While watching Pakeezah some months back (and reading Meghnad Desai’s book about the film), I was struck by how fond old Hindi cinema used to be of the motif of the ‘chaste tawaif’. A paradox, seemingly, because how could a woman be a tawaif – a prostitute, to put it bluntly – and be chaste? But films like Pakeezah and Adalat did just that: they portrayed women who lived in kothas, sang (in Adalat) and danced (in Pakeezah) but were ‘good’ women, chaste and pure, women who may have been lusted after by bad men, but who – thanks to fate, good friends and relatives, kind strangers (both human and animal) – were always able to avoid the fate worse than death: of yielding their chastity to a man they were not married to, or weren’t going to eventually marry, even if only in secret.
The Suchitra Sen-starrer Mamta, based on Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Uttar Falguni (which had been made into a Bengali film, also starring Suchitra Sen, in 1963), uses this motif too: the tawaif we are introduced to – Panna Bai (Suchitra Sen), performing a mujra in the very first scene – is, as we discover in the following scene, a good and devoted mother, and the kotha more a loving home than anything else.
The family doctor, Dr Abraham (David), come to examine Panna Bai’s little daughter Suparna, is obviously well-acquainted with the two ladies of this household: Panna Bai and her ‘mother’, Meena Bai. After examining Suparna and pronouncing her well, he offers Panna Bai some advice: Suparna is such an intelligent and smart child, she should be well educated. If Panna Bai wishes, he will write to Mother Maamen (IMDB lists this as ‘Mother Mary’), who runs a convent in Calcutta. If Suparna is admitted to the convent, she is certain of a bright future.
But Panna Bai has reason to fear for Suparna’s safety. The previous evening, Panna Bai’s mujra had been interrupted by the sudden and shocking arrival of a man (Kalipada Chakraborty), and Panna Bai had rushed away inside to avoid meeting him. This man, whom we now discover is named Raakhaal – and who is Panna Bai’s husband – now comes again. He’s a creep of the first order, and when Panna Bai tries to get rid of him, agrees to go on one condition: that she give him Rs 1,000.
While Panna Bai is inside, getting the money, Suparna happens to come by – and Panna Bai, returning with the money, finds Raakhaal (whom Suparna does not know is her father) trying to wheedle Suparna into coming away with him. Panna Bai is horrified. She swoops down, drags Suparna away and locks her up in a room. She then flings the money at Raakhaal and tells him to keep away from Suparna.
But Raakhaal isn’t so easily dissuaded. He makes another attempt at spiriting Suparna away (while Panna Bai, Meena Bai and Suparna are on a visit to a zoo). Suparna is rescued just in time, but the incident makes Panna Bai realize that yes, Suparna is best off being sent to Mother Maamen’s school in Calcutta.
She approaches Dr Abraham, begging him to write a letter of recommendation to the nun; he does so, but warns Panna Bai that it may not be enough. After all, there is the question of whether there is space for another child to be admitted to the school, and whether or not Mother Maamen will agree.
…and his fears seem not unfounded. Mother Maamen (Pratima Devi), despite Panna Bai’s repeated pleas, and Doctor Sahib’s letter, refuses to admit Suparna. Eventually, a desperate Panna Bai decides to tell Mother Maamen her whole sad story, in the hope that the recounting of her tragedy will soften the nun sufficiently.
Panna Bai, it turns out, began life as Devyani. Her mother died when Devyani was very young, so her father (Chaman Puri) brought up Devyani on his own. Even though poor, he never let Devyani feel the burden of their poverty.
Grown up, Devyani fell in love with Manish Roy (Ashok Kumar), a wealthy young man [okay, Ashok Kumar doesn’t exactly look young, but poetic license and all that…], of whom even her father approved.
Manish and Devyani’s marriage was fixed, before Manish had to leave for London to study law. A sad parting occurred, with many vows of never-ending fidelity on both sides. Manish also told Devyani that should she need help of any sort in his absence, she should go and meet Manish’s mother, who would help.
This happens faster than Devyani could have imagined. Unknown to Devyani, her father was deeply in debt to Raakhaal. One day, Raakhaal came to visit and to demand his money – or, if the money could not be given, marriage to Devyani. Devyani, overhearing him, realized what a tight spot they were in, and went off to ask for the money – Rs 10,000 – from Manish’s mother.
Who [and I should have seen this coming, since it’s about what happened in Adalat as well] refuses. Devyani isn’t even married to Manish yet, and she’s already asking for money? That’s why she wanted to marry Manish, isn’t it? For his money? Devyani gets thrown out, and because she has no other alternative, agrees to marry Raakhaal, hoping that she can prevent him from consummating the marriage.
High hopes, of course. Because Raakhaal has told Devyani’s father that he’ll give the signed papers – forfeiting the loan – back to Devyani’s father only after the marriage has been consummated. Devyani has to go through the trauma of a suhaag raat with this creep, and he continues to have her way with her, finally leaving her pregnant with Suparna.
To Devyani’s credit, she doesn’t resent her unborn child because of Raakhaal; instead, she loves her baby and decides to stay on, bearing all of Raakhaal’s excesses, for the sake of the baby. [I don’t get the logic, but perhaps it’s just because Devyani is too poor or broken or both to see any other choice].
One night, however, Devyani comes awake to find a man’s hand caressing her – and no, it isn’t Raakhaal [not that he would have been welcome, but still. Conjugal rights, I suppose Devyani would have called them]. It turns out that Raakhaal has been trying to pimp his wife. Devyani is so horrified, she forgets her determination to cling on to him, barnacle-like, and [having shown a bit of spirit by clonking the ‘customer’ on the head], takes off in a train.
Midway through, Devyani gets up and goes to the door of the compartment to fling herself out [couldn’t she have saved some money by trying to jump off a building instead of buying a train ticket?]. She is saved by a fellow passenger – who turns out to be Meena Bai. Having heard Devyani’s story, this tawaif-with-a-heart-of-gold [yes, just heart of gold; she makes no pretensions of chastity, though considering her rather homely appearance, one wonders] takes Devyani to her own home in Lucknow.
Back to the present, where Mother Maamen, suitably moved by this tale, agrees to accept Suparna into her school. Devyani/Panna Bai promises that she will never come in front of Suparna again, will not tell Suparna who she is – all an attempt at removing her ‘shadow’ from Suparna’s life.
After this, she promptly goes off to a large store and buys some clothes for Suparna. While she’s busy paying, whom should she bump into but Manish!
Manish is already aware hat she’s married, and tries to ask her about her husband, etc, but Devyani brushes him off with a pained “Devyani is dead!” and flees. Manish is hurt and baffled, and even more, shocked when a well-informed friend who’s with him tells him who this woman is: the famous tawaif, Panna Bai.
The friend sets about proving it, by booking Panna Bai for a performance. Devyani turns up, though reluctantly, to discover that she’s supposed to sing for Manish himself. There is much angst, both in Devyani’s song, as well as in Manish’s refusal to face her.
Listening to her song, however, Manish realizes that there is more to this, and ends up following her home. In a pleasant change from the norm, Devyani – instead of hiding all her woes and suffering in silence – tells Manish all.
Like any self-respecting tawaif, though, she insists that she will not let him into her life, because it will only taint him. But she will let him look after Suparna. So Manish goes to meet Suparna at her school, becomes her Kaka, and years pass…
We skip forward years later, when a young barrister named Indraneel (Dharmendra) comes to Manish’s office with a letter of introduction from Suparna, who knows Indraneel and wants Manish to take him on as a junior. There is a briefly amusing situation when Manish, who has never seen or heard of Indraneel before, mistakes him for a criminal. The misunderstanding gets cleared up quickly, and Indraneel is appointed a junior.
Manish also shows Suparna’s letter to Devyani, who by now is not in the best of health: her heart is in a bad way, and she can never remember to take her medicine. She is, however, just as devoted to her daughter as she was years ago, when she first left Suparna at Mother Maamen’s. She has hidden herself from Suparna, of course, with the result that Suparna believes her mother died when she was a little girl.
Now, Suparna (Suchitra Sen, again) returns, after studying law in the UK. Devyani’s hunch that Suparna and Indraneel are in love with each other proves to be true, and both Devyani and Manish are delighted. Indraneel is a very personable young man (Dharmendra, after all, and in his heyday, too), and Devyani—who sees him surreptitiously while at Manish’s office—is convinced that he is the perfect man for Suparna.
But Devyani, despite much coaxing on the part of Manish, refuses to reveal her identity to either Indraneel or Suparna: won’t Indraneel’s mother refuse to accept a tawaif’s daughter as a bahu? She cannot let her own tainted past, even if she is really ‘pure’, mar Suparna’s chances of a happy life. Ignorance, thinks Devyani, will be bliss for all concerned.
The problem, though, is that Devyani hides a huge skeleton in her cupboard: the skeleton that is her no-good husband, Raakhaal. All these years, Raakhaal has been tormenting Devyani, turning up every month at her doorstep, asking for money to fuel his drinking and gambling and sundry other vices. How far will Raakhaal push Devyani? And what will happen if Devyani one day decides to push back—because of her mamta, her love for her offspring?
Even though I’d watched Mamta years ago (and remembered a fair bit of it), I’d forgotten how similar, in several ways, this film is to Adalat. Not all the way through, and I personally think this is better than Adalat—a little more sensitive, and with some not-quite-so-clichéd elements.
What I liked about this film:
The depiction of two important relationships: Devyani-Manish, and Suparna-Indraneel. I like the fact that in both cases, there is (by Hindi film standards) a lot of trust between the people involved. For instance, Devyani trusts Manish enough to tell him the truth when she meets him after all those traumatic years. Even more unusually, while there continues to be a deep affection and respect for each other, they do not feel it necessary to either:
(a) get Devyani a divorce from Raakhaal so that she can then marry Manish (though I add: Devyani does dissuade Manish on this count, saying that society will shun him for marrying Panna Bai); or
(b) have nothing to do with each other.
Which is, all in all, a refreshing change.
The second relationship, of Suparna and Indraneel, is a delightful combination of friendly camaraderie, romantic but with plenty of fun, leg-pulling, occasional quarrels—yet trust. Interestingly enough, we do not get to see, as viewers, how either of these two relationships first began: the absence of any indication of whether it was love-at-first-sight, or fight-leads-to-love, or stalking-becomes-love makes the relationships more believable.
Then, there are the songs, written by Majrooh Sultanpuri and with music by Roshan. My favourite is Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein—a brilliantly bitter song of anguish—followed by the oft-ignored Chhupaa lo yoon dil mein pyaar mera, so gentle and poignant a song of love that will never be consummated. Also lovely, in their own way, are In bahaaron mein akele na phiro, and both versions of Rahein na rahein hum (I must admit that my love for this song has declined a bit after I heard—and became addicted to—its original, Tera dil kahaan hai, from Chandni Chowk).
Talking about the music of Mamta, I also realized, when I watched the film this time, that (like Pakeezah), it too has a few ‘background’ songs (I’ve no idea whether all of these are thumris or not; perhaps someone more knowledgeable will help?): Tore naina laage saanwra, for instance, or Hum ganwanwaa na jayibe ho bina jhoolni—all beautifully sung, but fairly short snatches of song that help show the passage of time.
What I didn’t like:
Yes, I will confess I am being nitpicking, but Suchitra Sen’s accent can at times get really jarring. And the end is a bit melodramatic for my liking. And there’s a somewhat silly and pointless scene in which Suparna and Indraneel, assigned a divorce case, end up arguing with each other in front of their client.
But: Suchitra Sen’s acting, despite the bad accent, is very good, with a well-portrayed distinction between the self-sacrificing Panna Bai/Devyani and the self-confident, assured Suparna. (Ms Sen, incidentally, was nominated for the Filmfare Best Actress Award for her roles in Mamta). The melodramatic end (which, in some ways, is also similar to the end of Adalat, though in that Jawahar Kaul plays the offspring standing up in court against the parent he does not know)—is, while melodramatic, not over-the-top in the way I’ve seen in some other films.
And that one scene of the Suparna-Indraneel quarrel? Forgivable, in a film that otherwise has so much to recommend it. Asit Sen, also the director of Anokhi Raat and Khamoshi (among others) delivers, yet again.