Call Girl (1974)

I watched this film years ago as part of my early obsession with Helen, and didn’t fully appreciate then how very unusual it is for its time. It must be one of the earlier examples of the 1970s resurgence into “parallel” cinema and hard-hitting social commentary directed at the country’s youth. As you may have guessed from the title, the story revolves around a woman named Kamini (Zahira) who has been forced into a life of “high-class” prostitution by a society which offers few choices to a girl—on her own in the world, trying to support herself—who is raped by her wealthy employer. I would assume that in 1974 India it was considered (and probably criticized for being) “titillating” but to my western eyes thirty-six years later it is compellingly and realistically tawdry and sad, and an excellent attempt to illuminate the injustice inherent in a woman being made to pay an ongoing price for her own victimization. It is a film that has stuck in my memory—and revisiting it for this blog is long overdue (it’s not a movie I want to see over and over again, though: it is pretty grim).

The tone for the film is set immediately, as the credits roll against the harsh ring of a telephone, picked up by a girl in bed who cradles the receiver as she chats with an unseen person. I like the music throughout this, by Sapan Jagmohan: it is by turns breezy and melancholy as appropriate for the story unfolding. My favorite song is the Asha-Kishore duet “Hum Hain Jahan” but the background music is particularly effective.

Seth Sonachand (Iftekhar in a really fine performance) is a wealthy contractor not averse to cutting corners in order to increase his profits, or passing out bribes to get his way.

He schmoozes with his powerful clients in the evening, wining and dining them, and providing them with female company procured through a nasty piece of work by the name of Babu (Kuljeet). This leaves him with no time for his family; wife Mrs. Sonachand (Urmila Bhatt), son Amar (Vikram) who is about to return home from his studies abroad, and daughter Usha (Nazneen) who is away in boarding school. Mrs. Sonachand busies herself with her gurus and ashrams and the kids are basically on their own, a fact highlighted when Sonachand asks his secretary Sylvia (Helen) to meet Amar at the airport that evening.

Sylvia herself is a pragmatic though kind-hearted girl; I wonder throughout to what extent she actually goes to keep her job with Sonachand. This detail remains nebulous, and Helen is wonderful in the role (although we are deprived sadly of a song and dance—but who can blame her for wanting something different to do?). She tries to contact Mrs. S to meet her son at the airport but Mrs. S is otherwise occupied, to her son’s evident disappointment.

His reunion with Maa-Baap when it happens is warm and loving with Ma, and formal with Dad. Sonachand is quick to criticize his son’s apparel and Ma leaps to his defense. The relationship between the parents is clearly strained: it is certain that all their wealth has not brought much happiness to this household. Sonachand won’t even let Amar have dinner with his mother, so eager is he to get Amar started in his footsteps!

At the club Sonachand has dinner plans with a business partner by the name of Tikamchand (Jankidas), who has a daughter named Tina (Shefali). The two men are of the fond opinion that Amar and Tina are perfect for each other, but Amar is horrified when Tina lights up a cigarette out of her father’s sight.

She takes Amar to a party at some friends’ house, where he meets one of his old friends who is an artist (Jalal Agha). The party itself is hilarious and looks like a rocking good time to me, with music (Jalal Agha sings the crazy-fun “Jawani Mere Yaara”) and a bunch of stoner goras in the background.

Although happy to see his friend again, Amar clearly doesn’t enjoy himself as much as the hard-partying Tina.

The next day at his new office, he tells his father (rather bravely, in my opinion!) that instead of studying Business Administration as his father has believed, he has gotten a diploma from an Art School. I think this is totally awesome, and Sonachand is actually not as mad as probably MY dad would have been. He even agrees that as long as Amar puts in a full day at the office, he can do whatever he likes (paint!) with his evenings.

Amar meets a lovely girl at the Jehangir Art Gallery and invites her for coffee. She is very reserved, but he is attracted by her quiet beauty and asks her to pose for him at his studio (which he is now sharing with Jalal). She does so, but remains secretive and evades all his questions, including her name and whether she’ll return for another session or not.

We soon discover the reason for all the mystery: the girl (whom Amar is now calling Maya) works as a prostitute, entertaining well-off businessmen in their hotel rooms.

The scene where we first see her at work is very well done. It perfectly illustrates the sleazy nature of her business without making her appear sleazy herself; she retains her dignity as she caters to her lecherous (and drunk) customer’s wants.

At the same time, we are shown the toll that it takes on Maya: she pops a pill in the bathroom before sallying forth to the bedroom, smile and fluffed hair firmly in place.

We also discover that on her way home she always stops to give an old woman on the footpath money to help feed the woman’s children, and that she is also putting her own younger sister through school—the same boarding school which Amar’s sister Usha attends.

Amar is asked by his father to visit Usha at school in Pune. Usha is a carefree, pretty girl who plays badminton and is being romanced by a greasy Romeo named Ramesh (Paintal). He reminds me of the Mike Damone character from Fast Times At Ridgemont High who knocks up classmate Stacy Hamilton (appropriately enough, as it turns out).

Usha is thrilled to see her brother, and complains about not seeing their parents for months on end. Clearly parental neglect is not limited to only Amar. And as Amar’s romance with mysterious Maya proceeds apace, Usha is seduced by Ramesh with disastrous consequences. She discovers that she is pregnant at about the same time that Maya finally confesses her real identity (her name is Kamini) and profession to Amar after they arrive at her home one afternoon to find her vicious pimp Babu—who is also Sonachand’s supplier of female company—waiting for her.

Babu is angry because Kamini has been avoiding his calls (she cut her telephone line in a dramatic gesture). Amar is devastated by his discovery and basically calls her a money-grubbing whore. To my great joy, Kamini sticks up for herself proudly instead of falling at his feet and begging him to forgive her. She tells him that she has sold her body—her only asset—for money and at her own wish, and that at her own wish as well, she is giving it up. He storms out, and takes refuge in a whiskey bottle, which is an excellent excuse for a nightclub song that sadly features a pretty but talentless (at least in the dancing department) girl in a bikini instead of Helen.

I’ve seen that nightclub before, too, but offhand cannot remember where.

Luckily though, there are two other smart women who care for Amar: Sylvia, his father’s secretary, and his mother. Sylvia points out the toll that drinking has taken on his father and mocks him gently as a young Devdas. And his mother may not have met him at the airport, but she comes through for him now when he tells her his problem.

She tells him to bring Kamini to meet her, and that she will support them both no matter what society might say. He does so, and his mother greets Kamini warmly. But alas! Kamini sees a portrait of Sonachand on the wall, and flees the house, recognizing him as the man who had hired her as a secretary and then raped her at one of his evening business parties—and then sold her into the clutches of Babu by threatening her schoolgirl sister’s life.

Sonachand’s karma is about to come home to roost too, because daughter Usha’s baby-daddy Ramesh refuses to see her now, and she is desperate and suicidal. What will happen to her? Will Amar discover that his father was the cause of Kamini’s downfall? If so, what will he do? And what will Sonachand do when he discovers that his son wants to marry a woman he uses to entertain his clients?

As I said earlier, this film is compelling in its attempt at giving a different perspective to an age-old story. The performances are very fine: Vikram as Amar has a baby-faced innocence about him which doesn’t appeal to me generally as hero material, but is perfectly cast as a man who would appeal to damaged and cynical Kamini. Iftekhar is powerful as the debauched and arrogant Sonachand, and Zahira brings depth and believability to her role. Urmila Bhatt is lovely as the other-worldly Mrs. Sonachand, and Kuljeet is his usual effectively menacing self—he really creeps the bejesus out of me, I’ve got to admit.

It’s not a happy tale: it is full of sorrowful undercurrents, and holds some eye-popping (and tragic) twists at the end. But it’s very different from the “usual” fare of its time, and so well-done that it deserves an audience. Kudos to all involved! (And yes, on a shallow note because I am shallow, the decor and clothing are groooooovy!)

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68 Comments to “Call Girl (1974)”

  1. It sounds like Laaga Chunari Mein Daag shares quite a bit of story with this… But it also sounds like this is a far superior product. It’s a far cry from “Pretty Woman,” hai na?

    (Side note: I’ll never be able to read the title without hearing it in Shahid Kapoor’s voice from Jab We Met, and then Kareena repeating it back to him in disbelief. LOL)

  2. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch that (LCMD)…and I didn’t think of the Jab We Met thing, LOL!!!! This is really good, even if depressing.

  3. As you mentioned, there were a number of movies made in the 70s that highlighted the hardships and injustices (especially sexual exploitation) women faced in contempary Indian society. Many of these movies starred Zahira or Rehana Sultan. As a matter of fact, the latter’s “Chetna” in 1970 kick-started the mini-genre to be followed by films such as “Hanste Zakhm”, “Aaina”, “Naya Nasha”, “Zaroorat”, etc.
    I have to say that while most of these movies are seriously depressing, almost all of them have great music.:-)

    • And strangely, many of these are not easy to find. I have been looking for Chetna for a long time. I think that probably Zahira and Rehana Sultan could give us an earful!

      • The only one I’ve seen of those is Hanste Zakhm – and that had great music too (there’s this lovely song that the Naveen Nischol character sings to the Priya Rajvansh character as he drives through the rain).

        Will look out for this one; it sounds like an offbeat and sensitive take on what is generally pretty standard fare in Hindi films of the 70’s.

        • Yep DO super composition under the baton of Madan Mohan tum jo mil gaye ho to yeh lagta hai ke jahaan mil gaya, orchestration is just top of the world.
          Lyrics were Kaifi Saheb and sung by Rafi/Latadi.

          Cheers

          and oh yeah Call Girl, has one of my fav Kishoreda tracks called … ulfat mein zamaane ki har.
          Just dont make em anymore.

          Cheers .)

        • I still haven’t watched Hanste Zakhm…and I still need to see Priya Rajvansh as a piece of wood! :)

          I liked this, although it is very depressing. But I think it made its point! Hope so, anyway…

  4. It sounds like a good movie. Now if only it had big stars (apart from Helen and Iftekhar of course). And doesn’t Vikram look like Vinod Mehra? In fact, I just realized that I have confused them or they have confused me all along.

  5. This movie had that lovely song – Ulfat me zamane ki, har rasm ko thukrao.

    There was this other movie called Darpan starring Rehman, Waheeda and Sunil Dutt which had a similar theme. Too stark to be enjoyable at all. Probably watched by the same people who lash themselves for fun.

    • LOL!!!! Well, I don’t much like weighty and depressing films unless they have something to say and do it well (ie with some actual plot and action involved). Yes, both Kishore and Lata have a version of “Ulfat Me Zamane Ki” to sing and it is a lovely song. I really liked all the songs in this.

  6. Thanks for this review, Greta.

    I had only heard vaguely about this movie back in the 70s. Have not seen it. May have been an “Adults only” film when released – those were days when censors came down strongly on directors/producers. A big discussion item would often be what a director would “get away with”.

    Anyway, coming to the movie itself, it sounds like a very good movie. I like these sort of movies – and there were plenty made in the early 70s.
    I remember movies with Vijay Arora and Anil Dhawan also with such themes.

    I remember a movie “Manzilein Aur Bhi Hain” (1974) with Kabir Bedi and Prema Narayan. Made by Mahesh Bhatt. It sank without a trace – it was about nightlife in Bombay.

    Call Girl is best-known IMO for Kishore’s song “ulfat mein zamaane ki”. Lovely, soulful song.

    Btw, there is a simple movie “Ek Hans Ka Joda” (1975) with Zaheera. Cute movie about egos. You may like it.

    • I would bet my job that it had an “A” certificate (although I hate my job, and would bet it on things with far steeper odds). As is usual with me I liked the livelier songs better, but they are all very nice indeed. If you find Ek Hans Ka Joda with subtitles pick it up for me! ;-)

  7. Yet another movie I knew nothing about. But of course, when it was released, it must have been an adult film, and out of my radar. I’ve always liked Zahira and it’s a pity she never made it big. She looks lovely here, and so vulnerable.

    • She was really good in this, I don’t think I’ve seen her in much else. But she balanced being believable as an experienced call-girl with being believable also as a vulnerable and unhappy good person. Not caricatured at all, and it can’t have been that easy. She really lives the part. Everyone in this was good I think. I am happy to say that when it was released it would have been too “adult” even for me!!! :)

      • Interesting. Sounds a lot like ‘Aaina’ with Mumtaz which I HATED–couldn’t bring myself to believe that one’s family could be so mean-spirited.

        So you liked Zahira? She did very well too in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Naukri’ with the two RKs (Rajesh and Raj Kapoor) that I’ve been nagging at you about :-) Wasn’t she Nargis’ niece or was that Zaheeda?

  8. the man babu is the one who is there in pyaasa and cid ..

    • Really? Kuljeet seems a little young to have been making films already back then, unless he worked as a child? I’ve only seen him in 70s films…would love to know more about him—he is a very interesting onscreen presence for sure!

  9. I know these songs only because of its beautiful songs. They sound so much like Pancham!
    As Shalini has mentioned there were many movies in the 70s, which dealt with this subject. But the fact that they are always so depressing has always kept me away from them. Well, the main reason for not watching them was also the fact that hindi film directors use such themes more to (s)exploit them in the guise of criticising it.
    But when Call Girl has passed oyur muster, then it must be good!
    Jalal Agha looks great in that song and very sexy. I wonder why they took Vikram as a hero! ;-)

    • It is good, but also quite depressing. And it didn’t seem exploitative to me at all, was quite tasteful really. Much more so than Ram Gopal Varma following Urmila’s butt around with his camera glued to it!

      I adore Jalal Agha—I think he was really handsome (so was his father after all)…but I’ve only ever seen him in sidekick roles. It was great to see him doing this song, it rocked :)

      • Yep Agha had a fantastic screen presence, and his son Jalal for that matter also, if I am not mistaken did Jalal have a major role in Bombai Raat Ke Bahon Mein (1968) ? A movie by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas ??

  10. This is a hard movie to find and especially since you can’t search for it by name while at work. Thanks for the review. Do you know if this had the adult (A) sticker from the censor board? Would be curious to know.

    As Shalini mentioned Chetna would be another one to watch from that time. The thing about these movies is that all of them seem to have much stronger female leads.

    Sapan Jagmohan created some fantastic music in the 70s and 80s (a lot of it in Bengali). Sapan Dasgupta of this duo is often confused with Sapan Chakraborty, music assistant to R.D. Burman because of similarities in style.

    • I don’t know, will look later to see…but I would be that it did have an A certificate.

      I’ve been looking for Chetna but haven’t been able to find it. Should search again, maybe it’s become more easily available. And yes, the background score esp. reminded me of Panchamda’s style. Very funky.

      • Chetna exactly..when i was reading this post the whole time i was thinking that this movie is so much like Chetna. I watched Chetna when i was really young and was told to close my eyes “you know when”. I remember it coz of one of the songs “har mod par” and ofcourse coz i wasnt really allowed to watch it. DD had aired it late one nite. this is like 20 years back.

        • Sadly I don’t think Chetna is available with subs, only on VCD…and I think it’s a film which requires dialogue understanding :) So I will have to keep waiting! Director BR Ishara was one of the guys known for making these racier more “modern” social films…

  11. Memsaab Chetna DVD shud be avail here

    http://store.nehaflix.com/chetnadvd.html

    Cheers .)

    • No, that is a 2005 film (also it is out of stock)…the Chetna I am looking for is from the early 70s with Rehana Sultan. Nehaflix used to list it but it was always out of stock.

      • Hamka maafi dayi deeyo, galti hovat hai Memsaab, that is Bhojpuri, me practicing it and also quite common dialogue in our movies, meaning……
        pls pardon me made an error…….).), a mishtake….

        Chetna of 1970 saw on VCD only some months ago, will keep a watch and adv if DVD comes thru..

        Cheerio for now…

  12. I never heard about this film, but i guess this types of films are quite interesting.
    Does Helen appears in this film for just a scene, or did she got any sexy cabaret number? Because i always love Helen’s cabaret numbers and Minoo Mumtaz’s mujras. Oh ! they are really delicious….it makes the films more lovely :)

    • Ha ha! Caught you not reading my post (not that I blame you, I am very long-winded)…No, as I said Helen’s dancing ability is sadly wasted, although she has several key scenes.

  13. I think you may like this movie also, `Aurat Per Ki Juti Nahin Hai”, *ing :
    Deepti Naval, Marc Zuber and Gulshan Grover. Produced by B.K. Adarsh and music is by Pankaj Udas. It tackles the wife’s issue remarkably well.
    Marc, Deepti and Gulshan have acted very well and the dialogues are great and I think you willl love the ending.

    Thank you

    • Thanks Anvar! I’ll see if I can find it. I love Deepti Naval and Gulshan Grover (I have a thing for bad guys after all ;-)…

      • Watch Deepti Naval’s first movie “Ek Baar Phir” with Suresh Oberoi and another new actor. It was a good movie (unusual for those days – 1981 i think), good music, direction and acting too.

        Another Deepti Naval movie worth seeing is Saath Saath with Farukh Sheikh – good story, direction, music, acting etc

        • Someone else mentioned Ek Baar Phir, I’ll look for it.

          Saath Saath is a lovely film, have seen it and liked it very much :)

          • Dat was me who commented on Ek Baar…
            and incidentally the new guy,London based me thinks, was called Pradeep Verma, plays an artist !

            Nice to see…. bell bottom fashion galore in this !

            This movie I have as a VHSrip, yep yu heard it right, pretty good print despite the age. Other formats almost imposs to find, at least when I was hunting for it.

            Cheers

    • was that the movie where Marc Zuber is an actor and it is shot some place outside India. i remember saeed jaffery was in it too. wow i cant believe someone else has watched that movie too.

  14. ooh, I’ve never even heard of it – “Call Girl” is not Doordarshan approved clearly! But I must watch it.

    Spoilers please!

    • I watched part of it with my sister and then she had to bail…the next day when I finished watching it I HAD to call and tell her in installments what was going on. A real nail-biter towards the end! If you really want to know the ending I can email it to you…

    • even Chetna isnt. if i remember correctly there is a nude scene in it too but DD did air it very late at nite thou

  15. Hmmm…parts of the movie sound like Deepa Mehta’s Water, actually. Coincidence only?

  16. Talking about Deepti, a fine actress no doubt, just finished the horribe T Series label Ek Baar Phir (Once Again) (1980), entirely shot in London.

    The movie in sections was good but it shud have been a little shorter, me thinks, it does drag on in the second half. Has that wonderful track by Anuradha Paudwal and Bhupinder –

    yeh paudhe yeh patte yeh phool yeh hawaayen

    and rarely heard Ghazal-
    sahmiaahen hain dhashat si man mein by Bhupinder Singh .
    It is high class poetry.

    Cheers .)

  17. “Call Girl”, like other movies discussed here (Chetna, Do raaha, Dastak etc) were all “A” movies. Forget movie watchers, even the censors and the movie critics were too immature then. I recall that movie critics had panned “Chetna” and “Do Raaha” for nudity. Those were the days when nudity was no no and Censors would promptly award “A ” certificate (after deleting the offending scenes, of course).

    From your review, “call Girl” appears a well made movie on a different subject. That certainly to lots of guts on the part of the movie makers. It is sad that the audiences those days were not magture enough to appreciate such movies.

    Like Raja, I too was a minor those days, not that it made any difference to me. ;)

  18. Ha ha! I can just picture you Atul, a ten-year-old skulking in alleyways smoking cigarettes and furtively looking through scandalous film magazines and sneaking in to see “A” certificate movies.

  19. No, no, my scandalaous behaviour is limited to reading “A” certificate stuff and watching them. I never took up smoking. I was a reluctant drinker and I gave up even that after my wife asked me to.

  20. Land of Kamasutra, yes we are but our Censor Board perhaps has not heard of it ????

    Oh btw we never had any probs entering A Cert movies back in Nairobi, I recall Gumnaam was one of them ?, 2 of 3 buddies managed to squeeze in, reason we had mustache ? and beard ?, .)the third buddy unfort was all clean. so he trotted back home all sad ! It was fun, simple things to be cherished, and in the big Cinema Halls. A totally different experience.

    Cheers

    • Gumnaam had an A certificate?! Why? Maybe Nanda’s rain-drenched sari? The drunk song? My goodness…

      • My guess is they thought we, the tots will get night mares, def not Nanda rain dance, all the same let me also check with my buddy, what his thoughts are…. and if I am not mistakensalso Bees Saal Baad was another one, the Biswajeet one… super movie. Be back to reconfirm asap.
        Cheers .)

        • *Falls off chair laughing*

          • No no Memsaab I just fell of from my building LOL, oochi hai yeh building…….

            yep my buddy who has better memory than mine says we had GumnaaM and Bees Saal Baad with A Cert AND

            another was Kohraa and Woh Kaun Thi, both were 16 YEARS Cert, now we should not frighten little kids, should we .) .)

            Bees Saal Baad, must see, well made with fab music by Hemantda, avail on DVD as far as I can gather and it well deservedly got the following Filmfare Award in 1963-

            Best Editor
            Keshav Naidu

            Best Lyricist
            Shakeel Badayuni
            For the song “Kahin deep jale kahin dil…”

            Best Playback Singer
            Lata Mangeshkar
            For the song “Kahin deep jale kahin dil…”.

            Best Sound Recordist
            S.Y. Pathak

            And it was Nominated for following categories also-

            Best Director
            Biren Nag

            Best Film

            Best Music Director
            Hemanta Mukherjee

            The ever green number still running on Radio Stations sung by Hemantda
            is Beqraar Karke hamein yoon na jaaye ye aapko hamari kasam laut aayeh. Wah Wah

            Next century on we will still be listening to this track.

            And my opinion even the other 2 Woh Kaun Thi and Kohraa were superbly made, good Direction and the music for sure. Cheers

          • I think Woh Kaun Thi is a BAD movie. Not well written at all (I have reviewed it here). And I am just about the easiest person on earth to scare, but even as a kid I would not have found most of these films hard to bear :D I will check out Bees Saal Baad soon, I have been meaning to…

        • Oh so u found Woh Kaun Thi baddie ‘un…..
          I wud imagine the effect in a big hall and tv screen cud make a difference, and esp those days when we were ‘tots’……. mean effects on yu, besides the ishtory.

          And oh BTW my buddy btr not be reading this bcos he still is a Sadhana fan-atic and no one dare say her movie was a baddie .), and I know he saw her movies without me knowing it or being with him second or third or fourth time over .)

          Cheers

  21. Those days, censors were not only the upholder of public morals, they were also very concerned about the heart problems of the public. So not only movies like “Call Girl”, but also suspense movies like “Bees Sal Baad”, “Gumnaam” etc were looked down upon. The censors felt that kids had weak herats and suspense movies were bad for them.

    I recall that “Jaani Dushman” (1979) had big difficulty being released because the censors felt it was a horror film unsuitable for all audiences, and not just kids. Finally it was released with n “A” certificate. When I went to the movie hall and watched it, I was not afraid even one bit despite being a minor. ;)

    It was more a horrible movie than a horror movie. I feel that the censor board members were chicken hearted people who got scared far more easily that even average minor kids.

    • Jaani Dushman is possibly the worst movie ever made, although it does have some WTF moments which are pretty entertaining.

      But the idea of Gumnaam (haven’t seen Bees Saal Baad yet—I know! Must!) being scary is seriously ludicrous :D

  22. is her name aapearing in credits as zahira or zaheera?whats her full name exactly….?

  23. Probably because it was put on the net (maybe IMDB) wrong, and everyone assumed that it was right because there is no way to verify these things! Thanks for the info and I’ll update the post :)

  24. When I was a kid I almost took Zahira (Zaheera) for Pooja Bedi’s mother… But later I came to know that Pooja had a different mother… Pooja and Zahira look so similar…

  25. Zahira came to India from Britain. She had already worked as one of the girls in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Yes!) and got some roles here. Her poor Hindi worked against her. She was Dev Anand’s sister in Gambler and worked with Rishi Kapoor and also Rajesh Khanna but disappeared in the 1980s

  26. any body knows at present where is actress zaheera after 1981 she is missing

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