On films for “women audiences,” films like Suchitra Sen’s ‘Mamta’ where the hero played second fiddle to the heroine
When Suchitra Sen passed away, I wanted to write something about Bombai Ka Babu, which I think is the most interesting Hindi film she made — a “commercial” film with a huge star (Dev Anand), and yet one that coolly steps over quite a few commandments of star-driven cinema. But then with International Women’s Day, coming up on March 8, I decided to write something about celebrating women — and I shifted, instantly, to Mamta, if for no reason other than that title, that very womanly title, referring to maternal love.
Why remember this film, this entire category of films, these “women’s pictures” made about and (primarily) for women? After all, they weren’t all “great” films or “classic” films, and the genre is itself a little suspect, consisting mostly of weepy melodramas that revolved around the plight of women (on television, they’d be called soap operas). Mamta, for instance, is about a courtesan named Panna Bai who fears that her former husband, the bad man she fled from before taking up this life, will take away her daughter, and so she enrols the child in a convent and swears never to see her again so that the child isn’t tainted by her mother’s profession... You get the picture. You’re probably laughing at this storyline, but long ago, people wept. These films were made in large numbers once upon a time and they drew large audiences, and now these films have practically vanished from the screen, just like the “women’s pictures” that Bette Davis or Joan Crawford used to make have all but vanished in Hollywood. And at least as a cultural phenomenon, these films shouldn’t be forgotten.
There are movies being made today that are about women, but this isn’t about heroine-centric films like Gravity or The Hunger Games instalments, which target the blockbuster-seeking audience. And neither is this about the kind of prestige productions that, say, a Meryl Streep stars in, or, at the other end of the spectrum, the animated films (Brave, Frozen) and the “chick flicks” and the action-comedies like The Heat.
This is about the live-action, wide-release mainstream movies (i.e. non-indie films) that celebrate, say, female friendship, films like Steel Magnolias and Beaches and Fried Green Tomatoes, true-blue “women’s pictures” that were being made as recently as the 1980s and 90s. (Mamta was released in 1966, and almost two decades later, we too were still making films named Suhaagan and Sindoor, and sometimes the titles were so evocative — Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki, Teri Maang Sitaron Se Bhar Doon — they’d conjure up an entire story in your head, one that may have borne little resemblance to the story up there on the screen.) But now, with the pressure on Hollywood films to work in every country in the global marketplace, these culturally rooted dramas just aren’t greenlit anymore. In the 1940s, Mildred Pierce — like Mamta, a mother-daughter melodrama — was a big it. It was the film that made Joan Crawford a bankable star again, after a string of flops. But today, even with a reasonably well-known performer like Kate Winslet, the same story becomes viable only as a television mini-series.
So this column, this week, is a little tribute to a time when it was possible to make these “women’s pictures” for wide swathes of mainstream audiences, who didn’t balk at stories where the hero(es) played second fiddle to the heroine. The opening credits in Mamta place its heroine last — “Starring Ashok Kumar, ‘Dharmindar’ and Suchitra Sen” — but we see her first, as the camera paces across a brightly patterned floor and deposits us at her dancing feet. And for the first 45-odd minutes, the men in this film are weaklings and minor characters, either customers who have come with loaded purses for an evening’s entertainment or else instrumental accompanists. Or they are unprincipled losers. Panna Bai’s husband (from the time she was a sweet young thing named Devyani) turns up to harass her and tries to kidnap their daughter.
The women, on the other hand, are the saviours. Panna Bai saves the child by taking her to the convent (run, of course, by a woman, a nun, and named after Christianity’s most important woman, Mother Mary). Devyani saves her father by freeing him from a crushing debt — that’s why she marries that man, who ensures that he has his way with her. (When she resists his advances on their wedding night, he says he won’t give her father the money unless she sleeps with him. This kind of narrative contrivance is a dead giveaway that this is a “women’s picture.”) And when Devyani runs away and she needs saving herself, she’s helped by a woman she meets on the train, the woman who becomes a mother figure and inducts her into the singing-dancing profession and transforms her into Panna Bai.
For a while, a good man named Manish (played by Ashok Kumar) threatens to turn into a saviour. He is the man Devyani was in love with, but he disappeared for three years (to study law outside the country) and was not there for her when she needed him (to clear her father’s debt). And when Manish returns to the film, we get a classic moment that was a hallmark of these “women’s pictures” — the reflecting-one’s-sad-situation-through-a-song moment. Earlier, during happier times, Devyani sang for Manish ‘Rahe Na Rahe Hum’, and now, as Panna Bai, she sings ‘Rehte The Kabhi Jinke Dil Mein’. The first song is about the timelessness of love, while this one recognises that the time has passed; the first song (opening with rahe) looks forward to the future, the second (opening with rehte) looks back at the past.
It’s a beautiful kind of echo, made all the more beautiful by the music. Manish learns about her misfortunes and becomes her confidante, her platonic partner — but not her saviour. When it’s time for Panna Bai to be exonerated of murder charges, it’s her daughter (also played by Suchitra Sen) who must step up.
But at least, Manish is given something solid to do, a lost love to fret over, courtroom speeches to deliver. The other hero, that handsome ‘Dharmindar’ fellow, simply gets scenes like the one where he waits, with a fluttering heart, for the heroine’s (the younger Suchitra Sen) arrival, and subsequently, he lets himself be relegated to the status of her arm candy.
Doesn’t this phase of our film history bear a little remembering?