1 March 2016

Amar Jyoti (1936)

Directed by: V Shantaram
Music: Krishanrao Pulambrikar
Starring: Durga Khote, Chandramohan, 
Shanta Apte, K Narayan Kale, 
B Nandrekar, Vasanti

Some time back, on my review of Kala Bazar, AK of Songs of Yore and I got into a discussion / debate about a woman's right in deciding her own life, and the morality of so doing, in the context of that particular film. The passionate debate moved from the realm of blogland into emails that went back and forth about women, their choices, and the cinematic representation of the same. He even suggested three films to review - Astitva, Arth, and Andaz, all centred around the theme of a woman's agency, and the consequences thereof. 

I then decided to extend the range of this theme - strong women characters in film have always intrigued me. Whereas a younger me would have scorned the 'traditional' woman as weak and downtrodden, a much older and a vastly more-open-to-life's-greys-me thinks they are interesting from a sociological viewpoint. Many of them, in fact, were very strong women within the context of their rigid roles within a patriarchal society. I promised AK then that I would have a series of reviews of these films, and we agreed on a list. (Rather, I made a list, and AK agreed to my choices; he did mention Mother India, and perhaps I should have added that film because it was such an iconic role, but honestly, that is a film I love to hate. Thankfully, AK gave in with grace.

So, since March 8th is celebrated as International Women's Day, I declare March 2016 'Women's Month' here at Conversations Over Chai. Starting today, I will review one film from every decade starting from the 1930s, all the way to the double noughts. (I must confess that I have stuck to Hindi films this time; perhaps I'll make this an annual affair, and review 'women's' films' from other languages next year.)

So here, the first of the series is an unusual film from the 1930s - a film that condemned patriarchal tyranny over women, and showed a woman character in a multi-layered, more nuanced role than many in later years.

The story begins with a pirate ship on the high seas, the commander of which is a woman, Saudamini (Durga Khote), who commands a loyal troop of men (and one little girl).
The lookout spots a ship and the pirates change course. The sailors on the other ship notice the pirates bearing down on them; they have the princess of the realm on board, and scramble to protect her. Saudamini swings down nimbly, and the pirate ship swings alongside its prey - one of Saudamini's men identifies the ship as belonging to Suvarnadeep. A pitched battle ensues, and the ship is captured by the pirates.

As they plunder the ship, and hold those aboard it captive, Saudamini hears one prisoner ask the other about the princess's well-being. Saudamini's ears perk up - the princess of Suvarnadeep is aboard the ship? She sends her men to find out, and bring the princess to her. However, the princess is not to be found. The pirate queen asks her men to set fire to the ship - if the princess is still on board, this will be her funeral pyre.
When the sailors of the doomed ship beg for mercy - they are slaves - she asks them if they would be willing to fight for their freedom, and that of others. When they eagerly acquiesce, she has them join her pirate gang. The princess's royal guards, however, prefer death to the dishonour of joining the pirates. The pirate queen laughs and has them thrown overboard. She is no less ruthless when it comes to dealing with the princess's female attendants - they pride themselves on their servitude. The fittest punishment for them would be freedom. One man is put on a raft and set free. What if he reaches the shore alive, queries the little girl, Rekha (Vasanti), who's her devoted follower.
Well, then, he will go to the queen of Suvarnadeep and tell her of her daughter's fate, and the Queen will know what it means to lose a child. Revenge is sweet.

She repeats that sentiment to Shekhar (K Narayan Kale), her trusted advisor, who's not sure that the death of the princess signals the return of happiness. Saudamini is unrepentant - the joy that revenge brings in its wake is not to be dismissed that easily. Shekhar is curious - how will revenge bring forth revolution? 
Well, says Saudamini, revolution can only come when past relationships are given a decent burial. Since when has he become so tender-hearted, she queries, smiling. Shekhar is not convinced, but his gentle admonition falls on deaf (though affectionate) ears. But when he states that she might be physically very strong, but her heart is yet that of a woman, Saudamini bristles. And when Rekha - Shekhar's daughter - appears, dressed like a miniature version of pirate queen, Saudamini smiles - she, and Rekha, will show the world that they cannot enslave women just because they are attuned to the tenderer emotions.

As their ship docks at their hideout and Saudamini's men unload the riches they looted from the unfortunate vessel, Saudamini is still haunted by Shekhar's words. His attempt to make her understand that she cannot be happy living a life where revenge is her only motivation, her only goal, brings her fury down on his head. 

She had not been always so. Once, she had aimed to be the ideal woman, the ideal mother; but did that mean that she had no right to think for herself? That she was a slave to man? It appeared so; when she had separated from her husband twelve years ago, the queen of the realm had taken her son away from her. Despite being a woman herself, the queen had sided with the patriarchal mindset that had ordained that a woman had no rights. Why should she, Saudamini, not take revenge? Why should she not fight for her rights? Because a revolution cannot revolve around revenge, maintains Shekhar; there's no room for individual grudges.

But the embers of revenge burn hot in Saudamini's breast; one of her tormentors is here, in her custody - the erstwhile minister of justice, Durjaya (Chandramohan). His repressive and misogynistic rule has only hammered the nails into the coffin of women's rights. The chained Durjaya, weak and unkempt as he is, is not broken yet, but Saudamini has no time to spare on him any more; she has him dragged away.  
Night falls, and as the pirates rest and Saudamini yearns for her little boy who was taken away from her, something's stirring in the cell that holds Durjaya. From one of the chests that have been carried into the caves, emerges a young woman. As she slowly stretches herself, Durjaya, whose ears are attuned to the slightest noise, accosts her in the faint light of the torch on the wall. The young woman seems strangely nonchalantshe's Nandini (Shanta Apte), the young princess of Suvarnadeep, she says, and she's tired of hiding in that casket.
Durjaya is taken aback; does she have no inkling of her predicament? She is at the pirate hideout, and if they catch sight of her, they will kill her at once. The young princess nervously returns to her hiding place. 

The next day, Saudamini and the pirates set out to sea.  As Nandini creeps out of her hiding place again, Durjaya offers her the meal that has been left for him. Nandini is touched by his kindness, while Durjaya seems enthralled by her. 

Meanwhile, the sailor who had been set free reaches the palace. He informs the queen that their ship had been attacked by the pirates, and then destroyed. Princess Nandini died on that blazing ship.  
Distraught at her daughter's death, the queen orders Saudamini's capture. The army chief has posters distributed across the kingdom, offering a great reward for any news of the pirate queen. 

Saudamini, who visits the town, sees the posters.
Leaving Shekhar and Rekha behind, she decides to disguise herself in order to meet her spies and secure some more information. She is spotted talking to them by the watchful soldiers, and has to hide in the nearby ruins, while Shekhar and Rekha wait impatiently for her. 

Back at the cave, Nandini is bored, so Durjaya tells her to go look around the countryside for a bit. After all, she isn't a prisoner. Perhaps she can swim in the river? Happily, Nandini trots off, and of course, she is happy enough to sing. As she prances about the forest, she runs into a young shepherd, Sudhir (B Nandrekar).
While he assumes she is a forest spirit, the princess is pretty nonchalant - why on earth is he staring at her so? Soon, she's leading him a merry chase over hill and vale, and by the time he turns the tables on her and they enjoy a lovely swim together, they seem to not only be very comfortable with each other, but have also fallen in love. 
As they walk through the woods after the swim, Sudhir stops Nandini from stepping on a plant - it is the first sign of their meeting, he tells her, and as it grows and flourishes, so will their friendship. They take leave of each other, promising to meet every day. 

Back in town, Shekhar and Rekha are getting worried; Saudamini has still not returned. Changing out of their pirates' garb, they go in search of her. The courageous little girl and the intrepid Shekhar manage to sneak Saudamini off from right under the soldiers' noses. One thrilling horse chase later, Saudamini and her friends fool the soldiers and make their way back to their hideout.

Back in the jungle, Nandini is busy watering their little plant, when she hears Sudhir's signature tune on the flute. They are obviously pleased to meet each other again, but Sudhir seems woefully inept at romance. (His idea of complimenting her is to tell her that she reminds him of his mother.
Nandini smiles; well, he certainly doesn't remind her of her father, she tells him. But Sudhir is serious - he lost his mother when he was but a lad, and he doesn't know whether she's dead or alive. (You know where this is going, right?) They vow eternal love to each other, and promise never to be separated. (Ah, well...)  

When Nandini returns to the cave, she's still lost in thoughts of Sudhir. Poor Durjaya. When he questions her, Nandini admits to being smitten by Sudhir. Durjaya is heartbroken. His grief turns quickly into anger - Nandini is an ingrate! If she's free, and safe, it's thanks to him. It is he who has fed her, starving himself in order to do so. And now, she's in love with a man she's met once? How dare she!
Fortunately for Nandini, Saudamini returns just then. She soon puts Durjaya in his place. But Nandini is a tougher nut to crack. And her attitude earns her Saudamini's admiration. However, upon learning that she is the princess of Suvarnadeep, Saudamini has her imprisoned. Shekhar advises her to think ahead and make use of Nandini's presence. The villagers and townsmen are scared to support Saudamini and her men, who have been accused of being bandits and pirates. If Nandini joins them, then the very fact that their princess is a member of the outlaws will encourage the people to support them against a tyrannical government. 

Saudamini goes to Nandini - she too, once spend her time day dreaming. But soon after marriage, she realised that she was only seen as her husband's slave. This is what the law states, this is what religion teaches, politics sets its seal of acceptance on the matter, and thus it is writ in stone. Even if Nandini becomes queen, she will still not have freedom of choice. She, Saudamini, has begun the uphill task of giving women the same status in society that men enjoy - will Nandini join her?

Impressed, Nandini agrees. However, Saudamini cautions her - it is not an easy task. One has to sacrifice much to attain the goal. Is she up to the challenge? Nandini is nothing if not determined, and with much tears, decides to give up her love for a greater cause.
That evening, Sudhir comes in search of Nandini, only to be told by his beloved that she's changed her mind, after all. Sudhir is heartbroken but the determined princess sends him away. The poor man is forced to leave, and spends the night crying over his poor, dead plant (and his broken dreams). 

The next morning, Saudamini and her band of merry men decide to venture out again. They are joined by a new member - Nandini. Soon after they leave, Sudhir comes looking for Nandini again, only to run into Durjaya who, as usual, has been left behind, chained to a rock. Durjaya informs him who Nandini really is (claiming that he was wounded in freeing her from the pirates), and persuades Sudhir to set him free. 
Once free, Durjaya makes his way to the palace, accompanied by Sudhir, where the queen is ecstatic to discover that Nandini is alive, though she commiserates with Durjaya over his troubles. 

When Saudamini and her men return from their raid, they discover that Durjaya has escaped. Saudamini is furious and sends her men out to look for him. Only, he's waiting for her in her 'room'. 
Saudamini, thinking quickly, sends Shekhar and Rekha to spirit Nandini away, while she keeps Durjaya engrossed in conversation. The latter is nonchalant - the cave is surrounded by his men. Saudamini will pay for her mistake in keeping him alive. Saudamini is equally unconcerned, and (quite literally) pulls the rug from under Durjaya's foot, while Shekhar and her men escape with the girls through a hidden trapdoor. 

Unfortunately for her, she runs into Sudhir who has her arrested while he goes in search of his beloved. The pirates have already set sail and Sudhir can only watch from the shore. Durjaya consoles him. They have Saudamini; now they will set the trap with her as bait, and she will bring Nandini back to Sudhir. 

Will she? Will Nandini return to save the woman who gave her a new purpose in life? Or will Sudhir's love triumph? Will Saudamini ever get justice? Will she be reunited with the son so cruelly torn from her grasp all those years ago? Or will Durjaya attain his wicked goals?

The answers are yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and no. But much has to happen before the film ends.  
Amar Jyoti is, as may be expected, theatrical in scope - it was the 30s after all. However, within those parameters, this is an unusual film with a very unusual (for those times) point to make - that women were equal to men, and needed to be treated as such. It made that point with more finesse, and with far less melodrama than similar films - made much later. In making its characters human instead of heroic (despite having a woman pirate as its protagonist), director Shantaram gave us one of our earliest feminist films which dealt with a rigid patriarchy and a woman's search for equality, without the strident overtones of later films that claimed that crown for their own. In doing so, he also managed to capture the internal conflict that women face while trying to make their way in a world that is constrained by man-made rules.

The first Indian film to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival, Amar Jyoti was a huge success in its native land. For a film that was made in the nascent stages of our film industry, Amar Jyoti  was also a technical marvel - the scenes at sea, the ships on the ocean, the pirate raids, the burning of the ship in the initial scene, the battle on the high seas in the climax, were all done beautifully. Considering that they were all studio shots, it is doubly amazing. The attention to detail was also seen in the sets - the pirates' cave (yes, you know it's a set, but...), the queen's palace, etc., were crafted with care, and nothing seemed out of place. 
Durga Khote played a seminal role as Saudamini, a woman who would not silently bear the injustice meted out to her, but uses her anger against the system to fight for the freedom and equality of the sexes. Yet, however much she seethes under the personal injustice done to her, she is shown to be willing to subsume it for the greater good of a mass revolution. Her grief is restrained, her anger fiercely contained. Hers is a nuanced character, and Khote plays it just right, with that faint touch of amusement and self-confidence that lends a certain éclat to her role - a little more strident, and she would have turned into a stereotype. A little less, and she would have been a martyr.
Shanta Apte as the fiery Princess Nandini is similarly well-cast. She is young, and she is determined to chart her own path, not kowtowing to either Durjaya or to Saudamini. When she joins the latter, she does so of her own free will. When Saudamini is captured, she hesitates to leave to save her own life, but is willing to listen to Shekhar who tells her that, as a man, he admires her ideals, but as a chieftain, he commands her to leave at once. As the newly-minted pirate, she brings out her conflict in the scene where she has to pronounce a harsh judgement against her erstwhile beloved. 
Shekhar's is an unusual character. Yes, he's subordinate to Saudamini, and no mention is made of how he and his daughter came to be part of her entourage, but despite his disapproval of her choices, he's completely faithful to her. When Nandini accuses him of betraying Saudamini, he is clear that then was not the time to wait for Saudamini to escape; the latter has been arrested by soldiers, and the cause is greater than the individual. Besides, they need to think like the soldiers if they are to rescue her. He is the voice of Saudamini's conscience, and he gets to state the simple truth - no society is free unless all its citizens, regardless of gender, caste, or class, can be said to be truly free. Narain Kale (who was also responsible for the screenplay, along with Narottam Vyas) was subdued in a role that demanded he be so.  
Last, but not the least, is Chandramohan, playing the tyrannical Durjaya who falls obsessively in love with the young princess, and is determined to win her at all cost. He's a worthy adversary, with his flashing eyes and fiery dialogues. He plays the manipulative wazir very well, in a manner so restrained, yet so deliciously wicked.

I have to admit that the songs (composed by Krishnarao Pulambrikar), considered a noteworthy achievement in combining Marathi natya sangeet with Hindustani classical music, and very popular in those days, left me cold. However, the film itself was a revelation, and despite my irritation with the songs, kept me engrossed.

Thanks to Tom Daniel (whom I do not know personally, but whose work I've read about on Memsaab's blog) who takes the source videos of old films and, restoring them the best he can, uploads it on YouTube, there is a very clear print of this film available for viewing. 

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