by RUBY CHINGU
Somebody explain to me why the hell am I enjoying this 1936 BLACK AND WHITE super classic Hindi film which, I am sure, no one else watches? Because of Ashok Kumar. Nothing else. Now somebody explain to me why the hell am I attracted to a dead movie star? I give up.
|Directed by||Franz Osten|
|Produced by||Himanshu Rai|
|Written by||Niranjan Pal|
Achhut Kannya , or The Untouchable Maiden is fascinating to me because the its love story revolved around the caste system in India. It has always been an interesting field to study – the caste system was and is pretty much a big deal among the communities. Our hero, Pratap, was a grocer’s son who belonged to the highest caste of the system, the Brahmins whereas our heroine, Kasture, was an untouchable’s daughter. Historically, the untouchables were deemed to be the lowest of the lowest in society. In a documentary I read, even the untouchables’ shadows were considered to be contaminated.
Hindu Caste System
Pratap(Ashok Kumar) and Kasturi(Devika Rani) grew up together and had a strong bond. Pratap’s father, a Brahmin, was saved by Kasturi’s father, an untouchable, and they became best friends ever since. The friendship between their fathers caused gossips in the village for the peculiarity for a Brahmin to even consider associating himself with one of a low ranking.
Pratap’s mother clearly disagreed with his son’s relationship with Kasturi and soon made it obvious that she wanted Kasturi out of her son’s life. Kasturi’s father advised her to stay away from Pratap as their relationship was inappropriate. In a heartbreaking scene between the father and daughter, she tried to reason with her father but to no avail.
Kasturi: But Father, one cannot break a childhood friendship just like that. Even you used to say, “Either don’t be friends, or honor your friendship till the end”. There was nothing wrong in being together as children. So how’s it become wrong now?
Father: God has given you birth in an untouchable’s home. And Pratap has been born in Brahmin’s home.
Kasturi: So why should this mean we have to break up?
Father: My dear, this is the world. One gets both happiness and sorrow here. One should never lose hope. Time is the biggest healer of them all.
The sad thing was that Pratap went on to marry his mother’s choice. Kasturi’s father fell ill and Pratap’s father brought him to his home, an act considered an insult the caste system. The villagers confronted Pratap’s father, who bravely defended his action by saying that the untouchables, like them, are also human beings with happiness and sorrow. If God does not make a distinction, why should they? When they fall ill, does the medicine differs? No.
Their house got attacked anyway by the angered villagers. Kasturi’s father also ended up being fired from his job at the railway station. He found a boy from the same caste for his daughter to marry. Pratap, who found out, begged Kasturi to elope with him.
Kasturi, traumatized by the recent event where her father was blamed for defiling Pratap’s father’s honour, refused. Pratap was frustrated, asking God why was he not born an untouchable, too. Kasturi was married off as a second wife to an officer at the railway station. She basically gave up her love for Pratap to make everyone happy. They continued living their married lives, quite emptily.
The first wife of Kasturi’s husband and Pratap’s wife, knowing that Kasturi and Pratap loved each other, decided to trap them together. They brought Kasturi to a fair where Pratap was selling his goods and left her there. Pratap gave her a lift home and the both of them reminisced their sweet innocent happy days as teenagers along the way.
Kasturi’s husband attacked Pratap as the buggy stopped on railway tracks. A train was coming towards them, yet Kasturi’s husband refused to let Pratap go. Kasturi then tried to stop the train by waving her hand towards the driver. Tragically, the train crushed her and well….
The story worked mainly because it was not over-dramatic in a way and portrayed the caste system effortlessly. The conflict stemmed not from the differences in wealth but in caste. Pratap’s Brahmin family was not that different from Kasturi’s untouchable family in terms of wealth – the former was a grocer and the latter was a railway officer. Such cannot be said about their caste, proving the significant weight it carried. The film also stresses on the unfairness of caste-based prejudices. Friendships and blossoming romances were ended.
I particularly love how the characters of Pratap and Kasturi did not try to act dramatically, as I expected them to do so. They were kind obedient children who listened well to their parents, including their decisions to marry them off. They were aware that social conformations ruled the day, then, and they could not rebel against customs. They tried their best to please the people around them.
Prior to their marriage, Pratap and Kasturi were not aware of the intense feelings they had for each other, confusing their fondness with their childhood closeness. They spent so much time together, laughing and smiling. Their scenes in the first half of the movie was, dare I say, tremendously cute. *Okay, fine, Ashok Kumar in his first feature film was the one whose cuteness I find absolutely endearing! Can I cry now?!!* After their marriage, they were faced with the harsh reality of loveless marriages. Their adolescent love seemed so precious, then. Robbed away from a chance to love each other, Pratap and Kasturi became desperate to be happy again and the only way to do so was to be together.
Perhaps that was why Pratap, though married, begged Kasturi to elope with him. Being such a child before he became a husband, he could no longer deny his feelings. It was frustrating to see Kasturi being denied of his love merely because she was of a lower caste. Even Pratap’s father was fond of Kasturi and stated that had it been not of her caste, he would have married her to Pratap.
The general feeling I had whilst watching the film is helplessness. Even though the film was produced almost eighty years ago, the forced conformation to society shown in the film is very much visible today. Customs may disappear, but not societal expectations. Conformation towards a general standard still is prevalent and the most common way to live. Why? Because one fear being ostracized by others, affecting not only one’s self-esteem but also family and friends. Such, I believe, is the motivation behind Pratap and Kasturi in deciding not to pursue their love and going against custom when they were younger. Perhaps they thought that all would end well and they would, after a while, fall in love with their partners as much as they did with each other.
But then, this would not be a tragic forbidden love story if they did, would it?