बातों बातों में
Dir. Basu Chatterjee
There is something quietly appealing about movies that portray the ordinary lives of minority communities in middle-class India. Pestonjee, a movie I recently revisited, provides a somewhat dismal window into a Parsi community. Bombay's Christians, like its Parsis, are not without representation in the movies, but, like Parsis, the representations are often stereotypes or tokens - the drunken middle-aged man, the dutiful nurse, the kindly priest. Baton baton mein does something a little different, turning its lens on a community of Christians to show concerns of theirs that are nearly universally relatable.
The worries of the families of Baton baton mein are not that different from the worries of other filmi families. The Pereiras want to get their daughter Nancy (Tina Munim) married to a financially stable young man. The Braganzas want their son Tony (Amol Palekar) married to a respectable girl from a decent family. These characters have names like Nancy and Tony and Rosie and Tom; they go to church and marry in white lacy wedding dresses; and there isn't a sari or a murti to be seen throughout the film. But there is nothing about their concerns that is particular to the Christian community, and more importanlty nothing that hangs on tired Christian stereotypes.
Despite its filmi subject, Baton baton mein does not have a very filmi tone. There is no love at first sight, no "yeh shaadi nahin hogi!" (Although, when the characters go to the cinema to watch Ginny aur Johnny, this film-within-a-film features a hilarious dialogue, "main chapati pakne nahin dungi!") The romance between Nancy and Tony begins on the Bombay 9:10 local, where Nancy is ruffled by Tony admiring and sketching her pretty face. So desperate is Nancy's Uncle Tom (David Abraham) to find her a husband that he responds to Tony's ogling by inviting him to join them for a cup of tea; no leering creepster is too good for his beloved Nancy. Fortunately for all of them, Tony turns out to be a pretty nice guy, and a romance develops between him and Nancy organically and sweetly. They go on dates; they take walks along the Bandstand waterfront; they actually talk to each other.
The development of this romance, though partially shorthanded in song sequences, is satisfying and believable. Nancy, wounded from a previous attachment, is depressed and needs time to ready herself to give her heart again. Her reticence is played somewhat woodenly by Tina Munim; it is sometimes difficult to tell if her flat affect is a deliberate rendering of a melancholy young woman's detachment, or just not a terribly nuanced performace. If the latter, it is forgivable, because Nancy's frustration is sympathetic and she shows occasional sparks of agency that are truly refreshing. After all, this young woman is pretty sure she can get by without a man at all, and earns a very respectable Rs.700 per month, compared to Tony's provisional Rs.300, which Nancy's mother Rosie (Pearl Padamsee) finds quite disappointing. For his part, Tony is simply not sure he's ready to commit to something as life-changing as a marriage. And so their courtship proceeds at a pace that is measured at best; when they are still dating with no talk of shaadi after a perfectly plausible four months, Rosie begins to lose patience.
The film's title suggests conversation, things spoken, and indeed much of Baton baton mein's conflict comes from things people say, especially the garrulous Rosie, who cannot keep herself from blurting out personal questions and aggressive verbal shoves in the direction of marriage, to Nancy's repeated mortification. Despite the title, though, any tension between the principals themselves arises because of the things they do not say, but rather assume. After an embarrassing clash between Nancy's mother and Tony's at the cinema, the two young people avoid eye contact on the 9:10, each one believing him or herself the aggrieved party and yet presuming the other is taking offense. Resolution is only possible when the two finally stop listening to the constant prattle of well-meaning but irritating interlopers, and start listening to each other. Yet, ironically, this only happens because of the intervention of Tony's father (Arvind Deshpande), suggesting that a subtle balance is needed between exercising youthful independence and heeding the wisdom of family elders.
Weaving in and out of this light drama are some delightfully funny side characters, like an elderly aunt (Leela Mishra) who repeatedly drops by claiming she can't stay and then stays for days. Best of all is Nancy's violin-playing brother Saby (Ranjit Choudhury, as always seeming put-upon far beyond his young years), who serves as a sort of Greek chorus on the proceedings, both with his commentary and with his music. The latter provides better punctuation for the dialog than any comical scoring ever could. It's one of many charming touches that make Baton baton mein delicately sweet and a lot of gentle fun.