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11 June 2022

Penn (1953)

Directed by: MV Raman
Music: R Sudarsanam
Lyrics: Papanasam Sivan,
Udumalai Narayana Kavi,
Ku. Sa. Krishnamurthy,
KP Kamakshi, V Seetharaman
Starring: Vyjayanthimala,
Anjali Devi, Gemini Ganesan,
 S Balachander, Chittor V. Nagaiah,
VK Ramasamy, PD Sambandam,
SVS Sahasranamam, K Sarangapani,
KN Kamalam, KR Chellam, Baby Radha

Penn (Girl) is a funny movie. Funny-strange, not funny-ha-ha. Set in the 1950s, it is both progressive and regressive at the same time, but with the progressive part winning hands down, I figured it was worth writing up.

Penn is the story of two friends – Rani (Vyjayanthimala) and Kanmani (Anjali Devi). The latter is the only daughter of Ramanathan Pillai (Chittor V. Nagaiah), a widower. The other member of their little household is Balaji (VK Ramasamy), their long-time domestic help.

Rani, on the other hand, is the only daughter of the doting Colonel Tyagaraja Pillai (PD Sambandam) and his wife (?). Much to his wife’s irritating, he’s brought Rani up as he would a son – she is educated, has been taught to ride and shoot, and is given a freedom that most girls in the Brahmin community (or any other, for that matter) are not allowed. And perhaps because of that freedom, she’s also a very vocal feminist, willing to stand up for her rights – and that of other women.

Rani’s mother fears that her daughter’s friendship with a ‘half-caste’ girl will ruin her prospects of marriage. Her father, on the other hand, is very fond of Kanmani, and insistent that his daughter will marry whoever she likes.

Kanmani’s father is also worried about his daughter’s marriage – every suitor who has come for her so far has either rejected her because of her antecedents, demanded a hefty dowry for marrying a girl of such a disreputable family, or been toothless dilettantes who pretend to be social revolutionaries. 

He had promised his late wife that he would get their daughter married to Sundaram, her nephew. Unfortunately, Sundaram, a captain in INA, is missing, presumed dead in the Japanese bombing of Burma.

Meanwhile, Rani and Kanmani make the acquaintance of two young men, Raja (Gemini Ganesan) and Raghu (S Balachander). Their first meeting does not impress Rani one bit but Raja falls head over heels in love with Kanmani.

Unfortunately, Raja is the son of Sarangapani Pillai (K Sarangapani), who is very proud of his lineage. He is also a woman-hater, who is forever composing poems denigrating women. Raja, on the other hand, has lofty ideals of equality and respect for women.

As the young people continue to cross paths, it is clear that Kanmani is equally attracted to Raja. The latter begs Raghu to help him, but the first blow comes when Raghu learns of Kanmani’s lineage. Raja is taken aback but soon recovers his usual good sense – Kanmani is a gem; he would be a lucky man if he could marry her. What of his mother’s tears? asks Raghu. He will wipe them with his own, responds Raja. 

What of his father’s anger? Their love will extinguish the flames. And if his father disowns him? Why, he would beg on the streets, but he will never desert Kanmani.

Raghu, good fellow that he is, goes off to Kanmani’s father with a proposal of marriage. The old man is thrilled, but also diffident – does Raghu, does Raja know…? Raghu assures him that Raja not only knows the truth but is prepared to take this revolutionary step because he truly loves Kanmani. The father cannot hide his happiness.

Meanwhile, Rani has left for Colombo for a University sports meet. An accident during one of the events lands her in hospital with a broken ankle. While she’s away, Kanmani’s wedding takes place, since Raja wants to make sure that his parents cannot object. All of Kanmani’s letters to Rani go unanswered – Rani’s mother intercepts the mail, in a bid to end that friendship.

Meanwhile, Nallakannu Pillai (?), a friend of Raja’s father, sees Kanmani being married at the temple. 

He had been one of the suitors who had been summarily dismissed by Kanmani’s father. What’s more, Rani had humiliated him on that occasion. The bitterness runs deep. He rushes off to Sarangapani to tell him of his son’s misdeeds and advises him to recall him from the city and get him married off as soon as possible to a girl from their own caste.

Meanwhile, Captain Sundaram (SVS Sahasranamam?), who’s alive and well, returns to India, only to accidentally discover that the woman he loved is now married. Desolate, he leaves without meeting either his cousin or his uncle. Saddened that circumstances had forced him to break his promise to his wife, and wanting to apologise to Sundaram,  Ramanathan goes in search of his nephew. Unfortunately, he meets his death.

Kanmani is inconsolable, but Raja manages to comfort her. In the meantime, aghast at their son’s temerity, Sarangapani has dashed off a letter and a telegram to his son – his parents are on their deathbeds, and he should come immediately. Raja, knowing his father’s tricks, refuses to go. But Kanmani, still grieving the death of her father, persuades him – what would people say if a son refused to visit his ailing parents for the sake of a woman he barely knows? 

Reluctantly, Raja leaves.

Back in his village, he’s faced with the very situation he feared – his father lectures, his mother weeps. Raja, however, is steadfast. His Kanmani is beyond compare. Outside the house, Nallakannu Pillai is instigating the villagers against the family, and inside the house, Sarangapani is giving his son a Hobson’s choice – either he abandons his half-caste wife and marry a girl of his parents’ choice, or he can set fire to his parents’ funeral pyre. 

Torn between two loves, and not wanting to give up either, Raja decides to bring Kanmani to meet his parents – if once they meet her, they cannot, would not be able to resist her innocent charm.

Unfortunately, what he sees when he returns home is to shake his convictions and make him choose a path that will lead to the destruction of four lives.

Produced by AVM Productions, Penn was simultaneously made in Tamil, Hindi (Ladki) and Telugu (Sangham) with both Vyjayanthimala and Anjali Devi reprising their roles in all three versions.

Penn, as I said, is a strange film. Right from the first scene (a song), we are primed for a rousing feminist tale. Rani is the kind of feminist whom it is easy to like. Brought up in a very non-conventional manner, she is both progressive and grounded. Her friendship with Kanmani is also very normal – Kanmani is the more conservative of the two, but there’s no judgement of the other on either one’s part. Neither does the film make the case that one is superior to the other.

Their fathers, too, are very progressive men. Both girls are educated, both are treated as equals by their parents, and if Ramanathan is eager to get his daughter married, he is certainly not bending backwards to erase her lineage or buy a groom for his daughter. 

Or agreeing to marry her off to the first man who comes along. All he wants is for his daughter to find a compatible groom who will keep her happy. Even when Kanmani tells him despondently that she fears she’s a burden, he rejects that idea outright. Every father, he says, worries about his daughter’s marriage, but that doesn’t mean that he’s eager to get her married off.

The relationships – between Rani and Kanmani, between the girls and their fathers, between Raja and Raghu – are all drawn with a light hand and are very relatable indeed. And when it comes to the crux of the matter, it is not only Rani and Raghu who stand up for a belaboured Kanmani, but Rani’s father as well.

Raja is called out for his pusillanimity not only by Rani, but also by Raghu. One of the finest scenes in the film is in the climax where Rani tells Raja that if they were still treating him with respect after the way he’s treated Kanmani, it is because he’s Kanmani’s husband. 

She also asks him whether he realised that Kanmani had never once blamed him, and in fact, had gone out of her way to ensure that he’s not blamed by anyone. Raghu, similarly, is not content to stand by and see injustice being done.

So, where’s the problem, you ask? For one, in Kanmani’s characterisation. The character is such a wet rag, and so self-sacrificing that you want to slap some sense into her. 

Secondly, the ending – why does Raja get to simply announce that he's seen the light without so much as an apology for the way he’s treated Kanmani? Why does everyone, including the script, treat Raja’s actions as forgivable? (I’m very glad that Raghu, at least, calls him out on his duplicity!)

The other problem was with Vyjayanthimala’s character – there’s no reason for her to be shown as an athlete, except to take her to Colombo where she could have an accident and disappear from the film for large chunks of time. Also, it was very funny to see a sign board saying ‘Inter-university sports’ (or something to that effect) and then have a voice over and shots of newspaper headlines acclaiming her as an Olympic athlete! 

Having cast Vyjayanthimala, of course they had to have many, many dances… some of them make no sense in the context of the film, or even on screen, especially when they show two Vyjayanthimalas on stage, logic be damned. But I cannot complain – the score (R Sudarshanam) is excellent and the lyrics by a phalanx of lyricists including Papanasam Sivan, Udumulai Naryana Kavi et al., run the gamut of themes from the philosophical to the romantic to despairing. My personal favourites were Eliyanor manam paadum paatile (CS Jayaraman) and Ethadha kilaiyil kittadha kani pol (MS Rajeswari).

But, despite its flaws, I quite enjoyed the film. It is rare to find a film of that vintage so consistent in its message, especially where women’s rights are concerned. 

It also takes on societal discrimination based on caste and religion, and in fact, is very vocal about doing so. Raja and Rani were also unique in being characters who despite loving their parents, did not treat their word as gospel. And this is probably a first in the annals of cinema but being named ‘Raja’ and ‘Rani’ didn’t mean that they automatically were paired opposite each other! 

Though the role didn't demand much of her in terms of histrionics, Vyjayanthimala sparkled in the few scenes that gave her scope to really perform. One of her earliest movies, it showed us an glimpses of the performer she would grow into. 

Similarly, Anjali Devi acquitted herself quite credibly in what could have degenerated into a three-handkerchief tragedy.  Gemini Ganesan didn't have much to do except look romantic, and his arc was perhaps the most ill-written in that there's no logical reason for his behaviour in the latter half of the film. S Balachander is fabulous as Raghu, and plays almost a parallel role to Ganesan, without the romantic track. Though he does get a fabulous song - Kalyanam kalyanam (Chandrababu) to show off his zany moves.

I'm not saying Penn is a great film, but it is an important film given the period in which this film was made. If you’re interested, Tom Daniels has a nice clear, sub-titled print up on his channel.

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