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.



  1. Loved your post...the length of it shows your passion indeed. Very well transcribed the movie and it's gist. One of the old world cinemas that one feel like watching even after ages. Thanks for sharing & Keep writing & sharing!

    1. Wow, thanks for these warm words of appreciation :)

  2. Thank you so much for writing about this film. I remember seeing it ages ago when I was in school. I saw it on Doordarshan. The Thumri by Yesudas and the other song- "Pal bhar mein yeh kya ho gaya" remain etched in my memory. I found your reflections on arranged marriage very interesting. In a society where there is strict seggregation of sexes, it is the only way that people can get married. I sometimes think this whole thing of "love" is rather hyped- yes, there is a chemistry between two people and over the years it develops into a deep friendship. It can happen in an arranged marriage too- especially considering that the typical "arranged" marriage couple of today are not exactly strangers. Even in the previous generation I think that marriages of the arranged variety probably worked because men and women had not experience of any other relationship with which to benchmark this.

    1. I am happy Meera that you also liked this film. It was one of my old favourites! I have a few more old films about which I wish to write but the time to do so is so limited, it just takes me ages to finish a post!

      I agree that love is overhyped, not just in the west and most of the time, I feel people are confusing between love, lust and desires. There is so much to say on this! :)


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