Suspense is one of my favourite genres, and when it comes to 60’s Hindi cinema, Mera Saaya remains one of my favourite suspense films. And I am always eager to see the originals or the remakes—even in different languages—of films I particularly like. So I quickly put Pathlaag on my list, and set about trying to find a subtitled version. Some hectic trying, and I realized just how difficult this was going to be. I found VCDs aplenty; I even found a version—uploaded in five parts—on Youtube. None had subtitles. Then, Pathlaag again cropped up in conversations when I posted my review of Mera Saaya, I decided to give it another try. This time, I found an English subtitles file of Pathlaag. With much jugglery and some tech work, I managed to fit film to subs, and watch it.
Appropriate, perhaps, considering—as Harvey and Milind’s discussion indicated—‘pathlaag’ can mean ‘chase’ or ‘follow’. I really had to chase this film down.
Anyway, to get down to the review. A synopsis, first.
Directed by Raja Paranjpe, Pathlaag begins with a tonga racing through the streets of a quiet little town and stopping at a large, prosperous house. A doctor gets out of the tonga and is greeted by a servant, with whom he hurries inside, to the bed of a very ill woman (Bhavna). From the conversation, it emerges that this is the house of a lawyer named Balasaheb Panse (Kashinath Ghanekar). He is currently abroad studying international law, but his aunt and his wife Asha (the ill woman) are here, along with three servants.
The aunt and the servants hover worriedly about while the doctor examines Bhavna. He diagnoses her illness as virus pneumonia [sic], and is angry that he hasn’t been summoned earlier. There’s no hope for Asha, he says, and instructs one of the servants to contact Balasaheb, tell him to get back home as soon as he possibly can…
… but by the time Balasaheb arrives, by plane and train, Asha is dead. Balasaheb pretty much goes all to pieces, and we move on, leaving him and his household to mourn Asha.
The scene shifts to the Avteshwar Hills, where there’s a shootout in progress between the cops and a gang of dacoits. The police manage to kill most of the dacoits, though the leader flees, leaving behind a woman (Bhavna again) whom the cops capture. A villager standing by sees her, and identifies her: this woman danced in front of the temple at a festival some time back (this is depicted through a flashback with a catchy song-and-dance sequence).
That performance was nothing more than a distraction: the woman was keeping the villagers occupied and offguard, so that the dacoits could attack. While the dacoits looted and killed, the woman stabbed a man. Moments later, the leader of the dacoits came by on his horse and she climbed up behind him. Off they went. She’s a demoness, says the villager. The woman, however, looks anything but evil. Instead, she’s frightened silly and keeps blabbering about her innocence.
Inspector Salvi (?), who has been spearheading this entire operation, sets one of his men on inventorizing everything that’s been confiscated from the bodies of the dead dacoits. Amidst all the jewellery, coins and other plundered wealth spilling out of the bundle on the ground, there’s something that draws the inspector’s attention. It’s a photograph of the woman, along with the leader of the dacoits. Both looking obviously an item.
There are a few brief frames in which that photo is shown getting printed in newspapers as part of a news item on the dacoits and the capture of the woman—and then the scene shifts back to Balasaheb’s house. One night, in response to knocking on the front door, a servant opens the door—and immediately runs off, yelling blue murder. [Or, more precisely, “Thief! Thief!” Why he should think a thief would come and knock on the front door instead of quietly slipping in is beyond me].
Leaving the man at the open door [Not a good idea, if this is really a thief], the servant races up to Balasaheb’s room, urging his master to take up his pistol and come downstairs at once. Balasaheb obeys [and is, much to the servant’s gratification, quite nervous about the entire thing], but when they get downstairs, who should the black-hatted figure turn out to be but Inspector Salvi?
The servant gets scolded for raising a ruckus for no reason, but he is quick to defend himself. While Balasaheb was away abroad, there had been a theft in the house. The thief looked just like this—wearing a black hat, dark glasses, heavy coat. When reminded of the episode, Salvi agrees. Yes, of course. The Panse household had reported the theft; nothing had come of the investigation.
By now everybody in the household has gathered in the room. Salvi takes out a newspaper and shows the article about the dacoits. There is general consternation at the sight of the photograph of the woman: yes, she looks exactly like Asha. Who is she? Salvi explains, and then springs a surprise. She not only looks like Asha, she claims to be Asha.
These words are greeted with much indignation, but Salvi tells everybody that the only way this woman can be exposed for the fraud she is, is by having these people—the ones who knew Asha best—meet her. They are not just reluctant but indignant; Balasaheb refuses, saying he’s having a hard time as it, coping with the loss of Asha. And now this? No.
Salvi persists, and finally wins them over (though still reluctant) by saying that they can help Asha’s spirit rest easy by not letting this woman pass herself off as Asha.
So the Panse household arrives at the police station, where Salvi tries to trap the woman [whose name has been noted down as Nisha—nothing is explained of how and when and why that name has been given. Did she provide it? Or have the police christened her Nisha because she insists on calling herself Asha, whom she cannot be?]. He summons two men, one after the other, referring to both as Balasaheb Panse—but Nisha does not fall for the trick.
When the real Balasaheb appears, there is emotional turmoil on both sides: Nisha is relieved, almost close to deliriously happy to see him. And Balasaheb stares at her, looking unsure. There is disbelief in his eyes, as well as joy—is it really her? Is his Asha not dead? Then, dawning suspicion. Because, after all, he has seen Asha dead. He has, with his own hands, cremated her body. So who is this woman, who looks exactly like Asha?
Unfortunately for Balasaheb, who wants nothing more than to be left in peace to mourn his beloved Asha, this woman won’t back down so easily. Even in court, she continues to insist that she is indeed Asha Panse, wife of Balasaheb Panse. So much so that Balasaheb receives a summons to appear in court as witness. Where things get stranger and stranger, because Nisha, who looks so much like Asha, also seems to know the most intimate details regarding the life of Balasaheb and Asha. When they got married, how their car was decorated, what he said to his bride when they saw the moon while driving in car.
… all of which Balasaheb has no difficulty finding a reason for: besides being a lawyer, he is a poet, and all of this he has written in a published work. The woman’s done her homework well, Balasaheb claims dismissively.
But how is it possible that she should know things Balasaheb himself is unaware of? That, for example, he has a mole on his back?
Or how does she—when, at her request, she is allowed to talk to Balasaheb in private, in the court’s premises—know things nobody but Asha could know? Who is this woman? And who is the Sikh, looking somewhat familiar, on whom the camera zeroes in every now and then while the court is in session?
What I liked about this film:
The suspense of it. It’s a well-scripted story, taut and to the point. The pace doesn’t sag; it doesn’t wander off on tangents, and there are no distracting plot elements, to take away from the interest of the main story. Even glimpses of romance, shown in flashbacks, have a bearing on what is now happening: each romantic episode features something that Nisha is now trying to use as evidence to prove she’s Asha.
The attempt made to lend the case a semblance of reality. For example, when Asha is first presented in court, we see the court clerk stand up and read out the charges against her, followed by the sections, subsections, and so on of the Indian Penal Code under which she’s been charged. Also, at various points in the narrative, the fact is taken into consideration that this woman is under trial (for example, approaching the climax, and after that, when the truth is finally revealed): due process is followed (not entirely, but more than is usual in Indian cinema), not arbitrary filmi plotting.
What I didn’t like:
The occasional melodrama. Bhavna, especially, is guilty of this, because she goes over the top in the bechargi department (I’m not sure I can provide a good translation of bechargi, but ‘pathetic-ness’ is probably a close approximation). Her constant weeping and pleading to Balasaheb and the nyayadheesh maharaj (judge) really began to get my goat after a while. Not because of the dialogues or the script involved; just her way of intoning them. This is a woman who doesn’t seem to do tragic or desperate well (on the other hand, she looks really pretty when she’s cheerful—as in the song where she dances in front of the temple). Kashinath isn’t great either.
And that red herring about the theft in the house, and a black-hatted, sinister figure as the robber. What was that all about? Unnecessary, and never resolved.
As always when I’m reviewing a film of which I’ve watched another adaptation, a comparison with the other film. Since I watched Mera Saaya so recently, the film’s still very fresh in my mind, down to minor details. And that helps, because Pathlaag and Mera Saaya are so similar that one needs to see them relatively close together in order to see the differences in the details.
Let’s talk about where Mera Saaya wins. In the stylishness and the glamour, certainly. The views of Udaipur, the beauty of Sadhana and the good looks of Sunil Dutt, the general gorgeousness of the sets. The very fact that it’s in colour.
I also like the music of Mera Saaya a lot (in contrast, Pathlaag has only two songs—one is the song to which Nisha dances in front of the temple, the other is the Marathi equivalent of Tu jahaan-jahaan chalega). Oddly enough, despite my love for the songs in the Hindi film, the relative lack of songs in the Marathi film made it better for me. It gave the film a quicker, tauter, feel.
This relative lack of distraction is also carried through into other aspects of Pathlaag. There is, for instance, no mysterious Sargam here to act as a red herring, and the interactions between other members of the Panse household are to the point: there’s very little unnecessary gossip and comic relief, as there is in Mera Saaya.
Furthermore, Pathlaag has certain elements which make its story fit together better. As an example:
There’s the element of Asha’s/Geeta’s diary, in which she noted every single detail of her life. This becomes an important piece of evidence, because the fact that she cannot recall where it is, suggests that this woman isn’t really Asha/Geeta—and that leads to her breaking down and eventually being carted off to the lunatic asylum. In Mera Saaya, Geeta simply escapes from the asylum and comes home to Rakesh, where she confesses all and the diary is found serendipitously, not because she recalled where it was kept.
In Pathlaag, on the other hand, Asha, while in the lunatic asylum, notices her neighbour in the next room scrabbling about on top of her cupboard, blabbering about her diary, which should be there—and Asha remembers that her diary too had been left on top of the cupboard at home. (Yes, I agree it’s an odd place to leave a diary, but still). It sounds a wee bit more plausible than the Geeta track.
Also (unlike Raina, who escapes from the asylum—God knows how), Nisha asks for permission to visit Balasaheb. She is granted permission through the court, and is escorted to the Panse house by a policeman. This also gives a logical reason for the presence of the policeman at the climax.
As I mentioned in the ‘What I liked about this film’ section, Pathlaag attempts a nod at court proceedings, which Mera Saaya mostly steers clear of. For example, in the scene where Raina/Nisha mentions the mole on Rakesh/Balasaheb’s back, the approach of the two films is markedly different. Mera Saaya milks the scene for all the drama it’s worth, what with the only real and vehement resistance being offered by Rakesh. The judge—and everybody else—seems to take this request for a man disrobing in a courtroom pretty much in their stride, and Rakesh ends up peeling off jacket and shirt right then, right there, for everybody to see.
In Pathlaag, on the other hand, Nisha’s request causes a furore in court. There’s much horrified whispering and murmuring. Both Balasaheb and the prosecutor are indignant, and the judge, after some deliberation (and obviously realizing how odd this is), mulls over the importance of this matter before asking for Balasaheb’s consent. And when Balasaheb does show his back, it’s done discreetly—he simply tugs his shirt out of his trousers and lifts it to show the prosecutor his back. No bare-all dare-all act.
Final verdict? The screenplay of Pathlaag is, overall, more to my liking. It’s crisper, cleaner, accounts rather better for due process of law, and is generally more believable as a suspense film. On the other hand, the acting and stylishness of Mera Saaya make it a very pleasing film. The screenplay of Pathlaag with the cast and budget of Mera Saaya would have been worth watching even more than these two films individually.
If you understand Marathi, Pathlaag is available on Youtube, here. Induna have the DVD (with English subtitles, according to the details in the catalogue), but the last time I checked, it was out of stock.