5 January 2022

Prem Patra (1962)

Directed by: Bimal Roy
Music: Salil Choudhury
Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan, Gulzar
Starring: Sadhana, Shashi Kapoor,
Seema, Sudhir,
Parveen Choudhury, Rajendranath,
Chand Usmani, Padmadevi,
Kanu Roy, Hiralal
I’ve not been well for some time, so Shalini decided to cheer me up with a watchalong She suggested Prem Patra, so we could ogle both Shashi and Sadhana. Besides, it’s a Bimal Roy film, with Salil Choudhury’s music. Perfect. So we settled in, once Shalini had her hot chocolate.

When the story begins, Ratna (Parveen Choudhury) is sulking. 

She is the only daughter of the widowed Dr Mathur (?) and is, at present, so upset that she is initially rude to someone who has arrived to meet her father. (Shalini: She really is a bratty kid. Anu: Angsty teens are bratty anyway. Shalini concurs.) That ‘someone’ turns out to be Dr Mathur’s friend (Radheshyam), who’s come to meet Arun. (He’s Arun’s uncle.) From their conversation, we get to know the reason for Ratna’s sulks – Arun was on duty the previous night and couldn’t attend Ratna’s birthday party.

Arun (Shashi Kapoor) is a House Surgeon at the city’s medical college. Orphaned young, he was brought up by his uncle and aunt and educated by Dr Mathur, who was his father’s best friend. 

We are also introduced to Kavita (a glowing, luminous Sadhana) – a final year MBBS student at the same college. 

She’s – as the college collectively refers to her – the ‘famous Kavita Kapoor’. Every red-blooded male in the college seems to be in love with her, and some of them have the audacity to write her love-letters, anonymously of course, their courage not extending to signing their declarations of love. Kavita is fed up, and upon receiving yet another missive, she states that at the next instance, she will escalate the matter to the principal.

Arun, informed that he has been recommended for a government grant to study abroad is exultantly running up the stairs, when he bumps into Kavita. Assuming that this was deliberate, Kavita is not pleased at all.

Arun, who hade been informed of his uncle’s arrival, meets him before returning to Dr Mathur’s, where he lives. He immediately goes off to cajole Ratna out of her sulks. There, he finds her still huffy and reading ‘Prem Patra Kaise Likhein’ (How to write a love letter), and we realise, even if Arun doesn’t, that she harbours a strong crush on him.

Arun treats her like his younger sister, however, and is quite nonplussed to discover a diary with what he assumes is his writing but is actually hers – Ratna gleefully confesses to being able to forge not only his handwriting but also his signature. (S: Nice foreshadowing about Ratna being able to copy Arun’s handwriting. A (approvingly): It’s such a throwaway scene, isn’t it?)

Meanwhile, Kedar has a daft idea – Arun and Kavita would be good for each other. So, he, along with Sumitra, his girlfriend, connive to get Kavita on the night shift with Arun. 

Meanwhile, Kavita’s mother (Padma Devi) has great hopes of a match for Kavita – a foreign-returned engineer, Subhash. Kavita is fed-up – when will her mother stop parading her before foreign-returned young men? She doesn’t want to get married now; she wants to complete her studies. And right now, she has to go to the hospital.

The night – and a shared emergency leads to a thaw in their initial chilly perception of each other. 

The next morning, as Kavita is returning home, she offers Arun a lift. There’s a slight attraction between them, but it is sweet and understated. At Dr Mathur’s, Ratna’s friend is just leaving when Kavita pulls up in front of the house. The friend’s sister studies at the medical college, and so she tells Ratna all about the ‘famous Kavita Kapoor’, the boys’ interest in her, and Kavita’s pledge to go to the principal if she gets another love letter. 

[We get the first song here, and both Shalini and I think it’s unfair that Shashi has such lovely lashes! S: Even with fake lashes, Sadhana’s aren’t as lush as Shashi’s.]

Ratna, looking for a reason to be with Arun, asks him to clear her doubts in Chemistry. He had been doodling Kavita’s name on a letter pad, but he good-naturedly puts it aside and begins explaining catalytic agents. But Ratna changes the topic to personal chemistry. Much to her distress, Arun, still thinking of her as a child, asks her to focus on her studies. 

Ratna bursts into angry tears, and Arun, completely befuddled, leaves the room. Dr Mathur is beginning to realise what’s wrong with his daughter, but when he mentions the matter to Arun, the latter is horrified. Ratna had grown up in front of him! He’s grateful to Dr Mathur but… His mentor is understanding – these relationships cannot be forced. 

[S: Kind father, but I think ‘sadma’ is overstating things. A: With that drama queen, I think ‘sadma’ is exactly the right word! Shalini agrees that I have a point.]

Arun promises he will make Ratna see sense, but she has discovered his doodles and has turned from a weepy mess to a cold, haughty young woman. Ratna’s jealousy fuels her next step – she writes a love letter to Kavita in Arun’s name, in Arun’s handwriting. When Kavita’s female classmates [we recognize Bela Bose] spot the envelope on the notice board, they decide to read it for themselves. [S: These people apparently haven’t heard of privacy!] At the first sentence, “Acha khasa doctor haath se gayi” quips one.

Kavita, initially mortified, is pleasantly surprised when she reads the signatory’s name. 

Only for a moment, though. As her classmates jeer at the letter and egg her on to go to the principal as she had threatened earlier, she’s put in an untenable position. And Arun, summoned to the principal’s office is at first baffled, and then furious, at the charge. He, of course, had immediately guessed at the letter’s author but refuses to name her, even in his defence.

[S: Why is he angry at Kavita? How is she or the principal to know that Arun lives with a girl who can copy his handwriting? A: When people are angry they aren’t always reasonable. And he so desperately wants Kavita to trust that he wouldn’t do something so cheap.]

More bad news is to follow. The principal, feeling that this escapade proves Arun is not worthy, revokes his recommendation for the grant. Arun’s dreams are now dust. Devastated, he returns to the Mathurs, just to pack his bags and return to Rashidpur where his uncle lives. Ratna is horrified – she hadn’t guessed that the consequences of her action would be so severe. She rushes to Kavita to tell her the truth. Arun is gone, and she’s to blame.

Kavita feels guilty too – she can’t even beg Arun’s forgiveness or set matters right. [A: Why can’t she set matters right with the principal?] Sumitra, in whom Kavita confides, consoles her; Kavita wasn’t to know Arun wasn’t to blame; when he returns, she can make amends.

Back in Rashidpur, Arun’s uncle takes him to meet the local zamindar, Mr Singh (Hiralal). Uncle assures Arun that he will mortgage his property in lieu of a loan so Arun can still go abroad. The zamindar, refusing Uncle's offer of mortgaging his property, readily agrees to lend the money, knowing that Arun intends to return to the village to set up practice. But he also makes a counter-offer to the uncle in private – perhaps Arun could marry his only daughter? Arun is aghast. Sell himself? 

But his uncle convinces him to accept. His sister, Arun’s mother, had died of cholera because there was no doctor available. Arun should fulfil his late father’s wishes. Arun is forced to agree. But on one condition – he will only marry the zamindar’s daughter when he returns. And… he doesn’t want to meet the girl. Pretty faces hide deceitful hearts; he’s learnt that lesson.

Sumitra informs Kavita that Arun is going abroad and that he's engaged to be married as well. That is a shock. But worse is to follow – Arun's fiancĂ© is her cousin Tara (Seema). 

Ratna goes to see off Arun and to apologise to him. Arun is generous – he’s going abroad anyway. [But he still hates Kavita – how’s that fair? Shalini is too busy swooning over Shashi in a tux; I join her in oohing and aahing over him.]

Meanwhile, Subhash (Sudhir) and his sister, Leela (Madhuri, whom I mistook for Daisy Irani) come calling on the Kapoors. 

While Kavita has been evading Subhash, her mother continues to hope that she will change her mind. Just then, Kavita's uncle arrives, with his daughter in tow. He wants her to live with his sister for a while, learn English and acquire some town polish. He hopes Kavita will help. 

Kavita generously agrees, and her mother engages a governess to help Tara learn city ways. Subhash and Madhuri, too, take Tara under their wing, aided by Kavita who uses her impending exams to get out of any outing with them. Tara begins to change under their combined – and kindly – tutelage. One day, she receives a letter from her father instructing her to write to her fiancĂ©. Uncomfortable at the thought of writing to a man she has never met, she coaxes Kavita to write in her stead. 

[S: I love how the scene is set up; it is clear that Tara still expects to marry Arun, and that she’s intimidated by Subhash. A: Yes, and it shows Kavita’s mixed feelings at writing to Arun too – I love the way Sadhana’s expressions changed in that scene.]

So Kavita carefully pens a letter to Arun in Tara’s name. And in faraway England, Arun is pleasantly surprised to receive such an insightful letter from ‘Tara’.

He hadn’t expected an uneducated village girl to write such a lovely letter, he tells her, and how different she is from the girl who treated him so badly! Kavita, hearing Tara read this out, is pained. 

[Both Shalini and I are pained on her behalf. Shalini thinks his reaction is out of proportion. I think his ego is hurt; it’s like pride and prejudice. Upon reflection, Shalini agreed.]

Tara is now even more reluctant to write to Arun. Now that Kavita is established as ‘Tara’, it would give the game away if she began writing to him, she explains to an increasingly disturbed Kavita. Because each letter from Arun contains content that is hurtful to her. 

Meanwhile, Mrs Kapoor is growing increasingly nervous at Tara’s proximity to Subhash. 

[We both like the development of this secondary relationship, but both of us could have done without the long detour into a hunting trip. Though we both agreed that Salil C did tribal/folk music well and that Tara’s sidelong glance at Subhash during the sequence established the growing attraction between them.] 

Kavita continues to write to Arun, and Tara now brings her the letters to read as well. The intimacy between Arun and Kavita (as 'Tara') is deepening, as both learn more about each other through their correspondence.  

But Kavita knows that Arun isn’t really in love with her. As she confides in Sumitra, he loves the Kavita who writes to him as Tara. And he hates the Kavita whom he personally knows. And then, matters reach crisis point. Arun has a lab accident that affects his sight. Tara is shocked at the thought that she may have to marry a blind man. 

Moreover, she’s now well and truly in love with Subash. Her father wants to break off the alliance. And Kavita is devastated at the news.

When Arun returns, he starts feeling uncertain of Tara's feelings. Can Kavita keep up the masquerade in person? Does she want to? And what will be the outcome, especially when Arun is increasingly bitter about Kavita?

What Shalini and I really liked was the development of the relationship between Kavita and Arun. Initially, there’s a mutual attraction but before anything can develop between them, the misunderstanding occurs. Neither of them is ‘in love’. Their relationship deepens through their correspondence, as they begin to really get to know each other.

Kavita is a very nuanced character – her actions affect a person’s life; her guilt forces her into an untenable situation of masquerading as someone else – first in writing, then in person. It’s like she’s over-compensating for her action, even if it was a genuine mistake. Then, her medical training forces her to empathise with Arun’s very real pain and take charge of his rehabilitation. Sadhana infused Kavita with both empathy and grace. Her eyes reflected her happiness and her distress, sometimes changing within microseconds.

Arun, on the other hand, is pretty unidimensional. We never get a sense of who he is, other than he stands ‘first class, first’ and that he’s a first-class whiner. Someone who seems to have a pretty unhealthy obsession for both women, Kavita and Tara. 

He seems to be defined by that one moment when life threw a googly at him in the form of a revoked scholarship. Shalini wonders whether this reflected Shashi’s inability – at that stage in his career – to imbue his character with more than what was written on the page. Because, as written, Arun is not worthy of Kavita. Or of Tara for that matter.

Tara, on the other hand, is also written well. She may be from the village; she may be uneducated, but she has opinions of her own and is willing to state them. She is even willing to fight for her love, and to excoriate him for betraying her when she thinks he has abandoned her. She’s also cognisant of the fact that her sister loves Arun, and the affection between the sisters is heart-warming. 

It is interesting that the script respects her enough to absolve her of any blame in disavowing Arun. Despite the sensitivity shown to the women characters, both Shalini and I are appalled at how they are still viewed through the male gaze. 

If there had been any justice, said Shalini, Tara would end up with Subhash (as she does), Kavita would go abroad to study further, and Arun would end up alone, having got his eyesight back, and realising how blind he really had been. I agreed. It hurt that while she apologises to Arun for that one action, he never apologises for misunderstanding her. Just magnanimously accepts her ‘man ki sundarta’. Gah! It just showed how, for even ‘sensitive’ film makers like Bimal Roy, a ‘happy ending’ meant the man’s happiness.

We both agree that with her highly developed sense of guilt/empathy, Kavita could just be the sort of woman who would beg Arun’s forgiveness, but as Shalini points out, couldn’t Arun free her from that burden by admitting that he had unjustly blamed her because he couldn’t reveal the actual culprit? I think, though, that that would have called for a more self-aware character than a man who spends intervening months hating Kavita without once thinking badly of Ratna. Arun was the epitome of male privilege – it doesn’t seem to occur to him that he had anything to atone for. 

Salil Choudhury's stellar music score, coupled with pertinent lyrics (Rajinder Krishan and Gulzar) and Bimal Roy's masterful placement of the songs –  apart from the one I linked to, there are the two other lovely Lata  solos, Khush ho rahe the pehle and Ab aur na kuch bhi yaad raha, and the two Lata-Talat duets: Saawan ki raaton mein and Ye mere andhere ujaale na hote go a long way to making this film what it is. However, Prem Patra could have done with some tighter editing to cut out the superfluities in plot, especially the hunt scenes which seemed like they were lifted straight out of a completely different film, and the perpetually sniffing female character who adds nothing to the story.

Last words: 

S: It’s infuriating when we are told that we have to love these men [Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar...] because they portray women with such empathy and understanding. A: Agree. They are lauded for being ‘sensitive’ women-oriented films, but their women are safely constrained within the traditional bonds of patriarchy, so much so they lose their individuality and become a trope.

Don’t get us wrong; we love this film but perhaps that is why seeing the all-pervasive male gaze disappoints us a bit more than usual. Tell us what you think in the comments.

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