I can't remember if Hema-ji herself ever referred to her role in Laal Patthar as 'villainous' but I distinctly remember somebody describing it as such to me. Did this person watch the same movie as me, or are their memories of it just so hazy that they mistook this interesting, multifaceted role as simply a negative one, I'm not sure, but I would not call Hema Malini's character in the movie a villain at all. If anything, the movie steers clear of the classical villain types and presents us with the evil within us all instead.
Raaj Kumar plays a prince, who has vowed not to marry or drink because of a curse that runs in his family. Then one day while hunting for a tiger, he runs into a kidnapped girl, Saudamini (Hema) who he takes eventually takes as his lover (but not his wife). He tries to educate her, but she's lazy and obnoxious, and refuses to bend to his will. Decades later, he meets a young girl with a beautiful voice, Sumita (Rakhee), who he decides to take as his wife. Saudamini, now renamed Madhuri, is not happy to see another woman entering the household she has been in charge of for so long, but the difficult relations begin to unfold and of course, there is blood to be spilled.
The film is not flawless in the least, though it brought up a lot of thoughts in me, which I will get to later on. Raaj Kumar is very effective in the role (though I did not like his character), and this is definitely among Hema's strongest performances. The character she plays has layers that appear as the film goes along, and she's definitely not just a negative character. Laal Patthar is without a mainstream film, but it does manage to portray some rather non-stereotypical characters.
Very mainstream - or should I say masala - is also the symbolism used in the movie, cross-cutting that hammers a lot messages home a little too clearly. Not that I was looking for sublty but there were a couple of eyeroll moments here and there.
The soundtrack is standard, with one number that got stuck in my head, if only for the fact it was on the DVD menu. "Geet gaata hoon main" is sung by a character named Shekhar, played by Vinod Mehra, who has ties to Sumita. He becomes very important in the last third of the movie, which I will get to now.
The following part part is not so much a review but thoughts on the movie, its message and character relations.
SPOILERS to the end of the movie, until mentioned otherwise.
To me the true villain of the story is Kumar Bahadur (the princely title used for Raaj Kumar's character here). As a powerful scene - among the most powerful I have ever seen Hema-ji in - towards the end of the movie proves, he's merely been using Madhuri, wanting to shape her into the woman of his dreams without considering at all what she herself is really like. It's very telling that he's smitten with her up until the moment she speaks. She's but a doll, a plaything and when she opens her mouth and the cruel reality of the situation he put himself in becomes apparent, he casts her aside emotionally. He doesn't even try to love her for who she is and doesn't consider her feelings at all when bringing in a new girl into his house, one that is all that he hopes for.
In the end, it's him who performs the cruelest of things, playing people to his own revenge for suspicions that end up not even being true. And yet who does he blame for these things that he does? He blames a curse, a curse named after a woman, even though it is his own weakness to start drinking, his own paranoia that sets off the series of events. He blames Madhuri, even though she is nothing but a victim of unfortunate circumstances, and has merely adapted to the situation of being a lover to a man who will not marry her and does not love her (even though she loves him fiercely). He sees her as the reason, as the evil entity, even though the true evil is within himself, the thing that he gives into.
But what really interests me, or rather appalls me, is the fact that in the end, Madhuri stands by his side to the bitter end. Why does her love forgive these things, this emotional neglect for all those years, those hurtful words he's said to her? He deserves the fate he ends up with, and I find it somehow awful that she should be stuck with his fate as well. He loves Sumita and Sumita (to my disappointment, as she too would've deserved better) loved him back. Madhuri need not be in the equasion. The ending, and its message, annoys me no end. It's his fault that she became as she is, and he blames her for this. And yet she is not given the liberty to walk away from him - no, her love for him ties her forever to him, no matter what a horrible man he may be.
The message of the film, if I understood it correctly, is annoying to me to say the least. Perhaps there's another way of looking at this - I am very open to different interpretations and am glad the story brought up such strong reactions in me. A negative reaction is better than no reaction, and by no means is Laal Patthar a bad film. It's an okay film, with pros (Hema's performance) and cons (the ending). Should you be keen on seeing Hema Malini's personal favourite out of her own performances, definitely give it a try.