they will be getting off at Somra, where Asit’s father has a bungalow. Mr Choudhary plans to buy a plot of land in Somra.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, they are soon going to be joined by Asit himself—he will be boarding the train at a coming station.
An annoyed Manju has to sit and be polite to Asit (?), who has come prepared—he’s brought a ring along, which he offers to her while Mr Choudhary is snoozing. Manju tries to put him off by telling him that it won’t fit her finger, but is spared further questions when Asit, wondering if she’s hungry, asks her if she’d like something to eat. Some fish fry, perhaps?
Manju, seizing the opportunity, agrees—and Asit goes off to the dining car to order food. Mr Choudhary is fast asleep; Manju quietly picks up her tiny suitcase and just as quietly sneaks out.
When Asit returns [rather noisily, since he’s brought the waiter—with laden tray in hand—to the compartment], Mr Choudhary wakes up. Some questions, some searching, and it’s realized, both by thwarted suitor and anxious/annoyed father, that the girl has run away. Mr Choudhary immediately gets off at the next station and phones his office, telling them to insert an ad and publish it as soon as possible.
He describes Manju: mole on chin, suitcase with initial monogrammed on the corner, a black-bordered green chiffon sari and a red-and-gold embroidered Banarasi blouse. [Very unusual man, this; I’ve never come across one who could so minutely notice and describe a female relative’s attire].
He adds an incentive for anybody who can provide information: an award of Rs 10,000. Information is to be sent to a post box; Mr Choudhary’s name is not to be mentioned, though he does insert Manju’s full name in the ad.
Meanwhile, the scene moves to Manju, who has got into the Kolkata-Patna train, and has dozed off amongst a bunch of other people, all of them also dozing. And guess whom she’s sitting next to? Rajat Sen.
Manju comes awake with a start when the ticket checker comes around. She, of course, doesn’t have a ticket, and trying to hide behind the oblivious Rajat’s shoulder doesn’t help.
When she sees the ticket checker actually booting ticketless passengers from the train [it’s stopped at a station; even filmi TCs aren’t that brutal], Manju gets really desperate. She nudges Rajat awake and explains that she doesn’t have a ticket—or any money to pay the fine [which is what he suggests; he seems completely immune to her loveliness or her plight]. She even offers him her ring; it’s the only valuable thing she’s got; perhaps he can give her money in exchange?
But Rajat turns out to be not quite the heartless wretch Manju takes him to be; when the ticket checker comes around, Rajat presents his own ticket as Manju’s. He buys a ticket, and pays a fine, for himself.
Manju is surprised, and grateful. Rajat shrugs it off, even refusing her ring, or her request to let her have his name and address, so that she can pay him back. At the next station, Rajat gets off the train to stretch his legs a bit—and stops to buy a newspaper at a platform bookstall. He’s leafing through it when he comes across this ad:
…and realizes that the girl he’s been travelling next to is worth Rs 10,000. (Sound effect in the background: clinking coins. You can almost see the wheels turning in Rajat’s mind as he figures out how he can get all that money—he needs that capital to start up his own newspaper, after all).
He hurries back with the newspaper into the train. Manju is asleep, and Rajat lifts her suitcase to confirm that it does, indeed, have the incriminating monogram on it.
Just then, Manju wakes. She is immediately suspicious: what is he doing with her suitcase? And Rajat, well aware that others in the compartment might also have read the ad, tries to quieten her—by buying her a kullarh of chai from a passing vendor. Manju thinks that’s really yucky—an earthen cup; how dirty!—so he has to spend some more time and effort shushing her.
The long and the short of it is that, when they disembark at Patna, Rajat confronts Manju. He shows her the newspaper, points out the ad, and tells her he’s on to her.
They’re still at the railway station’s waiting room, and a cop comes by, chatting with the station master about this missing girl mentioned in the newspaper. Rajat quickly gets Manju to cover up her head, and pretends she’s his wife—thus warding off any suspicions the policeman might have harboured.
That still doesn’t solve a major problem: where will Manju go now? She has an aunt in Patna, Manju says. She’ll go there. Rajat points out that Manju doesn’t have a single paisa with her, so he hires a rickshaw and they go, careening all across town. Manju directs the rickshawwallah first here, then there, and eventually admits to Rajat that she doesn’t actually have any relatives in Patna. By this time, Rajat is so fed up, he drags Manju off to the nearest place to stay, the Grand Hotel.
The Grand Hotel [which is anything but grand; its plaster is peeling, there is no electricity, and—as Rajat and Manju discover soon—the rooms abound in mosquitoes and bed bugs] is owned and run by a Mr Chakravorty (
? Tulsi Chakraborty, identified by Shilpi Bose) and his wife. Only one room is available, says Mr Chakravorty, assuming (as Rajat means him to) that Rajat and Manju are married. He shows them into the room, and while he’s gone to fetch tea, Manju flies into a rage at this farce Rajat has forced her into.
And, as is her wont, in her anger she grabs the nearest breakable item—a vase—and sends it crashing to the floor. Rajat calmly tells her what had happened to him when he had once, in a fit of temper as a child, broken a glass. His grandfather had put a burning coal on his palm [yikes!], and the scar still remains.
Manju is shaken, enough to not fling one of the dirty and chipped cups Chakravorty Babu brings with the tea tray. She lifts it, ready to throw, but a glance at Rajat makes her remember—and stop.
Unfortunately for Manju and Rajat, Mr Chakravorty has smelt a rat. He begins to spy on them, and although they’re able to initially lull him into thinking they are a couple (though it means stringing up a sheet to divide the room into two, with Rajat spending the night sleeping on strategically arranged chairs and a coffee table)…
…Mr Chakravorty discovers who Manju actually is. And with that discovery (confirmed by the newspaper ad) he also realizes the amount at stake.
What next? Where will Manju go? And what about her relationship with Rajat—neither of them showing much interest in each other, only a blunt coolness on his side, and a (now somewhat tempered) hot temper on hers? Is there any chance for them? Or are they destined to go their own ways, eventually?
What I liked about this film:
The beautifully real, restrained way in which Rajat and Manju’s love story is told. There are no obvious fireworks here, no love songs sung in the night. There is, in fact, only one song—partly sung by Manju, followed after a brief break by Rajat—and that too is not an open declaration of love. Quite the opposite, at least on Rajat’s part. (The song, Ae je kechhe, composed by Nachiketa Ghosh, is a lovely one).
Instead, this is a story of how two people meet, get to know one another because circumstances throw them together and even force them to play-act. But the love is very subtly depicted: for example, in the light in Rajat’s eyes (quite far into the film) when Manju appears before him, all dressed up.
Or, the lingering way in which Manju’s eyes follow Rajat’s shadow as it passes a curtain separating her room from his. She is unaware that the light shining from her room allows him too to gaze longingly at her shadow. (Great direction, by the way, by Tarun Majumdar, Sachin Mukherjee, and Dilip Mukherjee).
This growing (but mostly unexpressed) love is lent an interesting twist by Rajat’s growing discomfort with what he’s doing. He knows that he started off regarding Manju only as the answer to his prayers for money—as the human embodiment of that Rs 10,000. Later, as he begins to fall in love with her and realizes what she means to him (and he to her), the guilt that eats at him is also very well depicted.
The chemistry between Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. When the romance is so understated, you need two actors who can pull it off without needing words—and these two manage it perfectly.
What I didn’t like:
The occasional question that arose in my mind, but to which no answer seemed to be supplied. For example, did Rajat know that Manju was his boss’s daughter? (I don’t think so, but then that doesn’t fit with something that happens later in the film). There are a couple of other minor ambiguous details too.
The part I always put in when I’m reviewing a film that I’ve seen in other incarnations too. I have seen both It Happened One Night (1934) and Chori-Chori (1956), but since Chori-Chori is a fairly faithful adaptation of It Happened One Night, I’ll stick to comparing Chaowa-Pawa with Chori-Chori, rather than with its Hollywood original too.
While the basics of the story are the same, Chaowa-Pawa differs from Chori-Chori in two major ways. Firstly, the heiress in Chaowa-Pawa is not running to her lover; she is running away from an unwanted suitor. Therefore, unlike Nargis’s Kammo, Suchitra Sen’s Manju has no fixed destination in mind: all she wants is to get away from her father and the man he is pushing her to marry. This also means that Manju has more time (since there’s nowhere she needs to get to in a hurry), and—because she’s not already in love with another man—the love that blossoms for the stranger who takes her under his wing does not seem out of place or in any way disloyal.
Secondly, both Chaowa-Pawa and Chori-Chori have a somewhat comic element of people guessing who Manju is, and therefore trying to ‘grab’ her [not literally, but in order to get that Rs 10,000], but this is relatively restrained in the Bengali version. It’s more exaggerated in Chori-Chori, where it even goes to the extent of forming the bases for two songs: Tum arabon ka her-pher karnewaale Ramji and All line clear. On the whole, Chori-Chori is more a romantic comedy; Chaowa-Pawa is more a romance.
Chori-Chori is faster-paced (and has fabulous music—some of my favourite songs are from this film). It is more complex, with a larger cast of characters, and it’s better-scripted, keeping in view the complexities of its story. Chaowa-Pawa is less ambitious, simpler, and focuses more on the subtle romance of its two main characters. Both films are enjoyable in their own way. If you like Chori-Chori, do watch this one too: it’s a very satisfying watch.