Through its intriguing narrative, which unravels like pages of a voluminous novel, Majumdar examines the nature of expectations and insecurities that nagged relationships long before the emergence of independent India or a modern, self-assured woman.
The 1971 hit is a faithful remake of Majumdar’s Bangla film, Lal Pathore (written by Prasanta Chowdhary) featuring Uttam Kumar, which came out six years earlier.
The black and white original, while nowhere as opulent as its adaptation, is extremely engaging, restrained and slightly more spelled out. At the same, its Hindi version scores in creating an enigmatic ambiance, vibrant visuals and baring the darkness of its protagonists concealed by an elegant exterior.
Lal Patthar, trails backs somewhere presumably in the 1930s, in colonial times when the prevalence of decadent royalty, rampant belief in cursed clans, plight of poverty-stuck women married off to men twice their age, exploitation of young widows, tradition of child marriages dominated most of its history and literature.
Though predominantly set in West Bengal, the title here refers to the red bricks at Agra’s historical landmark, Fatehpur Sikri, which acts as the majestic venue, tragic metaphor and startled spectator of Lal Patthar’s curious beginning, significant realisations and sinister third act.
Troubled by a great curse that runs in the family resulting in a lineage of mad ancestors, Raaj Kumar’s Kumar Bahadur Gyan Shankar Rai resolves to never get married even if that means giving up on the title of King (Raja Bahadur).
Right from the beginning, Lal Patthar establishes Rai into a fascinating figure. He’s not someone you are likely to grow fond of but the dynamic greys he exudes make him an ideal subject for irresistible dissection.
He dubs himself as someone who ‘grew up to be a complex character’ attributing to his parents’ contradicting temperament – father’s a typical tyrant, mother brims with compassion. And so on one hand, he harbours great interest in books, poetry and classical music. On the other, he embraces the self-indulgent ideals of his forefathers – nautch girls, hunting tigers, smoking cigars and gulping whisky.
A post graduate in psychology and history, his fascination with Fatehpur Sikri is gently underlined when he’s found reading a book on the same or how it’s his favoured destination to share with both his distinctly different companions (Hema Malini, Raakhee).
His relationship with these two women – the mistress and the wife, the guilt of wronging both and its devastating aftermath is ably conveyed by Raaj Kumar who lends Rai a judicious blend of charisma, quirk, desperation, arrogance and edginess. Not to forget, THE, dialogue delivery.
In the constantly hooking proceedings of Lal Patthar, Raaj Kumar quotes a few verses from Harivanshrai Bachchan’s Madhushala, ‘ Is paar priye, tum ho, madhu hai, us paar najaane kya hoga?’ and promptly rechristens Hema Malini’s Saudamini to Madhuri, the beautiful village widow he rescued from dacoits and unkind in-laws.
His attraction to Madhuri appears to be triggered by obvious lust and a sense of loneliness since he’s vowed off marriage. She’s understandably pleased about leaving her pitiable existence in a cowshed and playing ‘Maalkin’ in a princely mansion.
He wants to play Professor Higgins (in the Bangla version, Rai mentions the inspiration out aloud) to his disinclined Eliza (some hilarious moments follow, just like they did with Amitabh Bachchan in Yaarana) and is completely put off when she takes too long (according to him) to transform herself from a paan-chewing Mowgli to a picture of aristocratic grace and refinement.
Meanwhile, Madhuri realises her needs only when she loses her undefined social status, 10 long years later, to Rai’s impulsive whim and sudden realisation of how quickly time has passed by with someone he’s grown bored of. So he goes back on his oath and buys himself a bride in the much younger and decidedly more sophisticated Sumita (Raakhee) from her drunkard father (director Majumdar is effective in a small role).
But it’s his explanation behind this action, ‘Sheesha toot jaaye toh phir jud nahi sakta usse badal dena padta hai,’ which exposes Rai as the jerk (no matter how articulate) he really is.
Interestingly, earlier when he asks Madhuri if she has any problem with his marriage, she is too proud and (dismissive) to admit in affirmative. When the possibility becomes a reality, she feels betrayed, demoralised and discarded after investing her all in a relationship that brought her riches but no respectability.
Using Raakhee’s past connection with her Germany-returned neighbour Shekhar (Vinod Mehra) to manufacture devious schemes, she turns into a bruised tigress, also symbolically planted in her chamber, hell-bent on bringing marital gloom for her offender and his docile better half.
While Rai struggles between the women – his huntsman mindset pictures one as a tigress, another a lamb — and their domestic politics as does his increasing reliance on alcohol, mounting suspicions about his wife’s friendship with another man lead him on a path to ruin against Nabendu Ghosh’s mesmerising, thrilling screenplay.
It’s strange that Hema Malini’s role here is categorised as negative considering she’s just being human about the whole situation. The whole ‘apna ghar todkar doosre ka ghar basaon,’ is not magnanimous, it’s ridiculous.
Lal Patthar, itself, doesn’t draw any judgement on her. She’s simply a strong woman dictated by her passionate, possessive heart not the diktats of society or its norms. So even if the climax perceives her as weak, I’d like to believe its Madhuri’s unconditional affection not any moral obligation that compels her to stand by her man.
She simply couldn’t relate to it at such a young age especially because the concept of ‘rejection’ was alien to her given the overwhelming attention that followed her everywhere.
She’s unforgettably electric in the scene where she gives it back to Rai in Vrajendra Gaur’s hard-hitting dialogues, ‘Pyaar? Tumne kabhi mujhse pyaar nahi kiya. Tum sirf apne aap se pyaar karte ho. Mere zariye tum gudiya ke khel ka shauq poora karna chahte the.’ ‘Mujhe patni ki padvi di kabhi? Nahi. Isliye ke tum mujhe paison se khareed ke le aaye the. Apne mann mutabik banane ka khel khelna chahte the. Lekin tum mein sabr na raha.’
Besides marvelling at her drop dead gorgeous allure, one can actually note the change in her countenance as she changes from a quiet village girl to an assertive lady of the house to a roaring, wounded companion staunchly refusing to give up her claim. It is a treat to witness the sea of emotions her snubbed Madhuri undergoes.
Though originally intended for Vyjayanthimala, the Dream Girl earned tremendous acclaim and recognition as an actress who’s more than a pretty face and gifted dancer with this. That same year she impressed in yet another interesting (even if not too lengthy) role, of a lonely actress, in Vijay Anand’s Tere Mere Sapne.
The period drama’s other leading lady, Raakhee balances the volatile environment build by the two characters of whom she unwittingly comes in between. Delicate, fey and lovely, Raakhee is referred to as a ‘doll’ by Hema Malini and that’s precisely what Sumita lends to the story – vulnerability.
Both the women, decked in shimmering gold, draped in rich benarasis and dhakas, shot in Dwarka Divecha’s (China Town, Amrapali, Sholay) glamorously crafted frames are sights to behold.
If Kishore Kumar’s silvery rendition of Geet gaata hoon main enjoys a place in all his Best of compilations, Asha Bhosle’s soul-stirring alaap that concludes Suni suni sans ki sitar par is designed to hypnotise.
With its rich production values and lyrical prose, the consistently enthralling Lal Patthar arrives at its wonderfully imaginative, deliciously bizarre climax.
What I admired most is how Chowdhary’s story doesn’t have a predictable bone in its nuanced body, which looks into the issues of control, desire, insecurity, possession, atonement, regret, chastity and devotion.
All through its two and half hours running time, Lal Patthar sucks you inside its stark universe where perfection and idealism act as props against two fascinating embodiments of flawed morality.
This article was first published on rediff.com
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