Following Harano Sur (1957) and Saptapadi (1961), actress Suchitra Sen and director Ajoy Kar re-unite for perhaps their most memorable collaboration, Saat Pake Bandha, also regarded as one of the all-time great films of Bengali cinema. The film is a milestone in Suchitra Sen's incredible career and would win her the Best Actress Award at the pretigious Moscow Film Festival, the second International award for an Indian actress, following Nargis' win at Karlovy Vary for Mother India (1957).
The film begins in the present where Archana takes up a job as a teacher in a small village. This sequence leading up to the flashback as Archana recalls her life with Sukhendu is weaker when compared to the rest of the film. In the flashback, we see how Archana met Sukhendu and how in subsequent meetings, she is most impressed with him and they fall in love much to Archana's snobbish and domineering mother's disapproval. However, her father is fond of Sukhendu and with his support Archana and Sukhendu get married and it is here onwards that the film nicely comes into its own as a fine exploration of marital life, its ups and downs and finally, the disintegration of the marriage. True, the film has dated but there is a sense of restraint and sensitivity in the way the film has been treated. The film avoids loud melodrama. Even the fights between Sukhendu and Archana do not go over the top but remain seething under the surface. The film focuses on the trauma Archana goes through as she is unable to hold on to her marriage and the film has several of Archana's silent close-ups so we are able to see what she is going through and feel for her.
While the film is a realistic and eye-opening depiction of a marriage gone wrong and is sympathetic to the woman who is caught in between her mother and husband, it is still within the genre of the 'women's picture' and the way society percieved the role of a woman then, so it is still the woman who has to suffer and pay for the marriage failing. So in that sense looking at the film today, one does find it regressive. Sukhendu is an educated lecturer but otherwise a typical man and doesn't adjust at all for Archana and, in fact, neither does her mother. Archana is the one who is supposed to do what they both want her to do. Sukhendu's anger against his mother-in-law is understandable the way she treats him but he expects Archana to cut off ties with her family rather than understand her plight or adjust for her. In fact, he drives himself further away from Archana taking out his anger against his mother-in-law on her as he takes on extra tutions to so that he comes home late at night and sleeps in another room. The mother too, on her side, thinks nothing of hurting her son-in-law as she repeatedly makes an issue of his being just an ordinary, poor college lecturer - a failure in life. Even at the end when Archana decides to return to Sukhendu and goes to his house, she is told by the people staying there that she is the one to blame for Sukhendu's departure.
The film also contradicts itself in that it makes Archana complete her studies as a step towards being independent and she even turns down a re-marriage proposal but ultimately decides to go back to wifely duties with Sukhendu and it is only when she realizes that he has left the country and the marriage is truly over does she take up the teacher's job and accept settling down to a lifetime of solitude and living for herself.
Another problem with the film is the flashback sequence and this is not just true of Saat Pake Bandha but practically all Indian films that use this device. Flashbacks are normally from a particular character's point of view (POV), in this case Archana. But once we go into the flashback rather than continue with the film being from that character's POV, our filmmakers neutralize the POV and open up the whole story. Here too this happens and there are scenes for example between Sukhendu and Pishima that Archana would not have been privy to; like when Pishima chides him for not accompanying her to her brother's birthday party or when Pishima tells him that she is leaving for Kashi. Incidentally, a rare film that got this pretty much right was Bimal Roy's Bandini (1963), made the same year. The film is from Kalyani's POV and the flashback too is unraveled in a manner such that by and large she is either physically present in the action or she can still overhear the goings on. Thus the viewer gets to understand Kalyani, her story and her actions much more clearly and are tied up to her character right from the beginning, thereby respecting her for her actions.
When Saat Pake Bandha was being made, Suchitra Sen was going through a phase when she had cut down her assignments with Uttam Kumar as she was hunting for a distinct histrionic identity of her own and wanting to go beyond just her romantic pairing with him, legendary though it was. Thus many of her films in this period were woman-centric films opposite other leading men like Bikash Roy, Basanta Choudhury and Soumitra Chatterjee where Suchitra was the one who had to carry the film on her shoulders. This she did most capably. Saat Pake Bandha sees her give one of her best performances ever, a finely nuanced act, perfectly capturing the metamorphis of Archana be it physical, social, psychological or emotional as she evolves from a young college girl to a married woman unable to save her marriage (It must be said here however that Suchitra does looks a trifle too old and mature in the college girl portions). Suchitra ably portrays her helplessness as she gets caught in the crossfire between her mother and her husband with neither really caring about the effect all this is having on her. Her close-ups with her face going through a myriad of expressions are astonishing to say the least.
Though the film is an out and out Suchitra Sen vehicle, Soumitra Chatterjee more than holds his own, playing the perfect foil to her and having his moments as well. Still, there are times when you feel he is a trifle overawed and maybe even a little uncomfortable (the awful moustache) at playing opposite a mega star like Suchitra for the first time. Chhaya Devi gives an extremely strong and believable performance as the interfering mother who is unable to hide her disdain for her son-in-law and who causes the destruction of her daughter's marriage while Pahadi Sanyal effortlessly plays another of his kind-hearted and ever-supportive-but-helpless father roles to perfection. In fact, one must mention here that the bond between the father and daughter is a very well worked out track in the film.
The film's music is scored by Hemanta Mukherjee and it is surprising that the film is actually devoid of any songs. But then this means that the flow of the narrative is mostly uninterrupted as the film too sticks to good, basic storytelling. Unlike Harano Sur and Saptabadi, director Ajoy Kar has not photographed the film this time, leaving it to Bishnu Chakraborty. The camerawork is more than adequate but lacks the rich tonal details and beautiful play of light and shade, that Kar achieved himself with the earlier two films and various other films that he has shot. On the sound track, special mention must be made of the use of the telephone as it rings at the worst of times in the Sukhendu-Archana marriage with each knowing the call is probably coming from her family. Their silences even as the phone continues to ring before one of them eventually picks it up speaks volumes.
Saat Pake Bandha was re-made in Hindi as Kora Kaagaz (1974) and good as Vijay Anand, Achala Sachdev and Jaya Bhaduri are in the roles played by Soumitra Chatterjee, Chhaya Devi and Suchitra Sen respectively, the original is definitely cinematically superior. Besides Suchitra's Award at Moscow, the film ranked 4th on the list of the Best Indian Films of 1963 as declared by the Bengal Film Jouranalists' Association (BFJA).
Strangely, following the success of the film, it took a good 13 years for Suchitra Sen to re-unite with Kar for another film - Datta (1976) which co-incidentally also co-starred Soumitra Chatterjee. In fact, Datta was the last but one film that Suchitra Sen did before going into a Garboesque like retirement. Saat Pake Bandha today is a potent reminder to what was...