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Sunday, December 05, 2021

Celebrating 60 years of Agnipareeksha

Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen’s Bengali film was a huge hit when it released in 1954

Mumbai |
Updated: October 31, 2014 1:00:20 am
Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in Agnipareeksha Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in Agnipareeksha

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By Shoma A. Chatterji

Agnipareeksha, the first big box office hit and the second film pairing Suchitra Sen with Uttam Kumar, celebrates its 60th birth anniversary this year. The actors were first paired in Shaare Chuattar, a rollicking comedy set against a mess house in Kolkata. Since then, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen starred in 30 films, beating the Spencer Tracy-Audrey Hepburn pair hollow. When the young and beautiful Suchitra Sen emoted a love scene with Uttam Kumar in Chaoa-Paoa, Pathey Holo Deri, Alo Amar Alo, Shaaede Chuattar, Kamallata, the electrically charged feelings between them came across so tangibly that one could stretch his hand to touch them.
Their films were famous for soft-focus close ups, particularly Sen’s and lavishly mounted scenes of romance against windswept expanses and richly-decorated interiors with fluttering curtains and objects such as bunches of tube roses. Their popular films include Shap Mochan (1955), Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957), Saptapadi (1961), Bipasha (1962) and Grihadah (1967).
Agnipareeksha was directed by Agradoot, who directed two more bumper hits by the same pair and continued directing films till 1989. The M.P. Productions film had musical score by Anupam Ghatak and camerawork by Bibhuti Laha and Bijoy Ghosh .
Agnipareeksha (Trial by Fire) was based on a novel by Jnanpeeth Awardee Ashapurna Devi. Though in later years, she became famous for her strident literary themes against patriarchy, Agnipareeksha stressed the importance of marriage rituals and chantings in the life of a woman even if she was married as a child and did not quite understand what marriage meant. The film patronises child marriage and strongly critiqued every voice of protest. The message was – marriage is for keeps. Never mind when, where and who you were married to, you cannot walk away. Those chantings, the marriage ceremony and the memories will keep haunting your present.
Divorces, separations, live-in relationships were rare when this film came. Therefore, a film that endorsed child marriage and stressed the significance of marriage as a social necessity within Hindu Bengali, would appeal to the emotions of an audience with a feudal mindset. But was it a box office hit because of the story? Or, was it because of the timelessness of the music and the songs? Or, was it for the electric chemistry of the couple who were married to each other as children but fall in love again when they grow up? It is a fine blend of all three but most of all, for the milestone it became in creating one of the greatest and most successful star-pairs in cinema.
Tapasi (Suchitra Sen) was married when she was a small girl to a teenage grandson of a dying zamindar of their ancestral village by her grandmother. Her Westernised, snobbish, high-nosed mother was kept away. When she got to know, she took her daughter back to the city, educated her and brought her up to become a modern woman. Tapasi falls in love with Kiriti (Uttam Kumar) not knowing that this is the man she was married to because she had only heard his nickname, Bulu. A chance witnessing of a child bride going to her in-laws which Tapasi happens to watch from inside a car as it gets stuck during a marriage procession, brings back childhood memories of her marriage. Her life changes forever. She goes into a dark and depressive cell, refusing to meet Kiriti. The film ends happily ever after when the adult lovers meet again in the ancestral village home they were married in many years ago.
The title Agnipareeksha suggests the ‘trial by fire’ Kiriti made her go through which she comes out of with flying colours! No one questions Kiriti’s willful impersonation as a breach of faith because that is how patriarchal values dominated society and this reflected itself through cinema. As Kiriti, Uttam Kumar’s performance is balanced and polished. Suchitra Sen as the grown-up Tapasi enters the frame after a good 20-odd minutes. The story is from Tapasi’s point of view. But, once Kiriti steps in, she becomes the object of the cinematic gaze. Her life and the script get manipulated by her family, by her own traumatic past and by Bulu pretending to be someone else.
Uttam Kumar smoothly takes over once he enters her life. He is suave, charming, attractive and mesmerising and in complete command of the drama. Suchitra as Tapasi is like a beautiful counterfoil, in suffering and in pain when her life changes with dark memories superimposed into her present. Agnipareeksha is filled with beautiful songs and in retrospect, spills over with heightened melodrama, the style in films of those days redefined differently for Suchitra-Uttam films. Yet, we all remember it as an ode to celluloid romance exclusively created and sustained for 60 years by Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar.

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