Hindi cinema has, over the years, borrowed liberally from English literature. Shakespeare (Hamlet, and in more recent years, Angoor, Omkara, Maqbool, and Haider), Agatha Christie (Gumnaam), Arthur Conan Doyle (Bees Saal Baad), AJ Cronin (Tere Mere Sapne): Hindi cinema seems to have drawn inspiration from a lot of authors, whether or not that inspiration has always been acknowledged or not.
Here, then, is another film derived from a literary work by a writer in the English language. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, has spawned a number of cinematic adaptations (one of the first I ever saw starred Orson Welles and featured a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns; one of my favourites stars the brilliant Toby Stephens as Rochester). In Hindi cinema, too, Jane Eyre was made into a film: Sangdil. I’ve been wanting to watch this for a while, and when recently I finally got around to reading the complete, unabridged version of Jane Eyre, I decided it was also time to watch the film.
Sangdil begins in the household of a wealthy man and his cantankerous wife (Amirbano). When we first see the wife, she’s barging into the kitchen, where a girl, Kamla (?) is hard at work scrubbing pots and pans. The woman comes in, yelling at Kamla and berating her for never doing her work properly. She examines the cleaned utensils, cannot find anything wrong with them, but manages to find a solitary spoon left behind, hidden in the ashes—and uses that as a pretext to clobber Kamla.
No; this unfortunate girl isn’t a stepdaughter. As it emerges from a conversation between this woman and her husband—who’s on the verge of dying—Kamla was his best friend’s daughter. When the friend died, he handed over not just Kamla, but all his own wealth, to this man. Kamla to be brought up well, and her inheritance to be kept safe for when she grew up.
Now, realizing how his wife’s treating Kamla, the man is getting worried. What will happen to Kamla when he’s gone?
Kamla is not completely friendless in this household, though. The man’s son, Shankar (?) is a good friend, as is the kindly Dhaayi Maa (Leela Chitnis, for once looking young and fresh-faced). Whenever they’re able to, Shankar and Kamla escape to Dhaayi Maa’s room to have her tell them tales of princes on white horses coming to the rescue of captive princesses beleaguered by ugly witches.
This joy, sadly, is short-lived. One day, Shankar’s father is in such a poor way that he calls for the family mandir to be brought to his bedside: he wants to draw solace from it. He also calls for Shankar and Kamla, and exhorts Shankar: after his (the father’s) death, Shankar must look after Kamla, and must make sure, too, that his mother is not able to touch Kamla’s inheritance.
Shankar’s mother happens to come in just then, and hearing this humiliating piece of advice, throws a tantrum. The end result of which is that Shankar’s father cops it…
… and, a few days down the line, Shankar’s widowed mother sends for a stern-looking man to take Kamla away, to be brought up in an ashram he runs. Kamla barely has time to say goodbye to Shankar and take a flower from the household shrine before the man (who tells her that he’s heard she’s a very wicked girl, but will have to now mend her ways) bundles her into a horse-drawn coach in which he’s come.
Kamla, no wimp, realizes that she’s headed for worse than Shankar’s mother, so—while the man falls asleep in the coach—she looks out over the passing countryside. Seeing three monks walking down the hill below the coach, she carefully opens the door and flings herself out. The monks pick her up and take her to the religious house of which they are members. This place is dedicated to the worship of Shiva (referred to, in this film, throughout as Shankar) and is presided over by the Badi Maa (Protima Devi, looking interestingly yogini-ish with flowers encircling a topknot, and much gauzy stuff).
When Kamla comes to, Badi Maa asks her if she, too, would like to dedicate her life to the worship of Shankar [Hah! Considering Kamla’s childhood sweetheart is called by that name—and childhood sweethearts always grow up to be sweethearts still—we know where this is headed]. Kamla, noting the quiet gentleness of Badi Maa and everybody else around, throws in her lot with them.
The next time we see Kamla, she’s the centre of attention at a havan of some sort, sitting all decked up in front of a sacred fire. Badi Maa instructs Kamla to put all her worldly belongings—the clothes she had been wearing when they had found her—into the sacred fire. Leave behind all trappings of the world, she is told. Kamla obeys, but clenched in her fist, hidden behind one leg, she keeps one small reminder of her earlier life: the flower she had taken from the shrine back at Shankar’s home.
Years pass, and Kamla (now Madhubala) is a pujaaran (priestess), singing hymns to Shankar [which Shankar, she knows well enough]. One day, the Badi Maa informs Kamla that they have been invited to visit a country mansion, where the annual harvest festival is celebrated with a pooja of the Goddess of Plenty, Annapurna. Kamla and Co. will be performing the pooja.
While they leave, the scene shifts to a plush, fashionable home where a wealthy young Thakur (Dilip Kumar) is flirting with his beloved, Mohini (Shammi). There is a marked cynicism in his tone, but he flirts on, telling Mohini how beautiful she is and so on and so forth. And Mohini is adept at flattering him as well.
This romantic [yet oddly unromantic, too, since there’s something so cold and calculating about it] interaction is suddenly interrupted. A somewhat wild-looking man (Anwar Hussain) arrives, and the Thakur hurries away to meet him. There’s some mystifying conversation between them—the visitor making some vague threats, the Thakur not letting himself being bullied. The Thakur mentions that he is going away to his jaagir (his estates) for some time. Also going with him on this excursion will be Mohini and some of their friends: a house party.
Meanwhile, Kamla and Badi Maa arrive, with their entourage, at the country house where they’ve been invited. Kamla is taken aback on being greeted by the lady of the house (Leela Chitnis), who, they’re told, is the Thakurain—the mother of the Thakur whose house this is. Kamla’s astonishment is noticed by Badi Maa, who asks about it. ‘She looks just like our maidservant from when I was a child,’ Kamla admits, but Badi Maa brushes it off as mere coincidence. Surely there can be more than one person with the same face? [And who would know that better than someone in Hindi cinema?]
Things begin happening almost immediately. The Thakur arrives, and Kamla’s first glimpse of him is as he’s riding through the woods—where she’s sitting, contemplating the scenery. He, in trying to pluck a flower while still on horseback, falls off, and Kamla goes to his rescue. Far from being grateful for her help, the Thakur is distinctly brusque.
…and, later, when he sees her in his house (and she’s startled, to find this man the Thakur), he is even more rude. ‘Is this a temple or a home?’ he asks the Thakurain, his ‘mother’. ‘You keep filling it up with these priests and whatnot.’ Kamla is puzzled, and intrigued too.
As the days leading up to the harvest festival go by, odd things happen. Kamla, who has been lodged upstairs, wakes up one night to eerie howls and screams. She is, understandably, scared, and hurries out into the corridor to try and discover what it is. There, she meets the Thakurain, who tells her that it is a ghost. The house has its own resident ghost, which begins screaming every now and then and will only be silenced when she has seen the master of the house—
And there, coming down the stairs, is the Thakur, with one shirtsleeve ripped and his arm streaming blood. Kamla is horrified—what is this?—but cannot find much to say. Especially as the Thakur’s abrupt questions—What is she doing out here? Why isn’t she in her room?—make it clear that her curiosity is not welcome.
The relationships between the Thakur and Kamla on the one hand and Mohini on the other, begin to develop. Kamla sees how Mohini and the Thakur behave towards each other, and realizes that this is no true love. Kamla herself is surprised by the Thakur’s odd behaviour towards Kamla: sometimes he is brusque to the point of rudeness, sometimes chatty (if in a cynical way), and sometimes downright baffling—for instance, on one of their first meetings, he looks closely into her face and tells her how beautiful she is—and how much he hates beautiful faces.
Then, one night, Kamla hears those screams again, and this time goes out—to find that the Thakur’s bedroom has been opened and his large bedstead set aflame, with the Thakur still asleep in it. Kamla wakes him up, and helps put out the fire by pouring water on it (and the Thakur, who for once thanks her, though in an amused way). The Thakur searches among the debris in his room, and picks up one thing, which he clutches to himself: a small idol of a deity. Kamla immediately recognizes it: this was an idol which used to reside in the little household shrine when she was a child; it had, shrine and all, been taken by Shankar just before she left home. The Thakur is Shankar!
Mohini comes in, and is suspicious: what is this pujaaran doing in the Thakur’s room? Shankar tells her what had happened, but Mohini is unimpressed. She shoos Kamla away, and Kamla—still dazed from this realization, that the boy-turned-man she has cherished all these years is actually the Thakur, returns to her room. But what has happened to him? she wonders. Why has Shankar—the Shankar who was so sweet and kind as a child—become thus, bitter and cynical, allowing himself to be led astray by a woman who is so obviously no good?
And those, of course, aren’t the only questions, even if Kamla isn’t asking them right now. Who, for example, is that strange man who had met Shankar in the earlier scene and who has put in another brief appearance since, to break a window? What is the secret of the ghost whose screams will only be silenced if Shankar appears?
A good film, an interesting blend of romance, suspense, and tragedy, and a fairly decent adaptation of Jane Eyre.
What I liked about this film, and comparisons to the book:
I’m clubbing these two sections together, because what I liked about the film often overlaps with comparisons to the book.
First off, though, stuff that’s specific to the film: the fact that Madhubala and Dilip Kumar look so good (and have such great chemistry). Dilip Kumar’s acting, which is—as always—brilliant. He manages to very effectively portray the turmoil and angst of a man who knows he is pursued for his wealth, and who harbours a deep bitterness towards those who have reduced him to these circumstances. Yet, too, a man who is capable of love, and that too a deeply passionate, affectionate love. This is a well-etched character, a good Indian equivalent of Edward Rochester, and Dilip Kumar plays the role well, without melodrama.
Then, the music, by the much-overlooked Sajjad. My favourite song from the film is the lovely Talat solo, Yeh hawa yeh raat yeh chaandni, followed closely by Dil mein samaa gaye sajan, but Dharti se door gore baadlon ke paar is sweet too.
What fascinated me were the changes made to the plot to make it an adaptation acceptable to Indian audiences. The first few scenes—until Kamla grows up and goes to Shankar’s jaagir—are nothing like what happens in the book, but it’s far shorter. Which, on looking back, I see as a good way of shortening the story to suit the length of the film (and really, if the focus of the film is on the female protagonist and her relationship with the man in her life, then the depiction of her early life can be somewhat dispensed with). The bulk of the really interesting plot happens in the second half of the book, and that is where Sangdil is relatively faithful to the original—down to characters like Mohini (Blanche Ingram in the book), the Anwar Hussain character (Mason), and even, to some extent, Dhaayi Maa (Mrs Fairfax).
Where it does make concessions is in catering to Indian sensibilities. For a hero to be bringing up a little girl whom he has been told may be his daughter (by a now-dead courtesan) would not do; so there is nothing of an Adele in this film. And, since the love story between Rochester and Jane Eyre develops over the course of a few months—and Sangdil doesn’t have the luxury of that—it gives a good reason for Shankar and Kamla to fall in love fairly quickly once they recognize each other: they have been childhood sweethearts.
Also, while the St John Rivers—missionary angle (and Jane Eyre’s becoming an heiress) is completely omitted from Sangdil, there’s her role as a pujaaran to compensate. Kamla’s commitment (or lack of it) to the sect in which she’s been brought up acts as a counterbalance to her love for Shankar, and becomes the force towards which she is drawn—until.
What I didn’t like:
The very hurried end. True, I had been hoping to see something along the lines of a St John dilemma develop, but I could see why this would be impractical in a film-length structure (possibly not too difficult to manage in a TV series). However, the end here—even without a St John angle to it, is just so sudden that it appears contrived.
Still, though, a good adaptation of Jane Eyre, especially the more Gothic elements and the tormented hero trope.