Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bimal Roy's Parineeta

Bimal Roy's Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953) is based on a 1914 novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (or Chatterji, as the film's titles have it), who also wrote Devdas. And there are some striking parallels between the two stories. (Of course, two years after Parineeta Roy also filmed a famous version of Devdas.)

Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), the son of a wealthy Brahmin family, discovers that he's fallen in love with Lalita (Meena Kumari), the young ward of the family in the neighboring house. Shekhar has known Lalita since she was eight years old and came to live with her uncle Gurucharan and his wife after the death of her parents. The two families live in connecting houses, and Lalita spends as much time in Shekhar's household as in her own. Shekhar has taken on the role of teasing elder brother to Lalita—we first see her doing lessons at Shekhar's desk. But Lalita has now grown into a beautiful young woman, and Shekhar's feelings have become more tender. (In the novel Lalita is 13 (!); Meena Kumari was 20 at the time of filming.)

Shekhar's grasping father Navin  (Badriprasad) has other plans for Shekhar, however. He wants to arrange his marriage with the daughter of Choudary, another wealthy Brahmin who has promised Navin a dowry of 10,000 rupees. Shekhar's mother Bhuvaneshwari (the striking Pratima Devi), though, defies Navin and insists that Shekhar must choose his own bride:

[Un]like our times, partners cannot be chosen on parents' choice

Shekhar makes his choice when Lalita's young cousin is staging a marriage for her dolls. Wedding garlands are made, and Lalita playfully garlands Shekhar. He then meaningfully places a garland on her to complete the ritual.

Why did you garland me? I'm not worthy of you.

Lalita tries to resist, but Shekhar confesses his love:

Today I realised that I cannot live without you.

From this moment on, Lalita considers herself married to Shekhar. Immediately afterwards, all the girls of the family sing "the auspicious song" for the marriage of the dolls, but Lalita hears every verse as though it is meant for her:

Lalita's uncle Gurucharan (Nazir Husein) is overdue on repaying a loan to Navin. Gurucharan needed the money to pay the ruinous dowry for the marriage of one of his daughters, and now can't even pay the interest on the loan. While Navin becomes more and more insistent in his demands for payment, secretly he's pleased: Gurucharan has put up his house as collateral, and once Navin can seize it he plans to evict his troublesome neighbors, raze their home and build a second house.

To the rescue comes Giren (Asit Baran), the kind, good-looking, wealthy and lower-caste uncle of Lalita's friend Charu. Giren too is smitten with Lalita, and when he learns of Guruchand's plight he gives him the money to repay Navin—without interest. Enraged by the thwarting of his plans and by rumors that Lalita will marry Giren, Navin erects a wall between the two houses. The wall seems to be mainly a symbolic gesture, as Lalita and her cousins still enter Shekhar's house whenever they want:

Lalita's cousin climbing into Shekhar's house

Shekhar also hears the rumors of Lalita's marriage, and is deeply hurt:

Your uncle has sold you and made money.

Gurucharand takes his family away so that they don't have to live in proximity to Navin; the haunting "Chali Radhe Rani" (music by Arun Kumar Mukharji, lyrics by Bharat Vyas) echoes the anguish of the two lovers:

Shekhar finally consents to the engagement with Choudary's daughter; when news reaches Lalita, she returns with her family and tries to speak to Shekhar, but he refuses to hear what she has to say:

Won't you listen to me?

Will Shekhar agree to a loveless marriage? Will Lalita finally accept the kind and generous Giren? Will the families be reconciled, or remain forever at odds?

Parineeta is beautifully observed and structured. Roy's depiction of the two households is humane and deeply sympathetic, and all of the principle actors give excellent performances. (I was especially delighted by Lalita's vivacious 9-year-old cousin, I believe played by Baby Sheela—someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)

The problem with Parineeta is Shekhar. Like Devdas, he's petulant, spoiled, a bit cowed by his domineering father, and so convinced of his own righteousness that he doesn't bother to listen to anyone else. Throughout the second half of the film I was hoping that Lalita would realize that she would be better off with the devoted and selfless Giren. But my own wishes for an alternative ending aside, Parineeta richly deserves its classic status.

One final note: the "Bollywood Platinum Collection" DVD of Parineeta is taken directly from a not very pristine VHS source. Be forewarned that, as you can see from some of the stills, the image quality is not very good, and at times you can see places where the tape was creased or damaged.


  1. Bimal Roy films are a treat to watch like Bandini, Sujatha etc. I haven't seen this verions of parineeta yet. Seems to be another Bimal Roy classic.

    Have you seen the 2005 Vidya Balan version of Parineeta?

  2. Filmbuff, we did see the 2005 Parineeta, directed by Pradeep Sarkar and written by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, shortly after it came out. I thought the best thing about it was Vidya Balan's radiant performance as Lalita (it was her first starring role). Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt were also very good as Shekhar and Girish, respectively.

    Perhaps it was this film that inspired Sanjay and Vidya's pairing in the excellent Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006, also produced by Chopra). The later Parineeta's emotional temperature runs hotter and it has a slightly different ending than Bimal Roy's melancholy masterpiece. It's well worth seeing.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. seems like there are at least 4 versions of the movie, the earliest being from the 1940s
    just wondering if it's such a common trend in Bollywood...
    thanks for your interesting article!

  4. Annie, as is also true of both Hollywood and the BBC, Indian cinema has a definite tendency towards remakes—particularly of highly regarded literary sources. As you point out, Parineeta has been made into a film at least four times. Chattopadhyay/Chatterji's novel Devdas has been adapted at least 7 times, in addition to films (such as Dev.D (2009)) that explicitly invoke the story.

    The best parallel is probably to Pride & Prejudice (there are at least a dozen versions) or A Christmas Carol (impossible to count): stories that are considered a common heritage, and which get regularly remade and adapted (in part as commentary on or homage to previous adaptations).

    Thanks for your comment!

  5. Reading this while taking a quick break from watching the film (without subtitles, so your plot summary is very helpful). I'm grateful for your comparisons to Devdas, both the work and the character, because I was getting some very Devdasian feelings as I watched. :) And a quick aside to your last comment here: I have recently become a little obsessed with identifying Devdas remakes, and at last count I have found TWELVE in Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. WHY DOES EVERYONE FEEL THE NEED TO RETELL THE TALE OF THIS VILE MAN!?!??!?! :)

    1. Beth, as usual you've posed a really interesting (and complicated) question. Devdas behaves despicably towards the naive and loving Paro, abusing her physically, emotionally and sexually. His moral cowardice, colossal self-pity, and willful self-destructiveness make him a thoroughly unpleasant character. He is redeemed only slightly (and only if you're in a particularly forgiving mood) by his late and partial recognition of the havoc he has wreaked on others and of the injustice of the social system whose privileges he has unthinkingly exploited.

      Is it possible to separate our feelings about this character from our feelings about the films that portray his story? For some the answer is clearly no. But as someone who has written a post entitled "In defense of Devdas, the movie everyone loves to hate," I've come to admire the artfulness of (for example) Sanjay Leela Bhansali's and Bimal Roy's films without feeling that I'm being invited to extend that admiration to the main character. In a similar way I think that Nabokov's Lolita is a great novel, even though its deluded child-rapist narrator Humbert Humbert inspires feelings of appalled horror.

      The second part of the question you raise is also interesting: why has this story been retold over and over in Indian cinema? Clearly for Indian filmmakers and audiences there's something about the Devdas-Parvati-Chandramukhi story that remains unresolved, no matter how many versions are produced. As an outsider I'm hesitant to speculate, but perhaps partly it has to do with the story's mythological echoes (Devdas as a Krishna-Ram hybrid and Paro as a Radha-Sita hybrid). Perhaps also a story about a privileged, callous young man who is brought face-to-face with the tragic human consequences of patriarchy, the caste system, and unearned wealth still retains relevance.

      And if so, there's still room for more interpretations. I'd very much like to see the perspectives that women writers and directors might bring to these characters. There's at least one such version: I'm very curious about the 1974 Telegu movie Devadasu, which Vijaya Nirmala directed and starred in (as Parvati). If anyone has seen it I'd be very interested in hearing about it.

      Beth, thanks again for your comment!