Most of you know by now that I am not terribly enamored of “earnest” movies that bludgeon the audience (i.e. me) repeatedly with trite patriotic messages. I feared this film would be like that but happily I was wrong. It is very enjoyable: part history lesson, part celebration of newly independent India, part debate whether violence is ever justified or not—still a relevant topic. Mostly, though, it’s a film about relationships, the most powerful one at hand being that between a young freedom fighter (Dilip Kumar) and his father (Chandramohan) with British loyalties. The title Shaheed (Martyr) can be applied to just about every character in the film, but the performances are, if sometimes a bit melodramatic, always heartfelt. I did get an excellent Chandramohan Nahiiin! Face but that can only be called a bonus. With eyes like that, how can he help it? The characters are well-drawn and complex, and there are touches of humor throughout to lighten what could otherwise be (okay, IS) a pretty depressing plot. And the chemistry between Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal is very sweet, too.
We begin in 1930 Amritsar, where Raibahadur Dwarkadas is the Deputy Commissioner in His Majesty’s police force. Gandhi has just completed his Salt March, a protest against British salt taxes, and the country is in a rebellious mood. Dwarkadas, being a staunch participant in and defender of the Raj, is not popular with the townspeople.
At home his loyalty to the British isolates him too. His wife (Leela Chitnis) and son Ram (Shashi Kapoor—but not that Shashi Kapoor) both admire the revolutionary spirit of Nehru and Gandhi, although Ram’s playmate Vinod—the son of Dwarkadas’ colleague and friend—is in agreement with Dwarkadas. Vinod and Ram are also rivals for young Sheila’s (Baby Anwari?) affections, although it’s pretty obvious that Ram is already the winner on this score.
I love the use of the word toady (it’s not just a subtitle gem either, they are actually saying “toady”).
“Toady bachcha! Toady bachcha!” Hilarious. It all ends in a fist-fight with Vinod the loser.
Sheila’s father Hemat Rai (VH Desai) is throwing a party to which Dwarkadas and Vinod’s father and their families are invited, and her brother Gopal has written a play to be performed. I completely adore the…shall we say gloating? gleeful?…lyrics of the song. Also hilarious!
Playing Mahatma Gandhi, Gopal interrupts the taunting of the “British” and gives a speech about ahimsa (non-violence). Dwarkadas arrives at the party just as Vinod comes on stage to arrest “Gandhi” and is infuriated, stopping the play. He forbids Ram to see his “Sheil” again, although I’m glad to see he allows Ram his Nehru portrait, which mirrors that of Gandhi in the Rai household.
Ram, now bereft of Sheila’s companionship, grows up watching as protests spread and clashes between Indians and the British government escalate. The distance between him and his father grows, with his father blaming poor Maa (she spoils him) for Ram’s rebellion.
Fast-forwarding to August of 1942, Ram (now Dilip Kumar) tells Maa that he’s off to a Congress conference. In reality he is now leading a band of revolutionaries who have embraced violence as their means to an end. Predictably, Vinod (Ram Singh) has grown up and joined the very police force presided over by Dwarkadas, although Vinod’s own father seems to have himself developed Congress sympathies despite his own employment there.
Dinner is interrupted by a phone call. Ram’s band of rebels has looted a train carrying state treasury, and Vinod dashes off to the scene. Wounded in the hand by police fire, Ram manages to escape into a train car occupied by a lone girl. It is Sheila (Kamini Kaushal) of course, but they fail to recognize each other. I am not sure if Sheila went off to school or what, but they have clearly not seen each other for years although Sheila has kept in touch with Vinod. When Vinod knocks on the door of her compartment, she doesn’t give away the wounded rebel hiding in her bathroom, although she clearly hurts Vinod’s feelings by asking about her beloved Ram.
Each still unaware who the other person is, Sheila helps Ram escape from the now-moving train. He goes home, where his father hears him coming in at midnight. It’s clear that father and son barely communicate although they live in the same house, and it’s equally obvious that Dwarkadas both suspects and fears that Ram is participating in criminal rebel activity. This is a wonderful scene for Chandramohan, underplayed (especially for him) and touching in his anxiety for the son he can’t talk to. He tells his wife that there was a train robbery the night before and that the leader of the gang was wounded.
Maa goes upstairs to discover Ram nursing his bloody hand and is caught between loyalty to her son and to her husband; if she calls the doctor Dwarkadas will be certain about Ram’s activities. Hemat Rai and Sheila conveniently arrive for a visit. Sheila is impatient to see Ram but Maa prevaricates, not wishing to give his secret away. This gives Sheila a chance to play the piano and sing a lovely little ditty about her childhood love becoming adult love (Ghulam Haider’s music ranges from stentorian patriotic anthems to light-hearted romantic tunes and is very nice indeed).
She then manages to outmaneuver Maa, slipping upstairs and forcing Ram to let her into his room. She recognizes him as her visitor on the train from the night before, and—being an almost-doctor—takes the bullet out of his injured hand while the oblivious other guests have tea downstairs. This scene is identical to the semi-erotic scenario that takes place in countless later daku-dramas, where the heroine tenderly takes a bullet out of the injured daku as he grimaces horribly and, in this case, appears to suck his thumb.
Having finished their tea, the other guests now trickle upstairs. Sheila’s brother Gopal (Prabhu Dayal) is the first to arrive, and he instantly understands what’s happened although Sheila claims that Ram has a “hunting injury”. He chastises Ram for using violent methods to gain independence, saying that a polite smile cannot be met with abuse (he doesn’t know one of my neighbors). Then Vinod comes in with his father and Hemat Rai, sees the bullet in Sheila’s medical tray, and surreptitiously pockets it. He warns Ram not to leave the house while letting him know at the same time that he knows what Ram has been up to.
After they leave Dwarkadas confronts his son. Ram stops short of admitting his guilt specifically and Dwarkadas doesn’t request him to. He tells Ram to leave the house and Ram quietly does so, going to the Rai house to see Gopal, to whom he had earlier made a mysterious whispered request. He sees Vinod’s father on his way out of the house, who tells him that Vinod and Sheila’s marriage has been fixed although unbeknownst to them, Sheila has rejected Vinod’s proposal with some vehemence.
She sees Ram leaving and runs after him. He is angry at her but also feverish, and she takes him to a hotel and checks them in as man and wife. He collapses and she sits by his side until he wakes up. She straightens out the misunderstanding over Vinod and they confess their undying love for one another. So so sweet! But sadly, Gopal is caught at the scene when he fails to stop a bridge from being blown up (I assume the secret between him and Ram was Ram telling him about the plot?) and arrested.
Vinod seizes his chance. Having been arrested for an incident involving violence, Gopal faces the death sentence. Vinod tells Sheila and her father that he will make sure Gopal is released if she tells him where Ram is and marries him. Because, you know, forcing someone who dislikes you to marry you is such a positive step towards lifelong happiness for both of you.
Even Vinod’s father is disgusted by this.
But Vinod is adamant, and Sheila finally gives in—although she does bar him from her bedroom, remaining faithful to her Ram in body if not in name. Ram has gone underground, returning to the fight for freedom, completely unaware of developments at home until Gopal visits him in hiding (still preaching ahimsa). Gopal seems clueless as to the reality behind Sheila’s marriage to Vinod and I want to smack him, hard. What an idiot.
Heartbroken, Ram goes to see Sheila for himself and happens to arrive just as Vinod is trying to force his attentions on her. He misinterprets the scene and leaves, dropping some of his papers as he goes. When Sheila sees them later (having fought off Vinod’s advances once again) she assumes they are Vinod’s and gives them to him—and they contain details on Ram’s gang’s hideout.
Will Vinod find and arrest Ram and his compatriots? Will Ram (and Gopal) ever discover the truth about Sheila’s sacrifice, or will this signify an even greater betrayal? Will Sheila give in to Vinod for the sake of Ram and his friends? Will Dwarkadas ever understand Ram’s point of view, or will he stand by and watch if Ram is tried and hung for treason? Does it all just end in tears as is usual for Dilip Kumar films?
If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend Shaheed. The fine acting and interesting plot against the background of Independence (particularly given the year it was made) are a compelling watch, particularly scenes with the oh-so-magnetic Chandramohan. He portrays Dwarkadas’ turmoil and conflicting emotions for his son beautifully. I just can’t ever really see enough of that man.