Bandini is arguably Bimal Roy's greatest and most complete film, Do Bigha Zamin nothwithstanding. The story is based on a book by Jarasandha, a former jail superintendent who wrote fictional versions of his experiences (Louha-Kapat (1953), Tamasha (1958), Nyaydanda (1961)). Set at a time when women had no choices, the film's protagonist Kalyani had the courage to not only make choices in her life but choices which at times might appear to be even wrong ones as she gives up everything for love.
What is exteremly interesting in the film, which suggests a straight link between terrorism and patricide, is the form used by Bimalda. The story, told in flashback from the woman's point of view, is unraveled in a manner such that by and large she is always there or from where she can overhear the goings on rather than the general practice of opening up the story to a neutral point of view and then relating the whole story. Thus the viewer gets to understand Kalyani and her actions much more clearly and are tied up to her character right from the beginning, thereby respecting her for her actions. Interestingly when Bikash tells Kalyani his story, Bimalda uses the flashback within flashback device in the film, surely one of the earliest use of such a technique in Indian Cinema. The title, Bandini, is explained in the climax of the film in the song Mere Saajan Hai Us Paar - Main Bandini Hoon Piya ki, Main Sangini Hoon Saajan ki...The character of Kalyani gets lifted from that of a woman who is a prisoner of destiny to one who defines her own freedom. It may be another form of servitude but it is one of her own making, not something imposed on her.
While the events of the story are highly melodramatic, Bimalda takes great care to handle them with sensitivity, simplicity and subtlety. He beautifully uses imagery and sound to convey the various moods of the female prisoner, Kalyani. As she is seated in the corner of her grey, grim cell facing the prison's high wall, she can hear the hoofs of the horse pulling the carriage taking away Deven, or that masterful scene in which Kalyani murders Bikash's wife with the hammering of a welder in the background thus heightening the drama! Every frame is so well thought out and full of rich subtext. Kalyani and Deven are constantly shown together in their early meetings without any sort of barrier between them but when Deven decides to propose to her, the scene is delicately handled with the door between them as Kalyani refuses his proposal without seeing him, the door symbolic of the barrier Kalyani sees in their future life together due to her past. After that the two of them are always framed with a barrier between them for e.g. he is outside the room and she seen through the barred window of the room and vice versa i.e. her inside the room and Deven seen outside through the window finally culminating in the masterly scene mentioned above as Kalyani 'hears' his departure from the other side of the wall. Splendid use is made of the prison guard as he announces 'Sab Theek Hai (Everything is fine)' at times when nothing is actually going well. The first time he does so, a freedom fighter is caught and brought to the jail. The second time Deven goes out of Kalyani's life and the third time the freedom fighter is hung, all fine examples of making an ironic counterpoint in the film.
If one person is the life and soul of Bandini, it is Nutan. Bandini sees her give an extra-ordinary performance - certainly one of the greatest by an actress in Indian Cinema ranking right there with Nargis in Mother India (1957) and Meena Kumari in Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Totally devoid of highly charged emotion and theatrics, Nutan appears as a quiet woman with her passions raging from within her and plays her role with great delicacy and dignity. One just has to see the entire gamut of emotions fleeting across her face in the film's key sequence as she murders her lover's wife. It is a masterful performance by an artiste supreme at the peak of her histrionic powers. Ironically Nutan had in fact almost given up films after marriage and the birth of her son Mohnish. But Bimalda insisted she take on the film. Nutan responded to the role of a lifetime and how! The success of the film saw her resume her career as an actress as she went from strength to strength right through the 1960s and 1970s with strong performances in films like Milan (1967), Saraswatichandra (1968), Saudagar (1973), Sajan Bina Suhagan (1978), Kasturi (1978) and Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978) before being saddled with mundane mother roles in the 1980s.
Nutan is strongly supported by Ashok Kumar, whose flawles performance matches Nutan scene for scene and Dharmendra, just beginning to make an impact in the film industry. Incidentally Bimal Roy and Ashok Kumar worked together after a period of 10 years following Parineeta (1953). Parineeta, produced by Ashok Kumar, was shot at the same time as Bimalda's own home production, Do Bhiga Zamin and Ashok Kumar felt that Bimalda gave priority to Do Bhiga Zamin at the expense of Parineeta. Famed Marathi Director Raja Paranjpe ably plays the role of Kalyani's father.
Bandini is brilliantly photographed by Kamal Bose with its rich tonal quality and evocative framing. The film also sees the debut of Gulzar as a lyricist with Mora Gora Ang Laile, perhaps one of the most romantic songs in Indian Cinema as it expresses the heroine's first flush of love. The other songs, written by Shailendra, further add to the poetic quality of the film be it the haunting O Jaanewale Ho Sake to Laut ke Aana, or the soulful Ab ke Baras conveying Kalyani's solitude in prison at one level and the lament of the female prisoner singing it with no hopes of release at another.
The music by SD Burman represents perhaps some of the finest work he has done in his entire career. Mora Gora Ang Laile, Ab ke Baras and O Jaanewale always feature in the best ever songs of Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Mukesh respectively. Talking of Mukesh, Burmanda hardly ever used him as a singer but as and when he did the result was sheer magic - Chalri Sajni from Bombai ka Babu (1960) being a case in point. When Mukesh recorded this masterpiece for Burmanda he hadn't sung for him for 11 years following Shabnam (1949)! Burmanda himself is in fine form as he renders the climactic song Mere Sajan Hai Us Paar with Nutan beautifully expressing Kalyani's dilemma of having to choose between security and love. The song picturizations by Bimalda help enrich the film even further.
Sadly Bandini was the last film of Bimal Roy as a director though he did complete another film under Bimal Roy Productions, albeit as a producer - Benazir (1964).