Now available with subtitles thanks to Tom and Raja!
Sometimes (well, quite often really, due to my suspect tastes) I see a film which wasn’t a hit and I say WHY, UNIVERSE, WHY? Despite the magical combination of Shammi Kapoor in his prime with Shakti Samanta directing, backup from Helen and Asha Parekh, lovely songs (Shankar Jaikishan) and an emotionally compelling and unusual plot, this movie apparently bombed at the box office and has not—until now!—even been put on a dvd with subtitles. (If you would rather just get to the download and not have to read my drivel, scroll all the way down to the end.)
It is not perfect but I found it deeply engaging and sensitive: it is largely about loss, and I think it is one of Shammi’s best performances.
He plays Sujit, a singer with a troubled and lonely background who grew up in an orphanage. After being hired at the Hotel Copacabana by another musician named Shyam (Prem Chopra), he has forged the first close bonds with people he has ever had. Shyam has become his best friend and roommate, and he has found love with cabaret dancer Jenny (Helen), giving him happiness he never thought possible.
The opening credits roll over a lively tune with Helen dancing (in a glittery striped-only-on-one-leg catsuit), Shammi on sax, and Prem on guitar.
Hotel Copacabana is owned by Max (KN Singh), who is enamored of Jenny himself.
Max is none too pleased that she loves Sujit and neither is her aunt (Praveen Paul), setting the stage rather obviously for the main plot.
There is never really any evidence put forth for why people would think that, except that Sujit has a fondness for tortoises which I personally think is completely sane and understandable. In any case, Jenny doesn’t think he’s mad either and she genuinely loves him. How could she not? He is lively, fun, devastatingly handsome, clearly adores her, and he calls her by that Shammi trademark phrase: “my love, my doll, my pigeon, my cactus flower!”
I sense trouble looming ahead when Shyam tells Sujit that he could easily fall for Jenny himself (and it’s obvious that he already has). Sujit’s response is typically bromantic…and the heavy-handed foreshadowing continues.
Jenny worries and Sujit soothes her with “Tum Mujhe Yoon Bhula Na Paaoge.”
I believe that I’ve read someplace that this is Shammi’s favorite song from all of his films, and it is just lovely, especially the lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri (did I mention that they are subtitled! Ha!).
Sure enough, Sujit’s newfound happiness is about to end—and on New Year’s Eve at that.
After the performance, Shyam announces Sujit and Jenny’s engagement to the crowd. This enrages Max, who gets drunk and insults both Sujit and Jenny. In the ensuing fray Max pulls a gun, and Shyam bashes him on the head with a bottle before he can shoot, killing him.
Up to this point the only clue that Shyam might not be the ideal best friend is that he is Prem Chopra, but now Sujit fails to see Giant Warning Sign Number 1: Shyam is all too happy to flee with Jenny and leave Sujit there to be arrested for the murder of Max in his stead.
They hire a defense attorney by the name of Mehta (Brahm Bhardwaj), who doesn’t appear to understand the concept of self-defense and suggests another road to acquittal.
All agree on this plan of action, and in court Sujit pretends to be crazy while Mehta calls witnesses to attest to his madness. First up is the director of the orphanage where Sujit was raised, who tells the sad story of Sujit losing his mother to cancer at age 6, and then being violently rejected by his father who went mad as a result of her death. (He describes a troubled and sad little boy, not a mad one, but nobody sees the difference.) Then Shyam testifies against him, followed by a reluctant Jenny. Both Shyam and Mehta bring up the self-defense argument but only as an aside, with the insanity plea remaining the focus.
It is really too bad that Sujit at least did not think this plan through.
He fails to see Giant Warning Signs Number 2, 3 and 4, which are that his so-called best friend hired an idiot to defend him, testified against him in court, and would rather see him committed to a mental hospital than go free thanks to a logical and thoughtful defense.
The mental hospital is populated by character actors and comedians, and is a great deal of fun if a little over-the-top wacky sometimes. The first order of business is for the hospital doctors to agree that Sujit is insane and to inform the court of their decision. Sujit has very little trouble convincing most of them that he is indeed mad.
But Dr. Shalu (Asha Parekh) is not so sure. She asks to be given Sujit’s case and her uncle, the hospital superintendent (Badri Prasad), agrees. Sujit becomes acquainted with some of the other inmates; Kumar (Kundan) thinks he is “the biggest star of Indian cinema” and his delusions poke gentle fun at Shammi’s own career.
My own favorite crazies are Gangu Teli (Ram Avtar) and his buffalo (Asit Sen), who lead us into a fabulous song called “Mhaari Bhais Ko Danda.”
It is seriously enchanting. Just look at all these familiar faces!
Each patient has in his own way suffered pain and loss, and some of their back stories are woven in gently around the loony shenanigans.
Meanwhile, Shyam is putting his own treacherous plan in motion. He gives Jenny a letter Sujit had written him in which he talks about Shalu, and it is clear that he is also intercepting Sujit’s letters to Jenny. She desperately wants to see Sujit, but he reminds her that Mehta has told them not to visit. Poor, poor Jenny!
Sujit quickly wins over all the hospital patients and staff with his charm, but Shalu has been observing him and she is convinced that he is faking. When she confronts him, he acknowledges that she’s right and then tells her what he should have told the court to begin with. He explains that Max had threatened his beloved Jenny, and Shalu is touched by his obvious devotion to her. After he tells her his sad life history, she is so moved that she gets the hospital committee to agree to Sujit’s release, free and clear.
She also falls in love with him, although she keeps it to herself.
But oh noooooooooo!
Shyam, frustrated by Jenny’s continued fidelity to Sujit, shows his true colors and rapes her.
When Sujit is released and makes his way home, it is to discover that everybody is celebrating Shyam and Jenny’s wedding at the Hotel Copacabana. Everybody except Jenny, that is. She is sad, as a woman who marries her rapist should be. Even Madhumati’s jaunty feathered headdress cannot cheer her.
This betrayal at the hands of his best friend and his one true love now really does send Sujit over the edge into madness although he does his best to be magnanimous. He is sent back to the mental hospital and Shalu, who must now (ethics be darned!) find a way to cure the man she loves.
Can she help him? Or has Sujit finally snapped for good, his mind gone along with his hopes?
Much of Pagla Kahin Ka is profoundly sad, possibly the reason it didn’t succeed. But it also has a lot to say about the ways in which people cope with loss and about where madness really lies. There are definite flaws: the medical aspects are filmi (although to be fair there was so much less information in 1970 about treating mental illness in general than there is now), and the whole court case/trial is ridiculous. (Updated to add: and as people have pointed out in the comments below, the callous dismissal of Helen’s character is awful!). But the story and the characters resonated enormously for me. Shammi is wonderful especially in the quieter moments; he hams it up a little playing a lunatic when he is faking it, but probably that’s what someone faking insanity would do. Sujit is a fully realized character with a vulnerability that is almost tangible. His chemistry with Asha is as usual superb, and the supporting performances weave together a whole that moved me immensely.
I watched this without subtitles and liked it a lot, but I knew that I really needed them to fully appreciate it. I owe an enormous debt to Raja for his translation, and to Tom for painstakingly putting the video and subtitles together with his magic and making it available for everyone. You can download it here (be sure to read the instruction file, it is helpful and makes the process very easy) and please take the time to let them know how much we appreciate their efforts—it is a lot of work, and they do it because they love this cinema too. Wah! Wah! Productions actually lives!