Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Swami - Lover boy or My lord?

"Swami", the 1977 film by Basu Chatterjee, based on the eponymous novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, gives a glimpse into ideas about love and marriage in early twentieth century Bengal. Most of the ideas explored in this film can be applied to other parts of India and to certain extent, are still prevalent in Indian society.

Western doubts about the ideas of arranged marriages

Often persons from outside India are perplexed by continuing practice of arranged marriages in India. Friends in Italy often ask me, how can Indian women accept such arrangements that "doom them to loveless lives"? In the west, arranged marriages are often seen as oppression and violation of human rights, especially of women.

I think that our understanding of the world is shaped by explicit and implicit social and cultural norms and ideas that pervade our lives since early childhood. These are extremely potent in shaping our ideas, ideals, expectations and meanings. In this sense, perhaps Indian and Western ideas of love and marriage are shaped by two different visions?

The western visions of "getting married" are built on ideas of individual search and decision making that require "falling in love" as the most important pre-requiste for marriage. These ideas are common to both women and men, though there could be some gender-related differences since romantic novels often have pregnant women who refuse to get married to the man they "love", because he talks only of "taking care", "giving a name to the baby" and not of "love".

My married friends in the west agree about the changing nature of their love with time, however, for getting married, they consider fundamental the initial "falling in love".

On the other hand, marriages in India are also linked to ideas of pre-determination and destiny such as "marriage is for seven lives". You may feel that you don't believe in such ideas, but they remain in the back of your mind. These ideas are also linked to other ideas about castes, food-cultures, language-cultures, etc. Thus, your expectations from life are shaped differently.

Arranged marriages in India are sometimes violations of desires, more so for young women, forced to get married to persons much older to them, sometimes widowers with children. Or when they are forced to get married to someone for avoiding their marriage to someone they love, who is considered unsuitable by their families, usually because of considerations of caste or religion or economic status.

Yet looking at arranged marriages exclusively in terms of oppression and violations, misses the vast majority of Indian young men and women who expect their parents to find the appropriate spouse for them, and "fall in love" with the wife/husband chosen for them. These men and women who think that it is duty of their parents to find their spouses, can be persons with limited education, living in rural areas or small towns, but they can also be persons with university degrees living in big cities or even abroad, who if they wish can choose their own life partners. But they choose the option of arranged marriages, and today participate actively in the process of identifying their spouses.

"Swami" gives a glimpse into how cultural and social ideas of family and society shape our ideas about love and marriage in India. "Swami" (the word can be used in different ways including as husband, lord, owner, guru or a spiritual person) explores it in two ways – as love between two young persons who know each other, who share interests and who are attracted to each other; and the love that comes slowly when you discover a different way of looking at things, when you admire someone, when that love is bound to a sense of duty.


Saudamini or Mini (Shabana Azmi) lives in a village with her widow mother (Sudha Shivpuri) and mama (mother’s brother - Utpal Dutt). Their neighbour Narendra or Naren (Vikram) is son of the local landlord, who is in love with Mini.

To meet Mini, Naren comes to their home frequently, pretending to meet her uncle, and then uses this opportunity to argue about books and philosophy with Mini. Her uncle understands their mutual attraction.

While Naren is away in Calcutta for studies, Mini’s mother and uncle fix her marriage to Ghanshyam (Girish Karnad), a childless widower, in another village. Mini writes a desperate letter to Naren, hoping to run away with him, but Naren does not come and Mini is married to Ghanshyam.

Ghanshyam lives with his widowed step mother (Shashikala), younger step brother Nikhil (Dheeraj Kumar) and step sister Charulata (Preeti Ganguly). Younger brother Nikhil is married for three years and is very much in love with his wife (Ritu Kamal) but they are still childless. Charu, simple and likeable, is fat, and the family has difficulties to find a husband for her. Ghanshyam, the eldest son and head of the house, is runs a business of selling wheat and takes care of the family expenses. Nikhil also works, but uses his income to live more comfortably and does not contribute to household expenses.

The new bride, Mini is full of resentment and anger against Ghanshyam and still dreams of Naren. She refuses to share bed with her husband and is sullen in her relationship with the rest of the family. Ghanshyam is very patient and understanding towards his young wife. In spite of her anger and resentment, slowly she is drawn in the complex negotiations and power-plays of living in a joint family.

She observes everyone’s obsession with Nikhil – he is the uncrowned prince of the house and everyone is ready to fawn over him and run to fulfill his desires. Ghanshayam on the other hand, is neglected and ignored. Yet, he is kind and gentle towards everyone. He is ever respectful to his mother, even when she is unjust towards him.

At the same time, on issues of principles, Ghanshyam does not bend to anyone, gently but firmly, he refuses compromises with his principles. Like when a guy offers to marry Charu, only if he is paid a large amount of money. “I will not sell my sister”, Ghanshyam says firmly and refuses to change his decision inspite of his step mother's insistence.

Slowly and grudgingly, Mini starts liking him and admiring him.

Then suddenly one day Naren, her old love, comes to their home. In the university, he knew Nikhil, and has come to meet his friend, but in reality he wants to meet Mini. “I am still in love with you, come away with me”, he says to Mini.

Charu sees Mini and Naren together and informs her mother, who accuses Mini of being an unfaithful wife. In anger, Mini decides to leave the house with Naren. But when her anger subsides, she realizes that she loves her husband, and returns home with her "Swami".


The film has been largely shot inside two buildings – Mini’s uncle’s house and Ghanshyam’s house. There are only a few outdoor scenes. This gives the film a feeling of intimacy. Most of the time, the film explores the relationships between the main characters, who are mostly shown isolated from the rest of the world.

Progressive men and shackled women: The first part of the film has just 4 characters – Mini, her widow mother, her uncle and Naren. In this part, Mini is the new Indian woman, a person who studies at university, who argues about her ideas, who feels that she is not less than any man. Naren is the new progressive man, who wants an educated and progressive girl as his companion and wife. Mini’s uncle is also a progressive man, he wants his niece to study, to think and to have her own ideas.

On the other hand, Mini’s mother is the guardian of traditional values. A widow with a small daughter, who was turned out by her late husband’s family forcing her to seek the support of her brother, Mini’s mother knows the role of women in Indian society and understands that if you step out of line, the society can be ruthless.

Ghanshyam’s mother is also a widow. Even she, after becoming a widow has lost her position in the family, and must accept that the house belongs to her step son, Ghanshyam. However, her step son is respectful towards her, she lives in her late husband's house and her source of pride is her own son Nikhil.

Love and marriage: During one of the discussions with Naren, in the intial part of the film, Mini argues that both men and women, must accept limits on their freedom after marriage and they should not have relationships outside the marriage. However, after being forced to marry a man she does not love, Mini has to face the reality of her thoughts – would she accept that she has no right to leave her marriage to be with the man whom she loves and who wants her?

The film finds a solution to Mini's dilemma by making her fall in love with her husband. Ghanshyam is a kind, understanding and patient man, for whom Mini feels admiration and attraction. Thus she decides to stick with her principles and stay in the marriage. However, if her husband had been uncultured or a boor, would she have been justified in leaving him? Or if he had been old and ugly, would she have left him? The film does not pose such tricky questions.

Modernity and Western ideas: Naren is representative of modernity in the film. He is young, handsome, educated and liberal. He wears western clothes and believes in love. He is willing to fight for a woman whom he loves, even if she has been married to someone, and even if it means that society will be against them.

Ghanshyam on the other hand is the traditional face of Indian men. Not much educated, he wears Indian clothes, and epitomises Ram, the mythical hero from Ramayana, as the elder son, who speaks gently, who takes care of everyone, who is obedient and respectful. Film looks at both the men with empathy, though in the end takes the side of the traditions.

Complexities of a joint family: Personally I found the second half of the film much more satisfying, probably because I find fascinating the mixture of closeness, manipulations and strategies of negotiating personal spaces and choices in the living together of joint families. My favourite film on this theme of joint families is Apne Paraye (Family and outsiders), also based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, and directed by Basu Chatterjee. From the "Swami" team, it also had Shabana Azmi as the young bride of an uneployed man, while Utpal Dutt and Girish Karnad played two brothers.

Technical aspects of the film: Swami has some beautiful songs including the sublime “Kya karun sajni” sung by Jesudas. Film's dialogue were written by acclaimed Hindi author Manu Bhandari.

There are some parts of the film that are left vague. For example, Mini lives in a village, but is supposed to study in university, and it is not clear how she goes to the college. She is shown friendless, except for Naren. From the terrace of her home, she can see and wave at Naren standing in his home, but in the rain scene in Naren's garden, it seems that Naren's house is in some far away place and for coming back to her house she has to cross a river. The film glosses over such practical details. However, these are just minor glitches.

In conclusion, “Swami” is a simple film with some good acting and music. I liked it very much. It is an unhurried look at human emotions and traditional Indian views about marriage and the role of a joint family.

I think that today in India a girl like the character of Mini, will not give up her love so easily - she would fight more to marry the man to whom she loves, and who loves her. However, the dilemmas of a married woman contemplating running away with her old lover, are different and I am not sure if leaving the home to be with a lover in today's India would be any easier.

PS: “Swami” was produced by Jaya Charavarty, mother of the well known actress Hema Malini. The theme of this film was the sanctity of marriage, and it was made when gossip about the love affair between Hema Malini and already married actor Dharmendra were dominating film magazines. May be this film was a message of Jaya Charavarty to her daughter? Anyway, the message did not have any effect on the romance between Hema and Dharmendra, who were married in 1980, even though he never divorced from his first wife.


Thursday, 14 March 2013

Matru, Bijlee and Bhardwaj’s nautanki

Vishal Bhardwaj's new film "Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola" (MKBKM) revolves around two main themes – a young woman called Bijlee and the land of her village. It is a quirky film with some great funny moments, that touches lightly on the rush for the land grab and "development" in India through an unconvincing love story between a JNUwala and an Oxford returned girl who likes singing rural songs in Haryanvi.

I enjoyed watching MKBKM because of its tongue in cheek and playful way of looking at serious and not-so-serious issues.

Though not unsympathetic to its female characters, the film has a very male gaze at life. It is a film full of male characters who all like to ogle at Bijlee while she goes around in the village wearing hot pants (and even play acts Raquel Welsh in the Bond movie from 1970s, coming out of water like a nymph, with an admiring and applauding crowd like the cricket match in Lagaan. Even an occasional ghunghat covered women stops to look at her.)

Since the film is based in the land of female foeticide and khap-panchayats, its all male lineup of actors makes sense. Like all self-respecting Indian patriarchists, it also has a female chief-minister, around whom they wag their tails.

Main characters of the film

All the charactors of this film are a little inconsistent. They can be charming and fun in one scene, serious and brooding in another and villanous in another. Though all are competent and some are very good actors, its gives the film an air of serious play-acting, as if a group of friends gathered for a party, have decided to act out the different roles for an evening.

Hukum Singh or Matru (Imran Khan) is the bidi-smoking, local-liquor drinking and card playing JNUwala guy who believes in small revolutions. He is not a real communist, in the sense that he does not really hate the class-enemy, oppressor-of-the-poor local zamindaar-cum-industrialist Mandola (or his daughter), he just manipulates him by getting him drunk. His goal of revolution is not to change the system but only to make sure that the farmers' land is not taken away for making SEZ for a Gurgaon-like town full of malls and high rise buildings.

Farmers themselves are more realistic, willing to negotiate the right price to sell their land rather than singing "Mera Bharat Mahaan lives in the villages", but then our revolutionary hero, like all self-respecting maoists, knows what is best for them and does not believe in democratic decision-making.

Matru has his ex-JNU friends-turned-traitors to “the cause”, who work for big multi-nationals, but don't mind smoking bidis and talking with nostalgia about the good old revolutionary student days (it clearly tarnishes the revolutionary reputation of JNU, for which JNUwallas could have asked for a ban on this movie).

Matru also has a hidden life, where he re-reads dog-eared old books in the darkness of the night. It is hidden because he is never shown reading anything, except when he borrows the Shakespeare book from Bijlee. We see a glimpse of this hidden life, when Matru feels that he has failed in his revolution and packs his old battered suitcase with these books, presumably for going somewhere else for another revolution.

Yet a revolutionary or not, when our Bijlee bats her pretty eyelashes at him, he can't do anything except to accept his destiny of being a hero and kiss the heroine. He does try, weakly, to safeguard his ideals and refuse marriage to the rich industrialist's daughter because "I am a servant", but fortunately, the director decides that it is time to end the film, so no body listens to him.

Harphool Singh Mandola or Harry or Mr. Mandola (Pankaj Kapoor) must have read Suketu Mehta's "Extreme city", so he mumbles something that sounds like "bhenchod" in every sentence. He is also Mr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, and his change of personality is induced by alcohol, preferably a country liquor called Gulabo, that comes in what looks like a beer bottle and has the logo of a pink coloured cow. When he is sober, mostly in the mornings, he is a cold-hearted, calculating industrialist, who dreams of buying the farmers' land and making the Gurgaon-like Mandola Town. However, he is also a closet JNUwalla maoist, and this part of his personality comes out in the night, when he drinks and shouts slogans against cold-hearted enemy of the villagers.

It is difficult for him to give up drinking, because there is no AA branch in Mandola and also because Matru makes sure that temptations are always there around him. When he does try to give up drinking, he has delirium tremens, during which he hallucinates about pink-coloured cows. You can wonder why he does not get delirium tremens in the mornings when he plays nasty-screw-you-all industrialist, but that is besides the point. The prosperous looking doctor’s wife (Navneet Nishan), dressed in pink tights, takes those pink cows in his hallucinations as a reference to her figure.

His world revolves around Bijlee, but he is willing to get her married to the silly son of the chief minister, just to make the right alliance, that will make him more powerful and rich.

Badal (Arya Babbar) the chief minister's son, is supposed to be stupid and a villain, someone who does not understand the finer points of life. Yet, he is stupid only when it suits the script.

I loved this guy, because to show-off his love for Bijlee, he brings her a group of Zulu dancers from South Africa on a 30 years lease.

These African dancers, looking as strange in the Haryana village, as any of those white blonds and redheads who dance as high-class extras in Hindi films, are at least different as they are dark-skinned and their dance is very African. May be Vishal Bhardwaj wanted to pull the legs of some Hindi directors who have European girls to play the role of traditional Indian woman (recently a film even had a Ms.UK playing a Kerala girl because “she suited the role”).

There are other scenes where Badal comes out as a person who understands the need to manipulate and to use people, hardly the signs of a well-meaning stupid-rich guy that people like Matru and Harry call him.  Like the scene, where his mother (Shabana Azmi), explains her strategy about how to make fools of people for cornering more wealth and power, and Badal smiles and applauds ironically. Or the scene near the end, when he defends Bijlee when her father discovers her playing lovey-dovey with Matru.

I could understand why Matru thinks that Badal is stupid – because he did not study at JNU – but why do Harry and even Badal’s mother feel that he is stupid, is not clear. May be because he genuinely seems in love with Bijlee and is not ruthless enough?

In the meetings, villagers of MKBKM are almost all men, except for Naseeban, who is a transgender person. There some fleeting shots of a few woman standing near their homes. May be Bhardwaj wanted to remind Haryana guys that if they go on with their female foeticide and infanticide drives, the only women they are going to get are like Naseeban. Actually he could have also shown a couple of village guys with wives who speak Bengali, Bihari or Nepali, to underline the bride-buying from other parts of India, because there are not enough marriageable women in some parts of Haryana.

Coming to the female characters in MKBKM, Bijlee (Anushka Sharma), the girl around whom the story revolves, has the least defined role in the film. The girl had insisted on going to study in Delhi and then in Oxford, but to study what? She seems content enough to follow her father’s plan to marry Badal, even if she also thinks that he is shallow and stupid.

She also seems content to take bath in the village pond and to play with old bicycle tyres in the village wearing hot pants. May be she did feminism studies in Oxford and has taken it as her life’s mission to use her dominant social position as zamindar’s daughter to bring out Haryanvi men from the medieval period into twenty-first century?

In her farm-house party, with other city guys and women, Bijlee chooses to sing a rural song, “oye-bhai oye bhai charlee” sung by Rekha Bhardwaj, hardly the song or the voice for the party of a Oxford-returned young girl and her rich friends!

Apart from the pink-wearing doctor’s wife, the only other female character of MKBKM is the scheming-plotting chief minister Chowdhury Devi (Shabana Azmi). Though she tells her son to get married to Bijlee only to get hold of her property and then to kill her off, she hardly looks and sounds like the vamp she is supposed to be. Her scheming and plotting look like play acting, she is too soft with the officials (like the scene in the beginning, where collector, police inspector and her secretary are all drunk and vomiting), and her eyes never exude the meanness she is supposed to have (though I must confess my weakness for the lady for past many decades, ever since I saw her pounding the grain in "Ankur", so I can't be objective about "Shabby Ass"!).

With Harry, as they stand on the top on hillock and talk of their future plans, she is indulgent, loving and almost poetic, hardly a ruthless politician.

Naseeban, the transgender person (which actor is it?) is treated with empathy in MKBKM. In Bollywood, usually transgender persons have been used for some songs or sometimes for films on prostitution and mafia gangs. In their rare "proper roles" in Bollywood, they are usually some kind of perverts or killers. In MKBKM, for a change, Naseeban is close friend and confidante of the hero. She is his mouth-piece, when he wants to speak to the villagers as Mr. Mao.


Harry Mandola wants to take the villagers' land and build a township. For power and money, he wants his daughter Bijlee to get married to the son of the chief minister, who helps him in getting the land earmarked as "special development zone" (SEZ), so that he can get investments and not pay taxes. His driver, Hukum Singh, is a hidden maoist, who incites villagers to find ways to sell their produce without intermediaries, pay their loans and save their land. Harry has other plans to make the villagers poorer, so that they are forced to sell their lands. However Bijlee has fallen in love with the maoist driver-cum-hero and decides to help him and the villagers.


All the persons in MKBKM are a kind of make-believe people that superficially look real, in a make-believe place, that superficially resembles Haryana. It is a fake-realism film. None of the main characters is consistent. They are all out to have a good time, doing a kind of sophisticated nautanki, a kind of  theatre of absurd.

Thus there are scenes, if taken individually, that look very realistic. Like the scene where a drunk Harry begs his daughter to give him alcohol. Bijlee tries to reason with him, bares her anguish and emotions, but like many alcoholics, the only thing that Harry understands is his need for alcohol and manipulates her emotions to run away with the drink. By itself, this scenes is realistic and very well acted. There are other scenes like the airplane scene that are more of a farce, though they are also well acted (I think that it is impossible to make Pankaj Kapoor look unconconving doing anything!). But seen as a whole, the graphs of characters are not coherent. For example, Harry behaves completely differently a few scenes later, when he play-acts to be drunk and is able to resist alcohol, because “he has sworn on his daughter’s name”.

No one is really a classical all-black villain in the story. Even the chief minister and her ridiculed son, join in the last song-and-dance routine, to show that they were play acting to be bad. Rather, Bhardwaj makes fun of all his main characters - the pro-industry-and-development group versus the community-environment-empowerment group, highlighting their contradictions.

This does not mean that there is no undercurrent of reality, necessary to call the film a satire. This undercurrent of reality is there in the ordinary viciousness of public officials, their willingness to lick the butts of those in power and to wrench out the guts of those for whom they are the mai-baap. The mad rush for the land grab under the cloak of “development”, for raping and looting the earth, unmindful of the destruction of people’s lives and of environment, is real enough.

“How did you show this land as barren and unused in the map, appropriate for making SEZ?”, the naïve chief minister asks the collector as she looks at the sprawling green fields. The collector with his greasy knowing smile says wryly, “Madam, there was nothing there for three years when it had not rained. This year unfortunately it has rained.”

That undercurrent of reality is an unconscious message that you take home with you, because the film touches very lightly on it. Most of the time, it lets you see that world as make believe, where we are smiling about the antics of a drunk man and his driver, running on a motorcycle or flying away in a small private aeroplane.

In one scene, TV reporters ask a young guy called Nainsukh, the only "eyewitness" of the landing of an UFO in Mandola village, to share his experience. And he talks about his crap. That seems to be message of the film. That the system, the media, the so-called development, but also some of people fighting for justice, are just crapping. Reality is hidden behind that crap, and you need to figure it out.

I am looking forward to watching this film again.

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