Would you watch a film based on the politics of a Bengali family set in the 1920s, but adapted for the Bollywood audiences of the ’80s? What if you were told that the cast included stalwarts like Utpal Dutt, Girish Karnad, Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar? More so, if it was based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and directed by Basu Chatterjee? Do I have your attention now?
Basu Chatterjee’s Apne Paraye (1980) is based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Nishkriti (1917), which is not as popular as his other novels like Parineeta (1914) and Devdas (1917). However, Chatterjee’s cinematic wisdom coupled with Sarat Chandra’s flair makes the movie a very interesting watch. Chattopadhyay has easily been one of Bollywood’s favourite novelists. Many of his stories and novels have been adapted into successful films — a trend that continues even today — the 2005 rendition of Parineeta being the last one. His in-depth understanding of social issues and family dynamics in India made the stories and characters quite popular among the likes of Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, and Basu Chatterjee. On Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 84th death anniversary, ThePrint revisits Apne Paraye.
Apne Paraye’s family drama
The story revolves around a Bengali family of three brothers, two of whom, Girish (Utpal Dutt) and Harish (Girish Karnad), are lawyers and are related by blood, while the third, Chander (Amol Palekar), is a ‘matric-pass’ son of their uncle. Chander’s wife, Sheela (Shabana Azmi), called ‘chhoti bahu‘, is the disciplinarian of the house and is the caregiver of the sick ‘elder’ woman of the house, Sideshwari (Ashalata). Life becomes difficult for the family when Harish and his wife Naintara (Bharati Achrekar) decide to come and stay with the other two brothers. Naintara is envious of Sheela’s authority and finds ways to demean her. Sideshwari, though often in awe of Sheela’s competence as the ‘chhoti bahu’ and caretaker of the house, finds herself influenced by Naintara’s attitude and occasionally gets rude to her. Eventually, both Chander and Sheela decide to leave the house and go back to their native village where new challenges await them.
The plot of the film might sound like a typical family drama or daily soap but if one ignores the occasional fast zoom-ins and dramatic background scores, it is a complex societal and familial drama.
Shabana Azmi shines throughout the film as the quintessential saviour, connector of the family who is bold despite being the youngest. She knows how to take care of her family members and fulfil the expectations of a typical household ‘bahu’, but is not afraid to speak her mind. Shabana’s character is quite layered in that sense. And so are the other characters. The six main characters speak for themselves. In one of the sequences, Sideshwari, the elder bahu of the house, while praising Sheela, says “Sab kaam mein aage hai…agar mard hoti toh collector hoti” (she is ahead in everything…if she were a man, she would have been a collector). This dialogue depicts the situation of women back in those days when the only place a woman could show her capabilities and smartness was her own house. However, despite her best efforts, she fails to evade family politics and has to surrender to the will of the family who wants to banish her and her ‘useless’ husband, who does not earn enough.
Women’s relationships in a family
The film also depicts the relationship dynamics between women within a family. Although it often gets too melodramatic, one can not help but ponder the complexities of each character. For instance, why an otherwise calm Sideshwari, who seems to adore Sheela, speaks the harshest words to her when the ‘majhli bahu‘ complains about her. Sheela’s devotion to the family despite all that she goes through, her ability to stand up for herself, her insecurities that stem from her husband’s unemployment — all this makes an interesting case for the film to be watched as a social commentary on family dynamics.
The music is forgettable but perfectly fits in the context of the film. The background score includes a sweet, Bangla folk-style song being played occasionally, which can surprise people knowing it was composed by the same Bappi Lahiri who gave us hits like ‘Disco Dancer’ and ‘Tamma Tamma’.
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(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)