Half a century since its release, the author examines the first Merchant-Ivory film— The Householder — for relevance and appeal.
In 1960, a writer of German origin who had made Delhi her home was trying to mentally locate herself in the alien milieu of post-independent India. Her third novel, on a newly-married man, was released and somewhat mirrored her own real-life self.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died earlier this year, wrote many novels that featured individuals in perpetual search for an identity. The process which played out in their minds as they tried bringing some calm predictability to their restless selves is what constituted the narrative in most of Jhabvala’s stories. The same held good for the screenplays she wrote. Even after going through this turbulence, her protagonists came across more as troubadours than tamed settlers, which was, perhaps, again a reflection of the kind of restless soul she was in her real life.
Jhabvala’s book, The Householder, impressed a producer-director duo enough to make a movie. They were themselves as heterogenous in their identities as the characters in her novels. One was an Indian Muslim, the other an American; and they wanted to make a film set in India. The catch was that they wanted it to be in English at a time when it was a language of the elite. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the prime protagonists of the Merchant-Ivory drama, would go on to form a successful cinematic association with Jhabvala. To reduce it to its bare bones, it was between a German Jew, an Indian Muslim and an American Christian. However, to layer it, the syncretism in their combination would get reflected in the features they would infuse their characters with.
The Householder, adapted and written for the screen by Jhabvala herself, and initially released in October 1963, is a 101-minute bildungsroman, of a newly-married person, unwilling to give up his college-boy identity to assume the role of a karta — head of his family and an inheritor of family values.
More than the narrative, it is the template that surprises the viewer. The novel, and more so the movie, reads like an adaptation of Manusmriti — the ancient Hindu document, which the writer quotes at the very beginning. This would somewhat discomfort as well as mystify someone watching it now. However, after some recalibration, we are made to see it through Jhabvala’s eyes. The effort doesn’t go unrewarded. Having spent a decade in India when the novel was released, Jhabvala was as much an insider as an outsider. This helped her maintain a certain detachment — bordering on coldness at times — from most of her characters, which makes the movie lend itself to calm reflection while we are watching it.
The movie, more than the book, is didactic, with clearly-defined morals, values and ethics. Prem Sagar, a college lecturer, who has just stepped into the householder (grahasta) state, (Shashi Kapoor is timidity personified here) longs for his bachelorhood (brahmacharya) when all he had to do was do well in exams; when he could go out with his friends for films; when he didn’t have to think of supporting a family, being the only son. While having a conversation with his meek colleague Sohanlal — whom he identifies with but does not want to imitate — he reminisces watching Nimmi in Daag, lip syncing ‘ae mere dil kahin aur chal’ (take me elsewhere my heart). Isn’t that something he himself wants?
It is outside a cinema hall where he had perhaps watched Daag earlier, where Prem later gets an opportunity to experiment with the third phase of life: that of a renunciate (vanaprastha).
The opportunity presents itself in the form of Ernest, an American who has come to India in search of spiritual succour from the decadent West; who assumes that Prem is a reservoir of spirituality to be tapped. He is interested more in seeking comfort in the abstract than confronting the reality of the actual and hence the supposed “other-worldliness” that he associates with Indians has special appeal to him.
The two have wavelengths so different that their conversations end up being long-winded monologues, each taking its own trajectory before diverging completely. Prem realises that this is not where he belongs, yet, in the absence of a choice, keeps treading on the path repeatedly, until the fog clears as the climax approaches.
Sohanlal, whom Prem has increasingly started following, takes him to a hermit (Pahadi Sanyal), where he gets a glimpse of the fourth phase: an ascetic (sanyasa). He finds solace there and is ready to renounce his worldly responsibilities. But the sage tells him to follow a householder’s duties. So, in true Manuvian way, a sanyasi acts as a beacon.
The female characters are mostly uni-dimensional. A lamenting mother, a domesticated house-lady, a vampish matron in college. However, Jhabvala has taken some effort in sketching Prem’s wife Indu’s character (Leela Naidu in a role similar to the one she played in Anuradha earlier). She has perhaps invested with a bit of her identity in both Prem and Indu — Prem gets to embody her submissive self and Indu her rebellious one. This gets reflected more in the movie, where her mannerisms — more than dialogue or adaptation — layer her character better. Perhaps credit needs to be given to Leela Naidu more than Jhabvala here since the latter attempts to make the film more Manuvian than the book.
Jhabvala would go on to invest this sense of being a troubadour, being perpetually on the move like a banjara, in many of her lead characters later. However, as in this movie, her association with the characters would be one of detachment rather than over-indulgence.
In her Neil Gunn fellowship lecture given in 1979, aptly titled “disinheritance”, Jhabvala gave a glimpse into her identity. She was a writer without any base or “ground of being out of which to write”, one “really blow about from country to country, culture to culture”. This made her a “cuckoo,” insinuating in other’s nests.
She liked it that way, maintaining a touch and go relationship with her characters, somewhat reminiscent of Manik Mulla of Shyam Benegal’s Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda. The troubadour in her left her unsettled and this kept the restlessness in many of her lead characters alive. Certainties eluded them. Unpredictability appealed to them.