I would be hard-pressed to choose my favorite Manmohan Desai film were I ever forced to. But Desh Premee would be near the top of the list. I loved this film; once again the great director has given us a sprawling and complex story encompassing themes of compassion, unity, justice, patriotism, faith and love. He uses leprosy both as a metaphor for the corruption eating away at his country, and as a message of non-exclusion, and the unwavering courage and integrity of Masterji both destroys his happiness and saves his loved ones at the end. There are many moments of humor and silliness, of course, but the movie’s overall tone is quite serious as compared to some of his other work.
I think I’ve finally put my finger on why I love Desai’s films so much. Like me he has a cynic’s view of the world; and also like me, a romantic soul underlying that cynicism. That juxtaposition between often harsh reality and what we wish were real instead is present in all his work, and he always lets the “wishing” side win. Even when the ending is somewhat sad (like Roti) we are still left with a sense of hope. Plus, his imagery and plots are just so FAB.
Master Dinanath (Amitabh Bachchan) is a freedom fighter during India’s battle against the British Raj for independence. He is imprisoned and tortured: the film opens with his defiant cries of “Inqilab Zindabad!” as barbed wire is wound tightly around his body and his head. No prizes for subtle imagery here!
After Independence, he is awarded the medal of freedom. The man who puts it around his neck is Thakur Pratap Singh (Amjad Khan)—but he is a man not worthy of medals. He is making his fortune through smuggling guns and other nefarious activites. School teacher Dinanath has a family: wife Bharti (Sharmila Tagore) and a son Raju and daughter Preeti, who has come down with a fever.
In Masterji and Raju’s absence, Bharti sees Pratap Singh using her husband’s classroom to hide illegal guns. She confronts him, and he retaliates by having his partner Sher Singh (Kadar Khan) kidnap her and her daughter. When Masterji returns from his school trip, Pratap Singh offers him a huge amount of cash—and threatens his wife and daughter’s safety—as a bribe to keep him quiet.
After a long night weighing his options, Masterji returns the money to Pratap Singh and has him arrested. Pratap Singh retaliates by sending his accountant Munimji (Jeevan) to instigate rumors of Masterji’s corruption among the townspeople, who are only too ready to turn on the man they had lauded the day before as a great patriot.
They torch Masterji’s house and he barely manages to rescue his sleeping son and escape from the back. Munimji informs Pratap Singh that Masterji is dead.
Meanwhile, Bharti and Preeti are being kept by Sher Singh in a filthy, dark shack. Sher Singh is attracted to her, but she rejects his every advance angrily. He tells her that her husband and son have been killed and rips off her mangalsutra in a rage, forcing her to put on a sari he has bought her. The police find a bundle containing Bharti’s old sari and her mangalsutra in the river, and tell Masterji that she is dead too.
Bharti escapes from her imprisonment and takes her daughter to a close friend of hers named Geeta (Gita Siddharth—better known to me as the hand-feeding Maaaaaa! from Disco Dancer), who is married to Major Verma (Jagdish Raj).
She leaves sleeping Preeti with a note asking Geeta and her husband to bring her up as they would their own child, and slips away to confront Sher Singh with the reason she cannot care for her daughter.
She has contracted the disfiguring disease thanks to Sher Singh’s dirty rat-infested prison. Poor Bharti! She shoots Sher Singh and is sentenced to seven years in prison (although he is not killed).
Meanwhile, Master Dinananth and Raju have found their way to a new locality called Bharatnagar. Raju sees a man drop his wallet, and though he tries to hide it from his father, Dinanath takes it and returns it to its owner—who gives him a job delivering kerosene to the town.
Bharatnagar is divided into four sections: Punjabi, Madrasi, Bengali, and Muslim, each section presided over by a its own “don”—Shamsher Singh (Shammi Kapoor), Puthu Anna (Premnath), Parunto Ghosh (Uttam Kumar) and Ghulam Ali (Parikshat Sahni).
These four control everything, and quarrel over everything too. Masterji attempts to bring them together with a song: “Mere Deshpremiyon.”
When they realize that Masterji has the respect of the local police, they decide to present a united front to him to keep the police out of their hair. Raju, although still a boy, knows exactly what is going on, and he extorts money from them in exchange for his not telling his father what they are really up to (the usual corruption, mixing grains with gravel, etc.).
Years later, when he has grown up (Amitabh again) he is still a badmash, and his father is still blissfully unaware of it. One day Raju runs into Pratap Singh, who is now counterfeiting money in partnership with Sher Singh and selling Indian women into “foreign” slavery in partnership with Munimji. He is startled at the sight of Raju and questions him.
Raju tells him that his name is Tony, and that he has no parents. Pratap Singh’s own son Deepak (Navin Nischol) has grown up to become a Police Inspector—and he is happily unaware of his own father’s activities. I love the symmetry in that. Pratap Singh hires “Tony”; despite his resemblence to Pratap’s old foe, Raju is clearly a rogue worth cultivating.
One day while running from the police, Raju hides in the midst of a group wedding along with a cabaret dancer named Asha (Hema Malini) who is fleeing from a cruel stepbrother. They are married along with all the other couples. Raju then wants her to get lost, but she’s determined to make it a lifelong commitment and follows him singing the lively “Jaoji Jao.” He caves in long enough to spend the wedding night with her in a seedy hotel, but then disappears before she wakes up.
Preeti has grown up to be Parveen Babi, and become a doctor in the hope that she might one day find her lost and ill mother. Her loving foster parents, the Vermas, have decided that Inspector Deepak (son of the oh-so-respectable Pratap Singh) would make an excellent husband for her.
The rest of the film (and it’s long even by Desai’s standards) weaves all the scattered ends of this masterful beginning together in a most satisfying way. I’ve left out lots of detail—both so as not to ruin the film, and also because I’d be writing until midnight if I didn’t!
So where is Bharti now? Will she ever discover that her husband and son are alive? Will she find her lost daughter? Will they recognize a scabby old leper woman as their wife/mother? Will Pratap Singh and Sher Singh get their comeuppance? Will Inspector Deepak discover his father’s perfidy? Will he marry Preeti? Can Raju be redeemed or is he forever lost to the dark side? What will Masterji do when he discovers his beloved son’s flaws? Will poor Asha ever find her new husband? For all the answers to this—and more!—watch Desh Premee. Put aside a whole afternoon, you’ll need it and you won’t want to stop the movie midway.
And despite the more sober tone, there is plenty to gape at open-mouthed too, especially during song picturizations (Laxmikant Pyarelal’s music is wonderful). One of them has Amitabh doing an exaggerated imitation of Mehmood’s famous lungi-wearing butler from Gumnaam:
I wonder what Mehmood himself thought of it. I’ll bet he laughed.
Another song featured Prem Chopra, Amitabh and Hema Malini in blackface posing as members of a band called Santana. I howled, mostly with laughter but partly in pain. So very politically INcorrect (they are even called negroes):
Here is lovely Hema in a cabaret number, in front of what looks like the NBC peacock:
And of course, last but by no means least, my beloved Shammi:
It must have just been SO MUCH FUN to act in Manmohan Desai’s films.