Kunku (1937)


This film by V. Shantaram for his Prabhat Films company is quite simply amazing (Kunku is the Marathi version, which I saw; the Hindi version is called Duniya Na Mane with the same cast and crew). It is made with such stark realism and simplicity that it takes your breath away, and the social commentary at the heart of the film seems (to me anyway) to be way before its time. There is also delightful humor (I laughed out loud in places) punctuating the somber and nuanced story, along with powerful performances. Shanta Apte shines as the fierce Neera, a young girl forcibly married off to a wealthy widower old enough to be her father; and Keshavrao Date is equally good as her groom. He begins as a selfish and not so sympathetic figure who evolves into an object of pity, hoping that this marriage will make him feel young again, and loved—alas, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

Plus of course, I love it because it’s old and there’s a sad dearth of Indian films this age. Look at the censorship certificate! And Prabhat’s symbol is so lovely too.


Orphaned Neera lives with her uncle and aunt and their brood of small children. Her uncle himself is quite elderly, and her shrewish aunt much younger. The children are presenting a play as the film opens. This is one of the cutest, most hilarious things I’ve ever seen—these kids are so small, flogged by their fluffy fake moustaches and prone to having their attention wander. One little kid removes his moustache and blows his nose on another kid’s dhoti before replacing it on his upper lip. The subject for their drama?


It all goes haywire when the little girl playing the bride doesn’t understand that it’s all fake, and has a melt-down—refusing to marry the old man.


Neera wipes her tears and sings a song for them: the music throughout the movie is either unaccompanied at all, or is accompanied by an old gramophone to add realism to the background music (and of course all the actors—including the kids—sing for themselves). I’ve heard Shanta Apte’s songs before, so it was fun to finally see her in a film.


I do have to admit, though, that as much as I love Hindi film music from the 1950s through the 1970s (and even beyond, except for disco—sorry!) I cannot say that I like many songs from the 1930s (the music in this is by Keshavrao Bhole). I think it might be an acquired taste.

In any case, Neera’s song is interrupted by the entrance of her aunt (Gauri), who is angry to find Neera playing with the kids instead of making bread or doing something else useful. It’s clear from their exchange that Neera’s parents brought her up with considerable love, and educated her; none of this endears her to her aunt.

Neera’s uncle (Chhotu) then appears to say that a wealthy lawyer is coming to “see” Neera as a marriage prospect.


Three men arrive: a pandit (or matchmaker), an older man, and a young man who looks like his son but calls him “Kakasaheb” when he defers to him for approval of the bride-to-be, which is quickly given.


Neera is given permission to leave, and peeps through the window at her prospective groom.


Riiiiiiight. Neera discovers the truth only on her wedding day when it’s time for garlands to be exchanged and she sees her groom’s face for the first time.


It is Kakasahab, the older man, the younger man having been a decoy; her uncle rushes forward and forces her to put the garland over his head. He has already been paid a generous amount for Neera, and nothing will stop the wedding if he can help it! Even her aunt is a little appalled, but the deed is done.

In a great scene, Neera confronts her uncle about his deception and his greed—but again, although her life is ruined, there’s nothing much she can do. She does refuse to show up for the wedding photograph, in another hilarious scene. Note the groom’s displeasure.


On the day she is to leave for her new home (a mansion, according to her aunt), her uncle is packing up the entire family to go with her. This isn’t going down too well with Kakasahab (whose actual name is Keshav) and his elderly aunt (Vimala Vasishta), although they are resigned to it.


But Neera herself puts a stop to this plan. “Nobody will go with me” she says firmly. There’s a steely determination in her face and manner which does not bode well for her new family (or her old one).


She departs for Gangapur with Keshav, his aunt and his daughter Akka (Vasanti)—who is close to Neera’s age herself, and clearly sympathetic.

On the morning they arrive in Gangapur, Neera refuses to take tea to Keshav, making his aunt—Kaki—furious. Kaki gives Akka a cup for herself and throws Neera’s tea in the sink. Akka takes her cup out to Neera and offers it to her shyly, and asks if she can call Neera “sister” instead of “aunt”; this is quite fine with Neera, and the two girls are soon fast friends.


Things don’t run as smoothly for others in the house. Neera flatly refuses to consummate her marriage, and sets up her own room in a warehouse which had been used as storage. She is full of righteous indignation, and never loses an opportunity to shame her new husband or his aunt. A typical exchange occurs when the neighboring women come to visit the bride, and she insults them. Kaki bemoans her rude behavior—but Neera has a ready retort.


So powerful and clear is her anger that Kaki and Keshav’s rage at her behavior is rendered impotent in the face of it. Secure in the knowledge that she has the moral upper hand and nothing left to lose, she is implacable; plus, she makes full use of her considerable intellect in outsmarting their attempts to force her into being a “proper” wife. As the days pass, though, she finds some joy in creating a courtyard garden with Akka, and in a diwali celebration with the neighboring women.

At work, Keshav’s colleagues are teasing him about having a young wife at his advanced age too, which doesn’t please him. An excellent example of the comic touches throughout this film comes as he is walking home one day, using his umbrella to shield himself from passers-by and their snide remarks. He runs into an older gentleman who starts to say something to him, and Keshav blows up:


His elder daughter Chitra—an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, we learn later in the film—also sends him a letter chastising him for ruining a young girl’s life.

Keshav is a vain man who dyes his moustache black and hates any reminder of or reference to his age. He has a grandfather clock which acts as the primary symbol in the film for his advancing years. The pendulum’s relentless tick-tock haunts him increasingly as his feelings change from rage at Neera’s defiance, to frustration and finally to shame.


I’m not going to say more on the story. I just really highly highly recommend this as one of the most progressive and thoughtful films I’ve ever seen, anywhere. It avoids being too preachy with its clever humor, and by its simple humanity: the characters are believable and real people. Neera, for all her rebellion, is at heart traditional (for her time!), who wants a husband she can look up to and please. She is no avenging goddess, just a wronged girl.

There is plenty of pointed symbolism, too, besides the clock. One of my favorite scenes is one where Neera’s uncle turns up; she sends for the police and tells them that he’s an insane man who thinks he’s her uncle. They haul him off to a mental hospital as he shouts imprecations at her treatment of him and a donkey brays nearby in the exact same tone. Neera also visibly struggles each morning when it’s time to apply the vermilion to her forehead in front of her mirror.


There is also some great imagery, as when Keshav breaks his mirror in a fit of despair and his reflection in the shards of glass mocks him.


The ending is not much of a surprise, but certainly gives plenty of food for thought (although I don’t want to give it away here).

Edited to add: the comments now contain spoilers, so don’t read them if you don’t want to know how it ends!

This came as part of a ten-disc set of Prabhat films which includes 1932’s Ayodhyecha Raja—with subtitles—so I’ll be rewatching that one too (and hopefully enjoying it more than I did the first time without subs). But whatever comes of the rest of the set, this is truly a work of art.

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65 Comments to “Kunku (1937)”

  1. I’m not reading this really because I know I want to see it, I’m just here to say – I love Shantaram and it’s great to have another recommendation.

    The one I know best is Navrang.

  2. Wow…what a powerful female character !
    And that in 1937.
    Indeed this must have been way ahead of its times.

    I love V.Shantaram’s movies. Although there is usually an idealistic streak in them that may come across as impractical, the stories do tend to linger on in your subconscious for a long time (or maybe that just happens to me :) ).

    Thanks for an excellent review, Greta.

  3. I’ve only seen Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (besides the ones mentioned above)…and I must confess that I got bored with it, although the color and visuals were fantastic. The story for me though was kind of “meh”—I should give it another try though, to be fair. I have Navrang but haven’t watched it yet…I’m looking forward to rewatching Ayodhyecha Raja too, because I think without subtitles I can’t really be fair to a movie like it.

    But this—this was made of awesome :)

  4. This certainly was made of awesome and the only V. Shantaram film that I remember liking. Its also the example I like to trot out everytime I want to illustrate progressiveness in Hindi films (I saw the Hindi version – Duniya Na Maane)! I wonder why Bollywood regressed so badly into sati-savitri-type heroines in later decades.

    And I am with you on songs from the 30s and 40s. They really sound rather odd, though some of them are quite beautiful too.

    • Neera is so anti-sati-savitra that it makes me cheer for her. I don’t understand how the whole sati-savitra mindset benefits ANYBODY. Those films drive me crazy.

      I think the old songs are too much like more classical Indian ragas or something, which I also have to confess I find dull in a very short amount of time.

      I like western melodies, and the two different types of music are so different that it’s hard to adjust.

  5. I also saw the one with Machli in the title. The visuals are mind-blowing there too, maybe I’ll put an album on Facebook – title means fish out of water. The story was only so-so.

    I do like the story in Navrang. I think it’s a good sad poet character, and a good story of non-understanding.

    • Ah, yes “Jal Bin Machhli…”—very long name. I have that too, but haven’t been much tempted to watch it.

      good sad poet character…makes me scratch my head and think: “Really? Will I like that?” althoug I do on occasion, as in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa…

      • Don’t watch Jal bin Machhli – it’s a ghastly film, though Sandhya’s dancing is very good.

        I saw Duniya na maane when I was a kid; too small, really, to appreciate the film. Must try and get hold of Kunku, though – it sounds unmissable!

  6. oh wow Memsaab, this certainly seems made of awesome.. I’m too curious to know the ending though. you say it’s not much of a surprise, but, again, it was a progressive movie for its time — do you mind sharing it in the comments under “spoilers”? please??? pretty please?? 0:-)

    • Okay: SPOILERS!

      It’s not actually difficult to find out how it all ends the internet, but Keshav at the end of the film is so shamed by what he’s done that he kills himself so that Neera will be free to remarry. Before he does that, he wipes the vermilion from her forehead that she has so reluctantly applied, setting her free in effect, and she is ambivalent about it. She has gotten used to her situation and I think the uncertainty of what her life will be without him at that point (because a woman without a husband is not recognized in that society) worries her. And then there’s the whole issue of widow remarriage, which was not exactly totally sanctioned by society either. So I wonder what a sequel might have made of her situation.


      • My wife would scoff at the ending. Her father remarried after
        getting his kids married. (to a spinster though). She asks, “How can he get remarried after my mother died when SHE would never have got the same privilege?”

      • humm.. thanks. you know, I didn’t guess THIS ending– the part about Keshav killing himself. I didn’t google the movie; your writing (not just the outline of the movie, but your own reflections & insights) is what makes your blog interesting for me, so along with the end-synopsis, I was also hoping for your take on it, which i won’t get anywhere else! ;)

        i’ll definitely check out this movie. With the exception of Bommarillu, the only Indian movies I’ve seen are the Hindi & Bengali regional movies. Maybe “Kunku” will be my first Marathi one (and I always have the option of watching “Duniya Na Mane”) :D

        Thanks Memsaab, for the wonderful review — and for granting my request!!!

  7. I did see this movie. It was really good. Seeing how Neera admires Chitra we can presume Neera becomes an activist of sorts too. Plus she does get to inherit whatever Keshav leaves behind, so she is not destitute.

    • No, I found it sad only for the fact that Keshav felt that the only way he could make up for his mistake in marrying Neera was to die. Neera certainly was strong enough and intelligent enough to make a good life for herself (especially with—as you say—money enough to live comfortably on).

  8. What a superb movie ! And indeed the story line is way way ahead of its time.

    It is a shame that not too many movie makers made movies on these progressive themes and chose the safer option of depicting women as “Sati Savitri” in their movies.

    Indeed it is a superb movie. I am not much familiar with Marathi ( though the script of Marathi is same as that of Hindi, the language is quite different). I will definitely like to watch the Hindi version, if I can get it.

    Great review, as always.

    • This version has English subtitles so you could watch with those :-) I think Duniya Na Maane is available out there, though…I think I may even have it (although without subs).

  9. Ah… V Shanta ram.. a staple diet of Bombay’s Doordarshan TVs in the 70s… I remember watching all of them from Kotnis, Navrang, 2 Ankhen in splendid BW on my BW TV…
    Hope Memsaab knows the connection with a Shammi heroine… V Shantaram’s daughter Rajshreefrom “Jaanwar”

  10. Memsaab, Kunku is indeed a great film and one of the classics of Indian cinema. Have done a piece on it in upperstall – http://www.upperstall.com/films/1937/kunku

  11. This looks good, and I’d like to see it if I ever can find it.

    I’ve liked most of the scenes that I’ve seen from V. Shantaram films. The only one I can think of that I saw in full was Navrang, which I thought was excellent. I’d like to see more of his films.

    Regarding our favorite decades in music, it’s interesting how people are dividing them here… I’ve taken most to the ’40s of late, and for music alone, that could very well be my favorite now. (I won’t go too much into all the reasons here – but let’s say it has to do mostly with the music directors and the singers, especially so many really good female singers who disappeared later because of either Partition or the Lata wave.) But I also love much of the ’50s music equally. I would group those two decades together at the top of my list; the ’60s music doesn’t appeal to me quite as much.

    I think most ’30s music is just fine too, though I understand the point about some of it sounding “odd.” I do like every song I’ve seen/heard from Street Singer, made the same year as this (understandably, some might say, since the singers are Kanan Devi and K.L. Saigal)…

    I’ve read in a couple of places that Hindi film heroines were actually more emancipated in the ’30s and became more conservative by the ’40s. But I’ve also seen a lot in ’40s films that I would call progressive, especially in terms of speaking up for the poor and downtrodden – because of the overtly leftist tendencies of the directors, actors, etc.

    • Given your love of this old cinema you might find the set worth getting too…the films are all subtitled, apparently, which is a big bonus too. And from most of the films I’ve seen, it wasn’t until the late fifties that the whole self-sacrificing heroine thing really caught on. The sixties are pretty fraught with them!

  12. Wow! Look at the dynamic shot compositions(Tea sharing, old man in the street) etc. I was surfing channels, and they were showing Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’s sequel – Hirak Rajar Deshe. Absolutley appallingly shoddy and static camera work. And in 1980 at that!

    • The photography is BEAUTIFUL :) The sets, street scenes, clothing, everything is done with such a fine hand to make it as simple and down-to-earth and realistic as possible.

  13. I saw this one as a kid…V.Shantaram’s stories were really much ahead of their time. You should also try and see his Do Aankhein Barah Haath (in which he acted, and lost sight of one of his eyes fighting a bull for a scene) and Dr.Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani..

    • I think I have seen Do Aankhen Barah Haath, a way long time ago—I have vague memories of liking it too. Should track it down for a rewatch. I just got Dr. Kotnis as well, although haven’t gotten to it yet.

  14. I’m looking forward to watching this when my set od DVDs arrive soon :-)

    This film was made before independence and I’m wondering whether that had to do anything with change in vision after independence — now that’s a paradox.

    Poor misunderstood sati Savitri. The films did make it look like Savitri has to ‘bear’ all. Even a bad husband.

    Sati Savitri’s husband was not bad, she only had to bear the fact that after one year of marriage her husband would die, and she went through a lot to avert that when dealing with yama (god who takes away life).

    • I think we are mostly talking about “Sati Savitri” here as a type—I’ve seen plenty of films (many starring Nutan for some reason) where the heroine just puts up with atrocity after atrocity, and contributes to her own misery herself as well, in good measure.

      • Yes, I blame the films for this.
        As far as I knew this term was used in jest for a woman who was very devoted to her husband.

        Here’s a link to a 1973 film about Sati Savitri.
        There were quite a few before this. One starring Mahipal and Anita Guha IIRC.
        Sati Savitri even chose her husband herself.


        • Actually I haven’t seen any so have no idea if they depict the ‘original’ story or whether these are the very films that changed the whole notion. :-)

  15. Great review, Greta. You’ve superbly conveyed the ferocity of Neera’s (and the film’s) ideals and convictions. I have come to the conclusion that I really like all V Shantaram films made prior* to his discovery of that-mistake-the-good Lord-made – Sandhya.:-D

    * I do love “Teen Batti Char Raaste” (3 Lights 4 Paths) even though it features Sandhya.

  16. Hadn’t heard of this film, but Prabhat has a history of some really good cinema. Well, Prabhat is in fact history of Indian cinema :D

    That classics set has some really good films.

    @Pacifist: That is one point I which always amuses me. If anything, Savitri is a really strong female icon, who fought and won against fate and gods for the life of her husband, and they had a really good marriage before and after that event. In fact, in most of the forms I have seen/read the story, Savitri almost never cries. So why the stereotype?

    • Why indeed? I wonder if anyone here would know how the “Sati Savitri” stereotype came to be?

      Is there a film where the “true story” of Savitri is told without resorting to that stereotype? I’m sure there must be…

      • Memsaab – it is easy to guess where the stereotype came from despite the original Savitri being a strong woman – male film makers of bollywood! Indian film industry as we know is dominated by guys who make films – perhaps it is their view and imagination of how an Indian woman/ heroine should be behaving in a marital relationship and hence the boredom we face in movie after movie wrt sati savitri types!

  17. This looks amazing! I’m with you in wondering what happy outcome there can be for poor Neera, though.

  18. ‘Stree’ was another film directed by V. Shantaram in which he acted along with his wife then, Jayshree.

  19. Hope the set also has ‘Aadmi’ (Marathi version ‘Manoos’) in it. That was Shantaram’s answer to ‘Devdas’. And it’s another awesome film.

    I loved ‘Navrang’ and ‘Jhanak Jhanak’ as a young girl, I saw them as re-runs.

    The truth is that V Shantaram’s films are not progressive for their times. In fact, a lot of film makers at that time were more socially conscious and responsible, leftist to a large extent, and films were considered to be an instrument of social change.

    It is today that any such movement is lacking, we are content with NRI stories and lots of skin on show.

    • The set does have Manoos (all the films in it are Marathi). It’s the one I want to see next :)

      It’s true—films in general were more socially aware and focused in the 30s through the 50s. I think they started moving away from that in the 60s, although of course there have always been filmmakers who tried to make socially relevant films across all decades. They just probably didn’t have the audience for it any more…

    • Very true, Banno.

      I remember almost pulling my hair out last year during the whole “Slumdog Millionaire” brouhaha(aside: what a great word!) because of the repeated claim that the reason some Indians didn’t care for the movie was because SM held up a mirror to Indian “reality” and Indians weren’t used to social critiques in films.

      It was so difficult to convince folks who were only acquainted with contemporary Bollywood, that it didn’t represent either the history or entirety of Hindi, let alone Indian, cinema.

      • Looking at Shalini’s comment, I have to say, I felt exactly the same way. Compared to the social critiques in Hindi films of the ’50s (and also 40s, as I’ve more recently discovered), Slumdog Millionaire looks quite deficient. Sure, it showed people in poverty, but what was the point of its “critique”? Hindi films of the ’40s and ’50s explored a social answer to these social troubles – i.e., the possibility of a collective response. (Of course, many delved into socialism – at a time when people in the American film industry were being blacklisted for even the vaguest suggestions of such leanings.)

        In Slumdog Millionaire, the only way to address poverty and social misery is to enter some kind of game show/lottery and hope that “destiny” will make you rich. (And the best the impoverished masses can do is root when you get on TV.)

        Have those fools with the anti-Bollywood critique ever even seen a film from Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Navketan Films, Raj Kapoor…?

        • I don’t think Slumdog’s INTENT was to be a social critique. So you can’t really judge it as one, to be fair. Besides for which, it can hardly be called a Bollywood movie!

          But one of my pet peeves is when Hindi cinema is dismissed as “song and dance” fluff—even some of the craziest masala films had substance as well (although of course there is plenty of fluff out there too). I personally think Manmohan Desai had a LOT to say in terms of social critique or commentary.

          • Slumdog Millionaire was just a movie. A movie made from a book. I hardly think it was intended to be a socio economic treatise.. Stories of poverty aas well as stories of riches, both equally could make for entertaining cinema. It was a taut wellmade movie with a good screenplay, a film made for international consumption that was successful. Period.

  20. That sounds amazing! More things to see!
    Btw, I’m pretty sure there’s a TV soap in India these days thats roughly the same story except for the part where the heroine is a kickass, educated woman who doesn’t take shit. I need to look it up.

  21. Female hypocrisy has no bounds. There are women who freiwillig marry men almost twice their age (Tom Cruises and Aamir Khans). Rather than dyeing the moustache Keshav should have shaved it off and dyed the head instead. Ironic, he had to die. By this standard Woody Allen should’ve killed himself long ago!

    Somehow am reminded of the 1982 Ashok Kumar movie “Shaukeen” ;-)

  22. No, ‘Shaukeen’ isn’t similar at all. It’s a fun romp with Ashok Kumar, A K Hangal and forget who else, 3-4 old friends who take a trip and try to woo a young girl, Rati Agnihotri. ( I think, or Ranjeeta?) It’s quite funny actually. At least, I thought so when I saw it as a kid.

    Don’t know if I would find it sexist now.

  23. memsaab: “Haven’t seen Shaukeen—is it a good movie?”

    Depends on how one defines “good”. It has some veterans, but as said, is light and funny! I suppose, (for Ashok Kumar’s fan) a must watch :-)

  24. V Shantaram was good for a long time. At the end he was smoking crack. His Marathi movies were always thought proviking and good. His hindi movies not so much at all. Sometimes catering to a wider audience dilutes the message into an unrecognazble mishmash. For those movie I was I was smoking crack along with him. Perhaps the psychadelic laborousness would have not be sooooo painful to sit through. Jai Maharashtra and all that.

    I am so glad you are opening up the world of regional language films for the rest of us.

    As an aside, I will mention that middle class maharastrain society of that era and before has always been very socially progressive especially where womens rights and human rights are concerned. Along with thier great belief in the worth of a good education, and thier active involvement in political movements from the peshwas time to independence, they have been a fairly forward looking culture. V Shantaram rightly paid homage to those social ideals. Kunku was a movie that was very celebrated by these vast audiences.

  25. Very nice view about equally nice movie.

    Good for me is to know about set of Prabhat’s 10 films.

  26. Hello, Nice post. Since you have original movie can you help me to find the Lyricst (geetkar) for the song ‘Ek Tha Raja Ek thi Rani’ from Hindi version of Kunku i.e. Duniya Na mane ?

    • I don’t have the Hindi version, only the Marathi. If you’re interested I can see if I can find out who the lyricist for that version is though. Let me know :)

      • @Amit Tiwari (June 8, 2011)
        The music director of both the Marathi and the Hindi Versions was Keshavrao Bhole (his name generally appeared in the credits as K. Bhole. He was extremely knowledgeable in classical music and one of the highly creative music directors of Prabhat. However, he has gone on record that he was uncomfortable with Shantaram’s insistence on only “natural” or “plausible” sounds for the background music in this film. The use of a gramophone to provide it for the English song extracted from Longfellow’s “The Psalm of Life”, sung by Shanta Apte, particularly embarrassed him.

  27. The song I remember from this movie (Marathi version) is “Doan ghadicha daav, yaala jeevan aise naav” – which I guess means – Its a play of fleeting (doan = 2) moments, its called “life”…

    Shakuntala Paranjape plays Keshavrao Date’s daugther, who is supports Shanta Apte. Sai Paranjape who made movies such as Chashmebaddur, Katha, Sparsh etc. is Shakuntala Paranjape’s daughter.

  28. Discovered this blog while looking for material on Shanta Apte. My interest in films is very limited, but the few Prabhat films I have seen in Marathi are honourable exceptions. I would like to comment on a general impression of most commentators here about V Shantaram producing/directing consistently “good” films.

    The fact is, one has to view Shantaram as two distinct animals: the innovative, bold, progressive director of the Prabhat days and the rather “Bollywoodish” Shantaram of the post-Prabhat period (from 1942 onwards) when he set up his own Rajkamal Studio .

    At Prabhat it was not Shantaram alone, but a whole team, including not only his senior partners such as Damle, Fatehlal, Dhaybar, Kulkarni but also some very talented script writers, casting directors, music and dance directors, who achieved the quality of films that were produced, whether in Marathi or Hindi.

    At Rajkamal, he was the big boss who made all the decisions, and his taste and judgement became more mass-market oriented. Rajkamal was technically the foremost studio of its time in India, but its production values were largely garish or downright shoddy. This told on the quality of even the few films it tried to make in the old Prabhat mould.

    • Yes he clearly went off the rails in the transition from Prabhat to Rajkamal. I can’t even really get through any of his later films, although the picturizations of songs are eye-popping anyway :)

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