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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.