I remember watching a fair bit of Soviet cinema as a child. This was back in the late 1970s and 80s, when India and the USSR were bosom buddies. Soviet children’s literature filled our bookshelves and the occasional Soviet Film Festival meant that even before I turned 10, I’d already seen English-dubbed Russian cartoons. Later, when we got a TV, we saw several classics—Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and the like—on Doordarshan. Those, sadly (yes, literally sadly!) left me with a lasting impression of Soviet Cinema = Moroseness, Morbidity, Unrelenting Angst.
It struck me the other day that that couldn’t be all. So I set out to see what I could unearth, and I discovered several films that I liked a lot. Devchata (The Girls) is one of them.
Devchata is set in a lumber camp in Siberia. When the film opens, we see one of the supervisors escorting in a new arrival. This, a girl named Tosya (Nadezhda Rumyantseva), is the new cook. When she admits that this is her first job and that no, she hasn’t brought her pillow along, the supervisor is extremely put out. Pillows are in short supply, and a cook with no professional experience? Ugh! Tosya is quick to tell him that she’s graduated from the Culinary Centre in Simferopol; the implication being that she’s not to be sniffed at.
The supervisor shows Tosya to the cabin she’ll be sharing with a bunch of other women, all of them already resident. None are around right now—this in the middle of working hours—so, once the man has left (having tossed Tosya a pillow), Tosya quickly sets about exploring the cabin.
Or, more precisely, trying to figure out her roomies. The bed next to hers has a bedside table crowded with perfume bottles and cosmetics. Another bed, with a portrait of Pushkin pinned up above, has a set of shelves hung on the wall beside it, each shelf bursting with books. There’s yards of crochet spilling out of one box, and so on. These women, even when absent, seem to be an interesting lot.
Tosya, however, is hungry, so she rushes off to the stove at one end of the room, and starts to make herself a snack. She’s not even got the fire going when there’s a series of interruptions. First, a man delivers some mail for one of the women, Vera. Then, a few moments later, another man, a rather sedate and stolid-looking character comes by, places some edibles on a bedside table, and leaves.
Finally, just as Tosya is settling down to take a bite out of her snack, her roommates arrive. These are Vera, Katya, Nadya, and Anfisa.
They are startled to see this stranger sitting and making herself at home in their cabin. The glamorous Anfisa (Svetlana Druzhinina) swoops down angrily on Tosya and snatches up the glass in which Tosya has poured herself a drink—and which Tosya had borrowed from Anfisa’s bedside table. Anfisa is not welcoming: she does not like people making free with her belongings.
The others are sweeter and kinder. They welcome Tosya, and tell her not to mind Anfisa; she’s like that, it can’t be helped.
Tosya is happy to be finally making friends, so she cheerfully hands over the letter that had been delivered for Vera (Nina Menshikova)—a letter, it turns out, from Vera’s husband. Vera immediately tosses it into the stove, unopened. Tosya is taken aback; surely people who’re married would be looking forward to each other’s letters? You can’t be married and not be deeply in love, can you?
To tide over this embarrassment, Tosya remembers to point out the stuff left behind by the second man who’d come by. ‘Mangy’ is the word Tosya uses to describe him, only to learn, the very next moment, that the man in question is the fiancé of Nadya (Inna Makarova). Tosya, with whom tact is not a strong point, wonders how anybody could have a fiancé like that, and Anfisa, who’s busy doing up her makeup, says that “when you’re 28 years old and still unmarried, like Nadya, even a goat will do.”
Fortunately for Tosya, other than Anfisa, her roommates are nice women (and, importantly, forgiving). That evening, they take her along to the local community hall, where there’s dancing and music. Tosya, small and none too striking, however, gets overlooked by all the men; when she finally gets sick of being a wallflower, she turns to the only other person around—a tall woman, standing as alone as Tosya is—and begins dancing.
… Only to stop, the very next minute.
This is because the music has stopped. While Tosya’s been standing around, the local ‘best woodcutter’, Ilya (Nikolai Rybnikov) has entered, with his three buddies, who form his brigade. (Each brigade not just works together as a team, but also lives together).
In the hall, Ilya and his boys come face to face with their rival brigade, which is headed by Filya (Stanislav Khitrov). Filya and Ilya, as is usual with them, begin to play a game (of what looks like draughts to me). And Ilya, whenever he finds it difficult to concentrate, summarily has one of his boys turn off the music.
When Tosya realizes what’s happened, she strides indignantly across and turns on the music again.
This is repeated a couple of times, with Tosya getting more and more annoyed each time Ilya has the music stopped. He, too, is annoyed, but more than that—because he’s used to swaggering about and having everybody kowtow to him—Ilya is also intrigued.
More so when, beckoning to Tosya with a bent forefinger, he finds that she, instead of coming over obediently, summons him, bent forefinger and defiant (even somewhat mischievous) expression and all.
Ilya goes over to Tosya, and as they stand there, face to face, sizing each up, he asks Tosya if she’ll dance with him. Tosya is momentarily taken aback, but rebounds. With that cigarette in his hand? Ilya stubs it out and tosses it away. With that cap on his head? Ilya takes it off and tosses it away, too. But when he puts out a hand to begin the dance, Tosya turns away.
It’s quite an insult, and Ilya is not one to take it lying down. He is too chivalrous to try any caveman tactics, so he strides out of the hall, accompanied by his boys. Filya, running after them, incites Ilya: Ilya mustn’t let this go. He must have his revenge. How can this slip of a girl insult him so?
And, just like that, within minutes, a bet is laid between Ilya and Filya. If Ilya can make Tosya fall in love with him within a week, Filya will give Ilya his hat.
The next day at lunchtime, everybody flocks into the canteen, where—at the hatch—Tosya is hard at work ladling out soup. Ilya and his brigade come in, sniff disapprovingly at their bowls of soup, take a sip, and immediately declare that it’s horrible. Made of frogs, probably. The four men (the others follow Ilya’s lead in all of this) take their bowls out of the cabin and pour the soup into the snow before leaving.
Although everybody else seems to like the soup, poor Tosya is depressed and weepy. Katya (Lyusyena Ovchinnikova), who’s been helping out, tries to console her: the soup was tasty. This is just Ilya’s way of taking revenge for the way Tosya treated him at the community hall last night. Tosya is not convinced.
Meanwhile, Ilya has decreed that he and his brigade will boycott Tosya’s cooking. It’s not as if they’ll go hungry; basic foodstuffs are available at the local shop. The youngest of the brigade is deputed to fry eggs (in a pan borrowed from Filya’s brigade, which lives across the partition under the same roof). Unfortunately, as this operation is underway, a brainwave strikes Ilya: they can increase their productivity in tree-felling, and thus get better salaries, if they use so-and-so method… everybody gets so excited about this that the eggs are forgotten.
Despite the burnt eggs, Ilya is adamant: they won’t go to the canteen. They can eat bread and sausage when they take a break; a lack of hot food isn’t going to kill them.
They haven’t reckoned with Tosya, though. The next day, once lunch service is done, Tosya fills up a large kettle with mushroom soup, packs some bread, and against the protests of Katya (“Haven’t you any self-respect?!”), sets off towards where Ilya and his men are working. Ilya’s men have, by now, begun hankering for hot food, so the sight of Tosya bearing soup and bread makes them leave their machinery and come eagerly forward. Within minutes, Ilya too has capitulated.
By the time she leaves them to finish their lunch, Tosya has made friends with the entire bunch. Ilya, with a grin, has declared her soup ‘edible’. Triumph!
The next thing Tosya knows, when she’s leaving evening classes, Ilya accosts her on the way and asks if he can walk her back to her cabin. It is obvious to even naïve little Tosya that Ilya is attracted to her, and she’s over the moon.
Not so fast, warns Katya, when she realizes what’s happening. Doesn’t Tosya know that Ilya is a playboy? He treats women like playthings, flitting from one to another.
Tosya is aghast, and unsure: Ilya doesn’t strike her as a libertine. Don’t get taken in, says Katya. To make sure that Tosya remains on her guard, Katya takes it upon herself to be around Tosya all the time—and to cough loudly every time she thinks Tosya is in danger of succumbing to Ilya’s charms.
So we proceed. Tosya getting more and more starry-eyed with every passing hour, Katya coughing frantically. And neither of them aware of that bet between Ilya and Filya…
What I liked about this film:
Everything, really (which is why there’s no ‘What I didn’t like’ section to this review). Devchata is a light-hearted, sweet and just generally endearing film, which mixes humour and romance very well. There’s a lot to like about this film, but some things in particular stand out:
First and foremost, the scripting, which is fast-paced and good. There are funny things happening throughout the film—what might seem as isolated episodes of humour, like Tosya’s inadvertently referring to Nadya’s fiancé as ‘mangy’—but each of these episodes somehow adds to the story and helps build the plot or contribute to character development. (The ‘mangy fiancé’, for example, is an interesting insight into the life of Nadya, who is too scared of ending up an old maid, and so has had to settle for a man who may not be considered a ‘fine catch’, but who is, in his own way, loving and devoted to her). There is very little here that is superfluous.
Also to be appreciated is the way other facets of life are woven into the narrative; the tone may be frothy, but beneath the fluff is hard truth too. Anfisa, for instance, whose flippant and flirtatious attitude towards men lies in her own insecurities. Or the fact that nobody in this film is utterly and absolutely black or white. Everybody is human, with their own frailties and strengths, their own ability to find happiness where they can. Their ability to forgive and move on, to hold on to what life gives them. Occasionally, too, to reach for what may seem out of their reach.
And there is Nadezhda Rumyantseva, who is a total firecracker as Tosya. She is feisty, unafraid (the way she faces up to Ilya in the community hall, when a roomful of dancing couples cannot summon up the courage to oppose his high-handedness)—and yet she is also sweet, emotional, with a beguiling innocence that is a delight to watch. Add to that the fact that she’s very physical, jumping about, striding around, climbing up stools… she reminded me in many ways of one of my favourite comic actresses in Hollywood, the delightful Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing.
If you want some good, light viewing, give this a try. It’s a great mood-lifter.