Sunday, November 1, 2009

Benazir - The Tragedy Queen Strikes Again!

Bimal Roy’s Benazir hit the spot for me this afternoon. It had almost everything I want from a Meena Kumari film – dancing, tragedy, Ashok Kumar, and lots of close-ups of her big, beautiful eyes.

Benazir (Meena Kumari) is introduced to us as a small girl – she is rescued from some rubble after a riot in Bihar by a kind-hearted man, who happens to be a theatre person (or something). Now she is a dancer and a kept woman and not too happy about it. She compares herself to the dancing doll explains how they both exist to entertain but the doll doesn’t have emotions to deal with.

Her patron is a grumpy Ashok Kumar (DADAMONI!) who is deeply infatuated with her – to the extent of ignoring his wife and family responsibilities in favor of watching Benazir perform.

She cares for him, to an extent, but she keeps it all on a professional level and almost seems a bit scared of him and what he could do if she loses favor.

This tenuous balance is disrupted by the arrival of Dadamoni’s younger brother, played by a very young Shashi Kapoor. He is extremely fond of his bhabi (a young Nirupa Roy) and when he hears about his brother’s affair, is determined to stop it.

Complicating things is the small infatuation growing between Shashi and Nirpua’s younger sister – played by Tanjua. They are very teenagery and giggly about it and are clearly not thinking very far into the future.

This is your last chance to escape before I spoil the plot for you….

….still here?

Okay, the big turning point in the film occurs when Shashi pretends to be having an affair with Benazir so that Dadamoni will break off his actual affair with Benazir. In theory, it sounds like a great plan but in reality, what happens is that Dadamoni has a huge heart attack and Shashi is banished from the family.

Nirupa Roy, being a good filmi wife, puts her own jealousies last and goes to Benazir for help in nursing Dadamoni back to health.

The subtitles weren’t too clear on this or maybe I just don’t have the cultural knowledge but after he comes around, Dadamoni offers to either continue the affair but in a more official capacity or something like that.

Benazir refuses and disappears. She is tired of the being the dancing doll with no feelings. She will be his plaything no longer.

So, who do you think will come knocking on her door in a far away town one day?

Yes! The friendly door-to-door hair cream salesman!

When he spots Benazir, he bolts down the stairs and into traffic and gets hit by a car.

Benazir feels responsible and meets him at the hospital.

And nurses him back to health – selling her last bits of jewelry to do so.

Before I get to the final – and amazing – climax, I want to discuss Benazir herself. Her life has been one of people wanting things from her, whether it’s her dancing skills or her company. Her profession – dancer – puts her outside of the “respectable” family moralities and almost every interaction she has with people is a transaction of some sort.

But, from Dadamoni’s perspective, he doesn’t understand that he holds all the power in this relationship and seems to feel that what they share is romantic love, something that he doesn’t share with his wife. Both Benazir and Nirupa feel a duty towards Dadamoni but he places more importance on romantic love – Benazir.

There is one beautiful dance sequence that shows this:

While Nirupa is down below in the courtyard holding a naming ceremony for their son, Dadamoni has brought Benazir in to entertain the gentleman.

Dadamoni has his priorities all mixed up – expecting devotion and duty from the object of his infatuation while ignoring his duties as a father and head of his family.

Enter Shashi, the surprise treat in Benazir!

Not only did I enjoy watching Meena Kumari romance a man at least 6 years her junior because I love her behind-the-scenes reputation as Bollywood’s original cougar but Shashi’s journey in this film was a unexpected pleasure.

You see, in my hubris, I decided I already knew how the film was going to end once Benazir had nursed Dadamoni back to health. She’d go off and the rest of the film would be spent reuniting Shashi and Tanjua as the “young lovers.” I was skipping ahead to see if there were anymore songs and instead, landed on the scenes of Benazir nursing Shashi back to health with all these romantic vibes in the air!! Chastised, I went back to watch it through.

Shashi’s character grows from an emotionally undeveloped young man, convinced that he knows what is best for everybody, to a more forgiving and complicated adult. The “young lovers” are not reunited. That kind of love at first sight love - filmi love – is a fleeting pleasure, not something to build a life on. We even see Shashi with a pigeon (in the picture above) in his one romantic song, as if to emphasize just how fleeting it is.

He is very hurtful towards Benazir at first – he has yet to acknowledge that situations can be complicated and people are not always what we think they are. Her selfless caring for him and the realization that Benazir is actually a pretty decent person, open his heart for real love and sparks fly.

Benazir’s motivations for nursing Shashi are a bit less clear. I suspect that part of it was that she enjoyed caring for somebody as one person to another – not client to patron. She didn’t expect anything back from Shashi, she was acting of her own free will. Part of it too was the romantic sparks, which saw hints of earlier in the film, where they exchanged couplets.

In any case, the two fall in love and Shashi asks her to marry him.

I’m really going to tell the whole plot, so this is your last chance to turn around if you don’t want to know how it ends…

When Dadamoni shows up, ready to take Shashi home, Benazir realizes that even if she does marry him, they could never be part of the big extended family. And while he might be able to live with it, she would feel guilty for taking him away from his family.

So, she does what Meena Kumari does best – stage a production of the story of Anarkali and fill her cup with real poison.

If you think the dance at the end of Pakeezah is intense, wait until you see this one!

Her sacrifice is double-edged. It does free up Shashi to return to his family but he is not the same person who left. Romantic love is dangerous. As she dances to her demise I couldn’t help but imagine how Tanuja is ever supposed to live up to the tragic figure of Benazir in Shashi’s mind. The woman who nursed him back to health, taught him to really love, and is not sacrificing herself so that he can return to his family?

Is Bimal Roy saying that romantic love has no place in the family?

The opening number in which Meena Kumair – as rain – dances with a partner dressed up as fire would seem to say so. She kills him but he doesn’t care because he’s in love.

If Shashi is the fire, then Benazir decides to stop her rain rather than put him out – it’s an interesting film and one that did not leave me dry-eyed. Benazir isn’t a casual sit down film but if you are in the mood for a good Meena Kumari weepie, definitely pick this one up!


shell said...

I haven't seen any b&w films yet but I think that I'm putting this on my list, even though it's totally spoiled!!! I'm such a sucker for sad teary-eyed movies and omg, does Shashi look so totally dreamy or what!

myrna-nora said...

Ashok AND Shashi! Must. See. Right. Away.

Bollyviewer said...

Didnt realise you had posted on this one! Inspite of is sad courtesan overtones (not my favorite genre), its one of my favorites, too.

"The subtitles weren’t too clear on this or maybe I just don’t have the cultural knowledge but after he comes around, Dadamoni offers to either continue the affair but in a more official capacity or something like that." - he thinks she has nursed him throughout and wants to marry her but she tells him that his wife has prayed for him and loves him enough to bring another woman home just to save him!

Shashi's character does learn and grow by the end of the film, but he does NOT fall for Benazir. He realises that he has wronged her, and that she has made innumerable sacrifices for him and his brother - so gratitude impels him to propose to her (its fairly clear in the dialogues, which probably werent subtitled all that well). When Ashok Kumar tells Meena how much he (Shashi) loved Tanuja, she decides not to spoil his life AND take away his love.

Filmi Girl said...

@shell and @myrna-nora Yes!! Check this one out but don't get fooled like I did in the middle of the film. :D

@bollyviewer Ah... you know, I thought that Dadamoni might have been offering her a position as second wife but I wasn't 100% sure. On your second point, I like my interpretation better - Shashi just kept throwing her way too many romantic looks. :) Watching him watching her dance was... intense.

JJC said...

Ive always meant to watch this..but now i really think i need to catch this becuase it sounds awesome..

Beth said...

So glad you saw this one and found it so interesting! It's a stunner. My interpretation is more along the lines of Bollyvierer's, but I had to watch it twice before coming up with anything close to confidence about that. In real life I have observed several instances of caring for/"saving" getting mixed up with romantic love, and I like how complex and sometimes ambiguous (or simultaneous) the film portrays these sorts of connections. I really like your point about Benazir getting to relate to Shashi on a more person-to-person level than she has available in any of her other relationships. We ALL need human connectivity in our lives. I also like that Benazir is not so broken or damaged or defeated that she cannot turn her energy outwards (towards people other than herself)!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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