Still waters run deep. It is a common enough proverb, indicating silence and calm may hide a raging passion. Cinema has portrayed the power of this silence often and in many ways, but perhaps never more poignantly than in Bandini (1963). Starring Nutan, the embodiment of the proverb, this Bimal Roy film is a lesson in subtlety and elegance.
Set in pre-Independence India, Bandini tells the story of Kalyani, a young woman who has been sentenced to life in prison after she murders the wife of her lover, Bikash (Ashok Kumar).
Wracked with guilt and anger and nursing a broken heart, Kalyani takes all and any punishment that comes her way in an attempt to absolve herself.
In jail, she meets the on-call doctor Deven (Dharmendra at the start of his career) who falls for her. Kalyani is haunted by her past and tortured by her present, and sees no possible light in her future. When life does throw some light her way, she is conflicted. Which path should she follow — the one leading to her past or the one that promises a different future?
Like most Bimal Roy films, Bandini is a woman-centric, feminist one. It tells of the quiet suffering of a woman — from a woman’s perspective. The film stays true to the book it’s based on, Tamasi by Charu Chandra Chakrabarti, and portrays Kalyani as the complex character she is — a rarity in 1960s Bollywood, which would tend to focus more on the male character.
Jilted by the strong, charismatic freedom fighter (Kumar), who promises to return for her but doesn’t, Kalyani’s faith in life and people is shaken. She knows she must repent for her actions and has no right to hope for something better. When Deven professes his love for her, she recoils, not because she doesn’t like him, but because of her fear and the feeling that she is unworthy.
Nutan dominates the film with her understated, elegant performance. Many agreed this was her best performance by far. Her restraint and nuance really bring out Kalyani’s inner conflict on screen. The dialogues, written by Paul Mahendra, are simple but the words carry weight, just like the anguish in Nutan’s eyes.
In the beginning, when she arrives at the jail, she is quiet and demure, never really looking up to speak — a far cry from the happy, free-spirited Kalyani she used to be. The contrast in the two is beautifully shown by Nutan. No wonder, then, that she won the Filmfare award for Best Actress for the film, which itself won the National Award for Best Feature Film.
Bandini was also Roy’s last feature film, and it made for a fitting swansong. The film is almost an ode to his masterful techniques of using light and the environment to heighten tension and create an entire mood. One specific scene, a favourite among viewers and critics, is the one in which Kalyani decides to kill Bikash’s wife. It is a highly dramatic scene, shown in such an understated manner. Roy cleverly employs the use of shadows on Kalyani’s face as she quietly rages inside and plots to poison the woman she hates. Behind her are metal workers welding iron — sparks fly as Kalyani reaches for the poison, the hammer beats down on the metal as she seethes about the unfair hand life has dealt her. It is a scene worthy of being taught in the finest film schools.
But that is not the only reason why the film is special — it also happens to be the debut of Gulzar as a lyricist. Upon being persuaded into by composer S.D. Burman, Gulzar wrote Mora Gora Ang Laile, and kicked off his journey into the world of Hindi film music. The film’s soundtrack, composed by Burman, was one of the reasons the film won so many awards.
Songs like Mora Gora, O Janewale Ho Sake To Laut Ke Aana, O Mere Majhi Mere Sajan Hai are memorable not only for their harmony but because they formed integral parts of the film. O Janewale, sung by Lata Mangeshkar, is perhaps the most haunting as it plays in the background while Kalyani decides to leave her old life behind and run away to the city, in search of Bikash. O Mere Majhi, sung by Burman himself, plays at the very end as Kalyani is poised to choose between Bikash and Deven — the song crying out her inner truth.
Bandini is the story of many aspects: a tortured woman, a broken heart, a love triangle, the freedom struggle. But most of all, it talks about the idea of freedom and asks the question — are you really ever free?