First of all, many many thanks to Suhan for sending this to me! I love films with a village setting, and Mumtaz, and Rajesh Khanna, and this has all three. Plus, it has quite an interesting premise, Meena Kumari in one of her last roles and Kumari Naaz, and I really wanted to see it.
In the end though, I had mixed feelings about Dushmun. I genuinely enjoyed a lot (even most) of it, but some of it I found troubling (that was intentional on the part of the makers), and some aspects were just irritating (not intentional) (and not Meena! she was actually very good and not at all weepy despite playing a put-upon widow).
Surjit Singh (Rajesh Khanna) is a hard-drinking truck driver. Leaving his co-pilot and friend Jaggu one night to change a punctured tyre, Surjit visits a local dancing girl named Chamelibai (Bindu) and stays the night with her. (He also sings a lovely song called “Sachhai Chhup Nahin Sakti” and looks verrry handsome with his gold earrings and his mouche.)
He oversleeps, and the next morning drives a little too fast in very foggy weather trying to make up lost time. Tragically he fails to see a farmer crossing the road with his buffalo, and hits them, killing both instantly.
The villagers and farmer’s family come running, and Surjit is arrested for reckless driving. In court, he faces a judge (Rehman) and pleads not guilty, blaming the fog for the accident. The judge sets his sentencing hearing after hearing the arguments on both sides. The farmer’s wife Malti (Meena Kumari) and her father-in-law (Nana Palsikar) go to see the judge and Malti asks him to sentence her family to death as well, since their sole means of support and survival is gone.
Her deceased husband was caring for his father Ganga, who is crippled, and his mother (Leela Mishra), who is blind. He was also about to get his sister Kamla (Kumari Naaz) married and had promised to pay a dowry, in addition to supporting Malti and their two sons, for whom he wanted to provide a good education. Now Malti justifiably fears that they will all starve. In addition, the buffalo that was killed alongside Ramdin is too expensive to replace, even if there was someone who could plough his fields.
The judge consults with the higher court, saying that he wants to both punish the offender (but not so harshly that his life is ruined, since he believes that Surjit is not a bad man) and help the victims. He gets permission to hand down a very unusual two-year sentence for Surjit, that he won’t serve in jail.
He tells Surjit that he will have to plough and sow Ramdin’s fields, live with the family, and be responsible for their welfare. Almost everyone in the courtroom sees problems ahead with this solution, but the judge remains adamant.
Surjit is escorted to the village by its head constable Harishchandra (Asit Sen=Comic Side Plot). He warns Surjit that he’ll be keeping an eye on him, and when the village men turn up with sticks to beat Surjit, he stops them. The family’s not any happier to receive him, either. The old man hits him with one of his crutches, and is chided by the havaldar.
Surjit himself is churlish and unpleasant which doesn’t make the situation any easier.
It’s Ramdin’s youngest boy Billu (Master Tito) who breaks the ice a little by talking to Surjit, but his mother calls him inside the house, angrily.
Billu’s too young to really get the concept though. He continues to talk to Surjit, addressing him as “Dushmun Chacha.”
Meanwhile, Jaggu comes to see Surjit with a plan to help him escape that evening, but they are caught pretty quickly. Surjit complains that the family haven’t given him anything to eat. The police Inspector (Abhi Bhattacharya) points out that thanks to Surjit they have barely enough to eat themselves, and takes a slightly chastened Surjit back to the village. He now sees how hungry they all are, and takes his first steps towards helping them.
A local timber estate owner (Anwar Hussein) has invested in a tractor which has broken down. Surjit applies his mechanical skills and gets it running again for a payment of Rs 30. When he brings bread home for the family, Malti orders Kamla to throw it away.
When poor hungry Billu tries to eat some of the bread anyway, Malti sends him off angrily. Surjit buys him some more bread, and Billu wants to share it with his older brother Lallu (Master Deepak) at school. At first Lallu wants nothing to do with any gifts from Surjit either, but Surjit asks him for forgiveness.
That (and no doubt his gnawing hunger) prompts Lallu to eat. Surjit now has the two boys on his side. Buoyed by their acceptance and wanting to right some of his wrongs, Surjit throws himself into ploughing Ramdin’s field (he “borrows” the timber estate tractor). As the villagers see that he is genuinely trying, they begin to warm up to him too.
They tell him that Ramdin had bought a “haunted field” in the middle of the village. A crazy woman had hung herself from the tree in the middle of the field, and superstition about it now reigns. Surjit laughs off their stories and says he’ll clear the land and take down the tree. He does so in the middle of the night, which makes no sense to me, but I surrender to the aesthetic (™ Filmigeek).
The “ghost” of the crazy woman turns out to be a village girl named Phoolmati (Mumtaz). She hides her meagre earnings in the tree to keep her alcoholic grandfather from stealing them. She’s trying to save money for her marriage, if it ever happens.
Phoolmati dances and sings and has a travelling peep show (no, not that kind) which appears to operate along the same lines as the old View Master reels I used to love as a kid (only much bigger). The box contains scenes from all over India and the kids in particular love it.
Trouble comes in the form of the timber estate owner. He wants Ramdin’s fields, which are the only ones around that he doesn’t already own. He has systematically swindled all the other villagers out of their land by loaning them money at exhorbitant interest rates (some things never change).
He is angry when Surjit’s crops flourish in the fields, and orders his men to burn them. All Surjit’s hopes of paying Kamla’s dowry and feeding Ramdin’s family go up in smoke with them. Meanwhile, Malti remains implacably hostile towards him although the rest of the family is beginning to relent—and their capitulation is making her very unhappy.
What can Surjit do now? How can he finish his sentence and meet his obligations to Ramdin’s family without money from his harvest? Can he ever win Malti’s forgiveness? What lengths will the timber merchant go to for Ramdin’s fields? Has Phoolmati finally found a good man?
I really enjoyed the first half, although I wasn’t sure I agreed with the judge’s sentence. Why should Ramdin’s family be forced to live with his killer? But it’s an interesting argument (and that of course was the point); at least in the movie the family did seem to find some peace in helping to redeem his killer. I doubt that in real life though, Surjit’s volte-face would have been this glib: he went from surly alcoholic truck driver to loving, hard-working farmer and family man pretty easily. This was partly due to the second half’s major issue: it devolved into melodrama, with Rajesh over-acting (along with everyone else) and too much emotional manipulation. The first half showed a lot more subtlety, both in the story and in the performances, but then it seems that the director threw up his hands and said “Let’s just get this over with, shall we?”
If a little restraint had been shown all the way throughout, it would have been a very fine film indeed. Even so, it is interesting and entertaining with plenty of food (no pun intended) for thought.