Thursday, June 20, 2013

Teesri Kasam

Indian cinema is often divided into commercial movies (Bollywood, Kollywood, et al.) and art films (parallel cinema). However, there are films that bridge the two categories: they have the look, subject matter, and ambiguity of parallel cinema, while using the stars (and often the song sequences) of mainstream Bollywood. Teesri Kasam (The Third Vow, 1966), directed by Basu Bhattacharya, features major stars in Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman; and in its wistful, melancholy scenario (based on Phanishwarnath Renu's short story "Maare Gaye Gulfam") it employs parallel cinema's narrative compression and simplicity of means.

Hiraman (Raj Kapoor) is a bullock-cart driver who is hired one night to transport the nautanki dancer Hirabai (Waheeda Rehman) to a village fair for her next engagement.

The sleeping Hirabai
The gorgeous cinematography of Teesri Kasam is by Subrata Mitra, Satyajit Ray's cinematographer for the Apu Trilogy, among other films. Bhattacharya himself had been an assistant to another towering figure of Bengali film, Bimal Roy. As a result, Teesri Kasam looks as though it could have been filmed in the 1950s, and that's intended as a high compliment.

The trip takes 30 hours, and over the course of the journey the naïve Hiraman and the worldly Hirabai form a friendship that for him, at least, borders on love. She insists that they call each other "Meeta"—close friend—because of the name they share ("Hira," meaning "jewel").

When they reach the banks of a river and she decides to bathe, he tells her to use the area reserved for unmarried girls. Since most men she encounters assume that she's not only sexually experienced but available, she's surprised and touched by Hiraman's insistence.

Hiraman and Hirabai at the river
Hiraman helps the long hours pass by singing songs from "older times,"  such as the lovely, sad "Sajanwa Bairi Ho Gaye Hamar" (My beloved has become my enemy):

The song tells of a woman who is forever estranged from a distant lover, and who feels alone and bereft; Hirabai's tears suggest that this is a story with personal resonance, although we are never given her backstory. Teesri Kasam is filled with superb music, composed by Shankar-Jaikishen with lyrics by Shailendra. "Sajanwa Bairi" is sung by Mukesh; the film's other playback singers include Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, and Manna Dey, among others.

As they travel, Hirabai insists that they share the hardships and pleasures of the road as equals. When Hiraman serves a lunch of rice and yogurt bought from a nearby village, Hirabai refuses to eat unless he eats with her rather than waiting for her (as his paying guest) to finish. And when they finally arrive at the fair, Hiraman buys Hirabai some tea, but won't drink any himself. When Hirabai asks him why not, he says that unmarried men shouldn't drink tea:

It generates too much heat

Hirabai's amused response:

It doesn't generate heat for me?

This sly suggestion of mutual attraction is surprising in both its subtlety and its acknowledgement of female desire and sexual agency.

Hirabai joins her dance company and invites Hiraman to come see her perform the next night. The film's wonderful dance sequences were choreographed by Lachchu Maharaj, and Rehman is a skilled and expressive dancer. In "Paan Khaye Saiya" she complains about a lover who is too caught up in his betel-leaf habit to pay her any attention; her mock-pouting expressions are delightful:

When a drunken customer starts making crude remarks about Hirabai, Hiraman becomes outraged and starts a fight. Hirabai later quarrels with him over this incident. "Are you going to fight with the whole world?" she asks him; rude and suggestive comments are clearly something she has to deal with constantly.

As are outright propositions. After her first show the local thakur (landlord) comes backstage and makes her a blunt money-for-sex offer. In the past, clearly, Hirabai has accepted similar deals, which her manager treats as a matter of course. But Hiraman's respectful treatment of her has given Hirabai a new sense of self-worth, and she refuses the thakur. He assumes that she's sleeping with Hiraman, and sneers at her choice of lover; she realizes that neither man sees her for who she really is:

In your eyes I'm a whore and in his eyes a goddess

She also realizes the impossibility of living up to Hiraman's idealization of her. One of the dances in the company's repertory is the legend of the pure and steadfast love of Laila and Majnu. "We can play Laila every night," Hirabai tells one of the other dancers, but

We will never be able to become Laila

Hirabai's illusions were thoroughly smashed long ago, and as a result she can't bear the thought of shattering Hiraman's. And although she allows herself a brief moment in which to imagine herself in the role of a rural wife and mother,

Hirabai gazing into the mirror as a demure wife

she also realizes that she is utterly unsuited to such a life. Even though she cares deeply about Hiraman, Hirabai recognizes that they inhabit different worlds. Sometimes, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, love can't conquer all, and Hirabai finds herself faced with making a Laila-like self-sacrifice...

Hirabai on the train

Teesri Kasam is a minor-key masterpiece that rewards multiple viewings. For an insightful essay about the film, please see Philip's Fil-ums.

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