Dir. Sushil Majumdar
Not long ago I reviewed the 1971 Hindi version of this movie, starring Raaj Kumar, Hema Malini, and Rakhee, which I enjoyed very much. The comments on that post included a very interesting comparison of that movie with the original, Bengali version of the film.
This one has Uttam Kumar instead of Raaj Kumar (Bahadur), Supriya Devi instead of Hema Malini (Madhuri), and in the role that later went to Rakhee, Srabani Basu (Sumita). It is somewhat different in style from the Hindi version; for lack of a better way to put it, the latter is just more filmi somehow. And since both stories are equally ridiculous, for me the Hindi version works better, seeming to own its ridiculousness. Both are melodramatic, but the Hindi version seems more comfortable in that skin. The garish visual design, Hema Malini's scene-chewing, Raaj Kumar's intense stare-acting - all just add up to a more entertaining, if not objectively better, movie. That said, I do think Supriya Devi's Madhuri is a more engaging character than Hema Malini's version; with an air of greater maturity, less shrillness and more sympathy on her side. (Plus, how gorgeous is Supriya Devi? Guh.) However, Rakhee also a much more interesting Sumita than the bland, retreating version that Srabani Basu renders in the Bengali version of the film.
At any rate, who is better company for watching Bengali films than Beth? No one, that's who, and so it was with Beth that I sat down to watch Lal pathar. During, we tried to make sense of the story, compared Bengali melodramatic style with Hindi, and discussed the obligatory name-drops of Rabindranath Tagore (this film contains two of those, plus Rabindrosangeet, leading me to speculate that Bengali films must achieve a certain Tagore density for certification, much the way films produced in Canada must have a minimum number of Canadian actors in them. Beth dubbed this idea "TagCon.") Afterward, she and I had a roundup chat about the film, and the remainder of this post comprises that discussion, with a few light edits.
Beth: Here's a question for you: based on having seen the Hindi remake, did you have expectations of the Bengali original, and if so did it meet them?
Carla: I might have had expectations, although I am not sure I could have articulated them in advance. Silverambrosia's comments on my review of the Hindi version gave me the sense that that the Bengali film would be more solemn, more cinematic - less filmi. And, it was. I don't think I was expecting it to be less fun, which it also was.
What about you, given your knowledge of Bengali films of the period and Uttam Kumar's films - what were your expectations?
Beth: You had showed me the excellent wiggery in the Hindi version, so I hoped for that - and got it right away. But as for actual Bengali cinema-based things, it was slightly more melodramatic than I would have expected, almost all owing to him being such an ass. The other movie I've seen Uttam be an ass in, he was the villain, quite clearly, so it wasn't a surprise. The way Lal Pathar depicted that was fun but also kind of silly at times: great use of shadows and all, but maybe the almost literal mustache twirling was a bit much, like when he's off hunting and is cackling and smoking while waving his gun.
Carla: In particular about Bahadur being a jerk: in the Hindi movie, the Raaj Kumar version of Bahadur is just as much of a jerkwad as the Uttam Kumar version. Both Bahadurs are awful, and both are loony. But I find Raaj Kumar's version a more sympathetic character. He remains pitiable, while Uttam Kumar is mostly just mean.
Beth: Agree - he is mean. And there's no explanation or context for it beyond "I am a rich male oh and by the way there is madness/alcoholism in my family."
Carla: I don't think it's explained more in the Hindi version.
Beth: He's also a hypocrite, since he flips out with jealousy over Sumita's past love while HIS LOVER IS IN THEIR HOUSE.
Carla: I think it is something about the performance that makes Uttam Kumar seem meaner than Raaj Kumar.
Beth: Uttam Kumar does smug pretty well, I'd say. One of his strengths is nonchalance and I think here he twists it into uncaring.
Carla: Raaj Kumar seems tortured throughout. And RK's Bahadur really loses his shit when he realizes ten years have gone by.
Beth: Uttam does not seem tortured at all, I'd say?
Carla: I agree. Nonchalance was a good word to apply to it.
Beth: There's no one and nothing with any...influence, is that the right word? over him. He's just a blasé self-centered bastard with no one to keep him in check.
Carla: As for the women, I'd say the reverse is true—Supriya's Madhuri is much more likable and sympathetic than Hema's Madhuri in the Hindi version.
Beth: Do you think that's dialogue or the actress or....?
Carla: A little of both. Among the few scenes I noticed in the Hindi version that were missing in the Bengali version were Madhuri being shrill and cruel to the servants.
Beth: Oh right. I wish we had known more about her before Bahadur finds her, you know? We have no idea what her pre-trauma personality was like, really.
Carla: That's another aspect that's in the Hindi but missing in the Bengali: her family abusing her. After he first saves her from the dakus and returns her to her family—I gather from her widow's garb that they are in fact her in-laws, and they are horrid to her—and so it is quite distasteful when she turns around and treats Bahadur's household like crap.
Beth: Oh yeah, then that's extra bad. Do you think THAT, coupled with his descent into jerkitude, indicates that the film is saying that one really is bound in by what one inherits or learns early in life?
Carla: There is some interesting point being made there for sure.
Beth: He's so adamant that he won't marry because his family is so awful, but then all of a sudden he does.
Carla: He practically makes a choice to act like the criminally insane father's side of his family. He picks up the drinking right after he meets Madhuri; his servants are shocked by that. But yes, after the 10 years go by, and he goes off the deep end —when Madhuri asks him why he has suddenly decided to get married he walks her through the family history by way of answer.
Beth: Did that make sense? I don't remember.
Carla: I am not sure it did, but that might be because I find it hard to keep track of the names, and who was on which side of his family.
Beth: The walk through family history should be reasoning for why NOT to.
Carla: You would think! His reasoning and changes of mind are somewhat puzzling to me. But it is clear that he is becoming progressively more insane.
Beth: I wonder why he fixates on Sumita as his bride. I know someone says to him "who'd give you their daughter" but come on, he's loaded! Lots of people would give him their daughters.
Carla: The dull Sumita (at least in the Bengali version). Yes, in the very beginning of the film, there is another royal family offering their daughter, and he declines.
One thing the movie does nicely, I think, is show how badly women get fucked over when cruel men make life-changing decisions for them. Sumita's father is as awful as Bahadur in this respect.
Beth: Oh yes. A drunk and a gambler…who somehow got his daughter educated.
Carla: True, but only for his own gain.
Beth: Just as Bahadur tries to educate Madhuri so he has someone to talk about books with, I assume. Do you think he chooses Sumita simply because she was there and had a pretty voice? That's a trait his mistress lacked.
Carla: The pretty voice, and perhaps (as you said) the education implied by the fact that she is musically skilled.
What do you think is up with Bahadur's insane jealousy, as you mentioned before?
Beth: I have thought about that but not come up with much other than no one has ever been a threat to him in any way at all before? No one has even unintentionally been in the same arena with him.
Carla: Yes!At first he seems legitimately interested in friendship with Ambarish, and it never occurs to him that there is romantic history between Ambarish and Sumita until Madhuri tells him so. That is consistent with what you are saying—it doesn't occur to him that Ambarish might be competition, because no one ever has been.
Beth: I assume he also feels somewhat betrayed by the fact no one told him there had been a romance previously. Not just with a man he is friends with but also AT ALL. Men like him would assume their baby wives are virginal in any conceivable way, right?
Carla: Yes, true. Plucked so young. And also free of anything like a sexual feeling of her own.
Beth: He's very accustomed to a woman being around for HIS sexual needs alone, since the previous woman has no life at all except what he's given her
Carla: And how! good point.
Beth: I also wonder if he's too much a solitary person at all to be married, irrespective of family trauma-drama-o-rama. He doesn't have any friends or siblings, does he?
Carla: Not that are mentioned. Just that one manservant (the one with the child bride) that he chats with from time to time.
What do you think of Madhuri?
Beth: I like her, though of course she's a bit of a pot-stirrer. I feel like she's excessively kind to him by the end. I think you brought up Stockholm syndrome? It's along those lines to me. He was horrible to her. But then again, we don't get the sense she's known anything better.
And that bystander guy gushes on about what an excellent woman she is to do that...so maybe she takes satisfaction in the virtue or something.
Carla: Do you think she feels she owes him, because at least for those 10 years she got to be something like a queen, thanks to him?
Beth: Maaaybe? Or is she just being wifely?
Carla: Or as you suggested, she has nowhere else to go.
Beth: And, as we discussed while watching, what else is she going to do, I guess?
Carla: Jinx :)
Beth: What do we think TRULY cemented the lunacy: murdering his wife and his friend OR the fact there was a baby? Or both? Or was he already gone?
Carla: The whole plot that led to her death was pretty wacko to begin with.
Beth: It wasn't clear to me how much meddling Madhuri did there. That scene where he overhears Sumita and Ambaraish and sees their silhouettes—that was authentic and NOT staged by Madhuri.
Carla: Madhuri didn't come to Agra with them, did she?
Beth: She did not. I'm not sure she actually set anything in motion, other than telling him about their past romance.
Carla: Yes, she hinted about that, and then tried to seduce Ambarish a couple of times (it is unclear to me why).
Beth: I wonder what Sumita made of Bahadur as a husband….or even just as a human being.
Carla: Bengali Sumita is so bland, unburdened by personality.
Beth: Heehee completely! I wonder if that would have suited him had he not gone krazzy4.
Carla: The Hindi Sumita (Rakhee) is much better. She at least feels like potential, like a personality waiting to burst out, and that makes her death more of a tragedy—one has the feeling she could have been good for Bahadur, if he only stopped acting like a loon about her.
Beth: My reaction to her death in the Bengali one was along the lines of "Oh Bahadur, you idiot, now you're a MURDERER too?" and much less "oh poor Sumita."
Carla: Sumita is too much of a cypher to elicit much sympathy, perhaps.
Beth: She wasn't a very specific loss. Not that there was any plot left to spend on that anyway.