Usne Kaha Tha (1960)

There is a lot to appreciate in this Bimal Roy production (Moni Bhattacharjee directs), but for me anyway not a lot to LOVE. It is meticulously crafted; I enjoyed the settings and portrayal of life in small-town India, but everything is so picture-postcard perfect that it began to get on my nerves (I like a bit of “messy”). Even the war scenes in the second half feel far too carefully arranged. In the long run, it somehow lacks the heart to really be a classic although it certainly looks like one; but it’s more a coffee-table book of pretty photographs than an engrossing movie. It didn’t help that the painstaking care taken over the characterizations, photography, songs and script was all in service of a complete downer of a plot! But I didn’t mind the gloomy story as much as I missed that intangible sense of life—it just wasn’t there.

Nandu (Sunil Dutt) is a happy-go-lucky type who has been spoiled rotten throughout his life by his widowed mother Paro (Durga Khote). He whiles his time away with things like cock-fighting, gambling and the occasional fist-fight, but his heart is in the right place. His friends include Khairati Chacha (Rashid Khan), a tonga driver; Vazira (Rajendranath) who has an obsession with stealing shoes; and Farida (lovely Indrani Mukherjee in her debut), his next door neighbor.

We are introduced to the beauty of a rural lifestyle through a lively tonga ditty (“Chalte Hi Jaana”). The music is by Salil Chowdhury and beautiful: every song (few as they are) is a gem.

Nandu’s childhood crush Kamli (Nanda) had left town after a very short acquaintance when they were still children. Now a pretty young woman, she returns with her widowed mother to live with her moneylender uncle and aunt (Praveen Paul). She and Nandu fail to recognize each other, and her first impression of adult Nandu is not favorable.

As much as his mother Paro dotes on him too, she is disapproving when Nandu brings her gifts bought with money he got through gambling. However they have that mother-son relationship which makes Indian men into such bad husbands: her scolding doesn’t have any effect on him and she quickly forgives him anyway, as he knows she will.

His reputation as a mischievous loafer doesn’t deter Kamli either from rekindling their all-to-brief childhood romance when she finally discovers who he is.

Their love story is furthered through two songs in quick succession: a very pretty Lata solo (“Machali Arzoo Khadi”) and a nice Lata-Talat Mahmoud duet (“Aha Rimjhim Ke Yeh Pyare”) picturized against idyllic bylanes, tidy huts, sprawling banyan trees, and neat-as-a-pin haystacks. So pretty!

But Kamli’s beauty has caught the eye of one of her uncle Lalaji’s friends (Asit Sen); he suggests to Lalaji that she would make a good bride for a young man he knows, who belongs to a wealthy family in a distant town. When Paro later brings a proposal to Lalaji for Nandu’s engagement to Kamli, he rejects it in no uncertain terms.

Paro returns home to castigate poor Nandu over his reputation (which is, to be fair, not that inaccurate) and tell him that Lalaji has refused him as a groom for Kamli. Stung AND heartbroken, he wanders out into the streets and sees his salvation in the form of a large recruitment poster.

He signs up and leaves his Ma weeping to go off to training camp, planning to make himself worthy of Kamli. Six months later he comes home on leave to discover that his Kamli—who had promised through friend Farida to wait for him—is now engaged to someone else. Greedy Lalaji has emotionally blackmailed her into accepting the enriching arranged marriage that his friend had suggested.

Devastated, Nandu returns to the army base immediately (leaving Ma, still weeping, behind) and reports in to his immediate superior (Tarun Bose).

Nandu’s superior officer is himself packing up for his own leave of absence to get married—to Kamli.

As Nandu sulks and picks fights with his fellow soldiers on the base, his commander gets married to Kamli and the evil Japanese begin advancing towards India. Nandu’s mother falls ill and he returns home once again to see her, but is called back when war begins in earnest.

Upon departure for the front with his unit, he discovers that his beloved Kamli is married to his superior officer. What happens when they go into battle together? Will anyone be happy by the end? (Here’s a hint: War Is Hell.)

Although I did shed a teeny tear or two towards the end and certainly found some moments throughout quite lovely, I was left feeling unsatisfied as a whole. It’s hard to pin down why, exactly; I think part of it was that the characterizations felt rushed and a bit shallow. We understand that Rajendranath’s character steals shoes ostensibly to sell them, but not really why (even drawing a salary in the army, he continues to pilfer footwear). I never truly get Farida’s relationship with Nandu either: what does she feel for him? or he for her? it isn’t drawn clearly or resolved in any way (resolution not always being necessary of course, but I would have liked it to be here). Also every scene felt very stylized to me, as if the director spent more time setting up the composition of the scene than thinking about what would happen IN it. Many shots could be made into paintings:

but ultimately all the nice aesthetics aren’t supported enough by emotional substance. The dvd print is really crystal clear, by the way—it seems that Bimal Roy and his heirs have taken good care of his work. Hooray for that!

Nanda looks beautiful, but doesn’t have much more to do than smile and look pretty or cry and look pretty. Sunil Dutt is adequate as Nandu, although somehow Nandu isn’t entirely likable for me—spoiled, sulky, prone to throwing tantrums. Durga Khote brings her all as usual to Paro, but the one person whose performance really stands out for me—although as I said her character remains sort of mysterious—is Indrani Mukherjee. Every time I see her I am struck by how beautiful she is: Waheeda Rehman beautiful!

I loved her in Aakhri Khat and she had a leading role in Dharmputra as well (although it was not a heroine-centric story), but I have not seen her in any leading roles beyond those two films. She seems to fall into that category of second-lead females, and later mother-type roles which is a pity. I’ll take recommendations for more of her!

Watch this for the lovely songs and beautiful settings, but if you want some good old heartfelt good-cry-inducing emotion look elsewhere.

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43 Comments to “Usne Kaha Tha (1960)”

  1. I first read about this film at dustedoff’s. she has written a nice review of it.
    You present quite a different picture of it altogether. Yay to diversity of opinions.
    Nanda looks as you said very beautiful. In the song machalti aarzoo though she looks so very unsure of herself!
    I love the songs as well.
    You have written evil Japenese advancing. Is it based in the times of WWII?

    • I don’t think our views of it are so very different…(her review is here, for those who would like to read it and haven’t). She found it more realistic than I did—and since one of my main problems with it was how idealized everything was, it’s not surprising that she’d like it more :) I did really love the songs though, and it was definitely a nice-looking film.

      The time frame is never specified, and there are contradictions—if it was WWII I’d think that the Indian Army would be under British control more than is pictured, but who knows? Maybe it was just an opportunity to make a dig at an old enemy :)

      • As far as I remember, the story by Chandradhar Sharma was set during the second World War – which, of course, means that that ‘serve the nation’ business is a bit off the mark. I think at the lower levels – where the characters of Tarun Bose, Sunil Dutt and Rajendranath are shown – more Indian officers were beginning to be in control rather than British.

  2. Trivia for u- the movie is inspired by a short story of the same name by Chandradhar Sharma. In the story though, the characters played by Sunil and Nanda meet only a couple of times, as children, and the whole drama takes place in the war trenches as a flash back.

    • Yes, it’s credited at the beginning but I’m not likely to ever read it :) Nandu and Kamli only met a few times in the film too as children, which only made me more skeptical about their undying devotion to each other—would have been interesting here to have told the story through flashbacks from the trenches!

  3. Well, well. It appears J Om Prakash and co. lifted that part of the story with the CO marrying the junior’s love interest in 1975’s “Aakraman”. Rakesh Roshan played Sunil Dutt, Sanjeev Kumar = Tarun Bose, and Rekha = Nanda. Wonder if this ended the way that one did and given Sanjeev Kumar in the latter, you can probably take a good guess :-)

    Directed by Moni Bhattacharya the actor?

    Those screen shots do look lovely. And I’m right there with you on the Indrani M love. I’ve said earlier that she’s luminously beautiful especially in her b/w films. And does tragedy very well, was that her lot here too :-)?

    • Was Moni Bhattacharya an actor? Bengali? I only know of Moni Chatterjee.

      Yay for the Indrani love. She is even gorgeous as a Maa :) And tragedy was the order of the day here for almost everybody!

  4. I would watch this movie for Indrani Mukherjee and for the songs, if not for anything else. I have had it in my must-watch-it queue for quite some time now.
    The screen caps are lovely, picture perfect! The Join Army poster part sounds similar to Hum Dono (Guess that was quote a common plot back then). And the part of Tarun Bose marrying Nanda…yes, it’s the same in Aakraman .
    I had loved Indrani in Aakhri Khat and like Suhan says she looked gorgeous in her b/w films. How I wish she had done more movies as a leading lady.

    • Me too…let’s all send up lots of Indrani love. In my somewhat disrespectable opinion she is such a good actress too, although always kind of repressed and sad as Suhan says. And I love love love the songs. Really very melodic and beautiful (and subtitled!)…

  5. I watched this movie for it’s songs which I love to bits, but was vaguely disappointed by the movie itself. I think that’s because I found the film unnecessarily tragic – I have the same complaint of the Nanda-Shashi starrer “Mohabbat Issko Khete Hai.”

    RE: Indrani Mukherjee, how’s this for a coincidence? I’m about to post a song from a movie that features her in the lead(and has Helen in classical-dance mode to boot!).

  6. I just watched this recently, and was vaguely disappointed, too. I love the short story its based on, so the tragedy wasnt a surprise, or even unwelcome. But yes, it does leave a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. The cinematography was stunning, though I wont call the Punjab of this film as particularly idealized – it seems a whole lot more real than in most other Hindi films. Also, considering how Bengali most of the crew was (producer, director, music director), its amazing how Punjabi the film feels. So I cant really say why it doesnt work, ultimately! Maybe it was the confusion at seeing Praveen Paul playing a loving aunt? I kept waiting for her turn on Nanda or show some signs of her usual wickedness! Or maybe it was the dialogues that felt stilted in their language (though not necessarily in delivery)? Or that I didnt find Nandu particularly lovable – so much like Birju of Mother India? Cant say… I did love Indrani though – she was so sparkly! I guess people hadnt cottoned on to her Meena Kumari-like looks yet, so she got away with being cheerful. :-)

  7. Every shot was so carefully set up—“posed” almost—that it killed the flow of the film for me. I wouldn’t know a Punjabi countryside or feel from a Bengali one :D but everything looked awfully tidy and clean and PERFECT. It was pretty…but it had no real soul.

    @Shalini: How completely beautiful are they both? Great to see Helen dancing like that too…thanks for sharing :)

  8. I’m definitely going to see this movie for the songs. And also for Sunil Dutt. I’ve seen pictures of Sunil Dutt before he joined the movies and he was very handsome then. I’ve also met him in real life ( in the mid-70s ) when he was far less handsome. But at that time I didn’t know or care who he was so I wasn’t disappointed. And finally with all this Indrani appreciation, I’ve got to see her debut movie.And finally finally, I’ve got to see Nanda circa 1960. My mom, who is exactly her age, got invited to some of her parties. It was hard for my shy mom to keep up the friendship though because Nanda was invariably surrounded by press and admirers. She had beautiful translucent skin according to my motther and I think she does look pretty here.

    • I love Nanda; I know a lot of people don’t, but I think she’s just lovely. Plus, like me and Asha P. she never got married! Single women represent!

      Sunil looks handsome here, although in many scenes it looks like he has boot polish on his face. Not sure if it was makeup or if they were trying to make him look dark, but it’s a little Oompa-Loompa-ish at times. Still, everyone in it is pretty :)

  9. I have just received my pack from Induna and this is one of the films I ordered.
    I’m looking forward to seeing it :-)

    I always found Indrani Mukherji’s looks resembling Meena Kumari’s.
    Punjab villages could be perfect and very clean (if my memory is anything to go by).

    • Yes, until Bollyviewer mentioned it above I hadn’t thought of it, but Indrani does look very like 1950s Meena. I have seen rural villages which were very clean and swept, but not quite like this…it wasn’t just the village, but even every blade of grass and piece of hay seemed to be in its place. Ah well. Perhaps it’s just my reaction to the chaos in my home which makes it resemble a recent bombing.

      Let me know what you think of it after you see it!

  10. Yes, I too saw the film recently. The basic problem is it works beautifully as the original short story with a solid emotional wallop, which we studied at school and I still remember it, such was its impact. However, expanding it to a full length feature film doesn’t quite work and dilutes the original work.

    • That happens probably a lot :) I would have liked to see more time spent on the relationships between people and less on making it pure eye candy. I just didn’t really care about the people in it…they had no depth for me, like pretty cardboard cut-outs (except Ma and Farida, as I said, somehow Durga and Indrani managed to catch hold of my heart a bit).

      Still, it’s a good effort and much better than Zinda Dil I can tell you! (in fact, a nice antidote to the excesses of ZD)…

  11. Hmm! Picture-perfect bores me too. Yet, we see it so rarely in Hindi cinema, it can be a treat to watch.

    Old version of ‘Lakshya’, this??

    • I haven’t seen Lakshya (should I?)…This was no hardship to watch, certainly—it’s very pleasing to the eye, the script is well-written, everything is very nicely done…it just didn’t SQUISH my DIL.

      :)

  12. Nanda.. Indrani… pretty pretty pretty…!!! I’ve only seen Nanda in Ittefaq (not sure if I’ve seen Indrani in any yet).. clearly I’ve a lot to catch up on!!

  13. Watched it this afternoon (I’m having Easter holidays :-)

    I liked it very much because I could relate to a lot of it.
    The characterisation was so good, I thought.
    Nanda’s ‘dhutt’ when asked ‘kudmai ho gai’ completed the rusticity of the setting.

    Of course the song ‘aha rimjhim ke’ was the reason I bought the DVD (also because of dustedoff’s reviews) and wasn’t disappointed.

    The punjabiness of the whole thing was very attractive, complete with a lot of phrases in punjabi.
    Ambala Cantt is so effective as the ‘army place’ to show.
    Heard it mentioned a lot while growing up. :-)

    And of course Indrani Mukherji was excellent. In fact all the character actors were excellent adding to the whole flavour.

    I liked it much more than you did memsaab :-)

    • Well that’s okay :) The “punjabiness” of it is what Madhu liked too I think, but it escaped me completely. But what we each bring to art is part of what makes it all so special, hai na?

  14. This is a rather belated response to your review but every time you review dad’s films it brings back a flood of memories. Sunil Dutt saves my father in the film’s climax–well, that was reel life, in real life too, while shooting for the climax my father would have been trampled by the tank and would have met his ‘Creator’ much sooner if Sunil Dutt hadn’t pushed him out of the way. Needless to add my father was extremely grateful to Mr. Dutt.

    I agree with your observations, I found the film rather long-winded.

    • Really??? Mr. Dutt seemed to make a habit of saving people during shoots :) Your dad looked very handsome in this film too, but there wasn’t enough of him!

  15. Thanks for the compliment. It was during the shooting of this film that Mr Dutt discussed the story of Mujhe Jeene Do with my father and their other colleagues. Soon after this film was completed, Mr Dutt launched his banner Ajanta Arts with Mujhe Jeene Do. Some of the cast and crew of Usne Kaha Tha featured in Mujhe Jeene Do, for instance, my dad ( played an inspector), Rajendranath and Durga Khote. The film was directed by Usne Kaha Tha’s director Moni Bhattacharjee.

    • Shilpi, I love that you share these stories with us—you should write a book! :) I’ll be first in line to buy it!!!! I will have to look for Mujhe Jeene Do—I haven’t seen it, and don’t have it.

  16. Thanks Memsaab for the lovely words of encouragement. What I liked about Mujhe Jeene Do is that, unlike other dacoit films, where the gentle hero is compelled to become a dacoit due to unavoidable circumstances, here Sunil Dutt is a ruthless, merciless dacoit. He changes after fallin in love with Waheeda Rehman and experiencing fatherhood. I think it is possible to view the film online. I will have to check.
    Going through the comments I was surprised to learn that Aakraman had a story similar to Usne Kaha Tha. I think my father was supposed to feature in Aakraman but Iam clueless about his role. He was supposed to visit Mr. J.Omprakash for a narration of the story on the day he suddenly passed away.

    • I love Dutt Sahab in ruthless merciless roles (Geeta Mera Naam springs to mind instantly) :) Alas, I can only find Mujhe Jeene Do on an unsubtitled dvd (damn you T Series!!!) so guess it will have to wait…

  17. I would love to watch Usne Kaha Tha because the basic story penned by Pandit Chandradhar Sharma Guleri is considered as one of the classic stories of Hindi literature and it moves the reader deep within. Let me see how the cinematic adaptation has turned out. I have watched and I continue to watch the song – Aha Rimjhim Ke Ye Pyare Pyare Geet Liye on internet. I am never tired of listening to it (and watching too).

    Let me tell you that the story writer (Pandit C.S. Sharma Guleri) had written a sequel to this story also which he could not complete dut to death. In the sequel, injured Sunil Dutt comes back from the war in a handicapped condition. The name of the sequel is – Heere Ka Heera (diamond’s diamond).

    Thanks for the informative review.

    Jitendra Mathur

  18. Wow! Loved the comments and review of a movie that my mother relayed info about in annoyingly teasing bits. I still love listening to `Machalti arzoo’ and `Aha rimjhim…’ Having watched the latter song as part of some collection, the picturization spoiled it for me and I did not pursue the thought of watching the movie. Now I won’t, unless I switch on the TV back home and it’s on.
    Yes, that join the army poster directly took me to a similar scene in Hum Dono, where the hero enlists after a parental rejection.
    Not a big fan of Sunil Dutt (hated his hair in Nehle pe Dehla and Himalay se Ooncha and subsequent movies) and Nanda I can’t make up my mind about. I was happy to read that she was engaged to Manmohan Desai and shocked at how it all ended abruptly with Desai’s suicide. Nanda looked gorgeous in `Ittefaq,’ in those tantalizingly, low-waist draped georgette saris.
    Memsaab, thanks for all your wonderful observations and your Indian eye on so many subjects.

  19. Per Wiki: Chandradhar Sharma ‘ Guleri ‘ (1883–1922), from the city of Jaipur in India, was a scholar of Hindi, Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali. Described as a versatile genius [1], he is well known as the author of Usne kaha Tha ( Hindi उसने कहा था ), a short story in Hindi, first published in 1915, is debated to be the first short story in Hindi. (So WWI must be in the original work).
    Re the relationship between Nandu and Farida: she ties a strip on his upper arm for protection as he was going to the front and says, “Allah Nigehbaan” meaning “May God look after you”, and final word is “Khuda Hafiz” meaning “May God be your protector”. Right after her tying the strip on his arm, Nandu hugs her and says, “You know what I feel right now, in our next life we might…”. To me it only means something familial as brother and sister, the reason being one is Nandu and the other one is Farida (of different religions but with same cultural mental makeup. One has a next life in his belief system and the ohter does not, hence ……in our next life we might…..).

  20. Watched Usne Kaha THa again some time back, and read your review again :)
    I remember as a kid when we travelled long distance by train, passing several villages, and seeing these artistically piled cowdung cakes. Since you remarked on it in your review;
    >neat-as-a-pin haystacks

    I thought of posting a picture.
    Not that there are many. It is a dying art.
    Here’s one with an article as well.

    http://news.ukpha.org/2011/01/the-fading-tradition-of-making-cow-dung-piles/

    Only the picture

  21. They did try to give this movie a punjabi atmosphere, but they goofed royally dressing the groom (Tarun Bose) in bengali headgear. I saw it so many many years ago but that detail still sticks in my mind.

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