CLUTCHING ON TO TRADITION
In 1937, V. Shantaram directed a bilingual for the Prabhat Film Company called Kunku / Duniya Na Mane. Written by Narayan Hari Apte, it is a landmark film not just for its sophisticated technique but more significantly, for its refreshingly modern sensibility. It tells the story of a young woman named Neera (Shanta Apte) who is married off by her uncle to a much older widower called Kakasaheb (Keshavrao Date). When Neera realises she has been sacrificed, she flies into a rage and expresses her discontent in every possible way.
She refuses to let anyone from her maternal home accompany her to her new house. She resolutely wards off Kakasaheb's advances and converts the attic into her new abode, disallowing anyone except her young niece from entering the room. She fights tooth and nail with her husband's widowed aunt who desperately tries to put her in place. She is quick-witted, sharp-tongued and capable of facing adversity without appearing to be a victim. Several times in the film she reiterates that no matter what, she will not accept the gross injustice of her situation.
She has an ally in her husband's daughter, a respected scholar who candidly writes to her father expressing misgivings about his marriage. But her biggest advocate is the filmmaker himself who decides to tell her story rather than any other and constructs the narrative in a very specific manner to highlight the hypocrisy and unjustness of patriarchy. It is his intention to make selfish, but not necessarily evil men like Kakasaheb realise their imprudence in upholding dogmas and rituals which effectively stifle and exploit one half of society.
Shantaram makes a laughing stock of Neera's uncle who conspired to marry her off for money. He doesn't just stop at having Neera throw the uncle out when he comes to visit her (blasphemous for the times), but goes as far as showing him despatched to a mental asylum -- this particular scene isn't just a comic aside (although it is actually very funny), it's the filmmaker's device to underline the old man's stupidity.
In another scene, Kakasaheb finds it difficult to walk through the street on his way to work and back (incidentally, he is a respected lawyer by profession -- another deliberate choice to illustrate that even education doesn't ensure freedom from tradition) as various people stop and ask him about his young wife. Finally we see Kakasaheb hiding behind his umbrella to ward off questions.
There is a huge grandfather clock in Kakasaheb's room and its ticking pendulum a symbol of his advancing years, and also of his conscience, which gradually wakes up when faced with Neera's righteousness. He realises that colouring his hair and pretending to be young won't help him cheat time or death. In a brilliant scene, he stands before the mirror and has a face-off with his conscience which chides him for his folly. When he smashes the glass in frustration, each of the broken pieces reflects his own face mocking him with renewed vehemence.
Ultimately, guilt-ridden Kakasaheb has to accept his mistake which has effectively ruined a young woman's life and walks into the river leaving behind a note asking for her forgiveness. Now Neera's character is unlikely to be truly free even in the event of his demise, because she must still continue living in the same society and is herself not yet entirely liberated -- she is indignant about being married off to an older man, but although she refuses to consummate the relationship, she isn't disdainful towards her husband. Her primary lament is that she couldn't marry a younger man who'd love her and to whom she could devote her life. The filmmaker understands this quandary and ends the story on an ambiguous note. But by creating such a fiery heroine he makes a definitive statement about what ailed the society of his times.
Mahesh Manjrekar's new film Kaksparsh (written by Usha Datar) is set around the same time that Kunku was made. There are references in the film to Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi March which took place in 1930, just seven years before Kunku's release. Set in a traditional Maharashtrian Brahmin community in the Konkan (not very different from the kind of family depicted in the former), it opens with a scene at the ghats where the protagonist Haribhau (Sachin Khedekar) is performing the death rituals of his younger brother Mahadev. For some reason the crows (symbolic of the spirit of the deceased) refuse to touch the rice-balls being offered to them till Haribhau mumbles something and the spirit is released from its worldly ties.
Flitting back and forth in time the narrative then traces Mahadev's wedding with a pre-pubescent girl named Durga whom he rechristens Uma. The filmmaker lovingly records all the traditional wedding rituals and the girl's arrival in her marital home, with the voice of patriarchy, Haribhau, presiding over the household and deciding the fate of each member as he thinks fit. Just like Shantaram's film reflects his progressive thinking, Manjrekar's reeks of nostalgia for a lost world where the man's position was supreme and the women were compelled to remain subservient to him. Where girls were merrily married off to older men and widows were tonsured and ostracised following their husband's death.
In Manjrekar's (or worse, Datar's) imagination, young Uma takes a liking for her older brother-in-law who she thinks is a very upright and just man. The screenplay also misleads the audience in the same direction for some time as we approve of at least some of Haribhau's choices and his willingness to stand up to social pressures for the young girl's benefit -- the voice of dissent is amplified in the vein of loud melodramas, accompanied by grating background music.
Haribhau refuses to let Uma visit her parental home even to meet her mother and she is condemned to live like a widow apart from the fact that her hair is intact and she gets to eat normal food unlike the old aunt who, belonging to an earlier generation, must live off tasteless morsels and rid herself of her femininity to avoid tempting hapless men from falling for her beauty.
In one of the best scenes in the film the bitter old woman admires Uma's 'good fortune' and praises her nephew's progressiveness for allowing her to lead a relatively 'normal' life, albeit within the rigid confines of the household. It's an ironic moment of truth that questions the entire value system this film idolises in the garb of a period drama. For, nowhere does the filmmaker give Uma a voice, except to express gratitude towards her benefactor and weep over her own fate. It is only in a rare moment of delicacy that the narrative acknowledges her suffocation when she sits outside the room of her newly married nephew listening to the young couple's playful banter, but again, her indiscretion leads to disastrous consequences.
There is no disputing the fact that Kaksparsh probably reflects the mores of the period quite accurately. There is an aesthetic appeal to the authentic setting, costume design, dialogues (although the screenplay takes forever to take off) and performances, particularly Khedekar's. But it is equally true that both the subject and the treatment of the film lack depth or even hold interest in the context of present times, beyond raising questions about the intentions of a filmmaker determined to reinforce regressive values.
The clearest contrast between the two films is manifest in the verses both the female protagonists choose to sing. While Neera, an educated, independent-minded woman in a film made in pre-Independence India sings English verses from H.W. Longfellow's The Psalm Of Life -- "In the world's broad field of battle / Be not like dumb, driven cattle!" , the heroine of Manjrekar's 2012 film hums lines from Bahinabai, "Are sansar sansar, jasaa tawa chulhyavar / Aadhi haatala chatake, tevha milate bhaakar" -- a popular Marathi ovi in which the poet articulates the fate of women like herself who must stoically negotiate the maze of patriarchy with a song on their lips.