Film-director Animesh Chowdhury was in Chitpore to sign a contract with Malati Mullick. After years as an assistant director, he had finally been given the responsibility to direct a film on his own. But no one in this world was less keen on spending money than his producer Mani Poddar. He had appointed Animesh on the condition that he would make a good film without spending more than eighty or eighty-five thousand rupees. Animesh knew, of course, that the figure would eventually touch a hundred thousand. But still, he was careful from the start. This meant a great deal of running about and hard work; even though he could have got others to do some of it, Animesh insisted on doing everything himself.
Not that Malati was not particularly well-known for her acting skills. She got by somehow. But the role selected for her was a minor one. A brief appearance as the wife of an unemployed man and mother of a sick child – the youngest daughter-in-law of the family. Two or three days of shooting in all. Even second-rung actresses would demand a large fee for such a role. He would get Malati quite cheaply in comparison. That’s what his friends had said. But when he went to Malati’s house in the evening she wasn’t there. ‘Didimoni has gone out with babu in the car,’ her maid said with a smile. ‘I have no idea when she’ll be back.’
Scribbling the name of the studio and the hour at which Malati could meet him, an irritated Animesh left. My evening’s ruined, he thought to himself.
An old friend of his named Binoy Chakraborty lived nearby, on Jai Mitra Street. His wife Lavanya always welcomed Animesh warmly when he visited, offering him tea and lavishing attention on him. In return, Animesh gave them passes to the movies. Since it had been a while since he had last visited them, he decided to drop in.
A lane that grew increasingly narrower. The ground floor of an old house. Binoy lived in virtual penury. He didn’t have a decent job. But still Animesh enjoyed spending an hour or two at this destitute friend’s home. What he got here was the taste of unaffected sincerity. Lavanya could never offer him anything more than a cup of tea and a chapati or two with vegetables, or perhaps some halwa if it happened to be early in the month. But she took such care of him – and was so happy to see him – that it was as though a celebrity had appeared unexpectedly at their home.
There was an argument of some sort going on inside, subsiding when he knocked on the door a couple of times. ‘Who is it?’ said Binoy, opening the door.
‘Come in,’ he said when he saw Animesh. But there was no warmth in the invitation – Binoy sounded miserable, his expression morose.
Lavanya looked glum as well. Things were strewn around the room. Binoy’s shirt was rolling in the dust. Each half of his pair of shoes was in a different corner. Binoy’s dark-skinned son of three, his head shaven, had picked up one of the shoes. A couple of small paper packets lay on the floor. One of them had burst, spilling some dal.
Animesh had no trouble concluding that there had been something of a fracas a few minutes ago.
After a single look at Animesh, Lavanya swiftly began to clean up the room in silence.
‘Did I spoil all the fun?’ asked Animesh. ‘Domestic strife seemed to have been at its peak when I turned up. Has quarrelling become second nature to you, Binoy?’
Making room for his friend on the bed, Binoy felt in his pocket for a cigarette and tried to hand it to Animesh.
‘Have one of mine,’ said Animesh, offering his packet of Gold Flakes.
Lighting up and taking a couple of drags, Binoy said, ‘Do you think I enjoy these arguments and scenes every day? But if one’s wife is going to be so adamant, how is one supposed to cope? Are we the only ones to have a child? Or is a child not allowed to fall ill? But does anyone’s wife bicker over medicine and food? One can only do as much as is humanly possible. If you pressure someone…’
‘Who’s pressuring whom, Animesh-da?’ Lavanya flared up. ‘We nearly lost our son to typhoid this time. Anyone who set eyes on him looked away, no one had imagined we’d be able to save him.
Lavanya suddenly pulled her son up from the floor with a jerk, forcing him to stand in front of Animesh. ‘Just look at the state he’s in. Does he even look like a human being anymore? He’s still limping. I took him to the doctor yesterday. He said he won’t get better unless we can give him nutritous food. If his general health improves, so will his limp. So I asked for a tin of Ovaltine. That a man can be so angry because of this, use such bad language…’
Lavanya stopped. The sudden jerk on his arm had probably hurt the child. Just as he was about to start crying, Lavanya took him in her arms, saying lovingly, ‘No, you can’t cry with your uncle in the room. What will he say? He’ll say bad things about your everywhere. Do you know what lovely pictures he takes? You must take a nice picture of our Bintu.’
Lavanya smiled faintly.
This unexpected smile appeared beautiful to Animesh. Binoy’s wife was almost lovely in comparison to their son. She was fair, with sharp features. Her face was more than just a little attractive. She was about twenty-five or twenty-six. Tall and slim, she showed none of the ill effects of poverty. Such a frail son in Lavanya’s arms seemed incongruous. But motherhood made her appear even more graceful.
When Lavanya saw Animesh staring at her, she lowered her eyes in embarrassment. ‘You don’t visit us anymore these days, I believe you’re a director now…’
‘I am,’ answered Animesh with a smile.
Then he looked at his friend. ‘Really, this is no way to behave, Binoy – you need to take care of your son now. He’s barely recovered from a serious illness. Why didn’t you get the Ovaltine that Boudi had asked for?’
‘Why didn’t you get it,’ echoed a harrassed Binoy. ‘Do you suppose the order was just for a tin of Ovaltine? Biscuits for the boy, half a kilo of dal, tea – and all this at the end of the month. Tell me which of them I should have got. There would be hell to pay for whatever I couldn’t get, and if you’re going to talk of looking after the child, he’s not exactly being neglected, considering his father is only a clerk who earns seventy rupees a month.’
Tapping his cigarette ash on the floor, Binoy smiled peculiarly. ‘If she wanted to lavish more attention on her child, instead of having a clerk’s child she could have married a rich man and given birth to children in his home.’
‘Just listen to him talk,’ exclaimed Lavanya.
‘What is this, Binoy!’ Animesh chided his friend. ‘When did you learn to be so vulgar? Shame on you!’
Embarassed, Binoy was silent.
Animesh threw his friend a look of genuine compassion. It wasn’t just the things he was saying that were so coarse, even his appearance had changed for the worse. He couldn’t have been older than thirty-one or thirty-two, but his sunken cheeks and jutting jaw made him look as though he had long crossed over into the forties.
‘Have you managed some kind of part-time job, Binoy?’ asked Animesh.
‘No,’ Binoy shook his head. ‘I asked you many times…’
‘I tried,’ said Animesh, ‘but in our line…’
Taking some tea, sugar and two cups from the shelf, Lavanya went out through the back door. Her son limped behind her.
‘Must you tag along?’
Looking over her shoulder, Lavanya smiled at Animesh again. ‘It’s so difficult, he just won’t let me out of his sight for even a moment.’
Animesh noticed that she picked the boy up in her arms as soon as they went out.
‘You’re a director now, Animesh,’ said Binoy. ‘Give me a role or two. I could do with ten or twenty rupees.’
Animesh laughed. ‘Give you a role? You can barely talk to anyone properly, and you expect to act! The only role I can give you is a dead soldier’s, Binoy.’
Upon being mocked, Binoy looked at his friend steadily, and then smiled. ‘There’s nothing new about a dead soldier’s role, I play the part already. All you’ve done is to shoot a dead man. That’s all.’
Entering the room with two cups of tea, Lavanya smiled. ‘Now he’s quarrelling with you, isn’t he? So bad-tempered. He can’t pass a minute without quarrelling.’
Taking a sip, Animesh said to the smiling Lavanya, ‘Binoy wasn’t quarrelling, he was asking me for a role. What I say is, Binoy is no good, but you might just be able to do it, Boudi. Yes, you will be able to do it. Want to try?’
Lavanya smiled too. ‘Really? All right, give me a role, Animesh-da. When you’re the director, how can I not act?’
‘I’m not joking,’ said Animesh, ‘I mean it.’ Looking at Binoy, he said, ‘I’m serious, Binoy. If you agree we can give Boudi a small role.’
‘Really?’ smiled Binoy.
Animesh explained his plan. Why was Binoy laughing? What was wrong with the idea? Women from decent families were getting into acting these days. A very small role, no hanky-panky. Animesh would ensure that it was suitable for Lavanya. He would have her act as the mother of a sick child. Not more than three or four shots in all. And very little dialogue. Just one encounter with her husband. The other scenes would be with her son and an elderly doctor. Binoy and Animesh would both be present at the studio. Animesh would include Binoy’s son Bintu too. Lavanya would not have to do anything more than taking care of her child in front of the camera, just as she did in real life. She would have to be at the studio no more than three days in all. Animesh would persuade the producer to make a payment of three hundred rupees.
Three hundred rupees! Lavanya couldn’t breathe. So much! All the money they had borrowed for Bintu’s treatment could be returned. They would still have enough left over for some nutritious food for him, and new clothes. Lavanya would open a savings account for him too with twenty-five rupees. She had heard that rich people’s children had money in the bank. She wouldn’t let Binoy touch the money. But if all three hundred were paid at once she would have to buy Binoy something too, for he would be jealous otherwise. He didn’t have clothes he could wear to someone’s house, she would get some for him. Binoy was very keen on a cigarette-case, Lavanya would buy him one. She didn’t have a single decent sari in the suitcase. Not that she was going to ask for one – if Binoy chose to get her some, that was different. Lavanya did know that the first thing he would try to buy on getting some money would be saris for her.
‘You’re joking,’ said Lavanya inaudibly.
‘No Boudi, not at all,’ replied Animesh. ‘If you agree, I’ll make the arrangements.’
‘But what will people say?’ said Lavanya.
‘Why should they say anything?’ answered Animesh. ‘What’s wrong with this? Besides, you needn’t use your own name if you don’t want to. We can use a different name, not Lavanya.’
Before he left, Animesh entreated his friend once more. Let them think it over at night. But they would have to give their word to him by ten the next morning. If Binoy wasn’t willing, Animesh would sign a contract with someone else. He couldn’t delay this. Half the shooting was done. He had to finish the other half within a month.
Lavanya and Binoy both walked Animesh to the front door.
‘But do you think I can do it?’ asked Lavanya. ‘You’ll show me what to do, won’t you?’
‘Of course,’ Animesh told her. ‘What can I possibly teach you about how a mother takes care of her child, or how she feels when her son is severely ill?’
The next morning Binoy informed Animesh that Lavanya had agreed. ‘But it would be best to change her name,’ he added.
‘Is that what you want, or what she wants?’ asked Nimesh with a smile. ‘When Boudi becomes famous, she may regret having changed her name. Anyway, all that will come much later. We’ll see then.’
Malati arrived at the studio the next afternoon. She was over thirty. The signs of intemperance were evident on her face, although she had desperately tried to conceal them under a thick layer of powder. With lipstick, a loud sari, and her jewellery and hairdo, she was clearly trying to establish herself as eighteen.
Frowning, Animesh said, ‘You’re too late, Miss Mullick. I’ve taken someone else.’
‘What!’ said Malati. ‘You’d said to meet you at noon at the studio today. It’s five to twelve.’
She held her watch up to Animesh.
‘I had to sign the contract this morning,’ said Animesh. ‘I was in a big hurry. We’re resuming the shooting tomorrow, you see. Besides, when I thought it over I realised a mother’s role wouldn’t have suited you. If there’s a suitable role for you we’ll certainly…’
Malati said, her face contorted with rage, ‘I’ve seen hundreds of small-time directors like you, Animesh-babu. You’ve gone from photographer to director. A dwarf reaching for the moon. You think no end of yourself now. Wouldn’t have suited me! And why not, exactly? Never mind a mother – an aunt, a grandmother, a sister, you name it, I can play it. If I want to. But no one has managed to make me play such roles yet. I wanted to act in your film out of my own choice. By all means don’t sign me on, but as the saying goes, one swallow doesn’t make a summer.
Malati raved for some more time before storming out.
Binoy had brought Lavanya and their son to the studio for Animesh to show them around. Lavanya was amazed at the sight of the make-up and euipment. Even the lethargic and feeble Bintu was excited, babbling away unintelligibly in his mother’s arms, waving his hands.
There was just a day to go. No time to rehearse. This was how it was in films. Animesh was used to setting things up quickly, but still he found the time to visit Lavanya at home and make her rehearse the scene. The son had a couple of lines of dialogue, but because Bintu had not yet learnt to speak any words besides Baba and Ma, Animesh cut them out of the script. His crippled, repulsive appearance was a big asset for the film. He wouldn’t need to speak.
Animesh escorted Binoy and Lavanya to the studio himself in a car the next day. They ran into Malati at the entrance.
‘Ah, you here, Miss Mullick?’ asked Animesh, courteously sympathetic. ‘Got an assignment today?’
‘I came for a look at your new star,’ replied Malati. ‘That’s an assignment too.’ She peeped into the car with envious eyes. Lavanya looked away.
When she had left, Lavanya said, ‘Who was she? How she was staring! And so much make-up. Shame! Who was she?’
‘Not an easy customer, Boudi,’ said Animesh with a smile. ‘She was about to get your role. You didn’t notice, but Binoy was staring at her too.’
‘What rubbish,’ said an embarrassed Binoy.
Animesh had informed the producer in advance. Lavanya would not be as expensive as Malati. And besides, it would help the publicity for the film. What could be better advertisement than the fact that a beautiful housewife from a decent family had acted in it with her own son!
Animesh introduced Lavanya to Mani-babu. A pleasant face. Mani Poddar was happy. ‘Very nice,’ he said. ‘Lakshmi herself has deigned to step into my hut, Animesh-babu. How pale she looks, poor thing. Please take her to the refreshment room at once.’
The sets were put up. Nothing very lavish. The home of a poor lower-middle class family. Animesh practically recreated the kind of room Lavanya was used to seeing every day. The sick child lay on a tattered mattress and sheet on the floor. Her irresponsible, jobless coward of a husband was on the run. The doctor had refused to pay a visit unless he was paid his fees. There was neither anyone to send to the doctor, nor any money to pay him. All that the mother could do was look helplessly at her child. Her only jewellry were the traditional iron and shell bangles of the married woman. There was still a thin chain around the child’s neck. She had put it on him because he had been crying for it. How could she take the gold away from her golden child? But she had no choice. Stealing her son’s chain of gold, she went out into the storm to fetch the doctor.
This was the action to be shot on the first day. Animesh explained the entire scene to Lavanya over and over again. But she simply couldn’t get it right. Her face seemed unperturbed, without any misery, despair or rage showing. She appeared virtually expressionless. Her embarrassment and diffidence at being started at by several men was obvious. Lavanya kept trying to cover her head with the end of her sari. Eventually an irritated Animesh admonished her, ‘You don’t have the time to be embarrassed. Your son has malignant malaria. Worse even than typhoid. He might die within twenty-four hours. Go sit next to him, show your anxiety.’
But on the sets Lavanya’s hands and feet shook, and her lips trembled uncontrollably. She was gripped by a strange fear. It was not the fear of her son’s dying. Even if she somehow managed to sit by his side, her stiffness simply would not leave her. Sitting beside her son, Lavanya picked up a fan only to put it down immediately. ‘Is that how you fan someone?’ Animesh barked at her. ‘Your son is dying…’
‘No,’ said Lavanya, shaking her head.
After trying for an hour, Animesh gave up. ‘Can’t do it,’ he said helplessly.
Lavanya lowered her eyes in repentance.
Malati Mullick was sitting next to Mani Poddar. She had stuffed her handkerchief into her mouth at Animesh and Lavanya’s exploits. But her laughter wasn’t quite stifled.
‘See us through this time, Miss Mullick,’ said Mani-babu. ‘I don’t want the shooting to be delayed.’
Malati said, ‘I can, but not a penny less than a thousand.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Mani, ‘don’t worry on that score. If it gets late, I’ll drop you home in my own car.’
With a look at the old man with grey hair, Malati smiled knowingly. ‘Very well, but for now please hold on to my vanity bag, and get me the contract to sign.’
Malati returned from the make-up room in ten minutes, dressed in a cheap, dirty sari. A poverty-afflicted housewife with no adornment except the signs of her marriage. ‘Where’s the child then, Mr Director?’ she asked Animesh.
They would have to make do with Binoy’s son for the day, for there was no other child in the studio. Binoy agreed out of courtesy.
Malati wrinkled her nose when she saw the boy. ‘Is this your idea of a child, Mr Director? Is the best you could do after all this effort? What else can one expect from an amateur director? But how will I play his mother – even the thought of touching him makes my stomach turn.’
But on the sets Malati’s behaviour changed completely. When Bintu started crying, Malati distracted him with money and toys. Then began the process of caring for her sick child. Onlookers were entranced at the mother’s terrified, overwhelmed expression of anxiety and apprehension. Everyone felt that Malati’s suggestions were far superior to Animesh’s direction.
In between, Malati said with a smile, ‘Please don’t mind, Mr Director, but you are at best his adopted father, while I am his actual mother. How will you know better than me what I need to do?’
Malati acted brilliantly in the scene where she took the chain from her son. Exclaiming, ‘How can I bring myself to steal a chain from my darling’s throat?’ she stifled her tears so realistically that even Mani Poddar’s eyes misted over.
The cameraman shot the scene happily. Everyone agreed that the scene would be one of the strongest points of the film.
Getting off the sets with tears in his eyes, Malati stretched her hand out to Mani Poddar. ‘My cheque?’
‘I’m very pleased,’ said Animesh in satisfaction. ‘How did you manage to play a mother’s role so well?’
‘Out of jealousy, Mr Director, jealousy,’ smiled Malati. ‘You cannot act without the help of alcohol and malevolence. Have you finally realised who Bintu’s real mother is, and who the stepmother?’ With a sidelong glance at Lavanya, who sat with her head bowed, Malati told Mani, ‘Arrange for the car, Mani-babu. I’ll be back in a minute from the make-up room.’
Animesh offered to drop Lavanya and Binoy home too, but both of them refused. They didn’t need a car, the tram would be just fine. Animesh tried to wedge a ten-rupee note into Bintu’s hand, but Lavanya didn’t accept that either. ‘Give the money back and touch your uncle’s feet, Bintu, there’s no need to take it. When he brings you toffees later, you can take those.’
‘I apologise, Boudi,’ said Animesh.
‘There’s no need,’ answered Lavanya.
The film ran quite successfully for four weeks. Animesh’s first film had passed muster. Friends asked for passes and praised it afterwards. Only Binoy did not watch the film. Concluding that Binoy and Lavanya were embarrassed, Animesh went to his friend’s house one evening with a couple of passes.
Binoy looked even more gaunt. His clothes were the worse for wear. The room seemed emptier than earlier. Some of the furniture was missing, but still Binoy said, pretending to be happy at his friend’s visit, ‘Come on in. I thought you had abandoned us.’
‘Your film’s made quite a name for itself, I believe,’ said Lavanya.
‘Why believe in rumours,’ said Animesh. ‘Watch it for yourself. After which you can praise it or damn it, as you wish. Come my little king, come to me. Here are passes for all of you. Check for yourself how well you acted. You didn’t let me have him, Boudi, I had to go to a lot of trouble to find another child.’
Animesh looked at the sick, unclothed child. His leg seemed even more emaciated.
‘Isn’t he well yet, Boudi?’ he asked. “Did he fall ill again…’
Before he could finish, there was a knock on the door, accompanied by a deep voice asking, ‘Is Binoy-babu home? Binoy-babu?’
Binoy looked at this wife and whispered, ‘Damn. Animesh is the root cause of all the trouble, else I could have slipped away by now – he wouldn’t have found me home.’
‘Who is it?’ asked Animesh.
Binoy continued whispering. ‘Gobindo Pramanik, the landlord. He’s here for the rent. He’s making my life miserable, but what can I do – I haven’t a penny. Didn’t even get my full salary this month, since I’d taken advance payment.’ To his wife he said, ‘Tell him I’m not home.’
Lavanya glanced at Animesh.
‘No need to be embarrassed by Animesh,’ said Binoy. ‘We’re childhood friends. Tell him I’m not home. No one can beat Lavanya when it comes to getting rid of creditors, Animesh.’
Levelling a long look at him, she said, ‘Why will he believe me? He’s heard your voice already.’
Binoy lay down flat, drawing the sheet over himself. ‘Then tell him I’m very ill.’
Lavanya had a conversation in a low voice with the stranger at the front door. Then she returned with a middle-aged man in tow. ‘Come in, Kakababu. He’s too ill to get out of bed.’
Gobindo Pramanik the landlord came up to the middle of the room.
He was about fifty. Tall, well-built, and greying. Two of the shirt buttons near his belly were undone.
Binoy had turned on his side by now, still wrapped in the sheet. ‘What’s the matter, Binoy-babu?’ asked Gobindo-babu, looking at Lavanya. ‘Have you got a fever?’
Taking a step forward, he was about to touch Binoy’s forehead with his hand.
‘No Kakababu, it isn’t fever,’ answered Lavanya. ‘He doesn’t bother about fever. He’s been to the toilet at least twenty-five times since last night.’
Gobindo-babu retreated. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, at least twenty-five times,’ confirmed Lavanya. ‘Maybe more. He could barely get out of bed towards the end. I’m very worried, Kakababu. These are bad times.’
Animesh observed genuine terror and anxiety on Lavanya’s face for her husband. She didn’t seem to have got over yesterday’s fear.
‘There’s reason to be worried. People are falling seriously ill all over. Just diorrhoea, or vomiting too?’
‘Yes, voming too eventually,’ responded Lavanya. ‘Not a soul to turn to for help, no money – I just didn’t know what to do. Finally I sent word to my uncle. You know of Doctor Madhu of Shyambazar, don’t you? He’s my uncle. He panicked at first. Then by the grace of god… Have you seen the state he’s in Kakababu? Just two days.’
Lavanya moved the sheet off Binoy.
‘Did he eat something that didn’t agree with him?’ asked Gobondo-babu. ‘Even if he didn’t, you can never tell where the human body is concerned. Something can always go wrong.’
Lavanya placed her hand lovingly on her husband’s brow. ‘Are you asleep? Kakababu’s here to see you.’
Stopping her, Gobindo-babu said, ‘Never mind, no need to wake him up. I was going to talk about the rent. But no need to bring it up today. Although it’s been two months. Binod came a couple of days, but Binoy-babu wasn’t home.’
‘He will go to your house himself and pay the rent as soon as he’s a little better, Kakababu,’ said Lavanya. ‘No need to send Vinod. He’s a schooboy, he shouldn’t be missing his studies.’
Turning to Animesh, Lavanya said, ‘He’s a wonderful boy. I’ve seen many boys and girls, but no one as well-behaved as Binod. Kakababu’s one regret is that he’s not doing well in school. Failed not once but twice in Class Ten. But so what? Is education everything in a man’s life? And I can see very well what use a good education is. What matters is a person’s nature, don’t you agree? If you’re honest and tell the truth…’
‘Of course,’ said Animesh, gulping.
Lavanya introduced Gobindo-babu to Animesh. ‘He’s a very famous director,’ she said. ‘I know you don’t watch films, but the cinema people all know his name. They’re childhood friends. He heard of his illness and came to find out how he is.’
A little later Gobindo-babu said, ‘I have to go. Please don’t forget…’
‘Of course not,’ said Lavanya. ‘He will meet you as soon as he recovers. But you can’t leave just yet, Kakababu. Let me get you a cup of tea. You like tea, don’t you.’
Gobindo-babu said a trifle apprehensively, ‘Not today, never mind the tea, I don’t drink much tea nowadays.’
‘Very well,’ said Lavanya. ‘I won’t insist today Kakababu. The way things are, it’s best to take precautions and avoid contamination. But you must have a cup of tea another day. Promise before you go, Kakababu.’
Lavanya was smiling, her tone childishly demanding.
‘All right. Another day.’ Gobindo-babu left through the front door.
Kicking his sheet away, Binoy sat up. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked his friend. ‘I’m as good a director as you are.’
Animesh had been silent with astonishment all this time.
Animesh was hestitant to say anything at first, but, relieved by Binoy’s casual air, he tried to behave normally too. ‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘But the real credit goes to Boudi. Such an expert actress doesn’t need a director.’
He turned to Lavanya. ‘You’re as good as Malati Mullick in every way. But why did you panic the other day?’
Giving Animesh a long look, Lavanya offered an odd smile. ‘Malati would also have panicked had she been here. Even she wouldn’t have been capable of this.’
Startled by her choked voice, both the friends turned to look at her. The smile was intact at the corner of Lavanya’s lips. But why were her eyes moist?