This post is dedicated to dearest Edwina, whose husband of 52 years passed away this morning. She and Keith were married the year this film was released, and she has a small speaking part in addition to her song appearances. It is also the newest in the Edu Productions catalog, named in her honor. I have the Sky dvd, and this has about 15 minutes more footage than that, much better subtitles, and video that doesn’t jump around in such a manner as to make me nauseous. Details for watching it online or downloading it are on the Edu Productions page.
I adore this full-on 1940s Hollywood-style soap opera romance, with it’s thwarted love, stylish villainess, crashing ocean waves mirroring internal turmoil, and bonus bakwas filmi medicine. Even though Meena Kumari spends the whole movie dressed like the Flying Nun, you can practically taste the chemistry between her and Raaj Kumar (still blessed with his own hair and very handsome indeed), and Nadira makes a perfect Joan Crawford in a sari. Plus the songs are pure gems, including the one that would be my ring-tone if I had a cell phone (“Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh”). From an era when plots like this often devolved into ridiculous melodrama and pointless self-sacrifice this one stays relatively on point and the people in it remain relatively sane. Also woven into the main story is a simply delightful sub-plot about three patients, led by Om Prakash.
Karuna (Meena Kumari) is a newly graduated nurse who, lacking any family, finds a job at the Malhotra Hospital far from where she grew up. Her calm demeanor and practical efficiency quickly endear her to the other nurses (Edwina and fellow dancers) and the stern matron (Ruby Mayer/Sulochana).
Matron puts her on the general ward, where Girdhari (Om Prakash), who has stomach cancer, is scheduled for the first of what will be many, many, many operations. This poor guy is used as pretty much the only device for throwing our hero and heroine together over the course of the film, and is cut open and stitched back together again about a hundred times. Ouch! In any case, Girdhari is a cheerful (and ticklish) man glad to see a pretty new face, as are most of the other patients; the sole exception is Nathu, who refuses to take his medicine and abuses the nurses.
Performing the surgery with great skill is Dr. Sushil Verma (Raaj Kumar). The dramatic music and stern concentration of the operating staff emphasize that hospitals are serious business. I love the old-fashioned Harlequin Romance atmosphere of it all. And oh! the titillating mystery of masks and gowns: when Sushil and Karuna are relieved of theirs, the attraction between them is instant.
On a day off, the nurses head for the beach and a lovely song picturized on a light-hearted and wind-tossed Meena laughing with her colleague Sheela (Shammi) and the others. Edwina told me that it was the first and only time she agreed to wear a swimsuit for a job, and she was so self-conscious that she was miserable and kept herself away from the cameras (and you can hardly pick her out in the song, although she’s there along with Bela Bose and all the other usual suspects).
On her way home, Karuna passes through a children’s playground and comes across an adolescent girl who has hurt her knee. I miss that fun but dangerous playground equipment like merry-go-rounds; really kids today (at least in America) don’t know what they are missing. Karuna helps her get home and discovers that she is Munni (Kumari Naaz), Sushil’s younger sister, and a drama queen of the first order.
Sushil and Munni’s mother (Protima Devi) takes an instant liking to Karuna too. She is getting older and tired of doing all the household chores, and wants Sushil to hurry up and get married. She has picked out a bride for him: the daughter of an old friend of her husband’s who took them in when Mr. Verma died and paid for Sushil’s education. Sushil is not in any hurry, being dedicated to his job and unwilling to inflict the toll that it takes on a wife.
This makes me laugh, because when I was a teenager I decided that if I had to get married I would marry a doctor since he would never be home to bother me. You just have to choose wisely, Dr. Verma! For her part, Ma is horrified in that way that Indians are when she finds out that Karuna is all alone in the world. She tells Karuna to come and visit her at home whenever she can, and Karuna begins to help her out with things. Ma and Munni become fond of her, as does Sushil watching her at work going about her tasks. She settles into her job, and the denizens of the general ward—besides Girdhari and Nathu, there is Rahim Baksh, who checks himself into the hospital periodically to escape his wife Haseena (Tun Tun)—begin to see the determination beneath the gentle exterior.
She even gets recalcitrant Nathu to take his medication on his own finally, after months of him making the matron force it down his throat. Karuna is falling in love with Sushil, as he is with her, but she is diffident and he is not the type to push her. The pace of their unfolding romance is a little slow, but it’s also very sweet and obvious that this is a relationship that will matter if it’s allowed to develop naturally.
BUT MA HAS OTHER PLANS.
She tricks Sushil into going to Kashmir with her and Munni to visit her husband’s old friend wealthy Lalaji and his daughter Kusum (Nadira). Once there, he is bullied and guilted into marrying Kusum, although he does try to talk sense into his mother. She is having none of it, however, and eventually he gives in.
When they return home with Kusum in tow, Karuna is devastated. She gathers herself together and maintains her dignity, keeping the newly wed Sushil at a respectably professional distance. Her resolve is tested on occasion, most notably when the hospital staff have a boating party to celebrate their Dr. Verma’s marriage.
It’s also pretty obvious from the outset that Kusum and Sushil are mismatched. She is spoiled and self-absorbed and (not unnaturally) wants her new husband to spend time with her (he should have married MEEEEE!). But he is devoted to his job and to giving Girdhari all those stomach surgeries, and she is soon jealous of Karuna. Discord plants itself firmly in the house and flourishes. Kusum is not very likable, although I do have some sympathy for her. It would drive me nuts to have whispery Karuni calling my husband every night to ask him to go to work. But she makes no effort to see things from Sushil’s point of view, although he tries to be reasonable, and he finally loses patience.
Of course it all ends badly, with Kusum refusing to call him to the phone one night. They go out and watch Helen perform the Banana Boat Song (a pretty direct lift) as Girdhari waits in vain for his surgeon, and dies. It is pretty heart-wrenching for those of us who have become fond of him.
Sushil returns home and confronts Kusum. She is unrepentant, and leaves the house to return to her father in Kashmir.
But of course she is still married to Sushil, and divorce I assume is unthinkable. Karuna and Sushil do their best to remain professional, but we are now treated to at least five times the surging waves as before, and tangled fishing nets into the symbolic bargain. I should say here (in case you don’t already know this) that I am not terribly patient with painstaking emotional choreography, but here the pacing works very nicely for me. Enhanced by their genuine chemistry, Karuna and Sushil’s dance around each other builds in momentum to an end that I find both satisfying and believable.
What will happen to them? Will they give in to temptation? Will Kusum return after she has some time to think, and will Sushil take her back? Will Maa figure out that bullying one’s son into marriage is perhaps a mistake?
If you have any sentimental bones in your body see this (if you don’t, you might not appreciate it as I do though). The writing, acting and direction (Kishore Sahu) is stellar and honestly I find very little in here not to like. Karuna could have been too weepy for my liking but Meena plays her beautifully, giving her a steel core that allows her to be sad without wallowing in irritating self-pity. Karuna is a character I both like and respect.
Here are some other things I love and wanted to make note of:
More bakwas filmi medicine: Sushil falls ill after a night spent passed out on a bench in the rain. As far as I can tell he is not mauled by wild animals or anything, but here’s the diagnosis and recommended treatment. You have to love a hospital that will repeat the same surgery on the same patient day after day and put a bandage on a collapsed lung!
And it really is all so very early Hollywood and Nadira is gorgeous throughout, even if she is a brat. Raaj Kumar is not bad on the eyes either, and looks very natty in his suits and ties. (Right: Joan Crawford and Craig Stevens in Humoresque, 1946).