She is framed within her window, that frame then within the window of her neighbor, the neighbor flanked by his friends as well as framed photos of his relatives, all framed by the camera, the director, the crew, and then ultimately framed by my television screen.
“I feel like I am being stalked,” she says.
Padosan is a movie about looking, viewing, consuming. It is not explicitly about making movies or the creative process (not in the way of, say, a Farah Khan movie), nor does it involve the classic “show withing a show” trope. Besides the obvious audience (those in the theater or at home), much of the movie’s action takes place in front of an audience: a group of friends, the family, people on the street. It’s not just that the characters live in a crowded house (in fact, the heroine’s house is quite spacious) or otherwise like privacy, but that the main characters tend to actively surround themselves. The groups are not audience surrogates, but rather we become part of that group.
The plot is the kind of light comedy that could still be made today: Bhola (Sunil Dutt) falls in love at first sight with Bindu (Saira Banu); she immediately hates him. To win her over, he pretends to be able to sing with his friends’ help (Vidyapathi [Kishore Kumar] sings while Bhola mouths the words; of course, Kumar is simply mouthing the words on the soundtrack; layer upon layer); she agrees to marry him but when she discovers the deception, the wedding is off. Bindu is about to marry another, but Bhola fakes his death, which causes Bindu to declare her love, they immediately marry, happy ending. Almost Shakespearean (Much Ado About Nothing?).
On a purely personal level, I didn’t find the movie that funny (I laughed out loud more during Albela), but I’m not sure it’s really meant to be guffaw-level versus finding the humor in these crazy young people’s escapades (“yeh jawaani hai deewani” repeats the chorus of one song), with a strong strain of “kids these days.” Several scenes felt overly long, with the repetition of the same joke, but again, I think that’s more a stylistic issue (I like modern movies with quick edits) instead of an actual problem.
Stylistically, Padosan is gorgeous, with rich colors, a mod set design, flawless make up and costumes, a fun opening sequence (not animated per se, but with caricatures representing the actors and crew). This is a middle class lifestyle I want to have.
As a piece of transitionary media (moving out of the still very traditional 1950s and into the more permissive 1970s and on), this is a fascinating document.
Bindu is introduced wearing fashionable Western clothes, joyously riding her bike with a large group of friends. The women all cycle through the park, in a variety of clothes and hairstyles. And even a variety of faces; several of the women are even “plain” by modern movie standards. (Elliott Kalan has pointed out that a problem with modern movies is that everyone is beautiful; movies don’t often have real people, even as extras any more.) Bindu gets stuck on Bhola’s fishing line, the women angrily surround him, threatening him.
As is often the case, the casual violence women face is at the edges of the film (the women ready to attack Bhola, Bindu later being genuinely frightened of him). But the women are quick to call it out and defend themselves.
Bhola has recently moved in with his aunt, who is estranged from his uncle. Uncle is named Pratap Singh (Om Prakesh), but Auntie does not get a name. Uncle, despite still being married, is looking for a new young bride. When Bhola explains what is happening to Auntie, she just shrugs and says “that’s how he’s always been.” They do reconcile at the end of the film. On the one hand, I disliked how blase Auntie was about the situation, but on the other hand, I admire her for leaving in the first place. Leaving one’s husband is incredibly difficult, and she lives on her own (with a servant) in a comfortable house.
Bindu happens to live next door with her parents; her bedroom is directly opposite Bhola’s. He talks to her, watches her, spies on her. Bhola is friends with a local theater troupe, and the director, Vidyapathi, realizes that Bindu is in love with her music teacher. . .’s talent. So the he hatches a scheme to make it seem like Bhola can sing.
Bindu seems to be stuck in a rather precarious position. She’s in college, but winds up flunking out. Her parents want her to marry. “It will happen when it’s the right time,” her father says, while her mother is more proactive in wanting to find a matchmaker now. (However, when Bindu says she wants to marry a man of her choice, for love, her parents are incredibly accepting: they just want her to marry!) Bindu flirts with her music teacher, Master Pillai (Mehmood), who is clearly in love with her. Yet she also tends to spurn his advances. Is she shy? Coy? Playing hard to get? Flirting for flirting’s sake? It’s unclear. She herself seems rather lukewarm about marriage.
A distressing plot point is the Slap Incident. Bindu is angry at Bhola and slaps him, leaving a mark. His friends say he shouldn’t put up with that, and he must slap her back. So he stalks her through the street and through the park, hand raised. She walks quickly, peering over her shoulder; she doesn’t know he wants to slap her, but she wants to get away. He catches up to her, and she cries. He picks up a nearby machete (left by an errant gardener) and she sobs, genuinely frightened. He does not slap or otherwise attack her, but the entire scene is distressing.
And often throughout the film, these scenes are watched by others: Bindu and Pillai watched by Bhola and friends, Bindu and Bhola watched by Pillai. Bhola and Pillai engage in a singing competition as Bindu watches; Bhola is accompanies by Vidyapathi as well as his other friends. Bindu discovers Bhola’s deception at her birthday party; her friends look on as Bhola “sings” to her; one realizes something is off and reveals the trick. And in the closing scene, as Bindu cries over Bhola to bring him back to life, the pair are watched by friends and family members.
In many ways, Bindu is simply an object to be looked at (we even see her wet from swimming, enjoying a bubble bath, and in a towel). But everyone in this film is ultimately an object. We live next to and on top of each other, we move through public spaces. We are constantly looking and so are constantly watched.