It’s widely understood that beautiful people get a pass on many things that those less favored in the looks department do not. And so it is with films too. Does it have an intelligent, spell-binding and socially relevant plot? It does not. But it is GOR-geous. Rajesh Khanna is beautiful, Leena Chandavarkar is beautiful, the costumes, the sets, the color…my god, the color! Truly only Indians and possibly the color-blind would think to combine the shades in the screen cap above (plum, scarlet and coral?) but it is spectacular. In an international beauty pageant of cinema, Muslim socials—and this one in particular—would always be a winner.
Shabana (Leena Chandavarkar) has been raised by her grandmother (Indira Bansal, who goes unmentioned for some reason in the film credits, while Mumtaz Begum—who appears very briefly in a single scene towards the end—is given top billing. Strange!).
Shabana’s mother Najma, who supports them financially and has provided her daughter a good education, lives separately far away from them. Shabana is horrified to discover that her mother has been working as a courtesan for lo! these many years when Najma’s pimp (for lack of a better word) Nisar (Jagdish Raj) calls Shabana to visit on the pretext that Najma is ill. His true reason for calling Shabana there becomes all too clear after Najma commits suicide on realizing that Shabana has learned her secret.
Luckily Shabana’s grandmother is considerably smarter than most women seem to be in these situations—certainly, she’s smarter than Shabana herself. (One small quibble I have with this film is that Shabana is quite spineless and weepy, which is a waste of Leena C’s considerable talents at portraying feisty and self-sufficient characters.) Grandma pretends to go along with Nisar’s plans and even gets money out of him as a price for getting Shabana to cooperate. He leaves them to go and get his wealthy client, and Grandma quickly bundles their things together and hauls hapless, weeping Shabana out of there.
On the train, they discuss Shabana’s father—Najma had always said that he was Nawab Anwar Kamal of Lucknow although they had somehow lost track of one another. They are interrupted when an older man (Pradeep Kumar) knocks on the window of the ladies’ compartment and asks them to let him in—he’s for some reason hanging on outside for dear life. Shabana opens the door despite the protests from the other occupants.
He is clearly poor, with shabby clothes and his belongings tied in a cloth bundle, but he has a genteel and kind manner. At the station in Lucknow he thanks Shabana again for her kindness. When they say their goodbyes, they stare at each other in that Hindi film way that says: You people are related to each other! Figure it out! but of course they don’t for a good long time. A pretty song plays as they gaze at each other (“Apna Hai Tu Begana Nahin”). All the songs are lovely, as is usual with Rajesh Khanna’s films, courtesy this time of Laxmikant Pyarelal.
At Grandma’s foster brother’s haveli (he was a Nawab and Grandma’s mother his wet nurse and nanny), they learn that he has died. His remarkably cheerful foster son Mubola (Farooq Kartus) welcomes them happily; the Nawab talked about Grandma a lot, he says, and even left her something in his will. I think he’s happy to have company in his huge wedding cake of a house.
Elsewhere in Lucknow, the old man from the train is breaking into another large and ornate mansion. We discover that he is, in fact, ex-Nawab Anwar Kamal (Shabana’s father—which we basically knew already from the song). He’s there to kill Safdarjung (Iftekhar), the man who now lives in what used to be Anwar’s family home. As he raises a knife to plunge into the sleeping Safdarjung’s chest, though, a portrait on the wall catches his eye.
Apparently being wheelchair-bound is worse than death. Anwar decides that he would only be putting the old man out of his misery, and decides to kill his son instead, whose room he has already tiptoed through.
Safdarjung’s son Yusuf (Rajesh Khanna) has in the meantime woken up and he catches Anwar red-handed. Anwar confesses to being a thief, and Yusuf is impressed by his honesty.
He also divines that Anwar is an educated man, and offers him a job attending to the disabled Safdarjung as an alternative to stealing. Anwar of course sees the value of entering the household: he can bide his time until the moment for revenge is ripe! He accepts the job, and tells Yusuf his name is Khairu. Safdarjung himself is pleased at how quickly Khairu adjusts to finding his way around the house.
Yusuf is a college friend of Mubola’s. He comes the next morning to get his friend out of bed, and smacks Shabana’s behind instead by mistake. It’s love at first sight, clearly (on a side note, how on earth did Shabana get any sleep with those earrings on?).
Mubola tells Yusuf about Shabana’s circumstances, and that she is looking for some tutoring work. How convenient that Yusuf’s young nephew Firangi (so named because he is “fair and naughty like the English”) (and played by a kid named Farangi) dislikes his current teacher (Manorama)!
I very often find film children annoying (okay, real children too) but Firangi (subtitles call him “Foreigner” which also makes me laugh) is really quite cute. His uncle spends a great deal of the film kissing him, I guess since he’s not allowed to kiss Shabana. He also convinces him to play a prank on his teacher to get her to quit, telling Firangi he’ll find a pretty one for him instead. Done! I laugh and laugh at Firangi’s little mouse in a harness and leash.
It works like a charm. Shabana is hired to teach young Firangi, who figures things out pretty quickly.
The Shabana-Yusuf romance proceeds apace, with very pretty songs and lots and lots of pretty and colorful outfits for both hero and heroine. I completely love the shararas that Leena wears throughout. Shabana is thrilled to see Khairu again too (and he her), and a Baap-Beti lovefest blossoms as well. It should make my eyes roll, but it’s simply too sweet. All of it is just SO SWEET.
Even the CSP is amusing, thanks to Mubola. He falls head over heels for a girl wearing a burkha at school when she slaps him. To find her again, his friends convince him to have all the burkha-clad girls slap him: he can judge if it’s the one he loves by the force of it on his face, and they by its sound. So he pesters the girls at school in burkhas for a few days, asking them to please slap him hard:
Hilarious. Plus, I love his red chikan kurta.
Eventually, Yusuf asks Shabana to marry him: of course, this is where problems start surfacing. She is torn between losing him and telling him the truth about her background, Nisar is about to reappear, and of course Shabana’s own father (if they could just figure it out) is still determined to kill Yusuf and wreak his vengeance on Safdarjung. Will Yusuf still love a prostitute’s daughter? What will Nisar do? Why is Anwar so determined to ruin Safdarjung’s life by killing his son?
If the story doesn’t quite charm you into watching, the sweetness, humor and candy-coated visuals should! Plus, beautiful songs and Rajesh at his charming if mannered best. Truthfully the plot is predictable and the resolution glib—but let’s forgive this beauty queen, shall we?
Or should I say—king?