26 May 2014

Picture This: The Marathi Renaissance

My BL Ink column:
Exciting work is emerging once again from the land of Prabhat Studios: films with close ties to the social and cultural ground from which they spring.

A still from Nagraj Manjule's superb first feature, Fandry (2013)
I am no expert on Marathi cinema: I live in Delhi and have never seen a Marathi film in the theatre. I don’t even speak the language (though I love the sharply articulated sound of it). But over the last six years or so, I have seen so many interesting Marathi films at festival screenings that I have no hesitation in agreeing with pronouncements of a renaissance. What seems to me truly wonderful is the variety of films being made, and how close their ties are to the social and cultural ground from which they rise. 

Astu, which I saw last week, is named for a Sanskrit word that translates to ‘so be it’. Directed by the long-time director duo Sunil Sukhtankar and Sumitra Bhave, Astu centres on the transformation of a man’s relationship with the world as a result of Alzheimer’s. Mohan Agashe plays a retired Sanskrit professor who goes from being a sagacious old man to an overgrown child. As he loses his memory, his elder daughter Ira (Irawati Harshe) must deal with a father who no longer behaves like a father. But to find the strength to do so, she must first forgive him. Astu offers a quietly terrifying vision of ageing and life: if the growing defencelessness of the old is a regression to childhood, children’s transition to adulthood seems to make them more brutal.

The film might have worked purely as a fraught family portrait. But Bhave and Sukhtankar are interested in something more ambitious. Against the educated upper- middle-class Marathi family with its intellectualised responses and complex dynamics, they pit a poor Telugu-speaking migrant woman who seems instinctively to know what is needed. If she worries, it is only about how to feed another mouth. The veteran Agashe is great at depicting the professor’s increasingly childlike dependence on the goodness of others — and the immensely talented Amruta Subhash won a National Award as the embodiment of that goodness. The filmmakers also make evocative use of an elephant (which Agashe becomes obsessed with) to move the film into a more mythical register, charging the beast with the symbolic heft of his move from culture to nature.

Despite all these things working for it, the film is not flawless. It feels a little flabby, and its father-daughter conversations about philosophy — Zen or Mahabharat — sound pretentious rather than thought-provoking. The final irritant is harder to articulate: there is something deeply Brahminical about the milieu, the characters and their concerns. Nothing wrong with that — a Brahmin subculture is as legitimate as any other, you might say. But there’s something annoying about the film’s almost ideological equation of Sanskrit with the highest form of knowledge, with god-like-ness. And the fact that Brahmin-ness is constantly played on, but never overtly invoked.

That’s the thing about caste at the upper end of the hierarchy — it is made invisible: we’re all supposed to pretend it doesn’t matter. At the lower end of the hierarchy, no one has the luxury of that pretence. So I’m glad that Marathi cinema is beginning to make room for films that speak of — and from — that predicament, too. Baboo Band Baja, made in 2010, centred on a young boy from a community of bandwalas. The film flagged the question of whether the boy could go to school and hope to move out of the system, or be forced to continue in the family profession. Rajesh Pinjani’s decision to embody the two points of view in the mother and father was effective, if a bit ham-handed.

Nagaraj Manjule’s semi-autobiographical Fandry, released in 2013, deals much more frontally with the caste question, interestingly also via a young boy in a rural setting trying to deal with the conflicting imperatives of his home and school milieus. Sanskrit appears in this film, too, though from a very different angle: Jabya’s classmate Vedant Kulkarni, the studious good boy to whom he and his friends go for notes, has (like the adult Ira in Astu) a Sanskrit teacher for a father. Jabya’s own father, in contrast, cannot even read his son’s secret love letter when he stumbles upon it. Caste is a plain fact of life here, and Manjule doesn’t beat around the bush about it. Early in the film we hear Jabya’s mother say how he’d throw even more tantrums if he were fair-skinned — and she’s not joking. When Jabya gets besotted with his classmate Shalu, it’s apparent her fair-skinned Brahmin-ness is crucial to his desire.

Colour is important to Manjule’s film in other ways. It is beautifully shot, with a palette that echoes his theme. The desiccated landscape of rocks and spiny bushes is bleached of all colour, as drab as the lives Jabya and his family live. Jabya’s desire for bright things — and his fruitless search for a mythical bird — shows his world in aching relief.

Other recent Marathi films that have gotten noticed at the National Awards include Gabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain, 2009) about farmer suicides in Vidarbha; Umesh Kulkarni’s Valu, Vihir and 2012’s Deool (the latter is among the more powerful films I’ve seen about the commercialisation of faith), Sujay Dahake’s 2011 paean to school life, Shala; Paresh Mokashi’s Dadasaheb Phalke biopic Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) and Sandesh Kulkarni’s Masala (2012), inspired by the Chordias, a couple who grew from nothing to become owners of a masala empire. Masala is a Guru without the gloss: unlike that glorification of Dhirubhai Ambani’s questionable tactics, Masala makes business seem both honest and admirable.

A lot of Marathi cinema emerges out of a cross-fertilisation with theatre. One can see the difference from Bollywood in the substantial scripts, the use of actors rather than stars, and an attention to locations. Yes, sometimes the films can be verbose, and when they try to cater to the commercial side of things by adding item songs, they can be tacky as well. But on the whole, this is a world well worth trying to enter.

Published in the Hindu Business Line.

Manto's moviedom, moviedom's Manto

Sa'adat Hasan Manto may be long dead, but in his writing, the 1940s Bombay film world remains brilliantly alive.

Manto wrote himself an epitaph to rival all epitaphs, "Here lies Sa'adat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of storytelling... Under tons of earth he rests, still wondering who among the two is the greater story writer: God or he." But Manto's sister decided that his grave could do without unwelcome attention from God's little soldiers, and had it replaced with a Ghalib-inspired line - something to the effect of not having been the last word upon this earth. It is deliberately innocuous, quite the opposite of Manto. 

Whether Manto was or was not a greater story writer than God, I think he is the greatest writer to have written about the world of Bombay cinema. This is no small thing, given that the pieces I'm referring to - published in Urdu as Ganjey Farishtey, translated into English as Stars from Another Sky - were written between 1948 and 1954, over sixty years ago. 

Their world is one Manto had himself been part of, as a journalist and a studio screenwriter. When he first moved to Bombay in 1936 to work at Nazir Ludhianvi's weekly film newspaper Musawwir (The Painter), he was 24. Over the next decade and a bit, he worked as Editor of Babu Rao Patel's film magazine Caravan, and at the Imperial Film Company, Film City and Saroj Movietone. From his own references, it seems he also worked on films for Filmistan, Chitra Productions and Hindustan Cine Tone, among others. 

In line with the archival abyss that we Indians live in, very, very few of the 2000-odd films made in the 1930s and 1940s have survived - and none of those Manto was part of. How wonderful it would be to read what Manto wrote in Musawwir and Caravan - reviews of contemporary films? - but I doubt any of those exist either. 

But what we do have in Stars from Another Sky are sparkling accounts of some of the people Manto knew, and through them, a picture of the Bombay film industry that feels warmer, more intimate and acute than pretty much anything that has been published on it since. And none of it is touchy-feely. Some of the people Manto writes about remain instantly recognisable - Nargis, Ashok Kumar, the golden-voiced Noor Jehan and kathak danseuse Sitara. The latter, whom Manto labelled 'Dancing Tigress from Nepal' and who lives into her 90s as the venerable Sitara Devi, was the subject of his most unabashedly sensational piece. But here, too, Manto exhibits what I can only call his unique charm. Having gone on about her sexual appetite and her relationships for several pages, he ends, "Sitara, of course, would be angry, but after some time, she will forgive me because...she, too is a bighearted woman... I do not know what she thinks of me but I have always thought of her as a woman who is born once in a hundred years." Believable flattery is a very rare thing. 

The Nargis piece is one of my favourites: a remarkably unforced portrait of someone forced to live two lives. On one hand she is the naive young woman who enjoys girlish gossip, comparing notes about convent school life and asking for recipes for "toffee with raw sugar" (this turns out, in my Devanagari version, Meena Bazar, to be called gur ki bheli). Almost the whole piece is devoted to this unstarry Nargis, so starved for the company of ordinary girls her age that she actually seeks out those she encounters via an anonymous phone call (these happen to be Manto's saalis). But then it swerves, as if without premeditation, into a different space: Manto takes some visiting young men to Jaddan Bai's house to see Nargis. She emerges reluctantly, and her manner with these admirers is completely at odds with what we've seen so far. 

"Nargis's entire conversation was pure artifice. The way she sat, the way she moved, the way she raised her eyes was like an offering on a platter... It was a boring and somewhat tense meeting." Later he describes her talking money. The piece is among the most vivid portrayals of a star persona ever - alternately lonely and haughty, childish and businesslike. 

Other pieces describe personalities largely lost to public memory, like Rafiq Ghaznavi ('The Ladies' Man') or Neena ('The Inscrutable Housewife'). But Manto's unabashed narratives are not only about these protagonists - they are full of drinking sessions, tangential affairs and breakups, and the everyday life of the Bombay film studio - writing sessions, shooting hazards, comic interludes. 

Perhaps the book's most moving essay is about the actor Shyam, Manto's close friend who had died. But it is not Shyam's death that makes the piece moving. It is the fact that in writing it, Manto relives the events leading up to his 1948 departure from Bombay "where the communal atmosphere was becoming more vicious by the day". He describes advising Ashok Kumar and Vacha to dismiss him from service because "the Hindus thought" he was the one getting so many Muslims into Bombay Talkies. His description of his relationship with Shyam as Partition riots erupt is among the most powerful accounts of how individual lives can get folded into wider - that is narrower - identities. Nothing happens - it is just the inescapable feeling that it could. 

If Manto had lived, he would have turned 102 on 11 May, 2014. He died ridiculously, sadly young at 43, having spent his last six years in sorrowful exile from his beloved Bombay. May Bombay's moviedom keep his spirit alive in our difficult times.

This column was published in Mumbai Mirror.

18 May 2014

Calling Up a Time

Calling up a time
Screen presence: Patanga (1949) and Queen (2014)
My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Landlines to mobiles: The phone has evolved, but its cinematic effect remains strong as ever.

The telephone must be one of the most beloved cinematic devices. Think of the countless films in which the hero/heroine (and we, the audience) hears a murder, or a mysterious voice, after which the line is cut off, leaving them (and us) on tenterhooks. Or think of how the phone became indispensable to filmi love. It lets on-screen lovers conduct secret love lives, pulling landlines into bedrooms, hiding cordless phones under pillows to wait for the late-night call, setting up assignations rife with possibilities for identity confusion. 

In some ways, the experience of using a telephone was akin to the experience of cinema itself. In the words of the cultural theorist Iain Chambers: "Like the city and the cinema, and so many other institutions of modernity, [the telephone] allowed you to be somewhere you were not. Perhaps it allowed you to be someone you were not or someone you hadn't known you were yet." 

Filmmakers loved the telephone because it allowed you to play around with two components of the film medium, the visual and the aural. Between two people having a phone conversation, sound is necessarily present, but the image can be absent or obscured. Or at least, different from what the person on the other side imagines. 

In Hindi films, the telephone has run the gamut from the charming silliness of long-distance romance - Shamshad Begam's 'Mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya hai telephoon' for Patanga (1949) - to excitement, even danger - 'Aaj ki raat koi aane ko hai' in Anamika (1973), featuring Helen, a hoodlum and a telephone booth in the rain - until the sound of the phone is itself sexualised ('Telephone dhun mein hasne wali', Hindustani (1997). 

But some of the most effective filmic uses of the telephone have been in domestic space. 

A film I wrote about recently, Kora Kagaz (1973), uses the telephone astutely, both to amplify its themes and direct its plot. The relationship between the inexperienced husband and wife (Vijay Anand's Sukesh and Jaya Bhaduri's Archana) is already splintering when the telephone arrives to drive a deeper wedge between them. An expensive proposition for an underpaid college teacher in the 1970s, it works, first and foremost, as a symbol of class. Archana's busybody of a mother decides her daughter needs a telephone, and she will pay for it if her son-in-law can't afford it. 

The film plays out the installation itself - the digging up of a road, the laying of lines, the decision over where the instrument will be placed in the house - as an upheaval in the household. Later, the phone becomes the embodiment of the unbroken link between Archana and her natal family. But director Anil Ganguly's finest touch is to turn the instrument's persistent tring-tring into an alarm bell of sorts, its shrill ring rupturing the peace of Archana's marital home. 

In accordance with lived reality, the landline in cinema has been replaced by the cellphone. An early cinematic tribute to the cellphone was Kabir Kaushik's Sehar (2005), with its droll subplot about a bumbling professor (Pankaj Kapoor) hired to help the UP Police figure out the new mobile phone technology that gangs are already using. A more recent example is Dedh Ishqiya, where Arshad Warsi woos Huma Qureishi with iPhone banter. 

Some films feature mobiles more than others. But three recent films have been noticeable for their absence. The first is Dekh Tamasha Dekh, which I wrote about last week, is a cleverly absurdist take on the politicisation of religion, and one doesn't want to hold it to dull realist standards. But really, if a film releases in 2014 and doesn't set itself up as a period piece, it cannot show us a world full of landlines and payphones. It is impossible to take seriously now a climax that depends on the cutting off of phone lines. 

The second cellphone-less film is last year's runaway indie hit, The Lunchbox, in which a neglected housewife and a lonely widower make a chance connection. Through the film, the two characters communicate through a mis-delivered lunchbox. The whole plot is dependent on the absence of instantaneous communication. 

The frisson lies precisely in the chanciness, in the will-he, won't-she quality of the message deliveries. A mobile does appear once, but this world of cassette players, neighbourhood shoutouts and handwritten notes is really held out to us as a world without cellphones. But it works, because we are willing entrants into this deliberate romanticisation of an older style of communication. The whole film seems, in fact, a nostalgic tribute to a phenomenon that only existed in the landline world: the cross-connection. 

The third film is Ankhon Dekhi, whose domestic conversations and crises could be described as a throwback to the'80s (there is some resonance with Humlog). But the gathering on the old Delhi terrace has pink-frosted cake. Still, you don't quite miss the cellphones until you see that Bauji's travel agency has computers on every desk. After that, the landline-only house feels contrived. Doubtless, the rift between brothers - based partly on their refusal to call each other - is more convincing without cellphones. But once the thought's in your head, it doesn't leave you: how can they not have mobiles? 

By way of contrast, a recent rift in another Hindi film, between Rajkummar's Vijay and Kangana's Rani in Queen, feels so much more believable because the cellphone is integrally woven into it: the selfie she sends him by mistake, her not taking his calls, his appalled enumerating of his missed calls echo what is now the stuff of our everyday life. A contemporary world imagined without the cellphone, it appears, can no longer ring true.

Post Facto: Ode to the Gourd, and Other Forms of Vegetable Love

Earlier this summer, the European Union banned the import of certain Indian fruits and vegetables. The Indian media reported the event with alacrity, but our sense of national humiliation was reserved entirely for one of the five banned items: the alphonso mango. I quite understand: regional battles may rage over alphonso versus langda or himsagar versus rataul, but the mango's unofficial king-of-fruit status reveals a national consensus much broader than that around Modi. What's more, it is officially our national fruit. (And why not, predictable candidate as it is for naturally obvious gloriousness, alongside the also eminently suitable national tree — banyan — and national flower — lotus.)
But let me come swiftly to my point. (a) There is a national fruit, flower and tree, but no national vegetable. (b) The four other items banned by the EU were all vegetables, and poor, unsung summer vegetables at that: eggplant, taro plant (colocasia), bitter gourd and snake gourd. Since no one in the country's media — unsurprisingly — has come forward to defend their honour, I have decided the task is mine. Having spent my childhood being the strange little girl who wouldn't eat aloo but loved all sabzi, perhaps vegetable love has been calling me a long time. To adapt Marvell less than marvelously to my purposes, it has grown "vaster than empires, and more slow".
I spent eight years of my childhood in Calcutta, and it was not until my teens that I registered the caste system that holds sway over vegetables in Delhi. The Punjabi palate — or to be fair, the depressingly generic version of it that has colonised North Indian eat-out culture — has perfected "vegetarian" without vegetables. There's the ubiquitous kaali dal, rajma (kidney beans) and chholey (chickpeas), and when in doubt, there's always paneer. If you absolutely demand vegetables, the neighbourhood dhaba-on-call is a 100% likely to nudge you in the direction of "MixVeg" (I am convinced this is also because it comes straight out of a frozen Safal packet). If truly pressed, they might give you Aloo Gobhi.
In Kolkata, where there is scarcely a winter, it makes some sense that cauliflower, peas, beans and carrots should be granted higher status. But it is Delhi that behaves as if the garmi ki sabzis are untouchable. Something of an exception is made for bhindi (brats agree to eat it occasionally, and I hear that even more avid vegetable-rejecters, across the border in Karachi, have a chic restaurant named Okra) and eggplant (though only as baingan ka bharta).
But the summer's bounty of gourds — the small striped parval, the graceful, long, curvaceous lauki, the light green spheres of tinda, the ridged torai, the knobbly-skinned karela — is treated like a pack of poor relations, allowed to sit at the table but not permitted to speak. The same goes for arbi — colocasia — like the gourds, I've never yet seen it invited to a city restaurant, a wedding, or even a party.
I find this appalling, and tragic. Because I was lucky enough to grow up with a zillion ways in which to cook and eat these vegetables. From my Nana's side came thin but fiery Marwari gravies, often pairing a soft gourd like torai or tinda with besan, mangori or papad — the devisings of a desert where fresh veggies had to go a long way. The classic UP-style sookhi sabzis that came via my nani's family include two favourites I now produce as staples: a simple but always superb aloo-parval with zeera, haldi and mirch, and an arbi ki sabzi with nearly-crisp edges, its ajwain and amchoor dancing on the tongue. Being of that terribly deprived world population called 'O-Baangaali', my mother did not, unlike Jhumpa Lahiri's Mrs. Sen, sit on the ground with a boti "curved like the prow of a Viking ship" to chop her eggplants "small as sugar cubes". But while soon becoming adept at catering to my Bengali father's preferences, she constantly learnt from eating — and cooking — with friends, friends' parents and domestic help. I grew up with an undying love of jhinge posto (ridged gourd cooked with a paste of poppy seeds) and lau chhechki (the lightest of lauki, with only kalonji and green chillies for company, unless you add shrimp and turn it into a lau chingri). These, among many other things, I have learnt to cook, and each time I turn out one of these vegetables to a level that nearly approximates my mother's, I feel more close to being grown-up than at any other time.
One gourd can still push me back into childhood, though — the karela, which I do not yet cook and still scarcely eat. Popular in my nani's home as bharwan (stuffed with masala and secured with string) and at my parents' place either as shallow-fried bhaja, or as part of that "combination of subtle half-tones" that is shukto. Chitrita Banerjee's Life and Food in Bengal says Bengali housewives followed Ayurvedic practitioners in serving karela as a cure for biliousness. Clearly I have little faith: I appreciate a good shukto, but karela by itself still seems to me more cause of biliousness than cure.
But the last word on the karela must be Kipling's. Mowgli's Song Against People holds out the fantastic prospect of the gourd's revenge, more final even than Carl Sandburg's grass:
"I have untied against you the club-footed vines —
I have sent in the Jungle to swamp out your lines!
The trees — the trees are on you!
The house-beams shall fall;
And the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall cover you all!

11 May 2014

Back to the Future

Today's column for the Mumbai Mirror:

Dekh Tamasha Dekh is about the fictions we tell ourselves. Some stories are battle hymns, others our only shield.

Towards the beginning of Dekh Tamasha Dekh, we see a newspaper editor telling a sincere young journalist to drop the idea of reviewing a potentially controversial revisionist history. "Start an astrological column instead," he says casually. "But I don't know anything about astrology. And I don't even believe in it," pleads the young man. "Arre, vishwas ki kya baat hai! Just write a good future for everyone, and there'll be no complaints." 

Later in the film, with his books fuelling a bonfire outside, the author of that history book is accosted by a leader of the Hindu right. "Tumhare itihas ko lekar logon mein kitna gussa hai, dekho. (See how much anger there is in people about your history.)" "This is also your history," responds the historian. "No. Our history is not like this. Ours is a history of sacrifice, of struggle and bravery. It gives us the strength for battle." 

As is evident from these two vignettes, Feroz Abbas Khan's film takes satirical shears to the stories we like to tell ourselves; becoming bloated on custom-made pasts and futures because we cannot digest uncomfortable truths. 

And yet this is not a film that can afford to invest all its energies in some pure idea of fact. The first and most sustained site of Khan's attack on facticity is the newspaper. Having watched the once-independent editor turn obsequious opportunist, when we hear a son accost his mother of being badchalan (immoral) on the basis of the front page news, we can hear only irony in the boy's teary remark: "Log bolte hain paper mein sach baat hi chhapti hai." 

Conspiring politicians, compromised policemen, a potential riot, a cross-religious love affair: none of these are new. The freshness of Dekh Tamasha Dekh comes from its stylistic refusal to stick to grim realism. This a film poised delicately on the edge of reality, deriving dark humour (and occasionally cold comfort) from forays into the surreal. A hawaldar is suspended for having let a dog be impregnated, a judge asked to decide if a dead man was Muslim ends up calling for the betelnut that was cut in lieu of his circumcision. 

These are difficult things to pull off without being either crude or heavy-handed. But Abbas has a talent for muted symbolism. Early in the film we see the politician Muttha Seth (Satish Kaushik) being assured that his newspaper's circulation will soon go up. "Humne serious article bilkul band karwa diye hain. Halke-phulke material dene ki humne koshish ki hai. [We have completely stopped running serious articles. We're trying to offer light and fluffy material...]," says the editor. Muttha Seth seems unconvinced, and somewhat distracted. He is busy being administered a mud bath, and there is something bizarrely appropriate about watching his massive, semi-naked bulk being deliberately slathered in mud. Soon afterwards, we watch a cutout of him - now in the politician's white khadi -- being installed in the town, in honour of his birthday. The worker struggling to adjust the scaffolding grumbles as he does so: "Sways whichever way the wind blows - kabhi right, kabhi left, kabhi centre. Big, big, always wanting to be bigger. Now he's so big he can't even stand straight." 

You're barely done smirking when the Muttha Seth cut-out crashes to ground. The next thing we know, a man is dead, and the little seaside village is tense with the threat of violence between communities laying claim to his half-interred body. Hamid Tangewala was a Muslim, says one lot -- married to Fatima and father of Shabbo. No, he was a Hindu called Kishen, says the other lot -- the brother of Lakshman. The menacing Hindu politician and the outraged Muslim ones gather at the police station. Incendiary speeches are made, and it is left to the town's new inspector (Vinay Jain) to safeguard the body and try to prevent a riot. 

When Shabbo weeps for fear that the town's two parties - Muslim and Hindu, though she doesn't say that -- will never her unite with Prashant, Prashant holds out to her the dream of a third party, a "pyar karne walon ki party". "Hum kareeb aane ke liye jhagadte hain, door jaane ke liye nahi [We fight to come together, not to move apart]." Meanwhile, the hawaldaar is possessed by the dead Hamid's ghost, and Shabbo gives Prashant a magic ring that she hopes might protect him from danger. 

Towards the film's end, the evening before the climactic procession, we hear the inspector on the phone to his child. "I'll tell you a story, but tomorrow." "Of what?" she demands. "Oh, of this village. There's an ocean, there are fish in the ocean, and crocodiles. And mermaids. And there's a mela, in which people come from far away to celebrate." 

In a world so full of engineered truths, Khan seems to be saying, sometimes the personal fiction might be our best hope.

5 May 2014

Not Papered Over

Not papered over
40 years old today, Kora Kagaz remains a powerful portrait of cracks in a marriage.

Sometime last week I stumbled upon Kora Kagaz playing on TV. So unusual did the film feel - powerfully emotional yet largely shorn of melodrama; a serious subject dealt with seriously, yet far from being a studied 'art' film - that I watched straight through till the end. It turns out that Kora Kagaz released on 4 May, 1974 - exactly 40 years ago today. In an industry that still invariably prefers its films to end at the mandap, it remains a rare portrait of the attrition of a marriage.

Some truly great films have been made about troubled marriages: John Cassavettes' astonishing, brutal masterpiece A Woman Under the Influence released the same year as KK, Ingmar Bergman's superb Scenes from a Marriage a year before that, in 1973. More recently, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams brought such searing honesty to their marital breakdown that Blue Valentine (2010) was painfully hard to watch.

In contrast, Kora Kagaz was pitched at a mainstream Indian audience, for whom separation and divorce was taboo. In some ways, that balancing act is what makes it interesting. It is a grown-up film, one which doesn't shy away from depicting sharp words or ego clashes, or the passive-aggressive behaviour of one partner that keeps resentment simmering in the other, waiting to boil over in a terrible tragic denouement. And yet it was No 22 at the 1974 box office and won a National Award for "Feature film with mass appeal, wholesome entertainment and aesthetic value". Kalyanji-Anandji got a Filmfare Award for its music, and Jaya Bhaduri's understated, affecting performance won her the second of three Filmfare Best Actress awards.

Like Abhimaan (1973), also starring Bhaduri in a narrative about marital breakdown, the film's central conflict stems from the husband's prickly sense of self-respect, or - depending on how you look at it - his profound insecurity, aided by a childish uncommunicativeness. KK was a remake of the iconic Bengali film Saat Pake Bandha (1963), itself adapted from Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay's novel. (Mukhopadhyay's work was popular with Bengali directors, and three got remade in Hindi: Charachar as Safar, Deep Jwele Jaye as Khamoshi and Ami Se O Sakha as Bemisaal) As Archana, Bhaduri had a tough act to follow: Suchitra Sen's impeccable depiction of the heroine's transition from disbelief to anger to hurt - and hurtfulness won her Best Actress at the Moscow Film Festival. Unlike the irreducibly glamorous Sen, however, Bhaduri played the role in a lower key, replacing Sen's hint of arrogance with a quieter, stubborn air of waiting it out.

Of course, Kora Kagaz, like SPB before it, makes it quite clear that it is the woman for whom a marital breakdown feels life-altering. So though Archana's separation from Sukhendu/Sukesh is followed by a First Class First MA and a teaching job, her heart is not in it: she would much rather be having her own children than teaching those of others. An older colleague might congratulate Sukhendu/Sukesh on having a high-achieving student for a wife, but the film makes clear she must be a wife first.

Within this social world, it is Archana who is expected to make adjustments, she who's seen as having failed to save her marriage. Genuinely concerned though she seems, Pishi/Phuphi, the widowed old aunt who urges Archana to be the calm-headed one if her husband isn't, can sound to our ears like a sexist busybody. For she recognises the errors of her nephew's ways, but barring once, she does not chide him - instead, she appeals to his wife's better sense. Because, of course, men don't have any.

At one level, you could say KK doesn't depart from the female character types of countless Hindi films. In this schema, Archana would be the bade baap ki good-looking beti used to having her way, her mother the shrewish wife dominating the helpless, good-hearted husband, and Phuphi the sacrificing mother figure who suffers in silence. But KK doesn't quite fit that bill, because its characters aren't ever that black and white: the young bahu is really quite adjusting, the mother who keeps putting her son-in-law down with references to his salary doesn't actually wish him ill, and Phuphi does occasionally speak up and take decisions.

The changes from the Bengali to the Hindi version are telling. KK does away with the Rajasthan-Banaras honeymoon, so appropriately integral to the Bengali marital romance. The Hindi version also contains more efforts at reconciliation: Archana rushes to the station to find Phuphi first, and only then confronts Sukesh; Sukesh tries to visit Archana but is turned away by her brother. And unlike in SPB, where a "mutual separation" is first mentioned by Archana (and greeted with shock by Sukhendu), in KK it is Archana's brother who initiates the process.

On the other hand, KK does not have Sukhendu's colleague blame Archana for "wasting a life", as SPB did. But perhaps that is only because the Hindi version does not allow for any 'wasted' lives. Where SPB ended with Archana vowing herself to a life of solitude, Kora Kagaz lets the estranged couple re-unite at that most romantic of cinematic locations: the railway waiting room. Before you judge that re-written ending as a cop-out, let me say this: would you really rather have your heroine spend a solitary lifetime 'atoning' for her 'bhool', or have a happy ending in which the man takes his fair share of the blame before reaching out to re-build a relationship? Sometimes, just sometimes, Hindi cinema can surprise you.

Published as my Mumbai Mirror column yesterday.