August 27, 2015
The Householder – India, 1963
There are four groups of people – the student, the hermit, the ascetic, and the householder – and of these four, it is the householder who is deemed to be the most superior. We learn this in the opening moments of James Ivory’s 1963 film, The Householder, and almost right away, we are led to see this as wishful thinking and not the golden rule. After all, if householders were truly valued, a man like Prem would be a figure of great esteem instead of one constantly made to feel insignificant and inferior.
As the film begins, we see Prem, played by Shashi Kapoor, reclining outside his apartment on a mattress. His wife, Indu (Leela Naidu), lies close by on an adjacent mattress, and it is clear from their playful interactions that they are indeed happily in love. Later, at the wedding of his boss’s son, Prem notices concern and angst on the face of the groom, and right away, we know that what is transpiring is not of the groom’s choosing. Prem takes it upon himself to let the groom know that those feelings are natural. More importantly, he tells him, they may one day blossom into true love. And he should know.
The film then flashes back so that we can see what the groom is hearing, and this approach is problematic. Simply put, it robs the film of any potential surprise or suspense. Whatever obstacles the film will now show us are to be transitory, and any questions about whether their relationship will survive are already answered. The danger in this approach is that the audience may watch what comes next with a certain degree of indifference or emotional distance, for who needs to invest themselves in the couple’s more challenging moments if it has already been established that their marriage survives?
Now imagine the film without the first scene. What we would see first is a young man unready for the world, a man married to a woman whom he neither knows nor particularly likes, and one struggling to make it in India’s highly divided society. We would watch as he attempts to apply order to his marriage in a way that his mother would like but that his wife finds humiliating. We would then see them grow apart, separated by their longing for what once was, each of them clinging to the past as if could somehow be the foundation for their future. We would feel for them, as they dealt with sadness so profound that even the news of a new addition to their family would not be enough to snap them out of their despondency. And we would know that if that couldn’t do it, the imminent arrival of Prem’s mother was not likely to make it any more bearable. In other words, we would be actively involved in whether this couple found a way to make it work. Instead, we just watch passively, knowing that their unhappiness is temporary and that Prem’s mother will eventually depart.
This does not mean that the film is without merit. I quite enjoyed what the film had to say about the prevalence of classism and the rich’s inability or unwillingness to consider the plight of those less financially fortunate than themselves. I was also rather moved by the actions of Prem’s mother. One can only assume that she too was once a young woman with dreams of a romantic life, yet from the way she describes her past, it appears that any respect she got in her marriage was the result of her putting her husband first and never questioning that her role in the family was a subservient one. That she now expects the same sacrifice from her daughter-in-law is an indication of just how ingrained these ideas can become if we do not feel free to challenge them.
The film also reveals the crippling classism that exists and the emotional toll that poverty can have on a marriage, as well as one’s psyche. In many scenes, we watch as Prem is given the subtle but obvious message that those who are not wealthy deserve what the wealthy give them and nothing more. It is no wonder then that Prem begins looking for other paths to happiness. Unfortunately, this search leads him to befriend an American who has come to India looking for answers to those eternal matters of the purpose of life, the quest for true happiness, and the path to spiritual purity. I say unfortunately because the character never feels truly authentic. He has too much energy and talks far too much in riddles and clichés. Perhaps he would be a better fit for a Fellini film.
Naidu does a commendable job in the film, yet she is slightly hampered by a script that does not allow her to show her budding feelings for her husband. Similarly, Kapoor proves himself adept at playing a character yearning to be heroic and strong, yet hindered by self-doubt and an awareness of how little power he has to change his fate. What he does not demonstrate in this film is the ability to portray emotional change and newfound attachment over time. He literally goes from being annoyed with his wife to being in love with her, and there is little to explain the change. It’s almost as if the film is saying that all a struggling couple needs to save their marriage is an unintended pregnancy – a rather ridiculously dated notion. As Prem’s mother, Durga Khote fares much better, and she gives what is probably the most memorable performance in the film.
In the end, The Householder is a decent film that never quite grabbed me the way I felt it should have. It contains three interesting lead characters, yet is hampered by a script that doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. Therefore, it doesn’t fully commit to the drama it creates, and it never allows any of its comic moments to completely develop, perhaps because to do so would diminish the film’s much more contemplative moments. By the end of the film, I felt content with what I’d seen, yet I was not entirely moved by it. It had ended just as the first scene had suggested it would, and in truth I wanted more. (on DVD)