This week’s film came about after several false starts. A new blog reader and I have been waxing eloquent about our shared love for Sanjeev Kumar, not just one of Hindi cinema’s finest actors, but also, in his younger days (as far as I am concerned), also exceptionally dishy. After some false starts—Husn aur Ishq, Gunehgaar, Insaan aur Shaitaan—I ended up watching Priya, one of several films in which Sanjeev Kumar co-starred with Tanuja.
Priya (Tanuja), in a voiceover, talks of how she went from being Chandan to Priya. The people involved: her parents, her brother and his ill-tempered, selfish wife; a classmate, a professor, the cycle waala who was in love with Chandan…
And then we go into flashback, to Chandan’s home. Chandan is the daughter of a postman, Motilal (Shivraj) and his wife Parvati (Sulochana Chatterjee). They have a son named Kishore (?), who is married and stays with his parents along with his wife (?). Kishore’s wife is a shrew who, when Kishore tries to point out that his father cannot afford gifts, says that everybody must look to their own interests. Sadly for Chandan’s father, Kishore is too spineless to stand up for his dad.
Shortly after the film opens, we get an idea of the dynamics of his household. Chandan stops by at a neighbouring tailor’s shop to ask if he’s stitched the handkerchiefs she had ordered. The local cycle repair waala, Man Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) is there too. Man Singh is in love with Chandan but hides the depth of his feelings under a cloak of light flirtation, so Chandan has no idea.
When the tailor hems and haws about the handkerchiefs, Man Singh promises Chandan that he’ll make sure the man gets her handkerchiefs done and delivered the same day.
Sure enough, the handkerchiefs arrive later in the day, while Chandan is in the kitchen helping her mother, her bhabhi, and her widowed aunt Lalita (Dulari) in their chores. Bhabhi’s immediate reaction on seeing the handkerchiefs is to pass a snide remark: what has Chandan done to make the tailor do her work so quickly?
This makes Chandan’s mother pile on, too. Chandan will be the death of her, what did she ever do to merit a shameless hussy like this as a daughter, blah blah.
Chandan gets so angry at these unwarranted accusations that she rushes off into the adjoining room. When her mother follows her, Chandan lashes out: what was the need for those accusations? Does she not trust her daughter? Her mother, to her credit, realizes that she may have gone a bit too far, and there’s a touching moment of reconciliation. No matter how much Chandan’s mother may scold, no matter how much Chandan too may snap back at her, there is affection here.
The scene now shifts to Chandan’s college. Chandan, wearing a short dress, is up on a stepladder in the library, when a slimy classmate named Raju (?) makes a pass at her. Chandan’s angry berating of Raju draws the attention of Mr Pujara (?), their professor. Pujara tells off Raju and sends him away before giving Chandan his handkerchief to wipe her tears. There is something very definitely non-avuncular in his attempts to pacify her, but Chandan is too naïve to realize.
The college students are rehearsing a play, Shakuntala, with Chandan playing the title role and Raju as her husband, King Dushyant. Pujara interrupts the proceedings, finding fault with Raju’s dialogue delivery [which, along with the actor’s overall acting, is really pretty bad]. Pujara pushes Raju out and starts spouting Dushyant’s syrupy lines to Chandan himself. Soon, he’s dismissed the rest of the class, too, and closed the doors.
He goes on speaking romantic dialogues to Chandan, who’s getting uncomfortable. She doesn’t do anything, though, to get away from Pujara. This faux drama comes to a halt only when Raju and the rest, who’ve been peering in through the ventilator, fall down with a crash.
Chandan, tossing and turning in her bed that night, cannot figure out what to do. Tell her parents? Warn them of what might be in the offing? But her mother tends to go overboard at the merest whiff of supposed impropriety, and her father has too many troubles, anyway. Perhaps things will sort themselves out.
But the damage is done. Raju, who is anyway annoyed with Chandan’s disinterest in him, now sets out to ruin her reputation. The next day, Chandan arrives in class to face booing and the cold shoulder from all her classmates. Raju boasts that she can do nothing to him, because his father is on the college’s board of trustees. He will make sure her name is mud.
He, along with his disreputable friends, begins a smear campaign against Chandan, including lots of graffiti on the walls around Chandan’s home.
Soon, things have spiralled out of control. Chandan’s father is summoned to a meeting of the trustees at Chandan’s college, and is told that though they will stop Pujara’s increments [there is no talk of taking any further, more punitive, action against him], Chandan has given their college a bad name, and is therefore expelled. [Does this sound realistically familiar, this confusing of the victim and the perpetrator?]
When the family discovers this—the shameful graffiti, the news of Chandan’s being expelled—there is mayhem. Kishore’s wife throws a tantrum, packs up her suitcase, and leaves. Chandan’s mother goes on hunger strike and a maun vrat: she will not eat, drink, or speak until—who knows? [Since she refuses to speak, she can’t explain her condition for breaking her maun vrat].
The household has become so oppressive, her mother’s angry silence and fasting so onerous and her father’s mournful eyes so accusatory, that Chandan cannot bear it any more. One night, she packs up a little bundle and runs away from home. She makes it to the roadside, where she hails a passing lorry—only a driver and his helper in it—and asks for a lift. [Why a girl who’s just been made the victim of sexual harassment doesn’t have the sense to travel in public transport beats me. Especially when the helper, leering vacuously at her, urges her to get in beside him].
Sure enough, they haven’t gone far when the two men start off in earnest, encouraging Chandan to sit a little closer, move in here… when the lorry slows down a little, Chandan sees her chance, opens the door, and leaps out. The driver and his helper will not be thrown off so easily, however: they chase her through the woods, and a screaming Chandan is finally cornered beside a lake.
Her screams, however, have attracted the attention of a man (?) who is staying in a nearby cottage. He runs out, bashes up the goons, rescues Chandan, and takes her to his cottage. He lives alone here, and has soon managed to calm Chandan and put her in a room to sleep. He goes into his own room and lies down, unable to sleep—the thought of this beautiful girl, in the next room, all alone, makes him restless. Reading through Life Magazine, replete with photos of scantily clad women, makes him even more restless [These firang magazines, I tell you!]
The man keeps murmuring to himself that he’s a married man, he’s got two children, he shouldn’t be even thinking of this. But no, he can’t help himself [haven’t we heard that before?], and peering in through the window at a sleeping Chandan, he finally loses control and goes in. Chandan comes awake to find herself being raped.
Once the deed is done, the man tries to tell her that everything will be all right [how?], while Chandan weeps.
The next morning, though, as the man goes off to work—it turns out he’s an engineer, supervising the construction of a road through the forest—we see how Chandan has decided to make sure everything is all right. She shyly holds out two garlands, slips one around her rapist’s neck, and asks him to garland her with the other. [Yikes! And I thought this girl had some sense. Why, pray, suddenly decide that you’re in love with the man who raped you? Or perhaps Chandan thinks this is the only way to retain her ‘honour’, so to say].
No, she does not consider this a wedding, but just a sort of betrothal. Chandan continues to live with the man, waiting for when they can get married.
Meanwhile, back in her parents’ town, things have gone from bad to worse. Ma, still fasting and silent, is on her deathbed. Urged to speak, to say the name of God, the woman manages to whisper “Chandan,” a couple of times before she dies.
Meanwhile, too, Man Singh has been going around trying to remove everything that points to Chandan’s shame: cleaning away the graffiti, getting into fights with those who gossip about her. Even going to Raju’s college and thrashing him.
Back in the forest, Chandan is living happily with her lover.
Until one day, when the man’s boss, coming around on an inspection, says that the man’s wife hasn’t heard from her husband for two months now. She’s been getting increasingly restive, so will be arriving the next day.
The only solution is for Chandan to be sent away, as quickly as possible. Her lover tries to tell her that his father is coming, and would disapprove of her living with him. Chandan soon becomes suspicious that he’s trying to get rid of her, and refuses to go. Why should she? They’re going to be married; she wants to meet his father. When she realizes this isn’t having any effect, she lies to her lover, telling him that she is pregnant.
By that night, Chandan’s lover is so desperate, he can think of only one thing: kill Chandan. He goes to her bedside with a knife, raises it to stab a sleeping Chandan—and then cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, he plunges the knife into his own hand, and, dripping blood all over the place (and dropping the knife on the floor beside Chandan’s bed), goes rushing out into the night.
If he cannot escape from this mess he’s got himself into, there is only one way out: kill himself. There is a banyan tree there, its aerial roots hanging low, and the man hangs himself.
Later that night, Chandan wakes up to see the blood and the bloodied knife. She picks up the knife [Why? Why, girl? Haven’t you seen any Hindi films? Don’t you know this is a sure-fire way of getting caught for murder?], then flings it away and races out. She runs to the banyan tree, sees her lover dangling from there, and runs off.
How does this desperate, confused Chandan, now seemingly alone and friendless, morph into the sophisticated, pretty model Priya, who dances with Elvis (Jalal Agha), goes to meet a producer (Agha) to talk about starring in his next film—and generally seems to have become a completely different person?
What I liked about this film, and what I didn’t like (yes, they both get covered in one section, because this film had several things that overlapped):
I found Priya an odd film. There are times when it seems it’s been scripted by two very different people with two very different ideas of what this film should be (though the credits show that it was written—as well as directed—by Govind Saraiya).
The first half is, despite the awful acting of several important characters, fairly gripping. Chandan’s story plays out in a way that reminded me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles: the innocent who is loved by one man (to whom she too is attracted), but is raped by another. Chandan, partly through her own naïvete (and, truth to tell, even stupidity), and partly through sheer bad luck at being victimized by so many different people, goes through a traumatic period. All interesting, even bold [which other Hindi film heroine of 1970, after being raped, would not at least attempt suicide?], and this theme does get carried over to some extent into the second half, continuing the theme of Chandan’s desperate attempts at being independent, at living life on her own terms.
Only, the tone of the second half—with several peppy songs, with Jalal Agha acting as a young singer named Elvis, and with comic turns by Agha and a couple of others—is so jarringly different from the first half that it seems unreal. Chandan too, changed into Priya, becomes the chirpy, bubbly Tanuja one remembers from films like Gustakhi Maaf: not at all the frustrated, hot-headed yet immensely naive Chandan, trying her best to battle it out alone against a world that seems to prey on her at every turn.
The first half was what I liked about this film: it showed so much promise, so much an attempt to be different. The second half was what I didn’t like. It doesn’t fit well with the first half when it comes to tone; there are some completely unnecessary comic scenes, and Chandan/Priya almost seems schizophrenic in her behaviour. She blows hot, blows cold towards Man Singh; she goes off with a total stranger, very clearly with the intention of sleeping with him, but then begs him to let her go. Psychotic, certainly, but the film does not delve deeper into it—it just skims the surface, so one never really knows what is going through this woman’s mind.
Plus, a film like this, which has a message (no matter how regressive, which it was), should not spell out the message. There are subtler ways of saying the same thing than freezing a frame and having someone read out a lecture on how the youth of our country should behave.
So, no. No matter how much I like Tanuja and Sanjeev Kumar (and them together, especially!), this is not a film I’d recommend. Watch the peppy Pretty, pretty Priya on Youtube, or listen to Na sun sun sun bura (what an earworm that is!), and that’s it. The rest if safely avoided.