Can a regional language film that is rooted in a particular milieu be successfully remade as a Hindi film for audiences across India? Some notable films have not survived this journey, and even some of the better reworkings have not matched up to their originals.
However, one film that checks all the right boxes is Asit Sen’s Mamta, starring Ashok Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Dharmendra. One of the more important releases of 1966, the hugely successful film proves that practice does indeed make perfect, best seen in its leading lady’s incredibly moving dual performances of a mother and daughter and in the composition of its most well-known song.
Despite her iconic status in Bengali cinema, a cloud hangs over the luminous Suchitra Sen’s Hindi performances. There is a stiltedness in the dialogue delivery, perhaps because of her discomfort with Hindi, and an unease before the camera in her few forays into Hindi cinema. Sen looks radiant and even ethereal in films such as Devdas (1955) and Bambai Ka Babu (1960), but the magic of her Bengali performances is missing. A notable exception to the rule is Mamta. Unlike her other Hindi films, Mamta is the only one that is a remake of a film that she had been in before, thereby making her fully familiar with the story and her character.
Mamta is an opulent colour version of Sen’s black-and-white Bengali hit Uttar Falguni (1963). Starring Suchitra Sen, Bikash Roy and Dilip Mukherjee and produced by the legendary actor Uttam Kumar, Uttar Falguni is one of the landmark films in Suchitra Sen’s career.
Mamta sees the actress in the dual roles of Devyani and Suparna. Devyani is forced by circumstances to give up her love for Manish Roy (Ashok Kumar) and endure a hellish marriage, from which she escapes to become Pannabai, the famed courtesan of Lucknow. The film examines the sacrifices she makes to ensure her daughter, Suparna, is brought up in a respectable environment. Devyani distances herself from Suparna, admits her into a convent-run school in Kolkata, and gets Manish to looks after her. Years later, Suparna returns from London with a law degree. Life looks bright on the professional and personal front with her boyfriend, Indraneel (Dharmendra), who happens to be Manish’s assistant. Until Devyani’s wastrel husband (Kalipada Chakraborty) shows up and threatens Suprana’s future by threatening to expose her parentage.
Mamta is a standard women’s melodrama, and the story itself appears dated, but it actually holds up quite well. Asit Sen directs the film with restraint and maturity, though the original is a few notches higher on the scales of restraint and subtlety. A director who never believed in flashiness, Sen tells his story simply and effectively. But it is Suchitra Sen who is the heart and soul of Mamta. She is particularly brilliant as the older Devyani, lending the film some of its most poignant moments. Barring the occasional hiccup with her Hindi diction, she plays the self-sacrificing fallen women with tremendous grace and dignity. The gamut of emotions flirting across her face is incredible as Manish describes Suparna to her on the telephone from the airport, or when she observes her daughter from afar at a party. As Suparna, she is let down by a comparatively sketchier character, but comes into her own in the climax.
One of Mamta’s most memorable songs is a reworking of a wonderful tune composed by Roshan for BR Chopra’s flop Chandni Chowk (1954). Roshan rejigged “Tera Dil Kahan Hai”, sung by Asha Bhosle, in Mamta as “Rahen Na Rahen Hum.” The song appears twice in the movie – once as a solo by Lata Mangeshkar and performed by Sen and Ashok Kumar and later as a shorter, romantic duet sung by Mohammed Rafi and Suman Kalyanpur with Sen and Dharmendra. Instrumental snatches are also used in the background score to great effect, highlighting the unrequited love story between Manish and Devyani.
In any other year, Mamta might have swept the Filmfare Awards for the four categories in which it was nominated – Best Film, Director, Story and Actress. However, it had the misfortune of being nominated in the same year as Vijay Anand’s Guide and ended up losing in all four categories to the Navketan classic.