K Balachander’s 1981 film 47 Rojulu is a study of domestic abuse, and I found it uncomfortable to watch. It’s melodramatic yet has a ring of realism, largely due to Jayaprada’s characterisation of Vaishali, and the often quite graphic violence. Chiranjeevi stars opposite in a negative role, and he doesn’t hold anything back.
The story is told in flashback, through the device of a visiting actress (Saritha) who comes to talk to Vaishali as preparation for a film. I have only seen this in an unsubtitled print, and it is a dialogue heavy film, so at first I was a little confused by the flashback structure. However, the emotional tone and pitch of the drama comes through loud and clear and I had no trouble in following the main story.
Vaishali (Jayaprada) and her brother are coming home from seeing Shankarabharanam (I think) at the cinema when she sees a wedding taking place. Kumar (Chiranjeevi) is discussing marriage with his parents and next thing you know, he is getting married to Vaishali. All looks fine until after the ceremony when he gets the wedding photographer to give him the film, and exposes all the rolls. Why wouldn’t he want pictures of his wedding day? He seems quite keen on the wedding night and wasn’t forced into the marriage (apart from some gentle parental coercion). Also a little odd, he tests to see if she can speak English. Soon after the wedding they move to France.
At first things seem fine. Kumar shows off the house in the countryside outside Paris, and introduces his naïve bride to heating, sliding doors, supermarkets and televised sports. They live in a cosy modern flat on the ground floor, and a woman called Lucy lives upstairs.
Then one day Kumar is chatting to someone in French and introduces Vaishali as his sister. Hmmmm. Of course she has no idea as she speaks only Telugu. It is clearly a lie when he says Lucy (Anne Patricia) is just a friend. There is an awkward dinner, with Lucy completely unaware Vaishali is married to Kumar and with Vaishali confused by who this woman is and why she acts so familiar with her husband. Lucy seems happily oblivious although she does realise Vaishali isn’t comfortable around her. And then one day Vaishali, overwhelmed by her unease and distrust, searches Lucy’s apartment and finds a wedding photo – of Kumar and Lucy.
If Vaishali asks any questions about their domestic situation, Kumar puts her down so she will feel ignorant and shut up. He cuts her off from any other Indian people in the area, and he is her only source of information. She loses her confidence, she feels stupid and disgraced, and she has no one other than Kumar. When she does a runner to Paris by herself, Kumar drags her home and burns her hand on a hotplate as punishment. It’s quite sad that Lucy tries to comfort her ill ‘sister-in-law’ when she is unwittingly part of the problem. Jayaprada does a great job of showing the changing emotions and moods of the abused wife. She really likes Kumar and her marriage when he is in a good mood, and Vaishali seems to excuse his early outbursts by blaming herself or thinks it is just because he is tired or stressed. Her growing realisation that she is in trouble and that her marriage is a sham is sad to watch.
Kumar does spend quite a lot of time with Vaishali (he doesn’t have a job as such) and seems affectionate and caring. They do the tourist thing around Paris, enjoying the sights and making fun of some fashionable locals. How he thinks he can keep hiding the truth is beyond me. Kumar justifies and rationalises – he sees no reason why he can’t have it all, and no compunction about hurting either of the women. He has an impulsive warmth which can be appealing, but that can swiftly turn to rage and brutality. His behaviour escalates from verbal nagging and bullying to physically attacking Vaishali.
In one sickening scene of what is essentially marital rape, he withholds her letter from home to coerce her into having sex. And when Vaishali falls pregnant he starts to really lose the plot as he sees his perfect life crumble. He seems to insist on a termination and certainly there is no baby later in the film, although how and if it was her choice isn’t revealed as far as I can tell. Chiranjeevi gives a strong and complex characterisation of a loathsome man. I certainly didn’t find the Chiru Mega appeal made the situation any more palatable, but his layered performance allowed me to empathise more with Vaishali’s disillusionment as she came to terms with the deception.
Some isolated and precarious locations seem intended to convey fear or dread, and I was certainly yelling at Vaishali to be careful, especially in one rooftop scene. Kumar abandons her in a forest at one stage, and tears the mangalsutra from her neck before leaving her in a park on another occasion. He uses her isolation and the unfamiliar surroundings to reinforce her caged existence. He also takes her to see a show of an ‘adult’ nature (to the Pink Panther theme music – how saucy) to prove his point that love and sex were different in France, but she is utterly repulsed by the spectacle. The cosy apartment that she loved on first sight becomes a prison.
The drama is almost claustrophobic as it all takes place in Vaishali and Kumar’s tiny world, so the support cast is small. Sarath Babu arrives late in the piece as Telugu speaking Dr Shankar, who becomes aware of Vaishali’s predicament. Ramaprabha is a petty thief who is hated by the wardrobe department and who gets Shankar involved in the situation. The plot manipulations required to get them into position don’t really stack up, but I was relieved to see Sarath Babu regardless. There is something very salt of the earth and reliable about him in these secondary good dude roles. And I was happy that once Ramaprabha’s character understood Vaishali’s situation, she reached out to help. Anne Patricia is not the best actress ever, but I felt sympathy for Lucy and was glad to see how her storyline played out.
Some things didn’t quite fit with the realism of the initial set up. Who travels with an electric hotplate or element just on the chance they will want to burn their spare wife? The songs added nothing to the narrative development so I would have left them out, or kept them as background. And the final chase was dramatic but didn’t make much sense, logistically speaking.
Lest this all sound too grim, back in the present day Saritha asks about the doctor, sparking an outburst from Vaishali. It seems she feels marriage is not essential for a good life. Hear, hear!
This is a difficult film for me to watch as I find the subject repugnant and to be honest, I prefer a Chiru I can cheer for. I do appreciate the nuanced and sympathetic but not sentimental portrayal of women and relationships. 4 stars!