Parakh, or: what is a good man?

Publié le 30 Juin 2011

Test

Bimal Roy’s Parakh (Test, 1960) is an experiment. Not so much in democracy, as some people say, even though they’re right, it does contain an implicit criticism of democratic processes, but this is only a side-issue. It’s an experiment in morality or in human nature. What happens when a community is asked to determine who is the best man in its midst? What is virtue? And how does one make one’s worth known to the group? True, the means to trigger this test is rather risky: a 5 million rupee reward! In effect, this proposal is bound to wreak complete havoc in the moral organisation of any community, and probably create the wrong experimental conditions. Furthermore, with such a sum at stake, isn’t the experiment rather dangerous? This is what the originator of the idea, the millionnaire JC Roy (Motilal), says towards the end of the film, when he’s aghast upon realising the consequences of his gesture.

Motilal

But well, after all, it wasn’t his idea, but his deceased father’s, and good son as he is, he’s decided to do what Pops had planned, give the village where he came from the chance to develop thanks to this amount of money, to be entrusted to an honest man who wouldn’t misappropriate it! Once the decision is taken, he gets employed as the assistant post-master in the village, and watches incognito the effects of his “test”. As soon as he receives the letter telling him about the deal, the post-master organises a reunion of 5 of the village’s luminaries: the landlord, the money-lender, the doctor, the pandit (priest) and the school-master. Before the arrival of the letter, we had already been introduced to these paragons of virtue: the landlord is pestering against the difficulties of getting his taxes from such a stingy community; the doctor tells a penniless father whose daughter is dying and who comes to beg for his help that he has to pay his dues first; the zamindar fishes in the pond where he hopes to spot young girls bathing; and the priest doesn’t want the steps of his temple soiled by the untouchable feet of peasants who come to ask for help.

Not a charitable clinic

The school-master alone actually works for the betterment of the village. He’s presently involved in a project of eradication of malaria which means the filling of an infested pond that happens to belong to the zamindar, and has trouble continuing the project because the latter has just put some fish in it, he says! There is a clear generational target in the movie, because on top of the young school-master, the movie focuses on his love-interest, the Post-master’s second daughter, pretty Seema (Sadhana). Her father is deep in debt from having borrowed a lot to marry his first daughter, and he’s under pressure to get Seema married to his lender, but relents out of consideration for her, and prefers his indebtedness, even if his sick wife would prefer the wedding proposal to go through! All this to say that when one morning he receives the check, he could well have used it for himself!

equality

Anyway, the experiment begins, of course with the four eager candidates thinking of (and finding) means to make themselves more popular: freebies and writings off, mainly. The sham doesn’t deceive the villagers, who are heard saying that all this is only happening because of the prize, and that the usual cruelty will come back as soon as somebody gets the cheque. They can’t be fooled: there is only one good man, according to them, that’s the village school-master. He’s the one to vote for. But unfortunately, this piece of wisdom is overheard by the priest, who goes to one of the other candidates: they realise flattering and fawning won’t be enough, they’ll have to use other means.

Buying a man

First they have to get the school-master out of way: they try buying him, so that he backs out of the race, but it doesn’t work, he’s too principled for that. Then they try to demoralise him: knowing that he’s courting Seema, they succeed in pushing between them the zamindar’s sister in law, who’s recently come to the village. Seema falls into the trap, and shrinks away from him. Finally they hope to trap him: the money-lender’s bailiff comes to the post-master’s house one day, and sets about to auction the family’s property. Seema rushes to her lover’s house (they’ve made up in the meantime) and asks him for help: that’s when she meets with Ajanta, the sister in law playing her treacherous role. Seema runs away home, desperate (thinking her lover unfaithful), but the trick works nevertheless: the school-master, understanding the impending disaster, goes to the zamindar, buys his defection from the election, and brings her the money to pay for her father’s debts!

Happiness

All this however, will be of no avail: on the day of the election, after everything has been tried to make one the four compeers shine in the eyes of the general community (the funniest trick being the pandit’s “miracle” growth of Goddess Lakshmi out the ground, pushed up by a bucketful of germinating gram-seeds!), the furiously partisan lines of supporters of either zamindar, doctor, landlord or priest all start fighting one against the other, and JC Roy himself, understanding the danger of the situation, has to intervene, uncover his hidden identity and tell the assembled and quieted people to do the designation without voting. They hesitate, but quickly choose… not the expected school-master (who perhaps has been sullied in their eyes by the slanders?), but the postmaster, who has all the time stood at the back of everything, and taken part in none of the electoral rumpus.

half and half

Bimal Roy makes with Parakh a clear moral statement: virtue can never be created under pressure. It needs no motive but itself, and whoever does otherwise is a hypocrite and a fraud, and his fraud will lead him to greater sins, needed to cover up the fraud once it’s divined. Of course money and riches are very risky demonstrators of these truths, because many honest people can become corrupted if faced with temptation of choosing between honesty one the one hand, and comfort, good health and some advance cash on the other. When circumstances are difficult, virtue is also difficult, and you can’t blame the poor for being dishonest (see the debate on Bollywhat about this question here, and you can also check my review of Shree 420). Still, this problem isn’t really developed in the movie, which focuses on another issue.

Everyone is best man

This issue is that of human excellence. It’s interesting to see that the man who’s finally awarded the prize for best value calls himself an “ordinary man”: as if Bimal Roy wanted to show that human worth doesn’t lie in anything extraordinary, and as one character says laughingly at one stage, “everyone is a good man”: and indeed, if value is in ordinariness, it’s the case. As Blaise Pascal says, whoever wants to pose as an angel, acts as a beast. Humanity is in the middle. There’s an egalitarianism here which flies in the face of common sense, because we all know, as do the villagers in the film, that some of us are “better men” than the rest. Does it mean that some men are more ordinary than the others? No, but probably less selfish, more community-minded. And at the same time, man’s value does not depend on his achievements or qualities. All men are equal in the sense that all have equal dignity because they are each of them an individual and unique person. Given a certain degree of ordinariness (you do have exploiters and oppressors), theoretically, or politically, all men are indeed the same. This is pretty much the lesson we gather from other Bimal Roy movies, Sujata for instance.  

I'm also a good man

In societies (and the Indian more perhaps than others) where social class is defined by wealth, this lesson certainly has an importance, even if doing nothing more than reminding one of it will change nothing. There is such an ingrained habit in considering that rich people MUST be superior to poor people, such an entrenched feeling that when one can show signs of gracious living, one is entitled to the corresponding recognition…Those that don’t buy this spurious equivalence are considered fools and anyway they are no threat to the injustice of the system: let them philosophize! At best, say the affluent, you need such sadhus an ascets to remind you the relativity of things, and everything is in its right order.

Thirtsy are my eyes

I’ll round off this review by insisting like others have done (See bollyviewer, Sharmi, Upperstall and Banno who, in fact, doesn’t say so) that the two or three songs in the movie are very wonderful, especially the rain song (O Sajna Barkha Bahaar) sung by Seema as she reaffirms her right on her “best man”, the schoolmaster. At one stage she cups her hand under the precious water curtaining down from the night skies, and I thought: that’s where the real treasure is to be found. All fight in the film to be able to close their hands on a fistful of rupees. Only she has opened her hand to receive the riches that Heaven gives freely, the water of life and of love.

Opening her hand

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

Commenter cet article

Suja 09/07/2011 15:53



Hi Yves, No problems at all with asking questions! We all have a right to our own beliefs, definitely. I was touched by the video, what good Karma your friend is earning! Good on him!


Cheers, Suja



Suja 07/07/2011 21:19



Good question. When schools offer basic, medium or advanced maths, why do some children choose advanced and not basic? Some, I hope, because they love math, some because they want the challenge,
some because their friends are doing it and some because they think a B in advanced math is better for their career than an A in basic maths.


I believe that similar reasonings exist for choosing one life or the other. e.g. why would someone be born as a mentally challenged person? (1) because they want to live that innocent life (2)
because they have been very intellectual and would like to learn to be the opposite (3) because they were harsh to intellectually disabled people and they NEED a lesson in being in the other
person's skin (4) because a soul they are connected to want the challenge of being a parent/sibling to such a child (5) because it is difficult to be different, and if they come through such
a life with their hearts pure, maybe they'll have an A+ !!  Truly I don't know but I am just imagining some scenarios here.


As to why one not always choose an easy path - that's easy, the souls are divine, once the maya of life (delusion) disappears, the souls can see it all very clearly and know the path to take.


Oh as to animals, we all know that cats and dogs have a personality of their own :) Why not other animals? We have stories of saints being able to transmigrate into the soul of animals, so I am
quite sure that hinduism accepts that animals have souls.


Yves, I am a very logical person and I would argue that I have examined this question and am convinced that this is very reasonable as a 'plan'. But it is equally true that having been brought up
with certain belief systems, I have a deep attachment to these ideas and would argue them to the death :)


Cheers. Suja



yves 07/07/2011 23:11



Suja,


Please don't take my questions about Hinduism as a criticism of any kind - I wondered whether your final line wasn't written because it was the case! I am merely trying to get round all this and
understand as much as I can. I'd say all this is rather new to me, even if I've heard about Hinduism for a long time, in a general sort of way. I quite see the interest of the immortal soul and
reincarnation, even though I wouldn't be able to believe in this last item, but, same as for you, this is because I too am deeply bound by years and years of Christian faith.


I enjoyed reading your reasons about why somebody would choose to become a person with disabilities! Incidentally, here's a fascinating video showing the work of a friend of mine (well, we
exchanged houses 15 years ago): http://vimeo.com/10345659


bye, yves



Suja 07/07/2011 08:05



Hi Yves, Yes of course this birth-and-death cycle includes animals as well as people. And yes, your Karmic debt influences caste according to the old books.


I have a more general viewpoint on how it works, based on my readings from different sources, Hindu and otherwise. Each lifetime is like a classroom in school where you go to find particular
lessons. Just as you switch from Maths to Geography classes, you switch from one kind of life to another because each kind of life has a lesson to offer. I believe that we choose what lessons we
need to learn and therefore what life, but we are of course restricted by our Karmic debt as to the choices we have.


Cheers. Suja



yves 07/07/2011 18:49



Okay, well, if that is so, I mean if the soul can animate animals and perhaps even any sort of life (plants??), I find it harder to refer to it as "I", or "you"... Even supposing the soul as
spiritual element could lodge itself in superior forms of animals only makes me wonder how it can still retain an individuality which I recognise in human beings, but have trouble identifying in
animals. But well, I suppose all this is a little academic anyway!


I liked your classroom analogy, it's quite easy to remember and would help children understand the principles of reincarnation. The only worry I see  in this symbol (adult questions,
probably!) is that why would we "switch" to this or that "class" when it's time to do so? You say we would choose because of the lesson we need to learn... But why would we make the good choices?
If the soul is free (it is, isn't it, within the karmic limits?), why could it not choose the destructive path rather than the constructive one? Or the pleasant one at least, rather than the
dutiful?



Suja 04/07/2011 21:56



Hi Yves, If I come across a good site which explains basic Hindu thinking on the subject of souls, I will send you the link. In the meanwhile, here are a few basic points -


1. The basic precept of Hinduism is 'Tat Tvam Asi' = That Thou Art. It means that Divinity rests in each of
our souls; the soul and God is made up of the same 'material'. The difference is in quantity, not quality. It is, I have read, like a rain drop is to the ocean.


2. The soul is in a cycle of life and death. The example they give is that the body is like a garment, once
used it is discarded and another one ‘worn’. When I say 'I' or 'you', I refer to the soul, not the body (if I have plastic surgery from head to know and organ replacements for every part, I am
still I!)


3. One is tied to the cycle of rebirth by Karmic debt so it is not easy to escape from it. To attain Moksha
(escape from this cycle), it needs effort from one’s part and the grace of God.


4. After Moksha, what happens to the soul? There are two philosophies – one that it merges completely with
God and there is no ‘two’ – this philosophy is called Advaita (non Dual). The opposing view is that the soul always remains distinct – Dvaita philosophy. In general, the Shaivas (devotees
 of Shiva) adhere to the Dvaita philosophy and the Vaishnavites (devotees of Vishnu) adhere to the Advaita philosophy.


I hope this has helped.


Cheers. Suja



yves 06/07/2011 14:16



Hello Suja,


Thanks once again for the kind message & explanations. It did help, espacially the symbol of the body as garment.


The other question I have is: do the reincarnations occur in human beings only (thus excluding animals), and what does caste have to do with that? Can you be promoted to a higner caste if your
karmic balance is better after one life? Or demoted if not?


thanks again, yves



Banno 01/07/2011 14:40



Yves, Of course, I also think that these issues of caste are changing, ever so slowly, in our society. A dalit will no longer think of himself as worthless, but definitely as exploited. I think
more people are aware of their rights, though there are still sections of society which remain feudal. I like Suja's explanation of 'karma'. And I agree with her that equality lies in merit and
not in poor vs. rich. Hopefully, we are getting there.


 


 



yves 03/07/2011 22:51



Many thanks Banno for this comment, and your evaluation of the progressive movement of the caste system. I too appraciated Suja's rectification of what I had written!


bye, yves



Suja 01/07/2011 13:25



I agree with you on your take on invisible-heroism. And yes, there are millions of such unsung heroes in real life.


My comment about meritocracy was more to do the socialist slant of the film’s message; as if being ordinary itself is a virtue. This, it seems
to me, is as flawed as the Christian thought that being poor in itself is a virtue and the Hindu thought that being well-born in itself is a virtue. If the latter is wrong, the former is equally
wrong as well. Virtue needs to be earned – rich, poor, well-born, low-born – this rule should apply to all (and therein lies equality).  Whatever we
achieve – be it money and possessions, name and fame, moral superiority or respect – it should all be earned, merited, worked for. And that makes
some people extraordinary and rightly so.  Equality is in having an equal right to try, an equal right
to be recognized for extraordinary achievement. I do however believe that all men regardless of their achievement have right to dignity, respect, freedom and equality before law.


BTW Your comment ‘trapped because of
karma which defines what your soul has done before it became your own soul’ is odd on two counts – (1) the soul is always once own – it takes on
different bodies. So saying ‘before it became your soul’ is not meaningful. It was always yours and always will be. (2) we do not consider Karma to be trapping but a very fair system of
reaping-what-you-sow. In fact you are NEVER trapped because instead of just getting one chance of getting it right, you have as many opportunities as you need.



yves 03/07/2011 22:41



Hello Suja,


Your meritocratic vision of society is fine, but for one flaw; and that's that it's harder to be equal to the rest of society when your are born poor than when you're born rich. A child born in a
wealthy environment will have an advantage in health, in education, in recognition, in everything. Equality for him will start at a much more reachable line, and the race to Finish will be much
easier.


As for your comment on karma, thanks for the correction: even though I try my best to understand how Hinduism "works", I don't always get it! Can you explain me (briefly, or direct me to some
explanatory website, perhaps) what it the hindu doctrine of the soul? If you say that the soul was always "you": do you consider that "you" was another body before this incarnation?


Your point (2) was very clear, many thanks. And thank you again Suja for taking so many pains to comment and explain.



Suja 01/07/2011 08:24



What a nice review! This is one of the films I have been meaning to re-watch for the sake of its music which, of course, I know very well. But
like Harvey, I’ve seen it last on DD eons ago (Probably the same interrupted emission that Harvey saw!) and remember nothing of it.


Filmmakers in India (even great ones like Bimal Roy) are in the habit of showing characters with no shades of grey; it sounds as if this movie
is the same. Can they not show priests who stick to old caste values (thats what they know and believe in) but are kind in other ways? Can we not have a zamindar with an eye for young women but
who runs his zamindari in a fair way? I have the same grouse about making all poor people look like saints; I have known good and bad amongst the poor. In fact, I have often observed that the
most exploitative people are not the rich (they can be carelessly generous at times) but its people with just a little more power than the ones around them. I fear that the subliminal message
from films like these is ‘ When you have power, exploit it to the fullest’. Its a sad message.


I do like however this concept of ‘ testing’ in books and films; setting up an extraordinary situation and see how the characters will react.
Totally unrelated to this film, but an excellent ‘ test’ book I remember is ‘ On the beach’ by Nevil Shute where people await the end of the world after an atomic war. Its interesting to see what
extraordinary situations make of ordinary individuals.


I’ll like to think about your moral-of-the-story ‘ Virtue can never be created under pressure’. No? What about war heroes who sacrifice
themselves for others? What about parents who starve to keep their children alive (is there more pressure than hunger?). But I think you are not talking of pressures like that...


But the concept of the hero-as-the-ordinary-man – well, that’s not for me
J I am a fan of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and its message of objectivism
& ethical egoism influenced me very early in life so even though her theories are flawed in places, I remain her fan and a believer in meritocracy.


Cheers. Suja



yves 01/07/2011 11:41



Hello Suja,


Thanks for the appreciation! I suppose the tendency to show characters who are either all black and all white is justified in a story which needs to be pedagogical: too many nuances and the
message doesn't come out as clear, but some Indian film-makers (I'm thinking of Shyam Benegal) have succesfully managed to recreate realistic characters who are flesh and blood, complex ones. The
film Fire by Deepa Mehta is also a case in point. And I concur with you about the manicheistic trend of making the poor always seem good and the rich always bad. We know of course of the
opposite, and it is true that comfort and good health, up to a certain extent, make the mind more generous and attentive to others, precisely because the self's basic needs are satisfied. Yet I
believe there is a ground for having the poor sanctified, and the rich demonized. In the gospel, the condemnation of riches is unequivocal, probably because wealth puts you in a position of
satisfaction which prevents you from needing others and God. Poverty on the other hand puts in the precisely opposite attitude: you are dependent of others, and this dependency is a vulnerability
which has the favour of the Lord.


About what you say concerning the "pressure" which can create virtue: well, I hadn't thought of your excellent examples, and they do bear on the subject. You can indeed "artificially" create
virtue through compulsory sacrifice, because once it is accepted as inevitable, the pressure becomes a direct cause for virtue, and it defines it. I was thinking of the pressure of a reward, like
when children, in order to get some cake which they know can only be got if they are recognised good, tell their maa "you know this morning I cleaned the yard", and this is hypocritical because
even if it's true, only others are the judges of your virtue.


Finally about the ordinary hero and meritocracy - that's a difficult question. I was suggesting in the review that men are all equal politically, on the basis of their equal citizenship, and that
this is essential, otherwise you cannot establish a true democracy: one man, one vote. This principle needs an equality which is independent of personal worth. But it's true of course that this
political equality doesn't amount to a moral equality: and the villagers in the film have no problem admitting that the postmaster is indeed the "best man", morally speaking. So perhaps, one
could say that the concept of ordinariness and that of heroism can coincide if the virtuous action is invisible? As soon as heroism becomes visible to all, you cannot be "ordinary" any more,
because then everybody quotes you as an example, and this sets you apart from the group.  Tell me what you think!



dustedoff 01/07/2011 07:24


What a wonderful review, Yves. Parakh is one of my favourite films (and yes, I love O sajna barkha bahaar aayi - as also Mila hai kisi ka jhumka, which I thought had very sweet lyrics!) What also
endears me especially to this film is the simplicity of it all - it has no big stars. (Okay, Motilal had once been a star, but he was long past those days, and Sadhana was well before her big
days). It's all character actors. I like the often tongue-in-cheek comment on society throughout the film. Superb.


yves 01/07/2011 12:00



Thanks Madhu for your kind words and your faithful appreciation


What you say about "character actors" in fact has an importance, because if Bimal Roy had chosen important and well-known actors, he might not been so at ease to go about his business of making
people understand this question of virtue. As I was saying in my answer to Suja's message, public recognition and notoriety change the perception you have of somebody: it's easier to imagine that
a well-known person has virtues and value, simply because if this person is well-known, there must be a reason. So choosing well-known actors might have deflected the understanding of the message
of the movie. On the other hand, choosing "ordinary" actors goes well with the theme.



Banno 01/07/2011 05:52



Lovely review, Yves. It's a film that lingers on in one's memory long after one has seen it. Indian society is rightly like you said, wealth-worshipping, and of course, superiority is also
measured by caste, which being a measure of the good one has done in one's past life, is therefore a very accurate measure of excellence.



yves 01/07/2011 11:54



Hello Banno,


You raise a very interesting question, that of excellence as defined by caste. Indeed, if your caste is a measure of your karma, it reflects a sort of objective goodness which has to be taken
into account by others. So when a brahmin, say, is designated to become a village chief, nobody says nothing because of his caste. He might well be a morally ordinary person, his caste carries
the virtue. This works at the other end too: a dalit will never consider himself worthy of anything, because he knows, like everybody around him that, if he's a dalit it means he somehow deserves
to be one, and that anyway society is structured in that way. The efforts he will have to make in order to have his worth recognised will be double or treble, only he was unlucky to be born in
that caste.


Of course for Christianity, all this is wrong because christians believe in the individual soul, which belongs to each individual person, and therefore cannot be passed on to another. Each body
is created with its individual soul, and what you make of it during your lifetime is what it will remain for ever after life (more or less, there is always God's mercy and love to be taken into
account). But in Hinduism, people are trapped because of karma which defines what your soul has done before it became your own soul. Am I right in interpreting things in this way?



harvey 30/06/2011 17:28



Great review once again, yves!


I saw the film nearly 30 years back on DD, but can't remember much from those days, most probably also due to the fact, that on that Sunday, we had power failure and thus couldn't see much part
of the film.


Love your sentence on opening the closed fist to recieve! :-)



yves 30/06/2011 18:38



Thanks for your appreciation and support Harvey, it's always very nice to get such comments.


You made me laugh with your memory of ole' Doordarshan, it's not the first I get, you can imagine. Back in the 80s, in France we also used to have shortages and "pauses" in the programmes, but
the days had already gone by when they actually had nothing to broadcast and the channels resorted to showing us a little train travelling through the countryside, on a tune I can still
remember... Can you imagine that today, with their preciou$$ airing slots?


cheers