Sometime during the 1990s, I pretty much stopped watching contemporary films. By then, there were a few channels on TV that regularly aired old films, and that was enough for me—in any case, I was in a job so time-consuming that I barely got time to sleep, let alone watch films. For several years, I watched a handful of films that were the current rage. As it was, the songs rarely appealed to me; I didn’t much care for a lot of the people who seemed to be the hottest stars; and some of the biggest films—or so I gathered—were action blockbusters, not really my idea of fun.
And then I watched Parineeta. The 2005 one, which marked the Hindi film debut of one of my favourite present-day actresses. It also proved a turning point for me with reference to Saif Ali Khan, whom I didn’t like before, but began to like (in some roles) after this one. It’s one of the few films in which I’ve not minded Sanjay Dutt. Plus, it has perhaps my favourite score of any film from the 2000s so far.
It wasn’t till much after I’d seen Parineeta—perhaps a few years—that I discovered that there had been an earlier Parineeta as well. Made by Bimal Roy, and starring Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar. Just those three names in themselves are enough to make me watch a film. And a film based on a novel by Sarat Chandra, no less? I realized it was high time I watched this.
Parineeta is centred round two adjoining households, one occupied by the wealthy Nabin Rai (Badri Prasad) who lives with his wife (Protima Devi), his two sons (of whom the younger one, Shekhar, is played by Ashok Kumar) and the elder son, Avinash’s, wife. Shekhar is studying to be a lawyer, and his parents are trying to find a match for him.
Nabin and his family live in a grand mansion befitting their wealth and status. The home next door is far more modest, and is occupied by Gurucharan (Nazir Hussain), his wife, their children, and Gurucharan’s niece, Lalita (Meena Kumari). Gurucharan’s wife, Lalita’s maami, is a strident woman, overworked and trying to make do with very little, but occasionally snapping under the pressure.
But things are not unbearable. Whenever she has the time, Lalita runs off to Shekhar’s room, to study. Shekhar has been teaching her (English, among other subjects) and even when he’s not around, Lalita sits in his room and labours over her books. When he is in his room, the relationship between these two comes forth as an interesting one of a happy and comfortable camaraderie: he teases her, she teases him back. She calmly borrows a few coins from his wallet and wonders when she will be able to repay this debt; he—somewhat mysteriously, to Lalita—replies that the debt is being paid.
Meanwhile, other developments are taking place. Gurucharan, who is in debt to Nabin Rai (he had to mortgage his house to pay for the wedding of Lalita’s elder sister), is now being badgered to clear the debt or vacate the house. Gurucharan is in a flap; what will he do? With this family to look after, his little daughter Anu to be educated, and both Lalita and his own elder daughter Malti to be (sometime) married off, the meagre salary he gets is far from adequate.
But, little known to both Gurucharan and Lalita, she has acquired an admirer. Lalita’s friend and neighbour Charu (?) has her uncle Girin (Asit Baran) visiting from Munger. When Lalita goes to visit Charu, Girin notices her and is smitten. So smitten that it doesn’t escape the notice of his brother-in-law, Charu’s father (SN Banerjee), though Charu’s mother (Manorama) is completely oblivious.
Lalita herself doesn’t have a clue about Girin’s feelings, or that he has engineered a ploy whereby not just Charu’s family, but Lalita and Anu should all go to the theatre together. Lalita, all decked up, comes to Shekhar’s room to borrow money for the theatre jaunt, and is surprised when Shekhar seems huffy about it. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but Shekhar obviously does not like the idea of Lalita going off with this lot.
And Lalita, thrown off-balance by Shekhar’s reaction, is suddenly no longer eager to go out either.
Surely it cannot be that Shekhar harbours feelings for Lalita? After all, when Shekhar’s parents pinpoint a match for him—and a very fine match too, the family extremely wealthy and well-placed—Shekhar makes no objection. Though, when he does go with his elder brother Avinash to ‘see’ the girl in question, he comes back and has very little to say about the girl, except that she was laden down with jewellery… his mother and bhabhi realize that Shekhar didn’t like her.
Lalita, who had been excited about Shekhar’s going bride-hunting (or bride-viewing), to the extent of even suggesting what he should wear for the occasion, teased him about the girl. It had never appeared that Shekhar could have turned down a prospective bride because he loves Lalita instead, and Lalita’s innocent teasing of Shekhar, the completely natural, unaffected way in which she goes about him and his belongings, borrowing money, settling his cupboard, aware of every piece of clothing he owns—she comes across more as a younger sister, perhaps, than a love interest.
That, however, might have something to do with the way even Shekhar’s mother treats Lalita: Lalita has been in and out of their house ever since she was a child. She helps with the housework, sitting and cutting vegetables with Shekhar’s mother and bhabhi, chatting, running errands. Lalita and her cousins use a connecting passage between the two houses to come and go as they please, and when Shekhar’s mother plans a trip to Madhupur, Lalita is invited to come along too.
Lalita, now beginning to feel a little awkward around Shekhar, is still oblivious to Girin. Girin has already been warned—in a jovial, joking way—by his brother-in-law: he shouldn’t hold out any hope of attaining Lalita, because her family are orthodox Brahmins, and Girin, for all that he’s pretty well-off, is a sudra, after all.
Girin does not let that deter him. He soon goes off to visit Gurucharan, introduces himself (he hardly needs to; Gurucharan already knows about him), and is given a warm welcome by Gurucharan.
Gurucharan and young Girin grow so comfortable with each other that Gurucharan even confides in Girin that he wants a good groom for Lalita. Will Girin help him find one? And Girin (perhaps hoping that, by actively participating in this endeavour, he will be able to stall other prospective grooms?) agrees readily.
Of course, as soon as they’ve gone to meet the first potential groom, Girin shoots down his candidature: not handsome enough for Lalita. Shekhar, who has learnt of Girin’s growing intimacy with Gurucharan, comes visiting, and his dislike and suspicion of Girin is obvious, even though he’s genteel and polite all the while.
One day, Girin comes to meet Gurucharan. When he discovers how distressed the older man is because of the debt that’s weighing down on him, Girin offers to lend Gurucharan the money—three thousand rupees—to pay off Nabin Babu. No, no interest or anything; Gurucharan can return it as and when he is able to.
This momentous decision has several repercussions. First, it makes Gurucharan very grateful to Girin: he had never expected such magnanimity, and this is a colossal weight off his shoulders.
Secondly, it allows Gurucharan to finally stop cringing and cowering in front of Nabin Rai. He is able to hand over the money and clear the loan (though, as requested by Girin, Gurucharan does not divulge the name of the man who’s lent him the money). Gurucharan gets the precious papers of his house back. He also gets back his self-respect and enough spine to finally hit back at the nasty Nabin Babu and tell him what he thinks of his high-handed ways.
Anu, blabbermouth that she is, tells Shekhar how Girin has bailed them all out by his generosity, and the knowledge of it makes Shekhar uneasy. Gurucharan should have come to him if he was so in need. Shekhar also realizes that by doing this, Girin has further endeared himself to Gurucharan and his family.
A few days later, little Anu is busy organizing her doll’s wedding, and Lalita helps out, making garlands. Amidst all the hustle and bustle—these little girls take their dolls’ weddings seriously—Shekhar teasingly asks Anu for a garland for himself too, and Lalita ends up being sent to Shekhar’s room with it. She playfully flings the garland around his neck, and Shekhar, suddenly altered, asks her if she realizes what this means. Today is a day very auspicious for weddings. An exchange of garlands today between a man and a woman can mean only one thing.
And before Lalita has even had the opportunity to process all of this, Shekhar has put the garland around her neck.
Lalita is bewildered, shocked—and finally, ecstatic. There is a demure shyness between them, even as Shekhar confesses his love for her. Lalita bends to touch his feet. She is his bride now, never mind that nobody else knows of it. But everything turns topsy-turvy soon after. Because of Gurucharan’s continuing ill health (brought on, no doubt, by stress), Lalita has had to back out of accompanying Shekhar and his mother to Madhupur. They, however, do go, and while leaving, Shekhar quietly hands Lalita the keys to his room: if she needs money, she should take as much as she wants.
Shekhar goes off to Madhupur, and while he’s gone, all hell breaks loose.
What I liked about this film:
Bimal Roy’s classic style of storytelling, which also shines through in films like Parakh and Sujata: quiet, everyday people, with their everyday problems, their everyday sorrows and triumphs. While there are signs of the distress faced by Gurucharan, there is also the fact that his situation isn’t overly dramatized—it’s not as if (as happens in the majority of Hindi films) his entire family is reduced to begging. In fact, Lalita (who is perhaps the most diligent and concerned of the lot) actually has enough free time to go play cards with Charu and her family, or study at Shekhar’s. And there is certainly enough at home for Anu to organize a wedding for her doll…
There are other ways in which this balance shows itself. The evil is not unmitigated evil. The misunderstanding that arises is ironed out not through histrionics but by a gently touching resolution (and the uncomfortable news, when broken, is received in the right spirit—again not with over-the-top shrieking or emotional blackmail or other reactions so loved by Hindi film makers).
This restraint shows itself most prominently in Shekhar and Lalita’s relationship too: it’s not unusual that two people who’ve known each for so long and who’re so much together should eventually develop feelings for each other, and that they shouldn’t—like your average filmi couple—burst into song and dance about it. That love happens, and quietly, is a refreshing change from the usual rather more vocal style of cinema.
The acting, especially of Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari (who won the Filmfare Best Actress Award for this role; Bimal Roy won the Best Director Award for the film), is excellent: understated, restrained in all ways. And, as in many other Bimal Roy’s films, silence plays a key role. Much is said by way of expressions.
There was nothing about this film I outright dislike, so I’ll go straight on to the comparison.
Parineeta, as most would know, was based on the novel of the same name by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. It was originally published in 1914, and is a short, intense little book about family and romance and duty and misunderstandings. Bimal Roy (like his protégé Hrishikesh Mukherjee) was very good at adapting Bengali literature for the silver screen, and this adaptation is a good one. Since I’ve recently read both the novel (in a Hindi translation) as well as rewatched the 2005 Parineeta (and watched one version—the 1976 Sankoch—which I’d not even known about), I thought it appropriate to compare the 1953 Parineeta with both its source and its remakes.
The 1953 Parineeta is very faithful to the novel—down to exact scenes, like the one where Lalita wonders how she’ll repay the debt she’s incurring due to her borrowing from Shekhar. There are some departures from the book, like the two deaths that occur in the course of it: the reasons for the deaths, and when they occur, are different from what Sarat Chandra wrote. And Bimal Roy makes three important (and I think relevant) changes to the characters. First, in the book, Lalita is thirteen (the book itself stretches across four years, so by the end, she’s seventeen); in the film she is certainly older, and the film doesn’t appear to span such a long period. Secondly, in the book, Girin is an ‘outcast’ (so to say) because he’s a Brahmo Samaji, not because he’s lower caste. Thirdly, the character of Malti is introduced in the film; there’s no such person in the book.
All three changes make sense. A thirteen-year old romantic heroine wouldn’t be acceptable in the 1950s. More non-Bengalis would understand that a man from a lower caste would be shunned, rather than that a Brahmo Samaji would be shunned. And Malti, as someone approximately Lalita’s own age, fulfills an important role in the film.
All in all, one of those very satisfying adaptations of a good book. A film that understands the ethos of its source, and portrays it well.
Now, on to another adaptation. Twenty-three years after Bimal Roy made Parineeta, fellow Bengali Anil Ganguly remade it as Sankoch, starring Jeetendra as Shekhar and Sulakshana Pandit as Lalita.
In its basics, it’s pretty much a copy of Parineeta, down to the placements and tones of the songs. There are some differences, such as Girin being named Girish in this version, and the entire setting shifted to what seems to be Bombay (Girish’s home town is Goa here). The biggest difference is an insertion of some very jarring comic side plots: Girish’s sister (Aruna Irani) and her failed-musician-husband (IS Johar) along with his side kick (Keshto Mukherjee) have a lot of cringeworthy scenes devoted to them, and there’s a terrible ‘comic’ scene when Shekhar goes to ‘see’ a prospective bride, played by Preeti Ganguly in an idiotic dress.
The main problem with Sankoch is that it’s too loud. There’s a quietness, a control and restraint about the original Parineeta that is missing from this version. The background music jars; Lalita and Shekhar lack the dignified mien that characterizes them in the earlier film; and the forced comedy is embarrassing.
And, the latest adaptation, the 2005 Parineeta, starring Saif Ali Khan as Shekhar, Vidya Balan as Lolita (her name is pronounced the Bengali way, but sadly, almost none of the non-Bengali actors are able to get the pronunciation exactly right), and Sanjay Dutt as Girish. This version is a very far cry from both of the earlier ones. It’s set in 1962 (and there are lots of anachronisms—like Saridon, an Elvis Presley album that wasn’t yet released, and women’s clothing that wasn’t quite true to style). Lolita is not a shy stay-at-home girl; she’s a PA to Shekhar’s father, who is a greedy big businessman. Shekhar isn’t a lawyer; he’s a musician. Girish lives in London. It’s all adjusted to appeal to a 2000s audience, sexed up (literally), with peppy music, a working girl heroine (why Lolita continues to borrow money from Shekhar is a mystery that isn’t explained).
This rewatch made me change my opinion about the 2005 Parineeta. I still think it’s a pleasant enough film—the music, for one, is excellent; and Vidya Balan is both gorgeous as well as talented—which, of course, she’s proved even more in the years since. But there’s a certain over-the-top feel to the film that jars, especially in contrast to the very subdued tone of the 1953 Parineeta. In 2005, Shekhar’s father is an outright villain, going about calling Lolita foul names, slapping Shekhar, and just generally being a complete boor, not just the somewhat greedy and almost petulant moneyed man of 1953. Shekhar, through much of the film, also is hot-headed and free with his fists (he slaps Lolita pretty hard in one scene). The climax is tailored to cater to an audience that is expected not to appreciate a quiet finis, but wants tamasha. This is glossy, vivid, colourful, happening Parineeta.
I vastly prefer the 1953 Parineeta, with its soul and its dignity, its understated dialogue and very real behaviour.