Recently, thanks to a couple of thoughtful visitors, discussion has revived on my review of Swami. By coincidence, the next movie I had in my queue to watch and review was, just like Swami, a Basu Chatterjee film based upon a novel by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Apne paraye ("our own and others").
Chander (Amol Palekar) is a bit of a layabout, a good-hearted man with a poor head for business and no taste for hard work. He lives, on suffrance, in the household of his absent-minded elder cousin (Utpal Dutt), a wealthy and successful Calcutta lawyer. Chander's wife Sheela (Shabana Azmi) runs the household with a stern hand, to the consternation of the laywer's weak-minded and sickly wife, Sideshwari (Ashalata). Sideshwari can't deny Sheela's domestic competence, though, and she dotes on Sheela's children as enthusiastically as her own. This fragile domestic peace is shattered when the lawyer's younger brother Harish (Girish Karnad), also a lawyer, arrives with his family and moves into the Calcutta haveli. His wife Naintara (Bharati Achrekar) is jealous of Sheela, and angry that Sheela doesn't coddle Naintara's spoiled eldest child. Naintara schemes to drive a wedge between Sheela and the impressionable Sideshwari. This tension comes to a head when Naintara manipulates Sideshwari into having Chander and Sheela and their family thrown out of the house, and exiled to the family's farmland, where matters only get worse for them.
Apne paraye has the potential to be the kind of movie I love - a taut, compelling exploration of the social problems of the joint family system through an intimate study of the lives of its characters. This is the kind of movie that Shyam Benegal does so well, and I had high hopes that between Chatterjee's delicate touch and Chattopadhyay's story, Apne paraye would shine. Unfortunately, the movie does not quite measure up. The first half, which focuses on the relationships among the women, is unsatisfyingly superficial. Zooming reaction shots and a booming soundtrack lends something like the feel of a saas-bahu serial to this otherwise delicately directed piece, and trivializes the tensions among the women by reducing them to catty jealousies over who is boss of the kitchen and who dotes on whose precious little offspring.
The movie's second half fares better, as the story moves beyond the tight confines of the crowded Calcutta homestead and begins to develop some symbolism that adds richness. Chander and Sheela are forced to face the harsh realities of the outside world, while for those who remain at home, the world almost seems to fold in on itself like a domestic ourobouros. Naintara's bitchy manipulations escalate to fever pitch, while Sideshwari implodes in weepy dithering. The men, especially Harish, overreact to the complaints of their wives, quite literally making a federal case out of a very ordinary domestic squabble. The members of the household who remain in Calcutta seem to utterly lose perspective, while Chander and Sheela face the daily cold-water splash of trying to make ends meet in the real world. Despite this potentially interesting contrast, though, the movie suffers from a facile ending, a giant "reset" in which the conflict is resolved without any sign of lasting consequences or transformation.
The best moments of the movie are those that simply reflect domestic life without trying to wring drama from them - such as the family's meals, obviously a focus of the daily rhythm of life. At mealtimes family business is transacted, grievances are aired, power is exerted and conceded, sacrifies are made, burdens are shared. In the movie's only real hint of character development, early in the film Sheela manipulates her husband and sister-in-law by refusing to eat; later, she declines to eat out of sacrifice, when there is no longer enough food to go around, and Chander shows his maturation by offering to make the sacrifice along with her.
Making six adult characters all distinguishable and human is not a trivial task for a movie, and Apne paraye does a reasonably good job of it. Naintara and Harish are a little one-dimensional in their self-absorption. Sideshwari's defining characteristic is her weakness and impressionability, but in moments when the movie is steering clear of melodrama, there is some interesting tension in her perpetually shifting loyalties. Chander's shiftlessness is balanced by his evident good intentions and affection for his family. Sheela is the most complex of all, and most of that complexity is thanks to Shabana Azmi's performance (and Basu Chatterjee's direction), as it is conveyed in subtleties of expression and body language. While she is stern and dour in her direction of the household and discpline of her children (including the adult-child, her husband Chander), Sheela often betrays her tender side with a small indulgent smile.
For every Chattopadhyay adaptation I have seen and been to some degree disappointed by - from Swami to Devdas to Parineeta - my lukewarm reviews have been met with staunch defenses based on the novel's texts. I have no doubt that Chattopadhyay's novel (entitled Nishkriti) is better than Apne paraye, and presents the characters and their relationships with more depth and subtlety. But I write about movies, not the books they are based upon, and I do believe that a movie - even an adaptation - has to stand on its own strengths and answer for its own weaknesses. In its best moments, Apne paraye perhaps offers glimpses of the social insights for which Chattopadhyay is renowned. On balance, though, it misses the mark - not by much, but by just enough to be frustrating.