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12 June 2018

Lajwanti (1958)

Directed by: Narendra Suri
Music: SD Burman
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Starring: Nargis, Balraj Sahni, 
Baby Naaz, Prabhu Dayal, 
Leela Misra, Radhekrishan, 
Manorama, Parveen Paul
I had only vague recollections of Lajwanti. I remember being inordinately annoyed at Balraj Sahni’s character. I also remembered this as one of Nargis’s ‘trials and tribulations’ films – so I never revisited it. Once was enough, I thought. However, every time I ended up watching a Nargis movie (invariably her films with Raj Kapoor – as Madhu posted, it is very rarely that I watched a film for Nargis), I was amazed at her mastery over her craft. I marvelled at how natural she was, how charming. Therefore, it’s with a newfound appreciation of her genuine – and overwhelming – talent that I decided to make reparations for ignoring her all these years. When I was revisiting her songs for the previous post I stumbled upon Lajwanti again – this time, I was curious enough for a re-watch. Did it confirm my recollections? Read on.

Kavita (Nargis) is getting ready to go out; her baby is safely ensconced in the ayah’s arms, and she’s given the cook the night off. Her husband and she are going to the theatre and to dinner afterwards. 
The ayah, however, has countermanded Kavita’s orders – she knows that what Nirmal says and what he does are two different things. Kavita indignantly refutes her statement but alas! The ayah is right. Nirmal (Balraj Sahni) is a workaholic – being completely engrossed in some case he’s prosecuting, Nirmal sends the tickets through their driver so Kavita can go to the play alone. 
When Nirmal returns it is late – Kavita has fallen asleep waiting for him so they can have dinner together. Unfortunately, Nirmal has eaten out. Kavita is upset. Later, playing the piano at his request, she’s even more upset to realise that he really isn’t paying her any attention.
This is a regular occurrence – Nirmal has very little time for domestic duties, and Kavita is tired of explaining to people she meets socially just why her husband never goes anywhere with her. The last straw is when he misses their nephew’s ‘birthday’ (Kavita’s brother, Pyare Mohan (Radhekrishan) and his wife, Godavari (Manorama) seem to celebrate their son’s birthday as and when they feel like it).
One day, Kavita is planning to go shopping with Nirmal. It is one of the few days that Nirmal is actually home. When the doorbell rings. Kavita hurriedly tells the maid to tell whoever it is that there’s no one at home. However, when the maid opens the door, no one’s there. Just when Kavita is glad that their unwanted visitor had left, she’s surprised by his appearance inside the house – he had jumped in through the window.
Sunil (Prabhu Dayal) is an old friend of Nirmal’s; he laughingly accuses Kavita of not wanting him to visit. When Nirmal walks in with Renu, he’s delighted to meet Sunil and inveigles him into going shopping with them. Just then, there’s a telephone call for Nirmal. Much to Kavita’s frustration, and despite Sunil’s offer to stay back and entertain any visitors until they return, Nirmal decides to stay back.
While Kavita would much rather have dropped the shopping expedition, Nirmal encourages her to see Sunil as a chaperone. Sunil, a cheery sort, is not loth to do so. At the store, watching Kavita drape a sari over her head, Sunil wishes he could paint her – an offer that Kavita enthusiastically accepts: Nirmal had often remarked on his portrait (also painted by Sunil) being incomplete without a companion portrait of Kavita’s – could Sunil paint her portrait soon? In time for their wedding anniversary three weeks away?
Sure, says Sunil, but it will mean that she will have to give him 2-3 hours of her time every day. Kavita accepts cheerfully, and on that note, they leave the store, not noticing Nirmal’s elder sister (Leela Misra) at the door. 
Kavita begins the sittings; each afternoon, after the session is over, she shows Sunil around Bombay. Sometimes, Renu is with her; sometimes, she’s alone. Being engrossed in their own concerns, neither of them notice that acquaintances who see them out and about are beginning to gossip. 
 
When Nirmal’s sister descends on him (after hearing her friends’ gossip), he gives her a telling off – he trusts Kavita implicitly and he would be pleased if his sister didn’t try to malign his wife. His sister flounces off, offended. 
Meanwhile, on one of their outings which include Renu, Kavita and Sunil are accosted by a foreigner who asks permission to take a picture of Kavita and Renu together – he’s a photo-journalist who’s writing a book about India. He promises to send them a copy when it’s published.  

As the sittings – and their wanderings – continue, Nirmal’s sister is overwhelmed by the whisperings of a scandalised society. 
This time, however, her warnings fall on fertile soil – Nirmal is upset enough about what he’s heard to go home. Only, Kavita is not there; she’s gone to Sunita’s house, the maid tells him. But when he goes there, it is to discover that Sunita hasn’t been in town for a week. Not knowing where to search for Kavita, he decides to go to Sunil’s flat. What he [thinks he] sees there breaks his heart.
When Kavita returns, it is to face a husband who, fearing he’s been cuckolded, lashes out in anger. His unjust accusations sear Kavita and she snaps. 
Meanwhile, Sunil has finished Kavita’s portrait. He hurries to present it to Nirmal – it’s their wedding anniversary. While he’s surprised not to meet Kavita, he’s even more surprised at Nirmal’s reaction.
And then, furious. How dare Nirmal?

Sunil stalks out, still furious, to report Kavita missing. It is as he leaves that a chastened Nirmal reaches the police station. Sunil has cooled down by now, but Nirmal’s admission that he’d destroyed all of Kavita’s photographs frustrates him. 
However, it’s imperative that they find Kavita – between Sunil and Pyare Mohan, Nirmal is induced to advertise her absence. Weeks pass, but there’s no clue until the police get the news that someone matching Kavita’s description is teaching in a little school in Shyamnagar.
Full of anticipation, Nirmal and Sunil hasten to the little village. It is indeed Kavita who’s teaching music there. Her probationary period having ended, the principal would like to extend her contract – only, the form asks for Kavita’s marital status and her spouse’s name. Acutely aware of her husband’s position in society, Kavita refuses to fill out the form.
Despite the principal’s protestations that without the form the board will not even countenance her application, Kavita prefers to leave.

When Nirmal and Sunil realise they have missed her at the school, they follow her. A series of unfortunate occurrences prevent them from reaching her in time, and when they finally reach the next station, they learn that the train Kavita was travelling in had derailed. At the accident site, Kavita's name is not on the list of the wounded, the dead or the survivors. The assumption is that she, like many others missing, has been swept away, presumed dead.

A devastated, heartbroken Nirmal returns to Bombay. 

Weighed down by remorse at his actions that led to this tragedy and unable to bear the emptiness of the house without Kavita, Nirmal leaves the city.

Ten years pass by, and Renu is now a little girl (Baby Naaz) with very decided opinions. She rules her father and their little household with a rod of iron and ensures that her workaholic father doesn’t neglect the house or himself as before. 
Sunil is still a much-valued and frequent visitor and it is to him Renu turns for comfort when she misses her mother. When she mourns the lack of even a photograph, Sunil remembers the photograph of Renu and her mother that the foreigner had taken years ago. 
 
Only, that man never did send them the book as he had promised, and Sunil has no clue where he is after all these years. Renu begs him to find out.

Meanwhile, Sunil has a favour to ask of Nirmal – his sister is in dire need of legal counsel, and he wonders if Nirmal would take the trouble of helping her out. Nirmal agrees to make a day trip to Allahabad. While there, he hears a familiar voice over the radio. Enquiries elicit the information that the programme is being broadcast live from Kala Bhavan. He hurries there and is stunned to see Kavita on stage.
 
Kavita is equally shocked – she hurries away after the performance, only to find Nirmal at the door of the green room. Nirmal’s pleas for forgiveness do not really melt Kavita’s heart – can Nirmal give her back her lost ten years? Her reputation? Her happiness? 
 
Nirmal is penitent – no, he cannot. But he can try make amends. Won’t Kavita return home with him? Kavita is emotionless – too much has happened to make this that easy. Finally, Nirmal pulls out an ace: won’t she at least return as a mother, if not a wife? Renu misses her dreadfully… 
The emotional manipulation works and Kavita agrees.

However, Nirmal hasn’t bargained for Renu’s reaction. The little girl has been told all along that her mother was dead. Now, she’s being asked to consider a stranger her ‘new’ mother. 

Having already seen how stepmothers treat their stepchildren (her best friend, Rattan, is continually ill-treated by his stepmother), and having heard the story of how Kaikeyi had Lord Rama sent off to the forest, Renu’s impression of stepmothers is not a very rosy one. Moreover, she feels that her father’s ‘new’ wife is taking him away from her.

When will Renu accept Kavita as her mother? Will she? And how can Kavita handle this in the meantime?
Upon second viewing, I liked this movie very much indeed. For one, both Balraj Sahni and Nargis are very natural performers and they imbued their characters with more nuance than the script allowed them. Baby Naaz, too, was a fine actress who invested her character with convincing pathos.

Secondly, the characters – I hated Nirmal then, and I don’t really like him now. His motivations for distrusting his wife are so baseless, and his accusations so unjust that one wants to shake him. Hard. I was very happy when Sunil berates him up one side and down the other in the moment. He needed that metaphorical slap in the face.
When he finally stumbles upon his supposedly long-dead wife, his initial scenes evoke sympathy – there is genuine remorse for the way he treated her. However, as she refuses to budge, the pleas become more selfish, the manipulation less subtle. It is as if saying ‘sorry’ was enough – and now it is incumbent upon her to forgive him. Just because.
Later, when Kavita confronts him for keeping the truth from their daughter, his reasons for doing so are extremely selfish – how can he tell Renu the truth? What will Renu think of him when she learns why her mother stayed away from her for so long? Later, his solution to his daughter’s recalcitrance is to send her away to boarding school! It’s ‘me, me, me’ all the time, and made me lose what little sympathy I had for him. 
Kavita – both character and performance were brilliant. When she’s accused of infidelity by her husband, she is at first shocked, and then, angry. A minor deception, so she can surprise her husband with a portrait that he wanted, is blown out of proportion by a man whose ego takes a beating. As she trenchantly points out, ‘Pooch toh liya hota?If only you’d asked…. It’s laughable that he should mistrust her so.
When her anger at this unjust accusation is met with more accusations being levied at her, she snaps. When Nirmal raises his hand against her, it is the last straw – “I will not step into this house until you apologise,’ she tells him, and leaves – her pride and her self-respect intact.
The only time she breaks down is when he refuses to let her even hug her daughter, let alone take her along.

Her narrative arc continues with respect – not for the writer the tortured stereotype of a fallen woman landing in a kotha. Wherever Kavita goes, she’s met by people who help her unconditionally. Whether it is the woman who saves her from drowning, or the principal of the school where she works, or even Nirmal’s maid, they treat her with respect.
In better times, she’s gracious; in tragedy, she’s dignified. Not only that, there’s no evidence that she’s spent the intervening ten years wallowing in tears of self-pity. She’s an independent, self-respecting woman, and lives her life with dignity. Later, broken hearted by Renu’s treatment, she still realises that it’s not the child’s fault and works hard to earn her acceptance, even telling her the truth despite Nirmal's misgivings.
Naaz as Renu: her actions upon seeing this ‘new mother’ are believable. Her grief at having a stranger replace her beloved mother (whom she deifies in her imagination) is very true to life. Her fear that her place is being taken by a stepmother is relatable. Young though she was, 'Baby' Naaz was very effective as the conflicted, strong-willed Renu.

What didn’t I like? The initial ‘comedy’ with Radhekrishan and Manorama. It was totally unnecessary and did not suit the tone of the film. I wish the last scene had not been so masala-like – in a film that underplayed most of its emotions, this stood out. But that’s a minor peeve in a film that was a pretty decent watch –  Lajwanti was in competition for the Palme D’or at Cannes that year. 

A word about the songs – filmed possibly during the period of the SD Burman-Lata Mangeshkar feud, all but one song was sung by Asha Bhosle; five solos and one duet with Manna Dey. Geeta Dutt stepped in for one song - Aaja chhaye kaare badira... Interestingly, the song was picturised on Padmini Priyadarshini and on the late Sukumari, a well-known Malayalam actress and the cousin of the famed Travancore Sisters. 

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