For over 60 years, the novels and short stories of renowned Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhayay have been adapted for screen in a host of regional languages besides Bengali.
In 1977, an engaging Hindi adaptation of the short story Swami (Husband) won the National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment as well as Filmfare awards for Best Director (Basu Chatterjee), Best Actress (Shabana Azmi) and two Filmfare nominations for singers Lata Mangeshkar and Yesudas.
Swami is set in Bengal around the 1900s – possibly before the Sarda Act of 1929 that restricted, if not prohibited, the practice of child marriage. Thanks to a forward thinking agnostic maternal uncle, 19-year-old Soudamini (the name means lightning) is still a college student. Influenced greatly by her uncle, she learns to value literature and logic over the rituals and traditions favoured by her widowed mother. Adding to her mother’s displeasure, Soudamini develops an intimacy with Naren, a rich neighbour’s educated son.
Fate takes over. Soudamini’s uncle dies suddenly of a heart attack and Soudamini is married off to Ghanshyam, a middle-aged widower from a neighbouring village. Ghanshyam is a wheat dealer, as far from reading Hardy and Tolstoy as Soudamini is from coping with Ghanshyam’s bloodsucking brood – his stepmother, her widowed daughter and her much fussed over married son, Nikhil.
Even six months later, the tittered truth is that Soudamini does not sleep with Ghanshyam and that Ghanshyam, the chief bread winner of the family, is still trying to appease his petulant young wife. A lesser known truth is that Soudamini is learning to respect her mild mannered husband who sees the meanness in his family but does not succumb to it.
Out of the blue, Naren arrives at Ghanshyam’s house as Nikhil’s guest. At an ill-timed moment, he is caught in the act of kissing Soudamini’s hand through the bars of a low window. Embarrassment for the one-time lovers is followed by a humiliating showdown for Soudamini in Ghanshyam’s absence. Naren makes a hasty exit but returns a few days later to whisk Soudamini away. A week of confused and surprisingly sexless struggle ensues in a small room that Naren rents. When Ghanshyam learns of Soudamini’s plight and whereabouts, he arrives to take her back home.There are no no accusations, no insinuations and no questions. Even after her foolhardy transgressions, Ghanshyam is ready to accept Soudamini as his wife.
The story is narrated in first person by the guilt-ridden Soudamini speaking of herself being not as brilliant or beautiful as lightning but just as destructive.
Basu Chatterjee’s film is less exacting than Chattopadhayay’s story. Tedious litanies of self reproach are done away with, and the film is structured as a single unbroken flashback. The characters are as one dimensional as they are perceived by Soudamini in the text but on screen they are given more scope.
The minor change of an overweight step sister instead of a widowed one whom no one will marry brings on an exaggerated scene or two, but a sharper departure from the text lies in expunging the week that Naren and Soudamini spend together. This spares the film additional length, but it denies the complete understanding of Soudamini’s anguish and self flagellation.
The first part of the film is the most appealing. The interior sets are simple and intimate while windy terraces, rain-washed trees and a swirling rivulet reflect inner turmoils. Soudamini (a high-spirited Shabana Azmi looking her loveliest) and her uncle (Utpal Dutt in a familiar and endearing cameo) have some delightful exchanges conveyed through Manu Bhandari’s well translated dialogue.
The now iconic Azmi has often spoken of her early career anxieties. “I was very self conscious about my buck teeth and would keep covering my mouth when I smiled,” she said in an interview. Ironically enough, these self-conscious smiles work perfectly for Soudamini as she daydreams of Naren (Vikram) and later when she acknowledges Ghanshyam’s shy attempts to win her over.
The wedding of Soudamini with Ghanshyam (played sensitively by Girish Karnad) is the turning point of the story and the film. An unremarkable depiction of a marriage ceremony and Mini’s departure from the village is made poignant through Kishore Kumar’s Yaadon Mein Woh. Although not nominated, this song has lived on as the film’s most popular track.
Indian cinema has witnessed many female characters who declare the last straw, pack up and stomp out of a marriage in less than a second. Azmi’s Soudamini shows how such a hackneyed scene can be played with nuance, energy and skill. She tightens her mouth, grabs her trunk, hoists it on the bed and jerks it open. Drawing in a tremulous lower lip she quaveringly announces to the world that she has been belittled enough. An unstoppable rant of self pity spills forth as she yanks open her cupboard, clutches a few sarees and violently tosses them into the trunk. The lid slams down but she has already whirled around to the cupboard again. The pallu of her saree slips from her shoulder. She whips it back up. Still carping, she reopens the trunk, juggles in a few more items of clothing and rams down the lid. In a single precise action, she swings the trunk off the bed and sweeps out of the room, taking every bit of audience sympathy with her.
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