Friday, December 21, 2012

On Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha (and Leela Naidu on inflatable bras and excessive makeup)

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s death last week gave me an excuse to dust off a DVD of an old film he had scored for – Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha, about a woman who sacrifices her singing career to move to the village with her doctor husband, and comes to feel marginalised and stifled. It’s a lovely film, one of our cinema’s best depictions of threatened individuality and a marriage under pressure, highlighted by good pacing, a subtly mournful score and excellent acting: Leela Naidu shows sensitivity beyond her years in the title role (she was barely 20 at the time) and Balraj Sahni – though a little too old for his part – brings his trademark understatement to the role of Anuradha’s well-meaning but neglectful husband, Dr Nirmal.

In conjunction, their performances make this an emotionally complex experience, because it is very difficult to “take sides” between the two characters. And it is notable that Anuradha maintains this delicate balance, especially given what we know of the larger world around those people. This was one of a number of 1950s and early 60s films set against the backdrop of a young, forward-looking nation-state undergoing necessary social and economic development. Understandably, these films extolled the importance of such professionals as doctors and engineers, who were the architects of that development, and Nirmal is one of them: early during their courtship, he tells Anuradha that when he was a child his mother died of a routine illness, not because the family was too poor to afford treatment but because there was no doctor for miles around.

Given this story, the societal and national background and the fact that Nirmal is throughout presented as a sensitive, dedicated man, it is hard for a viewer to pass judgement on his shortcomings as a husband. Working long hours in the village, constructing makeshift equipment, teaching himself by studying books (which no doubt further eats into his personal time), he still manages to be a good father, taking his little girl on his rounds and subtly imparting life-lessons to her along the way. Late in the film, when a visiting city doctor exults “Shahar se door, ek gaon mein – aisa doctor!” (“Such a fine doctor in a village so far from the city!”), it becomes almost a celebration of the developmental possibilities in a young republic.

In such a context, what hope for poor Anuradha and her art? How can her music (even if it is composed by Ravi Shankar, and even if her playback singing is done by Lata Mangeshkar!) possibly compete with the urgency of her husband’s work? The conflict as presented here is not just one of equality between a woman and a man in a marriage – it is a clash between the dedication of a doctor trading in life and death, doing everything he can for a community, and the desire of a bored housewife for self-actualisation (in a field where she might bring pleasure to people – mostly privileged people – through her musical performances, but not achieve anything comparable to the social significance of Nirmal's work). 

At times, the film seems clear about what responses it expects from us. Nirmal and Anuradha’s shift to the village is idealised. When the urbanite Deepak, who Anuradha’s father had wanted her to marry, is reintroduced into the story (he is about to shake up her life by reminding her that she can still follow her dreams: “Sona chaahe barson se mitti mein pada rahe, sona hee rahta hai”), he is in a fancy car with loud music playing in it – a contrast to the quiet, dignified tone of the film so far. (Deepak is a good man, but in this situation he is also a threat to social order, and is presented as such.) There is also a faintly patronising tone in the (well-intended) scene where an elderly visitor extols Anuradha’s capacity for saadhna and tapasya and sings paeans to women (“our daughters, sisters, mothers”) who are making sacrifices for the larger benefit of humankind. (Nazir Hussain’s performance in this supporting role is a more sympathetic pre-echo of his ridiculous Colonel Sahab in the Waheeda Rehman-starrer Khamoshi, about which more here.) In other words: worship the “goddesses” who facilitate the smooth functioning of a society, but also take it as a given that this can happen only so long as they stay in their proper place – the home – and serve as support staff rather than as active participants.

And yet, even as the cards appear heavily stacked against Anuradha and her personal interests, the film manages to never make her seem selfish or less than deserving of sympathy. This is largely achieved through the very nuanced performances, but also through an increasingly complex narrative structure. On paper there might seem a clear divide between the wealthy, vaguely foppish Deepak and the noble village doctor Nirmal, but the film doesn’t encourage cliched attitudes to these characters. The visual design of the song “Kaise Din Beete” tells its own story: as Anuradha sings, the man who is paying rapt attention, giving her the respect and consideration she needs, is the interloper who might, in a more conventional narrative, be the “villain” – and the man immersed in his medical journal, treating her as a tolerable distraction, is our hero, her husband. Watching Nirmal’s forced efforts to show interest in Anuradha’s singing, his eventual getting up and leaving the room (and her eyes following him around, barely even registering her admirer sitting in the other corner), one gets an immediate sense of how her personal confidence must have eroded over the 10 years of their marriage (even if it has in some respects been a successful one, complete with a well-loved and well-brought-up child). There is even a shot where we see Anuradha as she is now, reflected in a photo of a happier time, where she is posing with her singing trophies.

One aspect of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema that is relatively less commented on is his careful, considerate handling of a spectrum of romantic relationships, from the heady thrill of young love to the more measured affection between a couple who have grown old together. (The delightful Rang Birangi is one film that weaves threads from a number of such relationships – in various stages of understanding and misunderstanding – into its tapestry.) Anuradha has a short comic track featuring Mukri as a villager named Atmaram with a constantly ailing spouse (who we never see) – he feels all her aches and pains, so that when Dr Nirmal meets him on the road and sees him limping, he knows that Atmaram’s wife must have injured her leg. This buffoon’s pathological bond with his wife’s medical condition is milked for humour, but it is by no means irrelevant to the film’s larger themes. With hindsight, we can see that if Atmaram represents empathy taken to surreal extremes, the generally admirable Nirmal is sometimes close to the other extreme in his indifference to Anuradha’s needs.

But he does eventually acknowledge this, and the film – almost in spite of its own long-term, big-picture view of things – moves towards an ending where the possibility of genuine understanding in the relationship arises; this is very sensitively done through a series of events culminating in a cross-cutting sequence where Nirmal realises how empty his life would be without Anuradha, and she simultaneously arrives at a realisation of her own. Meanwhile, sitting in his car outside the house, Deepak smiles ruefully and drives away in the last shot (and it occurs to me that Abhi Bhattacharya, who plays Deepak, also played Krishna in the 1965 film version of the Mahabharata. Perhaps Deepak’s place in the Anuradha narrative is akin to that of the natkhat facilitator, contriving away knowingly so that a “happy ending” may be reached. There was certainly no shortage of Krishna figures in Mukherjee’s later cinema).


A postscript: Made in the Bimal Roy tradition, Anuradha is the sort of gentle film that is easy to hold up as a representation of an idealised era where people conducted themselves with more dignity than they do today. By association, this idea goes with the one that the film industry of that period was consistently higher-minded than it now is – more concerned with crafting grounded, meaningful movies than in being commercial or catering to the “lowest common denominator”. There may be a vestige of truth in this notion when one is assessing the work of directors such as Mukherjee or Roy, but it’s also true that our minds are hard-wired to think of the past as glorious and idyllic, and the present as bleak and corrupted, and that this infects our view of film history. (It helps explain, for instance, why people of all ages are convinced that the songs of an earlier time were more melodious, and that today’s film music is nothing but shrill cacophony. But more on this and related Golden Ageism in another post.)

Shortly after watching Anuradha, I flipped through the relevant sections of Leela Naidu’s feisty memoir Leela: A Patchwork Life (co-written with Jerry Pinto) and found that the industry she describes (one that she was well-placed to look at dispassionately, being an outsider to the Indian film world) doesn’t seem hugely dissimilar from the industry of today. Naidu’s account begins with an anecdote about an assistant director sending her three brassieres with little nozzles for the purpose of inflating them to the required size (and her own amused speculation that she might come out of her dressing room and be told, “No Madamji, in this film you are a 38B cup, remember?”). Later, she refuses to wear makeup that would be too loud for a young woman living in a village (“Why is the bridge of my nose yellow and my nostrils blue?” I asked) – not at all surprising if one has seen Anuradha and noted the tacky scene in which an accident victim’s face is randomly splattered with dark paint.

Naidu also caused consternation on the set when she displayed “communist” tendencies by refusing to sit down until chairs were arranged for “extras”; and she fended off a subtle advance made by Balraj Sahni (“a perfect gentleman...but like many other perfect gentlemen, he was not above trying his luck”). Relating stories from other films she made around the same time, she observes that even a fine, professional actor like Ashok Kumar would show up on the set – for one of three “shifts” in his working day – and have to be told the title of the film and the name of the character he was playing. Or that producers were not above capitalising on a tragic real-life incident such as the Nanavati murder case. None of this is to suggest that all the people who made beautiful movies in the past were cynical hypocrites looking out only for their own profit. But it is a reminder that the old films that we canonise were, to varying degrees, part of a practical, commercial tradition – and that our notions about the innocent “simplicity” of the past can be, well, simplistic and innocent.


  1. Beautiful post. Loved your analysis of the film (which I saw a long time ago). And "how can her music (even if it is composed by Ravi Shankar, and even if her playback singing is done by Lata Mangeshkar!)" made me laugh out loud :)

  2. It's been some years since I watched Anuradha, but I remember being struck at how sensitively the title character was treated, and how much time was devoted to bringing out her loneliness and isolation. I was younger then, and didn't feel great deal of sympathy for her, I admit -- but the movie made it very clear she wasn't a self-absorbed brat, just a lonely woman who wants more affection from her husband.

  3. Radhika: thanks. And yes, I got a little non-diagetic in that sentence - to coin a phrase straight out of academia!

    ... how much time was devoted to bringing out her loneliness and isolation

    Unmana: yes, parts of the film put me in mind of Ray's Charulata, though some of the plot specifics are very different. I did wonder a bit about Anuradha's relationship with her daughter - that part didn't seem really fleshed out, and I wonder if it had anything to do with Leela Naidu being too young to grasp that side of her character (and the little girl just becoming a plot convenience as a result, dispensed with when required - she goes off to the city with her nana in the second half of the film, just as things are about to get intense, and we don't see her again).

  4. I am really looking forward to your views on Golden Ageism in the context of Indian cinema. One would like to see opinions that do not just dismiss our tendency to idealize the past by relegating it to 'human nature'. Although, I do feel that directors like Roy, Mukherjee, and even Guru Dutt, are often described (again, by people of all ages) as rare in being able to garner both critical acclaim and commercial success --- doesn't such a description implicitly acknowledge that their cinema does not entirely represent the film industry's state during their time? When reading or watching a 'classic', isn't one already aware that there is some contradiction in assuming that it is generic?

  5. When I saw this movie, I couldn't believe it was the same Balraj Sahni from Do Bhiga Zameen. The flirting in the first few scenes, when he tells her he did not sleep at night, was just, 'I'll flip for that' moment. :)

    Reading some obits of Pt Ravi Shankar, I wondered why no one mentioned Anuradha. Tiny niggle, now sorted out. Thanks! :)

  6. Brilliant write-up. I too saw this film a long time ago, and have listened to its songs from time to time. I do remember thinking Abhi Bhattacharya has been cast against type, and Nazeer Hussain playing a good natured old man with a loud laugh for the umpteenth time . I dont recollect the Mukri track at all.
    About the Krishna like role of Abhi, I think one gets better perspective on a relationship when you step out of it for a little bit, kind of like what happened in Rajnigandha.
    Regarding Golden Ageism, I have sometimes been accused of liking a film just because its B/W, or, having a bias towards B/W movies. I haven't tried to de-construct it. Even if its true,doesn't every viewer bring their own subjective view point to a film? I think golden ageism is as valid or natural as any other subjective lens.

  7. Rahul: I'm talking about something more broad-based than liking or disliking an individual film. My own favourite type of cinema is still 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, and at least some of that comes from having first experienced those films at a young age when I was just discovering a cinematic world beyond mainstreram Hindi movies.

    And I don't agree that golden ageism (in the indiscriminate, not-fully-informed sense of the term, which is what I mean here) is as valid as any other subjective lens. As personal preference, sure. But not when making summary pronouncements on how things are today compared to yesterday.

  8. golden ageism is as valid or natural as any other subjective lens

    That is right. Golden ageism is a deep rooted requirement of human nature. The yearning among human beings to look for role models, for idealized precedents that can inspire current conduct.

    This process of "idealization" may be intellectually dishonest, but largely beneficial.

    Even the European Renaissance some 500 years ago was based on a "Golden Age-ist" tendency to draw inspiration from the idealized pre-Christian pagan civilizations of Greece and Rome and a contempt for the more modern and contemporary culture of Catholic Christendom.

    Maybe their admiration for those classical civilizations was rose-tinted and hypocritical. But it was this near-religious hagiography of the classics that kickstarted the intellectual awakening of Europe.

    That's how it works in every walk of life. You seek improvement in the present state of affairs by benchmarking oneself with an idealized past (sans the foibles and inconvenient evils)

    Ofcourse I am referring to the term "Golden Age" in its vague popular sense. Not the way academics use it to justifiably describe a peak period of a certain art-form.

  9. The film belongs to Leela Naidu, and she eclipses even Balraj Sahni. It's a great, unforgettable performance.

  10. Got around to watching the film on youtube today, thanks to this post.

    A very fine film and easily the best Hrishikesh Mukherjee I've seen.

    The only thing I'd add is that conventional gender roles "stifle" not just women but even men, though perhaps not in this film.

    For all you know, the Balraj Sahni character in a different film may have nursed this secret yearning to become a baby sitter and cook rice and chicken for guests at home and read Keats all day. But the heartless society nudges him to make his mark in the marketplace as a medical professional and provide for the wife and kids, unmindful of his self-actualization needs.

    There are tradeoffs and rational compromises that both men and women make, largely dictated by biology and historical experience. What irks me is that the movie glorifies this tradeoff as a "sacrifice". Yes, Anuradha's domesticity meant she missed out on a 5% outside chance of turning into Shamshad Begum's leading rival. But then she preferred romantic and financial stability over a potentially destabilizing roller-coaster ride as a singer.
    She made a choice that seemed rational to her. Maybe she lacked the ability or the risk appetite to multi-task and accomplish both her singing aspirations and also raise a family simultaneously. Hence the tradeoff.

    The most annoying character in the film is Deepak - trying to impose his utopian worldview on a person he hasn't seen for 10 years. Most intrusive and indecent in a typically Indian way. (think you were charitable to him with the word "foppish")

  11. A recent conversation with my friend on Anuradha vis-à-vis Charulata is pertinent to your piece, Jai.

    Anuradha was a splendid film by Hrishda and the film's music was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, he had given music to very selective films other one I remember is Pather Panchali. Cast the film was apt. Balraj Sahani is such a matured actor and Leela Naidu was gorgeous.

    On which my friend remarked:

    I delved into the psyches of the neglected wife and that of the workaholic husband. What I liked most about the portrayal of Anuradha's anguish was that there was no hysteria or drama displayed, and neither was there an extreme victimisation of her character. It was expressed it the movie in such a mature way...neither loud, nor too bland, a lot of depth and grace. Later read Charulata. I'd like to watch it because they seem quite similar. Would like to see how Ray handled a similar subject.

    Charulata is a splendid film. It is rightly considered to be Ray’s masterpiece. I feel the comparison is valid from the perspective you have pointed in your remark; regarding the deftness in which tender emotions of the both protagonist viz Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) and Anuradha Roy (Leela Naidu), were handled by theses two brilliant craftsmen , viz., S. Ray And Hrishikesh Mukherjee (alias Hrishida). And also, both women, Charu and Anuradha, were lonely due to workaholic husbands. Said that, though I am fond of Hrishida’s “feel good” cinema , and I consider this film to his finest film, Ray is a director of different league and so is actresses Madhabi Mukherjee . So the technical brilliance of Charulata remains unmatched and Madhabhi’s gave an riveting performance, in Charulata .

    More interestingly, what had intrigued me was nature of the conflict that the character of Anuradha goes through (personally, Leela Naidu, has always intrigued, in more ways than one). Conflict of Anuradha is extremely complex; let me explain this. Generally conflict is between right and wrong, when a person in conflict, either cannot discern between the two or is attracted toward some that goes against his/her conscience, like Charu’s attraction to her husband’s brother cousin. However Anuradha’s case was not so simple. In her case the conflict was between two rights or at least, seemingly, two rights. She was a dutiful wife and carried out her routine household chores with utmost honesty but she was also a gifted artist. Therefore it was equally valid on her part to nurture her talent. This is tough one to resolve especially for a conscientious person. It is very difficult to choose, between right and left, when one finds himself in apex of fork, leading to two “right“ avenues. Moreover, to make choice that leaves not, slightest trace of regret. Resolutions of such conflicts are more of philosophical nature* and outside the scope of this piece.

    The other issue I like about Anuradha is the way it upholds role of a housewife in any society, more so in “modern/urban” India. There is dignity in being a house wife which is no less than a women CEO of flourishing corporate. But most of us, which applies to both the genders, fail to acknowledge this, so obvious, fact.

    *They were dealt with sheer brilliance by Vyasa, in Bhagwad Gita; as Arjun faced found himself is similar quandary, his duty as warrior versus killing of his kith and kin, in the battlefield.

    I found the following observation in his piece as notably insightful:

    “the man who is paying rapt attention, giving her the respect and consideration she needs, is the interloper who might, in a more conventional narrative, be the “villain” – and the man immersed in his medical journal, treating her as a tolerable distraction, is our hero, her husband.”