Kismet (1943)

Oh my.

I love you, Kismet. I can see why, for 32 years until Sholay, you held the record for longest run at the box office. I love your story, I love ten-year-old Mehmood, I love VH Desai (whom Saadat Hasan Manto called “God’s Clown”), I simply adore Ashok Kumar in all his youthful kind-hearted con-man glory. I love your unwed pregnant girl, your runaway son; I even love your songs, which is sometimes hard for me with movies as aged as you are. I can’t wait to see you with subtitles (thanks Raja!) but even without them you are enthralling, you dear old progressive masala template of a film, you.

It’s hard to imagine, from a perspective almost 70 years on, how different this film really was when it was released. So many of its plot points have been repeated ad nauseum since then, but even so this movie retains a freshness and an innocence which is utterly wonderful. Hero Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) is not very heroic at all, being a thief and an unsuccessful one at that. As the film opens he is being released for the third time from Central Prison with an admonition from the jailor to go straight and his few belongings—including a locket that he’s had since he was a boy. He gets right back to work, mingling with a crowd engrossed by a street performance and watching as another deft pickpocket relieves an old man of his gold watch.

Following his fellow thief, Shekhar picks the watch out of his pocket, and continues in his wake to a local pawn shop run by a very young David, who might even have hair but we’ll never know because he always has a hat on. David is a fence well-known to Shekhar and the pickpocket’s name is Banke (VH Desai). Shekhar turns up just as Banke realizes that he no longer has the watch, and the two are introduced and decide to become partners.

In the marvellous collection of Manto essays called “Stars From Another Sky” there is one chapter devoted to comedian VH Desai, who seems to have been famous for never being able to deliver his lines properly. Manto says:

The trouble was that his retentive memory was absolutely zero. He just could not commit anything to memory, not even one line. If he was ever able to get his lines right, even one line, the first time, it was considered pure accident. The funny thing was, no matter how many times he fumbled his lines, he remained completely unaware of his boo-boos. He had no idea which line he had turned into what. After rendering yet another ribtickling version of the lines given to him, he would look at those present on the set, waiting to be complimented…

…He must have wasted hundreds of thousands of feet of film in his life.

According to Manto, if anyone got upset with him over his time-consuming and expensive mistakes he would only get worse. Desai worked with Ashok Kumar at Bombay Talkies and later at Filmistan, where Ashok also produced films; Manto arrived on set there one day to see this:

Ashok who was about to turn from a red hot cinder into pure ash, looked at Desai with murderous eyes, controlled his anger with a superhuman effort, brought a forced smile to his face, and said ‘Wonderful.’

Desai was so funny and beloved by Indian cinema goers that he kept working until his death of a heart attack in 1949 (you can also read more about him in another of my favorite books, “Eena Meena Deeka”).

I digress, but hopefully in a good way. On his way out of the shop, Shekhar bumps into the local Police Inspector (Shah Nawaz) who knows Shekhar very well. Along comes the old man (PF Pithawala) to whom the watch belonged in the first place; he is distraught when he realizes his prized possession is gone. The Inspector gives Shekhar a stern look and moves on, but Shekhar is moved by the old man’s distress. I am not sure what exactly the conversation is about, but the old man’s daughter Rani is a singer at the local theater and I think he was going to pawn his watch to buy a ticket to see her performance. Shekhar takes pity on him and buys tickets for both of them.

Inside the theater, they are seated in a box opposite a wealthy man named Indrajit (Mubarak) and his wife (?). Rani’s father ducks to avoid being seen by Indrajit and tells Shekhar that he used to own the theater and Indrajit worked for him, but that now he owes Indrajit money and Indrajit owns the theater. Shekhar’s own attention is caught by Indrajit’s wife’s lovely pearl necklace.

The performance is the song “Door Hathon Duniyawalon Hindustan Hamaari Hai”—a patriotic song famously passed by the British censors because lyricist Kavi Pradeep added in the words “Japan” and “Germany” on another line, obscuring for the Raj anyway the “Quit India” implications of the first line.

Afterwards, the old man tells Shekhar that his daughter Rani was a promising young dancer (Baby Kamala does a lovely dance in a flashback) until he drove her too hard one day while drunk (lesson: you should not drink and conduct music!) and she injured herself. Now she can only walk with the aid of a crutch, and the old man has deserted her and her sister and taken refuge in alcohol. Shekhar is sympathetic but focused on snatching Mrs. Indrajit’s pearls. He is sidetracked briefly when Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) tries to catch up with her father in the theater lobby and is almost hit by a car—Shekhar saves her in the nick of time. But in the crush of the post-performance he succeeds in his more nefarious purpose and Mrs. Indrajit discovers her necklace gone. (Also, what is up with Shekhar’s towering turban? Does it mean something or is it just stylish? Very few others in the film seem to wear headgear like this, which really makes Shekhar stand out in a crowd; wouldn’t that be the last thing he would want?)

It isn’t long before cops are swarming the place. Trapped, Shekhar hides the necklace inside a violin case sitting in a rickshaw. He is searched, then returns to the rickshaw stand just in time to see Rani being driven off in it. He hops into another one and follows her home, where he breaks in and retrieves the necklace. Unfortunately for him, he trips and falls down the stairs, hurting his leg and waking Rani and her younger sister Leela (Chandraprabha). I have no idea what excuse he gives her for being there, but she gets rid of the police when they arrive, bandages up his leg and makes a bed on the sofa for him to sleep on.

Shekhar finds himself enchanted by sweet Rani, especially when she sings a lullaby for Leela. It’s beautiful: “Dheere Dheere Aa Re Badal” (I don’t even mind later in the film when it’s repeated as a duet).

Rani and Leela’s house has been taken over by Indrajit as well, and he sends his weaselly manager (Haroon?) to hound them for rent every day. Indrajit and his wife live next door to Rani along with their son Mohan (Kanu Roy), and Banke works as their servant. Inspector Sahab comes to interview them about the stolen necklace and notices that there’s an extra unused place at the breakfast table. Indrajit is overcome and leaves the room, and his wife tells the Inspector the sorry tale of their long-missing son Madan (Mehmood in his first role). Madan (who has a tattoo of his name on his arm) was a scrappy little kid, always in trouble with his father. One day he was caught fighting with a neighbor boy and also gave his mother some back-talk (“You’re not my real mother!” which made me laugh out loud), and Indrajit kicked him out of the house without his lunch. Madan has never returned although they always lay a place for him at the table.

I am sure we can all see where this is going, although I’m not sure audiences in 1943 did.

Leela and Mohan are in love with each other, although Indrajit would never approve of his son romancing a poor girl. Mohan is a bit of a chicken and finds it hard to stand up to him. Meanwhile, Shekhar—who is now living in the house with Leela and Rani—pays off the rent money they owe to Indrajit’s manager using money he had earlier picked out of the manager’s own pocket.

The police are keeping a close eye on fence David and he returns the necklace to Shekhar, unable to sell it. Shekhar is by now in love with the lovely Rani, and he puts it around her neck when he returns home and finds her asleep, having sat up waiting for him with dinner on the table. He also goes to see a surgeon to ask if Rani’s condition can be cured; the doctor says yes, but the operation will cost 10,000 1500 rupees. Shekhar, confident that he can come up with the money, gives Rani the good news. She and Leela are ecstatic—but things are about to deteriorate fast.

Leela convinces her to put on the pearl necklace for that evening’s performance at the theater, despite Shekhar’s having told her not to wear it in public. Mrs. Indrajit sees the necklace, and poor Rani discovers that her beloved Shekhar is a thief. Heartbroken, she wants nothing more to do with him; he is arrested, but manages to escape on the way to the police station.

Plus Mohan tells Leela that his father wants to send him away for a while, and she tells him that she is pregnant (!!!).

Will Shekhar be able to save his Rani? Can he “find” the money for her operation? What will happen to Leela if Mohan leaves town on his father’s orders? Will the long-missing Madan ever be found? Can Rani ever forgive Shekhar for his criminal past?

Watch Kismet, do. It’s a masterpiece, beautifully paced with no wasted scenes and understated, natural performances. Dadamoni is simply superb, but everyone is, really. His romance with Mumtaz Shanti is sweet, gentle and you cannot help but root for them, hoping for redemption (that doesn’t end in death).

For an eloquent, well-researched and insightful look at the movie’s place in Hindi cinema history and as the end of an era for Bombay Talkies, read this article by Roshmila Bhattacharya which I originally found at Screen magazine’s online site (the link sadly no longer works, but thankfully I copied the piece back when I found it!). You can download the film from Cutting The Chai’s great India Public Domain Movie Project, or find links there to watch online. So you have no excuses! Just see this one. You won’t regret it.

UPDATE: I have subtitles from Raja and Ava! If you want them, email me at memsaabstory (at) gmail dot com, and I will send you the subtitle file. It synchs perfectly with the avi file available from the link above (at Cutting The Chai).

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41 Comments to “Kismet (1943)”

  1. I had watched this movie as a kid with my father. It was then that he told me that this was the longest running movie of its time.

    As years passed, it stuck in my mind that this movie surpassed even later superhits like “Do Bigha Zameen” (1953), “Mugha-E-Azam” (1960) and so many others. Very frequently whenever this movie was mentioned, “Sholay” (1975) was also mentioned. That speaks volumes of the kind of craze this movie would have generated.

    I had read somewhere that Mahatma Gandhi had watched this movie and was mighty impressed.

    I think this was the movie which India its first true superstar – Ashok Kumar.

    • I agree with you about Ashok Kumar—he brought a naturalism to acting before Dilip did, and even in terrible movies he was always a great presence. And so versatile!—a very funny man, but could be very stern and scary too :)

      • True, BTW, natural acting crown has been given to Motilal for reasons best known. I think Ashok Kumar also had laid equal claim to that.

        Yes, he was scary in one movie (don’t want to give away the name as it would be a spoiler who haven’t watched it). But your guess is as good as mine.

  2. I liked Ashok Kumar a lot in this – such a natural – and Aaj Himalaya ki choti se was delighful! Mumtaz Shanti got on my nerves a fair bit; just too theatrical for my liking.

    • I don’t remember seeing her before, she was so pretty. She had a lot to be weepy about, although I didn’t think she overdid it myself…and the songs were very nice indeed.

  3. Memory of the past and the passage of the film, indescribable feeling · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

  4. Lovely con-incidence. I just watched Kismet off a VCD a few days back and was struck by how the lost and found family drama first appeared on a screen and how successfully Manmohan Desai adapted this style and storyline in so many Amitabh Bachchan hits later. I personally loved the 2 part song – Badra Dheere Dheere…Mera bulbul so raha hai…..

    • Even without subtitles and missing most of the nuances of conversation I could tell that everything was so well organized and I never got bored, ever. I love that song the best too…so so pretty.

  5. I haven’t seen this in years but yup, fantastic film! Off to download now!

  6. In the film Billoo there is a character who gets a small role in the film being shot in their village. He too mixes his dialogues in a funny way. This must surely have been copied because at that time I thought it was a novel way of showing some interesting CSP.
    I vaguely remember having seen this film somewhere. A very young Ashok Kumar and David is all I can remember of it.
    Will definitely watch it on your recommendation. :-)

    • I’m really looking forward to being able to understand the dialogues…this is definitely a film that will only be made better for me with subtitles (I cannot always say that with perfect certainty as you know, ha ha). Do let me know how you like it on a second watch!

  7. What a delightful film this is. Like memsaab says, from start to finish, there’s not a single scene wasted. And if you read the article (in the link at the bottom) you can see why. The makers tried to make this one Hollywood-style, slick and focussed. Plus, those were World War times, so film was rationed. No point wasting it on unnecessary scenes.

    I just LOVED this movie when I saw it yesterday. The more I’m seeing of movies of the 1930s / 1940s, the more I’m liking that era.

    A small correction, memsaab – the operation was “dedh hazaar rupaye”, i.e Rs 1500. (dedh = 1.5, dhai = 2.5). Not that it matters. Otherwise your review is pretty spot on – am impressed. :-)

    I really liked the article too. A minefield of information. At the start it talks about how some critics panned the movie, saying it encouraged crime, seeing as the hero was a petty thief / pickpocket. I could not help thinking about how times have changed. In those days, a movie showing even a petty thief / pickpocket in a slightly good light was seen as a threat to society. And today we have murders and rapes in movies and nobody really seems to care about their impact on society. It is as if it is “normal”. Reflection of the times!

    I will be working on the subtitles for this, so that non-Hindi speakers can enjoy a line-by-line experience of the movie. There is always a bit lost in translation but there are some fun dialogues too which enhance the viewing experience. At the very start, for example, when the inspector tells Shekhar “This is your third time, I hope I will not see you here again”, Shekhar says “What can I do? I try not to come back here but I am one man, you are a complete police force”. :-)

  8. That song “dheere dheere….mera bulbul so raha hai” reminded me of “dheere chal dheere chal ae bheegi hawa” from Boyfriend in the scenes/picturisation. Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti here, Shammi Kapoor and Madhubala there. :-)

  9. The turban in question is/was (?) a way of tying the turban with that flap sticking out. Normally it was starched stiff and had folds like a fan. The whole structure was called ‘turra’. Thus ‘turre wali Pagri’. My maternal grandfather wore them in his photographs (I was born after his death), and this is what my mother called it.
    It was considered very genteel to wear it that way among Punjabis further north. Perhaps Ashok Kumar wore it so that people thought him to be other than a petty thief.

  10. I absolutely love “Kismet” and rewatch it every so often. Each time I watch it, I’m struck by how *modern* it is – in treatment, plot, performances, everything. It’s just a great movie.

    • I didn’t believe that Leela was pregnant, although that was my impression—Raja confirmed it, and I was so happy. Films from the 30s and early to mid 40s are so “modern” compared to the decades after. LOVE. And beyond that it is just so very entertaining, and engaging…I love it.

  11. Ashok is a great hero. <3

    lol, V. H. Desai. I love him in Andaz. They should have just let him improvise the dialogue if he couldn't remember them.. his dialogue seems improvised any way. :P

    • I think Mehboob Khan must have allowed him to improvise – considering the pain in the … he was according to Manto :D. Still in Andaz he proved to be spot on in the scene where his prattling causes Dilip’s suppressed fury to suddenly burst forth.

      I like Ashok Kumar very much. But (aside from Achut Kanya which I saw way back on Doordarshan and remember myself enjoying it) I have only seen him in films in ‘matured roles’. It’s just so difficult to imagine him as a young man – he was to me (and to others I am sure) the perpetual older guy. This has held me back from seeing this film. I think he paired best with Meena Kumari.

  12. This is Ashok Kumar in one of his fledgling career best…he was that rare actor whose mere presence can light up even the most dreadful of films…I have ALWAYS wanted to watch this film to catch a glimpse of how dadamoni was like in his early years…by the way memsaab, hope you don’t mind me asking, but does the downloadable version from Cutting the Chai have English subtitles?

  13. @Memsaab – I have not been able to visit your site in the past few weeks and see a lot has been happening during that time. Some lovely movies reviewed, the launch of Edu Productions and so much else.

    Coming to Kismet, I recollect seeing it a long time ago. One of my neighbors had urged me to watch this film. I hope to catch it a second time soon. I would enjoy it even more especially after reading your review.

  14. I was not aware of the amendment to Indian Copyright rules. As I can see by reading about it in Cutting the Chai site, movies pass on to public domain after they complete 60 years. In other words, any movies released in 1952 and before are now in public domain. If that is the case then how come there are companies who continue to claim copyrights over them ? Obviously these companies are taking advantage of lack of public awareness on this matter.

    And what about the copyright rules about audio of songs. Can anyone enlighten me. There are cases where copyright claims have been made for audio of songs by people for obscure songs that few people have heard in last seventy years and naturally none have bought them in all these decades. Imagine a music enthusiast uploading a rare 70 year old obscure song from his collection and then receiving a notice from youtube that the right for that song is with some vague company, who themselves may not have any copy leave alone the master copy of that song.

    • Ha! Ask Tom about that. The people claiming copyright on Indian songs/films etc. are often just other uploaders who don’t want competition in their quest to get more “views”. It’s so pathetic and childish it makes me want to scream.

      • Yes, I also read with interest what was written on that site about copyright lengths. While there are many cases of outsiders reporting me or someone else for copyright violations of songs and videos over sixty years old, there are many more cases of the likes of Shemaroo and the music publishing companies claiming ownership of movies and songs first issued before 1952. I was wondering myself if they can be fought for copyright expiration reasons, as well as for Fair Use reasons.

  15. Indeed Tom is a big sufferer and hats off to him that he has carried on despite facing such harsh actions. I know others (including myself) who have been warned for violating someone’s copyright about music of 1940s that no one even knew existed.

  16. I hope we will all get a chance to see Raja’s subtitles soon, too? I watched Kismet without subtitles a few months ago, though I didn’t sit through the whole thing without fast-forwarding here and there – not because I thought it wasn’t a great film, but…I would guess that I understood the dialogue even less than you, Memsaab. :) So, would love to see this again, with English subtitles!

    By the way, for me, the most important historic moment in the film is the scene with Baby Kamala. That is precious!

    Regarding Manto’s book… I really enjoyed reading his descriptions of Ashok Kumar, too. I liked how he characterized Ashok in his real-life behavior when put in the company of real Bollywood starlets and vamps – usually fleeing for his life, more or less. I think that’s how I would have been in those situations too. :)

  17. A great film made by the ace director Gyan Mukherji. He also made other classics like Jhoola, kangan, Sangram all of them with the master of natural acting Ashok Kumar.

  18. Have you seen Kanoon(1960)? It is a courtroom drama of a murder case.Very engaging story,you cannot get bored even for a single second and there is wonderful acting of the one and only Ashok Kumar. I recommend this film:a must watch.It is also a songless film.I bet you would love it.

  19. Hi folks, I’m a regular here. I’ve written a ‘Kismet triology’ in my blog (http://saboute.blogspot.com). Its not so much a review as a narration of the drama that preceded and followed the release of Kismet- the drama is itself a lot more dramatic than the movie itself.

    My whole hearted thanks to Memsaab- if this triology happened, it owes entirely to you Ms. Greta!

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