I remember feeling annoyed when, a few years ago, somebody to whom I was voicing my pleasure at recently discovered Bollywood movies, bluntly told me: “oh yes, but Indian movies now… you want to see those from the 60s and the 70s!” Whether he was right or not is probably more a question of taste, but certainly, if he’d had such films as Bimal Roy’s Bandini (1963) in mind, I understand now why he would have said that. Having fallen for Nutan’s charm when watching Dilli ka thug, I wanted to see others of her films, and landed on this.
“This” is a rare little jewel. Like Teesri Kasam, like, like… hum, I’m finding it rather hard to liken it to many other films I’ve seen. Unless… there is a theme which brings it close to Deewar, in fact: that of voluntary punishment, or expiation. Kalyani (Nutan, who plays the role of the “bandini”, or imprisoned heroine) needs her punishment to compensate for what she knows is her guilt, just as Vijay (Amitabh, in Deewar) broods in the mine over a crime he can’t shake off. And both value their life at such a low price now that they are ready to endanger it if it can save that of others. This in turn draws the attention on the reason why such “generosity” is performed. There is a romantic (perhaps even soppy) side to such an attitude, with the theme of fighting against love because of a moral duty (“for his own sake, I cannot accept his love”, says Kalyani to her Jailor), but also the theme has a real power. It touches the question of sacrifice and redemption, which, when it is well dealt with, naturally is one of the most profound human motives.
Bandini pleases for many other reasons. The simplicity and originality of the story, first; the fact that 1. a woman is the heroine, and 2. she isn’t mistakenly, but really guilty (when so many other pastime movies would uncover a saving clause which clears the hero or the heroine); the realistically delicate balance of feelings which make her sway between the two men, neither of whom are caricatures; the wonderful encapsulation of the movie’s songs, that accompany the action in a masterful way (cf. the percussions springing from the repetitive movements of the women prisoners’ gestures); its rich and satisfying symbolism; its careful construction (cf. the famous flashback within the flashback), and of course the actors’ and actresses’ talent: Nutan of course, with her restraint and her vast emotional scale, but also a young and charming Dharmendra, and a sober Ashok Kumar (only once does he let himself go, and we hear his tinkling laugh), not forgetting the Prison Jailor and the woman inmates, filmed with a care and almost a tenderness which I loved.
Here’s the story, as told by upperstall.com :
“Kalyani (Nutan), an inmate of a women's ward of a prison in pre-independent India, appears determined to serve out her full term, resisting the kind overtures of the prison doctor, Deven (Dharmendra), who wishes to marry her, fearing her past will catch up with her. Her past is told in flashback. In Bengal in the 1930s, the daughter of the postmaster (Raja Paranjpe) of the village, she had become involved with the anarchist Bikash Ghosh (Ashok Kumar). Bikash and Kalyani become close to one another and fall in love and in a difficult situation she is passed off as Bikash's wife in order to save his life. Bikash proposes to her and her father agrees to the marriage. Bikash leaves the village promising to come back. He never does and Kalyani learns he has married someone else. The family becomes the butt of ridicule in the village causing Kalyani to leave the village to avoid her father's dishonour. She starts working in a hospital taking care of a particular shrewish and obnoxious woman patient. Her father comes to the city in search of her but is killed in an accident. The same day she discovers the woman she is taking care of is Bikash's wife. Believing the woman to be the cause of all her troubles, Kalyani poisons her. Deven is still willing to marry her and after reading her story, his mother too accepts her. As she leaves for Deven's house where happiness awaits her, she runs into Bikash again. He is now terminally ill. She learns the real circumstances of Bikash's unhappy marriage, done for the freedom cause, and decides to go with him.”
Let me begin with one the movie’s most powerful symbol, which is of course in the title: that of the bars which separate people and shut them in their own world. Kalyani represents this prisoner even when she hasn’t yet committed the crime that will shut her behind real bars. When she first meets Bikash, it is through some bars:
In the hospital where she has found work away from the slanderous tongues of her village, she is already a sort of prisoner, as the bars through which she can see the welders at work:
This vision, by the way, is reminiscent of a blacksmith’s workshop, and we know that such an activity was the one performed by Hephaestus, the Greek god of metalwork who presided over the Inferno. The clever play with light and darkness during that powerful scene mirrors the hammering that goes on in Kalyani’s mind at that sombre moment. Then of course you have our heroine behind the woman’s prison bars, notably when she watches the freedom fighter go by her cell:
Imprisonment, for Bimal Roy, seems to be an existential reality, for even the spring is seen behind bars.
Now these bars first represent Kalyani’s pent-up seclusion in her guilt and self-humiliation. As Deven tells her rightly, she is fixed on her past, and cannot open her heart to live in the present. She does begin to love him (believing that Bikash, her husband, is dead or has disappeared), but refuses to let go of her cherished guilt. What’s moving in this fixation is that Kalyani knows what innocence means: she is the figure of purity, and it’s because she has, imprinted on her soul, the value of purity, that she weighs her guilt so heavily. She wishes for no extenuating circumstances. On the contrary, for her, punishment is the only way out of her sad distraught state. Without punishment, without this loss of freedom, she is lost. And she can only find herself if she loses (freely) who she would have been. Such is the frame of mind of the guilty pure: nothing can come in between their purity and their punishment: it is fundamentally their freedom to choose this path; they are both their judges and their convicts. One can say that, as she is her own Judge, she is also her own redeemer.
Another conflicting element compounds this one: if Kalyani suffers from her purity, she also is the victim of her beauty (which is another form of purity, by the way). From the start, her good looks are constantly part of what happens to her. During her wood-bound love-songs, for example, she laments the fact that she’s fair and that she would rather exchange this fairness of skin with Bikash’s darker one.
In the prison, her beauty is the target of the sub-jailor’s interest and scheming, as well as the cause of her fellow’s inmates’ jeers. And naturally the two “official” suitors notice it straightaway. Her destiny is thus tied up with men’s desire of her outward appearance.
There is a moral aspect to this conundrum: Kalyani, the bright angel, the lovely bird-like creature whose wings have been wasted, and who’s attracted to dark creatures to the point that she will voluntarily deny, darken and debase herself, is a feminine Christ-like figure: her vocation is to suffer, and to redeem, to befriend fellow-prisoners, and become a prisoner herself, out of devotion for them. It doesn’t matter here that she’s guilty, whereas Christ wasn’t. Her saintliness is both admired and derided, like all imitators of Christ. And this Christ-motif is given additional strength in the movie, by the way, thanks to that strangely stressed (and hauntingly evocative) Via Dolorosa walk performed by the condemned freedom fighter.
This moving and beautiful scene is shown against the background of the theme of the fight for freedom. Let us not forget the film contains other examples of selflessness, such as that of Kalyani’s brother, who dies trying to save a girl in a flood. And of course Bikash the freedom-fighter sacrifices his love for Kalyani on the altar of the higher imperative of his country’s independence. Right at the end, too, whereas one might expect him to try and get her back, he accepts once more to sacrifice himself and leave her to her destiny without his unworthy self, and probably it is precisely this noble and disinterested attitude which convinces Kalyani to choose him, ill and aged, over the younger but blander doctor.
Sacrifice belongs to love stories, of course; it is also part of the purification process which all moral stories exemplify. The theme runs deep in the Hindu religion, with famous woman-figures seen positively when and if sacrificing themselves; yet Kalyani is also modern, in so far as she leaves her house, her father, works for a salary and decides alone which partner she will live with. So the sacrifices she performs are her own, they’re not imposed by society or traditions: they’re authentic acts of selflessness and purification; in fact she is as much a freedom fighter as the ones she watches pass her cell towards the gallows. One realises that, doing so, she understands something in her own destiny.
Bandini indeed tells us that destiny and time shape our lives a banal statement of course, but whose moving and truthful strength is very convincing. The lyrical tone given to Kalyani’s life before her prison time, the poetic evocations of her intimacy at home (her sad and strict father, the little nephew who’s frightened of Bikash’s “bombs”), and perhaps most of all the beautifully empty (almost purified) views of the riversides where she used to live: all this points to a life, with its promises and potential which has not been hers, and yet she owns all of its beauty. Her person carries all this rich simplicity, this truthfulness, with her. Kalyani’s yearning for justice is the soul of this landscape and of this life. Broken as it might seem, her destiny shares with all that beauty and truth a harmony which she cannot lose, and which flows from her.
Chance in life
Kalyani’s life had potential for another life, for many other lives, perhaps. But our life is shaped by events and chance happenings which come from far back before our birth, and direct it where we know not. We think sometimes we can change that: “I’m not interested in your past, but in your present” says the doctor, in an apparently more human, more respectful way of not wanting to shut someone in his or her failures, and opening the person to the newness of the future. But Kalyani knows that the past must be reckoned with, that it is sometimes wiser to settle for the reality of has happened to us in the past, even if it’s alienating, than want to erase it and pretend to start with a fresh slate. Humanity is never a fresh slate. There will always be past sins to be reckoned with, and atonement to be carried out. Joy and happiness depend on that realism, harsh as it may seem. Children are born into a world where crime and suffering have raged since the beginning, and it will take all their innocence, all their purity, and all their love to come to grips with it. And if they don’t, if they leave it to others to do it, then they will deepen the indifference which allows evil to continue to wreak its ageless havoc. The problem is that life doesn’t deal its missions fairly; some young have more to do than others; the weight on their shoulders is heavier. Some have a dirge to sing, some a hymn of joy. But even if the dirge is heavy, the joy must be sung in this earthly prison: some of us have this mission, while the others have a heavier task. The suffering has to be borne, and fighting against suffering or working towards its eradication will never exonerate those whose mission it is to shoulder the weight of sin and crime from performing their sacred mission.
Let’s finish with the evocation of Nutan. One marvels at her humanity and grace, her charm and strength, her seriousness, her sobriety, her truthfulness. She’s got that rare gift of never pandering to the camera, almost. The fact of being in front of it means that you’re accepting some of the conventions of the cinema, among which the identification process and, with it, the hero-worship and the offering of an image of yourself in lieu of a real person made of flesh and blood. But, even if no actress is immune to such impalpable calculations, where some degree of vanity can always find its satisfaction, Nutan’s performance here is really stunning. Even in passages where her beauty is clearly the main reason for the shot, something of Heaven is present, and one almost forgets the lust, the possessiveness, and one is plunged into her truth. The clarity of her typical (not universal) beauty echoes that of the tranquil river banks of her youth, where fishing boats wait for the tide to take them back to their work.
More pictures here!
PS/ I've corrected this last line in the answer to Shweta's comment. (check it in the "commentaires"!) And there's a very interesting debate about the ending of the film here (Bollywhat) (well, unfortunately, the thread has been suppressed!)
You can also go check Shweta's blog: link