Now and then a film comes along that gives the viewer true insight into the time and place in which it is set. I’m not talking about flowered go-go boots or violently patterned wallpaper here, but about a look at the generation that is passing and the one taking its place; about moving forward and looking back, and setting a course for the future. Most of the tributes to Feroz Khan that I’ve read in the week since his death have mentioned Oonche Log as the movie that established him in his career, and I can certainly see why. He holds his own with ease opposite two established and charismatic actors, Ashok Kumar and Raaj Kumar, in a complex and layered story requiring skillful, nuanced performances (there are very few characters).
Widower Chandrakant (Ashok Kumar) is a blind retired Army Major with two sons: Shri (Raaj Kumar) and Rajjo (Feroz Khan). The Major is a proud man who doesn’t let his blindness stop him from seeing much, and he commands great respect in Ooty, where they live. Shri is an upright, rigidly honest police inspector. Rajjo has just finished college, and is handsome, charming and clearly spoiled. The story begins as Rajjo arrives home, to the great joy of his family and their long-time servant Juman (Kumud Tripathi). But Shri sees some changes in his little brother that trouble him.
Juman is more a member of the family than a servant, although in the afternoon the Major gives him three lashes after he inadvertently insults a guest (thereby blotting the Major’s honor). A disapproving witness, Shri reminds the Major that nowadays he could be arrested for beating even a servant. Juman himself doesn’t seem to mind much, and later when the Major gives him 50 rupees because he’s feeling bad about the incident, Juman shows it to Shri saying: “You wanted to deprive me of this.” It’s one of many instances where the generation gap between Shri and his father are highlighted, despite their great similarities in character.
That evening Rajjo abruptly scolds Juman for not having made up his bed yet.
As Juman leaves his dinner and scurries upstairs to take care of it, the Major gently reprimands Rajjo for treating his “uncle” that way and tells him to apologize to Juman. Rajjo does so, and all is forgiven although I’m not sure why the Major was okay with his own whipping of Juman, but not with Rajjo’s rudeness.
Rajjo lies awake after everyone has gone to bed waiting for a phone call. It comes, and he arranges to meet his sweetheart Bimla in Kodaikanal in three days’ time. After he hangs up, he sings the lovely song (all the songs are beautiful, by Chitragupta), “Jag Dil-E-Deewana Rut Jaagi.”
He definitely is channeling Shammi, too!
The next morning he tells Shri and his father that his friends want to meet him for a holiday in Kodaikanal. They refuse, but encourage him to go.
Off he goes to romance Bimla.
One of the interesting things about this movie is that there are only two women actually seen in it, and they are extremely peripheral with hardly any screen time. One of them is the wife of the Major’s friend Gunichand, the local schoolmaster, who wants to get his daughter Pallavi (who is never seen) engaged to Rajjo. She (the wife) is a harridan who sets their dog on her poor husband. Naturally I have to screencap the dog.
The other is Bimla herself (KR Vijaya). When Rajjo meets her in Kodaikanal they sing a pretty duet—“Aaja Re Mere Pyar”—but she is mostly hidden from us; we see her only behind things, from a distance, or in profile, but very rarely (if ever) a full face.
I am not complaining about it, but it’s very odd and I’m not sure if there’s supposed to be a message there that I missed. Great pains are taken to keep her mostly hidden. Perhaps it’s meant as a symbolic statement about the status of women in India!
Rajjo returns home after a while, but says nothing to his family about Bimla. On his birthday, Shri gives him a radio, and he fantasizes about her to another lovely song, “Haye Re Tere Chanchal.”
His father has all but promised Gunichand that Rajjo will marry Pallavi, and they are looking for an auspicious date. One day a letter arrives addressed to “Shri Kant”. Shri reads it but it’s a letter for Rajjo from Bimla, who is pregnant, and desperate for Rajjo to come and marry her before her brother finds out. When Shri confronts Rajjo about it, Rajjo attempts to wriggle out of it.
Cad! Upset and angry, Shri tells Rajjo to go and do the right thing by Bimla and bring her home as his bride.
Yay Shri! Rajjo does go to see her, but reluctantly—and he steals a thousand rupees from his father on his way out. After he leaves, a telegram from Bimla arrives and the Major receives it. Shri covers up for Rajjo, both about Bimla’s situation and when the Major discovers that his money is missing.
On the train to Kodai, an old man and his son sing a song: “Kaisi Tune Reet Rachi” as Rajjo sits in his seat and counts the stolen money.
Thank goodness for subtitles! The words prick Rajjo’s conscience a little bit, but he soothes it by giving the singers a small amount and settles back smugly in his seat. I am wondering where his father and Shri went wrong, to have brought up a boy so different from them, so lacking in integrity and empathy for others. Then I laugh as the next lyric comes up on screen:
I’m reminded once again of my tendency to forget that the Indian viewpoint can be quite different from mine!
Anyway, Rajjo meets Bimla and explains to her that he has to speak with his father before he can marry her. She understands clearly that he’s too weak and self-serving to do the right thing by her. During this scene we only see her from behind as she weeps bitterly and tells him to get out.
Later at his lab, her scientist brother (a very young Tarun Bose) receives a phone call—his sister is dead.
She has left behind a note explaining everything. Her brother rushes to the hostel to see Rajjo, who has just left to catch the train home. On the train, Rajjo shares a compartment with a talkative fat man (is there any other kind of train passenger in Hindi cinema?) until he reaches his station.
But he is not alone; another passenger enters the compartment as the train pulls away.
It’s poor Bimla’s brother, and he is in a rage. What happens next? Will he avenge his sister’s death? Will the Major and Shri find out what Rajjo has done? The story from here takes some unexpected twists and turns. Do watch it to find out what happens; it’s a very well-done film and well worth a few hours of your time.
All three main characters are beautifully fleshed out (director Phani Majumdar also wrote the screenplay) and the actors bring them to vivid life. It’s not a happy tale, but it is so nicely handled on all fronts that you are drawn in. There is no black or white here, only shades of gray. Feroz Khan as Rajjo gives a brilliant performance—you cannot totally dislike Rajjo, no matter how selfish he is or how poor his choices. It’s easy to see why his father and brother have indulged him.
Oonche Log also reminded me a little bit of the fantastic 1939 George Cukor movie The Women. That film had no men in it, although their presence in the lives of the women onscreen was palpable. In this too, although the women were given little or no screen time, they were very present: the Major’s beloved wife, tragically mistreated Bimla, the bahu-to-be Pallavi. But it is the values and concerns of the father and his sons which are at the heart of the film. If you are a fan of any of the three central actors, don’t miss it.