Dir. Sushil Majumdar
Sometimes a movie about horrible people can nevertheless be a satisfying watch. Two of Lal patthar's three principals are awful; Bahadur (Raaj Kumar) is vain, selfish, and sanctimonious, and Madhuri (Hema Malini) is mean, indolent, and manipulative. This movie could have been unbearable, the kind of film where you yell at the screen in annoyance and unsympathy as awful people do awful things to one another. Yet somehow it isn't. It retains just enough of a shred of sympathy for each to keep the viewer engaged in their troubles.
Raaj Kumar Bahadur, also known as Gyanshankar Rai, is a man of great wealth and royal birth, troubled by his family history (which, in the usual style, is set out in confusing exposition in the first 15 minutes of the film). With a villanous father, a saintly mother, and a possibly insane grandfather, Bahadur perceives himself as a cursed duality, a mixture of two very different types of personality. He vows celibacy (so as not to propagate the damaged family line), as well as temperance. Then, while out on a tiger hunt, he rescues a girl who had been kidnapped by dakus. Bahadur returns the girl to her family, who abuses her terribly. Learning of this, Bahadur essentially buys her from them. Moved by her beauty and apparent fragility, he falls in love with her, christens her Madhuri, and makes her his queen in all but formality - he does not marry her.
Oh my goodness she is lovely.
Duality is a running theme in Lal patthar. Bahadur has the blood of two very different families running in his veins, and his two names reflect that. He also shifts from one persona to another when he meets Madhuri, turning abruptly from his celibate and teetotaling ways. Madhuri starts her life as a village girl, Saudamini, but Bahadur wants to remake her according to his own model of the ideal woman: refined, educated, literate in English and Hindi. Indeed, you know things are not going to go well for Bahadur and Madhuri when he says this:
That trick never works!
Sure enough, Madhuri does not take all that well to playing Eliza Doolittle to Bahadur's Henry Higgins. There is some interesting commentary on the relativity of cultural values lurking here: Bahadur frets disgustedly at Madhuri's rural-accented Hindi, while Madhuri in turn giggles at her English tutor's English-accented Hindi. And the English tutor makes no headway with Madhuri. "Please excuse me if I put it bluntly," she explains to Bahadur as she resigns her post. "Rani sahiba is rather dull-headed." What Rani sahiba is, in fact, is bullheaded; Madhuri seems more uninterested than unable to learn what Bahadur wants her to master. And while she may not acquire much refinement, she takes very readily to the role of mistress of the manor; in no time she is fluent at abusing the servants.
Though one has the sense that Bahadur's love for Madhuri fades as she fails to conform to his ideal imaginings, she remains mistress of his home. The years pass, and the ever sharp-tongued Madhuri gleefully points this out to Bahadur, who seems to have spent a decade in a haze and is shocked to discover grey at his temples. Annoyed at Madhuri, Bahadur trades up to a younger model - a poor, talented, lovely singer named Sumita (Rakhee).
This time, Bahadur marries, earning him a promotion from Rajkumar to Raja, and making Sumita his actual queen. But Madhuri remains the de facto head of the household, mistress not just of the servants, but of Bahadur himself - when she beckons, he will drop anything, even Sumita, and go to her. Despite this evident hold on him, Madhuri burns with envy. She plants the seeds of jealousy in Bahadur's mind, questioning Sumita's relationship with her childhood sweetheart, Shekhar (Vinod Mehra), recently returned from abroad.
And rather dashing he is.
The loyal Sumita is the innocent victim here of Bahadur and Madhuri's pathological relation. Though she would, in fact, rather be married to Shekhar, Sumita shoulders her fate stoically as a good Indian girl should, and wants nothing more than to please Bahadur and win his attention. It's hard not to feel sorry for her, thrown into this ridiculous household dominated by these two awful people.
And yet part of what makes Lal patthar so much fun is that all of the characters are somehow sympathetic, even the wretched ones. Bahadur is pathetic, despite his power and wealth; as misguided as his actions are, they are accessible. He is a deeply confused and troubled fellow. And as vicious as Madhuri gets, one never forgets the abuses she suffered at the hands of her family when Bahadur first rescued her from the dakus; there is an echo there of Sita's treatment after her encounter with Raavan, and the mythological allegory inclines one to leniency with her even when she is at her most loony. Moreover, at the film's conclusion, Madhuri achieves a full redemption that is deeply satisfying.
The sum of all of this is a simply terrific movie that gets better the more I think about it. It has some smashing songs and a fabulous visual aesthetic. Both heroine and anti-heroine are stunning; Hema Malini in particular looks delicious, and the relish with which she chews up the scenery playing this complex character is more than a treat. And then there is Raaj Kumar. The man is a terrible, terrible actor, the godfather of the sort of "stare acting" later perfected by the likes of Ajay Devgan and Abhishek Bachchan.
But God help me, I love him. He's just so damned dashing, whether arrayed in traditional finery, a handsome slim-cut western suit, dressed for the hunt in stylish khaki and pith, or reclining while flanked by his hookah and his most prized trophy. And then there are WIGS and DISGUISES.
Dear God, the wigs and disguises.
Truly, need I say more?
Well maybe just a little more.
Lal patthar is available to watch with subtitles on YouTube. So is its Bengali original, by the way, starring Uttam Kumar and also directed by Sushil Majumdar. I started watching the Bengali film with Beth and will finish it in the next couple of days. Stay tuned.