First of all, I would like to thank Muz for sending this to me. He has also provided me with Pukar, Sikandar and Raj Nartaki (review upcoming), and thank goodness people like him appreciate Hindi cinema history enough to preserve it when they can. I appreciate his sharing these films with me more than words can ever express, and the same goes for the other friends I’ve made here who share their rare treasures with me too. Bless all of you!
This film from Bombay Talkies is widely written about as an early classic. It was a huge hit, and launched Ashok Kumar into stardom (albeit a bit reluctantly!). It’s also my first look at Devika Rani onscreen. Unfortunately there aren’t subtitles, and I think a lot of this film’s impact comes from its dialogues; they went way over my head. The basic plot is easy to follow, but there is a lot of “room talk” (or maybe “porch talk” is better here) which drives the action. Even without understanding the dialogues, though, I found this film ineffably sad. Though it is 73 years old, it is unfortunately just as relevant today with its portrayal of prejudice and intolerance. Will we never learn anything from our mistakes?
The songs by Saraswati Devi are very well known too (Ashok and Devika sing for themselves, and I read someplace that Saraswati Devi said she had a lot of trouble keeping them both on pitch at the same time). I have to confess that they don’t do a whole lot for me except in the novelty of Ashok singing; I have trouble with early Hindi film music. My ears have a western bias and don’t appreciate music based in classical Indian traditions as much as they should.
Anyway, on to the story. The film opens at a railway crossing, where a man and his wife travelling by car have been stopped to wait for an oncoming train. The man has a gun which falls out of his coat when he gets out for a smoke. His wife hands it back to him mutely and he snaps at her. She seems resigned to whatever fate may have in store, which given the gun and her husband’s clear dislike of her makes me worry.
At the crossing stands a small temple, which the man wanders over to look at. His wife joins him there, and he tells her to get back in the car, but they are interrupted by a ghostly old man. There is an inscription on the temple, which even if I could read Devanagiri I wouldn’t probably have much luck deciphering.
The old man talks to the couple: the temple is a memorial to a “devi”—an untouchable girl whose fate on earth was a short life, but whose deeds will give her peace in the afterlife is kind of what I gather (and I’m paraphrasing). This strikes a chord with the sad woman: she repeats the words “devi” and “shanti” longingly. The old man continues to speak, and we go into a flashback.
Ashok!!!! He looks like a gangly teenager, and I melt into a puddle, he is so cute. Devika Rani’s famed beauty is no disappointment either. Oh, how this needs to be restored (or else a very good print found) and put on DVD!
They sing a lot of songs together, these two. They are childhood friends, who have grown up to love each other, but Pratap (Ashok) is the son of a Brahmin grocer named Mohan (PF Pithawal) and Kasturi (Devika Rani) is the daughter of the railway crossing guard, an untouchable named Dukhiya (Kamta Prasad).
Mohan and Dukhiya have been fast friends despite their vast differences in status since Dukhiya saved Mohan’s life by sucking the poison out of a snake bite wound when their children were young.
This friendship is barely tolerated by the local villagers, and Pratap and Kasturi’s romance is greatly frowned upon and the subject of much gossip. The two fathers are their only supporters; Pratap’s mother Kalyani (Kusum Kumar) is not at all pleased by her son’s obvious feelings for Kasturi and scolds her husband for indulging them. Mohan defends Pratap and Kasturi, but he’s outnumbered.
Kasturi’s father is more temperate in his support of his daughter’s love; he often points out to her how disparate her circumstances are from Pratap’s. Being at the bottom of the totem pole lowers one’s expectations, I guess, and his more pragmatic view gives Kasturi a lot of strength when she needs it.
This is the village’s ugly face of elitism and intolerance, Babulal (Kishori Lal):
Babulal leads a group of men who meet daily to gossip and worry about what’s going on in other people’s lives (sounds so unfortunately familiar). They aren’t satisfied even when Pratap’s mother chooses an “appropriate” bride for him, Meera (Manorama—but not our usual Manorama).
On the day of Pratap’s wedding, the procession passes the railroad junction where Kasturi has taken up her father’s position as crossing guard since he is not well. She accepts the marriage with good grace, praising Meera’s beauty (which is stretching things a bit) and even offering a genuine hand of friendship to her, which Meera accepts happily.
When Mohan hears that Dukhiya is sick, he takes him home to nurse him back to health. This enrages Babulal and his little group, and they scurry about getting the other villagers up in arms over Dukhiya’s presence in Mohan’s home. They attack Mohan when he defends his right to care for his friend, and he is hit over the head and injured in the fray. The unwell Dukhiya runs out and tries to flag down some help (and hopefully a doctor) from a passing train. The conductor angrily tells him that he will have him arrested, and the train speeds away.
Meanwhile, in the village, Babulal and his posse (which includes the village priest) are satisfied with their days’ handiwork, which now includes setting fire to Mohan’s home.
While the other villagers pour water on Mohan’s house (I guess they feel bad for setting it on fire in the first place, or maybe they’ve only just realized that the fire will spread to their homes too) Babulal and company slip away to celebrate. Mohan himself has regained consciousness outside, where his family carried him to escape the flames. His first concern is for his friend Dukhiya.
Dukhiya has been interviewed by the police, meanwhile, although I’m not sure if the train conductor sent them or if the mayhem at Mohan’s is the cause for their visit. An old villager comes along and tells the Inspector, Darogaji (NM Joshi), about the fire, and he goes off leaving a fretting Dukhiya and Kasturi. Another guy in a topee shows up with a young man in tow, whom he leaves behind. The young man is named Manu (Anwar), and he turns out to be the son of another old friend of Dukhiya’s, from the same community.
Later, Darogaji holds an interrogation of some sort in the village. I think it’s a fairly pivotal scene but all I really get out of it is that Darogaji is unimpressed when Babulal shows up with a bunch of gifts, and Babulal defends himself by calling Mohan crazy. Mohan himself eventually shows up, head bandaged, and I think he tells Darogaji to let it go.
Meera comes upon Kasturi as she sings sadly by the river. Meera confides her sorrow on realizing that her husband doesn’t love her. Kasturi is sympathetic and tries to reassure her.
I’m not sure if Meera knows that Pratap loves Kasturi or not at this stage, although I would guess not. Meanwhile, Dukhiya and Mohan discuss the possibilities of a marraige between Kasturi and Mannu. Meera returns home with her water pot to find her handsome husband singing a sad song as he thatches the roof.
Poor Meera! Poor Pratap! Poor Kasturi! And soon, poor Mannu! Oh Babulal and friends, you have inflicted a lot of unhappiness on your neighbors. I hope that reincarnation and your bad karma are waiting, and come back to bite you in your ample backsides.
Pratap overhears his father talking about Kasturi’s upcoming wedding to Mannu. He goes to Kasturi and asks her to run away with him. She is tempted, but remembers the recent consequences of the villagers’ wrath.
“Tum Brahmin ho,” she tells him sadly. “Main acchut.”
It’s so very awful! Now this is sacrifice that’s meaningful: she knows that if she and Pratap run away, those they love and leave behind will suffer. (I still want them to do it, though!) Trouble arrives in the form of Kajari (Pramila); I never figure out quite what her relationship with Mannu is but she is not happy about his planned marriage to Kasturi. I am fascinated by her Clara Bow bee-sting pout.
She causes trouble for Kasturi with Meera, who by now has found out (from Kajari? or Pratap?) that Pratap loves Kasturi. Pratap has been honest with Meera about his feelings, but has vowed to try and be a good husband to her; however, Kajari’s whispers light a little fire of jealousy in Meera. Kasturi herself believes Kajari to be a friend as well, not knowing that Miss Bee-Stung Lips is out to get her.
*Here be spoilers (the movie’s ending is all over the interwebs anyway) in case you’d prefer to stop reading now!*
All of this gossip and ill-will cannot end in anything but tears. It culminates in anger and jealousy, and tragedy when the two women invite Kasturi to accompany them to a nearby mela, and then leave her there with no way home, knowing that she’ll have to get a ride with Pratap who has a food stall there. Kasturi does so, and they reminisce a little sadly on the way home, but nothing more. Meera and Kajari tell Mannu that Kasturi is with Pratap, and he attacks Pratap when they arrive at the railroad crossing. They fight on the tracks as a train rushes towards them, and Kasturi is killed when she runs down the track to try and stop it.
Will their sad tale change the circumstances of the unhappy couple we met at the beginning? Or will more tragedy ensue before the night is out?
Despite my struggles with poor picture quality and no subs, I really liked this film. The acting is stilted and theatrical, as is usual for the time period, but the story moves along well—although I missed a lot, I know. I can only imagine how much I might like it when I know what’s being said! It was such a pleasure to see the young, young Ashok and beautiful Devika Rani, though. They were lovely together, and so sad apart. And the photography was beautiful.
I hope there’s a good print out there somewhere: please, somebody do it justice! Until then, thank you Muz. I am very glad to have seen this.