Sharey Chuattar (1953)
Director: Nirmal Dey; Writer: Nirmal Dey, Bijon Bhattacharya; Producer: M.P. Productions; Cinematographer: Amal Das; Editor: Kali Raha; Cast: Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Tulsi Chakraborty, Molina Devi, Bhanu Bannerjee, Jahar Roy, Nabadwip Halder, Shyam Laha, Haridhan Mukhopadhyay, Ajit Chattopadhyay, Gurudas Bandyopadhyay, Padma Debi, Reba Debi, Dhananjay Bhattacharya, Shyamal Mitra, Dwijen Mukhopadhyay, Manabendra Mukhopadhyay
Duration: 01:42:55; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 99.925; Saturation: 0.047; Lightness: 0.290; Volume: 0.161; Cuts per Minute: 4.984; Words per Minute: 105.639
A big hit, this effervescent comedy launches Bengali cinema’s most successful star duo ever, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. Rajanibabu (Chakraborty) runs the Annapurna Boarding House. Into this raucous all-male world of mainly unemployed tenants arrives the beautiful Romola (Sen) with her parents. The hero Rampriti (Kumar) in the end triumphs over his main rival (Bannerjee) and gets the girl. Dey’s breakthrough film after Basu Parivar
(1952) expertly orchestrates a large number of characters while sustaining a fast pace.
Release date: 20 February, 1953 (Uttara; Purabi; Ujjala)
One of the most iconic films of the 1950s, and one of the most iconic comedies in Bengali cinema, the film is also famous for launching the star duo of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen who would go on to define Bengali popular cinema in the 50s and 60s. Essentially a love story, the film works on two distinct levels. Firtly, there is the mess-house with its unemployed male tenants and the arrival of the girl who disrupts the everyday routine of the establishment. At the same time, it is also chronicles the mess-owner Rajani Chatterjee's (Tulsi Chakraborty) testy relationship with his mostly ill-tempered wife Annapurna Devi (Molina Devi) when he goes home on the weekends. The two central romantic tracks posit two parallel and quite distinct views on love and courtship. The name 'Sare Chuattar' is a reference to the code 74.5 in Bengali which would be used on letters to mark them as private and confidential and was used primarily to mark love letters. Written by IPTA stalwart Bijon Bhattacharya, the film is also a nuanced and acerbic study of the Bengali middle-class, its manners and foibles, in a post-Independence context, within the mould of comedy. A comedy of manners in many senses, what has remained enduring about the film above all else are the performances of Tulsi Chakraborty, Molina Devi and Bhanu Bandyopadhyay.
Rajani's wife Annapurna, a short-tempered, irritable woman but one who is also very kind. She is preoccupied with her house and her children and hence cannot keep up with Rajani's desire for romance. This is further complicated by the many children they have who are constantly afoot, disrupting all of Rajani's plans for his weekends.
Rajani's house in the village and his mess in the city are constantly pitted against each other in the narrative. They are two distinct sites, one public and the other private, and the narrative concerns itself with how romance operates in such radically different spaces. At the same time, these two spaces are built around two very different notions of romance that each of the two couples in the film, the older and the younger, come to represent.
The ideal wife imagined as a tree, peaceful, quiet, unresponsive and yet a caregiver, is immediately undercut by how Annapurna is like the date-palm, thorny and without any shade. Rajani himself is almost like a guest in the house, only visiting in the weekends; thus, his expectation that his wife would provide solace like a tree does for a traveller from the city. This is one among the many different ways in which their ideas, of how romance operates within the confines of marriage, differ from each other. She testily suggests he find another tree. This becomes a pattern which defines their verbal exchanges in these scenes.
Any and every attempt at a conversation between the couple is disrupted by the presence of their countless children, the smallest barely a toddler, whose constant disputes and actions provide the necessary spark for yet another domestic dispute.
A discussion about work, and how it interrupts their relationship, immediately shifts to a dispute over whose work is more strenuous: her work (at home in the village) or his (at the mess in the city).
He is singing a 'toppa', which were quite often about emotional outburts of a lover. The song is a call to his wife who has not yet wrapped up her domestic chores.
His anger over his older son's behaviour, augmented by his frustrations because he has to return to the city the day after, immediately gives way to his desire to spend some time with his wife.
The mess-house, named Annapurna, is a startling congregation of characters that collectively offers a glimpse of the urban metropolis in the early years after the Independence. The collection includes people of all habits, tastes, and temperament, many of them young, unmarried and unemployed young men. This congregation of people, every one of whom has come to the city with a set of expectations from the new nation, defines the emerging urban middle-class which would soon become a unique social and political entity. We have already seen a glimpse of his generation in 'Barjatri' (1951).
One of the dominant comedic tropes in the mess scenes are the interactions between the various inhabitants of the mess, both room-mates and other boarders. Bijon Bhattacharya's writing, instead of depending on gags as much of the early comedies had depended on, instead relies on sharp and witty dialogue laden with puns and innuendos for the interactions between the various boarders.
The alcoholic man-about-town, who is perhaps suffering from liver disease, is played by Shyam Laha who had been famous for his comedy double-act with Nabadwip Halder (Madan, the servant aware of everything in the mess). While many of the characters in the mess define certain comedic stereotypes (the slightly leering old man, the young foppish bachelors, the college student, the struggling singer, the young body-builders) Laha's character also gesture towards the darker, more sinister aspects of the urban metropolis, which is otherwise absent in the rest of the narrative. It works mostly at the level of suggestion though, and the ensuing conversation, where his gambling and racing addictions and his debts are revealed, is meant to be more of an introduction to the mess and its people than any sort of an overt indictment.
The song, literally, is about their youth and the promises it brings. While at one level it introduces the numerous characters that constitute the mess-house, it is also a manifesto of the rapidly changing social and personal codes among the youth who constitute the post-Independence urban space. The sequence is famous for the cameos by its singers Manabendra Mukhopadhyay, Shyamal Mitra and Sanat Singha. Besides the long close-ups of the three during the song, the last shot comprises of both Mukhopadhyay and Mitra, the latter also the composer.
The mess, as the previous song has underlined, is essentially a masculine space. The arrival of a woman thus causes immediate and sharp reactions as seen in Madan and Rajani.
Though Ramala's (Suchitra Sen) mother calls Rajani 'kakababu' (uncle), it is common term of address and one cannot entirely ascertain what their relationship actually is. He evidently knows them, which explains why he agrees to help them despite it being a men's mess.
The conversation about their sudden plight reveals that the family is new to the city. Though not explicitly mentioned, it might be possible that they have immigrated from Bangladesh as an aftermath of the Partition. In fact, the Partition would emerge as a defining moment henceforth in Bengali cinema - lending itself to a variety of metaphors for the socio-political developments in Bengal in the next decades.
Ramala's presence in the primarily male-dominated space is received with open and unabashed curiosity by the young men of the mess. With notions of romance and femininity still very much within the purview of the private, questions like 'Is she married?' or 'Did you see sindoor?' underline the struggle to come to terms with the increasing presence of women in the public sphere - for example, in a place like the mess. This ensues in the play on the word 'enlightened'; 'enlightened' women, women who are assertive of their presence in the public sphere, are literally 'women with lamps'.
They are anticipating the extreme reactions that will inevitably follow among the men in the mess once the news gets out about the arrival of a family there.
The meeting regarding the family is almost a mock-fight between two generations; the younger men obviously wish for Ramala to stay while the older disapprove on grounds of decency and morality. This is foregrounded by Shib babu's (Haridhan Mukhopadhyay) assertion that letting Ramala's family stay would not have been a problem had this been a older men's mess and the resultant furore among the young men over this perceived insult to their ethical and moral standards.
This is a recurrent motif in the film- Aghor and his obsession with sleeping. One specific comment is crucial; his admission that he tends to get indigestion if he does not sleep. An early instance of such an admission had been in Barua's 'Rajat Jayanti' (1939) which had been a stringent critique of the bhadralok class - with indigestion as almost of metaphor of the bhadralok's vulnerability to changes in the status quo. Ramala's father is in many ways a reminder of the pre-war bhadralok, having lost his glorious days and in the throws of changes in the socio-political scenario that he no longer seems to fit in.
Rampriti (Uttam Kumar), the representative of the tenants of the mess. Two things are notable here. The assumption that the mess is a purely masculine space is neatly demonstrated when Rampriti automatically assumes that he has dialled a wrong number on hearing a female voice answer.
The Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen pair would go on to define post-war romance and melodrama in Bengali cinema through their association in about 32 films. 'Sare Chuattar' is the first in the series. Interestingly, they form a somewhat parallel romantic track in the film with Tulsi Chakraborty and Molina Devi. In fact the publicity booklets at the time billed it as such, as an exploration of both the old (pre-war/pre-1947) and new (post-war/post-1947) romantic codes.
A traditional 'shyama sangeet' (devotional hymns in praise of the goddess kali, 'shyama' or dark being a reference to kali's complexion) with elements of 'kirtan' in it. The song refers to the world as 'maya' or illusion and its transcient nature.
There is a marked difference between the other boarders and Rampriti. Since he has a separate room to himself which is locked when he is away, one can assume he is economically more affluent than the other younger men. Class, though a factor that is not explicitly tackled in the narrative, will nevertheless assume pole position in many of the Uttam-Suchitra romantic melodramas.
The 'bangal' would henceforth be a dominant figure in society and politics, especially keeping in mind the large influx of people from Bangladesh during Partition. The 'bangal' accent, a recurrent comic trope, would also figure heavily in the countless narratives of clashes between 'bangal' and 'ghoti' cultures in literature and cinema. Most of these narratives are stereotypically comedies, and Bhanu Bandyopadhyay would go on to become the icon of the quintessential 'bangal' in these narratives - contentious, easily-offended, garrulous, crafty, self-assured, and generally shrewd but good-natured - beginning with 'Ora Thake Odhare' (1954) (literally: 'They Live Just Across').
The mess has clearly been divided along the lines of the young admirers who wish for Ramala and her family to stay, the chief among them being Gaurikedar (Bhanu Bandyopadhyay).
Throughout, the two servants recurrently serve a choric function, representing events and often with contrary opinions.
What Madan says about the boarders is crucial: their bark is far worse than their bite. With the boarders dependant on him on a daily basis for the smallest things in their lives, his influence in the mess and his own self-assured nature ragarding that is quite obvious.
The bone of contention between Rajani and his wife is his constant attempts to reclaim their younger days of romance, the time represented by the '74.5' marked love letters. His wife, on the other hand, is worried about the children in the house and notions of propriety. To her, the husband's desires are impossible, much like the proverbs she uses to berate him: a man with a hump ('knujo') cannot hope to sleep on his back while the 'gamchha' (a coarse wash-cloth) can never hope to be send to the laundrette.
Unlike previously when he would have to wake everyone up, the young men of the mess are up and about, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ramala. Madan's remark is an ironic comment on the myriad effects of Ramala's presence on the men's mess.
Madan, in an attempt to convince Rampriti to soften his stand, ends up making matters worse. While Rampriti's remark that Madan has come in defense of Ramala is more a teasing jibe, Ramala overhears their entire conversation and another misunderstanding ensues.
We have already seen how the two servants serve a choric function, relating sequences of events, their effects, and the reactions of people around them. In many ways, Madan's comments throw light on the foibles of the people who constitute the mess and taken along with how much influence he wields there, it is an striking example of the complicated nature of class relations in a place like a men's mess.
While Shib babu feels vindicated that he has been proved right and the boys are becoming increasingly intrusive and indecent, the other older members of the mess are more than willing to let go.
Kedar, in fact, surmises correctly that Shib babu's reluctance to let the family stay there has less to do with the unpredictable young men in the mess and more to do with his own interests in the situation.
Ramala's mother, seeing the situation gradually worsen, has decided to bring in Gaurikedar in order to broker peace.
For Gaurikedar, also attempting to impress Ramala, this is the perfect opportunity to get into the family's good graces.
Kedar's friends in the mess, however, are his biggest competitors, constantly foiling each other's attempts to catch Ramala's eye.
Kedar's rhyme is a repetition of one single line of verse which translates to 'She spoke to me'. Sung in the 'bangal' accent the line is used to comic effect which he uses to annoy his friends who are curious about his encounter with Ramala.
Though both Rampriti and Ramala wish to resolve the impasse, their attempts are constantly interrupted by the other men, especially Kedar.
This in turn leads to further misunderstandings, with Ramala oscillating between apologising and accusing Rampriti, much to the latter's confusion.
Rajanibabu has arranged for new separate rooms for Ramala and her family to stay in, effectively trying to put some distance between them and the boarders. His efficiency as the owner and manager of the mess forms a humourous counterpoint throughout the film for his turbulent personal life.
The reference to the letter is important. We have discussed how their romance is represented by the '74.5' marked love-letters of their time. The comment that he is too busy to even write a letter reveals that Annapurna is as wary of the loss of their romance as her husband is. The love-letter is one of the most recurrent and central narrative tropes in the film.
The friend presumably comes here to share her grief and give her advice. However, she also cannot help the occasional jibe at Annapurna, knowing fully well that it will annoy the latter to no end. The reference to her own relationship with her husband is a similar ploy and it succeeds in irritating Annapurna further.
While we have discussed Aghor's obsession with sleeping within the larger context of a loss of a way of life for the bhadralok, one must also remember how the notion of indolence plays a crucial role here. Aghor's remark that it is time to rest because he has worked enough for the day foregrounds how this indolence, especially in the domain of labour, is intrinsic to the bhadralok notions of self-fashioning.
Rampriti, quite evidently, has been waiting for Ramala.
This competition between the member's of the mess surrounding Ramala will foster a series of comic scenes that not only frame the Uttam-Suchitra romance in the film but are also considered some of the finest comic scenes in Bengali cinema. In fact, the two major players here are Bhanu Banerjee and Jahar Roy, both of whom would go on to become a celebrated comic duo.
The three men, assuming that Rampriti and Ramala are meeting in secret, immediately pursue them.
Unable to talk to Ramala within the mess in order to apologise, Rampriti pretends to run into her on the road. The ploy works and they resolve all their differences immediately.
The men, annoyed that Rampriti has managed to upstage them in the race for Ramala's affection, have gathered to discuss the matter among themselves. It is quite evident that this has become a sort of game for them, especially Kedar, as expressed by the furlong-mile analogy. Rampriti may have won the most recent bout (furlong), but he resolves to race ahead in the long run (mile).
The song is ironically dubbed as a sort of telegram service, a sort of coded message exchanged between the two.
Kedar is attempting to gather courage in order to pay Ramala a visit.
The song translates to 'O dear, allow me to love you'. In fact, it fits Kedar's description quite well as a way of communicating for the young couple.
Perhaps one of the most iconic lines from the film, Kedar's opening comment is representative of the disruptive role his character plays in the course of Ramala and Rampriti's relationship. The sudden intrusion immediately dispels the effects of the song, bringing the development of the romance to a grinding halt by shifting to the topic of 'malpuas' (traditional fried sweets made of bananas, fennel and flour). It also succeeds in making Rampriti jealous of the easy access Kedar has to Ramala's family.
Insulted by the closing of the window, the friends in turn attempt to sabotage Kedar's plans yet again. The song they sing in order to call Kedar is a version of a 'kirtan', the devotional lyrics replaced by their own words for comic effect.
The off-hand comment that no one will cry for him, though ultimately unsuccessful, is an obvious attempt to gain Ramala's sympathy.
Rampriti is seen writing a letter to Ramala. The love-letter is an important symbol for both the old and new codes of romance. Thus, while the era of the 'private and confidential' letter with 74.5 on it (the kind that Rajani and Annapurna represent) has passed, it has simultaneously taken on new orders of meaning in the present context where Ramala and Rampriti are attempting to forge a relationship in a curious space that is neither public nor private. In fact, these unique spaces of romance that begin to emerge in the 50s are symptomatic of the larger socio-political changes in the body social. In such a context, when Rampriti and Ramala begin to write letters to each other, it will be important to note that the exchange is done through Madan. His constant comments and opinions about the letters and their contents foreground the fact that while Rajani and Annapurna are mourning the loss of the time represented by the 74.5 code, Rampriti and Ramala have reappropriated it in their own way.
The fledgling romance in the mess has succeeded in inspiring others too. Here, Madan attempts to woo the maid Soudamini.
Kedar has been unable to find out more about the letters from Rampriti. They intercept Madan on his way to deliver one such letter and take it from him.
Notions of public and private codes of romance are constantly brought to question in the narrative: the whole mess is seen reading and joking about the coded love-letter. While Kedar has been trying to impress Ramala too, the fact that Rampriti has beaten him to it does not go down well with him.
It is the weekend and Rajani is preparing to go home to his family when the men arrive with their complaints.
Led by an incensed Kedar, the boarders come and complain to Rajani babu about Rampriti's behaviour. While the argument is that such behaviour in a place like the mess will only bring disrepute, what one must also remember is how Kedar and his friends have managed to get the letter, and that their primary aim is to interfere. They give the letter to Rajani for him to read at leisure.
The two romantic tracks are constantly pitted against each other, foregrounding not only their innate differences but also their many similarities. Both the couples are trying to negotiate romance within various restrictions - Kedar and the boys in the mess, the screaming children and other duties at home, etc.
Annapurna is still upset that he has not written a letter to her after his departure the week before.
The letter is a crucial plot-device here; Rajani has forgotten all about it in the face of Annapurna's temper and the latter finds the letter in his pocket.
Annapurna is reading the letter that the boys had given to Rajani. Quite expectedly, since neither Ramala nor Rampriti have mentioned each other by name in the letter, Annapurna assumes that her husband has received the letter from another woman.
Interestingly, the content of the letter, when not addressed to a specific couple, can in fact represent both.
Upset and angry that he might be having an affair in the city, Annapurna flies into a rage and says a series of insulting things to him, much to his utter confusion. As we have already seen, the love-letter is a recurrent symbol for the older couple, a sign of the romantic codes of their time - something they are both trying to renegotiate and recapture. Ironically, when such a letter does arrive, it brings only grief at its wake.
They are clearly talking at cross-purposes here. While she is imploring him about the suspected affair, Rajani is completely unaware of the letter and the effect it has had.
Ramala and Rampriti's relationship is now out in the open, and the other boarders are taking full advantage of the fact by constantly teasing and heckling the two of them. One of the men remarks that the two have turned the mess into a 'flat'; the difference between what is permissible in an independent private living space and in a mess is crucial here.
Though Kedar has been instrumental in things coming to such a state, he quickly jumps to defend Ramala. His friends are quick to remind him that he had been after Ramala not so long ago.
There is a remarkable dichotomy between the attitude of the boys when Ramala had first arrived and now. While many of them had gone out of their way to catch her attention, the realisation that Rampriti and Ramala are attracted to each other invites immediate censure. Their primary concern is that such incidents in a men's mess will only foreground some deep moral or ethical flaw of the men. Ironically, their stand resembles the one taken by the older men at the beginning - having realised that Ramala is finally beyond their reach they are now set against letting her stay there any longer.
Even with their and Ramala's reputation in jeopardy, Aghor is unmoved, more concerned as usual with sleeping.
Much like before, it is Rajani who is quick to find a solution. With reputations and futures in jeopardy, he suggests that Ramala and Rampriti get married.
Annapurna has nearly broken down after suspecting Rajani has been having an affair. The friend suggests that she needs to be nicer to her husband in order to gain his attention and also suggests that she dress up and apply make-up in order to entice him.
At the same time, the other option according to the friend is to call a witch-doctor if all else fails - the latter would give Annapurna spells and charms that would help her keep her husband under control.
Annapurna has taken her friend's suggestions to heart and has dressed up to entice Rajani. The sudden change in her behaviour towards him obviously strikes Rajani as strange. Throughout the sequence, there is a curious reversal that is evident. While Annapurna is seen boldly taking the initiative for the first time - asking him to come and sit in the moonlight, not letting him go to sleep, plying him with food, that is, all the things we have seen him do thus far - Rajani's reactions and comments are quite like how we have seen Annapurna speak or react initially.
With Rampriti's father having agreed to their marriage, all competitions and jealousies are instantly resolved as the other boarders in the mess enthusiastically jump into the foray of organising the event.
'Desher bari' or one's native place here perhaps refers to Bangladesh. Aghor's comment that there is no one there somewhat confirms the previous assumtion that they have immigrated to India after the Partition.
With the mess in a festive mood, Rajani has been so swamped with work that he has not gone home for a fortnight. Since he is completely unaware about Annapurna finding the letter, he has no idea what his absence might have meant to her.
In the village, following her friend's advice, Annapurna has called on the witch doctor to help her get Rajani back. It is quite evident that the man is a charlatan taking advantage of the superstitions of the people of the village; at the same time, such characters are intrinsic parts of the social body of the village.
In the mess, the preparations for the wedding are in full swing.
Annapurna has received the rather misleading news there is a wedding being organised in the mess. Since the obvious conclusion she draws is that her husband is getting married for a second time, she decides to go to Calcutta herself and put a stop to it.
The group of men, stunned by the fierceness that Annapurna displays, refer to her as Goddess Kali.
Kedar and Kamakhya, the architects behind much of what has happened, are eavesdropping on Rajani and Annapurna as the latter reveals the letter.
The news immediately spreads to the rest of the mess that their landlord's wife had arrived suddenly because she had been under the impression that her husband was getting married again.