Sunday, April 16, 2017


Mamta (A Mother's Love, 1966), directed by Asit Sen, story by Nihan Rajan Gupta after his novel Uttar Falguni, dialogues by Krishen Chander and Pandit Bushan, music by Roshan, lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri

Suchitra Sen as Pannabai in Mamta

I have a huge soft spot for many classic Bollywood narrative devices:
  • tragic courtesans, as in Amar Prem (1972)
  • forbidden love, as in Parineeta (1953)
  • maternal self-sacrifice, as in Sharafat (1972, also directed by Asit Sen)
  • children in danger, as in Brahmachari (1968)
  • reunions between long-separated lovers, as in Veer-Zaara (2004)
  • reunions between long-separated parents and children, as in Aradhana (1968)
  • double roles, as in Seeta aur Geeta (1972)
  • courtroom scenes, as in Awara (1951)
Mamta manages to combine every single one of these devices, and (as do so many tragic courtesan films) adds great music as a bonus.

Pannabai (Suchitra Sen) is a renowned dancer who entertains men every night in Lucknow's pleasure quarter. One afternoon a drunken man asks for her not as Pannabai, but as Devyani. She tells him he's mistaken:

I am Pannabai, a courtesan

The man is Rakhal (a very creepy Kalipada Chakravarty)—the abusive husband from whom Devyani fled several years ago. She'd thought she was safe from him, but:

Who has ever got rid of anybody in this world?

Pannabai does not yet know how true those words will prove to be.

Rakhal has discovered Devyani's new identity, and demands money, or else:

I will sue you for restoration of conjugal rights

While Pannabai/Devyani is getting the blackmail money for Rakhal, her daughter Suparna wanders in to see the stranger. A mistake:

Come to me. Want a toffee?

Devyani returns in time to save Suparna from Rakhal, but realizes that she must send her to a place where he can never reach her: Mother Mary's convent school in Calcutta. (The subtitles have "Mother [or Madam] Marlin," but that seems like a mishearing.) At first Pannabai is refused; her profession is too scandalous. She pleads with Mother Mary:

Madam Marlin, I was not a courtesan always

Backstory time! We learn that as a young woman Devyani fell in love with a poor law student, Manish (Ashok Kumar). He went to London to study law for three years, and the lovers pledged themselves to one another: they would marry on his return.

While Manish is abroad, though, Devyani's father Ghishta (Chaman Puri) becomes heavily indebted to a moneylender: Rakhal. The predatory Rakhal has noticed that Ghishta has a beautiful young daughter, and offers him a way to clear his otherwise crushing debt:

Either pay my money, or get Devyani married to me

Her father doesn't want to ask Devyani to marry Rakhal to clear his debt. But she is so dutiful she doesn't need her father to implore her to rescue him. First she goes to Manish's mother to ask for a loan, only to be rejected:

I was against this alliance since the very beginning

Devyani feels she has no choice:

To save my poor father from debt, I forgot Manish, I forgot myself

She marries Rakhal. On the wedding night he is drunk and cruel:

If you act stubborn, even I will use force

She steels herself to "tolerate every atrocity":

Thereafter, every night was darker than the first

But when Rakhal tries to force her to sleep with other men (who have clearly paid him for the privilege), a pregnant Devyani realizes she must escape.

She flees on the train to Lucknow, but, despairing, tries to commit suicide. The woman sharing her berth prevents her from throwing herself off the train, and once she's able to calm Devyani down, explains who she is: Meenabai (Chhaya Devi), the owner of a house of (men's) pleasure. She offers Devyani a home and a means of supporting herself and her soon-to-be-born child. Devyani, by now used to tough decisions, accepts. Devyani dies, and Pannabai is born:


And now, Pannabai tells Mother Mary, she wants to save the daughter she has raised from her dissolute father, "and from myself." Mother Mary is moved by her story; on Pannabai's promise to have no contact with her daughter, Suparna is accepted into the convent school.

Shortly afterwards Pannabai is leaving a shop when she encounters someone from her past:


It's Manish, returned from London and now a famous barrister. After exchanging a few pained words with him, she jumps into a taxi and speeds off.

A friend of Manish expresses his amazement that he accosted a "cheap woman" in a department store, and fills him in about Pannabai's profession. When Manish angrily expresses disbelief, his friend offers to prove it by hiring Pannabai to perform for him.

That night, almost as soon as Pannabai walks in she realizes whose house she has entered. An anguished Manish conceals himself behind a curtain in another room, but Pannabai knows exactly who is listening. "I had to swallow all kinds of venom to survive; I have borne every humiliation," she sings. "Don't spurn me."

The subtitles on the version I quoted above are a bit less decorous than the ones on the embedded/linked video; Suchitra Sen's playback singer on "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" ("The one who dwells forever in my heart") and the other songs in this post is Lata Mangeshkar.

When Manish's friend tries to pay her for her performance, Pannabai disdainfully refuses the proferred money. Manish follows her home to find out what happened while he was in London. Trapped by the curfew, Manish must remain at Pannabai's. In Suparna's now-empty room over the long night, Devyani tells her story.

As dawn breaks, a devastated Manish asks her to come home with him:

You are still Devyani for me

But she realizes this is impossible: Manish would be bringing home Devyani, but the world would assume he is consorting with Pannabai.

My life has been ruined. Why should I ruin your life?

Instead, she begs him to look after Suparna. Manish readily agrees to become Suparna's guardian, and to help realize Pannabai's dreams for her:

Maybe she becomes a barrister like you one day

This is only the first hour of the film.

As the years pass and Suparna becomes a young woman, Pannabai's dream will come true—with unforeseen consequences. While studying law in London Suparna (Suchitra Sen in a double role) has met a classmate, Indraneel (Dharmendra), and love has begun to blossom. But Rakhal returns and threatens Pannabai with exposure. If Pannabai's identity is revealed, she fears that her dreams for Suparna—a professional career, a respectable home, and the love of a good man—will be utterly shattered. And a mother's love can never allow that to happen. . .

Mamta has some fairly radical-for-their-time propositions to offer: that children's destinies should not be determined by their parents' status, that women should have the same opportunities as men to enter professional life, that romantic but non-sexual friendships are possible between men and women, and that we should not judge criminal acts before understanding the extremity that may have led to them. That we still can't take these propositions entirely for granted says something about how much further we still have to go.

Suchitra Sen's excellent performances as Devyani/Pannabai and Suparna are the main reason to watch Mamta. She makes us feel all of Pannabai's pathos and all of Suparna's joy and hope. And although she was in her mid-30s, she convincingly embodies her characters at every age from late teens to mid-40s. Both she and Chakravarty were reprising their roles from Asit Sen's Bengali version, Uttar Falguni (1963), which (together with Suchitra Sen's other Bengali films) is now at the top of my to-view list. Although Ashok Kumar as a young law student is a bit of a stretch, he excels at expressing the range of emotions—from bitterness to self-accusation to deep affection—experienced by the older Manish, as "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" shows.

To end the post, two songs from the film that are so brief they seem almost like throwaways, but which are freighted with emotion:

"Chhupaa lo yoon dil mein pyaar mera" (Hide my love in your heart): (song ends at 10:10;
the male playback singer is Hemant Kumar)

"Hum Gavanwa Na Jaibe Ho":

For another perspective please see Dusted Off's review. Mamta can be viewed for free on YouTube.

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