Bengali, Classic, Film, India, Review

Uttar Falguni

Debjani (Suchitra Sen) is forced to marry the rakish Rakhal (Kalipada Chakraborty) who then tries to initiate her into prostitution. Pregnant with Rakhal’s child, she escapes from him and while on the train, she tries to commit suicide, but is rescued by the madam of a singing house (Chhaya Devi) and brought to her kotha in Lucknow, where she gives birth to a daughter, Suparna, and becomes the courtesan Pannabai. As Rakhal traces her out continues to harass and blackmail her, she escapes once again to Calcutta and has Suparna admitted in a missionary school and distances herself from her so that her daughter can grow up in a good, clean environment. She meets her former lover, a barrister, Manish Roy (Bikash Roy) who, after hearing her tragic tale, wants to marry her but Debjani will not let him soil his name. She however asks him to take care of Suparna. Manish agrees, becoming Suparna’s guardian. Years Pass. Pannabai is now older with a heart ailment. The adult Suparna (Suchitra Sen again), brought up by Manish as his niece, returns from abroad, also having become a lawyer, who is in love with her senior, Indranil (Dilip Mukherjee), also Manish’s assistant. When Rakhal realizes that Suparna is his daughter, he comes back to blackmail Debjani, threatening to expose Suparna’s true identity. Debjani shoots him down. In court, she is defended by Manish. Suparna is against Manish taking this case of a characterless, fallen woman whom she despises but when Manish tells her Debjani’s true story and reveals her true identity to her, she defends Debjani in court…

Uttar Falguni is undoubtedly one of Suchitra Sen’s most famous films and one in which she made a great impact in the dual role of a mother-daughter. It is also is one of the two landmark Bengali films that she did with director Asit Sen, the other being Deep JeleJai (1959).

The film, having echoes of the Nargis starrer Adalat (1958), sticks to good, simple basic storytelling, as Asit Sen made it a point to never use obviously flashy technique to tell his stories. He always maintained that if you have to resort to technical gimmickry to prop up your film, it means you have nothing of substance to say! According to him if you haven’t known pain, how can you call yourself a filmmaker? To him, filmmaking was about sharing emotions which Uttar Falguni has in plenty. Though the film falls into the classic weepy women’s picture so popular in the 1950s and 60s, Sen treats the subject with restraint , maturity and sensitivity.

Though the film is produced by Uttam Kumar, Uttar Falguni came at a time by when Suchitra was hunting for a distinct histrionic identity of her own and wanting to go beyond just her romantic pairing with Uttam Kumar. In fact, if one looks at her films in the period from 1959 to 1967, there is a drastic reduction in her work with Uttam Kumar as in several heroine-centric films, she was paired with other heroes like Soumitra Chatterjee (Saat Pake Bandha (1963)), Basanta Choudhury (Deep Jele Jai), Bikash Roy (Smriti Tuku Taak (1960), Sandhya Dweeper Sikha (1964)) and Ashok Kumar (Hospital (1960)). It is to her credit that Suchitra proved she could ably carry all these films on her shoulders.

In Uttar Falguni too, Suchitra Sen single-handlely carries the film all on her own from beginning to end. Though a dual role and where, admittedly, she brings individuality to both roles, she doesn’t have much scope  in the role of the emancipated daughter, her only moments coming right towards the end as she realizes that Pannabai, a woman she despises, is her mother. On finding out her true story, defends her in court, thus admitting her own identity in the process. It is as Pannabai that she really scores in the film though again as in Saptapadi (1961) she is a trifle loud to start with as she establishes herself as a courtesan with the make-up, mannerisms and gestures overdone, but then she settles down into the film and into the character beautifully, never hitting a false note subsequently. Also, by then Suchitra Sen had perfected her cult image in Bengali Cinema as the embodiment of the ultimate self-sacrificing yet resilient Bengali woman and she brings much poise, grace and dignity in the role of a fallen woman who is determined to see her daughter grow up in a decent environment. She is, in fact, particularly good as the older Pannabai expertly capturing some extremely poignant moments such as her excitement over the phone on trying to find out how her daughter looks having returned from abroad, since she is too nervous to go to the airport to get a glimpse of her; or the scene of her observing Suparana and Indranil from afar at a party held in Suparna’s honour. Suchitra as Debjani/Pannabai is able to connect directly with the viewer and make him or her feel deeply for all that she goes through the course of the film thus giving her death at the end of the film a solid, emotional wallop.

Of the rest of the cast, special mention has to be made of Bikash Roy, who lends perfect support to Suchitra investing his ever supportive character with much sensitivity, understanding and dignity even if a trifle mannered. The relationship of Manish and Debjani spread over the years is a key part of the film and extremely well handled by Asit Sen. Their relationship is heartwarming to say the least and in their interactions together you see how well they were suited for each other and feel for them that they could never get together and have a normal family life together. Their scenes together have an element of depth totally missing in the comparatively frivolous romantic track of the younger lovers, Indranil and Suparna. It doesn’t help either that Dilip Mukherjee as Indranil is totally ineffectual but then there is not much in the character either, which is undoubtedly the weakest written role in the film, giving him just a single scene of some merit where Indranil convinces Suparna she has to do what is right. Otherwise it is a totally undemanding role, which Mukherjee’s wooden acting fails to rescue. Chhaya Devi, as usual, makes a strong impact as the strong, motherly madam with a heart of gold who is fiercely protective of Pannabai while Kalipada Chakraborty plays the obnoxious, despicable rakish husband Rakhal to perfection. Actually, Rakhal’s track is extremely well-worked out in the film as it is he who is the catalyst for all the major actions of Debjani/Pannabai right through the film and the one who makes the film move forward – her becoming Pannabai, her distancing herself from Suparna, his re-entry years later at the court as he spots a grown up Suparna and threatens to expose her true identity causing Debjani to finally murder him thus leading to the court case and the cathartic climax.

Music is used extremely well in the film and is most effectively integrated into the narrative flow of the film, in particular the three classical pieces. The first at the beginning of the film establishes Sen as a courtesen, the second shows us her musical training in a flashback sequence over a period of time as from Debjani she becomes Pannabai and the third – a brilliant mixture of music and sound at 3 particular instances (the church bells, thunder and the wind) over slow dissolves of Pannabai singing juxtaposed against Suparna and Manish in school; Pannabai juxtaposed singing against the dark monsoon clouds and then finally against a tree bereft of leaves signifying the passing years during which Suparna grows up and also symbolising the entry of Pannabai into old age. The tempo of the music and the classical piece too is much slower at the end here as we are introduced to a now greying Pannabai who has a heart ailment. Not just here but right through the film, Asit Sen uses these slow dissolves most effectively as transitions between scenes like for instance we have the shot of Pannabai shooting at Rakhal dissolving to a close shot of jail bars that seem to appear to be in front of her and even as the first shot fades out, the camera tracks back from the bars and we see her with Manish in her cell.

The film was both a huge critical and commercial success. Suchitra Sen won the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association (BFJA) Award for Best Actress while Bikash Roy won the BFJA Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film also won a BFJA Award for its audiographers Nripen Paul and Sujit Sarkar and was placed 6th on the BFJA list of Best Indian Films of the Year.

1963 was a wonderful year for Suchitra Sen as apart from Uttar Falguni, she made an even stronger impact in Saat Pake Bandha, going on to win the Best Actress Award at the Moscow International Film Festival for the same. This was the third award for an Indian Actress at an international film festival following Chunnibala Devi winning at the Manila International Film Festival for Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Pather Panchali (1955), and Nargis’ award for Mother India (1957) at the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Suchitra and Asit Sen got together again to remake Uttar Falguni in Hindi as Mamta (1966) with Suchitra repeating her dual roles opposite Ashok Kumar and Dharmendra respectively. The film is one of her better and most effective forays into Hindi and is aided tremendously by one of Roshan’s best ever musical scores including the still popular songs Rahen Na Rahen Hum and Chhupa Lo Yoon Dil Mein.

Bengali, Drama, Black & White

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