Director: P.C. Barua; Writer: P.C. Barua; Cinematographer: Yusuf Mulji; Editor: Kali Raha; Cast: P.C. Barua, Jamuna, Pahadi Sanyal, Pankaj Mullick, Rajalakshmi, Menaka Devi, Sailen Choudhury, Indu Mukherjee, Molina Devi, Chitralekha, Ushabati, Jagdish Sethi, Bikram Kapoor
Duration: 01:51:59; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 60.525; Saturation: 0.028; Lightness: 0.130; Volume: 0.164; Cuts per Minute: 4.340; Words per Minute: 72.250
Melodrama about lineage and property questions. Nikhilesh (Barua) loves heiress Indira (Jamuna). A poor orphan girl, Radha (Menaka Devi), arrives claiming to be Indira's stepsister and therefore part inheritor of the family estate. Indira agrees to share her inheritance but then Radha makes a play for Nikhilesh. Ultimately, Radha turns out to be the real and sole heir. Love proves to be stronger than material possession as Indira and Nikhilesh get married and Radha finds happiness with Ratan, a man she had known and loved during her days of poverty. As each character returns to the class of his / her birth, the message hammered home is a warning to people never to transcend their social status. Barua continues his emphasis on the contrast between poverty and wealth, stylising the opulence of the wealthy interiors. Radha becomes 'unnatural' away from the realism of her slum while Indira's problem, threatened with the potential loss of her property, is seen mainly as one of alienation. The film also continues Barua's fascination with showing the urban-rural (real modern-traditional) split through the contrasting personalities of two women, a device inaugurated in Devdas (1935)
and repeated even in his last major film Shesh Uttar / Jawab (1942)
, although Adhikar is probably the most confused and cynical of its many versions.
Release date: 12 January, 1939 (Chitra)
“Adhikaar followed Mukti and went to bag the Best Film of the Year Award from the Bengali Film Journalists’ Association, the oldest film award instituted in the country. Through this film, Pramathesh tried to dispel the myth that the rich alone are exploiters and the poor are the exploited. It is the story of a girl from an urban slum who learns that she is the illegitimate child of a rich man who has bequeathed all his wealth to his legitimate daughter. Intent on revenge, she sets about stripping her half sister not only of her wealth, but also of her lover. She succeeds in her revenge but finds herself lonely, social outcast at the end of the road. Pramathesh refuses to close the film and leaves it open ended, inviting the audience to draw its own conclusion. He does not stand on moral judgment either on the slum girl, or on the victim, and yet, the film turned out to be a thundering success, both in critical and in commercial terms. It was released at Chitra Talkies on 26th January” (60- 61)
Shoma A. Chattereji, "Pramathesh Chandra Barua: The Crownless Prince, the Eternal Devdas", Wisdom Trees, New Delhi, 2008
Barua's 'Adhikar' like many of his earlier films is meant to be a social critique, a rumination on the different social classes and their everyday antagonisms, a love story, and a family drama, all rolled into one. However, unlike the other films, the message here is decidedly mixed and the execution decidedly inconsistant. The film also continues Barua's fascination with showing the urban-rural (real modern-traditional) split through the contrasting personalities of two women.
The first scene opens with one of the central motifs in the film, the 'dreamland' that Nikhilesh has built for his future wife, an extravagant room where the outside world seems to get completely cut-off. There, one of the protagonists, Indira, is sleeping and dreaming. The dream consists mainly of a musical soiree, where people are sitting around this extravagant space, with the fountain in the middle, while a performance goes about. Barua continues his emphasis on the contrast between poverty and wealth, stylising the opulence of the wealthy interiors and the content of the dream where no event actually transpires. Throughout the dream, the focus remains on Indira's smiling face as she spies the various people who have attended the event.
Eventually, she is woken up by Nikhilesh. They are engaged and about to be married and seem besotted with each other.
Indira meets her barrister Ambika who has also largely been her guardian. He has a crucial role to play in the narrative.
Cut to the outside of a slum, where we are to meet the other two protagonists, Radha and Ratan. Radha works for Ratan as his house-keeper, though, as we learn soon, the people of the slum seem to insinuate that there is some other more personal arrangement that they have. She is angry, unhappy with her lot, wishing to do better in life than remain in the slum forever. Ratan on the other hand is quite content with his lot, in fact, he is rather happy with it saying it gives him the freedom to be himself.
The sound of a flat tyre as we see the barrister's son on his way through the slum. Comically, he is at first sure that is a bomb before learning that it was just a top under the tyre.
However, the moment he learns it is top that has caused the flat tyre, virulent class-hatred comes to the fore. He gets out and begins to give the slum-dwellers a long lecture on decency and morality and civic sense and how the poor, without any sense of civic responsibility, are dragging this imperial British city down. There are references to how the poor are considered to be wise and rightly so but how some people take advantage of that. The people of the slum grow agitated, as the crowd slowly grows into a mob and, threatening him and his car serious harm, they drive him away. Meant to be a stringent social critique of the nature of class-difference and prejudices that dominate society, this crucial scene also has the added purpose of driving Radha to what she does next.
Music and lyrics by Rabindranath Tagore, sung by Pahari Sanyal himself.
Radha, angry and on edge, reacts to the song saying she is not content with just waiting. She hits out against living with Ratan mentioning how people have been talking about it, even though Ratan tries to explain that she is there as an employee. In a startling declaration she claims that she will rather actually live as a prostitute than live in this daily ignominy.
Cut to song by Pankaj Mullick. The song is about the poor, about those who, when their lives are framed by sorrow, have no need to fear sorrow, and that in fact sorrow is for them a source of strength. The song is intercut with scenes of various forms of class oppression and exploitation.
Nikhilesh's 'dreamland'. The engaged couple are shown to be very much in love; they talk about love, unreason. The scene ends with the shot of woman ailing in bed.
Back at the slum, Radha is talking to the old woman who is her neighbour and who has brought her up. She demands to get married because she has come of age. One gets the feeling that Radha considers that to be the solution to how she can get out of there. However, the request/demand brings about an unforeseen revelation. As they go and seek advice from an old man in the locality, it is revealed that Radha is someone else's daughter, someone who is rather well-placed in society.
At the barrister's office it is revealed that in fact Radha and Indira are half-sisters, with Radha being an illegitimate child of Indira's father. The barrister, fearing scandal for Indira and convinced that Radha is there to get her hands on Indira's wealth, refuses to help them in any way even saying he will deny knowing the truth at all. It is revealed that Ratan had known all about it and the money he had been giving her was in fact a sort of allowance from the barrister.
Radha confronts Ratan angrily.
The barrister on the other hand is also extremely worried about what Radha might do. He instructs his garrulous son not to say anything to Indira about Radha.
Radha has sent a letter to Indira telling her everything. The latter does not believe anything of what she says but she wishes to visit Radha nonetheless because she feels pity for her. Nikhilesh advises her otherwise saying it can only lead to trouble. However, one gets the feeling that even though Indira does not believe any of Radha's claims, she wants to go and meet her purely for the sake of some change in her life, some variety. They argue about what is safer to follow: reason or emotion. There is clear distinction here that is being made when Nikhilesh claims his voice is the voice of wisdom/knowledge - the man is made solely responsible for the placid, the reasonable, the one where there is safety, while the woman is the opposite, the site of unreason, emotion, of the act of living, albeit dangerously.
Ratan informs the barrister about Indira's visit. There is a completely spurious comic interlude regarding a word-play on the word 'car', which is also the Bengali word for 'whose'.
Despite his reservations Nikhilesh has decided to accompany Indira on her visit to the slum. The barrister also tries to convince her otherwise but in vain. En route, Nikhilesh and Indira have a revealing conversation which lays bare the class-prejudices and assumptions incipient in society. Nikhilesh claims to be afraid of the low-born, the uncivilised, those who are reared on the garbage and filth of the slums and those who infect the rest of society in turn. It is perhaps meant to be comment on prejudices but given the graph of the narrative and Nikhilesh's character, there are troubling subtexts.
At the slum, Indira and Radha meet. Radha is immediately shown to be attracted to the opulence that surrounds Indira. For her part, Indira, despite not believing Radha, seems to have taken to her as some sort of charity, as a challenge she has to win. Radha issues a blatant challenge saying had their circumstances been the same, she would been able to supersede them in every respect.
In a series of quick shots, the major characters discuss their points of view. While Nikhilesh's and the barrister's views remain unchanged, Radha lambasts the veneer of civility they use as a cloak around them, claiming she could mimic that given the same circumstances. The shots taken together are a study in class-differences and prejudices.
Refusing to listen to all, Indira takes Radha with her. While Radha is purely in search of the economic and material benefits this situation can provide her, there is an added edge to the exchange when she says she wishes to be like Indira. We will see, that for the most part, rather than be 'like' Indira, Radha would prefer to 'be' Indira. That is the central conflict of the narrative.
The barrister is informed of Indira's decision. He is not happy with the events while Ratan insists that Radha will come back to him because she loves him. They discuss the pitfalls of aspirations. It is indeed a little troubling that the narrative seems to equate aspirations, the desire for social mobility and greed with a common language, almost driving towards a point that the boundaries of classes that exist are there for the mutual benefits of both because crossing them can lead to catastrophic circumstances.
Radha is settled in Indira's house. However, the latter refuses to believe the former's claims that the former is her half sister. It is obvious that to Indira this situation is a challenge she must win, much like when she admits to Nikhilesh in the beginning that she does not lose.
The woman ailing at Nikhilesh's house is his sister Reba. She is suffering from phthisis and is hence irritable and sensitive, thinking people are ignoring her due to her illness. Despite her kindness she resents Indira, a fact which Radha uses to her advantage later on.
Nikhilesh, wrapped up in his class-prejudices is barely civil to Radha, calling her derisively 'almost like a bhadramahila'. Radha, on the other hand, has seemingly taken it to heart that she must have the whole of Indira's life as compensation for everything she has never had. So she starts off trying to seduce Nikhilesh into agreeing to marry her. She admits freely to her greed because in her own words she has never learnt nor does she adhere to the morality that binds the rich.
Reba, irritable and sensitive, refuses to acknowledge her illness and refuses to take her medicines. While the others try to coerce or cajole her she becomes even more resentful of them. Radha uses this to her advantage and convinces Reba that she is not like them thus gaining easy access to her at all times and by extension to Nikhilesh. In fact, Reba insists in anger that Indira leave and not come back. It is clear by the end that this is Radha's way of paying back for Nikhilesh's continued insults.
Reba is aware of Nikhilesh's love for her. However, the illness has made her difficult and fickle. Radha, realising that Reba will be difficult person to handle, suggests that she bring an acquaintance along to help her look after Reba.
She goes to the old woman who had brought her up and prepares her only daughter to come live with her as her associate. The girl, a childhood acquaintance, will serve not only as a confidante but will also obviously help her in her vendetta.
Ratan, with Radha gone, has been having a difficult time.
The rivalry betwen Radha and Indira is barely concealed anymore though a large part of it is from Radha's end. She is unsure of whether she is succeeding in her project of adapting to this life. Needing repeated confirmation for her own anxieties, she also begins to use Indira's insecurities against her. Here she asks Indira if she and Nikhilesh have been intimate, to which Indira, due to ingrained moral compunctions, cannot obviously reply. Radha makes a scathing comment on how this morality is restricted to the rich only, that the poor who have nothing to lose feel no need to hide from their wants and desires. While, that is certainly a bold, crucial point and must be accorded some reflection, it is obvious that Radha's motives here have less to do with making a class-analysis of desire and more to do with driving a wedge. between Indira and Nikhilesh. Her endeavours are successful when Indira, in a moment of weakness, asks why she can't be more emotional or expressive like Radha.
The storm that marks the end of the conversation in the scene before is deeply symbolic. Radha has been at least partly successful in exploiting the insecurities of Indira into making the latter admit to her fears and weaknesses. She promptly goes and reports the whole thing to Nikhilesh who, hurt that Indira did not choose to talk to him about these problems, comes and rebukes her.
Music and lyrics by Rabindranath Thakur and sung by Pankaj Mullick. The song Indira listens to on the radio perfectly encapsulates her mental state.
Emboldened the events that have just transpired Radha becomes even more insistent in her pursuit of Nikhilesh. There is suggestion that Nikhilesh makes here which is in fact something the narrative will follow through till the end - that, removed from her true circumstances, as in her station, Radha has begun to lose herself and has set out on a destructive path. He is aware of her plans, but some way or the other, he has let Radha affect him too. Hence, the repetition of the earlier discussion on gratefulness and morality. Radha claims to be in love but is rather obvious that she is acting out of years of resentment, anger, jealousy and fear of losing everything she has been given access to.
Immediately, we see the person who has come to stand as a foil to Indira's misguided quest for righting all the wrongs done to her. He admits to no jealously, something Radha had mentioned is necessary for love, and which the rich like Indira do not possess. His reaction completely stumps Radha and he astutely asks whether she has come for some advice. The ensuing speech on the poor and wisdom is remarkable in that it firmly establishes what the narrative has been at - that the class of one's birth is something that is fixed and something one must never transcend. The claims of the poor being the repository of all wisdom because of their lived experiences is on the face of it a valiant attempt at positing a social critique of the attitudes towards the poor. But at the same time, it can be read as a way of making sure that with this pedagogical responsibility placed on the poor to teach the rich about life and suffering, the former will never feel the need to transcend the boundaries placed around them. It is obvious from the conversation that by aspiring to move up the social ladder, Radha risks belonging nowhere. An interesting point is made about radio broadcasts and how it helps in the spread of this pedagogy. Can one extend this point and draw some comparisons to contemporary mass-media in the propagation of this same myth?
The barrister is getting immensely agitated because of Radha's growing influence. The only solution he finds to the problem is for Ratan to get married to Radha to remove her from Indira's life.
Radha's friend, on the other hand, is attempting to influence Reba to make Nikhilesh marry Radha, having convinced her that he does not love Indira. It is probable that this is done at the behest of Radha.
On cue, Reba rebukes Indira and harshly asks her to go away from Nikhilesh's life. Radha hears the whole thing and surreptitiously leaves.
Despite everything that has come to pass, Indira is bent on keeping Radha with her. Nikhilesh, progressively getting frustrated by the turn of events, attempts to make her understand but in vain. For Indira, her convictions seem to stem from the fact that Nikhilesh loves her above all else, giving her a sense of false confidence that stops her from seeing where this strangely rivalry is leading them all. In a way, when Indira says she does not want to be perfect but wants to make mistakes, it is apparent how much influence Radha's presence has had on her way of thinking.
Yet, both Indira and Ratan, unable to deal with how events have come to completely alter their present, seek to take recourse in a lost childhood innocence where all these problems and complications would be rendered void. Ratan's anguished song is about the search for such a lost childhood and unfettered state of being.
Since the narrative has already established that Radha has completely lost herself by moving outside the the boundaries she had been restricted the too, she becomes reckless and callous. She does say certain things which are stringent critiques of upper-class morality but her actions are geared towards eliciting anger and reprimand rather than reflection. At the same time, the whole conversation about violence on women is a jarring one at best. Nikhilesh wishes to strike her but cannot because he is well-bred, and instead insinuates that the poor, without any moral compunctions whatsoever, can get away with violence. He remarks that at times like these being morally upright and of a higher-class is a disadvantage, because he cannot act on his impulses. His comment, whether meant to be critical or not, comes off as merely judgmental and pejorative, mainly because what constitutes that violence in the life of the lower-classes is hardly a matter that this narrative can reflect upon. The matter is undercut by the next instance when Radha offers herself to him, just so he can choose her over Indira.
Reba has completely taken on whatever Radha and her friend have told her about Indira and Nikhilesh and she insists that Nikhilesh do as she says. She insults Indira and almost drives Nikhilesh away.
Radha has come to be associated with the villain of the melodrama who in league with the insane ailing woman is bent on wrecking lives. Within this matrix, Indira can only be the naive woman who is playing into their hands. The only person within this scheme who seems to be the one to see through every ruse is Nikhilesh who gives Indira an ultimatum - him or her project. The fact that she chooses the latter will mean nothing else but the fact that according to the logic of this narrative she has to come to regret her decision. The song at the end of the scene is meant to reflect the slow decay that has set in in their relationship.
Radha finally gains access to Nikhilesh's 'dreamland'.
Emboldened by her victory she renews her attempts to seduce Nikhilesh. For a moment it seems she succeeds, but Nikhilesh pulls back at the last instance. It is a narrative necessity because Nikhilesh had already declared that what he stands for is reason and wisdom. So by putting that reason and wisdom in apparent jeopardy in the face of unreason and then salvaging it at the last moment, the male protagonist not only emerges triumphant but can now serve the function of reminding Radha that she has transgressed. Thus when he lies in the next incident can be put down to simply an effort to keep the villainous Radha from doing any further damage. It will not be seen as a lie because the narrative has made it abundantly clear that Radha is doing this to further her own gains and thus it is Nikhilesh's duty to disrupt those plans.
Radha comes and tells Indira about the whole incident. Nikhilesh denies it. As a last ditch attempt, she demands that she can prove that they are half sisters in return for the whole property.
The next evening, Radha takes Indira to the barrister's office and through a clever ruse forces the man to reveal everything to Indira. Indira asks for the whole property to be made out to Radha.
Till now, it is Radha who has been shown to have unravelled once she has moved out of her class boundaries. However, hasn't Indira been responsible for encouraging this transgression? Where Radha's actions have resulted in her losing herself, Indira's actions, encouraging Radha and not listening to the male figures in her life, both the barrister and Nikhilesh, results in her alienation from her own wealth. Radha, once she has the entire property drives Indira out of her own home. Indira, finally realising her mistakes, has nowhere to go but cannot return to Nikhilesh, because she has repeatedly refused to listen to him. Without her property she suddenly finds herself on the other side of the class-divide and immediately seems to realise what the barrister and Nikhilesh have been trying to tell her all along. When she says it pains her to lose everything it marks a point that she has learnt a hard lesson as to why these boundaries have been placed.
With Indira having learnt her lesson, it is Radha's turn. Intoxicated by her power and wealth she assumes Nikhilesh is there to marry her. Nikhilesh, instead, reminds her that in fact even with everything she is completely alone and has lost herself. True enough, after he leaves she goes out and realises that she is truly both literally and figuratively alone. There is a telling phrase that Nikhilesh utters, that he is there to inform her about her own state. Indeed, as we have already discovered, having emerged as morally triumphant, it is the male protagonist, the repository of wisdom and reason, who must restore all order.
Indira had gone to stay at a house owned by the son of one of her servants. As the last stage of the lesson she has had to learn, the narrative invokes a ploy that we have already heard Ratan refer to in an earlier scene. The poor are the repository of wisdom in the world and the poor driver has taught Indira that there is no shame in going back to Nikhilesh. Her wealth had been one impediment in establishing a balance in her and Nikhilesh's relationship. With her wealth gone, the 'wise and poor' driver teaches her that it is perfectly fine were she to go back to Nikhilesh as a beggar. He is adequately rewarded by Nikhilesh in return with a job.
Radha has realised her mistake and has come to Ratan. He wants no part in her wealth and tells her what Nikhilesh has already told her, that she is lost. It is interesting that he uses the terminology of losing one's caste to explain the fact. The boundaries between the classes are as stringent as castes and even more obfuscated.
Having learnt almost the same lesson as Indira, Radha tears up the will and runs after Ratan confessing her love for him and the two re-unite.
Reba has come around too as all the loose ends are neatly tied up.
As each character returns to the class of his / her birth, and the message is hammered home as a warning to people never to transcend their social status, the only thing left to do is to repair the small chink in the armour left by Nikhilesh's momentary indiscretion with Radha. He confesses to having lied. True to form, Indira who has by now learnt not to question established norms, answers that she is but a creeper who has no business with the tree's world as long she gets its protection. Her world now restricted to the 'dreamland' Nikhilesh has created for her, the film ends on a sudden jubilant note that has not been there anywhere throughout the narrative. Nikhilesh beckons her, as one would beckon a child, and they walk hand-in-hand towards the light as the screen fades to black.