V. Shantaram is one of the most highly regarded directors in the history of Indian cinema. He was not only a master craftsman and technological innovator, but also an artist of conscience who dedicated himself to using the filmic arts as a means to further social causes. Today there is a prestigious film award that bears his name, as well as a commemorative stamp issued in honor of the centenary of his birth. Given this, for me to name as his crowning achievement his discovery of an actress whom I personally consider to be, well, a bit on the dishy side, seems like sacrilege. (Keep in mind, also, that this is his widow that I'm talking about.) Still, to my heart I must be true - grateful all the while that there's no literal concept of hell in the Hindu religion.
At the time of making 1957's Do Ankhen Barah Haath (Two Eyes, Twelve Hands), Shantaram, while by no means in artistic decline, was a good few years beyond his most acclaimed works - those being a trilogy of social realist dramas - Kunku, Manoos, and Shevari - that the director made while a partner in the Prabhat Film Company between 1937 and 1941. His previous film, 1955's Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, had been an uncharacteristic bid for commercial success, as would be the film that followed Do Ankhen Barah Haath, 1959's Navrang. Do Ankhen Barah Haath, on the other hand, was a clear return to form for him: a serious drama, shot in sober black and white, that dealt with a serious social issue. Strangely, however, while the films that sandwiched it were Technicolor spectacles loaded with splashy musical numbers, it is Do Ankhen Barah Haath that provides the most colorful showcase for those films' female lead, Sandhya.
It was difficult for me to find more than a few tidbits of information about Sandhya: She was V. Shantaram's third wife, and remained with him until his death in 1990. During that time, she rarely, if ever, appeared in any films not helmed by Shantaram himself, and would star in at least ten of the director's films over the course of two decades. Godard - in a telegram written after seeing her in Do Ankhen Barah Haath at the 1958 Berlin film festival - would describe her as "charming".¹
Adding to these scant biographical details are Sandhya's screen performances themselves, which demonstrate that she was an accomplished dancer and competent dramatic actress. Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje and Navrang, among others, ably highlight those particular talents. But, for all their color and melody, those films are still a bit stodgy in their treatment of her. In Jhanak, for example, she plays a humble dancing girl reborn through reverent study of traditional Indian dance, and, in Navrang, both a dowdy housewife and the ethereal, idealized muse that her poet husband imagines her to be. It is with her role as Champa, the scrappy street vendor in Do Ankhen Barah Haath, that we finally get to see her display an earthy sensuality that's missing from those performances, as well as a gift for antic, rubber-faced comedy. In a cinema that is littered with chastely pious and idealized images of womanhood, it is these qualities - at once served by, and serving to highlight, Sandhya's skewed, idiosyncratic beauty - that ultimately make her stand apart.
In Do Ankhen Barah Haath, Shantaram himself essays the role of Adinath, a saintly jailer who undertakes an idealistic experiment involving six of his prison's most hardened criminals. Under this arrangement, the prisoners will be freed under his care and taken to a barren stretch of land where they will, free of physical restraints and barriers, set up a communal farm, toiling day and night to wrest fruit from the arid soil - the idea being that the sense of community, pride of purpose and self-sufficiency that comes from this productive labor will serve to help the convicts overcome their antisocial ways and discover their better natures. In exchange for his superiors' consent to this experiment, Adinath pledges to forfeit all of his assets in the event of failure - and even, if they see fit, his freedom. With this in mind, Adinath makes it clear to his six subjects that he has put his future in their hands, with the idea that, in return for him granting them his trust, they will strive to be worthy of it.
Not one for an easy challenge, Adinath has selected for his experiment six of the most depraved specimens the prison population has to offer, axe murderers, child killers and homicidal bandits among them, each more hulking and imposingly bearded than the next. Fortunately for him, Do Ankhen Barah Haath, while dealing with real issues, is not a very realistic movie and - initially, at least - the maniacs are quick to be rendered docile by his virtuous example. In no time, all are enthusiastically setting about the task of forging a viable farmland out of the dust and gravel, shamed into obeisance, on those occasions when acrimony raises its ugly head, by the sheer power of Adinath's enslaving goodness. It's actually quite a breezy, upbeat scenario, given the subject matter, but, luckily, complications soon arrive in womanly form - specifically that of the mouthy and pulchritudinous itinerant toy seller and one woman band Champa.
Champa's first appearance, heralded by the sound of her disembodied voice in song, sees her emerging like a mirage over the horizon beyond the convicts' farm. This wraith-like image soon gives way to the decidedly corporeal as we see Champa strutting purposefully across the bare terrain, accompanying herself on an ektara as she precariously balances a giant basket of handmade dolls and stuffed animals on her head. Dragging behind her is a wheeled toy drum which, while beating out a chattering accompaniment to the swaying of her ample hips, frequently gets snagged on the rocks and intermittent foliage, forcing her to do a series of awkward maneuvers to set it right without sending the rest of her burden toppling. All of this is accomplished by Champa while maintaining what looks to be a permanent sneer on her face, a warning to all that they should think twice before approaching her with anything other than business in mind. In an amusing bit, the convicts, upon seeing her, raise a barbed wire fence that Adinath has just ceremoniously knocked down, so that they can peer at this forbidden fruit from behind a restraining barrier.
That an actress could hold such an allure while presenting such a comic spectacle might seem unlikely, but Sandhya - here as throughout Do Ankhen Barah Haath - strikes just the right balance of confident swagger and loose-limbed quirkiness to pull it off. It's a performance that's hard to assess without drawing on comparisons to Carole Lombard, a rare capital "S" movie star who similarly didn't let her beauty prevent her from mining a character's tics and peculiarities for all their comic potential - and who somehow managed to be all the more glamorous because of it. Helping Sandhya further is a large-featured, moon of a face that works like a reversible image, alternately striking and absurd, exerting a fascination that holds the eye more steadfastly than the cloying visage of any traditionally attractive actress ever could. It will come as no surprise when it's revealed that a heart of gold beats beneath Champa's brittle exterior, but, by that time, the character that Sandhya has created is so distinct and likeable that no amount of cliché can wrest her back into two dimensions.
And, indeed, soon after she is introduced, Champa is established as the film's swivel-hipped, trash-talking guardian angel, arriving at every opportune moment to diffuse a volatile situation, heal the sick, or simply provide a civilizing feminine influence. From there the film proceeds as a series of episodes in which the prisoners' struggles with their tendency to get stabby with people are repeatedly followed by resolution in the form of hair-tearing, heartfelt declarations of remorse, repentance and renewed resolve. Of course, while Shantaram was a seriously minded filmmaker, he was not above the basic conventions of Bollywood cinema, and so this dramatic cycle is punctuated by a handful of musical numbers, all featuring Sandhya and the voice of playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. While it was the mournful "Umad Ghummad Kar Aayee" that would become the most remembered song from the film, it is the tantric "Tak Tak Dhum, Tak Tak Dhum" that is the most electrifying visually, providing as it does the best showcase for Sandhya's energetic dancing.
It is easy to make light of Do Ankhen Barah Haath's naive idealism - even as it's charming the pants off you - but it's just as easy to look beyond it to simply revel in the mastery of Shantaram's filmmaking. One of the director's hallmarks is a witty and playful approach to visuals (evident in many of his films' credit sequences, which often feature clever visual puns on the movie's title) that telegraphs an irrepressible joy in the filmmaking process. Probably the best example of this in Do Ankhen Barah Haath is the musical number "Mein Gaoon Tu Chup Ho Ja", in which Shantaram depicts the environment itself colluding to form the musical accompaniment to Champa's song. This whimsical touch serves to balance the film's more melodramatic tendencies and, combined with Sandhya's delightful presence, manages to give much of Do Ankhen Barah Haath a light comic tone in spite of its potentially preachy agenda. At its receiving end, this breeziness seems to reflect a certain generosity of spirit on Shantaram's part, a belief that moral vision on the part of a filmmaker doesn't necessarily preclude his product from being a vivacious piece of entertainment.
In its day, Do Ankhen Barah Haath did quite well on the international festival circuit, winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Samuel Goldwyn award for best foreign film at the 1959 Golden Globes. That Sandhya did not then go on to join Anna Karina and Bardot among the goddesses of art house cinema is probably due as much to a humbleness of ambition as it is to her being perhaps a shade too exotic at the time. Still, while Do Ankhen Barah Haath failed to make her an international star, her performance in it is a star-making turn by any standard. For, even framed within the peculiarities of Bollywood cinema, the appeal of her character is one that reaches across cultural divides. After all, whether in a sari or a slit skirt, on a side street or a dirt road, a tough-talking bombshell of this order is difficult to resist.
- Todd Stadtman 12/29/07
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