Article Bengali

55 years of Jotugriha: This delicate tale of marital breakdown feels contemporary even today

The subject of marital discord has rarely been treated with more finesse in Indian films than in Jotugriha where neither the husband nor the wife is a negative character in any sense.

Shoma A Chatterji

Back in the 1960s, matinee idol Uttam Kumar had floated his own banner to produce meaningful films drawn from rich Bengali literary texts. Each of the films he produced was critically acclaimed and most of them also turned out to be box-office hits.

This was still the golden era of Bengali cinema which witnessed some wonderful films under the banner of Uttam Kumar Films Pvt Ltd that gifted to us some classics like Saptapadi (1961) and Uttar Falguni (1963).

Jotugriha (1964), literally House On Fire, is a moving film directed by Tapan Sinha that ought to have gained more popularity then. Released on 20 March 1964, it was based on a novel by Subodh Ghosh (1909-1980) whose stories were very popular with top-ranked directors.

Among the popular films based on Ghosh's stories are Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958), Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959), Mrinal Sen’s Ek Adhuri Kahani (1971), Basu Chatterji’s Chitchor (1976), Nabyendu Chatterjee's Parashuramer Kuthar (1989), Gulzar’s Ijaazat (1987), a loose adaptation of Jotugriha, Prabhat Roy’s Sedin Chaitramas (1997) and Sooraj R Barjatya’s Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003), an updated and more glamorized version of Chitchor.

Winner of the Sahitya Akademi award, Subodh Ghosh also won the Filmfare award for Best Story twice — for Sujata in 1960 and posthumously for Ijaazat in 1988.

These films are a mere drop in the ocean of novels, novelettes and short stories penned by one of the more popular contemporary writers of fiction in Bengali literature.

Jotugriha is a fascinatingly subtle film on shifting emotions between a couple, Shatadal Dutta and his wife Madhuri, who married for love. But when the film begins, we find that the marriage has run into a silent storm.

The film opens on the rainwashed streets of Kolkata showing Supriyo (Anil Chatterjee), a clerk in the office of the archaeological department of the government of India where Shatadal (Uttam Kumar) is a senior officer. Clad in a raincoat and cap, Supriyo is off to the market and always arrives late at his office.

Shatadal drives himself to an empty home where Ramu, the servant, serves him tea. On his way home, he visits a lawyer discussing his impending divorce with Madhuri (Arundhati Devi) and the message that everything is not right in this marriage comes across.

The subject of marital discord has rarely been treated with more finesse in Indian films than in Jotugriha where neither the husband nor the wife is a negative character in any sense. They married for love, lived it out for six years, then decided to go their separate ways.

The reason is strange — Madhuri cannot conceive and Shatadal loves kids. This comes across when he shows affection for the little son of a neighbouring couple who are forever quarrelling in a marriage that hardly exists.

Madhuri suffers from a deep sense of guilt at being unable to fulfil her husband’s love for children. This despite Shatadal’s insistence that not all couples have kids and they are just one among them. Shatadal says he can live without children because he loves his wife. But she remains adamant and says that some time in the future he will blame her for being childless.

Shatadal finally gives up and, after a quiet argument where Madhuri suggests it is no use dragging a relationship that has run dry, goes to a lawyer.

At one point, the lawyer suggests cooking up a case of adultery against his wife, but Shatadal, gentleman that he is, rejects the idea out of hand. The divorce proceedings are kept away and one fine day, Madhuri leaves home, leaving a small note behind.

Soon after the film opens, we also find Shatadal supervising the building of a house he had planned with much love with Madhuri. It is an ideal home being built with great care with each partner having contributed to the planning — kitchen, balcony, study, garden — with a lot of love. The slow and steady disintegration of the marriage takes place, ironically, against the backdrop of a house being built by the husband for them to shift into from their rented apartment.

When Supriyo asks Shatadal about the house, he says he will sell it off once it is complete. When it is ready, Shatadal, who by then has become rather fond of the low-brow, lower-middle-class Supriyo, offers the house to him as a gift. Supriyo refuses, explaining it away as his desire to make it on his own.

Shatadal then sells the house and quits his job. Sinha stays away from detailing the sale, keeping his focus on the two characters and their conflicts and pain. They are taken to be an ideal couple by outsiders, so their split shocks those who know them closely. Both Uttam Kumar and Arundhati are extremely dignified, both in their love and in their split.

The film presents two subplots with two other married relationships to juxtapose against the marriage of Shatadal and Madhuri. One is that of Nikhilesh (Bikash Roy) and his screen wife (Binota Roy), who squabble without a break, disturbing the childhood of the sweet boy Shamik, whom Shatadal is fond of.

The other is a portrait of a happy, lower-middle-class family comprising Supriyo and his wife (Kajal Gupta) who live in a modest shanty with two growing children. Shatadal has an impromptu meal with them once and is thrilled.

The family of Supriyo sings a beautiful Tagore number that goes: “I know I have to give everything ... all my wealth, all my words, I must give” which offers a slice of happiness the family enjoys and shares together. The song spells out the ideology of relationships holding the film together.

The black-and-white cinematography with muted light effects, the flickering lights of a nightclub / bar disturbing the darkness in Shatadal’s flat as he sips his tea all by himself, the seamless editing that neither jars nor has jerks, the muted music with a theme tune playing in the backdrop all contribute to the film's atmosphere.

The long silences between the couple as they get on with their daily chores exchanging a minimum of words unfold the schism that was already there when the film began.

There is a small insertion of a scene from Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala (1957), based on a famous Tagore short story, which Shatadal has gone to watch. But while the audience smiles at little Mini dancing to a Tagore song, Shatadal looks sad, perhaps reminded of his life without a child and its impact on his marriage. This is a beautiful touch.

Nostalgia is rekindled when the couple meets in the waiting room of Rajgir station seven years after their divorce. The script is silent about where their paths have led them for seven long years. Now they are waiting to board trains going in opposite directions. To kill time, they wander off together to a river nearby and share anecdotes from a happy past aboard a stationary steamer, smiling and laughing together for the first, and last, time in the film.

The scene raises hopes of a possible reunion, but it is not to be, and they leave on their respective trains, leaning out of their windows, pain writ large on their faces, bringing the curtain down on what had appeared to be an ideally matched couple.

Sinha's specialty lay in the masterful use of symbolism. As the couple leave on separate trains, the camera cuts to the waiter in the kitchen hanging up the tea cups they had used on separate hooks, far away from each other but looking very much a pair. A remarkable closing shot that sums up the tragedy of marital discord.

The film draws from everyday life, detailing what happens when two individuals meet, quite unexpectedly, in the waiting room of a railway station, seven years after their divorce during which they have neither seen each other nor been in touch. They were once husband and wife. They are no more.

Neither has remarried. Why? For Madhuri, it is because the obstacle that broke their marriage remains a thorn. For Shatadal, perhaps he was afraid he would not be able to love another woman after Madhuri.

They have both aged a little and the suited-and-booted Shatadal is now an older, bespectacled man clad in milky white dhoti and Punjabi, the grayish sideburns adding to his dignity and killer looks. Madhuri now wears glasses, no jewellery, and simple clothes.

Sometimes, films, both from the mainstream and outside, have handled the theme of schisms in marriage with aesthetic sensitivity, technical finesse and, most importantly, strong social relevance. Jotugriha was made at a time when divorce was far less common and hardly spoken about in the public domain or in social circles. Tapan Sinha handled the story with delicacy while his lead stars, Uttam Kumar and Arundhati Devi, made the film an excellent one for the ages. It looks contemporary, relevant and universal even after 55 long years.

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