Suhasini Mulay as Aparoopa.
Suhasini Mulay as Aparoopa.

A window to Aparoopa

How two women struggle to break open their cages, in the debut film of Jahnu Baruaan Assamese cinema classic

I don’t remember when I watched Aparoopa (1982) for the first time. It could have been one of those Sundays of my childhood when we were allowed to spend an afternoon watching a film because the movie was “good". After many years, all I could remember about the film was the title song sung by Usha Mangeshkar and a young, beautiful Suhasini Mulay in the title role opening a door.

The image of the door was etched in my mind also because of the lyrics of the song—a song that is still played almost every alternate day on the radio in Assam. I translate: “Aparoopa, Aparoopa/in the infinite blue skies/You are just a small dot limitless…/Aparoopa, Aparoopa,/Don’t you feel free? Don’t you?"

It is difficult to forget this song because of its poetry, its melody, and the tragedy it is soaked in. It makes you feel lonely. Perhaps not free, although the song is a call to be free. It seems as if the song is telling Aparoopa—the wife of a wealthy tea planter trapped in a meaningless marriage—that “You can break away/You can construct your own path." Will Aparoopa listen?

Caged in the beautiful bungalow of the tea estate, she has everything but companionship; not even the freedom to make a cup of tea, because if she does, the servants stare at her and murmur that she has gone mad.

When I watched Aparoopa recently again, I wasn’t surprised that all I could remember was the image of a door pushed open by a lonely woman, with Mangeshkar’s sonorous voice in the background.

One way of entering a conversation about Aparoopa—director Jahnu Barua’s debut feature film and the first Assamese film to be produced by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC)—would be by discussing the significance of the doors and windows in it.

Suhasini Mulay and Biju Phukan in Aparoopa.

You are invited to believe that Rana Phukan (played by Biju Phukan)—an army captain, returning after four years to see his ailing mother—will finally be home for a while. You are invited to believe that Aparoopa is about a journey that has come to an end—the Emergency is over; Rana, whose leave application to visit home was rejected even when his father died, is now home.

But this is not the only home he has returned to. Rana meets Radha, a girl in the same village, whom he treats as a sister. He is troubled by the news that both her engagements were broken because of rumours spread about her by villagers, for she is part of a theatre group that performs plays in nearby villages.

Radha, played by the powerful Assamese actor Runu Devi Thakur, is a fiery presence. In front of Rana, when she scoffs at the villagers who call her a prostitute, she is standing near a window. Figuratively, she is caged, with the choice of expressing anger, and can only wait for a kind man to marry her. Though she is provided little screen time, she is unforgettable.

Aparoopa, married to a rich, widowed tea planter, is in a somewhat similar situation. The only difference is that her cage is golden. She has money, servants to look after her, and a husband who lets her be to the extent that she constantly feels abandoned. After years, when she meets Rana through her husband, she remembers their love story, left unfinished when he went off to join the army. Together they visit the high school they studied in, reminisce about college days, and, along with Radha’s husband, attend parties—organized by Mr Khanna (played by Girish Karnad; the film cast also includes Farooq Shaikh and Kulbhushan Kharbanda).

On the banks of a river (most Assamese films would feature one), Radha tells Rana that her mother got her married to the tea planter because her father had taken a big loan from him, that a simple village girl like her is a misfit in the elite, cosmopolitan, Westernized society of tea planters. “I wish I were a bird," she says.

As women in the same village, Radha and Aparoopa’s fates are strikingly similar: Both want independence from their literal and metaphorical cages. Radha perhaps feels that marriage to a nice man would mean she would be rid of the emotional violence that the villagers inflict upon her. Aparoopa wants a conjugal life that has meaning and passion.

Although the lives of these two women run parallel, with Rana the only link between them, it is clear from the beginning that Aparoopa can get away with transgressions because she has the economic and social privileges. Radha has few options. The rumours suffocate her, changing her life—and they eventually shatter the conjugal life with Rana’s friend. She returns to her father’s place, only to be refused shelter.

While Radha, with no choice in front of her, hangs herself, Aparoopa is able to express herself freely to her mother that she doesn’t care any more about the society she is trapped in.

In a way, the movie is a comment on class and its inequalities. This is accentuated by the wealth of the bungalow, the tea garden, the elite lifestyle of the employees of the estate and the poverty and under-development of the village that surrounds them. The consequences of these inequalities play out in the lives of Aparoopa and Radha—one chooses death, the other takes advantage of her husband’s absence and steps out of the house to join Rana when he is leaving.

Dressed in a red mekhla-chador, Aparoopa meets him at the station. Though he refuses to take her with him, there is a sense of acceptance of a relationship. The film started on a train, and ends on one—with rows and rows of doors in the coaches staring at us.

But that is not where the story ends. After all, it is a Jahnu Barua movie in which the endings are loaded and subtle. When Rana leaves home for the railway station, the background song is a borgeet, a raga-based 16th century, traditional Assamese devotional song. It is a morning borgeet: suggesting a new beginning, and an entire village waking up for the day. As this song in Bhupen Hazarika’s voice ushers the end, you know that it is the beginning of a new journey, with Rana, for Aparoopa. For the next few seconds, in short sentences, Rana’s voice-over tells us what happens between them over the next one year. It leaves us devastated, but also happy that before succumbing to cancer, Aparoopa got everything she wanted with Rana.

Aruni Kashyap is the author of The House With A Thousand Stories.

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