Two days after the International Women's Day, reflections on a radical Indian movie about an ordinary' woman's grit, made more than 75 years ago.
Saturday the eight marked the 103rd instance of International Women’s Day being observed. To quote the United Nations (U.N.), the day gives us an opportunity every year to “celebrate acts by ordinary women”.
How far have such acts found mention in Indian popular culture in general and its cinema in particular? Though primarily, the fiercely patriarchal ethos that mark Indian society have featured in its cinema, going to the extent of dominating it, there have been some remarkable instances of feminist vigour making its presence as well. One such instance was a film that came in 1937. This was just 20 years after a group of Russian women, as mentioned here, triggered one of the most impactful events of the 20th century century, the Russian Revolution. More importantly, the film came a decade before independent India’s tryst with destiny began. And it was made by a visionary director whose reformist ideals would go on to inspire many of his subsequent efforts, V. Shantaram.
Duniya na maane/The unexpected (Kunku in Marathi), which came in 1937, was based on novelist Narayan Hari Apte’s Marathi work, Na Patnari Goshta. It revolves around a resolute and steel-willed lead protagonist, Nirmala. When an educated, ambitious and independent Nirmala (Shanta Apte) is forced into a marriage to Keshavlal (Keshavrao Apte), someone old enough to be her father, her conscience raises a cri de coeur which forms the narrative.
V. Shantaram would certainly have faced lack of resources while adapting the play, something apparent in the movie’s presentation: as a staged chamber drama more than as a feature film. However, its motifs and performances compensate for the lack of other elements to lend it the required cinematic appeal. These include a Nirmala’s music kit — a gramophone player, embedded with a mirror, that acts as her best companion. There is also an umbrella Keshav uses as a whip to impose his will on her. When he suffers a loss of face on marrying at dotage, it also acts as a balaclava to shield his dignity . And there is a garden Nirmala creates to keep her hopes alive.
The most important motif, though, is the dysfunctional clock which acts as Keshav’s conscience keeper. One whose pendulum echoes his own heartbeat. So much so that, at one instance, he feels he has missed a beat when it abruptly stops. When a repentant Keshav decides to decides to take his life toward the end to free Nirmala from the bondage, he uses the pendulum as a paperweight for a letter he addresses to her, perhaps to indicate that her freedom would begin only once his heartbeat stops.
Nirmala stages a non-cooperation of her own kind from the moment she realizes the cacophony that has entered her life following her unfortunate marriage. One that threatens to disturb the song of her soul. In her non cooperation she is not alone. She has a much younger companion at home — one who calls her behen (sister) — with who she shares her dreams. She has her gramophone record, whose music she uses to raise her crie de coeur. And most importantly, she has her willpower, which evokes her to fight against injustice — dukh sehna magar anyay se ladna as is inscribed on her wall and her subconscious.
These apart, she takes inspiration from the bucolic balladeers who frequent her neighbourhood. It is as if they have sensed the presence of a bird whose flight has been brutally tamed but whose wings still flutter with hope. Her garden of optimism gives her relief from the tyranny of her bondage.
The husband Keshavlal (Keshavrao Apte), unlike domineering husbands in latter-day tearjerkers, is not shown as an evil beast intent on taking full advantage of a callow wife. A flawed but empathetic soul, he is battling inner demons of his own. Though fighting against his old age — going to the extent of having his pagdi (turban) on while being outdoors to hide his baldness — he has a conscience of his own.
We get an impression right from the beginning that he will ultimately sense the scar he has created in his own conscience by marrying a girl belonging to his daughter’s generation. There is a simmering despondency as he makes an attempt to fight his present. At no point does he assault or molest Nirmala. Rather, he makes constant attempts to win her heart, finally accepting her as a daughter and sacrificing his life to free her from the bondage.
At a time when independence movement for a new nation state was in full swing, the film showed a non cooperation movement at a personal rather than a political level. Non cooperation shown by a wife who refuses to accept her present as a fait accompli; non-cooperation coming from an old man’s age which refuses to yield to his ephemeral fantasies. And most importantly, non cooperation from a group of artists — the playwright, the director and the entire creative team involved in the film — toward a decadent custom that, they knew, will outlast the imperialists from a different nation.
In this satyagraha, the class enemies in the corridors of power are not in the distant capital but in one’s own couch, in one’s own chamber.
Nirmala finds an able companion in the young girl at home, who calls her behen. Apart from sharing her dreams with her, Nirmala perhaps senses the macabre link that would bind her present to the girl’s future — she might suffer the same fate of having to marry a rich old person against her will. She perhaps wants to shield the young girl from it.
That apart, she finds a fellow crusader, perhaps even a mentor, in Keshav’s daughter Sushila (Shakuntala Paranjpye), a freedom fighter. The piece de resistance, out of many acts of gallantry shown by Nirmala, is the scene in which she, in the presence of Sushila, breaks into Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s A psalm of life.
Duniya na maane was to precede Shantaram’s other reformist films like Aadmi; Padosi; and the most popular of all, Do aankhen barah haath, marking him as one of the founding fathers of Bombay cinema's quasi-realism, one that would marry art with commerce.
Considering the movie as a whole, the film’s title Duniya na maane (The society just doesn’t accept) refers to the inability of social customs to make space for a woman’s free will. But ironically, in the film, it also refers to the refusal of the society to accept Keshav’s marriage to Nirmala. Perhaps Shantaram had an ideal society in mind, one that would shame an individual into coming face-to-face with his conscience that could act as a deterrent against such macabre acts.
However, more than 75 years after the film's release, the reality is too stark to be distilled into words. One example would suffice. Certain countryside kangaroos (manning the extra-legal ‘kangaroo courts’) mete out beastly punishments to women, in stark contrast to the countryside balladeers whose compositions provide serotonin for the soul of a fearless but tired Nirmala in the film.