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Agni Pareeksha (1954) review: A woman's tale that almost sanctifies child marriage

Release Date: 03 Sep 1954 / Rated: U / 02hr 00min

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Shoma A Chatterji

The film, which was released on this date in 1954, is told from the woman's point of view but does not disturb the prevailing middle-class morality.

Agni Pareeksha (1954) was the second film to feature Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in the lead, but it became the first to trigger the tremendous box-office appeal of the pair that endured for two decades.

Agni Pareeksha was based on a novel by Jnanpith award-winning littérateur Ashapurna Devi, whose own life story reads like an incredible novel.

Ashapurna Devi was a brilliant fiction writer who had never set foot inside a school. She is known for her strong female characters. Some critics played down the importance of her work, calling her a "kitchen writer". But she proved them wrong by writing prolifically and courageously while managing a home with a husband and three children.

Agni Pareeksha celebrated the sanctity of marriage though the protagonists are married off as children, when they do not even know the meaning of the term. In this sense, Agni Pareeksha, in retrospect, appears to encourage child marriage, in sharp contrast to Ashapurna Devi’s bold and often radical literary oeuvre.

The film is filled with moments of melodrama from beginning to end. But the melodrama defines the film’s character and the interaction between and among the main people involved in the story.

Tapasi is married off as a girl to teenage zamindar boy Bulu on the insistence of her grandmother and against the wishes of her mother, who learns of it after the wedding has taken place. The mother is fleshed out in negative shades because she is against early marriage and wishes to bring Tapasi up through education and in Westernized ways.

Her angry mother brings Tapasi back from the zamindar's ancestral home and her father dies of shock. Destiny catches up when she meets a handsome, educated and Westernized young man, Kiriti, during a visit to a hill station. Though the two fall in love, Tapasi is constantly disturbed by faint and random memories of her marriage. Since she has no knowledge about her childhood groom’s present life, she is torn among thoughts of whether she is a married woman, an unmarried woman or a widow.

Tapasi realizes that the emotional bond between herself and Kiriti is getting stronger by the day, and it appears that she has forgotten about her marriage as a child many years ago. Then one day her car stops to let a marriage procession pass. The bride is a little girl. When Tapasi sees the scene her childhood memories come rushing back, and she is traumatized.

One does not get to see the bride closely, but the damage is done. Tapasi is almost seized by a strange fear and by feelings of deep guilt. From then on, she stops going out, stops meeting Kiriti, stops dressing up, leaves her hair loose and refuses even to step out of her room. Kiriti comes every day, but Tapasi does not wish to meet him.

The change in Tapasi’s life affects the rest of the family. One can glimpse sparks of good acting by Suchitra Sen as Tapasi, though in keeping with the style of the period, there is an element of overacting and exaggeration.

As Kiriti, Uttam Kumar’s performance is balanced and credible. Suchitra Sen limited herself because she was conscious of how the camera would capture her face from different angles and with different degrees of light and shadow. It was a time when the beautiful face of the heroine was more important than her acting talent for the director, the cameraman and the actress herself.

From the moment she meets Kiriti for the first time at the hill station till the last minute when the two meet in the ancestral village home, Tapasi looks beautiful. Her good-for-nothing brothers are quick to point out that she holds a master's degree in English with a first class, can speak English like an Englishwoman, and can sing like a nightingale. This suits the purpose of the projected love story because Kiriti with his smashing looks, polished manner, high education and the elitist ‘stamp’ of a 10-year stay across the UK, Europe and the USA is considered the perfect match for Tapasi.

Kiriti is the same Bulu now an adult, handsome, successful and eligible. Bulu chooses to become an impersonation of himself through Kiriti keeping his identity hidden from Tapasi and her family. This impersonation is triggered by his desire to see Tapasi go through an agni pareeksha — a trial by fire — holding back the truth to be revealed only if and when Tapasi emerges from the ordeal successfully. This ‘doubling’ as someone else, which amounts to misleading the lady he has fallen in love with, is not only marred by strong patriarchal notions but is also a betrayal of the trust Tapasi has placed in him because she does not know this is the same Bulu she was married to.

In 1954, when the film was released, divorce was a sacrilegious term in Hindu marriages negotiated by the respective families and believed to be for an eternity or till ‘death do us part.’ No one calls Kiriti’s wilful impersonation a breach of faith because that is how patriarchal values dominated society and this was reflected in cinema.

“Through her misrecognition, the narrative dramatizes the confrontation between tradition and modernity as the conflict between the ‘double’ Bulu and Kiriti. Although much of the film unfolds from her point of view, ultimately she remains a pawn in the hands of the primary male subject. Since the audience realizes the truth before the protagonist does, the transgressive potential of her desire for 'another' man is contained; it is her masochistic struggles that become the primary locus of spectatorial pleasure.” (Sarkar, Bhaskar. Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition, Duke University Press, Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd, 2010, p152, chapter 3)

In hindsight, Agni Pareeksha threw up the complete screen compatibility of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, also unwittingly pointing out the differences between the stars in terms of their screen image and command of the craft of acting.

Suchitra Sen as the grown-up Tapasi enters the frame after a good 20-odd minutes of the film's runtime. The entire story is from Tapasi’s point of view. Yet, once Kiriti steps in, she becomes the object of the cinematic gaze and the story being manipulated, first, by her mother, brother, aunts and cousins, then by her own traumatic past, and, finally, by Bulu pretending to be someone else.

Uttam Kumar as Kiriti takes over smoothly once he enters Tapasi's life. He is suave, charming, attractive and mesmerizing, and in complete command of the drama he has created. Suchitra Sen as Tapasi is like a beautiful counterfoil, in suffering and in pain when her life changes with dark memories superimposed into her present.

The child Tapasi, portrayed by Shikha Rani Bag, is a classic performance that reaches beyond the adult Tapasi. The expression of complete puzzlement and confusion on her face as her eyes wander from the bed of the dying zamindar to the chandelier hanging above to her bridegroom, not understanding what is going on, is very convincing.

Agni Pareeksha became a super-duper hit at the time because it did not contravene audience expectation of conventional middle-class morality. Tapasi ultimately goes back to the man she was married to as a girl. There is no ideological conflict in this which might have steered the audience the other way.

The music and the placing and orchestration of the love songs — 'Ke Tumi Aamare Dako', 'Gaane Mor Kon Indradhanu' and 'Jodi Bhool Korey Bhool Modhur Holo' give an added dimension to the screen romance between Tapasi and Kiriti both before and after Tapasi is disturbed by the trauma of her childhood marriage.

The film set the pace for the electric chemistry between the lead pair played by Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen and remains a milestone in Bengali cinema.

Postscriipt: When Uttam Kumar produced the same Agni Pareeksha as Chhotisi Mulaqat in Hindi in 1967 with Vyjayanthimala playing the role Suchitra Sen had essayed in the original, the film was a miserable flop.

Uttam Kumar's fans blamed a conspiracy by some of the big producers in Bombay cinema at the time. But the basic reason was that the topic had become passé. The tale of a girl and a boy who get married as children and meet again when they grow up no longer held the audience captive.

Besides, Uttam Kumar had gone past his handsome prime. He had simply chosen the wrong time to try his luck in the Hindi film industry.

Uttam Kumar suffered huge losses and had a heart attack. He never tried his luck as a producer in Bombay again.

Shoma A Chatterji is a journalist, film critic and author of 24 books, including 13 on Indian cinema.

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