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16 October 2015

Aasra (1966)

Directed by: Satyen Bose
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Starring: Mala Sinha, Biswajeet, 
Balraj Sahni, Nirupa Roy,  
Ameeta, David, 
Praveen Paul, Jagdeesh
I'm not a great fan of Mala Sinha. Even less do I like Biswajeet. So when YouTube threw Aasra - a film that starred the two, on the side bar as a 'recommendation', I was flummoxed. What had I done to deserve this? Since my insomnia had resurfaced, and I was rifling through to find a movie to watch, I decided to see if there was a synopsis somewhere. Well, there was. Only, it wasn't - shall we say? - particularly attractive. Long, melodramatic, 'suffering women' films aren't really my cup of tea, since I'm more likely to wish they stopped sniffing and did something about their fates. However, I'd already spent an hour or so looking at, and rejecting, most of the films on YouTube. It was past 1 a.m, and I decided that I might as well watch this film; perhaps it would put me to sleep? 

The funny thing is, it didn't. It was an unexpectedly decent film, with several progressive characters, a heroine who didn't resemble a wet dish rag (nor was she a doormat), a reasonably cohesive story with flawed - not evil - characters and, what was a bonus (for me, at least), very little of Biswajeet. Of course, it was only the morning after that I realised the film was directed by Satyen Bose. That explained a lot. 

Shobha (Mala Sinha) has been unfortunately orphaned when her parents die in a boating accident. As a young girl cannot live on her own in the village (or so explains the kindly neighbour who brings her to Bombay), she has been brought to the residence of Bishambernath (David), a door ke rishtedaar (a distant relative).
Bishambernath's harried wife (Praveen Paul - she's given no name) wants no part of this girl. They have six children, and no servant stays for long - they all quit the madhouse in disgust. Harish (Jagdeesh), the son of the house, has some sympathy for this young woman, whom he remembers playing with in childhood. Bishambernath is a kindly fellow too, and cannot see himself turning away a young girl who is the daughter of a distant cousin who was also his good friend. He reminds his wife that it is Sunil, Shobha's father, who had lent him his entire savings as capital to start his own business. If he is a wealthy man today, it is because of Sunil's generosity. His wife is not convinced - if that is the case, she tells Bishambernath, perhaps he should give Shobha the Rs1000 he had borrowed from her father and send her away. ('With a flea in her ear' remains unspoken, but implied.) 
Finally, it is Bishambernath's brother-in-law, Jagat (Deepak Mukherjee), who has an eye for a pretty woman, who convinces his sister to let Shobha stay - she will have someone to help her with the household chores. Reluctantly, she agrees. However, she is still not kindly disposed towards this young woman - charity obviously does not begin at home. Much to Harish's dismay, his mother shows Shobha to an unused room at the back of the house; it's been used as a storage room, and has junk piled up all over. Shobha is not put out at all, however, and assures her new found family that she will soon put the room to rights. Her aunt leaves, relieved, and Harish soon follows. Only Jagat remains, assuring Shobha that he will be her one solace in this cruel world. Shobha is non-committal, but she has his measure.

Shobha is a cheerful young woman, and she soon steps in to help her aunt when she finds the latter harried by the demands of her huge, unruly household. From her husband who needs her to find his keys (which are always kept under his pillow) to her young children whose demands pull her in ten different directions at once, the poor lady is torn. 
When Shobha takes charge of the kitchen, that is one less thing for her aunt to worry about. (However, she is not very pleased when her husband compliments the food at the dinner table that night.) 

Shobha continues to make herself useful, and she has a reasonably decent life; if no one really values her contributions, taking all her acts of service for granted, no one is cruel to her either. And she is no drudge, to be treated like Cinderella.
Harish, in fact, is very kind to her, even calling her 'didi' even though she is younger than him, because she takes care of him like an elder sister, and promising to bring her books to read. Bishambernath seldom notices her, but then, he never seems to notice his children either. His wife, taking advantage of Shobha's situation, treats her like the maid-of-all-work, and is sharp-tongued on occasion, but she is not really cruel either.

So, life goes on when, returning from one of his many business trips, Bishambernath runs into an old friend, Surendranath Kumar (Balraj Sahni), his wife, Maya (Nirupa Roy), and their son, Amar (Biswajeet). 
It turns out that Surendranath, who is a doctor, is in town for a medical conference, while Amar, also a doctor, is working in Bombay. Baishambernath and Surendranath haven't met each other for 15 years, and the latter is more than happy to meet an old friend. Bishambernath, not usually very quick on the uptake, has a brilliant idea when he sees Amar. He invites his old friend and his family home in the evening and hurries home to warn his wife about their unexpected guests.

The latter is not very pleased at the thought of entertaining someone for dinner amidst her already harried schedule. But when Bishambernath confides his reasons - he has hopes of wedding his eldest daughter Roopa (Ameeta) to Amar; Surendranath is a very wealthy man - his wife becomes more pliable. She ensures that Roopa is dressed well, and that Shobha is relegated to the kitchen.

As planned, Surendranath and Maya arrive at Bishambernath's residence that evening. Amar hasn't put in an appearance since he's on call, and while Bishambernath and his wife are disappointed, the latter is quick to insist that Surendranath ask Amar to drop in whenever he's free. Surendranath and Maya have come prepared to be pleased, and they are more than happy to have Roopa sing and dance (horribly!) for them. 
A chance acquaintance with Shobha endears her to Maya. Surendranath too, is very kindly inclined to this young woman, who is the daughter of an old friend. 

Bishambernath is more than happy with the visit; his wife is, too, but she is also the more practical. Wait awhile before you bring up the proposal, she advises her more impulsive husband. Amar is a modern youth; let him get to know Roopa first, and then, they can approach the Kumars with a marriage proposal for their son. Bishambernath is all praise for his wife's sagacity.  
Meanwhile, Jagat is not leaving any stone unturned to woo Shobha. The latter, however, while poor and dependent on the family's charity, is definitely no pushover. Her no-nonsense attitude sends him away, determined to find ways to get past her defences. 

The next day, Harish and his friends beg Shobha to help them with a song they are composing. After giving them some ideas, Shobha is singing to herself as she goes about her (self-imposed) chores when Amar arrives. He is about to ring the doorbell, but stops when he hears her song. 
When she eventually opens the front door, she is taken aback to see a stranger standing there. Amar mistakes her for Roopa, but Shobha quickly disabuses him of the notion. He, in turn, compliments her on her singing, and learning from her that no one is at home, leaves, saying he will return on the morrow. When he does visit, he is disappointed not to meet Shobha again. He and Roopa do not seem to have much in common, though the poor girl tries her best. 
When Shobha, curious, peers into Roopa's room and is spotted by Amar, she is soundly castigated by her aunt. Meanwhile, upstairs, Amar, after having sounded Roopa on who Shobha is, and what her position is in their household, makes an excuse of playing with her young siblings, and escapes, leaving a resentful Roopa behind. 

Amar soon becomes a regular visitor at the Bishambernath household. When he realises that he's not going to be allowed to meet Shobha, or even see her, he always manages to cut short his visits. Roopa and her mother are both frustrated by what they see as his intransigence. 

Amar is also frustrated by his inability to meet Shobha without anyone running interference. Finally, one day, he makes his way to Bishambernath's house in the afternoon, when Roopa is away at college. To his infinite good fortune, it is Shobha who opens the gates to him. They have a short conversation which is cut short by the rains. Amar leaves without meeting either Roopa or her mother. It is clear that Shobha is attracted to Amar.
Roopa already suspects Shobha and Amar of being attracted to each other. While she's cleverly undermined Amar's chances with Shobha by a ruse, she's furious when she learns from their other maidservant that Amar had visited the house the previous day and had left without meeting her. A confrontation with her not-so-repentant cousin pushes Rupa over the edge. 
The next time Amar puts in an appearance, an unhappy Shobha doesn't encourage him to stay. She accuses Amar of duplicity, and Amar leaves, hurt and perplexed. Once again, their short meeting is noticed and the news reaches Roopa, whose anger at Shobha's recalcitrance in answering her questions knows no bounds. 
Roopa, her anger still unabated, hammers the nails into Shobha's coffin by informing Amar when she next meets him that Shobha considers him a dishonourable lecher. Amar is taken aback. His initial anger abates, however, and he makes a sincere attempt to clear any misunderstanding with Shobha. She, however, sends him away - for her own sake. 

Matters have come to a crunch, however. Bishambernath, sent by his wife to enquire about Amar's continued absence, finds out that Amar has left the hostel. He's leaving for his further studies abroad that same month, and has gone to Pune to spend some time with his parents. They will all be back in a couple of days. Bishambernath's wife has an idea - why not meet the Kumars then and talk about Amar's marriage to Roopa? 

But not so fast, she cautions, when Bishambernath is ready to fix everything up at once. They should get the Kumars home, where they can discuss the important matters in peace - like dowry. Bishambernath is puzzled. Surendranath is not such a man, and besides, he's extremely wealthy. 
His wife is practical; oh, they will, she says, especially because Amar is scheduled to go abroad for his further studies. All Bishambernath has to do is to offer to pay for Amar's studies. All marriage proposals depend on the 'give and take', and there's no one who will say 'no' to earning some more money, she adds, cynically. Bishambernath is ecstatic; of course he will pay for his son-in-law's travel and education!

It's Harish's wedding, and the Kumars are at Bishambernath's bungalow. After the wedding, the Bishambernaths make no secret of their dearest wish. (They are not very subtle, either.) The Kumars are taken aback. They had no idea that Amar even knew Roopa, much less was in love with her as her parents say he is. Maya, particularly, is very upset. She much prefers Shobha.
Neither of the Kumars can withstand the pressure that the Bishambernaths are bringing to bear on them, however, and they eventually agree that they will not oppose the marriage - if that is what their son wants. Maya is upset, but Surendranath is amused. Finally, it is Amar who has to decide, he tells Maya. 

When his mother moots the question of his marriage, Amar is at first amused, and then taken aback. He has never been interested in Roopa at all, and he cannot think why her parents think he would be. Their conversation is interrupted, and that night, Amar tries to clear Shobha's misunderstanding. 
Once again, he's interrupted. And Shobha leaves. This time, he's very forthright - he cannot think of marriage before he leaves for England, he tells the Bishambernaths, and neither can he promise that he will marry Roopa when he returns. Roopa is furious, Maya is relieved and the Bishambernaths are upset. The Kumars leave the next morning, and Amar boards the plane to England. 

A few days later, the Kumars get a surprise. With nowhere else to go, Shobha has come in search of them. Though Surendranath and Maya welcome her, they are surprised that Bishambernath and his wife had allowed Shobha to leave, and that they had let the young woman travel on her own. The mystery deepens when Shobha breaks down.
A compassionate Surendranath consoles her; Shobha has nothing to fear here. But when Shobha eventually confides the truth to Maya, the latter is shocked. The story Shobha tells her is so unbelievable that even Maya's affection and compassion are tested. So much so, she would prefer to ask Shobha to leave. 
But Surendranath is made of finer mettle. Her husband's sound common sense and sensible attitude influences the kind-hearted Maya as well. Shobha is safe - for the moment. 

But what is to happen to Shobha in the future? Why is she keeping silent now, when that very silence condemns her to a life of shame and misery? How will Maya bear up against, not society, but her own daughters' disapproval? Will Surendranath succumb to the emotional pressure that's brought to bear on him? 

As I said before, an astonishingly good story that's told with sensitivity and very little drama. I must confess to having liked Mala Sinha very much indeed. Her Shobha is a very mature character, and Mala Sinha plays her in a very understated manner. She is no wishy-washy village girl who is downtrodden by her city relatives. She is shown to be very strong, and able to hold her own against her cousin; she can also stand up to Jagat, who's trying every trick in the book to get her into his clutches. 
While I would have liked a bit more depth (and a little more time) to the romance between Amar and Shobha, it is much more mature than most filmi romances. I like that he talks to her, I like that she believes in him once he has the opportunity to explain things to her. I like that he apologises for his actions, and that there is no blame on either side, just a matter-of-fact acceptance of how things are. I like that there's no crying when Amar has to leave. Instead, there is a quiet promise - she will wait for him to return. And she does. Later, when he returns, and she's gone through three years of hell, there's still no blame. Her love for, and her faith in Amar remain a constant, even though she appears to have been left adrift. (Jagat had surreptitiously intercepted Amar's letters to Shobha.) When she's thrown out by Bishambernath, she makes her way to Amar's parents; when she realises that her presence can destroy their home, she is ready to leave. 

Amar, similarly, is a nuanced character, even if he doesn't have enough screen time. He is, at first, attracted to Shobha, and has the strength of character to refuse to marry her cousin, Roopa. He even writes to the Bishambernaths telling them of his intention to marry Shobha. When he returns from London, he first goes to meet Shobha, and is puzzled when he's told she's been thrown out of the house. When he learns he's responsible for Shobha's travails, he immediately confesses the whole to his father. Ashamed of his actions, he is still willing to take responsibility for its consequences. And when he finally meets Shobha again, his first statement to her is an apology. Her response is loving. I found that very refreshing indeed. I found myself liking both of them.

Roopa is a spoilt brat, and is quite violent in her reactions, but one can still admire a character who, when asked to deck herself out for a prospective groom, can retort, 'Na jaaane kaun hai, kaise hai! Bas unke liye saj-dhaj ke baithoo?' and make no special effort to do so.  Her character has not much to do later however, and the Bishambernaths - all of them - fade out of the story pretty quickly. (Harish, for instance, is suddenly married off, and that's the last we see of him. Wouldn't he have stepped in to save Shobha, given that he was so close to her, and so full of compassion for her suffering?) 

Surendranath and Maya are two filmi parents who are a revelation. Maya's happiness lies in her son's happiness, and she will not thrust on him a marriage that he does not want. She is more conservative, and prone to worry about what people will say, but her kind heart (and her husband's progressive outlook) overrules her fear of social ostracism. Her support for Shobha even sees her going against her daughter's displeasure at first, even though she's saddened by it. When her children gang up on her, she breaks down, but repents of her actions almost at once. Nirupa Roy did a fine job of a woman who is conflicted between what her conscience tells her is the right thing to do and her own maternal instincts, and what her children demand of her. (But yes, she still manages to misplace a child. For a short while.)

Balraj Sahni's Surendranath is the sort of progressive that one can believe in, and admire. Not the halo-sporting, barf-inducing preachy kind, but a loving, sensible, commonsensical character whom one would love to emulate. His compassion for a young woman to whom he has no ties, his principled stand that makes him ready to disown his own children if they push him to the wall - until his love for his wife makes him compromise (though not give up his principles), his disgust at his children's narrow-mindedness (and at his own self for raising such children), his anger at his son when he realises the latter's culpability - Sahni is a fine actor, and he does a fabulous job here. 

All in all, Aasra was a pleasant watch, and while I could have wished the ends were tied up in a neater manner (a few questions were left unanswered), the film still ended without the dreaded descent into melodrama. No, not a 'great' film, but a genuinely nice one that deals with a young woman's travails without resorting to glycerine to drum up sympathy for her.  I must say I was, if not 'impressed', at least, very glad to have watched it.

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