books to film

Book versus movie: Basu Chatterjee’s adaptation of ‘Swami’ has an edge in the form of Shabana Azmi

The 1977 movie, based on the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhayay short story, is less exacting than the literary source but also more affecting.

For over 60 years, the novels and short stories of renowned Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhayay have been adapted for screen in a host of regional languages besides Bengali.

In 1977, an engaging Hindi adaptation of the short story Swami (Husband) won the National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment as well as Filmfare awards for Best Director (Basu Chatterjee), Best Actress (Shabana Azmi) and two Filmfare nominations for singers Lata Mangeshkar and Yesudas.

Swami is set in Bengal around the 1900s – possibly before the Sarda Act of 1929 that restricted, if not prohibited, the practice of child marriage. Thanks to a forward thinking agnostic maternal uncle, 19-year-old Soudamini (the name means lightning) is still a college student. Influenced greatly by her uncle, she learns to value literature and logic over the rituals and traditions favoured by her widowed mother. Adding to her mother’s displeasure, Soudamini develops an intimacy with Naren, a rich neighbour’s educated son.

Fate takes over. Soudamini’s uncle dies suddenly of a heart attack and Soudamini is married off to Ghanshyam, a middle-aged widower from a neighbouring village. Ghanshyam is a wheat dealer, as far from reading Hardy and Tolstoy as Soudamini is from coping with Ghanshyam’s bloodsucking brood – his stepmother, her widowed daughter and her much fussed over married son, Nikhil.

Even six months later, the tittered truth is that Soudamini does not sleep with Ghanshyam and that Ghanshyam, the chief bread winner of the family, is still trying to appease his petulant young wife. A lesser known truth is that Soudamini is learning to respect her mild mannered husband who sees the meanness in his family but does not succumb to it.

Shabana Azmi and Girish Karnad in Swami (1977).
Shabana Azmi and Girish Karnad in Swami (1977).

Out of the blue, Naren arrives at Ghanshyam’s house as Nikhil’s guest. At an ill-timed moment, he is caught in the act of kissing Soudamini’s hand through the bars of a low window. Embarrassment for the one-time lovers is followed by a humiliating showdown for Soudamini in Ghanshyam’s absence. Naren makes a hasty exit but returns a few days later to whisk Soudamini away. A week of confused and surprisingly sexless struggle ensues in a small room that Naren rents. When Ghanshyam learns of Soudamini’s plight and whereabouts, he arrives to take her back home.There are no no accusations, no insinuations and no questions. Even after her foolhardy transgressions, Ghanshyam is ready to accept Soudamini as his wife.

The story is narrated in first person by the guilt-ridden Soudamini speaking of herself being not as brilliant or beautiful as lightning but just as destructive.

Basu Chatterjee’s film is less exacting than Chattopadhayay’s story. Tedious litanies of self reproach are done away with, and the film is structured as a single unbroken flashback. The characters are as one dimensional as they are perceived by Soudamini in the text but on screen they are given more scope.

The minor change of an overweight step sister instead of a widowed one whom no one will marry brings on an exaggerated scene or two, but a sharper departure from the text lies in expunging the week that Naren and Soudamini spend together. This spares the film additional length, but it denies the complete understanding of Soudamini’s anguish and self flagellation.

Shabana Azmi in Swami (1977).
Shabana Azmi in Swami (1977).

The first part of the film is the most appealing. The interior sets are simple and intimate while windy terraces, rain-washed trees and a swirling rivulet reflect inner turmoils. Soudamini (a high-spirited Shabana Azmi looking her loveliest) and her uncle (Utpal Dutt in a familiar and endearing cameo) have some delightful exchanges conveyed through Manu Bhandari’s well translated dialogue.

The now iconic Azmi has often spoken of her early career anxieties. “I was very self conscious about my buck teeth and would keep covering my mouth when I smiled,” she said in an interview. Ironically enough, these self-conscious smiles work perfectly for Soudamini as she daydreams of Naren (Vikram) and later when she acknowledges Ghanshyam’s shy attempts to win her over.

The wedding of Soudamini with Ghanshyam (played sensitively by Girish Karnad) is the turning point of the story and the film. An unremarkable depiction of a marriage ceremony and Mini’s departure from the village is made poignant through Kishore Kumar’s Yaadon Mein Woh. Although not nominated, this song has lived on as the film’s most popular track.

Yaadon Mein Woh from Swami (1977).

Indian cinema has witnessed many female characters who declare the last straw, pack up and stomp out of a marriage in less than a second. Azmi’s Soudamini shows how such a hackneyed scene can be played with nuance, energy and skill. She tightens her mouth, grabs her trunk, hoists it on the bed and jerks it open. Drawing in a tremulous lower lip she quaveringly announces to the world that she has been belittled enough. An unstoppable rant of self pity spills forth as she yanks open her cupboard, clutches a few sarees and violently tosses them into the trunk. The lid slams down but she has already whirled around to the cupboard again. The pallu of her saree slips from her shoulder. She whips it back up. Still carping, she reopens the trunk, juggles in a few more items of clothing and rams down the lid. In a single precise action, she swings the trunk off the bed and sweeps out of the room, taking every bit of audience sympathy with her.

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Advice from an ex-robber on how to keep your home safe

Tips on a more hands-on approach of keeping your house secure.

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1. Get inside the mind of a burglar

Before I break the lock of a home, first I bolt the doors of the neighbouring homes. So that, even if someone hears some noise, they can’t come to help.

— Som Pashar, committed nearly 100 robberies.

Burglars study the neighbourhood to keep a check on the ins and outs of residents and target homes that can be easily accessed. Understanding how the mind of a burglar works might give insights that can be used to ward off such danger. For instance, burglars judge a house by its front doors. A house with a sturdy door, secured by an alarm system or an intimidating lock, doesn’t end up on the burglar’s target list. Upgrade the locks on your doors to the latest technology to leave a strong impression.

Here are the videos of 3 reformed robbers talking about their modus operandi and what discouraged them from robbing a house, to give you some ideas on reinforcing your home.


2. Survey your house from inside out to scout out weaknesses

Whether it’s a dodgy back door, a misaligned window in your parent’s room or the easily accessible balcony of your kid’s room, identify signs of weakness in your home and fix them. Any sign of neglect can give burglars the idea that the house can be easily robbed because of lax internal security.

3. Think like Kevin McCallister from Home Alone

You don’t need to plant intricate booby traps like the ones in the Home Alone movies, but try to stay one step ahead of thieves. Keep your car keys on your bed-stand in the night so that you can activate the car alarm in case of unwanted visitors. When out on a vacation, convince the burglars that the house is not empty by using smart light bulbs that can be remotely controlled and switched on at night. Make sure that your newspapers don’t pile up in front of the main-door (a clear indication that the house is empty).

4. Protect your home from the outside

Collaborate with your neighbours to increase the lighting around your house and on the street – a well-lit neighbourhood makes it difficult for burglars to get-away, deterring them from targeting the area. Make sure that the police verification of your hired help is done and that he/she is trustworthy.

While many of us take home security for granted, it’s important to be proactive to eliminate even the slight chance of a robbery. As the above videos show, robbers come up with ingenious ways to break in to homes. So, take their advice and invest in a good set of locks to protect your doors. Godrej Locks offer a range of innovative locks that are un-pickable and un-duplicable. To secure your house, see here.

The article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Godrej Locks and not by the Scroll editorial team.