Here is the answer to the question I set a couple of days back. What do Aapke kamre mein koi rehta hai, Yeh jawaani hai deewaani, Pyaar deewaana hota hai and Yeh kya hua have in common, I had asked (besides the obvious: that Kishore had sung all four, and RD Burman had composed all four). Some people got the answer correct, and some came close to guessing. Yes, these songs were all copied by Burman from tunes he had composed for one film. That was a Bengali film named Rajkumari, released in 1970.
Rajkumari, starring Tanuja as the eponymous princess, is a film I came across thanks to friend and erstwhile fellow blogger, Harvey. Some weeks back, Harvey shared a link to one of the songs of Rajkumari (more about these songs, later). I liked it so much that I made up my mind I had to see it. And it turned out to be quite entertaining.
Rajkumari Manjuri ‘Manju’ is the only offspring of the Rani Ma of Kamlapur (Chhaya Devi). Rani Ma is the very picture of a strict disciplinarian: not a hair out of place, always firm and bound about by rules that she herself imposes, always the upholder of the honour of the family and name and state she represents. When we are first introduced to Rani Ma, she is busy going through reams of paperwork while one minion reads out some important documents to her and various other minions come by to report progress, to receive instructions, and so on.
A sadly overburdened recipient of much of Rani Ma’s discipline is Manju. Manju’s day is divided into very strict, hide-bound compartments (each time slot neatly labeled and pinned onto a large board that occupies much of one wall in Manju’s room). She learns everything from music to law, she does vigorous exercises under the eagle eye of a physical trainer.
She is also required to dress at all times like the royalty she is: in a sari draped the traditional Bengali way, her hair pinned up neatly. And with spectacles on her nose, all the time. Never mind that whatever ocular troubles Manju had in her childhood have long been corrected.
No wonder, then, that poor Manju spends a good bit of whatever little free time she gets in staring out of her window, looking longingly out at the sky above, the birds, the trees…
Manju has two people who provide some sort of respite. One is her uncle, her mama (mother’s brother: Pahari Sanyal), who also lives with them. Mamaji is a qualified doctor, though he does not practice, and he has a laboratory in the palace where he potters around when he’s not trying to gently (or by subterfuge) get his sister to be a little less unbending.
The other person, to whom Manju can escape three time a week, is Labonno (?). Labonno teaches Manju needlework. For Labonno, this is not a job—she does not accept payment for it—but for Manju, being able to get out of the stifling and oppressive environment at her home is a relief by itself.
Meanwhile, Rani Ma has been busy trying to find a match for Manju. This is a difficult task, since Rani Ma’s expectations of an eligible bridegroom are frightening: wealth, family name, honour, education, looks, character—the two men whom she’s appointed for the task report to her every other day with long lists of prospective candidates, each of which is summarily dismissed by Rani Ma.
One fine day, Rani Ma decides to host a banquet, and invite everybody who’s somebody in the neighbourhood. Labonno and her husband must be invited, and Mamaji is given the task of going to their home and personally extending an invitation. To everybody at home. Mamaji does so, and discovers that there is a house guest at Labonno’s right now: her brother Nirmal (Uttam Kumar), who is an insurance agent.
Since Mamaji is under strict orders to extend the invitation to everyone at home, he does so, including Nirmal. They must, must come for the banquet.
And they do. In fact, just about everybody from the neighbourhood is there, the men all in suits, the women dressed to the nines. Rani Ma greets everybody, and announces the main attraction of the party: a song by Manju. This not being a Hindi film (where the young lady would be expected to sit at a piano and sing) but a Bengali one where the heroine is a well-brought-up, traditional, and cultured girl, Manju is to sing a piece of classical Hindustani music. The audience exchange alarmed looks and murmured remarks that speak volumes. One woman, telling her friend that she doesn’t like classical music, catches Rani Ma’s disapproving eye, and immediately changes her tune.
Some men, sitting huddled away at the back, begin to talk shop. Another man, rising to his feet, begs leave of Rani Ma. He tells her that he had come just because she had invited him, but there’s some work which he cannot duck out of. But you must eat before you go, Rani Ma says, and takes him away to have him fed. As soon as her back is turned, the rest of the gathering too begins to disappear.
Manju, who’s barely begun her song, sees her entire audience vanish right before her very eyes (yes, they’re a rude lot). But, instead of stopping or even faltering, Manju sings on, finally finishing her song—and finding herself at the receiving end of loud but solitary applause. Nirmal (who is a stranger to Manju) has come, and—unlike the rest of the crowd—has actually sat through the entire performance. He comes forward to congratulate her on her singing, and also, importantly, on singing right through, even with barely an audience.
Manju is surprised, a little dazed, and flattered. In the course of her song, she has put down her spectacles; now that she reaches out to pick them up, Nirmal beats her to them. This won’t do, he scolds her teasingly. These frames are all wrong for her face, and—Manju interrupts him to say that she doesn’t actually need the specs, she’s wearing them just because. Nirmal, handling the specs, fumbles and ends up breaking them.
In the midst of this conversation, Mamaji arrives, and recognizes Nirmal. Rani Ma too comes in, is annoyed to find that Manju’s not wearing her specs, and is even more disapproving when Nirmal holds out the specs and admits he’s broken them. Rani Ma points out that she hasn’t even been introduced to him, and Nirmal tells her who he is. Rani Ma looks unimpressed…
… but the knowledge that Nirmal is Labonno’s brother does not make her stop Manju from visiting Labonno’s home for her needlework class the next day. There, of course, is Nirmal, and a shy, eager Manju soon gets talking to him. Nirmal and Labonno ask her to sing something light and frothy; not classical music, and Manju admits that she doesn’t know any songs other than the classical. She has never even heard songs that weren’t classical.
Oh, this will never do, says Nirmal. And , what with a piano at hand in Labonno’s house—at his urging, and her own burgeoning desire to break out of the rules and restrictions that hem her in—Manju learns a song from him. A frothy, light, popular song, which she repeats when she’s back home, dancing about in her room, her hair open and flowing about her shoulders, her sari worn in the modern way. Nirmal, through his breaking of her spectacles, has also broken Manju’s chains.
Rani Ma, when she sees this changed Manju, is suspicious and angry. Why is her hair not properly dressed? Why is she wearing her sari thus? Why is she going about singing these frivolous songs? Manju, not yet ready (and not wanting to rock the boat) meekly accepts. In front of her mother, she goes back to her old ways: training to be a good queen. But, behind Rani Ma’s back, Manju blossoms into a carefree, happy girl who goes rushing off with Nirmal and Labonno on a trip around Calcutta.
A girl who eats out (and is fleetingly introduced to an old classmate of Nirmal’s, who looks at Manju with an interested and appraising gaze). The new Manju stares right back with fierce eyes, giving as good as she gets.
And the new Manju is a girl who is, quite obviously, in love with Nirmal, who reciprocates that love and reassures Manju that her wealth means nothing to him. It is her love, it is she, who is important to him. Manju, the woman. Not Manju, the princess.
Where is the rajkumari’s love headed?
I will admit that I have not yet gotten around to watching Roman Holiday, but from all that I’ve heard of that iconic film, I thought Rajkumari would probably be something along those lines: princess meets commoner and falls in love (though, of course, in this case, there’s no paparazzi chasing the princess, and the commoner isn’t a journalist on the lookout for a unique story).
But no, Rajkumari takes an unusual turn midway through the story. A turn that caught me by surprise, and suddenly made me sit up and start appreciating the film a bit more.
What I liked about this film:
Tanuja as Manju. This is a character that’s very real: not the cookie-cutter heroine (though I will admit: I have seen far more interesting female characters in the handful of Bengali films I’ve seen than I’ve seen in most Hindi cinema). Manju, in the beginning, is a free bird at heart, even though she bows to her mother’s strictures. She doesn’t like the specs, the regimented routine, the boring lessons she must sit through—but, perhaps not wanting to annoy her mother, she bears it all. There are moments of rebellion, glimpses of the free spirit that is caged inside the princess, but the real breaking of the chains occurs only when love drives her to it.
That love, and the dilemma it raises for Manju, becomes the catalyst for the emergence of a stronger, more determined character. This, in turn, sets off a chain of events that help her evolve as a character. The bubbly, cheerful girl-woman of the start of the film is a different one from the steely-eyed, strong-willed yet deeply emotional one of its end—and Tanuja plays all aspects of Manju superbly. She has, in interviews, said that her roles in Bengali films have been better than those in Hindi cinema. While I’ve not seen her other Bengali films (Deya Neya and Antony Firingee among them), Rajkumari has certainly prompted me to watch more of Tanuja’s Bengali cinema.
The other major aspect of Rajkumari that I liked was the music—which was composed by RD Burman. Lovers of Hindi film music will find much to recognize here, because several of these tunes were reused, almost as is, in some of the songs RDB composed for Hindi cinema. Ei ki holo, for instance, became Yeh kya hua (Amar Prem); Bandha dwaarer andhkaare became Aapke kamre mein koi rehta hai (Yaadon ki Baaraat); Aaj gun-gun-gunje aamaar became Prem deewaana hota hai (Kati Patang) and Ke ji bhabi elomelo is easily recognized as Yeh jawaani hai deewaani (Jawaani Deewaani)—and which features Helen, dancing up a storm, as always. A great score.
What I didn’t like:
Not much, really, except that it seemed as if the momentous, self-destructive decision Manju takes near the end of the film (which precipitates the climax) is a little too drastic. I can see that she’s hurt, and that she feels betrayed and miserable—and that these emotions do lead some people to cause self-harm—but still. The suddenness of that decision was a little hard to swallow.
But, as I said, that wasn’t much. On the whole, this was a film I liked far more than I’d thought I would when I began watching it.
Rajkumari is available on Youtube, with English subtitles, here. A note of caution, though: the subtitles (perhaps auto-generated? I don’t know) are of little use. Bits of the dialogue are missing: sentences are left hanging mid-air, and many are completely missed, even though they’re important. If you don’t understand at least some Bengali, this isn’t a copy I’d recommend.