बीस साल बाद
Just recently, I wrote about the necessary mental game of forgiving misogyny and regressiveness in older movies. In those comments, I observed that some movies make this easier to do than others, for reasons both discernible and ineffable. For Bees saal baad ("twenty years later"), a tremendous hit in its time, eye-rolling regressiveness is only one of many ways in which the movie is so dated and weak as to be a tough slog - one that seems to take bees saal to watch.
The movie looks great on paper. It features an effervescent, ingenuous, almost adolescent Waheeda Rehman; this is not the sad-eyed, grave, gauzy girl of Guru Dutt's masterpieces. It introduces the alleged charm of Biswajeet to Hindi cinema. It is a visually atmospheric, creepy suspense-mystery that is compared to "The Hound of the Baskervilles," although it is notably hound-free. And the movie must have resonated along several dimensions in its time - it was Hindi films' highest grossing hit of 1962.
And yet to my modern, jaded eye, Bees saal baad is an unintentionally hilarious mess, a suspense thriller unburdened by any suspense or thrill. An absurd parade of creepies populates its roster of murder suspects. There is a stiff, underspoken doctor (Madan Puri, whom I now believe is in every movie, to a first-order approximation), who wears improbably shiny shoes, though he lives in a swamp. A servant, Laxman (Dev Kishen), who appears to be the love-child of Lurch and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, delivers his lines with a wide-eyed unfocused stare and a deliberation that rival Madhubala in the equally moody-ridiculous Mahal. There is a strange man on crutches (Sajjan) who is not at all what he appears; early on in the movie we learn that he can walk unaided. His sidekick is a sinister man with an enormous mustache and matching eyepatch. And since a murder mystery is apparently not sinister enough without a supernatural element, there is a ghost, a payal-wearing apparition who jangles ephemerally past each murder scene. When the mystery really gets going, we hear of men in disguises or misleadingly wearing one another's clothes, the story takes on the aspect of a Scooby Doo mystery - and I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!
Despite the constant lurking presence of this array of suspiciously-behaving freaks, though, the film's hero Kumar (Biswajeet) is thoroughly nonplussed. Kumar's grandfather and uncle were both murdered there, and as the heir to the estate it is widely presumed around the village that he is the murderer's next target. But Kumar seems indifferent to all this. Unlike the insufferably shrill and moronic obligatory comic sidekick, the private detective Gopichand (Asit Sen), Kumar shows no interest in bringing his ancestors' killer to justice, no curiosity about lingering curses on the family engendered by his grandfather's lecherous crimes, and no fear for his own safety. And Kumar is as bland to watch as he is unimpressed by tales of ghostly revenge.
Only Waheeda Rehman offers anything really with watching, and even that pleasure is not unalloyed. She is Radha, the naive and bouncy village girl, niece of the local healer, Ramlal (Manmohan Krishna). Radha provides the only spot of color and vivacity in this heavy, swampy, village tale, and of course Kumar, so blandly indifferent to everything else, springs to playful life in her presence. And just as naturally, Radha, who apparently has never seen someone who doesn't walk with a limp or speak in a creepy halting drawl while staring into space, or who isn't 40 years older than she, falls for Kumar in turn. Waheeda ji is charming enough in the movie's best and cheeriest song, "Sapne suhana ladakpan ke", an obligatory springtime romp complete with Disneyesque bunnies and birdies, and of course, a fresh-faced ingenue prancing and praising the ephemeral joys of youth. But Waheeda ji is just so young. Some years later, such as in Guide, Waheeda ji had developed a gravitas and grace to go with all of that natural beauty, and had by then become downright hot. But that smoldering, womanly appeal is missing from the adolescent presentation of this character. She is lovely, but watching a lovely teenager doesn't grab me by the gut, if you know what I mean.
And that raises the most troubling aspects of Bees saal baad, to this viewer's modern eye. Kumar praises Radha's innocence, youth, naïveté; he infantilizes her, making explicit that what attracts him to her are her most girlish, immature qualities. And the idea that a grown man could perceive these adolescent traits and find them sexually appealing is, in a word, icky. I know this is a common trope in cinematic romance (and not just Hindi cinema either), and there are almost certainly movies for which I've been willing to overlook it. Here, though, it pricks at me throughout.
Matters are not improved by the attitude of Radha's doting uncle Ramlal. He is so mortified by Radha's conduct with Kumar (on one occasion she innocently visits Kumar's mansion at night), that he threatens suicide. His melodramatic selfishness puts a bold underscore on Radha's value to him: not her happiness, not the pleasure of her company, but her notional virginity (for even the suggestion of its compromise sets him off) is her value. How can a movie spell out more explicitly that the value of a charming young girl is not the breath of fresh air she brings to this dank village, not the thinking she might do with her mind or the beauty she might create with her hands and voice, but the sanctity and purity of what lies between her legs, and the preservation of its appearance of pristine chastity for whatever man is lucky enough to pluck her from the stagnant pond in which she grows.
Again, Bees saal baad is hardly the first or the last Hindi film to subject its heroine, and its viewers, to this kind of value system. But as I wrote before, it seems to take a certain frame of mind, and a movie that has a lot else to offer, to overlook the sour taste it leaves. Bees saal baad just doesn't work for me in so many ways - the dated, self-conscious moodiness, the contrivance of the story, the blandness of the hero - that by the time Ramlal's rantings burst forth I am so predisposed to roll my eyes that there's just no getting past them. It's the coup de grace on a movie that, in so many ways, doesn't pass the test of time.