Dak Ghar (1966)

This is a very unusual and bittersweet film based on a Rabindranath Tagore story about the last few days of a dying boy named Amal (an unforgettable Sachin). Produced by the Children’s Film Society, I suppose it can be categorized as a children’s film, although as with most good children’s movies it is entertaining for adults too and a little bit dark. Children may not entirely understand what’s going on, although in my personal experience they understand a lot more than adults give them credit for. The movie weaves together fantasy and reality as lonely Amal—trapped inside the house by the local pandit-doctor’s (AK Hangal) orders—chatters with an assortment of passersby and villagers, and daydreams about venturing forth and seeing the world beyond his horizons. As the story unwinds fantasy gradually takes over from reality as Amal fades, much to the distress of his adoptive father Madho (Satyendra Kapoor). The sets are deliberately “stagey” and candy-colored which enhances the fairy tale effect, and the photography is lush, with lovely music by Madan Mohan (lyrics and dialogue courtesy of Kaifi Azmi).

I must above all thank Raja for subtitling this for me—if anyone has this film and would like the subtitle files, please let me know and I’ll send them to you. Thanks Raja!

At dawn, the village chowkidar wanders through the village striking his bell, waking it up. As little Amal sits up, bars descend in front of him: his daily prison of illness and enforced isolation inside begins.

Amal is an imaginative and inquisitive little guy, who makes sour faces at the bitter medicine the prescribing pandit forces down him and who opens the windows to the sunlight and air as soon as nobody is watching. From his perch by the window, he calls out to people passing by and talks with them until their daily routines force them to move on. Several of his neighbors throughout the film—a man at his loom, and an old woman grinding flour—never change position or expression, heavily symbolic I suppose of those who plod along doing their duty, keeping to their habits.

Amal’s liveliness, in contrast to them and  in defiance of his illness, is effervescent and captivating.

The first person to stop and talk with him is Sudha (actress?), a young flower seller who wears ghungroos and promises to come back and see him again when her work is done. He is such a little charmer!

It’s very evident that Amal chafes at his confinement and longs for the freedom of roaming outside. He is continually bargaining with Madho: “Can I go as far as…?” with no success. Madho just as clearly adores Amal, but his love has also paralyzed him with fear, and he sticks stubbornly to the doctor’s strict rules. Another somewhat eccentric denizen of the area called Baba (Balraj Sahni) (fond of children and quite child-like himself) disagrees with the doctor’s harsh methods, but can only visit Amal in various disguises to cheer him up. One such disguise is a pair of thick false eyelashes which he presses haphazardly over his eyes, pretending to be a blind beggar. He asks Amal what he wants to do when he grows up.

“Andhe Baba” takes his leave after gifting Amal a kaleidoscope, and the boy starts thinking about what he wants to do when he gets well again and grows up.

Later he tells his father a story about another crazy man that he had met that day, a wanderer looking for work. He is taken by the thought of traveling around looking for work, and decides that’s what he wants to do. When the man asks him what he’ll do if he doesn’t find it, Amal says: “Even better!” He’ll just keep going.

Every adult he meets encourages him to study and to read: he wants only to travel. Some of them are also a bit irritated when he calls to them from his window and pesters them with questions in the manner of little boys, but all go away completely beguiled by his curiosity and wistful enthusiasm. Everyone describes his particular work to Amal, all jobs sound exciting and exotic to him and nothing they say can dissuade him. Following each encounter he fantasizes about it through songs which are very cute indeed, pretending to be a dahiwala like Mukri (who gives him some sweet yogurt as he leaves):

The chowkidar explains the new building across the road from Amal’s house where people go in and out all day: it’s a new Post Office belonging, he says, to the Raja. Amal is thrilled at the thought of going to visit the King beyond the hills, and even more thrilled at the thought of getting a letter—although of course delivering those letters would be even better.

Children’s stories have to have at least one scary adult figure, and this one has the fiercely mustachioed village chief, Chaudhary (actor?). I love the shot of him responding to Amal’s call to him and I also love how sweet Amal catches on quickly to his personality, but is undeterred from asking his usual torrent of questions.

As the film progresses his real encounters with the outside world become fewer as he spends more time in bed, and it becomes clear that he is getting sicker—dark circles under his eyes appear and the lines between reality and dreams begin to blur. The pretty kaleidoscope patterns dissolve into flowers and a garden where Sudha dances.

And Amal becomes increasingly fixated on getting a letter from the King, and becoming a postman himself so he can…what else, travel! This is probably my favorite of the songs, so I uploaded it for you (I don’t see any of them online):

As the chowkidar bangs on his gong, signaling the end of another day, shadows gather in Amal’s house as do the people he’s endeared himself to over the past couple of days.

Will little Amal finally get his letter from the King? Will he escape from the house to wander over the mountains that so intrigue him? Will he get to meet the King, to whose court Baba says he goes to beg?

There are no big surprises in this movie, but do be warned now that there are SPOILERS ahead if you don’t want to know any more!

I just loved this unusual (and only one hour long) film; it tugged at every heart string, and completely—despite cameo appearances from the likes of AK Hangal, Balraj Sahni and Sharmila Tagore—belonged to Sachin. His natural performance so perfectly combines Amal’s sweetness and mischievous qualities with the pathos of his confinement that when he does finally slip away at the end it isn’t sad, you are so glad that he is free to roam as he’s dreamed of. It is very much a film about taking advantage of every moment of life as espoused by Amal and Baba, the only adult who doesn’t try to contain his dreams. The progress of Amal’s illness is subtle and the pace of the story beautifully choreographed; sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between what is in Amal’s head and what is actually happening, but it grows more and more clear as time passes. I recommend this one highly if you are in the mood for a reflective and enchanting movie with heartwrenching moments—but a lot to smile at as well.

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29 Comments to “Dak Ghar (1966)”

  1. That is a beautiful review. The children’s films are rarely good, remember Rani aur Lalpari? But this one sounds good. I liked Makdee by Vishal Bhadwaj too. His other children’s film Blue Umbrella is simply lovely. It just HAS to be seen, it is something all children should be shown. The preachy element is quite subtle and the movie itself is loads of fun.

  2. This is just a gorgeous little film, I can’t find much about it on the internet but it really deserves a place in GOOD children’s filmmaking…and grownups like it too! I love Makdee and Blue Umbrella, this is very like them in style and substance :)

  3. The other songs here (my video editing skills are non-existent, sorry):

  4. You are just too much, Greta ji
    Superb Review, your choice of movies -> just superb.
    You are far away ,otherwise I would have come to your house tomorrow morning and forcibly take the dvd of this movie, from you.

    “Aap bach gayeen”

    Thanks thanks, Thanks again
    Just love you.
    Prakash

  5. I saw this during a Children’s Film Festival organised by the Bal Bhavan in Bangalore a long time ago. I’m so glad you brushed the dust off my memory. It is a very sad story and an equally sad (yet beautiful) film. Thank you.

  6. Memsaab, you have just touched something immortal-something light years away from the typical 80s pot-boilers, 60s mysteries, 70s romantics-the creation of a God,for such is Tagore in our eyes and hearts. Being a true Bengali myself, no literature in the whole world can make us think twice about his stories, novels, songs and of course, poetry. His old locks and flowing white beard made him a Saint Nicholas with his heavy pack full of prose and poetry, his mind was like the morning breeze, and heart younger than the hero in this tale. A picture of humanity beyond any description we can make, just as God himself cannot be defined by any pope or cardinal or ascetic living and breathing. Thus his works have become no less than gospels for us and will remain so.
    Touching on this story, it has also been filmed in Bengali, and has been and is stilled staged here in Bengal, so am sorry I cannot fully appreciate this film, more so being in a different language than my mother-tongue(no offense, anyone!). This is not just a typical kid’s story, it is a reflection of the mundane, introvert lifestyle we had chosen in the last century, and which is still continuing. The great poet being a true philosopher resented this monotonous, imagination-less life and created Amal, to remind that life is short, so must be made colorful whenever we get the chance, decades ago before ANAND surfaced. I suggest all the readers to grab a copy of the COLLECTED SHORT STORIES and plays of Tagore in order to catch the essence of this story better.

    • I think this really did capture that message, that life is short and you should make it as happy and colorful as you can while you’re here. As I said, the weaver and the old woman grinding flour, plus the other characters telling Amal “don’t do this, do that”, etc. and not appreciating their own lives were in very stark contrast to Amal and his vivid imagination and dreams. Beautiful film and I’m sure a lovely story/play by Tagore :)

  7. Hi Dear Mem,

    Is it possible for you to send the link for ‘Dak Ghar’. I must watch it…

  8. A “children’s” movie that isn’t preachy? A movie that lets them be!
    Now that’s something to look forward to! Thanks, Memsaab. Now, just a simple issue of getting my hands around the movie!!

  9. Sounds like a truly wonderful movie! The world view reminds me of http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097142/ a movie that I am so glad I got to see (and learn from) before my mom became terminally ill.

  10. I just found this interesting link about director Zul Vellani, whose name was unfamiliar to me (he also is one of the actors in this, although I am not sure which character he plays—I’m guessing the chowkidar) until now:

    http://qtpthescript.blogspot.com/2011/02/dolly-thakores-life-in-theatre.html

    There is no mention of this film in the writeup but certainly I hope he was proud of it….

  11. Memsaab,

    Tagore’s best legacies are his short stories, his music and his paintings which transcend time (and being a Bengali I have an extensive Tagore collection). Daakghar is a touching story, but Postmaster is no less touching. Please see Satyajit Ray’s Two Daughters (containing two short stories of Tagore including Postmaster), and The Lonely Wife (Charulata) which was also based on Tagore’s short story Nashtonir. This site celebrates Bollywood (Which I enjoy), and Ray is NOT Bollywood, but he remains the finest director in India (and one of the finest in the world) and I am a devoted fan of Ray. His interpretations of Tagore’s works remain the very best ones. Both films are available in Netflix.

    • I have seen Charulata which I enjoyed very much even though it’s a bit slow :) I’ve seen a few Ray movies actually, and they are without a doubt very good!

      Would love to see some of Tagore’s paintings :)

  12. Great! There’s a lot of historical/political and autobiographical contexts to Charulata, which make it harder to follow. I just saw Chokher Bali, another Tagore novel, which you may find interesting.

    Tagore’s art is fascinating. It’s actually quite dark and visually striking. He took up painting at an older age, and was very good. There must be scans of it on the internet, I will look around.

  13. How adorable Sachin looks. He was one young boy actor who acted well. You have written the review so well in keeping with the mood of the film. Lovely. It’s easy accessablity online makes it a ‘must’.

  14. Splendid review, as always, Memsaab…you really captured the essence of this breakthrough film…it is such a beautiful story…I am looking forward to watch it soon…
    …by the way, just out of curiosity, is Amal the boy played by Sachin Pilgaonkar, who later went on to play adult roles in blockbusters like Sholay and Ankhiyon Ke Jharokhon Se?

    • AWESOME…he’s such a talented actor…and to think, how much he has grown when he next appeared in the Dev Anand-Vyjayanthimala crime thriller Jewel Thief the following year, as a Tibetan prince…

  15. Superb Review mam……..

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