Dir. Bimal Roy
The self-sacrificing, self-effacing heroine, Kalyani (Nutan), is in prison as the film opens, serving time for a murder. Eventually, we learn Kalyani's story in flashback. She had fallin in love with a freedom fighter, Bikaash (Ashok Kumar), who promised to marry her but then disappeared. Later, Kalyani learns that Bikaash is alive and married, to a vicious harridan whom Kalyani, as a caregiver in the nursing home where the woman resides, must serve despite her abuses. In a moment of blinding rage - whether pure jealousy or a mad desire to rescue her beloved Bikaash from the prison of this horrible wife - Kalyani kills the woman with poison.
In that flashback, when Bikaash apparently abandons Kalyani, we see her suffer the harsh opprobrium meted out by villagers on a woman who is in any way disgraced. Kalyani is blameless, but the shame of being jilted makes her a laughing stock among the village women, who mock her openly. Her disgrace is borne by her father as well, of course – the men of the village harass and even physically threaten him. And he turns on her, blaming her as viciously as the villagers. For the crime of being mistreated by a man, Kalyani is scored by one and all, and run out of the village on a rail. Shamed, abused, and ridiculed, she flees to the city where her path eventually crosses that of Bikaash and his wife.
Bikaash's betrayal of Kalyani turns out to have been morally justified – he did it to advance the cause of independence for which his life is dedicated. The murder that Kalyani commits, however, has little justification; yet nearly everyone in the film who learns of it is willing to overlook and forgive it, out of some belief that Kalyani is a decent person at heart. The prison doctor, Devendra (Dharmendra, extremely young and fresh-faced, yet already squarely masculine), loves Kalyani and wants to marry her, almost without regard to her past; he shows little interest in even hearing her story. The prison warden (Tarun Bose), Devendra's friend, is so moved by Kalyani's story that he petitions for her early release even though Kalyani, in full remorse over the crime she has committed, does not want any such leniency. And the warden pleads Kalyani's case to Devendra's mother, who is initially (and quite understandably) reluctant to see her son married to a convicted murderer.
The result here is that to Kalyani's village compatriots, being abandoned by a lover is a dreadful crime for a woman to commit, worthy of shaming and expulsion from the community. But to the educated city folk who observe Kalyani in prison, even an impassioned, vicious act of murder is forgivable. I do not know what to make of this. Is the film pitting the small-minded judgment of conservative village folks against modern, cosmopolitan mercy? If the film is commenting on the leniency afforded to a pretty young woman of poise and breeding, it is not a cynical commentary; Kalyani is presented in complete sympathy, and we are clearly supposed to agree with the assessment of those who believe her self-effacing years in prison are ample punishment for her crime. Not much of a thought is spared for the victim, Bikaash's horrid, shrewish wife. If anything, the murder is expedient for the ending; it disposes of Bikaash's wife so that Kalyani's true and noble love for her true and noble freedom fighter can prevail.
Notwithstanding the puzzling message of the narrative, Bandini is visually mesmerizing, a magically beautiful movie to watch. Every shot is artfully constructed, lit as dramatically as a painting. In my favorite sequence, Devendra leaves the prison after one of his tender encounters with Kalyani. She drifts toward the high prison wall as his tonga starts away on the other side, and for a moment the two of them are there, under the same sky but separated by this wall, a palpable symbol of what connects them and the great distance between them.
The songs of Bandini are pensive and lovely. Strikingly, Kalyani is not given a song in the first half of the film – her misery and remorse are too great to permit even a mournful musical lament, I suppose. The result is some very interesting songs picturized on other prisoners, who do sing, hopeful tunes of the expectation of better times to come, or laments of family members lost to time and distance. These songs show (with some romanticizing) the sadness and drudgery of life in a prison. In “O panchhi pyare”, women do their chores, pounding spices and grinding grain in a rhythm that makes the work and the time go a little more smoothly, until a guard comes and chastises them for showing signs of good cheer.
Another of the film's superb songs is the gorgeous "Mat ro maata lal tere", a stirring patriotic martyr's song, proudly sung by a freedom fighter on his slow final procession toward the gallows. These songs add a richer and more expansive texture to the movie than one sometimes sees in movies of the era. There is more going on here than an ingenue frolicking in a meadow or a pair of lovers running around trees. Bandini is a story of one woman's downfall, bondage, and redemption, but it acknowledges a broader world in which that story is embedded.