When I dived into BR Chopra’s 1978 blockbuster Pati Patni Aur Woh, I was expecting myself to straight-up rage for the two-and-a-half hour duration of the film. But to my utter dismay, I must admit, I found myself sneaking in a few laughs at Sanjeev Kumar’s strangely admirable onscreen persona.
Starring Sanjeev Kumar, Vidya Sinha and Ranjeet Kaur, Pati Patni Aur Woh is a classic comedy film on extra-marital affairs. The plot is simple: Rajeet (Sanjeev Kumar) is married to Sharda (Vidya Sinha); soon, he begins having an extra-marital affair with his office secretary Nirmala (Ranjeeta Kaur). What follows is a straightforward tale of Ranjeet as he tries to keep his two worlds as far apart as possible.
Now, the plot itself is utterly plain and dated. It’s 2019 and we no longer represent women as abla naris who can’t see through men and their bullshit.
We also don’t endorse the treatment of women as slaves whose only job is to be at the beck and call of their husbands. Neither do we automatically sexualise women in male-dominated workspaces. Today, our portrayal of female characters is relatively less misogynistic. But since Pati Patni Aur Woh is more than four decades old, I’ll try to ignore that and instead talk about Sanjeev Kumar’s character. Because essentially, the movie is all about him.
We’re introduced to Ranjeet - a working class man with a poet’s heart. His day job is dull and boring, but he spices that up with shayaris that he pens down in a little green notebook of his. Since the first scene of Pati Patni Aur Woh, we’re sold this romantic image of Sanjeev Kumar’s character. He rejects masculinity through and through and it’s something BR Chopra explicitly proves to the audience at the very beginning of the film. Ranjeet is also a performer of sorts; he not only finds solace in writing poetry, but also enjoys performing it. However, beneath all these superficial layers, Ranjeet is a pathological liar. A truth that easily gets lost in the comic ridiculousness of the film.
Since the get go, Sanjeev Kumar’s character lies. Even when there’s no reason to. As a poet, it’s surprising to see Ranjeet have such little respect for the words he utters. When he first meets Nirmala, he tells her that he has an ailing wife back home to gain her sympathy. This kickstarts their romance as well as his long list of lies. To keep his double life going, Ranjeet begins to lie to his dutiful wife who awaits him back home at precisely 5 pm everyday. He also constantly lies to Nirmala about his supposedly bed-ridden wife. What’s weirdly fascinating is the sheer joy Ranjeet gets out of getting away with his lies.
Eventually one day, Sharda discovers a lipstick stain on Ranjeet’s handkerchief. To disprove her suspicions, Ranjeet plans an elaborate ruse by preparing a fake version of his personal diary in which he writes fake poetry about being committed to Sharda. All is temporarily settled until Sharda begins to doubt his excuses more and more. Eventually, her suspicions are proved right when she spots Ranjeet with Nirmala in a garden. But the mess doesn’t end there. Upon being confronted by his wife Sharda, Ranjeet’s instinct is to lie in increasingly more ways to cover up for the damage that he’s done.
Now, all this scheming and planning is hilarious only if you’re willing to turn a blind eye to Ranjeet’s problematic side and focus completely on Sanjeev Kumar’s effortless charm.
For Ranjeet, the whole thing is just a light-hearted (but elaborate) performance of sorts. He seems to live by an impromptu script written for his own pleasure. His determination to deceive and exploit the trust of those who love him knows no bounds. And his theatrical props include cheesy, well-scripted dialogues that seem a little out of place in the film’s everyday life setup (or is that just how they spoke in 1978?)
Naturally, Pati Patni Aur Woh is loaded with normalised patriarchal themes. Sanjeev Kumar’s character, despite its faults, is a subtle reaffirmation of the ‘boys will be boys’ sentiment. His morally bankrupt masculine behaviour is unabashedly glorified, and the women are reduced to objects - or pawns - in a story that’s only about him. In fact, even the onus of fixing his wrongdoings is put on the women in the film. For example, when Sharda realises the extent of his lies, she wants to leave but doesn’t because she feels responsible for being the one that breaks up their family. She is portrayed as selfish for wanting to choose herself over the possibility of a traditional Indian family. She ends up staying back in the marriage and the couple goes back to pretending like nothing ever happened. The last scene hints at a new adulterous romance between Sanjeev Kumar’s character and his new assistant.
But despite this aggressively millennial analysis of BR Chopra’s Pati Patni Aur Woh, the film is moderately enjoyable because of Sanjeev Kumar’s acting.
He convinces you that his tricks are harmless and entertaining, but only if you’re willing to give up your sincerity - a sacrifice I was all too willing to make. But will I be able to do the same when the infamous Kartik Aaryan remake of this film comes out? Probably not.