This is my least favorite of the Mehboob Khan films I’ve seen, and it is such a pity. It boasts a fine cast with excellent acting, absolutely gorgeous music, stunning cinematography, detailed sets and costumes. The visuals, the ambiance and the characterizations all convey a wild Romanticism, but the plot collapses into an unholy mess halfway through. The pivotal event around which it revolves is completely incongruous with the characters we have come to know (not to mention that I have a serious quarrel with some of the resulting fallout). It feels like Mehboob didn’t show up at all to work on the second half; it’s as if he realized that he was confused about what he was trying to say, knew he had screwed it up, didn’t have the energy to care, and finally just gave up.
According to Bunny Reuben’s biography of Mehboob, the film was originally to be directed by one of Mehboob’s long-time assistants, Mehrish, who worked on the story. Mehboob took the assignment back into his own hands because distributors weren’t willing to offer enough money for it otherwise, and he needed to recoup some of his astonishing expenditure on Aan. I don’t know how it might have fared had Mehrish directed it instead, but I wish I did; Mehboob himself did not do it justice.
Well. There is still plenty to enjoy even so. Most of the songs I have heard before, although I had not known or remembered that they were from this film. They are unbelievable: Naushad truly outdid himself for this film, especially the thematic “Insaaf Ka Mandir Hai Yeh.” Faredoon Irani’s camera work is breathtaking (so is the lighting); although I sometimes wished for color, given the exquisite detail in the sets and costumes (so much pretty!), his use of black and white film is among the best ever, by anyone, anywhere.
Madhubala and Dilip Kumar were in the midst of their affair, and it shows in their sparkling chemistry (which is actually part of the problem for this instead of a blessing), and Nimmi is wonderful as the simple but irrepressible milkmaid Sonia who finds herself in an untenable situation not of her making. Her theatrics are more, well, theatrical than the understated performances of her co-stars, but it’s impossible not to love her.
The film opens with Sonia greeting the day eagerly as she tends to the animals in her care (birds, goats, cows, you name it). She cheerfully chatters away at them, although when her prattling leads to a reminder of her stepmother (Husn Banu) she falters a bit.
(What a pair of faces, na? So sweet.) This dark shadow passes quickly, though, and when she goes inside to find her stepmother still sleeping it’s obvious that, beatings or not, she is uncowed (pun partially intended, sorry).
Her elderly crippled father clearly loves her and like many before him seems sorry to have inflicted his second wife on her (and himself); he watches in horror as she ties a cow to her stepmother’s bed and then makes it run. I laugh and laugh along with her.
It’s not hard to see why the dour town bully Sankat (Jayant) has his heart set on marrying her; it’s also not difficult to see why she doesn’t care for him at all!
His possessive attitude towards Sonia extends to his land as well, and he has beaten up some of the village men and torn down the tents they put up on his land for the annual fair, a long-standing tradition. When the police charge Sankat with a crime, he goes to see Amarnath (Dilip Kumar), a lawyer known in the village for his sense of fair play.
Amarnath has met Sonia earlier that day, when her dupatta flew off in the wind and wrapped itself around his head, causing him to fall off his horse—to her mischievous amusement.
When he chases her in anger, she accidentally slams his hand in a gate; remorseful, she tears a strip from that same dupatta and bandages his finger with it. There is a spark of attraction there, but neither acts on it.
Predictably, Amar turns down Sankat’s request to represent him and delivers a short lecture on how Sankat’s money does not entitle him to be selfish.
Amar’s father, who lives in a city elsewhere, wants him to get married. To that end, he sends a photograph of the girl he has chosen for Amar’s approval.
That girl is Anju (Madhubala), the daughter of the local (to Amar and the village) zamindar, Rai Sahab (Ulhas). The angry villagers (led by the CSP, Mukri, a villager who has become a lawyer himself albeit a cowardly and ineffective one) go to the zamindar to ask for justice and that their fair be allowed to take place on Sankat’s land as it always has. Rai Sahab does not care about their problems, but Anju intervenes when her father will not.
Sankar is as rude and uncooperative to Anju as he is to everyone else, and he further tells her that Amarnath is representing him in court. Furious, Anju goes to see Amar, who recognizes her as the girl his father wants him to marry. He is smitten immediately and allows her to go on thinking that he is Sankat’s lawyer even as he flirts with her.
Anju hires a battalion of lawyers on the villagers’ behalf, and goes with them to court on the day of Sankat’s trial. It does not go well for her, as the lawyer Sankat has actually engaged does his job well—and hers tells her she should just give up!
Amar, who is present in the courtroom, steps in to help her and wins the case: Sankat’s land deed specifies that he must let the villagers hold their fair on it every year; it was a condition of the sale.
At this point, Mukri also spills the beans to Anju that Amar is the man her father has chosen to be her husband, stunning her.
The villagers are elated at winning their case and begin preparations for the fair. The other girls push Sonia forward to thank Amar with a garland of flowers when he goes through the village soon after, but she is nervous in his presence and he treats her with irritated contempt.
Not one to be kept down for long, Sonia bathes and makes herself pretty for the festivities—incurring the wrath of her stepmother when she borrows her mirror. Anju and Amar arrive together (by now seriously falling in love) as honored guests and are seated in the front row to watch the entertainment: a stunning song and dance led by Sonia.
As she dances, Sankat watches in anger and frustration. I should say here that the songs are not subtitled, which is a great loss—it was clear that the lyrics (for all of the songs, but especially this one) held shades of meaning that I couldn’t fully appreciate, and held messages in it for and between Amar and Anju that I couldn’t decipher. Boo!
At the fair’s end, a storm blows up and Sonia makes her way home. She soon realizes that Sankat, torn apart by jealousy and rage, is following her and a frightening cat-and-mouse game commences, which includes some amazing photography—especially when Sonia hides underwater in a pond as Sankat fishes around for her in the dark water, his dhoti billowing near her head.
It is totally riveting, and scary!
Actually to this point I have been pretty enraptured by the whole thing: the story, the characters, the great touches of humor. But now the film trips and falls flat on its face with a resounding *thud*.
Sonia manages to escape Sankat by taking refuge in Amar’s house. He finds the terrified and exhausted girl in his library:
and rapes her!
I am stunned. The plot synopses that I have read say that he “seduced” her, but there is no seduction here. As portrayed in the film itself, it is purely and simply RAPE in all its ugliness.
It makes no sense at all. For all his arrogance, Amar has shown himself to be a principled and compassionate person, and by now he is head over heels in love with his beautiful fiancee Anju: there is sizzling chemistry between them. Poor Sonia is devastated; she makes her way home, stumbling through the rain and wind, to find Sankat waiting at home with her father and stepfather. They are all startled by her vehement defiance.
The rest of the film stumbles along in equal desperation. Having failed miserably to set the stage properly for this turning point, there is nowhere for Mehboob—or the cast—to go with it. It limps along to a lame conclusion as Amar broods and complains about how guilty he feels and tries to justify it.
Uhhhh…NO, Amar. She had fear and desperation in her eyes, you asshat.
Madhubala succeeds against the odds in her portrayal of an increasingly bewildered Anju trying to understand what has happened to her romance, but who can now root for her love story to succeed? I can’t! She deserves much better than a rapist! (And she is so incredibly, luminously, beautiful.)
And Sonia…oh lovely, lively, independent Sonia. She turns into a wet dishrag of a bhartiya naari—the man who raped her is now the center of her universe, the man she loves, the man to whom she will forever faithful.
I am left with nothing but the pretty pictures and the lovely songs and an unfulfilled wish to understand what on earth the film is trying to say. It seems to me that with a little care the spark shown between Amar and Sonia could have been nurtured a bit; along with a lessening in the intensity of his relationship with Anju, it could have resulted in an impulsive actual seduction—NOT RAPE—making a believable catalyst for all the second half angst. What the h-e-double-toothpicks, Mehboob? What were you thinking? Plus the ending just makes me want to stick needles in my eyes.
This is a movie I wish I could recommend wholeheartedly; so much of it was profoundly lovely. But it also let me down so terribly: which is kind of a metaphor for the story itself, if you think about it, and just as disappointingly hard to believe.