This is a classic film from Mehboob Khan which really ought to be subtitled and put on a dvd (sans gaudy logo). Even the vcd print is not bad, so I’d think it could be relatively easily done! In any case, my friend Raja subtitled it for me and I am so grateful. Even without subtitles I sensed that this was a very moving and message-heavy film—it is Mehboob, after all!—and so it is. And the cast is magnificent, led by Chandramohan and a very young Sheikh Mukhtar, with the particularly fabulous support of Sitara Devi.
A hard-hitting criticism of the exploitation of the starving and helpless masses of the poor by the small numbers of wealthy elite, it works beautifully as an allegory contrasting the purity of tribal life against the corruption of the city. No doubt it resonated for audiences at that time too as a smack upside the head for the government of the Raj! I was reminded of Abraham Eraly’s wonderful book about the Mughal rule in India as well: the excesses in which the emperors and their courts indulged at the expense of the vast majority of the Indian population in no small part contributed to their own downfall.
Of course there are a gazillion examples of the same thing in western history too. We really don’t ever learn anything! which helps to make this film and its message particularly timeless.
The narrative is pushed along by a Greek chorus (literally—much of his discourse is through song) of a character called Jaggu (Ashraf Khan) who gleefully taunts the poor, blaming them for their own lack of courage and initiative, and eggs on those who are strong enough to grasp whatever they want.
He meets a homeless and hungry man on the street one day who looks exactly like the long-lost son, Laxmidas, of a wealthy old woman. Knowing that the real Laxmi is dead, Jaggu styles the starving and ragged man as her son and presents him to the old lady (and the world) as Seth Laxmidas—she readily and joyfully accepts him.
The old widow’s long-time partner in business is a man named Tarachand, who has a daughter named Darling (Akhtaribai Faizabadi—later known as Begum Akhtar, the ghazal singer). The old lady and Tarachand have nurtured a fond hope that when her son returned he would marry Darling, and thus consolidate the business under one name and one roof.
Darling is not drawn to Laxmi for long: when his “mother” dies soon after handing over her half of the business to him, he loses no time in murdering Tarachand by locking him in his own vault filled with gold. It is a brutal scene—Tarachand essentially suffocates to death in an airless tomb. Laxmidas returns to the vault afterwards and steals all the gold contained in it, leaving Tarachand’s body.
Tarachand’s Munimji and Darling both suspect Laxmi’s involvement but cannot prove anything.
Darling vows to bide her time, and since she still nominally owns half the company Laxmidas needs her as well. Laxmi further proves his ruthlessness by ruining another wealthy man named Premchand, who commits suicide in the office after begging for mercy—Laxmi remains unmoved. He buys up all the grain available and hoards it; when the mill workers threaten to strike because they no longer can afford to buy wheat he crushes them by raising the prices even higher, despite the protests of Munimji.
He and Darling set off together on a trip to a remote jungle to look at some gold mines in which Laxmi is considering investing. The plane crashes in the jungle next to a village whose chief is brave young Balam (Sheikh Mukhtar).
The villagers have never seen an airplane before (Balam flings his spear at it, and they think he has killed it, whatever it is), but when they hear Darling’s cries for help they pull her and Laxmidas from the wreckage; they are the only two survivors. As the days pass Laxmi frets about his lack of contact with the outside world while Darling falls for Balam and the village’s utopian way of life. She is particularly impressed as she watches the villagers divide the harvest equally, and in complete harmony with each other.
Balam is uninterested in finding out what life is like beyond the jungle: he has heard that people go there, become slaves, and never return. So he repeatedly refuses Laxmi’s requests for an escort and his pair of bullocks and a cart to take him and Darling back to the city.
But Balam is in love with—and loved in return by—a lively and beautiful village girl named Kinari (Sitara Devi).
Kinari is enchanted by the gold Laxmi has brought with him, and more than a little jealous when Darling makes her interest in Balam clear (although he rejects her, gently). Laxmi seizes his chance and convinces Kinari to let him take Balam’s beloved bulls Changu and Mangu while Balam isn’t looking; she arranges for another villager named Haada to show Laxmi and Darling the way out and makes Laxmi promise to send Haada and Changu-Mangu (as they are called) back once they reach the outer edges of the jungle.
Balam is furious when he discovers what Kinari has done. She has been given gold, but gold of course cannot plough the fields; and when Haada returns weeks later without Changu-Mangu (Laxmi having reneged on his promise), Balam and a very remorseful Kinari (along with a very cute pet monkey) set off for the city to retrieve their bullocks.
I love these two together. Balam is serious and responsible and very wary of the city. Kinari’s vivacious curiosity is a great foil for him, although it gets them into rather more trouble than they bargained for. They soon run into our narrator Jaggu, who wastes no time in taking advantage of their simplicity and naivete.
He quickly relieves them of the gold they have brought with them, although he does take them to see Seth Laxmidas. But Laxmi has long ago sold off Changu-Mangu and has no interest in helping Balam and Kinari despite their earlier generosity to him and Darling; he throws them out of his huge mansion.
Determined to find their bullocks, Balam finds a job as a day laborer and they take shelter in a crowded chawl which they find suffocating. The landlord is horrified when they declare their intent to sleep out in the open air—it’s a matter of shame, he tells them. They have no idea what shame is, but understand that they are supposed to stay in the stifling indoors.
Can our two innocents find their beloved animals and buy them back? Will they survive the rigors of city life and find their way home eventually? Or will they be crushed as so many have been before them? And what of Seth Laxmidas and his crimes: will he ever get his comeuppance? Will poor Darling get her revenge?
I really, really love this movie. The story might seem a bit simplistic for today but it is incredibly well done and as I said, the moral is still very relevant. Outside of Jaggu’s songs there are a couple of lovely tribal dances (music is by Anil Biswas). Plus, the cast is wonderful—you cannot help but root for sweet Balam and Kinari; and Chandramohan is fantastic as the faux Seth Laxmidas. He takes to greed, murder and larceny with a malice and total lack of conscience that is quite simply shocking—but not at all unbelievable.
If anyone is interested in seeing this with the benefit of subtitles (thank you again Raja!), let me know and I will make it happen. I highly recommend it.