The Lal Patthar Mystery

26 Jan

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?


Posted by on January 26, 2009 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


13 responses to “The Lal Patthar Mystery

  1. pitu

    January 26, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Ok, first of all, either you should stop writing such funny, snarky posts or I should refuse to open your blog page when I am trying to get work done. I was reading this while simultaneously lambasting legions of moronic Sears employees for sending me the wrong shipment and while I was trying to sound all furious and morally indignant, your comments like “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” make me laugh like a loon and lose all credibility. Now Sears thinks I am a maniac. So, yeah, Fie Fie on you!

    Now that I have reprimanded you and blown off steam in the general direction of Sears, let me say WOW!!!

    We must be sisters, coz I love this movie too and I have no clue why. It is OTT, melodramatic and Raj Kumar acts like he is gonna have an apoplectic fit any minute BUT it is also one of the few movies where a female character is actually gray i.e. neither Sita nor Shoorpankha. Also, Hema looks gorjus in Bong glory esp that awesome cobalt blue number in the ‘chabuk’ scene. It also has some sizzling chemistry between her and Jaani which is clearly a grt achievement given how ugly he was.

    And you are absolutely right, it very mcuh seems like something a Raj era Brit would write but to be honest, so many Bong writers of a certain era had that English hangover that it doesn’t really surprise me it’s written by an Indian. Also, I kinda like the bizarre baroque treatment altho the background score is utterly hideous. How many times can you hear “Bom bom bom baaaauuuum!” Ugh.

    But yes, a weird/cool movie if there ever was one! Sorry for hogging comment space btw 😀

  2. pitu

    January 26, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    /begin comment space hogging

    1) It’s a very voyeuristic, peephole into a marriage sorta movie (which is another reason it’s interesting)

    2) Hema has probably given the best performance of her entire acting career because for once she wasn’t frothy/bubbly/pretty or sunder/shaleen/kuleen. She actually played the ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ prototype v well.

    3) It’s certainly no morality tale and is refreshingly amoral, which is in itself a rarity in Hindi cinema. I don’t know why but it sometimes reminds me of weird/cool books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover even though that clearly did not have the Bom Bom Bauuuuum shit music.

    /end comment space hogging.

    As you can see, I am thrilled to find a fellow fan.

  3. ana

    January 26, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    As much as I love Raaj Kumar’s voice, doesn’t he sound like he’s having an apoplectic fit most of the time?

    I don’t remember watching this movie, but I’ll have to check it out now.

  4. shweta

    January 26, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    You had me slayed w/ “entrusting her with his family jewels”- such a fun post! I’ve always wanted to see this, and I think I will, as soon as I can find it 😀

  5. wordjunkie

    January 26, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    You make Madhuri sound so cool!! I’m thinking of this scene right now where they suggest her eyes are like those of a tiger. You’re right, this was probably Hema’s best performance, and totally different from all the other stereotypes they stuck her with.

    Englishman stuck with loco colonial wife, till saved by someone as uptight as him – sounds like Jane Eyre, actually.

  6. sachita

    January 27, 2009 at 1:48 am

    so how many of us suckers really saw such movies in DD?

    I didnt know the name of the movie, I don’t even remember the story properly or my Hindi was limited those limited so may be I did not understand the story in the first place. But i saw this movie too. And it had this song i like “gun guna tha hu mein…”.

    Thankfully, the movie did not stay with me. but dont worry I have way too many movies and serials I hold close to my heart that nobody else must have seen in DD except me.

    Frankly, even with your sarcasm, you did lot more justice to the story than say the director or the actors. Ban that Rajkumar even from TV, I say. I think it was just a badly executed movie, the story provides an interesting space to explore.

    Oh… for some reason I am grinning, 3 people(incl. me) actually saw this movie?

  7. A Cynic in Wonderland

    January 27, 2009 at 2:12 am

    hehehehe – JUST the right post for post long weekend blues. Now i want to watch this.

  8. Nitya

    January 27, 2009 at 3:36 am

    Ah, brave young man rescuing beautiful Indian woman who is about to meet some ghastly fate is a stereotype in the literature of that period. But a rescue that goes wrong and Hema Malini being anything but sweet and virtuous… interesting. A movie I will put on my list…. thanks!

  9. Nina

    January 27, 2009 at 6:02 am

    The very first line of your post immediately made me think: “But there IS scholarly study of popular Indian cinema!”

    So in case you were not yet an avid reader of Philip’s Filums, here’s the link:

    All of his film analyses are a very good, scholarly read.

  10. Adi

    January 27, 2009 at 7:01 am

    Sanchita, the list now has four suckers who have watched this movie on DD. :)Never liked it though. And they showed this movie so many times on DD. Never liked it though.
    As a young Big B fan, I always wished that somehow they would show Kala Pathar instead of Lal, but I guess DD only had one Pathar in their armoury.
    Amrita, amazing blog u have here…I jus love ur thought process…Keep rocking!!!

  11. pitu

    January 27, 2009 at 9:40 am

    “but I guess DD only had one Pathar in their armoury.”


  12. PH

    January 27, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Awesome piece.

  13. Amrita

    January 28, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Pitu – hee hee hee! I would love to see a version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover with bom bom BOM music! It would be the best ever! The amorality of the characters is what really interests me most. As well as the colonial tensions between Kumar Bahadur and madhuri – he’s trying to introduce her to his idea of civilization and she is stubbornly resistant. and then she finally succumbs but he still doesn’t value her and wants someone of his own kind. which leads to their separation. it’s so perfect an allegory, its almost trite!

    Ana – at least a severe heart attack! Or else he needs to eat a peppermint now and then.

    Shweta – lolz, it’s the most awkward love scene EVAH!

    Wordjunkie – it’s actually more Wide Sargasso Sea than Jane Eyre if you look at it from Madhuri’s pov. And yes! I’d forgotten the tiger: it was a tigresss he shot and killed and had stuffed and placed in her room to remind her how she lived at his mercy! Thanks for reminding me!

    Sachita – hee hee, have you seen Heer Ranjha? Such a perfect storm of disastrous everything! I remember sitting there in front of the TV, with DD’s fuzzy telecast and trying to understand what diseased brain thought this was a good idea. Ah, DD… the simple joys of another lifetime.

    Cynic – watch it with a friend and something to drink 🙂

    Nitya – it’s funny, i’m so used to this after ploughing through tons of Raj literature but to see it so blatantly transposed here, it just slipped through until I was telling a friend of mine about it the other day.

    Nina – I totally blanked! You’re absolutely right! We’ll always have Phillips Fil-ums!

    Adi – thank you and welcome to the blog! I love Kala Patthar and live in fear and dread of the day when they decide to remake it.

    PH – hey, long time no see! How you been doing?

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