Bhai Bahen (1969)

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With all due respect to the film’s title, it is the mother and father of all Hindi family melodramas. A tangled epic of misplaced loyalties and self-sacrifice, it still has something which lifts it above regulation fare, at least for me. There is a slightly more complex plot—actually there is just a lot of plot; the film goes on forever (as does my post: you’ve been warned!). Also it doesn’t descend into the truly histrionic until about an hour or so in; up until then it’s an interesting story. It’s also blessed with some very good performances—Padmini as a proud street dancer and Ashok Kumar as a wealthy patriarch torn between his conscience and his pride are the standouts. The songs by Shankar Jaikishan are nice, and a Helen dance plus Pran’s usual slimy villainy don’t hurt either.

Raja Vikram Pratap (Ashok Kumar) is a dictatorial father who rules his household and family with an iron hand. His family consists of wife Yashoda (Sulochana) and sons Mahendra (Bhalla) and Surendra (Sunil Dutt). Surendra is obedient and respectful to a fault, while Mahendra is rebellious but terrified of his father. He loves music and dancing, which gives us a fabulous song: “Aa Zara Aaj To Muskaraale” (with a roomful of people doing the Indian Twist). I am pretty sure it’s lifted from a western one, although I have no clue what that song might be. Here it is so you can hear it (I am surprised to discover that the songs are impossible to come by, meaning that I have to rip them from the DVD—a chore I am not really fond of):

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Mahendra gets away with this escapade (Surendra drags him home).

Meanwhile, we meet a feisty street dancer named Rani (Padmini). She befriends two good-for-nothing idiots (Mukri and Babbanlal as the minimal CSP) who want nothing more than to be returned to jail where they don’t have to worry about food and shelter. They also warn her about a local badmash named Ratan (Pran) who is trying to ensnare her. I love this little exchange: it sums up the Essence of Pran so perfectly!

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With Vikram Pratap out of town, Mahendra sees Rani performing one day and can’t help but join in. I don’t blame him, because Padmini is just lovely and so is her song.

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Unfortunately, Vikram Pratap drives past on his way home and sees his son dancing on the street. Incensed, he threatens him at home with a beating and Mahendra somewhat unbelievably dies of fright on on the spot. The humanity!

This tragedy leads Surendra to leave home. He boards a train for the city and unfortunately shares a compartment with Ratan who recognizes him as the Raja’s son. Ratan takes the (again somewhat unbelievably) naive Surendra under his wing. In the ensuing days, he introduces Surendra to the pleasures of cigarettes, alcohol and debauchery—via the lovely Helen, and the wonderful “Aye Dil Karoon Main Kya.”

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Ratan also goes to see Raja Vikram Pratap to tell him that his son has gone wild, but that he is taking care of him. Vikram Pratap gives him money to that end, although he won’t ask his son to come home. He tells Yashoda that he doesn’t want to curb his son’s freedom, or “build prisons” any longer. 

Meanwhile, Surendra sees the lovely Mala (Nutan) walking along one day. He pulls over to flirt with her.

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The tactics for winning a woman’s affection which Ratan has taught him unsurprisingly don’t work on Mala and she gives Surendra a tight slap. He decides that he will get his revenge for that slap, and begins to stalk her in various guises: a Sardar taxiwallah first, then a blind pujari who miraculously regains his sight and “falls in love” with Mala on the spot. She is a *little* gullible and finds this charming, maybe because her own father (Shivraj) is blind. I roll my eyes.

Back at home, Raja Vikram Pratap is awakened one night by a strange teardrop-shaped light and the sound of a woman singing.

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He gets up and follows the sound, and we are treated to some special effects which were probably newly discovered, and make absolutely no sense when they appear:

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When he returns to his room he pulls out a photograph of himself as a young man and a woman who looks just like the street dancer Rani!

Mala has agreed to meet Surendra, but before she does she overhears him plotting with Ratan to “pluck the flower” that she apparently is.

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She meets him for a nice song in a garden (“Chand Nikla Bhi Nahin”), but when he tries to woo her at the end with a diamond necklace she really lets him have it and tells him to get lost. I cheer: Nutan is standing up for herself!

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This wakes him up out of his grief-and-Pran-induced stupor, and he realizes the error of his debauched ways. When he reaches home, the Raja’s dewanji is waiting for him with 10,000 rupees which Ratan had asked for. Realizing the entire truth of Ratan’s duplicity, Surendra confronts him and kicks him out. 

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There’s a lot of slap revenge going around.

There’s more of this going around, too:

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Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should, people! This time Vikram Pratap follows the teardrop-shaped light outside and all the way to street dancer Rani’s house. She wakes up, startled, but he is mesmerized by a photograph on her wall:

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It’s her late mother—the same woman in the photo with him we’ve seen earlier. Vikram stares at the photo, then at Rani, calls her “Tara” and then faints dead away. His servants arrive and haul him off, leaving a bewildered Rani in their wake.

When Surendra gets word of his father’s illness he goes to see Mala before returning home. He apologizes to her for his actions and tells her that he really has fallen in love with her—eventually managing to convince her.

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He returns to a joyful mother and unconscious father, and takes care of the Raja over the ensuing days. When his father finally starts recovering, they reconcile and Surendra tells him about Mala. This encourages Vikram Pratap to confide in Surendra his big secret: a secret which he has been punishing himself (and his family) over for years.

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He bowed to his family’s wishes that he marry Yashoda, but only after “playing with [Tara's] life” (how I love these euphemisms!). She bore it all in silence, and also a daughter, who is of course Rani—living in a basti, dancing on the streets for a living.

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He begs Surendra to help him undo his mistake, but without revealing his secret—especially to Yashoda.

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I wonder if this is as true as he’d like to think, but never mind. Poor Surendra though! He’s got to somehow make things up to Rani without telling her or anyone else why. He finds her at her house just as lecherous Ratan is pouncing on her. After thrashing Ratan (who again vows revenge), Surendra tries to convince her to move away from the basti and says he will buy her a house. Naturally suspicious, she asks him why; his answer—that she is “like” a sister to him—doesn’t convince her that his intentions are honorable.

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With no other option and feeling that she’s unsafe where she is, Surendra takes her home to the Pratap family mansion. This does not go over well with Yashoda, who doesn’t understand why they are taking this slum girl in, and Vikram Pratap himself is too ashamed to face her. Surendra does his best, though, placating his Ma and making sure that Rani has nice clothes, teaching her to eat with cutlery and other such niceties of “cultured” people.

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But Rani soon discovers the truth about her parentage and why Surendra has taken her in. As a child she had promised Lata as she lay dying that she would clear the stain on her mother’s name. How will she do it? Raja Vikram Pratap dies soon afterwards, and extracts another promise from Surendra that he will never reveal the truth to anyone, especially his mother, and that he will continue to take care of Rani.

How can this impasse be resolved? What will Mala think when she arrives to find Rani living with Surendra? Can he make anyone happy or are they all headed for endless doom and gloom? And don’t forget: Ratan is still lurking, waiting for his chance to get his own back on both Rani and Surendra.

As I said, the melodrama didn’t get to be too much until an hour or so before the end—although an hour is a long time to sit through all that scenery-chewing. At least the self-sacrificing victim in this case was a man! but really nobody wins when there are these kinds of secrets kept. And I think I’m done for a while with melodrama!

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36 Comments to “Bhai Bahen (1969)”

  1. it sounds a really difficult watch- kudos for making it thru! I wonder what made them cast Sunil Dutt- he appears so noble/sweet in most of his characters, I have trouble imagining him “debauched.”

    • It was strangely not that much of a flog until the very end…and Sunil is a basically sweet and noble character; he’s led astray only briefly by Pran, but it’s fun to watch :)

  2. The picture at the top alone makes this review well worth viewing :) , but this is also an interesting writeup. The plot does look both slightly different and more than slightly complicated. I’ve realized that there is a big obsession in Hindi films with people needing to hide secret pasts or secret identities. It’s starting to try my patience a little, but it’s not enough to stop me from watching something, at least not at this point.

  3. Padmini looks like an absolute doll in all of her photographs…sadly, haven’t seen a movie with her in it yet. :( The lengthy plot doesn’t really scare me, and as you pointed out, by the time the extreme melodrama sets in its almost over anyways…I think I’d try this, the screencaps make it look like its worthwhile!

    • She looks great, and does full justice to her role. I haven’t seen her as an actress much either; she did a lot more south Indian films than Hindi I think…

  4. I can imagine what really happens in the end. REally, where will the movie plots be without all those ‘promise to keep secret’ thing !

  5. Sunil Dutt looking handsome, Nutan NOT sacrificing for husband and family, and Padmini dancing? I NEED this film! :-)

  6. So if Mahendra’s role was merely to dance a little, romance a little and then die of fright, what was the point? And please, please do tell me that the feather boa in that Helen screen cap was worn by her, not by Sunil Dutt!

    I think I’ll look around for this film. As bollyviewer points out, it’s got a lot going for it – and I like Padmini’s dancing, though I don’t care for her otherwise.

    This, by the way, sounds a bit like the Mala Sinha-Sanjay Khan starrer Dillagi. A little-known film but surprisingly not bad.

    • Well actually Mahendra’s playing guitar and dancing around frantically was good fun, and his dying of fright unintentionally kind of hilarious so he was not pointless in the least (and also, he was meant to emphasize the point that Vikram Pratap was a tyrant). And yes it’s Helen’s feather boa, she has draped it about Sunil’s head.

      Padmini is excellent too and not just as a dancer—you might change your mind about her! I haven’t seen Dillagi, not being a Mala Sinha or Sanjay Khan fan, but maybe I will search around for it :)

  7. Ha, ha. I want to see it for the special effects. Was the source of those visions ever explained? Or just assumed to be God sending a pyschedelic message?

    • No, the visions (and psychedelic inserts) were not explained—I guess it’s up to the viewer to interpret them as guilty conscience, or the ghost of Tara or something. Whatever works best for you!

  8. This is fun. You do a acrobatic “Indian twist” and then simply die of fright!! We Indians do have a way of coming up with ingenious plans of deaths!

  9. Wow – my Dad had that weird special effects thing recorded at the beginning of a load of VHS tapes! Now I know where he ‘borrowed’ it from!!!

  10. I saw this movie in Telugu recently. It’s called Anthasthulu(B/W). That literally means levels-so you could say this would be one’s level in society. It had Bhanumathi in the role of Padmini and was funny in parts when she tries to live up to the “society”. I like to see re-makes if I know about them. I believe this was a hit in Telugu and also in Hindi. Haven’t seen this one. Padmini would be good as also the others.

    • Padmini was cute trying to learn the ways of the cultural elite, although it’s a trope that’s been done to death in my opinion. One of these days I will start seeing these old southern films! There are just so many movies and so little time…

  11. *He returns to a joyful mother and unconscious father,* Hee Heehee

    Just for this I’m going to see this film. :-D

  12. Thank you but one Gauri is enough for one lifetime I find.

  13. That is true, but there are so many more to choose from (or stumble across unwittingly). This is much better, though, I promise :)

  14. Talking of Padmini, here’s one of her later South indian movies: I saw the movie a very long time ago and I’m not even sure what it was about but I remember thinking “This is a good movie” so there’s that.

  15. Sounds like a real masala melodrama film!
    what with Sunil Dutt, Nutan AND Padmini thrown in!
    Saw this movie long time back on DD, but I’d completely forgotten it.

    Sometimes I think the “don’t reveal the secret”-promise things, did have some educational affect on people. So that older people can see what such promises can do to the people, from whom they are extracted!
    Or am I just dreaming!

    Thanks for this long review!
    I just loved it!

    • That is always my hope too—that the pain of sitting through such misery might be mitigated by the fact that some poor souls were spared the same machinations by their loved ones who got the point (although I’m not sure that those films always mean to make that point :-)

  16. I love this review too! Thank you Memsaab :)

  17. Moved to the top of my must see list. Thanks!

  18. Thank you to Amrita for posting the “slow” version of that song from Padmini’s 1984 movie. I’ve seen the other version a few times over the past couple of years. Yes, she looks cute in the “Ma” role (I think she’s actually a gramma in this, right?) She looks better in this clip than the other, probably because she has the big glasses on a little less here, so you can see her eyes more. In the other clip, she’s also stumbling around in some clumsy granny kind of way, which is pretty funny, since in real life, if I’m not mistaken, she was still teaching bharatanatyam.

    • You’re welcome! She does play a grandma in it from what I remember and spent all her time in roomy housecoats and kaftans – best wardrobe ever. If I remember correctly the movie was hilarious (in a good way!) right up until everybody broke down in tears.

      She taught bharatnatyam till the very end, i think, which when it came was very sudden. My aunt used to talk about her dance classes in NY (?) and stuff.

  19. Memsaab,
    I recall seeing the second-half of this film, and that part was very poignant: son being forced into making a granitic promise by father, misunderstood by his mother as being a characterless flirt, and blackmailed by illegitimate sister, threatening to resume her former profession(oops!). This part of the script was later borrowed by Madhu-Sunil Shetty starrier “PEHCHAAN.” I felt really sorry for Sunil(senior), particularly in the scene where Nutan arrived in his house to be greeted by Padmini in her crowning insult, “Here relationships are not real, but symbolic: I am like his(Sunil’s) sister, you are like his wife.” OH, TERRIBLE.
    But I liked Pran’s expression and parting dialogue at the end when he finally concedes defeat. Was that the cue to the title? Poor soul, revenge dreams unfulfilled. Anyway, nice review Memsaab.

  20. The second half was not as much fun as the first half, as I recall. But I’ve seen worse! :)

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