Thana Theke Aschi (1965)

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.

Spoiler ahead:

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.

Spoiler 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.

16 thoughts on “Thana Theke Aschi (1965)

  1. Oh… thanks for that information about the film being on Prime, Madhu. I have watched The Inspector Calls – a long time ago, of course, but I always like well-adapted versions as well. Though my to-watch list is becoming increasingly long… :(

  2. I had read your lovely review of An Inspector Calls and it reminded me of Thana Theke Aaschi. I made a mental reminder to watch both the movies. I had already seen the film a number of years ago and it merited a re-watch. And what do I see – you already reviewed it! Good review too. Must bring to it to the front of my list.

    • Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed this review. I really liked this film – it was so well-made. Once you’ve watched both, do tell me what you feel. I thought both films were pretty much on par with each other.

      • BTW, where did you watch An Inspector Calls? Apart from BFI it is not available for streaming anywhere except on dvd which is probably how I had seen it first.

          • Over this weekend I watched both films. I bought the blu ray of An Inspector Calls (AIC) because I like watching my movies on tv rather than on a computer/phone. As you mentioned, Thana Theke Aschi (TTA) is an excellent remake of the British film. Watching both movies back to back I could compare the two and I found that I liked some elements in one and other elements in the other.
            1. I liked Madhabi’s acting better than Jane Wenham’s. The vulnerability in Sheila is better conveyed by her.
            2. I liked the ending in TTA better. The ending scene when the call comes in about the girl’s death and the whole family is stunned is well done. In AIC the empty chair where the inspector was sitting was a little over the top.
            3. I appreciate your point about the fact that in AIC they mention that the inspector never shows the photo to everyone at one time and that opens up a new chain of speculation.
            4. I liked Alistair Sim’s portrayal of the inspector better. Some of Uttam Kumar’s mannerisms show up from time to time and he also appears a little too smug.
            5. I preferred the portrayal of the son-in-law character in AIC. Gerald is a decent guy who can’t resist Sheila’s allure whereas the guy in TTA is a slezebag.
            6. The son is equally well portrayed in both movies although I liked the character in AIC slightly better. In TTA the son is too uptight.

            My two cents.

            • Thank you so much for sharing that insight! I agree with all you write, actually – you’ve explained that really well. I do think Madhabi Mukherjee was miles ahead of the actresses in both versions of An Inspector Calls that I saw. And yes, you’re very right about the fiance in TTA being really sleazy. Gerald, I could sort of not really blame (though of course his infidelity to Sheila is reprehensible); at least it’s not as if he’s outright predatory. In TTA this character is really scum.

  3. As usual, you have done a fine job of reviewing this movie. Get the urge to immediately watch it. Particularly due to your praise for Madhabi Mukherjee’s acting. One thing I am curious about is Uttam Kumar’s role. You have not said much about his performance. I have seen only partially, only one movie of Uttam Kumar, Nayak. Liked the little that I saw. Hope you review that movie too.

    • Uttam Kumar is fine; it’s not as if his role is exceptionally demanding, so I don’t think this is a film you should watch for him in particular. I need to watch Nayak some day – it’s been on my watchlist for far too long now.

  4. I had meant to post this after reading your review of An Inspector Calls but it remained pending.
    Actually, the first time I came across this story was in the Hindi version – Sau Jhooth Ek Sach (2005). I suppose not many would know about this film. It was hardly promoted and didn’t make any impact on its release.
    I found the storyline quite interesting and the first half holds you very well. It is the second half where the film falters, some things remain unexplained and the end, though interesting and unusual, is less impactful. Directed by Bappaditya Roy, it has Mammooty playing the Inspector and Vikram Gokhale playing the head of the family.
    The film’s credits acknowledge JB Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls as the inspiration.
    I had then heard of the 1954 version but was not able to locate it earlier.
    I have seen the 2015 version though.

    • Ah. Thank you so much for this comment, that answered a question someone was asking me just yesterday on Facebook. I hadn’t known, so your comment is very timely! Thank you.

  5. Madhu,
    I saw this too, all because of your review of ‘An Inspector Calls’. As I had said in that post ,I went on a binge, watching different versions, and reading the book too. You seem to be equally enthusiastic about this one as the original one. Without going into detailed comparison, my honest recommendation is, if you are pressed for time, see the original. If you are wiling to watch both, watch the Bengali version first, followed by the original.

    I am quite a big fan of Bengali movies. But this adaptation seems lesser, watching after AIC. One always has at the back of mind the original, and inadvertently you are making comparisons, and feel that the story does not belong to this milieu. Uttam Kumar does not fit very well as a cop/detective.

    When the characters make much of the cop showing the picture of the girl to each character one at a time, I felt the author was trying to convey that the guilty characters were willing to catch at any straw which could give them some deniability to themselves. As far as the audience is concerned, it was hardly material, because there was no hint of a sleight of hand. It was in the same league as their short-lived joy at discovering that there was no suicide, and there was no cop by that name in the police force, nor any one had been sent to the house. Only the two conscientious characters ask, how does it change what we did to her? But others are interested only in their image not being besmirched in public.
    AK

    • Thank you for that comment, AK. I have to admit it was difficult to not compare this film to the 1954 one, but I tried to look at what was good about this film. I personally feel that it’s mostly only if you compare it to the 1954 version that you see this as less than that (just as Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, on its own, is a very good film; it’s only when you see in juxtaposition with Twelve Angry Men that you realise it’s really not as good). I do agree with you that Thana Theke Aschi isn’t as good as An Inspector Calls – for the reasons you have listed – but I think for someone who either can’t or wouldn’t want to view the English film, I think this is still a competent and engrossing adaptation of the play.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.