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).