This movie is what would happen if Hrishikesh Mukherjee somewhat absent-mindedly directed the first half and then handed the reins over to Brij so that he could take the film off the rails in his usual bombastic style. It started off in rare style: I was willing to live with the fact that our pre-Partition setting of 1944 looked exactly like 1978 (Gaudy Clothing, Bad Hair); I even found Raj Kapoor’s presence delightful! In fact the performances in this were quite wonderful, all of them. It’s great fun to see Nadira, Tom Alter, Protima Devi and the only thing that kept it from completely self-destructing finally was the acting.
When the Curse of the Second Half hit, it hit hard. From a tentatively sweet Capra-esque story about regret and living life to its fullest, it ballooned with over-ambitious ideas until we were left watching a hapless director and his writers grabbing at straws to wind things up. Overdone tropes and ham-fisted preaching did not accomplish the job satisfactorily, I am sad to report.
It is 1946 and Ranjit (Rajesh Khann) is a wounded war vet who can only walk with the aid of crutches. Rumors of India’s impending freedom from British rule swirl, but a local prostitute (Nadira) laments the departure of generous American soldiers and Ranjit’s family is struggling too.
His Ma (Protima Devi) stitches clothing, while his younger sister Rekha (Aarti) and brother Raja (Master Akbar) make shopping bags out of discarded newspaper and sell them. Ranjit himself is unable to find work because of his condition, and he is denied compensation by the Army because he can’t prove that he didn’t damage his own leg to get out of the fighting (as with many concepts in this, I wonder if that was really the case yet in World War II). His family is trapped in a cycle of poverty, as emphasized by chiaroscuro lighting and iron bars.
There is nothing very subtle in this movie except the performances which really are fine, as I’ve said. Rajesh manages to keep Ranjit fairly sympathetic despite eye-rolling amounts of self-pity and brooding, helped by the fact that we are not encouraged to feel sorry for him; the opposite in fact.
The next day when Ranjit leaves a suicide note and jumps from a bridge in front of an oncoming locomotive, the crippled beggar who tries to stop him is in marked contrast to Ranjit’s hopelessness.
Among the onlookers staring at the broken body on the tracks below is Ranjit himself. He is accosted by a cheerful man called Captain (Raj Kapoor) who informs him that he has crossed into the land of spirits (“Bhoot hai, bhoot!“) and points out that his leg is no longer damaged.
Wouldn’t that be a hilarious message for a film? Kill yourself and all will be well!
But of course that’s not the message at all—Ranjit has a lot to learn before he can move on to wherever it is that fulfilled souls go. Captain takes it upon himself to help Ranjit out by introducing him to others in the same boat (shades of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”). He begins with a young couple (Deven Verma and Jayshree T) who committed suicide because they weren’t allowed to marry.
Who could have known that being a ghost takes all the sexy out of love?
That’s not the biggest problem, however. As Captain and Ranjit look on, a huge brightly-clad crazy man with a knife (Yunus Parvez) appears out of the bushes. He was the girl’s husband in her life before this past one, and he’s still jealous even if he can’t actually do anything about it. You can’t kill a man who is already dead!
Captain encourages Ranjit to open up about himself, and he goes back to 1944 and his life before the war interfered. A champion badminton player, Ranjit is in love with his doubles partner Ramola aka Rama (Zahira). Rama’s father (Om Shivpuri) is a very wealthy man who clearly thinks she is Out of His Reach, despite his respectable background. Ranjit’s father (AK Hangal) is a lawyer devoted to the Quit India movement and the family have a nice middle-class home. Sister Rekha attends college, and they have just adopted Raja (orphaned when his father is hanged by the British after being unsuccessfully defended by Ranjit’s father). Ramola is happily accepted and seems to prefer Ranjit’s home to hers, with some justification.
I notice that Ranjit is a defeatist even then—he won’t speak to her father about marrying Ramola because he expects he’ll just be refused. He probably isn’t wrong, but I’m glad when we return to the somewhat more cheerful purgatory.
Captain introduces Ranjit to a former (British) DIG named Anderson (Tom Alter) who was assassinated by two freedom fighters and still casually sports the gunshot wound to his chest. This causes me to wonder why Ranjit isn’t more of a mess, since his death involved his body being “cut up” by a train and his leg was damaged to begin with, but never mind. Anderson is hanging around in limbo because his one true love, a dancer named Firoza (Padma Khanna) is still alive. He passes the time waiting for her by debating the problems of India and the merits of freedom with his assassins (hanged for his death, and now his friends).
His lecture to Captain and Ranjit on the home-grown “vested interests” which will continue to ruin things even after the British are gone begins to change the tone of the film, and I feel caught in a weird time-warp.
Maybe Hrishida deliberately kept the “look” of the film contemporary to further push this message (India hasn’t used its freedom wisely?) across, but it doesn’t work at all for me. At one point music from “Jesus Christ Superstar” is used in the background of a party scene, and it is jarring.
There are distractions in the form of more dead people shenanigans and a lovely dance from Padma Khanna. I decide that “Captain” must be the Raj Kapoor so beloved by his family and friends—irreverent, moody, funny, a charming rogue with an eye for the ladies. He is quite a character! Ranjit questions Captain about his past and he says that he fled from the violence of the Quit India movement (he was a relative of Bhagat Singh) and joined films to become a stunt double. He was killed along with his horse in an accident on the sets when they were supposed to jump a ravine.
His ongoing regret is that he didn’t do more to further India’s quest for freedom, and he goes berserk when Ranjit mentions Partition. (An impassioned speech about unity and religious tolerance follows.) Ranjit’s path to bad luck continues to unfold as well. His father had mortgaged their house to a client of Ramola’s father in order to secure money for his defence of freedom fighters, and the client (with Daddyji’s help) is foreclosing. Ranjit’s father has a heart attack and dies, leaving the family enmeshed in debt. Ranjit sells the house and moves his family into a much smaller and shabbier one.
When Ramola finds out about all this, she goes to her father and he agrees to see Ranjit. More “trapped by poverty” bars, but I love how overstuffed with furniture and objects the new house is. It looks a bit like mine.
He offers Ranjit a job, which Ranjit turns down. Ramola is furious and fed up, they fight, and Ranjit enlists in the Army. We already know how that works out.
When the war ends Ranjit is unemployed and the landlord (V Gopal)—after denuding the house of all its valuables—threatens them with eviction when they can’t pay the rent. Ranjit, unable to bear the thought of his family on the street and feeling helpless (I scribble on my notepad: LEARN TO SEW), commits suicide and we have come full circle.
What has happened to his family since then? And Ramola? What will it take for his soul to be able to move on? And Captain’s, and those of all the other denizens of purgatory too?
There is plenty of WTF and fervid speech-making to come, let me tell you. We are bludgeoned with the problems of 1978 India (adulterated food, adulterated medicine, hoarding grain to manipulate prices), all laid at the feet of the British government (because it’s 1944/46). I don’t know if the message is that India’s problems are a result of the colonial occupation, or whether it’s a message about India’s failure to take advantage of its freedom, or both, or neither. It’s all very confusing and clumsy. In fact, there are about a gazillion “messages” thrown in here (value life while you’re living it, don’t despair, etc. etc.), some more successfully made than others. I honestly enjoyed the first hour of this (and part of the problem may be that the whole film isn’t here, it clocks in at about two hours even) but the script just didn’t keep up with the charm of the characters and the setting. It jumped over a cliff, much like stuntman Captain and his horse, and pretty much as successfully.
But many thanks to my beloved bahen Suhan for supplying me with this (twice). It is refreshingly different, and I’m glad to have seen something I really enjoyed Raj Kapoor in!