I struggle a bit with Hindi films that are a commentary on religion and atheism since of course by Hindi Film Law the protagonists all have to end up squarely on the side of religion. I grew up on a mission station, attended church every Sunday for the first 17 years of my life, sang in the church choir, belonged to the youth group, etc., until I left home and could finally choose what to do on Sunday mornings for myself (generally I chose to sleep in). So turning my back on organized religion and embracing atheism was an “informed” choice for me and I doubt that I will ever change my mind. Having said that, one of the things I appreciated about this movie was its open discussion of atheism and morality and how they are not necessarily in conflict. Plus: Shabana Azmi, Shashi Kapoor, Ashok Kumar and Bindu!
Shankar (Shashi Kapoor) becomes an atheist as a child when his mother dies despite his pleas to Lord Jagdishwar, the occupant of a pilgrimage temple above Shankar’s village. His father and uncle are palanquin bearers, carrying devotees up the steep hillside to the temple and back down again. Like most of the other villagers, they were farmers until they lost their land to the local zamindar and moneylender Nahar Singh, who also “manages” the offerings at the temple.
By “manages” of course, I mean he siphons it off; over the years he has made himself and his cronies very wealthy indeed by lending money to poor farmers at exhorbitant interest rates and then taking over their land when they can’t make the payments (in addition to helping themselves to a portion of devotee temple contributions). When Shankar’s uncle and father had a good crop and were about to pay off their debt, Nahar Singh had their crops burned to keep them under his thumb—his mother died of her burns from that fire.
All these years later Shankar still nurtures his hatred of the deity who sat by and did nothing, a point that doesn’t escape his old friend and village philanthropist Dr. Anand (Ashok Kumar).
Another side effect of Shankar’s aversion to Lord Jagdishwar is that he refuses to carry a palanquin with his buddy Tota (Asrani), thereby doing both of them out of a job. Tota is in love with Chanda (Jayshree T)—this is obviously the CSP with an assist from Chanda’s father (Asit Sen). It’s not bad as CSPs go, but it’s also not unpredictable so I will say no more about it.
Tota and Shankar meet up one day with some friends who are visiting from the city and bragging about their high-paying “peon” jobs.
Minutes after deciding that he’ll go back with them for a job, Shankar meets a new girl in town named Gauri (Shabana Azmi) when she accidentally splatters him with vegetable seeds and then tries to clean off his face.
She also catches the lecherous eye of slimeball-son-of-Nahar-Singh, Pratap Singh (Narendranath).
Naturally Shankar bashes him up to rescue Gauri, an action which in turn puts him in the sights of local nautch girl Rupa (Bindu), who lives in the kotha with her mother (and madam) Champabai (Manorama).
Gauri is suitably grateful, and Shankar is now so smitten that he decides to stay in the village instead of heading off to the city. He discovers that Gauri is the daughter of the new security guard at the temple, retired army officer Vikram Singh (Raj Mehra). This goes a long way towards mitigating his resistance to anything having to do with the temple, and he tells Tota that they can begin work as palanquin bearers. Of course it becomes his habit to run off and romance Gauri once they get their passengers to the top.
When Vikram Singh finds out about his daughter’s romance, he forbids her to see him again since Shankar is a poor man and it will reflect badly on their own status.
Meanwhile, the prostitute Rupa is pursuing Shankar with all the wiles she possesses—but he wants nothing to do with her and dimisses her scornfully, which incenses her.
One day a stranger (Ramesh Deo) comes to town and visits the temple, then asks Tota and Shankar where he can spend the evening having some fun (this dichotomy between saint and sinner is one of the film’s main themes). At Rupa’s kotha, the stranger gets into an altercation with Pratap Singh which ends in Pratap Singh killing him. Champabai witnesses the whole thing and takes the opportunity to extort money for her silence from Pratap Singh.
How I love Manorama’s face!
Seeing his daughter’s distress at being separated from Shankar, Vikram Singh goes to see Dr. Anand, who tells him what a fine man Shankar is despite his poverty. Vikram Singh relents, and Shankar and Gauri are engaged. But alas! at the engagement ceremony, Vikram Singh insists that they all go to Lord Jagdishwar’s temple to seal it with a puja. Shankar refuses to go, and a furious Vikram Singh breaks the engagement.
Poor Gauri! She is initially angry that Shankar won’t just give in for her sake, but he persuades her that his principles are essential to him and he cannot betray them. He tells her to forget him, but she’s got more faith in their love than that: atheism, she says, is a disease—a disease that her love can cure.
This makes me both giggle and roll my eyes at the same time. Next, Shankar convinces all the palanquin bearers to form a union and work together to increase their wages. Around the same time the police arrive looking for the stranger who has disappeared, and Dr. Anand reports Nahar Singh to the government for embezzling money meant for the temple and stealing the farmers’ lands.
Of course Nahar Singh and Pratap Singh are not going to get caught easily! And Shankar has earned their enmity by having the temerity to organize the village men against them. Dancer Rupa is pretty mad at him too. What will happen to Shankar? Will Gauri’s love “save” him from eternal hellfire? Watch Hira Aur Patthar to find out, especially if you are a Shashi or Shabana fan. The music is lovely (Kalyanji Anandji) and the people so pretty.
And as I said earlier—the first half of the film puts up some good arguments about the true nature of integrity and religion. If only it had been willing to rest on the strength of that conviction! Shankar is a good and honest man despite his atheism, whereas the moneylenders in the temple (how very Christian of them!)—despite their outward show of piety—are evil and greedy people.
To which I can only say: amen.