It Happened One Night Somewhere in Bengal: Chaowa Pawa

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I’d like to introduce you to one of India’s greatest movie superstars. Active from around 1950 to 1980, Uttam Kumar is still the biggest name in the popular cinema made in Calcutta.

The term “matinee idol” doesn’t imply enough scope or staying power  to describe his career, and his nickname in Bengali is instead “Mahanayak,” meaning “the great hero.” His sudden death at age 53 means that he never had to fully transition from romantic lead into senior roles, but even at the peak of his screen idol power, he was unafraid to abandon his most popular image to play characters with significant dark streaks,  even criminals. (I discussed a few of these in a Gutter piece last year on Bengali noir.)

If you know the films of Satyajit Ray, you’ve probably encountered Kumar as the lead in Nayak, Ray’s wonderful depiction of the isolation of celebrity. Most of what is seen in that film is a short leap from the real-life experience of Kumar’s fame. There’s a larger-than-lifesize statue of him outside the subway station in Calcutta’s filmmaking neighborhood—a station named Mahanayak Uttam Kumar and is decorated with his image. (Even more fascinating on the scale of celebrity-inspired behavior is his funeral procession through the city; see footage here [warning: you’ll see his actual face]).

Kumar may have been the driving force behind an entire film industry, but he didn’t act alone. His overall career is inseparable from his work with frequent on-screen romantic partner Suchitra Sen. Though at times I find her performances to fall on the histrionic end of the spectrum of energetic acting, she’s absolutely a force to be reckoned with, and it’s so enjoyable to see a 1950s woman stand up for herself or her values. For every understated mumble by Kumar, Sen responds with glorious drama and heat. His underplay and her fireworks somehow fit together perfectly.

The popularity of their films made them more than co-stars: to this day,  saying “Uttam-Suchitra” is shorthand not just for their filmography of over 30 projects together but also for a genre. Twenty of these films were made in the 1950s, representing the first wave of actors to represent romantic characters who would have become adults in India after its independence in 1947. Scholar Sharmishtha Gooptu writes about how their on-screen stories often have a tension between dramatic, liberating romance and concern for families and conventions. What does it mean to desire or act on freedom while still nurturing some tie to social systems? (Read more in Gooptu’s book Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation).

This tension between rebellion and tradition is perhaps what has attracted Indian filmmakers to It Happened One Night (1934), which, as far as I can tell, is the American film most remade more or less at a film-to-film level in India. There are at least seven versions in four different languages: ​Chori Chori​ (1956), Solva Saal (1958), Suhana Safar (1970), and ​Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahi​ (1991) in Hindi; ​Chandhrodhayam (1966) in Tamil; Hudugaata ​(2007) in Kannada; and this one in Bengali. This extensive list makes it a little tricky to know what film, exactly, someone is remaking; Chaowa Pawa may owe as much to  Chori Chori as it does to IHON.

The film opens with Manju (Sen as the Claudette Colbert equivalent) in capri pants and pigtails chucking porcelain around the room because the servants haven’t gotten the family car ready for her. (So, the least dignified I’ve ever seen her). One of them sneaks off to call her father (Chhabi Biswas, who often plays fathers in these films) to ask how to handle the situation, but sir is busy meeting with the reporters at his newspaper.  One of them is Rajat (Uttam Kumar for Clark Gable), heralded as Bengal’s best news hunter but whose fresh scoop was already printed elsewhere. Boss tells Rajat to pack his things, then stomps home to deal with Manju.

True to the road-trip aspect of IHON, Chaowa Pawa doesn’t let up in energy or emotion until the very end. The conflict stemming from the heroine’s marriage is different from the original: instead of running to her new husband of whom her father disapproves, here she’s trying to escape visiting the family her father wants to marry her into. He forces her to socialize with his choice of groom on her at every opportunity, And this being 1950s India and not pre-Code Hollywood, the couple is not left alone quite as often on their journey back to the big city, nor do they camp out on a farm or use an exposed leg to hitch a ride. But the cycle of obstacles and interferences, including the question of how to manage a shared hotel room or enact convincing versions of married-life arguments, repeats day after day as the feelings and investments between them build, just like the original.

Chloe Angyal makes the point that IHON, filmed during the Great Depression, is unusual among its contemporaries for actually bothering to depict, involve, and humanize the poor. Although many Bengali films of this period do have a strong social angle, including some of Uttam and Suchitra’s films, Chaowa Pawa doesn’t pay particular notice to the non-rich other than as they are represented by Rajat. The third-class train car the two meet in (instead of the night bus)—and their fellow passengers who witness the beginning of this classic match—provides some initial socio-economic context. Manju is disgusted by the circumstances she has put herself in and which Rajat cannot immediately lift her out of, and her new surroundings contrast humorously with her very strong, very proud sense of self.

Their first few nights off the train are spent in a run-down hotel staffed by a very nosy manager, who wants and probably needs the reward money to be given at Manju’s return  as much as Rajat does  but is much less scrupulous about it. Rajat is down on his luck employment-wise, but he’s not scum. He’s also not exactly the poor but noble hero we’ve seen in many other movies; his job makes him too worldly, and his attitude demonstrates plenty of fluency in calling the shots and bossing other people around.

In IHON, Clark Gable says to Claudette Colbert “I guess it would never occur to you to just say, ‘Please mister, I’m in trouble, will you help me?’ No, that would bring you down off your high horse for a minute.” I didn’t catch a similar line in Chaowa Pawa, and in fact Manju asks Rajat for help the very first moment they meet. In this picture, she’s about to tap him on the shoulder to ask for help buying a ticket before the conductor reaches their bench.

The film doesn’t seem interested in using her to talk about humility, and she maintains enough confidence to be perfectly up front about her changing emotions for him and to keep her head high when he pretends he doesn’t reciprocate. She would like his affection, but its lack doesn’t deflate her. Personally, I find the idea of a humility lesson from loud-mouthed heroes who bluff and intimidate other people pretty rich; I’m grateful that this point is not hammered here, and it’s always nice to see a film that doesn’t want to slap its woman down for trusting her gut and making unsanctioned decisions.

Both characters in Chaowa Pawa better each other, and it depicts more mutual growth than IHON does. Real change can come when you interact with people who don’t let you get away with your same old baloney. Rajat shows Manju the value in calming down and thinking before reacting—there’s a marked decrease in shattered teacups—and she shows him that you shouldn’t always run away from what you want.

This is top-notch Uttam-Suchitra chemistry, probably because I always prefer the comedic to the melodramatic. She is tightly wound and suspicious, no doubt because of her father’s sneak attack of engaging her to someone she doesn’t like. He is loose but quick-witted, not letting on that his career is in the toilet and plying old friends and new acquaintances with his nonchalant charm. Look at this image of their first night off the train, about to navigate staying in a hotel together: she’s angry with clenched fists, ready to pounce, and he has his hands in his pockets, waiting out the storm.

They both have so much attitude in the first stages of this film, and as the characters get to know each other the actors appropriately vary what they project, showing vulnerabilities without actually weakening. Both characters have a lot to lose, and I love watching them balance those calculations with their hearts. This is probably my favorite Uttam Kumar performance after Nayak: joking, flirting, scheming, and panicking, all with expert lightness and ease. He tosses off one-liners to the side characters, raises one eyebrow at Sen’s  fits, and gazes wistfully into the evening sky exquisitely, his voice, face, and body all changing from moment to moment. This is movie-star-ing and how.

You can watch Chaowa Pawa online with subtitles for free at this link: https://einthusan.tv/movie/watch/3883/?lang=bengali  

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Beth Watkins has also ridden the rails, but she was traveling from town to town solving mysteries.

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