A new “old” Shammi film release with subtitles always gives rise to many huzzahs in this household. And when it’s a good film—well, my glee is almost uncontainable. There is nothing unique in the theme of this one (it’s a standard 1950s plea for a socialist Indian society: sharing and equality good, capitalism and greed bad), but the story is given an interesting treatment in its three separate stories which overlap, fittingly enough, at a crossroad. Each story is like the leg of a relay race, with the protagonist of one passing the baton to the next in a brief meeting at that crossing, until finally at the end all three converge. And what a cast: Raj Kapoor, Meena Kumari, Ajit, Nimmi, Kumkum and *ahem* Shammi!
My main problem with the movie is the choppy, facile ending. I am not sure if the original screenplay was written badly or if it is the result of poor editing, or deteriorating film stock, or what (possibly a combination of all of those things); but it’s jarring and more than a bit disappointing in the payoff. Of course, the payoff wouldn’t matter had the stories and characters leading up to it not been so engaging, and there’s the rub. It’s a good ride, until we get thrown off at the end!
Our first story begins with Govinda (Raj Kapoor) returning to his village after being away at school for twelve years. He was sent off to the city for his education by his father (Badri Prasad) when his childhood friendship with a local untouchable girl created consternation and gossip in the village. But his feelings in the interim haven’t changed, and nor have Chawali’s (Meena Kumari) for him. Govinda teases Chawali about her skin color and caste (Meena is painted black, basically), but it doesn’t matter a bit to him. Nor does he care about an early marriage that she was forced into, resulting in an almost equally early widowhood.
This might be my favorite Raj Kapoor role ever. He portrays Govinda with a great deal of charm, but with a firm conviction in his principles and his love, even in the face of total opposition from the community. Govinda is an outward-looking character; it’s not all about him, but about what’s right, and about the woman he cares for, and that’s a nice relief from his many more self-indulgent characters. Meena herself excels as the downtrodden Chawali by not playing her as a victim, but endowing her instead with a resilience and courage that makes you root for her.
Govinda persuades her to accompany him to the temple to get married. As children, Chawali was thrown out of the temple by the pujari (Nana Palsikar), but she tells Govinda that for the past couple of years she has been allowed to worship there. Alas! Although things may have changed on the surface, the wily priest has not changed his fundamental beliefs. He puts them off by saying that Govinda should marry Chawali openly, knowing that the villagers will not tolerate it.
And of course, they don’t. Govinda manages to find one person—Chandu Pahalwan (Vishwa Mehra), who was orphaned as a child and has never identified himself with any caste—to walk with him in a baraat of two, Chandu playing his drum. But as they make their way to Chawali’s house, where Chawali has dressed as a bride and waits, the people of both her and Govinda’s communities rise up in anger. Govinda arrives to find her home in flames and nothing but one of her anklets inside.
He leaves the village, devastated, disowning his family and community. Stumbling along in grief, he winds up at a crossroad where he steps on an anklet exactly like the one he had found in Chawali’s home.
He decides to stay at the crossing until he finds someone with an idea of which way she might have gone. To that end, he begins asking everyone coming through if they have seen her, including a chauffeur named Dilawar Khan (Ajit) who has stopped to put water in his car engine.
Dilawar has not seen her, and a shout from his boss prompts him to get back behind the wheel. His boss is the Nawab of Sultanabad (Anwar Hussain). The Nawab is distraught; he is being dispossessed of his kingdom by the Indian government, and he has not slept in days. His advisor, Izzat Beg (Rashid Khan), tells him about a new girl in town who reportedly sings and dances like a dream, and he suggests that she be brought to entertain him.
Izzat Beg assures the Nawab that Pyaari is untouched, and Dilawar Khan—listening from the front—snorts in disbelief. When he is sent to fetch Pyaari (Nimmi) and drive her to the Nawab’s palace, he is disdainful and rude to her. When she asks him why, he says that he’s loyal to his master and hates to see him wasting his money on prostitutes. She spiritedly asks him then whose mistake it is—hers or his master’s?
She meets the Nawab, who asks her for a song that will lull him to sleep. She stays up the whole night singing, as he sleeps peacefully. Anil Biswas’ music is pretty, by the way, and the lyrics quite wonderful as one expects from Sahir Ludhianvi (and subtitled, yay!). When he wakes in the morning finally refreshed, he is very pleased with her.
She replies that the fact that he was able to sleep is reward enough for her, and he is even happier with her sweet reply. He says he will think about a fitting reward for her, and asks her to come and sing for him every night, to which she agrees. As Dilawar Khan drives her home, he asks her how much money his master gave her and is outraged at her chirpy reply.
I love this pair! They are hilarious, these two proud people sparring with each other.
At home, she asks her mother (Shankuntala) if she was right in refusing a reward from the Nawab. Her mother—a former tawaif herself—assures her that she was; it was an investment in a longer-term relationship! That night when the Nawab tells Dilawar to fetch Pyaari, Dilawar refuses to go.
The Nawab is momentarily confused and then highly amused when Dilawar explains further.
His misconceptions cleared, the Dilawar Khan who picks Pyaari up that evening is a changed man, laughing and joking with her.
He watches her performance that evening for the Nawab and his guests from behind a screen, and is smitten. He’s not the only one, though; when her dance is finished, the Nawab takes several strands of pearls from around his neck and tosses them to her. When she throws them back, he nods approvingly. As Dilawar drives a tired Pyaari home, he thinks she’s asleep in the back seat and confesses aloud that he loves her.
She’s not asleep, of course, and I sigh happily as she smiles to herself. A few days later, the Nawab is officially stripped of his title and kingdom, and he asks Pyaari if she will accompany him to Bombay as his mistress; he will set her and her mother up and give them each 1000 Rs for life, he says. He sends her home, then, asking her to think about it. Dilawar Khan has heard about his Nawab’s intentions. He takes Pyaari to his humble home, where she tries on one of his turbans (so cute!).
He asks if she is planning to go with the Nawab to Bombay. She shyly tells him that she would rather stay with him, Dilawar, and he’s jubilant. Pyaari herself is astonished when she discovers that he has honorable marriage on his mind.
I melt—but not for long. Dilawar has no intention of allowing Pyaari’s mother—a prostitute—to live with them. Pyaari is only guilty of singing and dancing, but her mother is another story, in his mind. Seeing that she is upset, he tries to reason with her, saying that the girl’s mother never lives with a married couple. She points out that other girls’ mothers have homes, husbands, sons, but that a prostitute has only her daughter.
She says that until he apologizes and accepts her mother as part of their family, she won’t go with him. He says that day will never come, and drives off in a fury, leaving her by the roadside. Aargh! But good for Pyaari! I am solidly on her side and I shake my fist in Dilawar’s general direction.
He roars past another motorcar pulling up in the crossroad with a flat tire. I perk up considerably as Shammi strolls by whistling and stops.
I feel seriously that this may be his best—most descriptively essence-of-Shammi—entrance line ever. His name is Johny Braganza, and he offers to change the tire for them. The car belongs to a family of three traveling with their nanny, Stella (Kumkum). Stella hands him a tire-iron, and he perks up. So does she. So do I!
He’s looking for work, and they all end up at the Hotel Parbat where the family Stella works for is staying. I love the hotel sign.
We have seen the sole proprietor Mr. Ferreira (David) before at Pyaari’s place.
So young! With hair! With facial hair! He hires Johny to work as a general dogsbody waiting tables, washing dishes, etc. Mr. Ferreira is also a bootlegger, selling bottles of whiskey under the counter for a hefty profit. As the days pass, Johny romances Stella and discovers that her father has tuberculosis; she is trying to earn money for his treatment. Johny asks Mr. Ferreira for a loan (and tells him why), and Ferreira gets him involved in his bootlegging. Stella is upset by this; she wants her Johny to be a “gentleman.”
Ferreira is attracted to Stella himself, and he gets rid of Johny by setting him up to be arrested by the police for selling liquor. After three months in jail, Johny (still unaware of Ferreira’s role in his imprisonment) is released and goes to Ferreira for his back pay, and to find out where Stella has gone. Ferreira tells him that he’s paid for Stella’s father’s treatment, and that Stella is now his wife.
Deeply hurt—and furious—Johny leaves. He uses the money from Pereira to start up his own auto body shop, and continues his illegal bootlegging activities. Now the threads of our plot begin to get woven together as a labor leader appears in the form of Nirmal (P Jairaj).
So what has happened to Govinda? Is he still searching for Chawali? Is Chawali still alive? Will Dilabar Khan ever come down off his high Pathan horse and reconcile with Pyaari? How are she and her mother eking out a living? Is the Nawab still lurking? What about Stella? Is she happy with Ferreira-Pereira? (Noooo!) Can she and Johny ever find their way to each other?
And the most burning question of all: will India find a path to prosperity and equality for all?! (Well, okay, the film doesn’t actually cover that.) Watch Char Dil Char Rahen for almost all the answers. The acting is good, songs are lovely, and the plot (if you haven’t had the patience to read through this long post) compelling, all up until the all-too-flat and glib ending. If that had sizzled instead of fizzled, what a film this could have been!