Karma (1933)

Finally I get to see Himansu Rai and Devika Rani paired together (although they aren’t very happy for much of it) in this early English-language talkie, a collaboration between Rai and an English movie studio. Unfortunately the audio and video in my copy is completely out of synch, but I persevered because the visuals are so great and at least I could understand what was being said, even if it was coming out of the wrong mouth. The ending is also very abrupt; I am not sure if it was due to damage or what, but you can’t have everything.

I gather that the film is mostly famous for having a very long kissing scene although no one ever mentions that Himansu Rai’s character is completely unconscious through it.

Devika Rani plays the Maharani of Sitapur whose elderly neighbor the Maharaja of Jahanagar (Dewan Sharar) dislikes her for her “modern” ideas like education and health care for all. Unfortunately for the old guy, his son the Prince (Himansu Rai) is madly in love with her and she reciprocates; they want to get married. The film opens with a very cute scene of the Prince telling a squirrel how much he loves the Maharani, who is hiding behind a rock and replies on behalf of the squirrel.

She tells him that she wants to hold a tiger hunt in Sitapur and ask his father to lead it, hoping that he will soften in his attitude towards her; the old Maharaja loves to hunt and has had his eyes on Sitapur’s tigers for years. The Prince is a little worried that her people will be angry, since tiger hunts are against their religious views, but she has scheduled it for the day after a festival, when she hopes the population will be in a good mood.

Meanwhile, the Maharaja consults with his holy man (Abraham Sofaer*) on what to do about his recalcitrant son’s ongoing romance. The priest wisely counsels him not to interfere, but to allow them to marry and then control her through the alliance.

The Maharani plays a board game with her companions while maidservants or village women dance circles around them. One of her women teases her about the Prince and how the Maharajah is unexpectedly sending him to lead the hunt in his stead, but another cautions that the beaters (who will flush the tigers out of the brush) are unhappy at being conscripted for the hunt.

The procession as the Prince arrives in Sitapur is exactly what you’d expect from Himansu and company (the credits thank the ruler of Partabghar for lending his assistance). It is grand in scale, with horses and camels and elephants—oh my!

The lovers seem too happy to be puzzled over the King’s sudden change of heart, and the welcome festivities begin. I love this guy with his huge drums on horseback (poor horse!). The Maharani watches from the palace as magicians, tumblers, and the same dancers going in circles provide entertainment for the visiting entourage.

Her main confidante (Sudha Rani) now points out the downside of her marrying the Prince: she will not only be his wife, but also the Maharaja’s daughter-in-law—and he is not likely to let her carry out her progressive plans for the people of Sitapur. And the people of Sitapur have already figured this out too. Trouble foments in the crowd as complaints about the hunt and about the tyrannical Maharaja gaining influence are voiced. One guy wonders aloud if the Maharani “has lost her mind” which makes me giggle for some reason.

That night as some of the men gather to plot the murder of the Prince to save Sitapur and its Queen from their neighbors, the Maharani tells her beloved sadly that there will be no hunt the following day and that in the interests of her people she cannot marry him. The Maharaja’s holy man has been told about the planned attack on the Prince, and he arrives in time to stop it. He tells the couple that those who try to rush progress get their fingers burnt or something like that, and that they should not be blinded by love.

The Prince recommends that given the mood in the town, the hunt should go on as planned so that the Maharani does not lose face. This makes no sense to me—in fact, it seems counter-productive—but never mind. Their parting is sorrowful.

As the hunt assembles, the men who are acting as beaters grumble louder. They are afraid of angering the gods, since tiger-hunting has always been forbidden in Sitapur (probably why they still have lots of them, making the Maharaja so envious). The Maharani goes in her palanquin to the Temple of Shiva to pray.

There is some nice footage (or would be if the picture quality weren’t so bad) of a leopard, deer, and wild boar; then as the Prince sits in his (relatively) safe perch on a platform high in a tree with his rifle in hand, a tiger appears (and how!).

The Prince fires two shots, killing the tiger—aaaand one of the reluctant beaters. Oops! He magnanimously tells the man’s father (Ranabir Sen) to take his son’s body home on his elephant, and he will walk. As he goes along with his attendants by foot, the Prince is bitten by a cobra. His soldiers carry him to the local snake charmer’s (Amal Banerji) hut as another rides to the palace to inform the Maharani, now on her way home from the temple.

She rushes to her beloved’s side as a mob of townspeople—angry, justifiably, about the murder of the beater—rush the Maharaja’s fort, and the snake charmer sets out to find the snake which bit the Prince (according to him, if the snake bites him again it will draw out the poison!).

Will the Prince survive his snakebite? If he does, will the Maharani change her mind and marry him? Can their love conquer all? And what on earth will the Maharaja do with the angry mob blaming him and his son for the death of one of their own?

Sadly, I am not sure I can tell you (what SPOILERS I can give are next!)

The snake is captured and does bite the Prince again, and he regains consciousness to the Maharani’s great delight (as she mutters something about “kismat” over and over). Meanwhile, the Maharaja instructs his men to give the people alms and mutters something about “karma” over and over. This seems to mollify them and suddenly the film is over.

END SPOILERS

The movie is just over an hour long so I’m not sure if part of it is missing, but I’ll take what I can get with a film this old. The story and acting are a bit stilted and lack depth (talkies were brand new of course), and the dialogues are pretty cryptic. But the photography is beautiful and as usual for Himansu Rai productions it is shot mostly outdoors and on location. The background music is pretty, composed by Roy Douglas, and there is one song which is sung by Devika Rani, who is just gorgeous by the way.

Mostly it’s wonderful to be able to see a bit of film history and another early Indo-European creative collaboration.

*I was also interested to see Abraham Sofaer as the holy man in this. He was of Burmese-Jewish origin, born in Rangoon; his family moved to England and he went into acting via the stage. He went to Hollywood in the 1950s where he became a well-known character actor in films and television.

I just saw him a few days ago on my Retro TV channel in a 1965 episode of Daniel Boone, playing another kind of Indian named Grey Cloud!

I love it when my different worlds collide.

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30 Comments to “Karma (1933)”

  1. How lucky you are to be able to see this film! It was clearly shot silent, and the sound dubbed in later, which is why there is such a discrepancy. Sound film is 24 frames per second, and silent film speed is various, depending on how fast the cinematographer turns the crank. Many Hollywood films, even well into the early talkie era, had scenes that were shot on silent film, especially those that demanded spectacle, or a lot of camera movement. As you know, even today, many Hindi films are still not shot with sync sound.

    • I think it lags behind (the sound) because whoever took the vhs tape they had and converted it to digital didn’t do it properly :) It is consistently behind by about two minutes and was cut off at the end too once the picture ended.

  2. Sounds like a sweet film, even if what was being said was coming out of the wrong mouth (lol) and it ends abruptly. I have only seen a handful of movies of the 1930s/early 40s – all thanks to you ;-). And I’ve always felt something special about them, whether it was Amar Jyoti or Roti or Sikandar. Maybe it is because theater was strong then (or even the plays in villages depicting Ramayana/Mahabharata type stories) but I feel the style of story-telling was very uncomplicated in those days. Stories themselves were uncomplicated. (Some may say life was relatively uncomplicated. ;-)). I find all this sweet and special – it transports me to a different world altogether (You can see I’ve still got a “Midnight in Paris” hangover. ;-)).

    I’m guessing that kissing scene is when the Prince lies unconscious after being bitten by the snake?

    As usual, I enjoyed reading this review, Greta. Many thanks. :-)

    • It’s a very simple story, actually almost too simple—it was basically secondary to the technology of filming and dubbing, I think :) But it is sweet, and Devika Rani and Himansu Rai are very sweet together. It was fun to watch.

  3. Greta, I haven’t come across this film before, and believe me, I was zapped when I heard dialogues in English! Devika Rani was progressive alright, even in her personal life, so I can imagine her doing a role like this. :) Thanks for the review – and hey, your new header looks great!

  4. Greta, is the whole film in English?

  5. Thanks for the spoilers, we are not likely to get our hands on this kind of a film easily and it helps to know the entire thing. I have seen HImanshu Rai’s Mayur Pankh and had the same curious feeling. Not a great movie, but interesting.

    • At this point it’s more about seeing an early film that was made at a turning point in cinema history, to see how tentative the attempts were at incorporating sound. Fascinating if you like that sort of thing, which of course I do!

  6. Nice header, btw. haha.

  7. Love your new header. One of the things you are definitely doing when you come to Bombay is teaching me to make headers. :)

    This film looks gorgeous. How mindblowing it must have been on screen. Once again, a lament on why our old films are not better preserved.

    • Oh to see it on a screen, yes! I think some of this one is missing too, but better than nothing. And thanks re: header—all it takes is Photoshop skills (basic) and imagination fuelled by the craziness of Indian cinema.

  8. Nice lighting as always – composition of pictures a bit too standard.

    Imagine the cat whistles in the theater during the kissing scene in those days :)

    • Still very stagey as you say, but still it’s good fun to see the pageantry, and indoor scenes are beautifully lit and composed even if a bit static.

      Maybe people were more grown up in those days and there wasn’t any whistling. It just made me laugh that half of the participants are out cold.

      • I don’t know. I am sure those in the pit (front) stalls would not remain silent :) Yes the guy’s out cold and it’s the woman who is making the moves – pretty bold!

  9. I first remember seeing a still of that kiss on the front page of The Times of India years ago – there was an article about how Indian cinema actually seemed to have regressed in what it (or rather the censors) thought permissible. I’ve seen a clip or two on Youtube, but never the film. Sounds kinda stilted, but a historic film, nevertheless.

    And one of my old favourites, too – Abraham Sofaer. :-) He was always playing the not-white man, wasn’t he? He’s also there in The Naked Jungle as a South American, in Elephant Walk as a Sri Lankan, in Quo Vadis as Paul… but Karma was well before all of those.

  10. Yes, gorgeous Devika Rani, indeed and she could sing too. I’d always read about the kiss and now I can put it in context. It’s a knock-out one, I’m seeing.
    It’s a simple story full of very politically aware people, starting with the Maharani. Just as I was beginning to object about the hunt, came the point about the people of Sitapur being opposed to it. How shrewd was the holy man’s advice to the Maharaja!
    Instant karma – prince kills tiger, cobra fells prince. How is the Maharani going to live with a tiger-killer for her
    husband and have Sitapur’s support?
    And this thought crept in – had this been a soap opera, Maharani would’ve married Maharaja and taken over. What would the holy man have made of that?
    Yes, that `maharani seems to have lost her mind’ is funny, but a wise observation. Credit is usually due to the public, it knows what is happening. That scene you describe, about the maharani taking the dutiful path seemed touching (though we’ve seen so many variations down the years).
    Just over an hour long? They had good sense in those days.

  11. Wow! This a movie that I have always wanted to see. I was happy to see the YouTube clips. My Dad used to have the 78rpm record of the song and some dance music from Karma. Unfortunately the record was very fragile and is no more.

    Thanks for the review. Another movie Gretacised (my personal term for watching movies vicariously through you blog!)

  12. Great new header!
    very imaginativeandoriginal!
    congrats!

  13. Okay, I have movie envy now.:-) This looks remarkbly well-preserved, poteniially missing end scenes notwithstanding. The simplicity of the story is mighty appealing – my brain can’t handle much complexity these days.:-) I think you’ve earned some good karma by sharing this gem with us!

    • “Remarkably well-preserved” is a matter of opinion, although I know your yardstick is more forgiving than mine by a bit :) And my karma needs all the help it can get, so yay!

  14. How do you get hold of these old movies? And the information you have on some of the unknown actors … it’s just amazing…

    As usual Greta, your blog is fun to read. Keep up the good work. I look forward to new posts all the time. :)

    • People send them to me or I dig them up on the internet :) I am very grateful indeed to be able to see some of these…really they need to be restored and made available to everyone. Even non-Hindi film fans who are simply interested in cinema history should see them!

  15. Wow! Wow! Wow! I have been dying to see this film with Achhut Kanya. You are so lucky Maam. I envy you a lot. It would be great if you could share this treasure will the rest of us old film buffs. Any chance of that?

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