Saraswati Chandra, the last tragedy
araswati Chandra (Govind Saraiya, 1968, last Bollywood movie in B & W) tells the story of a young aristocrat, Saraswati (Manish), who is indifferently raised by his step-mother and yet grows up and becomes a compassionate person who has lofty ideas and decides to do without his personal happiness without informing his father, who fixes his marriage to Kumud (Nutan), an educated girl from a rich family. Saraswati decides to cancel the engagement and writes to Kumud to inform her. But soon she replies and soon the two keep on exchanging letters. Soon Saraswati decides to defy the customs and pays a visit to his fiancée. The two soon serenade and a short-lived romance takes place. Soon Saraswati returns home after promising Kumud and her family that he will return. However, on his return a family feud takes place and Saraswati writes to Kumud that he is not able to marry her (the IMDb synopsis stops here). This triggers a series of misunderstandings, which end up in Kumud’s marriage to a rich but illiterate suitor named Prabhat (Ramesh Deo). She is forced to marry because of family pressure. But as soon as she joins her husband at his palace, he quickly disdains her for nautch girls, and hardly hides his double life, asking her not to comment on his “weakness”.
Meanwhile, Saraswati, having forsaken his home, has been roaming the country, certainly not very far away, because he reaches Prabhat’s mansion and is found sleeping by the pool there one morning. His presence is made known to Kumud’s father in-law, who despises his son’s cheap life, and adopts Saraswati as his secretary. Of course the two former lovers meet, but Kumud is adamant about her duties, and staunchly stands up for religious traditions. Saraswati witnesses her anguished life and tries to reach out to her, but she objects: why does he interfere in their lives? She is “bohot khushi” (very happy)! Nevertheless things change, because Prabhat’s behaviour is more and more openly flirtatious, and Saraswati’s presence lasts longer and longer! One night Kumud cannot resist entering his room, and if nothing happens, Saraswati decides to leave. On his way he is caught by dacoits and left for dead in the sun. A group of holy men spot him and take him away to their hermitage where he starts leading the life of a recluse.
Things darken for Kumud. She’s chased away from Prabhat’s mansion after one of his mistresses lays her hand on a fragment of her former lover’s letters. This gives Prabhat the pretext he’s been looking for: she must go back to her mother. The blackmail works well, because if she says he’s been unfaithful, he shows the letter to everyone. Nevertheless her dignified attitude has earned her the friendship of women in her in-laws’ household, and they reveal to Prabhat’s parents that he has chased his wife out of lust and selfishness. These chase him away and he vows he will die (he does die, strangely enough, because such a weak character would hardly have the resolve). Kumud takes advantage of a halt on her way back, and tries to drown in the river. But she doesn’t die, and is retrieved by some holy women on the bank. They take her to the same temple where Saraswati is trying to atone for his sins. So they meet again!
Last episode: the two lovers are once more face to face. First Kumud cannot believe she’s bumped into him again, but submits to her fate, and accepts the senior sister’s advice that she has to do something for Saraswati. The latter, on the other hand, has a mission to fulfil: told by the guru that Prabhat is dead, he will have to break the news to Kumud. A (very static) meeting is organised: after having realised that their fate has brushed them together, they admit they are made one for the other, and love starts developing. But Kumud doesn’t know she’s a widow, and still hangs on to the hope that she might change her husband, and that her life will continue at her in-laws once she gets back there.
When Saraswati reluctantly tells her, he faces a new Kumud, who must now embrace the widow’s status. How can she hope to marry her old lover? Widows remain widows; they cannot give again what they have given once. She drifts away from him, again, led by her new duty. The only thing left is for her to convince Saraswati to marry her sister Kusum, so that she might be close to him, be “his companion”. But he refuses. He prefers to wander away once again, and walks down the mountain, fleeing her. She follows him, singing that love cannot be life’s only task, that others await one’s devotion, that you must sometimes sacrifice love in order to fulfil your destiny. The film ends with Saraswati accepting Kumud’s desire, and so sacrificing his will and hopes to devote himself to community tasks.
ne might think that this story is boringly, even sickeningly traditionalist. That duties and religious laws govern people’s lives unflinchingly. That there is no hope for feelings and the simple pleasures of the heart. That this inert and hopeless story-telling cannot succeed at the cinema because it systematically thwarts all natural and real emotions. One would not be totally wrong… Not only is love denied to the two lovers, but they fight against it (at least Kumud does), and accept to sacrifice it on the altar of religion and abnegation.
Nutan and Manish are quite good, if a little stilted sometimes, but the rest of the cast attract no particular praise. Clearly the film wasn’t made to exalt extravagant acting! But it certainly explores the psychological depths of love and sacrifice, as much as it tries to prove the point that femininity should be stronger than the petty movements of the heart. The movie also has another goal: uphold the sanctity and truth of established social rules. It doesn’t reduce feelings and desires to nothing, simply it submits them to realities that transcend them. Individuals cannot hope to transform a structure which applies not only for humanity, but also for divinity. And their best chance to secure some happiness in this world is to obey and integrate this cosmic order.
In Saraswati Chandra, We are not far from the universe of Greek or classic tragedy, where forces beyond man’s scope are at war and the story tells the necessity of obedience to these forces. This might seem dreary and far from us, but it has majesty, and he lesson comes out clear and strong: there is such a reality as fate, and wanting to change it is useless. Better understand where your place is, and submit willingly to whatever is decreed, because wanting to change this order is useless and will only lead to chaos and death. If the hero accepts (Kumud for example when she says she’s bound by the “shackles of marriage”), then he is within the order, and he can live. Otherwise, he must die.
Our civilisation on the other hand has fought against such obedience and acceptance. It has elevated the rights of the individual to a point where there are far less rules and orders to obey, where desire and instinct play a much greater role. Personal choice has replaced dire necessity. Freedom reigns supreme, and as a result, selfishness and degradation too. I do not mean to say that the society described by Govind Saraiya (who has filmed a well-known novel by Gujarati writer Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi) should be a model for ours, of course. But Kumud’s strict obedience to her ideals isn’t without a certain grandeur. She strongly believes in the religious values which she has been taught; it isn’t just passive: she wants to make them come alive, and at the same time wishes to be whole and happy. This religion hasn’t for her lost its value as soon as it goes against her desires and personal accomplishment. Rather she has accepted that if it does, then her desires will have to come second. She doesn’t just hold on to her faith when it blesses a bountiful life, and enables the soul to express its thankfulness to the Gods; but even when it means abandoning what is dearest, she believes she must do it, that such are the unfathomable ways of the divinity. This moral rectitude might seem a little excessive, but is it so obsolete?
he film’s pathos comes from the struggle she goes through, wanting to uphold her religious traditions, and at the same time feeling so passionately for Saraswati. This is the classic Cornelian situation: two lovers separated by obstacles which only serve to heighten their love, and which they renounce because their virtue is greater than their passion. And at the same time, this passion is so increased that they constantly run the risk of sacrificing their lives, wanting to die because the strain is too great. They flee from their loved one when they would like to embrace him (or her), because suddenly the dictates of virtue speak louder, and slowly drift back towards each other when they love overpowers them. It’s as if there were two heroes and two heroines: each character is alternatively a passionate lover, and a rigid ascetic.
There are some excellent moments which play on this double attraction and repulsion phenomenon, in which their freedom expresses itself now as tenderness, now as rebuff. One is during the dance Main to bhool chali babul ka desh: In spite of her despondency, Kumud is asked to perform as lead dancer and singer for some guests, among which Saraswati (who’s also been asked to attend). Along to some ravishing dance steps and moves, she sings about her marital happiness, how she’s found a second family at her in-laws’ home, how the sun and moon are beautiful, but how much more lovable is her husband, her Godhead… All this in front of Saraswati, to make him understand how determined she is to maintain her role as righteous wife. Naturally he soon cannot stand it any longer, and leaves. We can see her wince, but courageously continue, having but wiped a tear. Some might say she’s nothing but cruel; I think she’s fighting. She feels traditions are essential, and must be respected; she knows that as a woman she must uphold the social fabric of rules which her husband so shamelessly flaunts, and she wants to convince her ex-lover she’s not going to yield. So her song is a battle against the forces of destruction (inside and outside); she’s fighting for the Gods. She doesn’t flinch, or only a little, a slight moment for us to see her efforts.
Another scene takes place inside the Temple, when the pair is given time together to sort out their fate, and before Kumud has been told she’s a widow. Things have changed between the previous scene and now. She’s been chased from her home, has been saved from the waters, and is more isolated. Saraswati is sleeping (how can he sleep when his much-desired lover is next to him – well, this is tragedy, not reality!), but Kumud isn’t.
Eyes wide open, she is all senses, and slowly rises, comes near him, and recognizes that even if she cannot become his wife, he is nevertheless her God deep in her heart. She twirls gracefully in and out of sight, behind the pillars, hides behind a wall, and reaches him. She then lets herself embrace his sleeping foot. A dream ensues, in which she sees herself getting wedded to Saraswati. But when her mother gives her the marriage garland, her moral persona wakes up within the dream, and she shouts: “If a woman marries twice in one life, Religion will be in danger!” When love like a magnet brings her too close to breaking her vows, she brutally breaks free and reasserts the moral framework.
The last scene is the one at the end of the movie. Kumud has just told her beloved that she wishes him to marry her sister instead of her: Saraswati, after having refused, escapes her pleading presence and symbolically descends from the heights of sacrifice and resignation to the lowly steps of personal interest. Kumud is obliged to come down to him, and sings to him her message of generosity and forbearance. At the bottom near the lake, she asks him: “don’t you want me to be happy?” and this argument wins him over. He accepts to marry Kusum, which is the best possible compromise they can come up with.
So we can see that in this society, like the one which Vikram Seth describes in A suitable boy, love isn’t understood as the one and only feeling around which all of society should revolve. In the West, love is referred to as the religious absolute (ie, God is love in the Christian faith), and this might well sometimes justify the scale of values according to which an individual’s right to happiness through love comes first, before the weight of traditions, before society’s interests, before the needs of the community. Today’s rate of divorce in civilized societies is a witness to this radical individualism. On the other hand, Indian women have been the prisoners of customs which have shut them up and turned them into their husbands’ slaves (some bloggers feel strongly about this), and clearly the film advocates such things as marital respect and concern. But it also stresses the need for couples to base themselves on a greater bond than that of the enjoyment one can draw from love as long as it lasts. Without going perhaps as far as saying that women’s behaviour is the guarantee of religion (which is what the movie indicates), one can accept that private virtues are strongly connected to the public interest and society as a whole. And each time an excessively individualistic stance is taken, thus breaking even more the frame which we have inherited from the previous generations, society runs the risks of finding itself made up of separated and isolated particles, unable to relate to one another other than by the laws of attraction and repulsion, and thus alienated not only from each other but other from themselves as well.
Extra photos from the film here!