“Touch of Evil” - Orson Welles (1958)

Orson Welles’s film Touch of Evil holds a special place in the hearts of many film noir enthusiasts as one of the most flamboyant examples of the genre.  In many ways its visual and dramatic extravagance remains uneclipsed even today.  The film was not much of a hit at the box office when it was first released in 1958, due in part to Universal Studios’ cutting down and re-editing the film prior to its release, much against the director’s wishes.  There have been some “restored” versions more appealing to cineastes since then, but even that bastardized first release was widely appreciated in Europe.  It won the International Critics Prize (the top award) at the 1958 Brussels World Film Festival.  Since then, Touch of Evil’s reputation has steadily grown, and it is now ranked as an all-time classic [1,2].  In the British Film Institute’s most recent polls of film directors and critics concerning the all-time greatest films, it was ranked 57th on the BFI’s 2012 Critics’ Poll [3] and 26th on the BFI’s 2012 Directors’ Poll [4].

The story of Touch of Evil, which is loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil (1956) by Whit Masterson, concerns murder and corruption in two adjacent border towns straddling the U.S.-Mexican border.  And besides incorporating the usual noirish equivocations concerning honesty, loyalty, and justice, it also included provocative slants on ethnic and social stereotypes.  Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty told this dark story in a dramatic fashion, with their expressionistic, black-and-white rendering of mostly nocturnal scenes featuring many wide-angled moving-camera shots and quasi-threatening low-angled closeups.

And interestingly for cinema buffs, Welles included a number of famous actors in small roles.  Besides the casting several Welles favorites, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Ray Collins, in small character roles, he also had bit parts for the following well-known faces:
Joseph Cotten, Keenan Wyn, Dennis Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eva Gabor, Mercedes McCambridge, and Marlene Dietrich (!)
But what makes the telling of this complicated tale particularly effective is the way it continually crisscrosses between the narrative threads involving its four principal characters [5].  These four  characters are each almost social stereotypes that symbolize a dramatic theme of the story:
  • Police Captain Hank Quinlan (played by Orson Welles).  He is a crafty but unprincipled cop who will use any means to ensure that the person who his intuition convinces him is guilty will be convicted of the crime.  Although Quinlan, as the main character in this piece, would be expected to embody the highest standards of American justice, he in fact is shady, prejudiced, unscrupulous, and repulsive – the kind of person that simple-minded and prejudiced Americans (you can guess whom I mean) think is common in Mexico.
  • Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston).  He is a highly principled Mexican narcotics officer dedicated to seeing that justice is served in accordance with the full letter of the law.  Mike Vargas is also handsome, romantic, chivalrous and heroic – the kind of person that typical audiences might assume to embody the “American” ideal.
  • “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).  Although he is an American citizen, he is a Mexican gangster and current leader of the Grandi family criminal syndicate.  He is slimy and ruthless, the epitome of the stereotypical Mexican villain.
  • Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh).  She is the newly married American wife of Mike Vargas.  A beautiful and elegant blonde, Susie is probably another, in this case dreamlike, stereotype for a Latin American population (Janet Leigh may have been the ultimate Caucasian beauty icon – she was to serve in a similar role soon in Psycho (1960).)  Like her husband, Susie is loyal, brave, and a believer in justice.  But she also may hold her own personal stereotypical views, as evidenced when she calls a young Mexican man she meets, “Pancho”, which is perhaps an allusion to a character in the popular U.S. television series The Cisco Kid (1950-56).
The film begins with one of greatest-ever opening shots – a more than three-minute crane-and-tracking shot that begins in one country and finishes in another.  It starts with a time-bomb being surreptitiously loaded into the trunk of a car in a Mexican border town and then tracking the car as it is slowly driven through the border control into the U.S.  Midway through the shot, it shifts its focus to a newly married couple, Mike and Susie Vargas, who are walking in the same direction across the border.  When the couple are embracing on the U.S. side of the border, the shot ends with the sound of an explosion.  The time-bomb has gone off, destroying the car and its two occupants, one of whom was a wealthy American, Rudy Linnekar.
So there is a murder case to solve, and Mike Vargas, knowing that the bomb was planted on the Mexican side of the border, feels he has to take part in the investigation.  He sends his wife Susie back across the border to wait in their hotel while he looks into the matter.  This separation of Mike and Susie introduces two parallel narrative threads that will intertwine throughout the rest of the film. 

At the scene of the crime, Police Captain Hank Quinlan shows up to take charge of the investigation.  Quinlan is an obese and disheveled slob with an overbearing personality who relies on his fabled intuition to solve crimes.  He is always attended to by his loyal assistant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), whose life he once saved by taking a bullet intended for Menzies.  In this case Quinlan immediately intuits that sticks of dynamite were used to commit the crime.  He also adopts a scornful, dismissive attitude towards Vargas, whom he considers to be wandering outside his proper jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, as Susie Vargas returns to her hotel, she is accosted by young thugs from the Grandi family who have been sent to her by “Uncle Joe” Grandi.  Joe Grandi’s brother was earlier arrested and is facing trial in Mexico City based on evidence supplied by Mike Vargas, and Joe wants to intimidate Susie into getting her husband to back off from the case. 

So early on we see that Mike Vargas faces two hostile adversaries, one challenging his sense of justice and the other threatening his personal life.  These two parallel struggles will gradually dominate the plot more than the original narrative quest, which was to solve the car-bombing crime.

With their honeymoon plans disrupted, Mike consoles Susie and concedes to her that “all border towns bring out the worst in their country”.  He reminds her of the positive side of things, that the U.S.-Mexico border is “one of the longest borders on earth. . . . an open border”, and he wants to work to keep things that way.  Susie then insists that she wants to stay near her husband while he pursues his investigation on the U.S. side of the border.  So he installs her and leaves her alone in a mostly vacant motel on the U.S. side that is tended by a tremulous night manager (Dennis Weaver). The night manager’s hyper-twitchy behavior only adds to Susie’s, and the viewer’s, nervousness.  Little do they know that this motel is owned by the Grandi gang.

As the car-bombing investigation proceeds, Quinlan identifies a prime suspect: a young man named Sanchez who had just secretly married the victim Rudy Linnekar’s daughter.  But during the search of Sanchez’s apartment, Vargas discovers by accident that the incriminating dynamite sticks that were found there must have been just recently planted there by someone.  He suspects Quinlan of planting the false evidence in order to frame Sanchez.  In fact Vargas begins to wonder if Quinlan has been doing this for years – framing his Mexican suspects with false evidence in order to guarantee criminal convictions.

At this point Grandi privately approaches Quinlan seeking a clandestine alliance.  After all, he tells him, they both need to get rid of their common enemy: Vargas.  Then the scene shifts to Susie Vargas’s motel room, where she is attacked by Grandi family hoods, who then drug her and abduct her to a hotel room across the border.  We can presume that Quinlan has bought into Grandi’s plan to frame the Vargeses as drug pushers and addicts.  Although we know that Mike Vargas is a straight-arrow, the prevailing American prejudice against Mexicans makes Grandi’s plan feasible.

Later that evening we get an insight into what drives Quinlan.  At a bar, a half-drunk Quinlan melancholily talks to his long-time comrade Pete Menzies about his life’s great tragedy.  His wife was strangled thirty years ago, and despite Quinlan’s relentless efforts, he was never able to catch the perpetrator.  And he concedes that strangling is the most effective way to commit a murder, because the murder weapon is so hard to identify.  Since then, he tells Menzies, he has always made sure that no culprit (identified presumably by his intuition) could ever go free.

Unaware of the dire straits his wife is in, Vargas gets access to past court records in order to confirm his belief that Quinlan has been framing people for years by planting evidence that is discovered by his unsuspecting and loyal workmate, Menzies. 

While Vargas is trying to convince Menzies of his boss’s guilt, Quinlan goes to the Mexican hotel room where Grandi is waiting with the drugged Susie Vargas lying passed-out on the bed.  Things have presumably worked out in accordance with their joint plan.  But then Quinlan double-crosses Grandi by strangling him with Susie’s stocking.  The idea is apparently to pin the murder on the presumed drug addict Susie. 

Eventually Menzies becomes convinced of Quinlan’s duplicity.  The key piece of evidence was his finding in the just-seen hotel room Quinlan’s walking cane, which his somewhat inebriated boss had left there.  So Menzies agrees to cooperate with Vargas in order to collect convincing evidence of Quinlan’s guilt. Their plan is to wire Menzies with a hidden microphone that can be used to record self-incriminating comments by the unsuspecting Quinlan, while Vargas will be lurking nearby with a radio-connected tape recorder.  The scene is now set for the famous nighttime tracking sequence, in which Quinlan walks by a canal spouting his customary  contempt to Menzies, with Vargas surreptitiously trailing them at a close distance in the shadows. 

The finals shots are dramatic.  Quinlan’s cunning enables him to figure out that Menzies is bugged to record his voice, and after killing Menzies, he almost saves himself, but not quite.  Vargas winds up with the evidence needed to absolve himself and his wife of any wrongdoing.  At the close, Quinlan’s old flame, the brothel madam Tana (Marlene Dietrich, still looking seductive at the age of fifty-six), is asked if she has any comments on the man she knew, and she says sadly and wearily,
“He was some kind of a man! . . . . What does it matter what you say about people?”
So Touch of Evil was really concerned with the struggle between Quinlan and Vargas, which amounted to a contest between upholding the community-based laws (Vargas) or sidestepping those laws in order to follow one’s selfishly-construed version of what is right (Quinlan).  The original issue of solving the car-bombing crime had faded into the background.  Indeed in the end we learn that Quinlan’s hunch was correct – Sanchez ultimately confessed to the authorities offscreen that he was the one who had put the sticks of dynamite in Linnekar’s car.  But the point is that Quinlan was defying the way the way the legal system is supposed to work by planting false evidence in order to frame his suspect. 

The legal system is one of the four pillars, which I have labeled “RMDL” (the legal system is the ‘L’ in this acronym) [6], of rationalist-based modern societies that have arisen in the last couple of centuries.  And it is the U.S. that is supposed to be the flagship country of this form of government.  So in Touch of Evil the irony – one that jabs at some American ethnic prejudices –  is that it is a U.S. citizen who defies RMDL and a Mexican citizen who staunchly upholds it. 
Welles spins this utterly dark tale in mesmerizing film noir fashion by continually shifting back and forth among his four iconic characters – Quinlan, Mike Vargas, Susie Vargas, and Grandi.  One might criticize that these four characterizations are exaggerated and schematic.  But their emphatic representations are just the right dramatic elements Welles needed to sustain his dark, complex, and expressionistic narrative.

  1. J. Hoberman, “Jokers Wild”, The Village Voice, (15 September 1998).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Touch of Evil (1958)”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com (13 September 1998).     
  3. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).     
  4. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).    
  5. Tim Dirks, “Touch of Evil (1958)”, AMC Filmsite, (n.d.).   
  6. See my discussions of RMDL, which can be accessed by clicking on the tag  “RMDL” under the “LABELS” section of this site. 

“Aparichita”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s story “Aparichita” (“The Unknown Woman” [1], 1916) relates how the course of a young man’s life is fundamentally altered in an unexpected fashion by an “unknown woman”.  This story served as the basis for the 20th episode, “Aparichita” [2], of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu.  Samrat Chakraborty wrote the screenplay and dialogue for this episode, which was directed by Debatma Mandal.

Tagore’s story “Aparichita” is interesting in several respects.  In common with a number of stories in this series and in alignment with a significant Tagorean theme, it features an independent-minded young woman striving to find her way in a traditional male-dominated society.  In particular, aspects of this story hinge on specifics of the way traditional Indian arranged marriages are/were structured.  And although the story concerns a potentially romantic hookup between a man and a woman, it doesn’t evolve the way most such encounters do.

The story is told from the perspective of the young man who meets this unique woman, but there are some significant differences between the way Tagore tells the story and the way Chakraborty and Mandal tell it.  Tagore’s story is a first-person narration, and the events covered are described in a linear  timeline.  However, in this filmed version, the events are dramatized, and their presentation is laced with several flashbacks that may have a confusing effect on the viewer, as I will discuss below.

The story of “Aparichita” in this filmed version passes through six phases in a nonlinear fashion.

1.  On the Train
The story begins with a young man in his early twenties, Anupam (played by Kranri Prakash Jha), who is accompanying his widowed mother on a train to Haridwar.  Anupam is clearly a well-mannered son who is attentive to his mother’s comfort.  While their train is stopped at a station, Anupam hears from his train compartment a young woman, whose name we will later learn is Kalyani (Abigail Pande), outside on the station platform shepherding some young girls in her company as they look for some vacant seats on the train.  In Tagore’s story we are explicitly told that Anupam was bewitched by the mellifluous tones of the young woman’s voice, but in this filmed version we only see his smiling facial expression.  In fact in the story, Tagore expresses his appreciative wonder over the charms of the human voice [1] –
“I have always been fascinated by the human voice. The physical beauty appeals to everyone but to me it is the voice that really conveys the essence of what is unique and elusive in a person.”
– and this concern has some significance in the original story that may be overlooked by viewers of the filmed version.  In any case, the sound of this woman’s voice evidently causes Anupam to ruminate over some events that transpired two years earlier.

2.  Two Years Earlier – Harish Visits
Anupam has recently been graduated from the university, and he is visited by his friend (and perhaps cousin) Harish (Asim Ahmed) from Kanpur.  Hamish, after cordially scolding Anupam for not having the gumption to find a suitable wife for himself, informs his friend that he has found an ideal marriage candidate for him.  The girl’s name is Kalyani, and she is the only child of businessman Shambhunath Sen in Kanpur.  After getting Anupam’s consent, Harish approaches Anupam’s young uncle Ajit (Harsh Khurana), who is now the head of his mother’s household, to agree to arrange for the marriage between Anupam and Kalyani.  We see quickly that even though Ajit is only about thirty years old, he is an assertive and prideful man and that the respectful Anupam is always obedient to his demands.  As with many traditional Indian families, Ajit is not concerned whether Anupam and Kalyani are a good  match but instead whether the two families are a good match, i.e. whether the Sen family is worthy of being conjoined with their family.  So Ajit sends Anupam’s older brother Vinod to Kanpur in order to inspect the Sen family.

While Vinod is visiting the Sen family in Kanpur, Anupam calls up their residence to speak to his brother, and we see a young lady, presumably Kalyani, answer the phone.  At this point the viewer can see what Anupam can’t – what Kalyani looks like and that she is the same woman that Anupam would encounter two years later on the train.  In fact given the rigidity of Hindu Indian marriage arrangements, the lesser commonality of photographs at that time, and Anupam’s subservience, he is unable to see what Kalyani looks like until the actual marriage ceremony, itself. 

Note that this early connection between marriage candidate Kalyani and the unknown woman on the train is something that was not made in Tagore’s story, which followed a linear timeline.  Connecting the two of them at this point early in the film was an aesthetic decision on the part of the filmmakers that, similar to Random Harvest (1942), had dramatic tradeoffs that you may question (although the filmmakers of Random Harvest hardly had a choice in this matter). 

3.  On the Train (again)
Back on the train again two years later, Anupam can be seen overhearing with pleasure the chatter from the next train compartment, where the unknown woman (Kalyani) has found empty seats for herself and the young girls in her company.  Anupam would like to talk to them, but he is too timid to knock on their door.  It doesn’t matter, because after awhile Kalyani and her girls are dispossessed of their seats by people who have reserved them, and Kalyani asks Anupam’s mother if she and her girls can move into their compartment.  Anupam’s mother cordially informs her that she and Anupam have reserved the entire compartment for themselves and that Kalyani and her girls are welcome to join them. 

4.  Two Years Earlier – the Wedding
Continuing the narrative thread of two year earlier, Vinod reports back to Ajit that the Sen family is acceptably humble and that, as per his instructions from Ajit, he has gotten Shambhunath Sen (Kali Prasad Mukherjee) to agree to all their demands, since the bride’s family must host the wedding ceremony.  The wedding arrangements proceed as planned.  However, just before the actual ceremony, Ajit tells Shambhunath Sen that he wants his own goldsmith to assess the true value Kalyani’s wedding jewels, which are part of the bride’s dowry.  Naturally, Shambhunath Sen is silently offended, but he agrees to go ahead with the inspection if Anupam is in agreement with Ajit’s intentions.  Anupam is summoned and as usual quietly expresses his submissive assent to Ajit’s  inspection. 

The inspection goes ahead, and the bride’s jewelry is confirmed by the goldsmith to be authentic and of a high standard.  Then Shambhunath Sen unexpectedly feeds a dinner to all the wedding guests and afterwards informs everyone that the wedding is cancelled.  He will not have his daughter wedded to a family that thinks her father could be a swindler.  Ajit is furious and vows revenge.  And Anupam has still not set sight on Kalyani – he still doesn’t know what she looks like.  So it is finally clear to the viewer why Anupam doesn’t recognize Kalyani later on the train.

5.  On the Train (once again)
Returning to the later narrative thread on the train, we see Anupam again charmed to listen to Kalyani read fairy tales to the young girls who are with her.  But then at a train stop they are confronted by two pushy male British passengers who demand possession of their train compartment and order them to vacate.  Anupam is timidly ready to submit to their demands, but Kalyani refuses to budge, insisting that they have the legal right to remain in their compartment.  After a brief standoff, the insolent British passengers give way, and Kalyani triumphantly returns to her seat. 

This is a seminal moment in the story, because it delineates a fundamental difference between Anupam and Kalyani.  While Anupam is respectful and genteel, he is too timid to stand up for what is right.  Kalyani, on the other hand is a principled idealist and will fight for what is right.  Impressed by Kalyani’s brave stand, Anupam’s mother asks her name, and she replies that she is Kalyani, daughter of Shambhunath Sen from Kanpur.  It is at this point that Anupam finally learns that this charming woman is the person he was supposed to marry two years earlier.

6.  Two Weeks Later
Hoping to rectify his past errors, Anupam approaches Shambhunath Sen and begs his forgiveness.  He says that he has long since disconnected himself from his pride-hungry uncle Ajit and that he really wants to marry Kalyani.  Shambhunath Sen says he has no objection, but the decision is really up to Kalyani.

When Anupam approaches Kalyani, she courteously tells him that he just wants to assuage his guilt feelings and that he should forget about her.  She flatly rejects his renewed marriage proposal.  In fact, she tells him, their earlier marriage fiasco was a blessing in disguise for her.  It allowed her to discover something that would give true meaning to her life – a career devoted to educating young orphan girls.

The final scene shows Anupam writing a letter to his friend Harish.  He tells him that he is now working in Allahabad supporting Kalyani’s efforts to launch a school there for orphan girls.  He adds further:
“Kalyani can never be mine.  The two banks of a river can never meet.  But they can at least move together.  I just want to be a small part of Kalyani’s big dream.”
So the story ends on a curiously positive note.  What the rudderless Anupam needed was not a traditional wife, but a person who could inspire his basically well-intentioned self to take the bit between his teeth and positively engage in a meaningful mission, one based on the idealistic principles that his new life’s guide, Kalyani, believes in.

This episode is interesting and well-made, with excellent dramatic performances by all.  However, as I mentioned above, it would have been good if the filmmakers had placed more of an emphasis, as did Tagore’s original story, on the engaging effects of Kalyani’s sweet-sounding voice on Anupam’s soul.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “Aparichita” (1916), (trans. by Meenakshi Mukherjee ,1992), Scribd.  
  2. Durga S, “The Happy Endings – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (10)”, Writersbrew, (27 March 2016).   

“Two Sisters”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Sachin Deo (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s story/novella “Dui Bon” (“Two Sisters” [1], 1933) shows two contrasting womanly ways of relating to men, and in this tale one man experiences both types.  This story served as the basis for the 17th and 18th episodes, “Two Sisters”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu.  Basu wrote the screenplay and dialogue for these two episodes, which were both directed by Sachin Deo.

Tagore wrote a number of stories that sensitively considered man-woman relationships, at least partially and often substantially, from the woman’s perspective, and several of them are included in this series.  In “The Broken Nest” (“Nastanirh”), a young wife is faced with the attentions of two men, her husband and his cousin.  Here in “Two Sisters”, the roles are reversed, and a married man must choose between his wife and her sister.

The two sisters featured in this story each embody one of the two different ways that Tagore mentions at the story’s outset by which women may care for the men they are attached to:
  • the Maternal type.  They want to satisfy all the needs of the men they care for.  This means looking after every last detail of their beloved’s lives and nurturing them with loving concern.
  • the Lover type.  They want to dance endlessly with their beloved.  This means being a constant companion and playmate in the never-ending journey through life’s wonders.
Of course, most men would like to find a woman who combines both of these types, but that is extremely difficult.

The story of “Two Sisters” is concerned with four principal characters, each of whom is distinctly profiled:
  • Shashaank (played by Bhanu Uday Singh) is a young engineer working for a British-owned company.  He is friendly and cooperative, but he is also self-indulgent and rarely looks beyond the horizon of his own selfish concerns.
  • Sharmila (Shreye Narayan) is the daughter of a now-deceased wealthy zamindar, Ram Mohan, and is Shashaank’s loving wife.  She is the epitome of the aforementioned maternal type and devotes herself round-the-clock to looking after her self-absorbed husband’s every need.
  • Urmimala, or “Urmi”, (Jayashree Venketaramanan) is Sharmila’s younger sister and is studying to be a medical doctor.  She is an instance of the lover type – expressive, fun-loving, and eager to engage in playful interactions with like-minded men.
  • Nirad (Abhishek Narat) was a long-time friend and medical-studies schoolmate of Sharmila’s and Urmi’s recently deceased brother, Hemant.  Ram Mohan had established a hospital to help the needy, and he had wanted Hemant to run it in the future.  But after Hemant’s death, Ram Mohan chose Nirad to be the future manager of the hospital, and to secure that scheme and make Nirad a virtual family member, he had arranged for Nirad and Urmi to be betrothed.  Like Shashaank, Nirad is also self-absorbed, but in other respects the two men are quite different.  Unlike the ebullient but neglectful Shashaank, Nirad is dry, rigorous, and pedantic.  And Nirad is also totally self-reliant and doesn’t need to be looked after like Shashaank does.
In Tagore’s original story, each of these mental dispositions is explicitly articulated, and I consider that to be a strong tenor of the story [1].  However, in this filmed version of the story, Basu has largely eschewed such explicit exposition, and he reveals the characters’ inner landscapes more through their behavior that is shown [2].  This is a major difference and a somewhat risky divergence, but I think Basu and Deo manage to pull things off pretty well.  There are also some other narrative differences between this filmed version and Tagore’s original story which I will mention further on.

The 17th episode of the series, and the first half of this story, begins with some background material concerning the four main characters.  They live in their quarters at the lavish zamindar estate, where their upscale lifestyle is clearly in evidence, and we see that the main characters are all fluent in English.  Sharmila is shown constantly mothering the spoiled Shashaank at home, to the point where Shashaank sometimes complains he is being smothered by her affection.  And opposites Nirad and Shashaank clearly don’t like each other, but they are civil towards each other when they are in each other’s presence.  We also see that Sharmila is starting to suffer from dizzy spells and is perhaps showing the initial signs of a serious illness.

Then Nirad gets word that he has been admitted for professional medical study at Bristol Medical College in London, and he informs Urmi that he will go there alone to study.  Meanwhile Shashaank, who had been anticipating his promotion to chief engineer at his company, is disgruntled to learn that he has been passed over.  Sharmila, mindful of her husband’s wounded pride, strongly urges him to quit his job and find another one.  To facilitate this move, she secretly uses her own personal, inherited wealth to arrange with her uncle Bimal for Shashaank to team up with Bimal in a joint business venture.  When he is informed of this deal, Shashaank reluctantly agrees to it; but once he starts working on the new project he feels that his pride is at stake, and Shashaank devotes himself to the new work as a workaholic.  He spends most of his time working in his office.  Shashaank’s hard work, though, is paying off, and he proudly announces that he has made enough profit to pay off Sharmila’s investment.  So now we have the two men, Nirad and Shashaank, totally focused on their own careers and neglectful of their women partners.

However, Sharmila’s medical condition worsens, and she becomes basically bedridden.  So her sister Urmi comes to her household to look after her and her household duties. This means that we now have Sharmila, Shashaank, and Urmi living in the same quarters, and this gives Urmi and work-preoccupied Shashaank occasional opportunities to interact.

As we move to the 18th episode of the series, there is further coverage of those scant opportunities when Urmi and her workaholic brother-in-law Shashaank can interact alone together, and it can be seen that their similar fun-loving dispositions match well together.  For entertainment Urmi gets Shashaank to take her out to the theater and other places, and it can be seen that they enjoy each others’ company.  When Urmi gets a letter from Nirad informing her that he is going to pursue further medical studies in England and that he now intends to marry an English girl that he has met, thereby breaking off his engagement with Urmi, she just laughs it off.  She is happy with her current preoccupations with Shashaank and Sharmila.

Sharmila watches this budding relationship between Shashaank and Urmi with mixed emotions.  As always, she wants what is best for her loved ones.  Then she gets the shattering news from her doctor that she is terminally ill and may have only weeks to live.  So she urges Shashaank to take Urmi for a brief vacation to Baralpur for a few days.  While there, Shashaank and Urmi, increasingly attracted to each other, share a kiss.  And when they return to their estate home, they surreptitiously spend the night together in bed.

Aware of what is happening, Sharmila is tearful.  And then she gets the further disturbing news from her uncle Bimal that during the time Urmi has been living with them, Shashaank has been totally neglecting his work responsibilities, and that their joint business is now bankrupt and hopelessly in debt.  So Sharmila uses all her remaining wealth to repay Shashaank’s business losses and restore the viability of his business.

Then Sharmila gets Shashaank and Urmi to take her before the idol of Kali at the family temple so that she get them to accept her self-sacrificingly loving and maternal vow.  She tells them:
“Goddess Kali did not make me fit for you.  I did what I could do.  I tried a lot and sometimes I overdid it.  I have made many mistakes, Shashaank. . . . Til today Goddess has never refused anything to me.  I request that even you both will not refuse me the promise that I am going to take from you.   Don’t refuse . . . This is my last wish.   If after my death you both stay together, then I will be able to die peacefully.  Whatever you did not get from me is there in Urmi.  Urmi will not let you feel my absence.”
Then Sharmila tells them that as long as she is still alive, they should live together as a ménage à trois.  Urmi and Shashaank remain shamefully silent and then separately go to their own rooms to think about what to do.

Ultimately, Shashaank vows to stay monogamously with Sharmila and make a personal and concerted effort to nurse her back to health.  Meanwhile Urmi departs silently and leaves Shashaank and Sharmila with good-bye letters.  In her letters she tells them that she is going abroad to diligently study medicine and that she will devote herself to living up to Sharmila’s high standards of loving compassion.  So both Urmi and Shashaank, now going their separate ways, have finally been changed for the better by experiencing the depths of Sharmila’s maternally loving nature.

I should emphasize that this is not so much of a moral tale as it is a narrative exploration of the nature of love.  Even so, there are some significant differences between this filmed version and Tagore’s original story (at least as I read it in English translation [1]).  For one thing, in Tagore’s story the relationship between Shashaank and Urmi never becomes explicitly amorous, as it does in this filmed version.  In addition, in Tagore’s story there is an indication near the end that Sharmila has been given a miraculous medication and that she will make a recovery.  This, of course, offers an altered perspective with respect to how we view the future of Shashaank and Sharmila.  In this connection, there is a key moment late in Tagore’s story, but not present in the filmed version, when Sharmila vows to learn more about her husband’s routine engineering and business activities.  This suggests that she will in the future try to be more of a loving companion.  So at the end of Tagore’s tale, there is a promised coming together of the two womanly types – the lover Urmi vows to be more maternal, and the maternal Sharmila vows to be more of a lover.  This optimistic symmetrical assimilation of virtues at the close of Tagore’s story is missing from the filmed version.

Overall, though, and despite deficient English subtitling once again (they are often held too briefly onscreen), the production values of this filmed version are excellent.  In particular, I would like to call attention to the fine acting, especially that of Shreye Narayan in the role of Sharmila, as well as the atmospheric music and Raja Satankar’s superb cinematography.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Two Sisters: Rabindranath Tagore”, (1933), (trans. by Arunava Sinha, 10 August 2012), Translations – translations of contemporary, modern and classic bengali fiction and poetry by arunava sinha.       
  2. Durga S, “Dui Bon (Two sisters) – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (7)”, Writersbrew, (15 February 2016).   

Robert Benton

Films of Robert Benton:

“Kramer vs. Kramer” - Robert Benton (1979)

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is considered by many to be an outstanding courtroom drama, and indeed the American Film Institute has ranked the film as the 3rd greatest courtroom drama of all time [1].  But in my view the courtroom does not really lie at the heart of this film, and in fact the legal court procedures do not so much serve as an instrument of justice here, but are instead more an instrument in support of self-discovery.  And it is the subtlety and depth of this discovery, about what it means to love your own child, that makes this a memorable film. 

Certainly, for whatever reasons, the film, which was based on Avery Corman’s novel Kramer vs. Kramer (1977) and adapted for the screen by writer-director Robert Benton, was very well-received in all quarters.  It was a hit at the box office and received five Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), and Best Adapted Screenplay.  And it was nominated for four other Oscars – for Best Supporting Actor (Justin Henry), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander), Best Cinematography (Néstor Almendros), and Best Film Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg).  Cinematographer Néstor Almendros, by the way, was already well-known in Europe for his excellent camera work for Francois Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and Terence Malick, and it was he who recommended to the producers that Robert Benton, famous for having co-scripted Bonnie and Clyde (1967), be hired to direct Kramer vs. Kramer.

The story of Kramer vs. Kramer concerns and focalizes on a nuclear family in conflict, and one of the things that makes this story special is that all the sides of this conflict are shown with relatively equal sympathy [2].  These are real, complex people, and there are no obvious villains here.   The three family members are:
  • Ted Kramer (played by Dustin Hoffman), an ambitious and hardworking art director for a New York advertising firm. 
  • Joanna Kramer (played by Meryl Streep, in perhaps her first major film role) is Ted’s soft-spoken but frustrated housewife.
  • Billy Kramer (Justin Henry) is the Kramers’ six-year-old son.
As we watch the story about Ted, Joanna, and Billy unfold, we can sympathize with them all and recognize a bit of ourselves in each of them.

The film begins with Joanna sadly kissing Billy goodnight and whispering to her sleepy son that she will always love him.  Then Ted comes home late from the office and excited that he has just been promoted by his firm to take over their biggest advertising account.  He is so preoccupied with this promotion that he barely hears her when she tells him she is leaving him and Billy.  We are given no backstory about what precipitated this shocking announcement, but we can guess.  Joanna, a Smith College alumna, feels neglected by her work-obsessed husband and seeks something more fulfilling in life than just being a stay-at-home housewife.

So right away Ted’s life is thrown into turmoil.  He will immediately have to take over all the parenting responsibilities for Billy while still attending to his overloaded work schedule.  With Joanna now out of the picture, the next hour of the film is devoted to covering the ill-prepared Ted’s assumption of his heretofore neglected fatherly duties.

We can see how much he had left parenting up to Joanna when we watch him hurriedly taking Billy to school and asking him along the way what grade he is in.  Ted also doesn’t know how to maintain an even disciplinary keel in the domestic household.  Sometimes he tries to be Billy’s buddy, as if the two of them are equals; while at other times he loses his temper when the young boy makes relatively innocent mistakes, like accidentally spilling a drink over Ted’s office papers.  Ted is clearly a well-meaning but novice parent, and he is shown making the kinds of mistakes that almost all novice parents tend to make.

But time passes, and over the succeeding months Ted begins little by little to show more patience and loving attention to Billy.  And these segments are the most heartwarming parts of the film, with outstandingly nuanced portrayals showing this coming together by Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry, as Ted and Billy.  One of the best sequences is the one showing Ted carefully and earnestly showing Billy how to ride a bicycle for the first time.  When Billy finally succeeds in cycling on his own without support, Ted is overjoyed. 

Along the way, Ted befriends his wife’s friend Margaret (Jane Alexander), who is also a single parent.  But there is no suggestion of a budding romantic attachment between these two.  They are merely sharing the joys parenthood with each other. One afternoon, though, while they are both watching their kids play in the park, Ted is horrified to see Billy fall from the park’s junglegym and sustain a serious head injury.  He immediately picks him up and runs frantically through the streets in order to get him to a hospital emergency room, where he lovingly caresses him while the doctor gives him emergency treatment.

Meanwhile all this increased devotion to parenting his son, including attending school functions and PTA meetings, is taking a toll on Ted’s demanding workload at the ad agency.  He finds himself arriving late to crucial meetings and generally disappointing his superiors.

Then another complication arises.  After fifteen months of absence, Joanna returns to New York and seeks custody of Billy.  She says she is now cured of her depression, has secured a high-paying job (one that even has a higher annual salary than Ted's), and wants to return to being Billy’s mother.  But Ted has changed during this time, too.  He has become a loving and devoted father, and he is unwilling to give up custody of Billy.  So the eponymous court proceedings are set in motion.

Ted’s fortunes receive another serious setback when he is suddenly fired from his job at the ad agency.  Knowing full well that he has no hope at all of holding onto custody of Billy if he is unemployed, Ted immediately launches an intense and desperate search for a new job, any job, even though it is now in the midst of the Christmas holiday season. 

The viewer’s sympathies may be pulled in different directions at this point.  We have been watching Ted transform into a truly loving father.  But Joanna seems sincerely devoted, too.  And Billy is overjoyed to see his mom again.  We presumably would like to see an outcome that is best for Billy, but what would that be?  We might think that Billy, still only seven years old, needs his mother.  But, after all, she already walked out on him once, and how do we know something like that won’t happen again?

The ensuing court case is arduous and full of acrimony, with intense cross-examinations, but it seems realistic to me.  During the proceedings both Ted and Joanna come to learn things about each other that they never knew during their eight years of marriage.  They come to see each other in a deeper and more appreciative light, and the way these revelations are brought about in court are another strong aspect of the film.

In the end the court magistrate goes along with conventional social attitudes that a young boy needs to be with his mother, and Ted loses the custody case.  Billy is to be handed over to Joanna.  But the film doesn’t end with that verdict, and when the handover is to take place, a more heartfelt arrangement is finally achieved.  No, the film doesn’t succumb to the sentimental notion of Ted and Joanna getting back together again, but it does wind up on a positive note that is likely to satisfy the viewer.
Kramer vs. Kramer is a story about love, but not one about romantic love.  The beauty that is shown here has nothing to do with the glamorous or the erotic.  What is explored here in this film is deep parental and filial love, and it is eloquently portrayed by all the principal performers in this film.  They were all nominated for Oscars (this may have been Dustin Hoffman’s most subtle performance), but, to me, one of the most astonishing performances was that of the young Justin Henry as Billy Kramer.  His emotive performance seemed utterly genuine.  How could such a young boy “know” (or be coached to show) how to act so well?

  1. “AFI's 10 Top 10", Wikipedia, (9 December 2018).  
  2. Roger Ebert, “Kramer vs. Kramer”, RogerEbert.com, (1 December 1979).