Tapan Sinha’s métier as a film director rests primarily on his ability to make films which have a strong moral and ethical tone and which display a high degree of technical finesse and competency. In doing so, he has adapted some of the finest works of Bengali literature – sometimes a bit simplistically but always entertaining and thought provoking. Hatey Bazarey, one of the more successful Bengali films of the 1960s, is Sinha’s interpretation of the somewhat autobiographical novel of the same name by the much loved and respected writer Banaphool, amply demonstrates his capabilities. That the film starred Ashok Kumar and Vyjayantimala (in her first appearance on Bengali screen) certainly helped it in garnering a very strong response from the box-office also.
Hatey Bazarey revolves totally around its extremely strong protagonist Dr Anadi Mukherjee, who with his erudition, honesty and above all with his total dedication to his calling as a doctor, is a somewhat messianic character. Indeed his death at the hands of the evil Lacchmanlal recalls the sacrifices made by other great men for the betterment of humankind. The central theme of the film is the age-old conflict between the forces of good and evil and all the drama inherent in such a set-up is well exploited by a fairly well-structured screenplay that captures the milieu and the dramatis personae involved rather competently. The prologue consisting of two brief sequences, which come before the title cards, – Lacchmanlal raping a tribal girl in a forest and Dr Mukherjee going to the village market to scold the fishmonger but ultimately treating his sick daughter – defines the central conflict and the social and moral universe of Dr. Mukherjee and Lacchmanlal in a very precise manner. While Lacchmanlal in his horse represents the prototype powerful yet backward forces of universe, Dr Mukherjee in his stylish automobile is easily identifiable as the agent of goodness and progress. The rape sequence which starts the film is also a fine example of Sinha’s mastery over the elements of cinema. The scene consisting primarily of long shots that capture the eerie sunlight filtering through the dense forests where the action is played out with the audio track consisting of extended periods of silence, sounds of the horse’s trotting through the jungle, strange noises of jungle insects and birds creates an extremely disturbing mood and the sexual violence is represented in an extremely tasteful and restrained manner. A very similar scene construction is used later when Chhipli is forced by Lacchmanlal in the same forest to perform a seductive dance for his pleasure. The scene showcases Vyjayantimala’s renowned dancing skills but the in the context of the prologue, is extremely well-integrated in the overall narrative framework of the film.
Although Hatey Bazarey concentrates mainly on the activities and the emotions of its central character, the beauty of the film is in its portrayal of the other characters especially the women. Nani (Chhaya Devi) an old tribal woman who has cataract and to whom Dr Mukherjee is almost a divine character is a vibrant presence and through her the generosity of the good doctor is well manifested. Mrs. Pandey (Gita De), the wife of the police chief is a brilliant portrait of a classic mental patient suffering from a series of imaginary maladies – the gloomy lighting of her bedroom, her disjointed conversation and vacant looks are just perfect. Manu, DrMukherjee’s wife who suffers from a fatal heart condition, epitomizes the patient and understanding wife who is extremely supportive of her husband’s philanthropic work and who in her own way helps the poor and the less fortunate. In the film, only in the scenes in which Dr. Mukherjee interacts with his wife – he chides her gently for not taking her medicines properly, she cooks for him ignoring his orders not to do so – that the good doctor assumes a more human dimension and this increases the charisma and depth of characterization. And finally, Chippli, the young tribal widow stands out as the true blithe spirit with her strength of character, innocence and unabashed enjoyment of life and sensuality. Her refusal to succumb to Lacchmanlal’s lure of lucre and luxury, her calm acceptance of the miseries of life and her struggles to live with dignity are portrayed in the screenplay with deft touches making Chippli a truly endearing creation. The minor male characters such as Ali - the chauffeur, Ajablal – the man servant, Lacchmanlal’s sycophant and partner in crimes etc. are extremely one dimensional and under developed. Bimal, the young doctor whose arrogant belief in “modern medicine” leads him to ignore Dr Mukherjee’s diagnosis thus leading to the death of his young nephew is ignored completely afterwards only to reappear suddenly at the end to join the medical unit as an assistant and eventually to carry on his god work after the good doctor’s death. This seems to be a very convenient device at the level of screenplay as the growth curve of the character is completely ignored. Sinha’s attempt to portray Arun (Samit Bhanja) who runs a roadside car repairing workshop as an example of hard working youth with a sense of culture reaches an absurd level. Sinha makes him hum and sing Rabindrasangeets – a song patronized and loved almost exclusively by the educated Bengali middle-class. However one must admit the scene in which Arun’s sings the Rabindrasangeet “Ogo Nadi Apon Bege Paagol Para” is masterfully done with shots of Arun, Chippli and her brother running through the shallow river bed that capture the beauty of the landscape pretty elegantly. And by juxtaposing this scene of happiness and vibrancy with the tragic death of Manu, Sinha creates a sense of poignancy that reflects his ability to pull at the heart-strings of his audience.
One of the major plus points of Hatey Bazarey is the brilliant performance by Ashok Kumar as Dr Mukherjee. The ease and naturalness with which he is able to convey an entire gamut of emotions – anger, sternness, pity, sorrow, humor, forgiveness and love – once again underlines him as one of the finest actors Indian cinema has ever had. In the small scene in which Dr Mukherjee accidentally discovers a letter written by his wife Manu in the early years of marriage long after her death, Ashok Kumar puts in a sublime performance, changing his mood of joy and elation to sadness and depression quite effortlessly. Ajitesh Bannerjee as Lacchmanlal is a worthy foil to Ashok Kumar – he puts in a powerful performance as the personification of evil. The scenes which depict the confrontations between the two are definitely the dramatic high points of the film. Bhanu Bannerjee, better known for his over the top comic roles, is refreshingly subdued and understated as Ajablal, Dr Mukherjee’s silent and loyal servant. However, Rudraprasad Sengupta is extremely wooden and poor as the romantic poetry loving retired sub-judge who is able to overcome his pessimism and joins the medical team as its record keeper. A theatre actor of immense repute, Rudraprasad it seems is unable to adapt to the demands of screen acting and the result is pretty inadequate. Vyjayantimala, in her debut in Bengali films is extremely convincing as the independent and vivacious tribal widow. Her singing the lilting duet with the legendary Hemanta Mukherjee “Shyam Tor Tore Tamal Tolay Boshe Thaki” is a pleasant surprise indeed. Samita Biswas and Chhaya Devi too do justice to their small roles while Gita De is brilliant in her cameo as the middle-aged wife who suffers from psychological problems.
The cinematography, editing and sound design of the film are of uniformly competent standards and do justice to Tapan Sinha’s reputation as one of the more technically proficient film directors of Bengali cinema.
Hatey Bazaey is imbued with a spirit of benevolence and self-sacrifice for the meek and the poor that may seem naïve and unrealistic in today’s times. However, as a dramatic saga that depicts the age-old confrontation between good and evil, modernity and change versus traditions of oppression the film the film retains its charm and is definitely worth watching.