Monday, November 23, 2015

Jamai Babu, directed by Kalipada Das

Jamai Babu
British India (silent with English, Bengali, and Hindi titles), 1931
23 min, slapstick comedy
Directed by and starring Kalipada Das

In this Charlie Chaplin-inspired silent film made in Calcutta, the country bumpkin Gobardhan arrives in the city, is confused by the traffic and noise, believes that a “no nuisance” sign is an address, and fakes illness to spend more time at his in-laws' house so he can sleep with his wife. This is the only surviving Bengali silent film, accidentally rediscovered by Mrinal Sen’s film crew while shooting on location in 1980.

Three versions

One of the most interesting things about this film is the multilingual titles. Like all silent movies, this one has title slides interspersed with the filmed sequences to provide context, narration and dialogue. But because of the multilingual milieu in which it was made, Jamai Babu has titles in three languages - English, Bengali, and Hindi – and they say slightly different things! This provides an interesting opportunity to analyze a film that was originally made in three different languages.

For example, at 4:44, the English-language titles say "What's this Amulda- are you not taking me with you?" but the Bengali titles say "What's this Amulda - you're leaving, are you not going to show me the city?" I don't know Hindi, but I expect that the Hindi version also says something slightly different. This difference is important because the next title screen contains the reply, in which Amulda says that he will show Gobardhan the city later. In the English version, this is a somewhat confusing reply, since the tour has not been mentioned before; in the Bengali version, however, it makes complete sense. Comparing the English and Bengali versions throughout the film, the Bengali version usually provides more context and humor, whereas the English one sounds overly formal and simplified.

When this film was first made, how did multilingual people negotiate these titles? Did they ignore all but one language, or read two or three and combine them to make a composite story? I have no idea, but it would be fascinating to find out.


One thing that really confused me about this film is why Gobardhan was not permitted to sleep with his wife. I am not sure what the context of this is, but when he tries to sneak into her room he ends up being misidentified as a thief and beaten up by his in-laws. Was Gobardhan only betrothed to his wife (i.e. the wedding ceremony had not taken place) at this point? Was it not permissible for husbands and wives to sleep together in the woman’s parents’ house in 1920s Calcutta? The title of the film indicates that they are married, as he is called a jamai, or son-in-law.

This early film also has a kissing scene between Gobardhan and his wife. This is important because the Indian Censor Board later banned the depiction of kissing with the excuse that it was too sexual.  One website thinks that this somewhat random scene possibly “evokes a tradition of pre-censorship pornographic film using Anglo-Indian actresses," but I wonder if the sudden jump to the kissing scene was caused by poor editing instead.

I’m not a big fan of Charlie Chaplin or live-action slapstick comedy in general, but this movie is interesting because of its age and provenance. I would recommend it for film buffs, especially those interested in silent movies.

Further Reading: 

"Cinema of Bengal: A Historical Narrative" by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri (Projectorhead)
"Revisiting Bengali films in the 100th year of Indian cinema" by Sharmistha Gooptu (Times of India)

Jamai Babu is available on Youtube here:

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