Now with English subtitles!
I’ve said it before and I’m likely to say it again: I love Sunil Dutt as a dacoit. He is just so perfectly suited to the black tilak, the mouche, the gold hoop earrings, the manly bullets slung around his tall form.
So when Tom decided to make a subtitled DVD of Mujhe Jeene Do with Raja and Ava’s help I was thrilled (more information about a new joint venture at the end of this post). Its reputation as a very thoughtful film about dacoits in the Chambal Valley has intrigued me for years, but without subtitles I figured too much would be lost (Dara without subtitles is one thing, a serious story quite another). And certainly there is a whole lot to like about it, although it was hit or miss for me through a long stretch in the middle. Maybe that’s to be expected in something so ambitious, and this movie is nothing if not ambitious. There are messages in here about everything: respecting women (even *gasp* nautch girls), promoting religious diversity, embracing the land, practicing forgiveness, valuing community, achieving redemption and, of course, the whole not killing and looting thing. That’s a lot of preaching, although at least it’s all sentiment I can get on board with.
The film boasts a star-studded cast of stalwarts and the acting is really good. The cinematography is gorgeous, even when the absolutely breathtaking Waheeda Rehman isn’t in the frame; Jaidev’s music is beautiful too, as are the lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi. Kudos for translating them to Ava and Raja—the poetry of them shines through and I know it isn’t easy to do.
Plus the chemistry between our lead pair is CRACKLING.
The film opens with a musical paean to India’s history and traditions as the credits roll. The bucolic rural idyll it represents is rudely interrupted by the arrival of dacoits, led by one Thakur Jarnail Singh (Sunil Dutt). His stop for a quick prayer at the local temple notwithstanding, he is not a likable man. He brutally murders a local man who refuses to procure bullets for him despite the pleas of the man’s wife Champa (Nirupa Roy), who becomes a young widow with a baby boy named Mohan.
The village men bristle and wave guns in the air after he leaves, swearing revenge, and Champa makes them take an oath. They seem to me to be all talk and no action and we discover later that they are very brave in the face of a terrified woman but not so much when faced by bandits.
Jarnail Singh proves equally ruthless after he and his band of men are ambushed by the police. They manage to escape after Jarnail Singh’s main right-hand man Gulab Singh sends a camel caravan between the dacoits and the police, forcing a cease-fire, but Gulab Singh is also unfortunately the traitor who told the police where they would be. He caves under Jarnail Singh’s piercing stare and is shot dead. Jarnail promotes a shady character named Kripal (Siddhu) to Gulab Singh’s place. The local Superintendent of Police (Tarun Bose) is obviously a clever man, and he vows that he will not stop until Jarnail Singh is caught and hangs.
The dacoits now discover that a local zamindar’s (DK Sapru) daughter is getting married with much ceremony and a lot of wealthy guests too. They infiltrate the wedding venue; the zamindar begs them to preserve his daughter’s honor by letting the wedding continue and lets them rifle his safe. Performing at the wedding is a courtesan by the name of Chamelijaan (Waheeda Rehman), accompanied by musicians and her greedy mother (Manorama). How we are supposed to believe that someone as lovely as Chamelijaan came out of Manorama is beyond me, but I am thrilled to see both of them anyway. And the song is just beautiful too.
Jarnail Singh is smitten with Chamelijaan on sight, and who wouldn’t be?
She is much less enamored of him, especially when he kidnaps her after looting all the guests at the wedding. She refuses to dance or sing for him, so he shuts her into a room with strict instructions to his men not to give her food or water. I must say, the presence of Rajendranath adds welcome levity to these proceedings. He plays a kinder, gentler kind of dacoit named Dara Khan and sneaks food into Chamelijaan’s room while playing a prank on humorless (and creepy) Kripal, telling him that Chamelijaan has been talking about his good looks. It is really very funny, and Siddhu pulls off his part in it well too.
Chamelijaan continues to refuse to sing and dance for the dacoits, a situation which culminates in a confrontation with Jarnal Singh. He taunts her status as a tawaif, slaps her (boo!), and she responds with a furious but eloquent lecture.
She ends her tirade with a few tight slaps of her own across his face, and then draws her fingernails down it, leaving deep scratches.
It is truly an awesome speech and I cheer. But it really only makes it worse when, a few days later, he asks her to marry him and she instantly falls head over heels in love with him, grateful that he is willing to change her status from that of a courtesan to “the light of his home.”
He’s still a dacoit and a murderer, and that her desire to be a wife outweighs all of that strikes me as insidiously condescending. We are even given a song in which she fantasizes about her wedding, as all girls do (by implication). She does make a few noises about whether it’s the right thing to do, somewhat hilariously asking “What will people say?” of a dacoit and a tawaif getting married: I say, why would she even care? It’s not like either one of them has garnered huge amounts of respect and affection as it is.
An effort has been made to make Jarnail Singh more than a one-note killer—his friendship with Dara Khan especially has shown a more tolerant and loyal side of him. Sunil Dutt and Rajendranath have great chemistry too, and Rajendranath is fairly restrained and very sweet in several scenes. (Plus, as we’ve already seen, Jarnail Singh prays at the temple before riding into town and shooting unarmed people.)
In any case, he goes into town to rob someone named Jagirdar. Jagirdar apparently has dared him to do so to as a way to impress the young girl (Kumari Naaz) whom he wants to make his fourth wife (some subtle messaging about the ewwww factor of a December-March marriage). Jarnail Singh knows that the police will be there waiting, but it’s a point of pride for him to go anyway. And it gives him an opportunity to face down the Superintendent with much manly hypothetical beating of chests and talk about izzat.
While he is doing that, Kripal gets drunk and puts the moves on Chamelijaan. Jarnail Singh arrives home in time to prevent him from succeeding, and Chamelijaan manages to stop him from killing Kripal by promising to marry him (up until now she’s been making him wait). He boots Kripal out of the gang and sends Dara Khan off to find a Hindu priest (Asit Sen) and a Muslim maulvi (Rashid Khan) because “a dacoit has no faith.” They are married, with a fantastic dance between Madhumati and Cuckoo (who makes a much prettier man than Rajendranath does a woman) for entertainment.
The wedding ends inauspiciously with the police firing on it and eventually finding the hideout, scattering all of Jarnail Singh’s men. This is where the film goes off the rails a bit for me. It wanders around for a time with a mish-mash of events. Siddhu for instance becomes part comic character (with Mohan Choti as his sidekick) and part menacing vengeance-driven dacoit, and Sunil and Waheeda romance as shootouts with the police punctuate things. Chamelijaan gives birth to a baby boy with the help of Jarnail Singh’s mother (Durga Khote) and sister Farida (Mumtaz! so young!), and tragedy strikes.
Jarnail Singh must part from his little family to keep them safe and I begin to get more and more depressed by the knowledge that this is a story which CAN ONLY END IN TEARS, although the presence of more of my favorite actors comforts me somewhat.
Does Jarnail Singh deserve his fate? Will Chamelijaan’s love and little Mohan save him? What about Champa and her little boy and the men in their village—are they still vowing revenge too? Will the dogged Superintendent get his man?
Luckily, those who don’t speak Hindi can now watch this and find out! And it is worth getting through the hard going, because the end is quite satisfying after all that.
Some of us die-hard fans have banded together to form “Edu Productions” in a salute to our friend and former dancer Edwina. My friend and reader Muz has graciously sent Tom VHS tapes of old films like Pukar, Sikandar and Achhut Kanya to restore and convert to DVD as only Tom can. Raja and Ava are putting in long hours to provide excellent subtitles for these classics, including this film and 1950’s Babul as well. I can tell you with perfect certainty that the results are so much better than anything the Indian dvd industry is giving us.
Here is the link to download this film along with Tom’s easy-to-follow instructions; and you can also watch it on YouTube in its entirety (the red “CC” button turns the subs on or off as you like). I will be posting links to the other films as they are finished and uploaded—a HUGE thank you to Tom, Muz, Raja and Ava for their work, and of course to funny and gorgeous Edwina for all the hours of cha-cha-chaing entertainment she’s given us.