Oh, how I loved this film. It is an absolutely riveting and heartwrenching story, with fine performances and stunningly beautiful songs (Roshan’s last—the film is dedicated to him). The background music is superb too, by Salil Chowdhury; and the black and white cinematography is lush and gorgeous, with richly patterned detail and stunning closeups of the characters. I am running short of superlatives! The message is nothing new (see screenshot above) but the treatment—nuanced, balanced—is unusual.
It is interesting to see actors I am less familiar with, too. Zaheeda, the heroine, is a niece of Nargis and Anwar Hussain (also in this), and she looks so much like Nargis sometimes that it’s startling. And Parikshat Sahni (son of Balraj, whom I just saw as Farhan’s father in 3 Idiots) made his debut with a central role here: such a natural actor, and so handsome too! Tarun Bose, Aruna Irani, Anwar Hussain, Badri Prasad and Mukri add able support as well. But the film really belongs to Sanjeev Kumar as a simple and sweet villager who is transformed by events into a dacoit with a big price on his head.
Baldev is the watchman of a daak bungalow in a small rural village. He is a bit on the naive side, and the other villagers easily take advantage of his innocent, open-hearted nature. His best friend Naubat (Mukri) tries to prevent him from being exploited, but Baldev really just doesn’t mind. He is happy being useful, and the only thing he wants for himself is pretty Gopa (Zaheeda). With Naubat’s support he finally works up the courage to propose marriage to her (well, sort of).
To his great joy, she agrees and we are treated to the first of many lovely songs, “Dulhan Se Tumhara Milan Hoga” as Baldev cleans his house in anticipation of his bride’s arrival.
As the song fades, he draws a lace curtain across his window and slams it shut, and the credits begin to roll against a backdrop of elaborate western objets d’art on which an unseen person’s hand is hanging small tags.
Many kudos and pranams to you, Pandit Anand Kumar! (And to director Asit Sen.) I mention the lace curtain because curtains are a recurring motif in this film: they veil, they reveal, they let in, they shut out, they are barriers between people.
The various statues and vases belong to wealthy old Dwarkaprasad (Badri Prasad)—there are lots and lots of them crammed into his large mansion: it reminds me a bit of the much shabbier Marble Palace in Calcutta (one of the most loony and heartbreaking museums anywhere, also described pretty accurately here: “is place of drama and dilapidation”). And yes, I have been dying to work the Marble Palace into a post ever since I went there.
In the sunset of his life, wheelchair-bound Dwarkaprasad finds himself in debt to businessman Madanlal (Tarun Bose). Unable to repay the debt (incurred by his late son), he is prepared to auction off his house and everything in it. Madan arrives with his lawyer (Brahm Bhardwaj) and tells Dwarkaprasad that he will cancel the debt if Dwarkaprasad’s granddaughter Rama (also Zaheeda) will marry him. The old man dismisses this idea angrily, but Rama herself has other ideas.
She unhappily agrees to the marriage. Her grandfather pleads with her, frustrated at his helplessness but she is adamant and tries to cheer him with the beautiful “Mehlon Ka Raja Mila” (this is now my favorite Lata song). Their elderly servant Ramdas (Anwar Hussain) stands by miserably, equally helpless.
Outside, rain begins pouring down as a car arrives, bringing Rai Sahab (Amar?) and his much (much) younger wife Prema (Aruna Irani) for the auction. Rai is an old friend of Madan and the lawyer, but Prema is caustic when she discovers why the auction has been cancelled.
As the storm worsens, Madan introduces Rama to his friends and she welcomes them. He is less pleased when a handsome young painter-slash-singer (Parikshat Sahni) arrives, seeking shelter from the storm, and she welcomes him too. Madan tells him to leave, in fact, but Rama puts her foot down. Rai Sahab is not pleased either when Prema offers the artist a lift home after dinner.
He asks Ramdas why there are labels on everything.
A few minutes later, Rama tells him that they will not now be sold, and that she has been sold instead. Dinner is served, and the Painter (he never tells them his name) sings a song and does a lovely drawing of Rama in payment. The lawyer suggests that Rai Sahab and his wife stay the night since the rain shows no signs of letting up, and Madan takes the opportunity to tell the Painter to leave again. This time he does, after giving Madan some words of wisdom.
Rama lets him go regretfully when he insists, but a few minutes later the doorbell chimes again. Cursing, Madan goes to the door prepared to do battle with the Painter, but instead he is kicked in the chest—and a gang of dacoits bursts in.
The leader is startled when he catches sight of Rama.
(On a side note, doesn’t Mukri make the cutest little bandito EVER? End side note.)
The bandit chief is none other than Baldev, whom we last saw preparing for his wedding. He approaches Rama and calls her Gopa.
He retreats at her denial, but clearly remains fascinated by her. The plot thickens when the Painter returns minutes later for his forgotten bag, and is ordered to stay put by Baldev.
Old Dwarkaprasad is positively gleeful at the sight of his new guests. Baldev is somewhat insulted at his obvious lack of fear, but Dwarkaprasad says that he’s met worse robbers, and he tells Baldev how his son borrowed 20,000 Rs from Madan’s father, and due to exhorbitant interest rates the debt grew to 1.2 lakh.
Sounds just like our corporate culture! This little lesson is brought home again and again with dialogues like this:
Madan doesn’t see at all that he uses his money in the same way as the dacoits use their guns, as a means of controlling the helpless; the irony isn’t lost on the Painter though.
As the stormy night wears on, the Painter occupies himself with drawing portraits of the house’s occupants and we discover that there is a price on Baldev’s head to the tune of 1.5 lakhs—enough to bail Dwarkaprasad and Rama out of their troubles. When faithful servant Ramdas seizes the opportunity to grab Naubar’s pistol, though, Rama prevents him from using it and allows Baldev to regain control. I personally think this is carrying hospitality a little far, but I probably wouldn’t marry a man I hated for my grandfather’s sake either (especially when it made him miserable too).
Baldev is curious about her motivations, but she is enigmatic, saying only that different people have different principles.
This could have annoyed me considerably, but the film isn’t about female sacrifices: although they loom large, they are not presented as a cure. Prema’s story (which we are told through a flashback) illustrates vividly the pain suffered by women when they are treated as objects. The film is about societal ills; sadly, it seems to me that nothing much has changed, and it’s not a problem limited to India (yes, I am a cynic—or a realist, depending on who you talk to).
The Painter says too that poor people are apathetic about their poverty and oppression; that rather than doing something about it, they prefer to elevate themselves by then mistreating people even worse off than they are. Ouch!
All this solemnity is mitigated here and there by some very funny scenes and little moments, mostly thanks to Mukri. There is a rubber snake gag that makes me laugh, and Naubat plays chess with Rai Sahab—hilariously giving himself do-overs (mulligan!) when Rai Sahab points out his errors in judgment, although they quarrel when Naubat moves his pieces according to his wishes and not the rules.
How will all this end? Who is the Painter? What is the story behind unhappy Prema’s marriage to Rai Sahab? What happened to transform Baldev from the simple, happy man we met at the beginning to the fierce dacoit now before us, and what has happened to Gopa? And what of Rama—will her future be auctioned off?
I don’t feel I have nearly done this film justice: it just needs to be seen. There is no waste, not a moment or dialogue or character. Sanjeev’s performance is absolutely wonderful. He is both Baldev the simple villager and Baldev the dacoit, and he very believably blends both men into one. It can’t have been easy! Parikshat Sahni too carries the moral weight very ably on his (very handsome) shoulders. I have rarely seen comedy used so deftly in a film which is emphatically not a comedy, either. Plus, the whole experience is a sumptuous treat, the textures and lighting complementing the richness of the story beautifully along with the seriously gorgeous songs. Do look them up, you won’t regret it.
Also, if you are interested in knowing how Tarun Bose got his start in films, see his daughter’s comment here: it’s very interesting!
And finally—curtains. Lots and lots of lace curtains. Maybe symbolic, maybe the set decorator just had a lot of lace on hand. Either way, pretty.