The year is 1934 and in a female prison, a warden reads out a list of prisoners´ names to check their presence. When he reads out Kalyani´s name, he hesitates with disbelief and looks at Kalyani (Nutan). Not having bothered to look at any of the female prisoners´ faces while reading out their names, he feels obliged to look at Kalyani when he reads her name. He is not the only one to have this type of reaction. When a prison inmate is struck with TB and no one is prepared to look after her (and risk being infected), Kalyani is the only woman who comes forward to volunteer and mutters, "main tayyar hoon". Doctor Devendra (Dharmendra) is dumbfounded. Why would such an attractive young woman put her life at risk? Is this selfless, gentle and caring Kalyani the same person who is serving a jail sentence for committing murder?
Devendra´s fascination for her slowly blossoms into love. His fondness confuses Kalyani. Why would a respectable handsome man like him be so interested in a woman with a murky past? Their situation is best summed up in one scene. As Kalyani passes Devendra a needle for the TB patient, both their hands accidentally meet around the needle. The needle is a metaphor for their situation. It is good for treatment but it hurts a little once it jabs into your skin. In a similar way, their healthy feelings of affection is good for them but before they can truly be together, they may have to suffer emotional pain.
On an inspection visit, a superintendent examines the yard where flowers are grown. He admires one lovely flower but then immediately destroys it, reasoning that a jail has no place for delicate flowers. This sparks a thought in Devendra´s mind about Kalyani. Her name is written down to be considered at a prison governors´ meeting for a possible early release for good behavior. Consumed by his love for her, Devendra cannot bear to work any longer and resigns from his job. Unable to recount it face to face, Kalyani reveals her past by writing in a notebook.
A flashback begins and Kalyani is reeling from the tragedy of her brother´s death. A brave young man, he died while trying to save someone´s life. She soon meets Bikash Ghosh (Ashok Kumar), a man who is not dissimilar to Kalyani´s brother in that he is prepared to sacrifice his life in order to have an India that is free from British rule. Attracted to this quality, Kalyani falls in love with him and he too has similar feelings for her. The happy part of this flashback is charmingly characterized by romantic and mythical tales of Radha and Krishna culminating in a melodious song, "Mora Gora Ang Laile, Mohe Shaam Range Deide" (sung by Lata Mangeshkar). This beautiful song is about Radha´s attempt to creep out into the night to meet Krishna but hoping that she can hide her fair face.
So far, the days are bright and sunny but bad weather is not far away. A stormy night interrupts this idyllic dream. A fever-stricken Bikash comes to Kalyani´s house to ask about her, as he has not seen her for a few days. But he is too ill to be able to go home in such cold weather so Kalyani asks him to stay the night. This simple act of kindness has enormous consequences for the both of them as the gossiping villagers jump to conclusions that the unmarried couple spent the night together for immoral reasons. Bikash panics and tries to defend Kalyani´s honour by saying that they have already married. The villagers know that Bikash is lying so he must truly honor his word and marry Kalyani. But, before he can do that, he has to go somewhere, promising that he will make Kalyani a happy woman once he returns. Kalyani waits... She waits... And she waits. This is shown in a wonderful montage sequence of shots of Kalyani waiting in the pouring rain, ducks sitting in the puddle and her father (Raja Paranjpe) sitting inside the house waiting for news. The ducks are a connotation for Kalyani´s fate. They are not strong enough to fly far away so must wait in their puddle and make the best of whatever happens.
Feeling bad for bringing shame on her father, Kalyani flees the village and finds work as a maid in a city hospital. Realizing that Kalyani deserves different work than just being a maid, her boss assigns her to look after a patient. Even this kind act turns out to be a nightmare for Kalyani as her patient proves to be extremely difficult and rude. More bad news for her as she finds out that her estranged father has passed away. In a traumatic state of mind, Kalyani returns to attend to her patient but finds her locked in an intimate conversation with her husband... who turns out to be Bikash. A confused, shocked and bewildered Kalyani goes back up to the kitchen to make a cup of tea for her patient. Not far away from the kitchen is a cabinet where dangerous hospital chemicals such as poison is kept and ideas begin to enter Kalyani´s head... Outside the hospital kitchen, welding work is being carried out. Fireworks fly as Kalyani´s mind entertains drastic ideas. There is a brilliant shot of Nutan´s head in extreme close-up while one can still see the vivid yellowness of the sparks through the window in the background. The shot is achieved in such a way that it looks like the sparks are flying around her head. The rhythmic noise of clanging metal sounds like pressured heartbeat. This is a statement that, yes, Kalyani´s heart is beating but it is an unnatural and fevered heartbeat, a heartbeat that leads her to carry out such a terrible crime. Nutan acts wonderfully here utilizing the use of her eyes in portraying a temporarily mentally unbalanced woman. Her dilating eyes suddenly make her look like an innocent and confused child.
The flashback ends here and Kalyani´s notebook is shown to Devendra´s mother. Out of love for her son, she agrees to accept Kalyani as a future bahu. The green light is given for her release from prison and with a warden as her companion, she leaves to go to Devendra´s house. At the train station, she accidentally meets Bikash once again. Will they be able to clear the air once and for all? Can Kalyani ever forgive Bikash for all the misery that he has inflicted upon her? What will she choose? A new life with Devendra or start all over again with Bikash?
"Bandini" is the ultimate Nutan film. It is a great example of her natural acting style. Her subtle and poetic acting technique lends a compelling touch to even the most melodramatic scenes. The plot rests entirely on Nutan´s shoulders and her marvelous acting makes it work. As most of the story is based on Kalyani´s memory, there is no ambiguity about whether her viewpoint should really be trusted. Bimal Roy wisely works the film up to her flashback sequence leaving enough time for the audience themselves to judge Kalyani´s character through their own eyes. Her actions before the flashback sequence begin shows that she is an honest and kind character, which makes it easy for the audience to be on her side throughout the flashback scenes. Some of the choices that Kalyani makes may be wrong ones but as the plot unfolds through her eyes, it is easy for us to understand and identify with her actions. Ashok Kumar matches Nutan step for step in the acting stakes. He brings an air of sympathy and bravado to his character. Bikash is a character who is very strong and gutsy when it comes to fighting for India´s independence but he proves to be a coward in situations dealing with his relationship with Kalyani. Dharmendra does not appear in the film as much as the other two main actors but he still leaves an impression as a kind and gentle doctor. His is a serene and delicate performance that helps set up the elegiac mood of the film before the flashback sequence begins.
Each and every one of SD Burman´s compositions leave a lasting impact. Whether be it Asha Bhosle´s "Ab Ke Baras" and "O Panchi Pyare", Lataji´s "Mora Gora Ang Laile" and "Jogi Jab Se Tu Aaya Mere Dware", Mukesh´s "O Jaanewale" and Manna Dey´s "Mat Ro Maata"... all of them are striking gems and are perfectly placed within the narrative. In my personal opinion, the best song is rendered by Burmanda himself. "O Mere Maanjhi, Mera Saajan Hai Us Paar" is a moving song that comes at the emotional climax of the plot. Gulzar and Shailendra must be commended for their exquisite lyrics that add richness to all of the musical numbers.
Finally, Bimal Roy´s direction is what makes "Bandini" come alive as a personal and poignant experience for the viewer. Roy plays with the narrative technique while the plot unfolds. During the flashback portion, Bikash recollects a story to Kalyani. Here, his own flashback begins within Kalyani´s flashback. Even then, it does not leave her point of view as his account is reconstructed from her memory. Roy lays the film with symbolism. During the “O Panchi Pyare” song, there is an intriguing point-of-view shot (through a prisoner’s eyes) looking at a tree through a window. Never has the reality of imprisonment been so stark as seeing a tree with free chirpy birds while having the view marred by heavy iron bars in the window. Kamal Bose’s provoking photography contributes a lot in making “Bandini” a memorable viewing experience. His photography adds a bleak feel to the prison setting whilst bringing a soothing aura to the beginning of the Kalyani-Bikash love story.
Roy turns the season into a character of its own and it represents the world versus Kalyani. The rain pours at precisely the moment that her misfortunes begin. She not only has to battle the awful weather when she is waiting for Bikash´s return, she also has to battle the sneering villagers. It is ironic how it is sunny when she is in jail... a symbol of how the sun has become her enemy. The sun used to provide Kalyani with comfort and pleasure before the betrayal began. Clearly, everyone has betrayed her whether it is her sniggering so-called childhood friends, her weak father or Bikash. The uncaring sun is a sign of that very betrayal. There is a scene where the sun returns just after there has been rain for a few days (when Kalyani has been waiting for Bikash´s return). This time, it is a different kind of sun. A sun that gives scorching heat and no longer inspires cheerfulness. On her way to a friend´s house (just before she receives the bad news that Bikash has married someone else and will never return), the sun peeks through the tree branches and taunts Kalyani with its heat. She turns round to look at the sun and gives it a disapproving look, as if to say, "I do not trust you anymore".
Roy did not direct any more films after "Bandini", which is a shame but at least he ended his directing career by leaving us with such an admirable gift.