Should a spirited, intelligent young woman follow her heart and trust it to lead her to the right place? Or should she submit to her duty, and trust that doing so will lead her to the right place? This is the question raised by Basu Chatterjee's Swami ("master"), but the film's answer is ambiguous.
Mini (Shabana Azmi) is a bright village girl with academic ambitions and an appetite for literature and philosophy. Her intellectual uncle (Utpal Dutt) indulges her brainy bent, encouraging her studies and running interference between Mini and her mother (Sudha Shivpuri), a pious widow whose only concern is to see Mini married, and quickly. Mini has a nascent love affair with her neighbor Narendra (Vikram), the zamindar's son, a student in Calcutta who on his frequent visits brings her Victorian literature, listens raptly to her discourse, and is bold enough to kiss her opportunistically when they are caught together in a rainstorm. Circumstances conspire against Mini and Narendra, though, and soon Mini finds herself married against her wishes to a wheat trader Ganshyam (Girish Karnad) from a neighboring village. Plunged into despair, Mini struggles to become accustomed to life in her unwanted marriage and her new home, where Ganshyam's stepmother seems to favor Mini's sisters-in-law and where her new husband treats her with a patience that she finds perplexing.
Swami feels like an artier version of Hum dil de chuke sanam; though it differs in the details, the basic elements are quite similar: A spunky but fundamentally immature young woman falls in love with one man but is impelled to marry another; she mopes miserably for some period of time while her husband is kinder to her than she is in any state to appreciate; and when her husband, astonishingly, lets her follow her heart, she comes to realize which man she truly belongs with. And like Hum dil de chuke sanam, it's an engaging story (so much the more so when one imagines watching it from the perspective of a society in which many marriages are arranged). The first 45 minutes are the most entertaining, as we get to know Mini and her uncle, and watch her relationship with Narendra blossom. Mini is full of life, cheeky and smart; she takes as much pleasure in gathering jasmine flowers and weaving them into garlands as she does arguing the finer points of philosophy, and it is a joy to watch her enjoying her life.
After Mini's marriage, Swami bumps off the rails a bit. It's somewhat interesting to see Ganshyam tolerating her sullen, withdrawn behavior, and once she starts to appreciate his extraordinary kindness the film picks up again. But there's only so much petulant moping we need to see, and Mini's interactions with the other female members of her household are grating. As the film's conclusion is inevitable, it could be a bit swifter about getting there. The highlight of the second half is a surprise guest appearance by Dharmendra and Hema Malini as a pair of cheery wedding dancers, whose jaunty song about a young woman running away with her love not only foreshadows the film's climax, but also comes closest to bringing a smile to Mini's face as anything else in the second hour of the film.
The most problematic aspect of Swami is the price that Mini pays for the reward of Ganshyam's gentle protection. It's not the loss of Narendra that is troubling - young love comes and goes - but rather the sacrifice of what really set Mini apart from her sisters-in-law and presumably from other village girls as well: her love of books and studying. At the beginning of the film, Mini announces proudly that she is in the middle of her B.A. studies; these are dropped without a word. Without Narendra running errands to Calcutta, Mini's supply of new books is cut off; even if Ganshyam is kind enough to supply them for her, though, with whom is she going to debate them? It is no wonder that Mini is still crying and depressed, even after the story's resolution.
It is this confusion of message that leaves me most perplexed about the film's intentions. Mini has certainly come to appreciate Ganshyam's warmth, but the overwhelming sense is that she has chosen him out of duty and propriety rather than out of love - and worse, has forfeited any venture outside the traditional woman's sphere. The film seems to say that doing the dutiful thing will get a girl a kind husband who buys her saris and electric fans, and that should be a sufficient reward.
(A more Shabana-oriented look at Swami will be posted in the next few days at Sounds Like Power.)