Kathputli (1971)

While writing my list of favorite Helen songs recently, I was reminded to look for this film and to my great joy I found it—yay, eBay! I have long loved Kalyanji-Anandji’s music from it; with a substantial part for Helen as well, and lovely Mumtaz starring, how could it possibly go wrong? Well, it doesn’t—and it does. It’s a very enjoyable film through the first half, but then it runs off the rails (more on that later). But the music is sublime, Mumtaz and Jeetendra are cute together and Helen gets to play a benevolent benefactor instead of her usual vampy bad-girl roles. There’s even an attempt to give a woman’s viewpoint its due! Ooh-la-la.

Nisha (Mumtaz) is a young woman without parents or siblings who lives in a chawl full of nosy but friendly neighbors. As our film begins, they are gathered at the communal water tap which has been dry for some days, singing a lively bhajan to the King of Water (“Ho Jai Jai Jal Raja”). It’s one of the most fabulous song picturizations ever, honestly, and I’ve seen a few.

Vishal (Jeetendra) is a poor student—who grew up in an orphanage—trying to finish his education, who moves into the chawl next door to Nisha. After a few comic “misunderstandings,” they fall in love; when Vishal graduates in the top of his class and gets a good job teaching at a college, the future looks bright. Nisha also has a job as secretary to a lecherous boss (Manmohan), but she’s adept at fending him off.

They decide to get married, and Vishal’s friends Murli (Jalal Agha) and Meena (Malika) organize a car so Vishal and Nisha can honeymoon in Khandala.

Their idyll is shattered when Vishal, canoodling with his bride, forgets to look at the road in front. They crash into an oncoming truck. Nisha’s injuries are minor, but Vishal is badly hurt, requiring multiple surgeries and months in the hospital. This entails a lot of hardship for Nisha, who sells all of her jewelry and belongings in order to pay for his care. Finally, when his last surgery is scheduled at a cost of Rs 5000, she is at her wits’ end.

One of her coworkers, aware that the boss has his eye on Nisha, tells him that she needs money. He arranges it for her immediately.

Poor Nisha, torn between her creepy boss and her husband’s serious injuries, finally accepts it. But of course there are strings, as she knew there would be. Her boss forces her to attend a party that evening at his home.

Vishal’s surgery is also scheduled for that evening; when Nisha doesn’t appear, he asks the surgeon to wait a little longer.

She’s trapped at the party, however; despite her efforts to slip out gracefully she’s detained by her boss, who slips a drug into her juice. As the surgeons finally put a still protesting Vishal under, her boss takes her to his room. She puts up a struggle but finally she, too, goes under.

It’s an incredibly effective scene: the party music in the background grows louder and louder as the scene switches between the hospital, where Vishal’s life hangs in the balance, and the party—and Nisha’s ruin.

Nisha awakens the next morning devastated. Sobbing, she makes her way to a bridge and throws herself off of it. Fortunately, there are witnesses.

Roma (Helen) is a wealthy but lonely woman, and she takes Nisha to her home after her servants save Nisha from drowning. Nisha spills out her whole story, and Roma listens; she then reminds Nisha that she needs to live for Vishal’s sake if not for her own. It’s nauseatingly platudinous, but fun to see Helen playing a benefactress for once!

Vishal’s surgery, meanwhile, has been a success. He will recover, although he will need to stay in the hospital for some time to come. I think Vishal must have had some sort of lobotomy, because he doesn’t notice at all that Nisha has completely changed from a lively, bubbly girl to a quiet, withdrawn woman (and Mumtaz’s acting on that score is great).

Some time passes, and Nisha discovers that she’s pregnant. Roma, who has stayed in touch with her, arranges for her to go to Delhi and stay with her aunt, who will see her through the birth and also keep the baby. Nisha tells Vishal that work is calling her to Delhi for a few months and leaves. Vishal feels sorry for himself.

One evening there is a commotion when a young girl who has been hit by a car is brought in. The driver is none other than Roma; she feels terrible, especially when the girl won’t stop crying. Vishal soothes the little girl with a song, and Roma strikes up a conversation with him—she doesn’t know that he is Nisha’s husband. She finds him attractive and empathetic (his lobotomy doesn’t prevent him from understanding her loneliness).

She continues to visit him over the next few months and a friendship grows, although Vishal is missing Nisha terribly. Meanwhile, in Delhi, Nisha has settled in with Roma’s aunt Kamla (Leela Mishra), who is kind and sympathetic.

She gives birth to a baby boy, and is greatly troubled. She asks Kamla whether she should tell Vishal everything; Kamla’s advice is to keep it a secret, since Vishal will never believe in Nisha’s innocence. I think this is bad advice, but they can’t hear me. Nisha returns to Bombay and Vishal, who is out of the hospital now.

They live together in contentment for a year or two, and then Vishal gets his dream job. There’s only one problem:

Nisha’s sad memories surface, and she balks at going back there. Vishal, not understanding, says that he’ll go there first and find a house for them, and then Nisha can join him. Off he goes! His friend Murli’s mother (Praveen Paul) lives in Delhi, and she and Vishal scheme to get Murli to Delhi as well.

I see trouble ahead—because Murli’s Ma is also Kamla’s nosy neighbor and friend.

[Side note: I’ve left out details of the comic side plot involving Murli and Meena, who are in love, and Meena’s disapproving father (Agha) because we’ve seen it all before, but it’s not as annoying as some CSPs are. It’s also not terribly germane to the main plot, except for Murli’s mother being Kamla’s neighbor. End side note.]

Murli tries to convince Nisha to go to Delhi with him, but she refuses. When he arrives, a funeral is under way.

Murli’s mother has taken young Munna—who is Nisha’s son, of course—into her home temporarily. She hopes that his real mother will return for him. After much pleading, Vishal finally convinces Nisha to come to Delhi. She loves the house he’s found for them, but happiness again is cut short. Murli and his mother have invited Vishal and Nisha to dinner. Nisha recognizes the house, but has no choice except to go in.

Of course, the moment Murli’s mother lays eyes on her, she recognizes Nisha as Munna’s mother. This is where little nit-picky annoyances (like Vishal’s obliviousness to Nisha’s feelings and wishes) become a bigger grievance for me. If at this point Nisha had confessed all, and the plot been about how she and Vishal come to terms with the situation, it would have really been a good film and made its point rather more successfully.

But instead it descends into madness: Murli’s mother keeps Nisha’s secret, but decides to put Munna in an orphanage, which Vishal can’t tolerate (since he grew up in one). He adopts Munna without asking Nisha first, and when he eventually does discover Munna’s true parentage he gives Nisha no chance to explain anything, but abandons them both.

More stuff happens, including one event which caused me to stare incredulously at the screen, saying: “WHOA! Didn’t see that coming!” Also, Helen reappears (this of course is only a good thing) and sings the song that I love (“Jeena Kaisa Ho Pyar Bina”):

but at the end of it I’m left feeling let down and a bit disgusted with our sexist, self-centered hero. I will say that Jeetendra only over-acted in particularly dramatic scenes, but elsewhere he was good. Mumtaz was great as usual—she’s such an effortlessly accomplished actress and so beautiful that I think she never really got the acting kudos she deserved. If only she’d had a better story here!

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20 Comments to “Kathputli (1971)”

  1. Ah, this sounds like an interesting movie – I do think Jeetendra and Mumtaz make a great pair (well, from what I’ve seen in Roop Tera Mastaana and that item number in Humjoli – but then Mumtaz was great with just about anyone!). Must put this on my list of have-to-sees.

  2. I haven’t seen this. As for the sexist parts, I’m sure it’s done irreparable damage to all of us who grew up with these films. Of course, we had most of that crap around us in real life, but films only underlined the goodness of the self-sacrificing woman. Now replaced with the titillating one. But Mumtaz. How can one resist seeing a movie with her in it?

  3. Hi Greta,
    Is the operation really a lobotomy, or is that your way of looking at Vishal’s (machistic) change?!
    It all sounded great fun otherwise!

  4. madhu: Mumtaz and Jeetendra are very sweet together for the falling in love part, but once they are married he kind of just takes her for granted. But Mumu is great :)

    Banno: I’m sure you’ll recognize the sexism…the thing that disappointed me was that I felt the film really wanted to make a “feminist” statement, but the underlying sexism negated the effect—at least for me—too much. It’s worth seeing, though, and I’d love to hear what you think of it :)

    yves: No, he doesn’t really. It’s my pathetic attempt to explain the change from his attentive pre-marriage self to the completely oblivious egocentric post-marriage self!

  5. the name “kathputli” itself is interesting. Ibsen’s Doll’s House, anyone?

    As for Jeetendra’s “change from his attentive pre-marriage self to the completely oblivious egocentric post-marriage self”, they say it doesn’t need lobotomy, men do that naturally ;-) Nah, j/k.. I’m not married yet, and I’m sure not all spouses are like that .. but without this “plot-device” you wouldn’t have this movie, so oh well! :-)

  6. That’s one reason I never got married. What’s in it for me? :)

  7. lol memsaab. as Helen would sing : ”Jeena Kaisa Ho Pyar Bina..”

  8. I don’t need to be married to get some love!!!! :-D

  9. I want to know who had the brilliant brain wave to cast Helen in such a seemingly sizeable role. and then when I find out, i want to congratulate ’em. Poor Manmohan- such a horrible character to play- but he did look so villanous, so I guess the directors couldnt help giving him such parts.

  10. It wasn’t as sizeable as it could have been, but it was nice to see her playing a good person. Manmohan was just despicable in this. I thoroughly hated him (which means he was good at it) although I usually revel in his villainy.

  11. Is it just me or do sexism and double standards appear to be more blatant in “progressive” mainstream movies at least from 60s and 70s? Anyway, this is one I should see just because here’s a heroine that suffers a fate-worse-than-death and yet lives on – wasnt all that common in movies of those days!

    Helen looks lovely in sarees – they make a great change from her sequins and feathers.

  12. Thanks for pointing that out, Bollyviewer: she is a heroine who is no longer pure as the driven snow, but her punishment isn’t death at least! although she does try to “do the right thing” and kill herself…

    :) Helen looks good in everything.

  13. “…she is a heroine who is no longer pure as the driven snow, but her punishment isn’t death at least!”
    Reminded me of another film I saw recently, Aap Aaye Bahaar Aayi. Sadhana, Rajinder Kumar and Prem Chopra, where the girl gets raped – and pregnant – shortly after she gets engaged. Tries to kill herself too, but what did please me was that the hero was man enough to realise that the rape wasn’t her fault and that he loved her enough to marry her – and bring up the kid as his own – despite all. Would have perhaps been more appreciative if she hadn’t needed to attempt suicide for him to have that change of heart, but anyway.

  14. Madhu: we’ll take what we can get :-)

    • Havent seen this movie. You say the movie descends into madness. What happens in the end? Does Vishal finally accept Nisha? (stupid question. It’s a hindi movie of the 1970s — i am sure he does). What about the kid? And what happens to the boss?

  15. Mumtaz is so stinking cute. I’d watch this movie just for her, but Helen in non-skank clothes is an added bonus. I’ll just hurl psychic death wishes at Vishal and enjoy the ladies. ;-)

  16. Mumtaz and Helen. Wow. They both look gorgeous!

    As far sexism and double-standards are concerned, like Banno said for those of us who grew up watching Hindi movies, some damage must have been done to our psyche. I call it the ‘Bhartiya Nari Syndrome’. We all have it to some extent!

  17. What happens after the movie descends into madness? Does Vishal finally accept Nisha? What about the kid? And what happens to the boss?

  18. All said and done, I watch Mumtaz’s movie for Mumtaz only. She is a treat to eyes and all the senses. I cannot define the word ‘sensuous’ but know what it means when I watch Mumtaz in Sari with big bindi (dot). Irony is that she does not act sensuous because she doesn’t have to. It’s God given. -An admirer

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