Bimal Roy’s Parineeta belongs to one of three Sarat Chandra Chatterjee classics he adapted for the screen, the other two being Biraj Bahu (1954) and Devdas (1955). All three films are defined by strong and powerful characterizations of women even though of the three, Devdas is named after the hero of the novel.
Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s (1876-1938) earliest writings show the striking influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. In Devdas, written in 1901 (published in 1917), Parineeta (1914), Biraj Bou (1914) and Palli Samaj (1916), the themes and their treatment are not very much different from Bankim Chandra’s. But they are presented in a modernistic setting and in an easier and more matter-of-fact language. Tagore’s influence, especially that of his short stories and his novels Chokher Bali and Gora, is revealed in some of Sarat Chandra’s stories and novels as well. Sarat Chandra was always sympathetic to the woman – repressed at home and tortured outside. He was partial to those who, for no fault of theirs, incurred the disapproval or displeasure of the family or community. The social and domestic ambience of Sarat Chandra’s writings has ceased to exist. But the story interest still keeps the reader hooked, irrespective of the plausibility or otherwise of the narrative. He was a critique of contemporary society when it did not agree with his own ideas. But not once did he flout the accepted morals of Hindu society. No wonder then, that till this day, his literary outpourings remain the most attractive for Indian filmmakers across the country.
The most striking element of Bimal Roy’s films, including Parineeta, was his ability to project the Bengali family in a language like Hindi, without losing out on the essence and spirit of the ethnic ethos the story and the characters belong to. The narrative is unhurried, lingering, yet never tending to drag like slow-paced films usually do while the editing is marked by his characteristic spontaneity while the dialogues are always delivered in low-key and soft tones. Loudness, in other words, as in all Bimalda films, is conspicuous by its absence.
Meena Kumari’s brilliant award-winning turn as Lalita brings Sarat Chandra’s heroine beautifully alive on screen, coy yet firm, apparently timid, yet in command of herself when the situation so demands. Her strong conviction in the Hindu ritual of exchanging garlands as a sign of being married to the one the garland is exchanged with, even if this has been done as a light-hearted joke, underscores the strength of her character vis-à-vis Shekhar, who is too weak to articulate his wish to marry her to his dictatorial father. Yet, she is prepared to surrender her love for what she feels is her rightful duty towards her uncle who brought her up when she was orphaned in childhood. Though Ashok Kumar plays off against Meena Kumari well and does what he has to performance-wise, it has to be said he looks much too old to carry off Sarat Chandra’s young, ineffectual hero, convincingly.
The other characters – Lalita’s uncle played by Nasir Hussain, the affluent guest who drops in enacted by Bengal’s Ashit Baram, Lalita’s cousin - gave solid support to the principal characters. The film has multiple perspectives that essay the importance of the joint family, the significance of values like faith, responsibility, friendship hidden between layers that alternate between light camaraderie such as a simple strategy like a game of cards, or, Lalita taking out money from Shekhar’s cupboard whenever she needs some, underscoring the richness of human relationships during the time-setting of the film.
Bimal Roy did not believe in straying away from the original literary source except through the use of songs in these films. Manna Dey’s rendering of Chale Radhe Rani Ankhiyon Mein Paani Apne Mohan se Mukhda Mod ke in Parineeta, lip-synched on screen by a beggar, remains one of the best situational songs in Hindi cinema till today. The other song, Gore Gore Haathon Mein Mehndi Lagaake sung by the girls during the dolls’ marriage ceremony, is also a memorable number. The dolls’ marriage is more metaphorical than literary. It has more than a purely surface role to enact in the film’s narrative. Looked at in retrospect, it raises questions about the institution of arranged marriage within the Hindu family where girls are reduced to dolls when the issue about their marriage comes in. But the song of the film is undoubtedly the Geeta Dutt soulful solo, Chand Hai Wahi. A brilliantly intense, romantic composition, the song is one of her best though sadly overlooked songs. All in all, music director Arun Kumar Mukherjee has done a fine job with the music aspect of the film.
Lighting has always been an extremely important element in Bimal Roy’s works. Whenever the narration grows nostalgic or throbs with inner crisis, whether in anguish or in ecstasy, the mood is captured most ably in delicate chiaroscuro patterns of black, grey and dove white by cinematographer Kamal Bose. There is this shot of Lalita hiding under a dark staircase, moving her fingers along the now-withered garland of flowers, tears streaming down her cheeks, that offers a classic example of how personal pain can be handled with great restraint. It is a classic example of how Bimada’s cinematic language was masterfully painted in every possible shade of grey, white and black. One never thought of colour even in a pastoral romance like Madhumati (1958) nor did one miss it. The camera was Bimalda’s brush and his unfailing grip over it made him manoeuvre it with gentle strokes, sweeping into his canvas the rich poetry and the powers of human beauty, the intensity and the variety of human emotions.
It is a sad comment on public opinion to find very few takers for Parineeta today. When one discusses Bimal Roy’s films, one usually mentions films like Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Devdas, Madhumati and Bandini (1963). Equally powerful films like Parineeta, Naukri (1954) and Biraj Bahu are hardly discussed, if ever.