18 August 2015

Of homes and prisons

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Jabbar Patel's 1981 film Subah (made as Umbartha in Marathi) is a flawed but intriguing feminist portrait of a woman torn between domesticity and a larger social vocation, struggling to find her space.

15th August seems an appropriate day to remember what remains one of Indian cinema's most direct attempts to grapple with a woman's freedom. Jabbar Patel's 1981 Hindi film Subah ('Morning'), made simultaneously in Marathi as Umbartha ('Threshold'), was based on an autobiographical novel called Beghar ('Homeless') by the Marathi writer and music critic Shanta Nisal, and adapted for the screen by Vijay Tendulkar, the eminent playwright.

Tendulkar died in 2008, Shanta Nisal in 2013. But the person who really breathed life into the film - Smita Patil -- died within five years of its release. Patil's striking performance as the unhappy daughter-in-law of a well-off family who decides to take up a job as Superintendent of a home for destitute women brought her a Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Watching the film, one is struck by the transition Patil makes from ghar ki bahu to home superintendent. In the film's early scenes, shot in the pleasant green environs of a comfortable bungalow, Jabbar Patel manages to make it clear that Sulabha/Savitri's role in her household is pretty much redundant. Her lawyer husband (Girish Karnad) goes to work, her social worker mother-in-law heads off to one of her many meetings, and her childless sister-in-law busies herself with Patil's screen child, Rani. We see Savitri float about the house listlessly, as if not quite awake.

By contrast, once running the mahilashram, she is almost always drawn up to her full height, walking with a sense of purpose. Instead of the earlier diffidence, with the actress often framed waiting behind doors, or solitary in windows, Savitri's new body language suggests someone much more certain of herself, even when under attack.

Some of this confidence comes, whether we like it or not, from having been given authority over a number of women who have none. The film occasionally indicates its consciousness of power and hierarchy, and our honourable protagonist's own position in it. One of the film's few humorous moments is Savitri's arrival at the ashram, where she is stopped at the gate by a taunting guard and a large lady who later turns out to be self-designated 'head inmate'. "Jawaan hai (She's young)," sneers the woman, while the guard replies, "Jawaan hi aati hain (It's always young ones who come)." It is only when Savitri writes her name in the register that she is recognized as the new "Behenji", and the two begin to bow and scrape.

Appalled at how bad things are at the home, Savitri spends much of her first months unravelling a tangled skein in which every person accuses another of some wrong-doing. There is simple financial corruption. There's indiscipline, with the women bullying each other and having catfights. There are tales of husbands who no longer want them, or whom they refuse to return to. Some inmates have been abused or raped, by a husband, a tutor, or strangers.

But most of all, there is the issue of how the women inside the home are perceived by the outside world - the local MLA thinks it his right to have a 'girl' sent to him on demand at night; the departed superintendent is rumoured to have supplied women to a local merchant's house parties. One girl is accused of having an illicit relationship outside the home, another manages to part with sexual favours for cash while accompanying Savitri to the market. In what might be the film's most surprising track, two female inmates are 'caught' kissing and a media storm breaks out over the lesbian activity in the ashram. The smell of sex is everywhere, and it is either a taint or a threat. Patil's character is upright and even sympathetic to the women, but horrified by what she seems to see as their sexual dissolution (with regard to the lesbian couple, she suggests psychiatric treatment, but is overruled by the powers-that-be, who turn them out on the street).

There is an ironic mirroring here of another Indian New Wave film, Shyam Benegal's wickedly funny Mandi (1983), in which the 'home' the women inhabit is a brothel, threatened with closure by a thin-lipped figure called Shanti Devi (Gita Siddharth) who with her hypocrisy, sanctimony and political clout could have walked right out of Subah.

Nisal and Tendulkar's narrative is caught in the classic old-style double bind with regard to women's sexuality - women can only have what is perceived to be a full life if they are desired by men, but desiring men makes them weak. This is suggested not only of the destitute women in the ashram, but of Patil's own character.

This link between Savitri's own circumstances and those of the ashram women is both the most interesting thing about the film, and the least delved into. Her husband, while trying to live up to some ideals, sees sex as a need that must be fulfilled, no matter what - leading to the film's denouement. But more memorable is the sequence where Savitri wants to take this job in a faraway place, and her husband - the advocate, pleads her case with the family. It is wonderfully ironic: Subhash is ostensibly representing his wife's cause to his mother, but his mother's primary response is to ask whether he is willing to let her go. "Grahasth hokar sanyaasi banna padega," she pronounces in a not-so-veiled reference to marital sex. Will he give his "ijaazat", permission?

Watching it in 2015, it is difficult not to think of the recent Dil Dhadakne Do, where Rahul Bose's unconscious reference to having 'allowed' his wife to work brings on Farhan Akhtar's ire. But still not the wife's own. 

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16th Aug 2015.


Anonymous said...

I remember feeling wowed by this film when I saw it in 1981, perhaps I was too young to recognise its flaws then. It would be good to see it again, and see how it holds up to my gaze today.

Trisha Gupta said...

Yes, Batul, I can imagine, it must have been quite something to watch it then! I'd wager it isn't only about your being young, it's also about the kinds of conversations or characters that had still to appear on the Indian film screen. Would love to hear your thoughts if you do watch it again now.

Pavementfreud said...

The music by Hridaynath Mangeshkar for this film is immortal!

ranjit kullu said...

I am a research scholar from Ranchi University, Ranchi. I am currently pursuing my PhD studies on 'Literature to Cinema'. One of the chapters is dedicated to Jabbar Patel and Vijay Tendulkar. I am much impressed by their work. I want to write on 'Umbartha/Subah'. However, I am not able to get the novel 'Beghar' anywhere. I have tried my best. If you could help me in this regard. I would indeed add truth to my work.

email: ranjitkulluxaviers@gmail.com