When I reviewed An Inspector Calls a couple of weeks back, blog reader AS, in a comment, mentioned that a Bengali version of the film (or rather of the play by JB Priestly, on which it was based) was also made, starring Uttam Kumar: Thana Theke Aschi. This was a film that had been recommended to me earlier as well, so I had it bookmarked; but I hadn’t known it was a version of An Inspector Calls.
Now, fresh from my viewing of (and gushing over) An Inspector Calls, I decided I had to watch Thana Theke Aschi while the story was still fresh in my mind.
The story begins with a brief glimpse of a faceless woman, lying dead on the floor of a dingy little hut, an empty bottle of carbolic acid near her hand. The corpse is found by another woman, who starts to scream.
The scene then shifts to the home of the wealthy Chandramadhav Sen (Kamal Mitra), where an engagement party is in full swing. Mr Sen’s daughter Sheila (Anjana Bhowmick) has just gotten betrothed to Amiya (?), the son of one of Mr Sen’s business associates. It’s a grand party, and once it’s over, Amiya stays on, chatting with the Sens.
Shortly after, Sheila and her mother (Chhaya Devi) head upstairs to go over Sheila’s trousseau, while Mr Sen and Amiya spend their time talking. Mr Sen does most of the talking, waxing eloquent about his status, his hope to be elected in the upcoming polls, his wealth and position. It’s clear, from what he says, that Mr Sen is keenly aware of (and very proud of) all that he can command. It’s also clear that Amiya is cut from the same cloth, which is probably why he is going to marry Sheila.
A bit of an irritant to both Mr Sen as well as Amiya is Mr Sen’s son, Tapash (?), who seems to pretty much do as he pleases. Even at this time, when the rest of the family is all euphoric about the upcoming wedding, and patting themselves on their collective back, Tapash says he’s going out.
Into this household, a newcomer is ushered in: Sub-Inspector Tinkari Haldar (Uttam Kumar) arrives from a nearby police station, bringing the news that a woman named Sandhya Chakraborty has committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid. Mr Sen initially presumes that Haldar has come on some errand from Mr Sen’s old pal, who is the DC of South Calcutta (Mr Sen is eager to have that known: that he has powerful connections). Haldar, though, says that he’s only been at this post the past five days, that’s all; he’s here to make some enquiries regarding Sandhya Chakraborty’s death.
Mr Sen is bewildered (and indignant): why on earth would Haldar want to make enquiries here? Nobody here knew the woman, whoever she might have been. But Haldar is not so easily fobbed off. From his pocket, he pulls out a small notebook: this was the diary Sandhya Chakraborty used to maintain, and which has been retrieved from her belongings. And this, he says, is her photograph: does Mr Sen recognize her? Haldar very pointedly shows the photo only to Mr Sen, no-one else, not even the audience.
Mr Sen is taken aback: yes, he grudgingly admits. He does recognize her. This woman (Madhabi Mukherjee) used to work in one of his enterprises till two years back. She was a very good worker, diligent and good at her job—but she was also a troublemaker. When she led her co-workers in a strike demanding higher wages, Mr Sen decided that Sandhya Chakraborty would have to go. The strike finally ended and the rest of the workers were taken back on the job, but Mr Sen fired Sandhya Chakraborty.
But, says a belligerent Mr Sen to Haldar now: surely he’s not suggesting that, because Mr Sen dismissed Sandhya Chakraborty two years back, she’s now committed suicide?
In the midst of all of this, Sheila comes downstairs. She is curious, and when Haldar tells her what this is all about, she wants to know more. What happened to Sandhya Chakraborty after losing her job at Mr Sen’s factory?
Haldar reads out from the diary: Sandhya Chakraborty was at a loose end for a couple of months, but finally managed to get a job as a counter sales girl at a reputed store in Calcutta. It’s a store Sheila is familiar with; the Sens shop here, she tells Haldar. And when Haldar shows her (and only her) a photograph of Sandhya Chakraborty, Sheila’s conscience forces her to confess: she does recognize this woman. Because Sandhya Chakraborty lost this job too, and that because of Sheila.
It turns out that Sheila had gone to the store to buy a coat. She saw several (with Sandhya Chakraborty hovering in the background, helping the counter salesman who was attending), but Sheila wasn’t really happy with all that was displayed. She finally chose a coat, but was warned—by the salesman—that it wouldn’t suit her. Sheila insisted on trying it on, and could see, though she didn’t admit it, that the man had been right.
Unfortunately (for Sandhya Chakraborty, not Sheila), Sheila’s sense of inferiority suffered a further blow when the salesperson, to drive home the point that the coat wouldn’t suit Sheila, but someone like Sandhya, insisted on having Sandhya model it. This incensed Sheila even more. When she happened to catch Sandhya’s eye and saw what she construed as a contemptuous smile on the other woman’s face, Sheila flew into a rage. She complained to the manager that Sandhya had insulted her. Unless this insolent woman was dismissed from the shop immediately, Sheila and the Sens would not patronize the shop again.
That is what happened; Sandhya Chakraborty lost her job.
Sheila is obviously distressed and feels guilty about the role she played in Sandhya Chakraborty’s life. Like her father, Sheila too might have contributed to Sandhya’s committing suicide.
But is that all? Mr Sen is ruthless in insisting that he is free of guilt; Sheila is equally disturbed by what’s happened, and feels somehow responsible—but there are the others, too: Sheila’s mother, Amiya, and Tapash. All of whom Haldar questions, and all of whom end up confessing to having, in some way or the other, exploited this woman. Who caused Sandhya Chakraborty to kill herself?
Thana Theke Aschi is a fine study in the butterfly effect: the concatenation of circumstances that, over the course of two years, send a poor young woman hurtling to her doom. From the working woman at Mr Sen’s factory to the self-assured counter salesgirl at the store is not much of a fall, but it is there, because Sandhya has lost even the illusion of job security that she might have had at the factory. But from there onwards, his Sandhya falls, always through the heartless, self-seeking machinations of the wealthy people who end up controlling her life: it is so poignant an example of a tragic snowballing of events.
What I liked about this film:
The focus, the crispness and the tautness of it all. Director Hiren Nag does a fine job of focusing on just the story, of keeping out all that is superfluous. There are, of course, no songs; but there is also nothing else that doesn’t add to the story or to the characterizations: every dialogue, every lift of an eyebrow, even, serves a purpose.
Plus, the story. JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls is a brilliant play: a superb example of a very good suspense plot, combined with a hard-hitting comment on human selfishness and greed. The Sens and Amiya, all use their position of wealth and power to have their own way, uncaring of how it might affect another, possibly innocent, person. And, the irony of it is that even when they discover how their thoughtless, self-centred behaviour might have caused a death, there are only two people here who have the humanity to feel guilty and upset about it. To the others, it is simply an inconvenience: a scandal that needs to be hushed up, because it might reflect negatively on them. While there is suspense here—who was the dead woman, and how was she connected to these people—there is also this unsettling insight into the selfishness of human nature.
Ajit Ganguly, who wrote the screenplay for Thana Theke Aschi, adapts Priestly’s play very well. The film transports the setting from the North Midlands in 1912 to Calcutta in the 1960s very believably (part of the reason for that, of course, being that this is a very universal sort of story). But there are the occasional typically Indian nuances too: for instance, the prying neighbours who get furious and are ready to assault a lone woman because they see her as ‘fallen’ (and immediately cower and retreat, shame-faced, when the man with her claims to be her husband: this moral policing may have gone out of fashion in a relative permissive Britain of the 1910s, but it is still alive and kicking even in modern India).
The screenplay and direction are ably supported by the acting, which is excellent throughout. I must particularly mention the acting of Madhabi Mukherjee, who is superb. This is a very quiet character; she rarely says much, and most of the time, it’s her eyes that are doing the talking.
One scene, especially, remains with me: the one where Sheila comes to the store where Sandhya Chakraborty works. In both the 1954 and 2015 versions of An Inspector Calls, Sheila (she is Sheila in the original play too, as well as in both these cinematic avatars) sees Eva Smith’s face in the mirror, and it’s obvious that Eva is smiling. In the scene in Thana Theke Aschi, Madhabi Mukherjee’s expression is so subtly done, you can never be sure that she’s actually smiling, or not. Is that a fleeting smile in her eyes, Mona Lisa-like, or is it not? A brilliant bit of acting.
What I didn’t like:
Nothing, really. This film is a superb one, very well-made, as well as very good adaptation of the play. The suspense is well-maintained, and the adaptation has been done so skillfully that it never seems like something that couldn’t possibly happen in India. True, there is rather more explaining done than I’d have liked: the ‘inspector’ tells the Sens and Amiya exactly how they are in the wrong, and why. And later, once the inspector has gone and they’re discovered some part of the truth about him, they set about trying to discover his identity, and there too, some explaining is done—of something that, in the play, is left to the imagination of the audience/reader.
There is another thing, though, that I missed in the film, which is there in the play.
In the barrage of sudden twists near the end of the story, one which really stands out for me is the realization that the inspector makes it a point to show the photograph of the dead woman only one at a time, and he could have conceivably shown all of them photographs of different women. What’s more, since we only have the inspector’s word for it that Eva Smith changed her name, or approached these people either nameless or with an obviously assumed name, one can hazard a guess that there may not ever have been just one woman, but several. This, of course, leads one to further ponder the thought that these wealthy, selfish, uncaring people have ruined the lives of several women between them…
This fact is never mentioned in Thana Theke Aschi, which I can only think of as a way of simplifying the story, leaving fewer loose ends for the audience to guess at or ponder over.
All said and done, though: an excellent film. If you like suspenseful films, this one’s highly recommended. If you’re in India, it’s available on Amazon Prime, with English subtitles.