“The Householder” - James Ivory (1963)

Sometimes an epiphanous moment can elevate what was otherwise merely a good film to the level of greatness. So it was, with a scene near the close, for The Householder (1963), a contemporary domestic drama set in Delhi. The film tells the story of how a young man and woman, brought together in an arranged marriage, try to come to terms with being on their own in the big city. I will come to that epiphany-inducing scene later.

This work is notable for being the first collaboration of the famed Merchant-Ivory production team, whose eclectic background comprised
  • James Ivory, an American-born film director who originally started making documentaries.
  • Ismail Merchant, an Indian Muslim film producer. 
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a woman novelist of German Jewish parentage who was born Ruth Prawer, but who took on her husband’s name when she married Parsi Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala and moved to India in 1951.
At this point Merchant and Ivory, who had first met in 1959, were just starting out, and they were looking for a suitable script to make their first feature film together.  They enlisted actress Leela Naidu for one project, but their financial backers did not like their film script and dropped the project.  Then Ms. Naidu suggested to Merchant and Ivory that they try making a film of a novel that she liked, The Householder; and so they approached the novel’s author, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, which was the initiation of their long partnership [1].

Actually this initial Merchant-Ivory outing bears more similarities to Satyajit Ray’s cinematic work than it does to later Merchant-Ivory offerings – and no wonder.  Satyajit Ray, who was already more experienced and established than the fledgling Ivory-Merchant team, was a major contributor and influence on the film’s production.  Ray essentially acted as a mentor for Ivory and Merchant, loaning them his cameraman, Subrata Mitra, as well as some of his stock actors. In addition, Ray, who was an accomplished musician and composer, took charge of the music production and enlisted the services of famed sarod musician Ali Akbar Khan. In the end, Ray also re-edited the final version of the film.  So the Satyajit-Ray feel to The Householder is certainly no accident, and we might consider Ray to be a contributing auteur.

Above and beyond these valuable production values, though, is what I think is the most important virtue of this film: the sensitive acting on the part of the principal characters.  To this end, Ivory was fortunate to have at his disposal some experienced acting talent, notably:
  • Shashi Kapoor, who plays the young husband, Prem Sagar.  Shashi Kapoor came from an almost dynastic Indian cinema family, which included his acclaimed brother, actor-director Raj Kapoor.
  • Leela Naidu plays Indu, Prem’s wife.  In 1954 at the age of fourteen, she had been crowned  Femina Miss India – the Indian candidate for the Miss Universe contest – and had been listed by Vogue magazine as one of the ten most beautiful women in the world [1].
  • In addition there were several supporting players who were well-established and long-serving actors in Indian cinema and who added dramatic emphasis to their roles:
    • Durga Khote, who plays Prem's domineering mother,
    • Achla Sachdev, who plays the landlord’s wife, Mrs. Saigal, and
    • Harindranath Chattopadhyay, who plays Prem’s self-serving senior colleague, Mr. Channa.
The most important elements of all, though, were the performances of Kapoor and Naidu. They make this film what it is.  Note that the contrast between the acting styles of these performers is what makes this film particularly effective. While the older performers (such as Khote, Sachdev, and Chattopadhyay) are emphatic and theatrical, the younger leads (Kapoor and Naidu) are subtly withdrawn and more sensitive. As the characters played by Kapoor and Naidu find themselves dominated in situations in which they don’t know how to react, they often remain silent – but they express themselves by subtle glances and expressions to which the viewer increasingly becomes attuned.  I believe that it is this delicate dimension of expression, as manipulated by Ivory and the performers, that makes the film outstanding.

At the outset, the viewer is presented with verses 87 and 89 from Chapter VI of The Laws of Manu (Manusmrti) that reflect ancient Vedic wisdom dating back some 3,000 years concerning the four ordained stages of a man’s life [2]:               
“The student, the householder, the hermit, and the ascetic, these constitute four separate orders, which all spring from the order of householders.” (verse 87)
“And in accordance with the precepts of the Veda and of the Smriti, the householder is declared to be superior to all of them; for he supports the other three.” (verse 89)
The story begins with Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and Indu (Leela Naidu) attending the wedding of one of Prem’s colleague’s brothers.  As Prem looks at the groom, on whose sullen brow appears to rest the heavy weight of Indian tradition associated with his arranged marriage, Prem reflects on his own experience of an arranged marriage over the past year, and he lapses into an extended flashback that constitutes the bulk of the film.

Prem is shown as a junior teacher at a small urban college.  He is barely able to control his unruly students, and he is intimidated by the college’s domineering principal, Mr. Khanna, who is often accompanied by the sycophantic senior teacher, Mr. Channa. At home, Prem gets no comfort from his new wife, whom he did not apparently choose and whom he barely knows. He is frustrated to see his idle wife, who has no domestic skills, laze about all day, while he is busy working for his miserably low salary of 180 rupees per month.

For her part, Indu is bored, and she, like Prem, looks back on her teenage years when she could frolic about with her friends and have all her needs catered for.  When Prem and Indu attend a faculty tea party hosted by Mr.  and Mrs. Khanna, Prem is humiliated in front of his colleagues to see his wife uncouthly gorging herself on sweets at the table, while the other ladies look on disapprovingly. 

Prem’s dissatisfaction is getting clearly laid out.  He frets about having no money.  He is insecure about his job.  And he gets no satisfaction from his wife, who is like a stranger to him.   Much of the ensuing focalization of the film is centered on Prem and his frustrations in these areas.

Soon Prem is faced with a further problem – he learns that Indu is pregnant.  When he complains that he cannot afford another mouth to feed, Indu becomes angry and says she will return home to her family.  So as a householder Prem is unable to manage all the circumstances around him – his professional life at the college, his finances, and his wife.  To help deal with the latter problem, he sends a message for his mother in his remote home town to come to live with them in Delhi during his wife’s pregnancy.

As soon as Prem’s mother (Durga Khote) shows up, however, things become worse. The mother is possessive about Prem and highly critical of her new daughter-in-law’s domestic capabilities. Soon Prem is unsuccessfully trying to serve as a neutral moderator between the two feuding ladies. Hoping to mollify Indu, he buys her a nice saree, but when he arrives home, he discovers that she had become fed up, packed her bags, and left for her parent’s home.

Weeks go by, and despite their past quarreling, Prem realizes that he misses his absent wife.  He prepares a letter to her (it’s not clear whether he actually sends it):
“Why did you go away?  What hurt did I do that you had to go away from me?  When are you coming back?  Already you have been gone three weeks."
Bewildered by how to cope with his new life, Prem seeks counsel from friends concerning how to get a pay raise and how to deal with married life.  An older, married pal, Raj, tells him you have to be tough with women.  But this advice doesn’t suit Prem’s more sympathetic temperament.  On the other hand, his teaching colleague, Sohanlal, is kindly but seems spineless.       

Prem encounters a youthful American spiritual tourist, Ernest (Ernest Castaldo) who has come to India on his personal “journey to the East” in search of enlightenment. Ernest’s enthusiasm for everything mystical is puzzling to Prem, who is trying to deal with the world’s more down-to-earth problems. When Prem speaks to Ernest about how he misses his wife, Ernest gushes that “everything is Maya”, and therefore dismissible. 

This part of the film is weak because of the ludicrously histrionic characterizations of Ernest and his associates presented as naive spiritual seekers. On the other hand, when you think about it, it offers up an intriguing "double-distancing" on the part of the narrative witness.  The film (as I saw it) is presented here in English [3], so we have a Western audience seeing a situation from the perspective of an Indian native.  Now to a native Indian, the sight of American spiritual tourists must be at least as exotic as a mystical “Easterner” might appear to a Western viewer.  So the filmmakers have put the Western viewer metaphorically into the Easterner’s frame, so to speak, by showing in this respect the spiritual seekers not at all realistically, but as outlandish caricatures that convey how bizarre they must appear to an Indian.  Perhaps this double distancing (i.e. the displaced, extra perspective of the narrative witness) arose from the unusual eclecticism of the filmmakers [4].

Eventually Sohanlal introduces Prem to his spiritual guide, a genuine Hindu Swami (Pahadi Sanyal). Prem, perhaps inspired by Ernest, is swept away by the Swami’s calm spirituality and vows to become his loyal disciple.  But the Swami tells him that at this stage of his life, he should  attend to his duties as a householder. He can seek enlightenment with the Swami later.

When Prem comes back to his apartment, he discovers to his delight that Indu has returned. He quickly agrees to arrange to have his meddlesome mother return to her own family. Things appear to be improving. But he still has his wretched material circumstances to deal with.  On Raj’s suggestion, he composes letters to give to his principal, Mr. Khanna (asking for a pay raise) and to his landlord, Mr. Saigal (asking for a modest rent reduction). 

But like all his past efforts, he bungles these operations, and they all come to nothing.  He returns home disconsolate, telling Indu that it is all hopeless and that noone cares.  All his frustrations as a householder catch up with him, and he cannot hide his sadness from Indu.

But then there comes that wonderful moment.  Indu smiles and says to him,
“What does it matter? We will manage. . . .

You’re crying.  What is there to cry?  So let them all go. 
I am here.  You are here.  Don’t do it.  

Just once let me see you smile, . . . ., only once. 
There!   You are happy. 
Say it.  Say, 'I’m happy'.  
Of course, you are,   
and I also. “
With that beautiful moment, Prem’s life as a householder is redeemed, and so is the film. The Swami’s advice was wise. We see how the householder can get his or her own glimpse of nirvana . . . . through love.

  1. “Leela Naidu”, Wikipedia (6/4/2015).
  2. “The Laws of Manu”, George Bühler, translator, Internet Sacred Tex Archive (Sacred Books of the East, Volume 25)
  3. There were actually two separate versions of the film made, one in English and one in Hindi.
  4. Indeed, consider the following East-West combinations of the filmmakers:
    • Ivory (a Protestant American) and Merchant (an Indian Muslim), besides being lifelong professional collaborators, were also "life partners".
    • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German Jew, was married to an Indian Parsi.
    • Shashi Kapoor (an Indian) was married to a Jennifer Kendal (a British actress).
    • Leela Naidu’s father was an Indian physicist, and her mother was a Swiss-French journalist.


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

This is a great discovery for me as I am an ardent Shashi Kapoor fan... thanks for introducing me to this James Ivory film!

Unknown said...

@Murtaza Ali Khan, Did you get to see the Hindi version of the film, I am searching for it for quite sometime. I have seen the English version