Bengali Classic Film Review

Saptapadi

Set in World War II, the reverend Krishnendu (Uttam Kumar) runs a military hospital in Bankura. A drunken Anglo-Indian woman soldier is brought to him for treatment and he recognises her as his former love Rina Brown (Suchitra Sen). The two of them were fellow medical students who initially clashed with each other but fell in love following a stage performance of Othello where Krishnendu played Othello to Rina’s Desdemona. Rina’s father agrees to the match providing Krishnendu converts to Christianity. Rina doesn’t want him to change his religion for her but Krishnendu is willing to do anything for her. His orthodox father (Chhabi Biswas) visits Rina and tells her he will never accept this marriage and pleads with Rina to let Krishnendu go. Rina sacrifices her love even as Krishnendu converts to Christianity. Rina then discovers that she is the illegimate daughter of her maid (Chhaya Devi) with whom her father had an affair. She becomes an alcoholic and joins the army. Back in the present when Rina realizes the doctor who treated her is Krishnendu, she tries to kill herself. Ultimately the lovers are united in the midst of the war.

The great foursome of Harano Sur (1957) – cinematographer/director Ajoy Kar, music director Hemanta Mukherjee and actors Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen reunite in one of the most popular Bengali films ever, Saptapadi. The film, based on a story by Tarashankar Banerjee, is undoubtedly one of the most memorable films of the magical Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen combination. It is easy to see looking at this film as to why why this pair was regarded as the epitome of romance on the Bengali screen.

Admittedly, the film takes its time to get into high gear. The conflicts of the hero and heroine before they inevitably fall in love are now embarassingly dated and have not held up well at all. This is true especially in the football match and later in the songs On The Merry Go Round Let Us Ride and Roll versus the well-known devotional song Eibar Kali Tomai Khabo used extremely interestingly here as the two songs become a clash of cultures of the Anglo-Indians (them) versus the Bengalis (us) with of course the Bengalis ‘winning’. Suchitra Sen’s scenes establishing her as the English speaking Anglo-Indian Rina Brown are over the top and unintentionally funny as she mouths the You Brute…You Scoundrel types of dialogue. Even in the Othello sequence where though her lines were dubbed by a fine Shakespeare artist like Jennifer Kapoor, Jennifer’s voice just doesn’t suit Suchitra making her performance as Desdemona appear all the more stilted. (As a contrast Utpal Dutt’s dubbing for Uttam Kumar playing Othello comes off much better in this sequence and all credit to Uttam Kumar whose lip sync for the scene appears perfect). But following the Othello sequence, once they realize that something has changed and they have fallen in love, Saptapadi takes off beautifully and holds it own right through to the happy ending as the lovers are united in the midst of World War II even if Tarashankar’s original story ended in tragedy.

As in their films together the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen chemistry supercedes everything else. The pair create magic on screen making even the smallest gestures as when she does his packing appear to be the ultimate in romance! Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen had the knack of drawing the viewer into the story and making him/her genuinely care about what happens to them. Romantic clinches aside, the two stars respond with finely shaded performances. Uttam Kumar’s hypnotic screen presence, mellow voice and dazzling smile make him the perfect hero. And yes, apart from those earlier scenes, Suchitra too comes into her own and is at her matchless best, even carrying off the drunken scenes of Rina Brown rather well. In fact, such was the popularity of the film and the impact that the character of Rina Brown had, in a recent opinion poll every contemporary Bengali actress was unanimous in her choice of Rina Brown being the dream role she wanted to play. Both Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen won the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association’s (BFJA) Awards for Best Actor and Actress respectively for Saptapadi, while the film itself was 5th on the list of 10 Best Indian Films of the year. Strong support comes from Chhabi Biswas as Uttam Kumar’s father who opposes his marriage to Suchitra and Chhaya Devi playing Suchitra’s maid even if they have just a handful of scenes in the film. They both prove that a good artist can make an impact even in the smallest of roles.

But what makes Saptapadi go beyond Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen is really Ajoy Kar’s fine handling of the story. Here was a director who clearly understood cinematic language as was apparent in the earlier Harano Sur as well. Several sequences stand out on the sheer strength of their wonderful treatment and execution. For example the meeting of the two lovers for the first time after they have broken up. Rina Brown sees Krishnendu in the mirror as he avoids facing her and as she recognises him, a train goes past, rattling the hut and his image in the mirror. All done by simulation of light on Krishnendu’s image in the mirror and sound of the train. Or the scenes of where Kar holds on to Kumar and Sen individually following their staging of Othello as they struggle to come to terms with their feelings for each other. This makes the viewer connect with them and see what they are going through. With Kar being a cinematographer/ director, the film boasts of some extremely fine black and white camerawork by him thus heightening the mood of the film with exquisite use of light and shade like the play of light and shadow on Uttam Kumar’s face in the brilliantly low-key lit Othello scene. In fact, Kar too was a recipient of the BFJA Award for his splendid camerawork. Special mention must also be made of the well thought sound design of the film – in particular the splendid use of offscreen sound as in the use of the wind in the Othello sequence or the train going by in the above mentioned sequence of the two estranged lovers meeting again.

Though Saptapadi is a big commerical film with the top stars of the day and the films boasts of a music director of the status of Hemanta Mukherjee, the film sticks to good, simple storytelling and uses songs just where necessary. The film has just 4 songs. The clash of East versus West – On the Merry Go Round versus Eibar Kali Tomai Khabo (a cult devotional song in Bengal) and two versions of the all time hit Ei Path Jadi Na Shesh Hoi. The version picturised on the motorcycle in particular acquired cult status (even if the rear projection is a big no-no) as it caught the fancy of the Bengali public. Every young man wanted to be like Uttam Kumar on the bike while every young girl dreamed of sitting like Suchitra Sen behind her hero! The second version of the song too is beautifully used in the film as Rina hums to herself and goes about her house from vase to vase arranging flowers. Incidentally Mukherjee reworked the song as Ek Baar Zara Phir Keh Do in the Biswajeet-Asha Parekh starrer Bin Badal Barsaat (1963) but like his earlier adaptation of Tumi Je Amar from Harano Sur into Chale Hum Kahan in Police (1958), the Hindi version did not quite have the same impact.

All in all, Saptapadi is a great example of the golden age of Bengali Cinema, a time when Bengali Cinema had its distinct identity.

Bengali, Drama, Black & White

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