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.
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.