I’m never more bothered about the lack of scholarly writing focused on mainstream Indian cinema than when I watch movies like Lal Patthar. An auteur like Satyajit Ray might never have gotten his rightful due, but at least his work has been studied and subjected to scrutiny over the years. If nothing else, then the actors and technicians who had the privilege of working with him still provide a history of their collaboration, giving us a glimpse into the man behind the movies. It is still possible to weave together an understanding, however imperfect, of his work and his artistic vision.
Movies like Lal Patthar (a.k.a. Sandstone or, literally, Red Stone), however, are lucky databases like the IMDB exist, because that’s about as much as they can hope for.
Presumably adapted from the 1964 Bengali movie of the same name that he also directed, Sushil Majumdar’s Lal Patthar is actually not a very good movie – it’s too melodramatic and stuffed full of unsympathetic characters to be anything more than tolerable. On the other hand, it’s perhaps one of the most interesting movies I’ve ever seen.
Part of its fascination for me derives from its pulpy nature: Lal Patthar is the story of a nobleman called Kumar Bahadur (Raaj Kumar) who one day chances upon a mysterious procession moving through the forest where he is attending a hunt. Suspicious of the small group stealthily making its way through this deep part of the forest, he and his Sikh ADC attack the party, forcing them to leave behind the palanquin they were guarding. Upon further investigation, Kumar Bahadur discovers that the men were bandits returning from a raid and inside the palanquin is a gagged and tied up woman they’d kidnapped from a nearby village.
Kumar Bahadur, an abstemious figure (he’s unmoved by Padma Khanna and the wine she proffers at the beginning of the movie, largely due to the curse laid upon his head by some long suffering woman who was fed up by the debauched ways of the men in his family), is nevertheless taken by the luminous beauty as she tumbles out of the palanquin and lies unconscious at his feet.
The woman is Saudamani (Hema Malini), a poor widow who’s beset by an unkind mother-in-law and an ox of a brother-in-law who like to starve and beat her. Kumar Bahadur decides to do her a favor and send her to some widow farm where she can think holy thoughts without getting kidnapped by bandits or beaten by her inlaws. Saudamani, unsurprisingly, is less than thrilled by the prospect. What is surprising is that when the opportunity arises, she grabs it by seducing the Kumar Bahadur, choosing to live as the sinful mistress of this dashing savior of her virtue than, you know, actually living a life of virtue as he’d planned.
Kumar Bahadur too has apparently wearied of all his good habits. After throwing money at her inlaws, he rechristens his brand new bit of luscious property with the name of Madhuri, and hands her the keys to his palace before symbolically entrusting her with his family jewels (ahem, those too).
If he wanted to play Pygmalion, however, Madhuri nee Saudamani turns out to be something less than the perfect Galatea. For one thing, as she was not previously made of marble, she has her own ideas. She’s perfectly willing to adapt to her new luxurious lifestyle and cater to Kumar Bahadur in the bedroom, for example, but she’s less than enthralled with his idea of a good time which seems to involve long train journeys, a bunch of dusty old monuments and boring but high class music. She suffers through it as best as she can for as long as she can hack it but when he starts dragging her to Muslim tombs, thus “destroying her caste”, his beautiful barbarian has had about enough and tells him so in no uncertain terms. She might be a widow and a whore but she’s got standards.
After a few years of gradually turning into a spineless sot, Kumar Bahadur suddenly wakes up and realizes Madhuri is pretty much in charge and he’s basically a waste of space in his own household. His solution? A wife, of course!
A nice educated girl from his own class, Sumita (Rakhee) is half his age and culled from a family of limited means so she’ll be properly grateful to live the life he’s about to provide for her without caviling at the omnipresence of his mistress whom everybody treats as the rightful head of the household.
Things work out about as well as you’d expect it to, especially when a jealous Madhuri discovers the existence of a childhood sweetheart, Shekhar (Vinod Mehra), a very nice wholesome young man who looks like Ken next to Sumita’s Barbie.
The movie then crashes towards a tumultuous ending where the Kumar Bahadur turns into an Othello figure ready to believe the very worst of his wife, with Madhuri’s well-developed sense of survival feeding the flames while the extremely clueless Sumita and Shekhar bumble along in their wake, moralizing to each other about the sanctity of marriage and eternal nature of emotional bonds. The mealymouthed-ness of the pair is alone enough to drive the Kumar Bahadur insane, but he gets plenty of choleric help from the harsh doses of stone cold reality handed out by a bitter Madhuri who accuses him of being a loser who likes to buy his women and then play lord and master over them until he finds their working brains inconvenient. So then he hits her… obviously.
Next, to prove the existence of his spine, Kumar Bahadur kicks her out of his house and then replays the first days of their relationship with Sumita who had no idea why her husband is being so nice to her but is thrilled all the same. Unlike Madhuri, Sumita likes the long train journeys, dusty monuments and boring high class music that the Kumar Bahadur likes and hopes to bring up little Kumar Bahadurs who will like the same. Unfortunately for her, her mealymouthed-ness interferes with this plan and Kumar Bahadur decides to stage a play.
You laugh but when I tell you it involves this guy in blackface and pearl-handled pistols that fire blanks and moonshine and fancy costumes, I bet you change your mind! It is a play of death, you see. Muahahahah!
Um, yes. Anyhoo…
Ever since I saw this movie as a kid, it’s stuck in my memory and I’ve never been able to figure out why. Madhuri is the only person who is worth anything in this movie and she’s a bit of a rat. It’s not entirely her fault she is a rat and she has to suffer a great deal for it but she is definitely a member of the rodent family. So why do I find myself thinking about this movie at random moments through the years?
Perhaps it’s because it’s such a weird movie to be made by an Indian. The story, credited to Prasanta Chowdhary, could easily have been a feverish exotic romance penned by a nineteenth century Englishman (or Englishwoman for that matter). Look at it this way:
An English captain stationed in a far way district in exotic India comes upon a mysterious palanquin being carried through the teeming jungles with the utmost secrecy. Suspecting foul play, the brave captain and his faithful Indian guard attack and scatter the men; upon investigation, he finds that the palanquin contains the unconscious and provocatively dressed body of a native woman.
Although he can never marry her, the captain knows that the beautiful woman is destined for a living death as a Hindu widow and when she seeks shelter in his arms, he decides to let her stay. He gives her a name more pleasing to his ears and tries to teach her the finer points of civilization. Overnight his attitudes to the debaucheries of India have changed and he goes from an upright officer to a man besotted by lust and drink.
Brought to his senses years later by her shrill greed, he returns to polite society and finds himself a sheltered bride of the right pedigree. He brings her back to his home in India where his native mistress reigns supreme and where she is subjected to the indignity of living under the rule of a woman she despises, fears, can never comete with and does not understand.
It’s a pretty basic colonial romance, really. I just wish I knew more about what went into the making of it and what came first – did they adapt it off some random English novel or was this an uniquely Bengali tale that the Brits adapted to English?