Barnali (1963)

When I read the news of Soumitra Chatterjee’s passing away, my first thought was: I need to write a tribute, talk about how much I liked this actor. Then, reality crept in. It’s not as if I’ve seen too many films that starred Soumitra Chatterjee. Charulata, Kapurush, Jhinder Bondi, Aranyer Din Raatri, Sonar Kella, one of the three episodes of Teen Kanya… and that was it. I didn’t recall having seen any of his other films.

Which might sound odd; how could one like an actor so much based on only such a handful of films? But I suppose when you’re looking at quality rather than quantity, it can work. And Soumitra Chatterjee, even in the few films of his that I’ve seen, proved himself a memorable actor. Not just handsome, not just superficially charismatic, but also so very talented. His ‘coward’ of Kapurush is so very real, so flawed and believable a protagonist; his Mayurvahan in Jhinder Bondi is a deliciously evil portrayal of the flamboyant, boyishly attractive yet very wicked Rupert of Hentzau. It’s easy to see why a bored and neglected housewife would fall in love with this young man in Charulata, and he is Feluda. Sharp, intelligent, well-read (and intelligent and well-read are apt descriptions of the man in real life too, from what I gather).

But a full-fledged tribute, a run-down of all his best films: no, that was not something I thought I would be capable of. Instead, I decided to commemorate the life and career of Soumitra Chatterjee by watching one film I’d only heard of in passing, never really got down to seeing.

Barnali begins a couple of days before a wedding. Trideep Chandra Sarkar (Kamal Mitra)’s daughter is marrying Dr Saileshwar Ghosh (N Vishwanathan), and the household is aflutter. Because everything must be just right in order to impress those who matter. It’s a question of the Sarkar prestige, their standing among ‘respectable’ people. How the venue of the wedding will be decorated, what paper the invitation cards will be printed on (it’s been flown in especially from Bombay), even the invitees themselves. Mr Sarkar is very, very particular about all of that, even going personally to invite a VIP whom he hopes to be able to wheedle a contract out of…

Mr Sarkar’s nephew, Ashesh (Soumitra Chatterjee) also goes out with a bunch of invitations, to be distributed to people in the neighbourhood. He has a lot of trouble finding one particular address, and after asking several passersby, he finally manages to get to the place. No. 41, which stands in a small lane, a tiny and nondescript house.

This turns out to be the home of a school teacher named Biman Choudhary (Pahadi Sanyal), who lives here with his wife and two daughters, Aloka (Sharmila Tagore) and her little sister Triloka. The Choudhary family is a little surprised that Trideep Sarkar would have deigned to invite them for his daughter’s wedding, but Ashesh assures them that they have been invited, they must come. He shuffles through the bunch of invitations he’s been carrying about, but cannot find the card addressed to Mr Choudhary. Never mind, Mr Choudhary assures him. That’s a formality, we will come.

When Ashesh is gone, hurrying away to get back to distributing invitations, Mrs Choudhary wonders how someone as wealthy and (presumably snooty) as Mr Sarkar would even have come to know of their existence, let along invite them for the wedding. Her husband says that these are probably invitations meant for the entire neighbourhood. Everybody’s invited.

But when Ashesh gets back to Trideep Sarkar’s home, it is to find that he’s made a blunder. Sitting there chatting with Mr Sarkar is a visitor, Nagen Babu, who lives nearby, at No. 41. It turns out that the teacher, Biman Choudhary, lives in the house next door, a sort of annex. Nagen Babu assures Sarkar Babu that he will be there for the wedding, and then he leaves.

The problem of course is, what’s to be done with the invitation Ashesh has gone and extended to Biman Choudhary? For Ashesh, that’s a problem; his uncle doesn’t think so. Trideep Sarkar is clear about what needs to be done: go and tell Biman Choudhary that the invitation was given by mistake, they’re actually not invited.

Ashesh protests. That will be unforgivably rude. But his Mesho Moshai refuses to listen. The school teacher is no use to Trideep Sarkar; he’s no-account, making his acquaintance is not going to help Mr Sarkar bag a contract, or any such thing.

So, much against his will, Ashesh is compelled to go back to the Choudhary home. Fortunately for him, Biman Choudhary is more amused than affronted at what has happened. He laughs it off, and insists that Ashesh sit and have tea. Aloka, who brings the tea, stays on and they have a brief chat. Ashesh explains that he’s a doctor, and it emerges that Aloka is studying for a BA in Philosophy. Her father jokes that she studies till late into the night.

Their kindness does not do much to relieve the guilt Ashesh is feeling. He goes back home, but he’s so restless, so oppressed by the ‘everything for reputation’ atmosphere prevailing in Trideep Sarkar’s house, that he again leaves… and, late at night, wanders back to the Choudhary home. Aloka is sitting and studying at her desk, and Ashesh stands outside, looking in through the window, watching her.

When he finally talks, it’s to apologize again, and to invite Aloka and her family to come the following day to his home. His sister Sudha will be happy to meet Aloka, and it will be so nice… but Aloka bridles at this. Does he think he needs to compensate for the wedding invitation that was withdrawn? Is the Choudhary family so poor and so lacking in self-respect that they must be beholden for whatever crumbs they can get from the wealthy?

Ashesh is mortified, and hastens to assure Aloka that this was not his intention, and finally Aloka relents. She says they won’t come to his home for a meal, but he should come over to their home the next day. They’ll be happy to play host.

Ashesh arrives the next day, and is given a meal by Aloka, who is the perfect hostess. Her parents aren’t at home: the family was supposed to visit relatives today and Aloka had forgotten that when she issued her invitation to Ashesh. But since she’d invited him, she stayed back.

Ashesh is curious: why did Aloka invite him? She had been angry at him for inviting her over to his home, then what made her decide to turn that around and invite him? Aloka says that she realized how contrite Ashesh was about something that wasn’t his fault after all. He was so sorry for that invitation being withdrawn, she couldn’t blame him for it.

They chat, and Ashesh sits down at her desk, absent-mindedly looking through the books lying piled up on it. Opening one, he finds a surprising inscription on it, to Aloka from Dr Saileshwar Ghosh. Ashesh is taken aback, and when he asks who this is, she explains. Saileshwar Ghosh, of so-and-so address (it’s the same address as on that wedding invitation which never was given to the Choudhary family). Saileshwar Ghosh, she explains, used to be a student of her father’s, he would come to their house everyday…

… and she, Aloka, is engaged to Saileshwar Ghosh. This is no clandestine alliance between two lovers; her parents know and approve. The wedding will be soon.

Ashesh, of course, finds himself in a fix. He has, over the course of a little over one evening, pretty much fallen in love with this young woman, and (unlike the usual Hindi film hero, who might rejoice at the thought of a rival being pushed out of the way by fate itself) he cannot see Aloka unhappy. Yet, what can he do?

It’s been several years since I came to the conclusion that Bengali directors, as a group, made better films than the average Hindi film director. Better comedies, better dramas. And better romantic films, as this one (directed by Ajoy Kar) proves. The romance here builds up slowly, over the course of a coulee of days (mostly, over the course of one night) and its subtlety, the organic way in which it develops, is what makes it so believable.

What I liked about this film:

Soumitra Chatterjee as Ashesh. Ashesh is a genuinely good man, a gentle, sensitive man. His dilemma, being unable to do anything to prevent the girl he loves from breaking her heart (as is inevitable) is part of his overall kindness, but so are the other little things you notice now and then: for instance, how uncomfortable he is in the presence of the constant “everything for reputation” parroting of his uncle and other relatives. Or how mortified he is on learning that his uncle wants to withdraw the invitation that’s already been extended to the Choudhary household. Ashesh is a rich man, but a rich man who doesn’t take his wealth for granted, and doesn’t let it come in the way of his being a good human being.

Soumitra Chatterjee portrays Ashesh superbly. He seems to slide into the skin of this earnest young man with such seemingly effortless ease that I forgot this was an actor I was watching, not really Ashesh. His acting is wonderfully subdued, often it’s just his eyes doing the talking.

The expressive silences that say so much, between Ashesh and Aloka, are among the other elements that make Barnali such a good film. Instead of filling each frame with dialogue and crowding the background with dramatic music, Ajoy Kar lets silence play an important part in what’s happening onscreen—and it works very, very well.

A simple story, and beautifully told. Plus, the chemistry between Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore is fabulous. The trust, the quiet comfort in the other’s company, the moments of lightness and laughter, even the friction because of Aloka’s occasionally volatile temper: all are portrayed really well by these two.

I loved this film. There wasn’t anything about it I didn’t like, though I do harbour a grouse against Angel Video or whoever lopped off what was almost certainly a substantial part of an important scene at the end.

RIP, Soumitrada. You will be missed.

42 thoughts on “Barnali (1963)

  1. Coincidence: only the other day a friend sent me a youtube link to this movie.

    > It’s been several years since I came to the conclusion that Bengali directors, as a group, made better films than the average Hindi film director.

    I agree, except that I find their output wildly fluctuating. Few people can butcher storylines the way Bengali directors have on occasion.

    Another Soumitra starrer from mainstream commercial Bengali cinema that impressed me was Mahashweta. An interesting storyline saved from preachiness by sensitive direction. Soumitra’s role here is somewhat brief (he dies halfway through), and it is largely Anjana Bhowmik’s vastly underrated talents that make the movie so memorable. Be that as it may, I’d certainly recommend it.

    • ” Few people can butcher storylines the way Bengali directors have on occasion.

      I have been lucky, then, to not encounter any of those! But then that’s possibly because so far the only Bengali films I’ve watched have been ones which have been recommended to me. So naturally…

      I will certainly look out for Mahashweta. Thank you for the recommendation, Abhik!

  2. This is a huge coincidence, Madhulika! I had watched this film only a couple of months ago and was so impressed that I wanted to see all of this director’s work (he’s good, uniformly). This was the film I remembered when Soumitra passed away. Thanks for this lovely post!

    • Thank you so much for the appreciation, Bhaswati! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. And yes, lots of very well-known films in Ajoy Kar’s filmography. I haven’t seen any others, sadly, but I do want to. And several have been on my watchlist for a long time now.

  3. What a coincidence, Madhu. Bollyviewer had mentioned Barnali in my tribute to Soumitra Chatterjee. And she also mentioned it was available on YouTube. And now you’ve reviewed it – it sounds just like something I want to watch right now. Thank you for a wonderful review.

    Re: tribute – yes, I was of the same mind; hadn’t seen enough of his huge body of work work to do justice to his ‘best’ performances. But what I’ve seen, I’ve liked him very, very much indeed.

    • Even more coincidence: I saw someone mention that she watched Barnali to commemorate SC’s death, because “oh the charm”! You really should watch it, lovely acting and it’s not the sort of film that weighs you down and makes you think. Good for times like this – just the sort of romance that leaves me in a melty puddle. :-)

  4. Lovely tribute, Madhu. What can be a better tribute than a celebration of one of his interesting films? I have seen several of his non-Ray films too, and this one is my favorite. I love it for all the reasons you have noted too – a well made film with very likeable characters and a beautiful romance. And it is interesting what you say about silences in this film. In an old interview Soumitra Chatterjee was explaining the difference between new and experienced actors, and one of the things that sets them apart, he said, was their use of silence. Experienced actors use pauses to speak their emotions while novices tend to speak their dialogues all in a rush! I guess that goes for directors, too.

    It’s easy to see why a bored and neglected housewife would fall in love with this young man in Charulata. That has always been my major issue with Charulata – I think Charulata would fall for Soumitra’s Amal even if she had been gainfully employed and busy! :-D

    • “I think Charulata would fall for Soumitra’s Amal even if she had been gainfully employed and busy!

      LOL! So true!

      That’s an interesting insight from Soumitra Chatterjee. Agree completely. It takes a special talent and skill (experience, too, perhaps?) for an actor to realize when just the eyes should speak. I guess that holds true for directors as well.

  5. You chose the right film to review. A lot has been written about Soumitra’s films with Ray and I think it is only by viewing the films by lesser directors (although Ajoy Kar was extremely competent) that his acting talent can be judged. This is a very special film that I watch from time to time. It’s a pity that not much effort has been given to preserve commercial Bengali cinema and the Angel video reflects that. I would recommend you watch Saat Paake Bandha, Baghini and Teen Bhubaner Pare. These are films from the early part of his career.

    • True. With a director like Satyajit Ray at the helm, even not too competent actors can pull off a decent role. With directors of a somewhat lesser calibre (though I agree that Ajoy Kar was extremely competent) or with stories that don’t generally allow for very ‘deep’ acting, it’s a lot less easy.

      Thank you for the recommendations! I had been looking for Saat Paake Bandha before I settled down to watch Barnali – couldn’t find a subtitled copy online.

      • Actually, it works both way. Great directors like Ray or Sen often don’t work with not so competent actors. Even if they do, they don’t make them their muse, and Soumitra was definitely not only Ray’s muse, but was often the bedrock on which many a great Bengali director built the dream palace of his/ her craftsmanship.

  6. Was so so sad at Mr Chatterjee’s passing on (a long standing crush)…but the good that came of it was binge watching his films…
    Do watch Akash Kusum (on which Manzil , Amitabh and Moushumi film, is based)
    But what a contrast ! The potrayal of Ajoy by Soumitro Chatterjee is so much more than what we see in the Hindi version. And then Teen Bhubhaner Paar .. wow..
    Have not seen some of his more recent films, but would love recommendations for those.
    I will miss Mr Chatterjee..

  7. Soumitra Chatterjee in a pure romantic role?! 😍
    Seems from your synopsis that Bengali heroes were a lot more sane regarding romance and the dilemmas associated with it..
    I too recommend Teen Bhubhaner Pare! The songs and the chemistry between Tanuja and Soumitra is just lovely…

  8. Thank you for reviewing ‘Barnali’. Here are some trivia for our readers…1) The singer playbacked for sharmila in the boat was Ruma Guhathakurata ,first wife of kishore kumar….2) The screeptwriter & cheif assistant director of this movie is Hiren Nag who directed films in bollywood in later decades mainly under Rajashri Productions. Some of his popular movies are “geet gata chal” and “ankhiyon ke jharokon se”.

      • Pinakida is right, Hiren Nag did serve as the scriptwriter and chief assistant director for this film. Indeed, he has served as Ajoy Kar’s assistant in some other landmark films too. Before migrating to Bombay, he made many bengali films too, of which Bigalito Karuna Janhabi Jamuna, Andha Atit, Jiban Mrityu and Thana Theke Aschi; among others are really impressive. In Bombay too he made some fine films like AKJS, Geet Gaata Chal and Honeymoon, the last which I particularly recommend you to watch, as I am sure you would throughly enjoy it. :) :)

  9. Did you notice the background music played during the taxi ride?…it was “bin dekhe aur bin pehchane” from “jab pyar kisi se hota hai”…I wonder why they had to use a bollywood song in such a ‘non-bollywood’ type of movie !

  10. I recommend you another Soumitra-ajay kar combo “kanch kata hire”(1965) and Ray’s ‘Abhiyaan'(1963) in which soumitra played a rajput driver in opposite of wahida rehman .

  11. A good review of a lesser-known film. Where did you see it? Youtube? Or some channel? And btw, do you follow Bengali? I remember you had reviewed Rajkumari too.

    Ajoy Kar was a good cinematographer. He came to Bombay with Hemen Gupta in the early 1950s but went back to Calcutta. You might check out Datta by Ajoy Kar. Soumitra & Suchitra Sen play the lead in this story by Sarat Chandra.

    • I watched it on Youtube. There are several channels which host the movie, but sadly, all of them have chopped the last scene badly. :-(

      I can follow some very basic Bengali, but usually not enough to allow me to watch a film without subtitles. Rajkumari had very badly-done subtitles, which were missing in parts, so some bits of what was happening was more guesswork than anything else on my part.

      Thank you for the Datta recommendation. Will look out for it.

        • At least the number of Bengali movies with subtitles (even when they’re not by Ray or Ghatak!) is pretty substantial. It’s so hard to find blockbuster hits from -say, the South – with subtitles is so difficult. I’ve been cribbing about this pretty much from the start of this blog. :-(

  12. Soumitra Chatterjee is a big loss. As for those of us who can understand Bengali yet are Satyajit Ray fans, it’s not difficult to fathom why Manik da felt that Soumitra Chatterjee’s eyes while delivering a dialogue (or even more while silent) were so irreplaceable.

  13. As a 90s kid, I watched a lot of TV and the Bengali channels often showed his movies. I think I have watched most of his movies because of that. I remember watching “Apur Sansar”, “Atal Jaler Ahwan”, “Barnali”, “Teen Bhubaner Pare” and “Basanta Bilap”, and having a crush on him. His “Kanch Kata Hirey” is one of my mom’s favorites. He will be very much missed.

    • I can certainly understand having a crush on him! I came too late to Soumitra Chatterjee – by way of Charulata, which I only watched after I began writing this blog, in 2008. Such a wonderful actor, so charismatic and yet so understated.

    • I had looked that up when I finished watching this film. It means ‘a dispersion of seven colours’ – I guess a spectrum. What relevance that has to the film’s story, though, I can’t tell. Perhaps someone can enlighten us.

  14. First of all, let me at the very beginning convey my heartfelt respect and regards towards you, for admitting on record that Bengali filmmakers in general used to make better films than their Hindi counterparts. I have been saying the same myself for years. But then my factual based observation has more often than not been dismissed as just another sign of so called ‘Bengali parochialism’ . So, I guess a non-bong sharing views similar to mine would surely hold more water!!

    Yet, at the same time, I do concur with Abhikda that over the years, Bengali cinema has seen its fair share of ‘ director-butchers’, though I would like to clearly point out that between 1932-82, artistic butchery and story slaughtering were far more rampant in Hindi and Southern cinema, than it was in Bengal. Bengali cinema, with its distinct emphasis on strong screenplay, which didn’t always need to cater to mass taste by incorporating unnecessary villains and 7 song sequences, usually ended up delivering quality fare on a more consistent basis than its other national counterparts. Of course it helped immensely that, at that point of time, Bengali cinema was blessed with an elite group of around a dozen directors, who seldom failed to deliver. And Ajoy Kar was a prime member of that elite group.

    P.S: I second Abhikda in recommending Mahashweta. It’s a fine film even though its Hindi remake Shama is disappointing. The performances, Pinaki Mukerjee’s direction and Jarasandha ( of Bandini fame)’s story indeed make for a compelling view.

    • Actually, I’ve said that quite often over the years. :-) Really, if one were to lump everybody together, I think the average Bengali director would be light years ahead of his/her Hindi film counterpart. Some of the best Hindi film directors too have been Bengalis!

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