STARRING Nutan, Ashok Kumar, Dharmendra

Dogmatic about his aversion to the Hindi film industry, Gulzar said ‘no’ to Bimal Roy when the legendary filmmaker asked him to pen a song for “Bandini”! “I don’t want to be a lyricist,” said Gulzar. Only some sane counselling from S.D. Burman persuaded the then young and struggling Gulzar to try his hand at writing lyrics.

It did not come easy to the man who read even Rabindranath Tagore in Urdu! Yet his first song was to be the precursor, and in its own understated way, a mild revolution of sorts. “Mora Gora Ang Lai Le” wrote Gulzar for his first song in Bollywood, an industry that swore — and still does — by fairness when it came to girls. Indeed, no heroine could be beautiful without being fair. And here Gulzar’s girl was ready to shed that very element of her personality to meet her lover at night!

Clash of values

No chest thumping, no bugle blowing, the song that Gulzar composed in five days — and was then prohibited from singing to Roy by Burman because the veteran thought the young poet might just spoil the mood with his amateurish rendition — epitomised what “Bandini” stood for: a change at the grassroots level, much like Ashok Kumar’s revolutionary character here. At the core, “Bandini” could be taken as yet another love triangle: a beautiful waif of a girl, a handsome young suitor and an older one. But to see it in that perspective would be a travesty, for the film married the personal with the universal. Here was a film that talked of the freedom movement, the repercussions of staunch ideology and the inevitable clash of values.

Yet, in true Bimal Roy fashion, there were no sermons, no melodrama, just a smooth unfolding of events lending a nice flow to the narrative. And yes, without saying it in so many words, it was a feminist film unlike others; a rare film that centred around the woman and told the story from a woman’s viewpoint.

Though it had a nice pace to it, the film actually grows on the viewers through stillness: a memorable shot is of a prison cell where Nutan is lodged with other inmates. She had fallen in love with Ashok Kumar’s freedom fighter, who later leaves her in the village promising to come back. Circumstances conspire to make her poison her lover’s wife. Kamal Bose’s camera introduces us to the prison through two dark walls, meeting at an angle that heightens the feeling of gloom. Yet there is a ray of light slanting across. Then there is Nutan wrapped in a shawl, all dark and helpless. Until there is filtered light on her cheekbones, now glowing in the dark.

And just to re-emphasise the point that despair has to give way to hope we have a tuberculosis patient in the women’s cell. Again there is almost overpowering gloom until the doctor arrives — charming Dharmendra in early youth — a young man lacking neither hope nor enterprise. As his eyes beam in the darkness, subtly pessimism is replaced by hope.

Yet the constant interplay of despondence and delight continues till the end when Nutan finally leaves the jail. Yes, there is a symbolic bird around but more important is the message from a jail official who tells her, “Ab ghar grihasthi ki jail mein qaid rahogi!” A woman is never free!

It is in such fetching moments that “Bandini” for a while challenges the worth of other masterpieces of Bimal Roy, namely “Do Bigha Zamin”, “Devdas” and “Sujata”. Then it settles down to be a movie way ahead of its times, but somehow not able to match the truly great stature of his other works. The narrative is strong, the dialogues fine without being overbearing, and the story is layered without being too stifling.

Yet “Bandini” will be remembered for two things: the performance of Nutan in a role where going overboard would have been easy. She says only a few words but her eyes speak volumes. No wonder Bimalda had threatened to scrap the film altogether when he learnt that Nutan was in the family way! But the pro that he was, he completed the film before it became too uncomfortable for the leading lady.

Then the film’s memorable music. Not just Gulzar’s first swallow of what was to turn out to be many a summer in tinsel town, but also songs like Burman’s all-time hit, “Mere Sajan Hain Us Paar”. Here was a wonderful usage of water, another of those constant elements of Bimal Roy’s films. Not a river in spate but one that is still, deep, almost lonely.

A nice note is added in the little plaint of a newly married girl to her father in “Ab ka Baras tu Bhaiya ko Bhej Babul” where Asha Bhosle is so serene that she forgets her trademark verve and vivacity. Much like Mukesh’s “O Jaanewale Ho Sake”.

The songs are all worth a rewind. And the film worth watching all over again.

We might be prisoners of the fast-paced technology-driven cinema today, but “Bandini” married technique with emotion like few others, rendering all of us willing prisoners of a master raconteur.