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A lost-in-oblivion social-family-drama centered on delinquency by Hrishikesh Mukherjee
This is a mid 1970s movie starring Dharmendra and Saira banu in lead roles, and directed by none other than Hrishikesh Mukherjee, a man who helmed arguably some of the best Hindi movies made ever. There is another great matter of prestige attached to this feature, that of it being a Bimal Roy production, albeit posthumous. Bimal Roy, who himself arguably made some of the best Hindi movies ever, is also seen by many as the precursor to Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who he mentored along with a man called Sampoorn Singh Kalra, better known as Gulzar. So it will be fair to say that 'Chaitali', as a movie, boasts of some enviable pedigree. And yet, it is one of those criminally under-seen movies, reflected in just a handful of ratings it has garnered on IMDb (less than 20 on last count). It might have been a commercial failure at that time, but does it deserve the obscurity that it is shrouded in today? For sure not, as though the film is not faultless, it is still a reasonably engaging dramatic feature that makes a social comment on delinquency, forgiveness, and redemption.
Adapted from a Bengali short story of the same name, Chaitali inhabits a world that is much different from the general Hrishikesh Mukherjee fold, where most of his movies stayed away from depicting the darker strata of our social order. The narrative is centered on Chaitali (Saira Banu in the title role), a woman who has been forced by her circumstances and her unfortunate upbringing to occupy a space that constantly haunts her, but from which she not being able to escape. Creating a stark contrast, her life merges with a more typical Hrishikesh Mukherjee middle-class urban household, full of family values and righteousness. The first few minutes of the movie establish this moral rectitude and bonhomie of this family, headed by a kind matriarch, and assisted by that ever cheerful and passionately loyal servant (Asit Sen yet again). The tone and tenor of the film then changes considerably when Chaitali enters the household, guiltily taking advantage of goodness of the elderly matron, with the intention of swindling some money. All this while, the younger son of the family Manish, (Dharmendra in a mostly subdued role) is aware of the reality of the woman, but takes pity on her circumstances, apart from developing a soft corner for her. The drama later shifts to a religious sanctuary on the hills, where Chaitali shares her life story honestly with Manish, who gets utterly shaken by the grimy details of her upbringing, which include a criminally inclined father on the run, a brothel, many lecherous eyes eager to pounce on her adolescence, and a suitor (played uninhibitedly by Asrani) who is both a danger and a comfort to her in the murky vicinities of her life.
Throughout the story and its dramatic last act (the best executed from all in my view), Chaitali comes across as a highly complex character, both repulsed by and dependent on crime and delinquency. And this confusion, somehow, gets reflected in the treatment of the film, with its highly uneven tone oscillating between glimmers of hope and pits of hopelessness. Dharmendra's part is under-cooked and not well defined, with neither his motivations, nor his intentions, and nor his beliefs, coming out on screen clearly. This in some ways gets evened out by strong subsidiary characters- chiefly the lawyer elder brother (who gets a lot to do in the last act) and his wife (Bindu in a meaty part, but hamming it up completely).
The music of the film, much like the film itself, is not popular at all. There are just three songs, and seen in isolation, two of them are pleasant enough. But none add to the movie in any which way; this lack of memorable tunes another reason for the oblivion the film finds itself today.
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