Basu Parivar (1952)
Director: Nirmal Dey; Writer: Nirmal Dey, Sailen Ray; Cinematographer: Nirmal Dey; Editor: Kali Raha; Cast: Uttam Kumar, Pahadi Sanyal, Nepal Nag, Bani Ganguli, Bhanu Bannerjee, Sabitri Chatterjee, Supriya Choudhury, Jahar Roy
Duration: 01:37:20; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 63.011; Saturation: 0.017; Lightness: 0.266; Volume: 0.151; Cuts per Minute: 6.400; Words per Minute: 96.532
Release date: 11 April, 1952 (Uttara; Purabi; Ujjala)
Dey’s first film with Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar adapts the Bengali cinema’s 1940s realist tendency (e.g. Chinnamul, 1950) to the commercial entertainer’s requirements. It tells of a family’s economic difficulties during WW2. The father (Sanyal) is an excitable figure mourning the passing of pre-war plenitude; there is a kindly mother (Ganguly) and two sons, Sukhen (Kumar) exercising a restraining influence on his impulsive younger brother Satyen (Nag). The crisis comes when Satyen is arrested for theft. Believing Sukhen did it, Satyen takes the blame. The family suffers severe disruption until the real thief is caught in an implausible ending. Incredibly, given their later screen relationship, Supriya Choudhury plays Uttam Kumar’s sister. The film was remade in Hindi as Hum Hindustani (1960).
In Basu Paribar, Nirmal Dey, famous for his iconic comedy 'Sarey Chuattar' two years later with Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, brought together the early realist tendencies of the 40s along with the narrative demands of the family melodrama for a commercial entertainer. A story of the trials and tribulations of a middle-class family in Calcutta, the film throws light at the middle class as they were placed on the urban map after two cataclysmic events - the Independence and the World War. The titular Basu family used to be zamindar family until presumably the new land reforms and the post-war conditions together took a toll on their wealth. While the zamindar class had always been identified loosely as the middle class since the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793, this particular historical moment consolidated the urban middle-class in Calcutta, with their own aspirations, desires, moral economy, coupled with a certain nostalgia for their erstwhile plentitude. Basu Paribar is, in many ways, an ode to this moment.
The Calcutta High Court dominates the first shot of the film; indeed, the new legal and economic systems, and how the middle class navigates them, form much of the subtext of the film. This is where one of the protagonists, Satyen, works, and where the central conflict of the narrative plays out. The spoilt rich man, Achintya, is a foil to Satyen and the Basu Paribar in some ways, he represents the section which has yet to come to terms with the changed social, political and economic scenario, in fact, he quite resents them. Achintya is lazy, incompetent and boastful. He likes living lavishly but does not want to work for it. He harbours grand dreams of being a pioneer entrepreneur. He constantly laments why he has been put on a desk job when he is capable of so much more. In fact, this whole opening sequence establishes Satyen and Achintya as the two types within the middle class that the narrative of Basu Paribar seeks to explore, the former who is struggling to fit in with the new world and the latter who resents the passing of a time of plentitude. This duality will recur in the film throughout in various interconnected ways.
Satyen works for an attorney and is working to become an attorney himself, though he has not been able to come up with the 2000 rupees required for the attorneyship exam. He is also clearly in position of trust, what with it becoming obvious from the how his boss thinks of him.
Achintya constantly talks about Andaman in the film, something that seems to him a new unexplored frontier where he will be the pioneer. Like all frontiers, it is mobile and ever-changing with new settlers arriving everyday. As he constantly refers to waiting for his grandfather's passing so that he can utilise the inheritence for his prospects, one gets the sense of a being stuck between two worlds - an earlier world of the zamindars and their immense wealth as absentee landlords and their new avatar as the urban middle-class struggling to deal with the realities of change. Achintya fits in neither space and thus throughout the film sticks out noticeably, which explains why throughout the film he is mostly seen as some sort of a travesty to be mocked and laughed at.
The other class that is rather centrally present in Basu Paribar are the money-lenders, the class that emerged out of new economic successes or from erstwhile zamindari wealth. Here, Bhanu Banerjee's character is one stock type of that class, the other type played by Jahar Ray. The former is an offshoot of the Permanent Settlement, once zamindars themselves, they have now graduated with that wealth to being money-lenders to the urban middle-class. In fact, the business of meny-lending here is crucial too, what with it being a symbol of the constant struggle between living within your means (the Basu family, for instance) and the urge to splurge in order to match up to the lifestyle that used to be (the Basu family in many ways and Achintya throughout).
Another crucial element that is noticeable in the context of the new middle class is a new form of moral economy. While the shame over the borrowing of money from money-lenders is an interesting off-shoot of that economy, another very interesting aspect of that are the new romantic spaces that emerge from it in the post-war, post-independence context. Achala, Satyen betrothed, is waiting for him, and as she is singing, she begins almost walking away from the urban space seen thus far into a near-mystical, secluded, idyllic, spot, public and yet not defined by what one generally associates with the term. These new romantic spaces, public and yet private, is conducive to the new moral economy of the middle-class with its emphasis on concealment and propriety.
Satyen, worried about his family's financial condition, wishes to call the engagement off and delay the marriage though Achala will have none of it. We learn that their estates in Ratanpur are locked in a legal dispute with another set of claimants. The estates, the last vestiges of the erstwhile zamindari system, is the source of their wealth and this coupled with their faith in the truth of their claim maifests itself in Sateyn's belief that they will emerge victorious. In fact, this notion of the empowering nature of truth and honesty, forms the foundational principles of this moral economy of the middle-class and gives basu paribar much of its subtext. Truth and its ultimate vindication is one of the major themes of the film
Back at the money-lender's office we see this very nature of truth and honesty play out in a different way. The money-lender is willing to let go off certain interest rates, especially since he has given his word on his illustrious family name, but not at the cost of his business. It is interesting that the money-lender makes it very clear he is not a descendant of the business family but of the zamindar, a curious way of making sense of both that lost past and his present vocation. We are also introduced to the oldest son of the Basu family, Sukhen, an idealistic, upright, honest man, willing to do anything for his word.
We are immediately informed that the family has lost their case, putting their futures under dire straits as evident by the reactions of the various family members.
Truth and honesty, right and wrong, correct and incorrect, all these ideas are pitted against each other in this crucial scene with the two brothers taking the two heavily polarised points of view. While the younger Satyen is impetuous, pessimistic, and ready to make compromises and adjustments with the wrong in order to survive in the new world, Sukhen is the ideologue of the new moral economy which would argue about strict adherance to the principles of truth and honesty in order to carve out a certain ideal of the self in this new world. Their differences of opinion is recurrent leitmotif in the film. The family, understandably sides with the latter.
The figure of the father is an interesting aspect of this debate over the right way of middle-class existence. He is symbolic of an order that has passed, a time of plentitude represented by the contentious estate that is no longer a viable possibility. Thus, it is quite significant that he is wheel-chair bound, an excitable man who, nevertheless, finds it difficult to navigate this new order of existence.
At the same time, he is also symptomatic of change, in fact, he is quite receptive of it. The rousing song, about breaking the barriers of darkness and moving towards light and towards the new, that begins playing immediately at the end of the scene foregrounds this duality. The fact that the whole family halts and is swayed by this song underlines this investment in trying to forge new paths irrespective of the hardships.
There are interesting aspects of the private space that emerge especially in the context of the joint family, which is set to replace the earlier feudal structure while retaining some of its aspects in its moral codes. The older son is responsible for the family, a caring brother to his younger siblings and at the same time, is careful about not smoking in front of his parents.
Satyen too, exhibits this same behaviour in the next scene when he hides the cigarette from his mother (in fact, so does Achintya from his boss in a later scene). If the cigarette is symbolic of the new modernity, it is still definitely outside the purview of its moral codes; it is admissible but has to be invisible.
The younger brother wishes to be practical about the daily expenses even if that has to happen at the cost of basic comforts. Sukhen, however, is adamant about preserving the lifestyle of his parents even if it comes at a cost. The ability to maintain domestic staff is both a luxury, as it is a symbol of stability and the past, and it serves a smaller battleground for the ideals the two brothers adhere to.
Sukhen is revealed to have dabbled in a number of things - he works for the the insurance company, and has also begun to export manganese. The other money-lender is crucial in this context. Unlike Bhanu Banerjee's character, Jahar Ray plays a man who has started this business not under the protection of a family name but on singular ground. Their impulses and compulsions are the same, of course, but their methods are quite different. In a way, the latter, as driven by the new social system and its upheavals as is the middle-class joint-family, this moneylender is much closer to them in what drives him and thus his equation with Sukhen is also strangely bittersweet.
Achintya's boasts are undercut by the fact that he is inherently dependant on the kindness of strangers and family, alike, like his oft-mentioned grandfather and the attorney who has taken him on as a trainee.
Satyen, on the other hand, is trying to find ways to cope with the financial trouble the family is facing, including getting a part-time job. Prone to pessimism, he has distanced himself from both his dream of being an attorney and, as we will see after this, from Achala too.
Achala's father, a wealthy man in his own right and part of the same social class, reflects the same points of view that we have thus far seen Sukhen express - ideas of truth, honesty and how they are ultimately vindicated. Thus, while Satyen had attempted to distance himself from Achala for her sake, he is chastised by her father in much the same way as Sukhen.
Achala's comment that Satyen weighs relationships based on wealth is crucial. This very factor is the source of the central dramatic conflict of 'Basu Paribar' and will take up much of its run-time. It will be interesting to note that since this scene is not so much about romantic reconciliation as it is about mending the error of one's ways, the setting remains decidedly recognisable and real.
The father is over-wrought by both his own inability to be the one responsible for his family and by the fact that his son is being bogged down by these responsibilities. At the same time there is an acknowledgement that his time has passed, both literally and figuratively, which explains why he is immediately calmed down by the arrival of Sukhen.
Sukhen, in fact, is very clearly the de facto head of the family. He is shown to be a caring brother and son, often putting his family's needs above his own.
Sukhen is also working multiple jobs often at the cost of his own health as the rest of the family point out to him. In fact, these discussions becomes the grounds on which the two brothers are constantly pitted against each other, especially given Satyen's belief that Sukhen is over-indulgent and impractical about money.
Sukhen is seen working late into the night on something he clearly does not wish for his family to see. His evasiveness raises questions that Satyen voices aloud - about the legitimacy of the things he is dabbling in.
As one has already discussed, the two moneylenders, despite their inherent differences, are similar entities regarding their position in this new social formation. They are both after their money, something that is their way of making space in the city, and thus both find a common ground.
The difference between Sukhen and Satyen is however not something the narrative overplays. Instead, they are shown mostly enjoying a fond relationship especially in the way Sukhen is always concerned for Satyen.
The book Sukhen has brought for Sujata is titled 'Madhyabitta' or 'The Middle Class' - it is not an oblique reference but a rather direct assertion. In fact, Sujata's comment that everyone has read the book and that it's very popular is a telling nod to much of Basu Paribar's subtext. Besides, it is quite obvious that Sukhen is the anonymous author, in fact, it is expected since his character is somewhat of a prototype of the ideal post-war middle-class man.
A crucial scene in many ways, its repercussions are felt only a few scenes later when the money that had been entrusted to Satyen by his boss goes missing. It is interesting that the whole scene, with Sukhen coming in to call Satyen, the money handed over to the latter, the accident outside and the commotion that ensues, everything plays out like a series of apparently random events coming together without a single connection between them. The key left hanging in the cupboard at the end is then significant because it instantly brings the whole problem into focus - the money inside the cupboard that has been the one constant factor throughout the randomness of the whole scene. This is especially foregrounded when one looks back on this scene a little later.
Achala's father has found the one way he can help Satyen out without making the latter feel insulted - by finalising their marriage.
The fact that Sukhen begins to clear all the debts of the family in one single sweep, will become an important factor in retrospect - both for the characters within the narrative framework as well as for the spectators who would be drawing their own conclusions with reference to the preceding scenes. This is underlined by the fact that Satyen is both startled and perhaps a bit suspicious throughout the scene.
Achintya's sudden generosity and his strangely skittish behaviour, in intercut shots throughout the scene, is too pronounced, especially given the fact that the preceding scenes seemed to inspire a different set of inferences. Nevertheless, the discovery that the money is gone and Satyen's shock, disbelief and horror is a crucial dramatic moment in Basu Paribar. The theft has multiple thematic repercussions. Obviously, on one level it would widen the gap between the two brothers especially now when Satyen probably believes that Sukhen has taken the money. At the same time, for the middle-class moral economy that operates in the world of the characters of the film, the allegation of theft itself is a deeply scarring event. Satyen's reactions to his boss in the scene site both these extremes. He is torn between the discovery of the theft, the suspicion against his brother, his own sense of fear and shame, and his inability to express any of these.
Achintya's reactions foreground his own fear and guilt and the consequent need to ensure that they are not recognisable.
It is quite clear that Satyen is more or less convinced that Sukhen has stolen the money, though he does not accuse the latter directly. Sukhen, on the other hand, does not acknowledge whether he has understood the allegation. Yet, their fight is rife with the tension of all the things they do not say out loud, a sure sign that the first repercussion one had suspected has already begun to take hold.
Satyen's boss is sure about his innocence, though he believes that the latter is attempting to hide the actual culprit, that is, Sukhen.
The decision to hide the news of the incident, especially from the parents, is an expected reaction given the nature of the crime in question and its moral implications for the middle-class.
With his suspicions having taken hold, Sukhen's request to hide the news from the parents would seem insignificant to Satyen. Perhaps, such a request would even seem to him like an attempt at denial on his brother's part.
Parallel shots of Satyen's confession of his suspicions to his sister, Sukhen sitting hurt and alone in his room, and Sujata's shock and disbelief, heighten the dramatic tension of the scene. Sujata's attempts at convincing Satyen to keep the suspicion to himself is important here because of the complex of emotions behind such a request: she is worried about the effect of the news on her parents, while at the same time what it would do them socially, and though one is not sure if she believes in the allegation or not, she is also worried about Sukhen.
Sujata's attempts, however, prove to be in vain when the police arrive the very next day.
The father's near-hysterical reaction to the police is symptomatic of the second order of repercussion of the theft that one has previously mentioned. The idea of the police, with all its associated implications of the illegal and shameful, is inadmissible in such an insulated world of the middle class - especially in a world where the middle class has yet to consolidate its position. The social implications alone of the police having invaded the domestic space would justify the intensity of the reaction.
In the very next scene it is revealed that the police had indeed come in search of Satyen, and he has been arrested with a case having been filed against him. Satyen's boss is still convinced of his innocence.
Thus, in the very next scene, we see Mr. Chowdhury attempting to convince Satyen to reveal if he suspects anybody. Satyen's refusal to name his brother, on the other hand, could be a direct result of his conversation with Sujata or perhaps his own refusal to implicate his brother. Nevertheless, what is interesting to note is how Achintya has begun to slowly unravel, his reactions incongruous given the fact that he has been declared innocent right at the outset. He is the one who informed the police, and yet he has been speaking on behalf of Satyen throughout. His sudden serious admission that he would be good friend is both touching and ironic because it represents how much he feels trapped in the present situation, unable to do anything about it. It would be easy to read the end of the scene as an admission of guilt. However, more importantly, it serves to foreground Achintya's character as one that is flawed, complex and thus relatable, especially when considered along with the prototypes that occupy the nodal points in the narrative.
Satyen pleads not-guilty fully aware how precarious that makes his case. He will not take his brother's name, the witnesses claim that he probably had the motive for the theft but they maintain that it is impossible he did it, while Satyen himself is assertive of his innocence, making the whole scenario seem even more implausible.
Both the money-lenders insist that Satyen is a harmless man who probably had nothing to do with the theft. Also, they both emphasize that it was Sukhen who had borrowed and returned the money.
Quite expectedly, Achala's father has decided not to go ahead with the wedding. Achala's father's reaction can be contextualised accordingly without having to forget his earlier passionate speech about honesty and integrity - in fact, both the reactions are quite relatable because they are guided by the same moral compulsions.
Shame, especially the avoidance of public shame, is a foundational aspect of the middle-class moral economy and consequently such a structure cannot make allowances when the private and the public are no longer separate. With the Basu family under the new juridico-social scanner their everyday is now more public than it is private. The father, even as a nominal head of the family unit, is the guardian of these moral codes. More than Satyen's guilt or innocence, it is the very public nature of this shame, represented by the court and the police, that is of central concern here.
Achintya's testimony is very important, especially given the trajectory of his character. It is quite evident that he has some role to play in the crime, given his reactions and erratic behaviour since the day of the theft. However, his solemn promise to be a good friend to Satyen is then in constant opposition to his sense of self-preservation which had prompted him to file a report with the police. His curiously worded testimony that there might not have been any theft at all is evidence of this internal dichotomy.
Satyen's boss repeats Achintya's assertions, perhaps due to his firm belief that Satyen is innocent, even though he still harbors doubts that Satyen knows something about the incident.
That Satyen is legally declared innocent is irrelevant in this moral economy because the acquittal comes at the absence of certain proof and not because his innocence has been established. Mr. Banerjee's reply on being thanked and his dismissal of Satyen from his job elucidates this further. What is more interesting is Achintya's reaction because it is a complex mix of his own relief and his joy that he has kept his word to Satyen.
In fact, Sujata explicitly admits this ambivalence about the legal acquittal to her parents while Achala and her father symbolize how that would be cause for continued social censure and rejection, even if it is unwilling as in the case of Achala.
The various accusing voices congeal to mimic the accusatory voices of the entire body social as Satyen runs through the street in despair.
The dramatic intensity of the past three scenes reach a climactic point when Satyen feels rejected by his family too as they, at least implicitly, concur with the idea that he could be guilty. His long held back beliefs against his brother are partly an attempt at absolving himself and partly an accusatory stance against what he perceives clearly as betrayal on part of his family.
Sukhen's revelations are important because of two distinct reasons. His asserts that irrespective of the theft Satyen is guilty because he has failed to keep faith since long before on the sacrosanct family unit that is the core of the middle class. This, in more ways than one, is a potent avowal of the guiding principles of middle class moral life. At the same time, his revelations about being the author of the book 'The Middle Class' and about his business ventures is momentous - with work and business, both industrial and intellectual, the middle class can now finally claim an assertive place in the new post-independence urban space which they will soon dominate. With this definitive gesture, Sukhen leaves behind any or all nostalgia of a bountiful past.
The beating that Satyen has to face from Sukhen is a complex maelstrom of punishment, anger, and finally, a sort of ritual purification. It is a climactic moment in the film where the central conflict, which concerns the family much more than the petty crime, is resolved.
The slightly implausible ending at such a juncture is immensely topical as well as a form of closure. Since Satyen has repented for his actions and has been punished for it, Achintya's confession of the theft works as some sort of a deus-ex-machina figure that instantly sets everything in order. That he is absolved from social stigma almost as a direct consequence of his repentance is a plausible consequence in this social order. One can now easily infer the various other effects of this moment: some seen (the reconciliation of the two brothers and the family in general) and some implied (Satyen's reconciliation with Achala and her father).