It’s sad that, over the past year or so, barely a month has passed without my having to post a tribute to yet another film personality who’s passed on. Last month, with Eleanor Parker, Joan Fontaine and Peter O’Toole passing away within days of each other, I thought it couldn’t get worse. And I hoped that 2014 would be better.
But, alas. We say goodbye to yet another luminary of the film world. This time, the beautiful and very talented (not to mention wildly popular) Suchitra Sen (April 6, 1931-January 17, 2014), who made a mark in Hindi cinema even in the few films she acted in (Bombai ka Babu, Devdas, Mamta and Aandhi being the best-known), but ruled Bengali cinema.
From 1953—when she debuted in Shaare Chhuattar—to 1978, when she acted in Pranaye Pasha—Suchitra Sen was the darling of millions, both Bengali and not. At Durga Puja, idols of Lakshmi and Saraswati were modelled with her face; Raj Kapoor tried (unsuccessfully) to sign her on for a film; and she was the first Indian actress to win an International Award (at the Moscow Film Festival, for her role in Saat Paake Bandha).
To pay tribute to Ms Sen, I was tempted to try and track down one of her Hindi films (Mamta was a favourite). I decided, eventually, in favour of a Bengali film: Deep Jwele Jaai (‘To Light the Lamp’), simply because I prefer Suchitra Sen in Bengali films. While I admire her acting in Hindi films, I tend to get the impression she struggled with the diction—but in Bengali cinema, she was in her element. And in this film, she is certainly the focus, as the tormented nurse in a psychiatric hospital where an experiment goes horribly haywire.
(Deep Jwele Jaai was directed by Asit Sen, who went on to remake it in Hindi as the Waheeda Rehman starrer, Khamoshi. If you’ve seen Khamoshi, which is pretty much an exact copy of this film, you might want to skip the synopsis that follows and go straight to the ‘What I didn’t like’ section).
The film (based on a story by Ashutosh Mukherjee) begins at a psychiatric hospital where Radha (Suchitra Sen) works as a nurse. We first see her standing in the hospital, looking down at a car far below. A man gets in, obviously unaware that she is watching from above. Radha looks on, watches the car drive off, and goes to her room, where she sits down at her desk, opens her diary, and writes that today Debashish has gone. And that she has smiled and pretended that all was well.
Light is shed on this somewhat enigmatic episode in the next scene, where a meeting is in progress at the hospital. Colonel Dr Mitter, the chief psychiatrist (Pahari Sanyal) presides. It is mentioned that now that room #24 is vacant—with Debashish having been discharged—the room can be given to any one of the patients who are in line for it. Dr Mitter is adamant that he wants to do more research into acute mania, which was what Debashish suffered from (and was cured of). Is there any similar candidate in the list of patients in line for the room?
There is, says Dr Mitter’s junior, Dr Ghosh. There’s a man, a writer named Tapas Chaudhury (Basant Choudhury, whom Hindi film viewers will remember as Sadhana’s co-star in Parakh). We are shown a glimpse now of Tapas Chaudhury, who goes more than a little mad when he’s taken to see a stage performance and later assaults the dancer in the green room, accusing her of being an accomplice of Sulekha’s.
Tapas is dragged away, and many apologies made, by his friend Mitroda (Tulsi Chakraborty). A brief flashback—with the aforementioned Sulekha—shows us why Tapas is in the state he is in. Sulekha used to be Tapas’s girlfriend. She jilted Tapas cruelly and Tapas, unable to bear the strain of losing the woman he loves, has now (mentally speaking) gone off the rails.
Dr Mitter summons Radha (who, through a series of brief interactions with other patients, we see as a caring and well-liked nurse, good at her job and with an excellent bedside manner). He informs her of Tapas’s condition, and tells her that he wants her to take on Tapas’s case, as she had with Debashish.
Through this conversation, and the previous discussion among the doctors, it becomes clear that Dr Mitter is propounding what he believes will be a breakthrough in the treatment of acute mania. He talks at length of the auto-erotic state, of the Oedipus and Electra complex, and concludes that a man, driven mad because of the emotional trauma caused by a failed love (as in the case of both Debashish and Tapas) can be healed if he is able to perceive a maternal and romantic figure in another woman.
This was the experiment Radha had been part of with Debashish: she had been called upon to act a part—to be that female figure. She had succeeded, and Dr Mitter now wants to use her again in the same experiment, this time with Tapas.
But for Radha, even if Dr Mitter could not (and still cannot) see it, that acting with Debashish had become reality. She had fallen in love with him, and while her love for Debashish had cured him, he had gone away, unaware of her true feelings.
To go through all of that again—to pretend a love for a man, to put her emotions on the line (even if in this case she really is pretending)—is impossible. Radha knows it. She can never love another man; to her, Debashish remains the only one. Everything around her reminds her of him: a tune that runs in her head, a long-ago book that she had intended to gift him but hadn’t, because that was the fateful day she had found out that the very girl who had jilted Debashish had come back to him, and they were to get married…
Radha refuses Dr Mitter. He is puzzled and annoyed, but does not push her. Instead, another nurse, Beena (? who is this actress?), who had observed Radha’s handling of Debashish’s case, is assigned to Tapas. Beena agrees, but as the days pass, it becomes obvious that she’s making no headway with Tapas. He firmly believes that she has been sent by Sulekha, and so he refuses to trust her. He does not eat, and his condition begins to deteriorate even further.
Until one day, Tapas suddenly loses his temper and lashes out—just as Radha happens to be in the vicinity. She comes to the rescue, and there’s an instant connect. Tapas is accepting of Radha; he trusts her, and she realises it. Realises, too, that what Beena has been unable to do, she, Radha, can accomplish. So, driven by her own conscience and her dedication to her profession, Radha goes back to Dr Mitter and tells him she will take on Tapas’s case.
All in a worthy cause, and we soon see the very positive changes in Tapas. But at what cost to Radha? This is a woman who is in love with another man—a man who doesn’t even know how she feels about him, a man who is going to marry another woman—and yet she must pretend to love Tapas. What will come of this?
Suchitra Sen. Deep Jwele Jaai is, in every way, her film. As Radha, she begins the film sad but keeping on a brave face as Debashish exits her life. To those around her, she seems normal, smiling and going about her work—but the mask slips when she is alone, when a remembered tune brings back memories of Debashish.
As the film progresses, we begin to see other aspects of Radha’s personality, and Ms Sen makes each one of them immensely believable. There is the Radha (shown in flashback) who was deeply in love with Debashish and convinced that he returned that love: a girlish, bubbly Radha, teasing and effervescent, so very obviously in love.
And there is the Radha, as the story progresses and she realises how Tapas is beginning to feel about her, who slowly crumbles. At first, her tears come only one at a time, hidden from others and in her bed at night. By the end…
The music, by Hemant (who also composed the score for Khamoshi). While Aeimon bondhu aar ki… sister (sung by Manna Dey) is delightful and Aar jeno nei kono is melodious, it’s Ei raat tomaar aamaar (sung by Hemant himself to a tune Hindi film song lovers will recognise as that of Yeh nayan dare-dare) which is simply haunting in its beauty. Shilpi Bose tells me that the man playing Debashish (who is only shown from the back, and in one scene, slightly in profile) was the director, Asit Sen, himself.
What I didn’t like:
Shall I be nitpicking? There’s a scene where Radha comes to know that Debashish will be coming to the hospital. She’s very excited, bubbling over with joy, dressing up and rushing off to meet him—only to discover that it isn’t him; it’s a friend of his, and with no very plausible reason for having come to the hospital, either. It serves to show us what effect Debashish still has on Radha, but otherwise, it’s pretty weak.
Other than that (and Dr Mitter’s admittedly dubious experiment), nothing.
Deep Jwele Jaai isn’t a happy, cheery film, but it’s a beautiful, heartbreaking film about human relationships and emotion, about people not seeing what is in front of their very eyes, or seeing what they want to believe—and how what they want to believe, but which is not true, can wreak havoc in their lives. The scripting is good, the characterisation excellent, and the acting superb.
Khamoshi (1969) was the Hindi remake of Deep Jwele Jaai, and since it too was made by Asit Sen, it’s hardly surprising that there’s very little difference between the two films. Down to some of the frames, even. There are some differences, but most of them too minor to notice.
Where the two films struck me as different is in their tone. Deep Jwele Jaai is palpably less melodramatic than Khamoshi (not that Khamoshi was melodramatic, but that gives you an idea of how understated Deep Jwele Jaai is). Basant Choudhury is a more restrained actor than Rajesh Khanna, and Pahari Sanyal’s Dr Mitter, while being self-centred and blindly devoted to his work, comes across as a somewhat kinder and less ruthless man than Nasir Hussain’s doctor in Khamoshi.
This subtlety is manifested in other, smaller ways (perhaps Asit Sen felt things had to be more ‘in your face’ for Hindi audiences as compared to Bengali ones?) For instance, there’s a scene where Tapas’s (in Khamoshi, Arun’s) dear friend comes to the hospital, summoned by the chief psychiatrist. He arrives, and the chief’s assistant—who doesn’t know this man—mistakes him for a lunatic, and Tapas’s friend mistakes the doctor for a lunatic. In Deep Jwele Jaai, when the chief arrives and solves the mystery, the two men involved grin in understanding at each other, and leave it at that. In Khamoshi, each of them admits to the chief what he thought about the other, and all of them have a laugh over it.
Or there’s the scene where Tapas/Arun is sitting, with Beena opposite him while she butters a slice of bread for him. Seeing the butter knife in her hand, Tapas/Arun goes a little mad. This, in Deep Jwele Jaai, is shown somewhat subtly; the knife is obviously the focus of the frame, since Beena is using it and Tapas is staring at it fixedly:
Both are very good, and the acting of both Suchitra Sen and Waheeda Rehman as the respective leads is impeccable. But Deep Jwele Jaai is, in my opinion, a somewhat more real, more subtle film. And that is why it gets my vote.
RIP, Ms Sen.
Note: Deep Jwele Jaai is available, with English subtitles, on Youtube. It’s in twelve parts; here is the first one.