A handsomely shot drama centered on a Hindu woman’s travails during the 1947 Partition, “Pinjar” ranks as one of the better Bollywood treatments of this still hot-button issue. Good performances, especially by lead actress Urmila Matondkar and by Manoj Bajpai as her Muslim partner, compensate for a slightly wobbly structure in which the heroine is not sufficiently the driving force of the three-hour picture. Despite good reviews, the big-bucks ($2.9 million) production performed below par in most areas of India last fall, but this deserves a place in any Western programmers’ lineup of recent Bollywood product.
Though in no way an art movie, pic is considerably less mainstream than 2001 megahit “Gadar,” a cross-religious love story which concentrated more on heroic antics than the emotional conflicts of Partition. Set in Punjab, northwest India, movie opens in August 1946 with violence between Muslims and Sikhs at the holy city of Amritsar. A year later, the story zooms in on the comfy, middle-class Sikh family of Mohani (Kulbushan Kharbanda), who’s arranging the marriage of his sprightly daughter, Puro (Matondkar), to young Urdu scholar Ramchand (Sanjay Suri) in a neighboring town.
A flurry of musical numbers early on sketch Puro’s family life, Ramchand’s studious character and the sadness of Puro’s mom (Lillette Dubey) at the forthcoming loss of her daughter. This is standard stuff — though smoothly handled by debuting writer-director Chandraprakesh Dwivedi — before the real drama kicks in with the kidnap (and unshown rape) of Puro by Rashid (Bajpai), a Muslim peasant.
It’s here the film starts to become interesting, as Mohani, after finding out who the kidnappers are, accepts the situation and writes his daughter off. The kidnap, it turns out, is payback for a long-ago insult by Mohani’s family against Rashid’s that Mohani is anxious to keep under wraps. Even when Puro manages to escape, Mohani won’t accept her back, as she’s been “tainted” by being in the rival family’s house.
Part I ends with Rashid carting Puro off to a remote village to begin a new life as a Muslim wife, renamed Hamida. As Partition takes effect during Part II, and Puro finds she is now living in what is Pakistan, she accepts her inevitable isolation, even though she still thinks of Ramchand. Meanwhile, her politicized brother, Trilok (Priyanshu Chatterjee), who’s married Ramchand’s sister, Lajo (Sandali Sinha), is still searching for her.
Pic has a problem juggling all its characters and separate storylines in Part II — script’s source is a novel by co-scripter Amrita Pritam — while still trying to keep Puro’s quandary center stage. Last few reels re-establish Puro’s story, for a nice dying close, though ironically only at the expense of the other characters.
Matondkar (“Bhoot”), who’s maturing into an interesting actress, manages to portray Puro without too much overstated grief, and she and Bajpai show good onscreen chemistry as the latter’s character morphs into a genuinely caring husband trapped in a family-honor situation beyond his control. Pic is rich in supporting thesps, from vets like Kharbanda and Dubey to younger ones such as Chatterjee and Suri.
Don’t look to “Pinjar” for any thoughtful analysis of the politics behind Partition, or a Western-style essay on femme rights. But as a personalized, unhysterical view of the emotions at work, it’s a handsome slice of entertainment that, on balance, succeeds. Title literally means “skeleton,” referring to Puro’s wasting away when divorced from her roots.