|Don't get me started.|
1) Kirit, a gentle and calm man (Uttam Kumar), gently and calmly loves Tapasi, a confident and bold woman (Suchitra Sen), even as her traumatic memories threaten their relationship, and
2) this story is primarily about Tapasi and her ethical turmoil and the performance of it by Suchitra Sen. Uttam Kuamr is in the film, but it absolutely belongs to her.
In Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation, Sharmistha Gooptu talks about this film in particular balancing its native audience's desire for both traditional and modern, embodied by the bonds of marriage and romantic love. Both are valid and both must be upheld. I have to admit that I find this to be a cop-out of the highest order both in this film and in the remake: why have characters live with decisions when you just slap together a happy ending? It's one of the more outrageous of convenient coincidences in Indian cinema. And for all of the occasional snobbery in discussions of Bengali cinema about how much better the stories are there than in Hindi cinema, this could be straight out of Manmohan Desai or Yash Chopra.
The Hindi version has even more WTF in addition to the child marriage and the upholding of both the tradition and those who advocate it. As is absolutely no surprise, Chhoti Si Mulaqat is fond of stalking=love as Ashok (Uttam Kumar again) tries to wear Rupa (Vyjayanthimala) down over at least three meetings. She only changes her mind after she learns that he took her photo ages ago without her knowledge and kept it by his bedside. Romantic! Rupa is furious at her mother, who represents modern thought by refusing to acknowledge the child marriage, finding a lawyer who assures them of an easy divorce, and basically demanding of her daughter "You're so educated. How can you believe in this crap?"
More significantly, the film ends with the horrifying revelation by the Ashok that he has for awhile known the most important piece of information in the story but has been withholding it from Rupa. (Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation states that Kirit knows it too, but since I couldn't tell that without subtitles, I'm not going to discuss it.) He calmly stands by while she is publicly humiliated and suffers emotionally and psychologically as she tries to reconcile a past she never chose with competing paths in the present; his excuse is that he wants her to choose to act on values and tradition rather than on romantic attachment. Interestingly, Gooptu's description of Kirit's choice to remain silent in Agni Pariksha is because he wants Tapashi to genuinely love him, not just to hold to a traditional practice in which she had no willing participation. Chhoti Si Mulaqat thus makes it crystal clear that the tradition of child marriages and women having to stick with whatever marriage they were assigned by their elders, no matter what other options they may want to pursue or whom they actually love or even know, is unalterable. Thirteen years forward, centuries back.
Also WTF but of much less relevance to anything that matters is the strange Shammi Kapoor-esque acting by Uttam Kumar in the beginning of the Hindi version. I suppose Shammi is as good a role model as any for portraying stalking=love, but it is a 180 from the typical Uttam Kumar hero-giri in his Bengali movies, even in things like Nayak, Saptapadi, or Chaowa Pawa in which the heroine hates him before growing to love him. Which is fine, but it's very strange (as is seeing him in color in this time period). Not to mention the typically unwelcome addition of comic relief (the usually delightful Rajendra Nath) and a frenemy vamp (Shashikala in a glorious bouffant), both of which are so grating and unnecessary that I really am not going to mention them any further.
As you can guess, the Hindi version also includes more and longer songs. They provide the one thing I thoroughly like better about the remake: the title song, which features not only a shimmying Vyjayanthimala in a glittering white sari and gems but also Uttam Kumar doing his absolute darndest to keep up with her—and mostly succeeding, in my opinion. I'd love to know more about his decision to do this song; I don't think I've ever seen him dance at all in Bengali movies, and certainly not with anywhere close to this much energy and actual choreography. It's a gift I didn't know he had and I'm thrilled that someone had the bright idea to unwrap it on camera and now I will stop with this analogy.
Immediately before this song is a reminder of the other major facet of the Hindi film that improves upon the original: resources. As Madhulike Liddle mentions in her post on Agni Pariksha, the Hindi version clearly has many more of them at its disposal. I actually noticed this first in the clothes: in the Bengali original, Uttam wears a tuxedo that, as Amrita says on our Bongalong blog, looks like he's playing dressup in his dad's clothes. It's miles too big, the seams are puckered, and the hem is lumpy. In the Hindi version, his tux looks like this:
I've become accustomed to the Uttam-Suchitra dynamic of calm depth and drama-o-rama, and I think it was really smart of Uttam to have Vyjayanthimala keep up that balance in the Hindi remake because it keeps him free to do the nonchalance that he does best. The two heroine characters have different tones, and the actors bring these out. If you need a woman to stand tall and stick out her chin and refuse to be bullied by your opinions and yell back at you, Suchitra Sen is definitely the one to call, and I love how she portrays characters who refuse to back down. But Rupa is different from Tapashi in this regard: she's a bubblier, livelier person, and I love how Vyjayanthimala has such a mischievous gleam in her eye in certain scenes. It's probably fair to say the characters show a sort of woman/girl dichotomy, again indicating that the Hindi version is even less interested in depicting or valorizing independent, adult females.
Both of these films are great examples of why "women-centric" is such a frustrating term. Agni Pariksha and, to a lesser but still important degree, Chhoti Si Mulaqat focus on their heroines. The writers and directors give the women time and energy to think through complicated circumstances and make their own decisions. In fact, multiple generations of women have significant power in the stories: the girls' grandmothers are ultimately responsible for allowing and supporting the child marriages, and the girls' mothers are key figures in protesting the worth and validity of those marriages. But none of that means that the films as texts are thoroughly feminist, progressive, or even egalitarian. A story that was truly interested in having women in charge of the decisions that affect their lives would not marry them off as children and keep from them the complete knowledge of the situations that entrap them. It is Kirit/Ashok who holds the final card, and in both cases he plays it in a way that upholds his power to shape and approve of her choice.
But hey, it makes for good gifs.