Every now and then, I am reminded of a film which I’ve seen—often, many years ago—and which would be a good fit for this blog. Right time period, a cast I like, music I like. Some of these (like Pyaasa, Mughal-e-Azam or Kaagaz ke Phool) have been analyzed and reviewed so often and by so many stalwarts infinitely more knowledgeable than me that I feel a certain trepidation approaching them. Others are a little less in the ‘cult classic’ range, but good films nevertheless.
Like Seema. I remembered this film a few weeks back when I reviewed Naunihaal (also starring Balraj Sahni). At the end of that post, I’d inserted a very striking photo I’d found, of a young Balraj Sahni standing in front of a portrait of Pandit Nehru. Both on my blog and elsewhere on social media, some people remarked upon that photo: how young and handsome Balraj Sahni was looking in it. And I mentioned Seema, as an example of a film where Balraj Sahni appears as the hero. A hero of a different style than the type he played in Black Cat, but a hero nevertheless.
Billed first in the cast, however, is Nutan, who plays Gauri. Gauri lives with her Chacha (Shivraj) and Chachi (Praveen Paul). Chacha is an inveterate gambler who has convinced his wife that he’s busy hunting for a job—even Chachi knows that her husband is jobless. The only income of the household is courtesy Gauri, who works as a maid at a relatively well-off household.
Here, she is constantly hounded by the lecherous cook, Bankelal (CS Dubey), a nasty character who keeps making passes at Gauri. Gauri rebuffs him angrily every time, and in the process, ends up breaking a porcelain cup…
… which brings down on her head the wrath of the mistress. The end result is that, after many apologies, Gauri is allowed to retain her job, but the price of the cup is deducted from her salary. Not a pleasant situation to be in, especially when your salary is so meagre anyway.
This news is greeted with much raving and ranting on the part of Chachi. Chachi bemoans her generosity in having brought this orphan home: she’s a no-good burden, she can’t even do housework properly, and look at her, eating them out of house and home.
Never mind that Gauri is the one who does all the housework, and is yelled at if she doesn’t have her uncle’s breakfast ready when he decides to leave home early. Never mind too, if when she comes home late at night, it’s to find her relatives asleep—and all the food wiped clean from the pots and pans.
But Gauri, long-suffering and gentle, says nothing. After all, she has nowhere to go.
Matters come to a head one day at work. Bankelal, as usual, has been flirting with Gauri; she curtly dismisses him, and he decides to have his revenge. Banke has been playing with the toddler of the household; she’s wearing a gold chain around her neck, and Banke quietly pockets this. Then, while Gauri is busy scrubbing dirty dishes, he ties the gold chain in a knot at the end of Gauri’s sari pallu. Gauri doesn’t realize what’s happened.
… which is why, when the theft is discovered and the police are called in, Gauri calmly agrees to be searched. And is shocked and distressed when the mistress, searching Gauri, finds the chain. Gauri pleads her innocence, but nobody’s listening. Gauri is arrested.
Fortunately for her, the judge takes into account Gauri’s tender years and her so far unblemished reputation. Her Chacha is called upon to give a surety of Gauri’s future good conduct, and with that, a very relieved Gauri is allowed to go free. The relief, sadly, is shortlived. Chachi is furious: this wicked girl has blackened their name, besmirched their honour. And that, in addition to the fact that she’s now lost her job too.
Gauri is hopeful that she will get another job soon, though. She goes to various homes, asking for work, and finds none. At one home, the mistress of the house, asking Gauri why she left her previous employment, doesn’t appreciate Gauri’s honesty in admitting that she was fired—though unjustly—for stealing (Interesting bit of trivia: the actress here is a Mrs William. Someone I know through Facebook mentioned that Mrs William was a neighbour of theirs back in the 50s, and used to often come and chat with his mother). At another home, the single man who lives there blatantly asks Gauri, in a leering sort of way, what else she can do besides cleaning and cooking.
At an employment office, a clerk recognizes her as a ‘thief’ and she’s told to get lost: they won’t even entertain her request for employment.
As if that wasn’t all, Chachi and Chacha throw her out. Gauri pleads with them to let her stay: after all, they are her only relatives, and she has nowhere else to go. But to no avail.
By now, Gauri hasn’t eaten for two days. She’s hurt, she’s livid and smarting at the injustice of it all. Therefore, armed with a stick, she goes to Bankelal’s home to beat him up. She manages to get in a hard whack too, but Banke begs her to forgive him, and promises he’ll get her something to eat, for a start. He’s persuasive and seems so genuinely repentant (at least to the naïve Gauri) that she relents and sits down, only to have Banke return with the cops.
The cops don’t know what to do with Gauri: Chacha (thanks to that surety) is summoned, but since he refuses to have Gauri come home, there’s no help for it but to have Gauri sent to an ashram, a shelter home for orphans, homeless women and the like. The man in charge here is Ashok (Balraj Sahni), who’s universally known as Babuji. Gauri is hustled into his office, mad as hell, and Babuji’s attempts to introduce her to the others around—the superintendent Didi (Pratima Devi) and Babuji’s right hand man Murlidhar (Sunder)—are met with helpless rage.
Babuji is patient and kind, willing to let Gauri take time to settle down; but Gauri, embittered by her experiences, is furious with the world. She refuses to eat, and throws away whatever food is placed before her. She breaks things, she pours a bucket of hot water over the warden who’s trying to persuade Gauri to have a bath in the warden’s presence (personally, I’m with Gauri on this one. Privacy is important).
Amidst all of this, there’s the former pickpocket, Putli (Shubha Khote, in her debut role), who is also at the ashram, and who seems to be the only one unfazed by Gauri’s tantrums.
And, of course, there’s Babuji, who’s been looking at Gauri’s file, and has realized what this girl has been through. Will his understanding and support, Putli’s somewhat boisterous friendship, and the atmosphere of the ashram help heal Gauri’s wounds?
Seema is one of those rare films that have stayed with me. If I remember correctly, the last time I watched this, I was a teenager. Even then, I remembered a good bit of it. Gauri’s hurt and humiliation, which morphs into bitterness and rage, not just against the people who have ill-treated her, but against the world in general. Babuji’s gentle calm (which does explode at times; he’s not always patient). The end, which I remember being puzzled about, the first time I watched it.
What I liked about this film:
Gauri, and the development of her character. I liked the way Gauri’s character changes, the gradual shift from the sweet and mostly timid girl of the beginning to the furious, nearly uncontrollable hellion of later on. You can see how it happens, how and why the change occurs, and it’s believable. Plus, Nutan, despite being so young (she was about 18, I think, when this film was made), portrays Gauri very effectively.
Balraj Sahni. One of my favourites, and bringing with him a lot of dignity to his role as Babuji.
Last but not least, the music. By Shankar Jaikishan, to words by Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra. My two favourite songs from Seema are the beautiful Tu pyaar ka saagar hai and Manmohana bade jhoothe, but there are several others which are also good: Suno chhoti si gudiya ki lambi kahaani, Kahaan jaa raha hai tu ae jaanewaale, Yeh duniya gham ka mela hai, and Baat-baat mein rootho na.
What I didn’t like:
Firstly, the preachiness which creeps in towards the end of the film. Yes, I can see a good social message here, but I do wish it had been put across in a less blatant manner. Compared to the more nuanced way the first half of the film plays out, the second half comes across as less subtle, and far more melodramatic.
Secondly, the romantic angle. This came so suddenly and abruptly that it didn’t make sense. Did director (and co-writer) Amiya Chakraborty suddenly realize a film wouldn’t be complete without a romance? Because this one comes right out of the blue (in fact, when I first watched this film on Doordarshan, years ago, I couldn’t believe that was the end—I was certain there was more to come, that something had been skipped or edited out or something). Given two actors of the calibre of Nutan and Balraj Sahni, there was scope for building up a touching love story here. What we get, though, is a hurried and hard-to-believe tying up of loose ends.
Still, all said and done, not a bad filml. And if you like Nutan and/or Balraj Sahni, definitely worth watching just for them.