Mamta: A movie review

In the year 1963, Asit Sen released the Bollywood film Mamta that was based on an award winning Bengali movie Uttar Falguni. Riding on the box office success, Sen went on to make Tamil and Malayalam versions of the film. In each language, the film has a different title, and just an analysis of these would unearth a range of subcultural nuances in meanings and metaphors, perhaps even another Masala Chai essay. For this post, we look at the story-line, the characters, their relationships and the many shades of love that emerge from the main story as well as the nuances that emerge through the dialogues. It is fascinating to note that underneath the main narrative of a mother’s unselfish and self-sacrificing devotion for her daughter, there is a complex portrayal of relationships of selfless love by an unrelated man, the dismissive scorn of a mother towards her son’s loved one, the greed of a biological father, and a mother’s explorations of her own feelings about love and longing. The film can be analysed at several levels and we make an attempt to uncover some of the meanings that we encountered in the story. We will also touch on the issue of the language titles, albeit with little knowledge of the original meanings intended by the Director and Producer of the movies.

First let us get down to the storyline because without that, it will be impossible to discuss the meanings. Get your cup of masala chai and prepare yourself for a long-ish essay. Please remember that the film was made in the 1960’s at a time when family life was bound by stricter conventions and cinema was limited in what could be shown. Bollywood was well-known for melodramatic fantasy stories of family life and romantic love even then, but the occasional film provided much relief by raising social issues and touching delicate subjects with aesthetic artistry. Clearly, the director Amit Sen, follows the tradition of his mentor Bimal Roy by taking Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s story to explore unconventional relationships with great finesse. Despite having the same actress in the lead role, the Bengali version Uttar Falguni is far more subtle than Mamta on account of the black and white simplicity within which the dramatic scenes emerge as somewhat tempered. However, the Hindi version has a young Dharmendra (Indraneel) and an older Ashok Kumar (Manish) who are, as always, powerful and persuasive. Three songs instantly hark back to the sepia-tinted memories of an older world, not a simpler one! Here are the links for easy access:

  1. Chhupa lo dil mein yun pyar mera
  2. Rahen na rahen hum both versions:
  3. In baharon main akele:

The story: Layers within layers of love and loss


Mamta is a story of a woman’s journey through love in its many manifestations: longing, loss, lust, greed, destruction, awakening, reawakening, sacrifice, submission and salvation. The film moves back and forth in time opening with a stylized dance sequence of an entertainer, Pannabai, her daughter Suparna and a ‘nani’ (an older woman addressed as maternal grandmother) who is the owner of a Kotha[1], or singing house. The story travels through Debjani’s journey from a young woman compelled into becoming a courtesan, Pannabai, and her ultimate return to her old identity in the final drama in a courtroom.

Beautiful young Debjani grows up motherless, but under the care of her affectionate and devoted father who chooses the life of a single father for his daughter’s sake. They are poor but happy. Debjani meets a wealthy young law student Manish, and they both confess their love for each other. The father is approving, and the two agree to wait to be married until Manish can complete his law degree from a College in London. Before leaving, Manish assures Debjani of his unfaltering commitment to her and an assurance of his mother’s support in case of any need.

Affectionate but perhaps imprudent, Debjani’s father’s debts pile up and he confronts the loss of house and hearth, falling prey to the manipulations of a money-lender, the lecherous drunk Rakhal who proposes a way out of the impending disaster, Debjani’s hand in marriage. Deep in despair, Debjani makes one last attempt to save her father and herself by approaching Manish’s mother for a loan of 10,000 Rupees, but she is turned away. Manish’s mother sees her as a manipulative temptress and turns her out with a warning to never return either to this house or to Manish. Unbeknownst to Manish, Debjani is married to Rakhal and her life is forever changed.

Rakhal turns out to be even more abusive than he appeared, and when Debjani is confronted with the prospect of being sold into prostitution by her own husband, she flees the scene, pregnant with her first child and desperate. She boards a train to nowhere and contemplates jumping to her death. Moments before she plunges to her death, she is yanked back by her sleeping companion, an older woman woken up by the gush of the cold winter wind. This is Chhaya Devi, the owner of a Kotha in Lucknow who takes Debjani under her wing. Devi trains Debjani in dance and song and together, the two women bring up little Suparna in the folds of an affectionate albeit unconventional setting. A chance encounter with the wayward Rakhal some years later brings back the darkness. Threats, blackmail and kidnapping attempts are made, but Rakhal doesn’t want the child, he only wants a regular income to feed his habits. So, the child stays, and he extracts his regular payments, but Pannabai is shaken and resolves to separate Suparna from her low life. She asks their kindly physician for help and a missionary school is approached through his recommendation. Mother Mammen, the Principal of the school remains unmoved by the request saying that the hostel was for children of respectable families. In desperation, Pannabai aka Debjani narrates her story to the nun and broken as she speaks, she leaves the office to find solace under a statue of the Virgin Mary on her way out. The Mother is moved and seeks resolve through prayer and follows her, taking the child affectionately into the school. The scenes are powerful and poignant as Pannabai watches her little daughter from a distance, one of the many uniformed young girls in a single file, headed for the hostel. She is heart-broken but determined to save her child from herself. “Suparna will lead a successful life. She will not have a life like mine. She must not be touched by mine.”

Pannabai abandons her career as a dancer and returns to Calcutta to be near her daughter’s school. A chance encounter with Manish soon after brings him back into her life. Manish is now a well-known barrister and still bears a grudge against Debjani, who he believes is happily married. He has remained single and clearly still in love with her. He is informed by a well-wisher that the woman he was talking to was not respectable, a well-known entertainer, a prostitute. After some sparks between them, Pannabai/Debjani discloses her secrets to Manish, and they pick up where they left off, two lovers separated by misfortune, but this time, it is friendship that emerges, a long and sustained companionship. Manish instantly takes charge of Suparna and, quite unmindful of social disapproval, continues to meet with Debjani.

Suparna had been told that she is an orphan, and Manish is addressed as kakoo (affectionate term for father’s younger brother). She too is sent to London for studying Law where she meets with and befriends Indraneel, a young and handsome lawyer, a self-made man with no family of his own. Indraneel returns to India and joins Manish’s firm through an introduction from Suparna. When she returns, she too joins manish’s practice and the two young lover work alongside. In the shadows, Debjani longs to see her daughter, but fears that her ailing heart may explode if she confronts her, but when Manish arranges a chance encounter with Indraneel in his office, the reticent Debjani takes refuge of her sari to cover her face, but looks straight at the handsome face reflected in the glass on Manish’s table. She is moved beyond words to lay her eyes on her daughter’s love. On another day, she hides behind a pillar to look down at Suparna in gay abandon at a party being hosted in honour of her graduation by Manish. Manish and Debjani’s relationship is left untouched beyond their deep affection for each other. Debjani persists in her resolve that her love for her daughter is the reason why she must not let her know about the past, she must not be touched by the dirt of her mother’s life.

The story is punctuated by the periodic entry of the evil husband, and each time, this signals a transformation in the storyline. Rakhal happens to see Suparna (Debjani’s lookalike) in court when he appears as an accused in a small crime. Driven by greed, he turns upon Debjani with renewed vengeance, threatening to ruin their daughter’s life and love. There is no way Indraneel would marry the daughter of a person suspected of being a prostitute, he says. In a fit of desperate rage, Debjani shoots him and is jailed, pending a trial for manslaughter. Manish persuades her to let him fight for justice on her behalf, but how can justice be done without laying out the truth? The trial drags and reaches an impasse when the prosecutor demands to know where this ‘so-called daughter’ is whom Debjani was trying to protect.

Debjani appears exhausted with the trial, and pleads with Manish to let go, what if Suparna and Indraneel find out? What if………..? Manish continues with the defense secretly, keeping both the young ones away from the court, busy with other cases. Suparna’s suspicions are raised by the secretive sessions in court and she learns some details about the case. Angry with her belved kakoo, she turns on him before the final day at court demanding to know why a man like him, upright and idealistic, would stoop to defending a low and dirty criminal. Manish is so roused by the accusation that the truth comes tumbling out. This would be the ultimate injustice to Debjani, and he realizes he has to release all of them by letting out the truth. A progressive and supportive Indraneel urges Suparna to take to the stand for the next hearing and the film ends with a passionate delivery and dramatic disclosure, one that takes a final toll on Debjani’s heart. The film ends with the mother in her beloved daughter’s arms, vindicated for her actions and her self-sacrificing love for her daughter.

The film in four languages

Although the Hindi movie is titles simply Mamta, the other three languages have other references. In Tamil, the title Kaaviya Thalaivi (தமிழ்: காவியத்தலைவி) is used and translates into ‘Epic heroine’ or ‘Queen of Arts’! The Malayalam version focuses on worship or sacred floral offering at a place of worship, as the title Pushpanjali implies. In Bengali Uttar Falguni (সুচিত্রা সেন উত্তর ফাল্গুনি), the title of the original movie, refers to a phase of the moon that can be linked to a person’s fate, but we are still researching the connection with the story.

Mamta: Love and selfishness

The film progresses at several levels, but the discussion of Mamta, of the self-sacrificing love of a mother, is most evident and is the main storyline. A mother’s love is so powerful, it can even supress itself if it benefits the child. Debjani is shown as deeply emotional, strong and determined. There are several dialogues in the film where Debjani is heard saying in a whisper, praying to “keep my daughter safe and protected, God. Please give me all her pain and suffering”. Paradoxically, her emotions are shown as a strength as well as something that leaves her vulnerable, perhaps the cause of a weak heart as she ages.

There are other kinds of love that the film explores. Of course there is romantic love, both Manish and Debjani as well as Suparna and Indraneel express. The song lyrics and dialogues expressing romantic love between the younger couple is bolder, more expressive and comfortable in self-presentation, whereas that between Debjani and Manish is shy, reticent and restrained throughout the movie. Regarding other relationships, Debjani remembers her father’s dedication to her care, saying that she lost her mother, but not a mother’s love because her father fulfilled that role. Further, when the courtesan Chaaya Devi saves Debjani from the jaws of death in the train and takes her under her wing, her love for the young woman is hinted to be maternal, in the fact the little child refers to her as nani or maternal grandmother. Maternal love is thus manifested in different relationships, radiating from the most powerful version in Debjani, that provides her with so much strength but leaves her physically vulnerable with a heart condition. There is a point when she actually says that she fears coming face-to-face with her daughter because she thinks her heart may explode!

Maternal-like love is depicted as possible from a father as well as an unknown person! As the story advances, we find an example of another version of the mother. Manish’s mother’s rejection of her son’s romantic love is shown in her scathing attack on Debjani when she comes for help. Here, we are shown how a mother’s selfishness and lack of concern for her son’s affection is translated into her deep resentment of his lover.

Almost halfway through the film we encounter a discussion about love and selfishness. This is one of the most powerful moments in the film that happens at a time when Manish and Debjani settle into a comfortable companionship with each other. Manish has taken charge of Suparna and Debjani remains in a separate home, by herself, watching her world from a distance. She must keep her distance from her precious daughter whom she must keep a distance from for her own (the daughter’s) sake. Here is the transcript of the conversation:

Manish brings the papers related to Debjani’s inheritance that she bequeaths to her daughter asking her with a gentle touch to her shoulder:

Manish: You have given everything you own to Suparna. You haven’t kept anything for yourself.

Debjani: There is nothing that is mine. Whatever there is for her. Suparna must never be wanting for anything. She should not have any problems in the future.

Manish: I too work through the day, I work hard, I earn money. Who is this for? This is also for Suparna only.

Debjani: Manish (caressing his arm, looking deeply into his eyes), all this that you are doing, you are doing on account of the fact that you love her, isn’t it? (Affirmation, not question). But in your love, in your affection, there is no trace of selfishness…….But I……I am selfish…..whatever I am doing for Suparna………maybe from that I am seeking my salvation. A salvation from the bitter curse of this life”.

[1] To read more about the Kothas or entertainment houses of Lucknow where Pannabai takes refuge:

Link to the Hindi movie:

Link to the Bengali movie:

Source of title picture:

Other sources:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s