I’m in love again. Almost on a Shammi scale, even. I first saw him in Humayan, where his lust for vengeance was constantly thwarted by a target who was nice to him. But his eyes and his bristling manner enchanted me, even then. And now! Chandramohan plays the Mughal emperor Jehangir in Sohrab Modi’s classic Pukar, and he is spectacular. Sometimes I had to stop the film just to sit and gaze at him.
To be fair, the entire film is spectacular. It is overwhelmingly magnificent, a sumptuously visualized and thrillingly plotted tale of love, murder and justice. I will forever be in my friend Muzafar’s debt for sending it to me. He also sent me 1941’s Sikandar, with Prithviraj Kapoor! These two films along with 1943’s Prithvi Vallabh form a trilogy directed and produced by Modi, and I feel so lucky to be able to see them. Again though, it really begs the question: why haven’t these treasures been restored, subtitled and put on DVD? Why?? I don’t know if I want to live in a world where Gunmaster G9’s shenanigans take precedence over this masterpiece!
Anyway. Pukar is subtitled, to my great joy. I missed a lot of context in Prithvi Vallabh and I know I will in Sikandar too—Sohrab Modi’s dialogues are justifiably famous, and they are amazing in this (and sometimes pretty funny). This post is really long and fairly detailed, even for long-winded me: it’s just too good a film and too hard to find not to share. You’ve been warned!
The story opens with a man ringing a bell that Jehangir has installed. Anyone with a grievance can ring it, and the emperor will give him a hearing and dispense justice. This man’s son has been murdered, and Jehangir quickly pronounces judgment on the culprit: a life for a life.
Can you imagine being a guy who can grant life or inflict death, and who is preceded by these pronouncements every time he leaves his room and walks through the palace?
His soldiers are practicing their sword and archery skills on the palace grounds, but one of them is missing. He is Mangal Singh, son of Sangram Singh, and one of his friends jokes that he is romancing the daughter of his father’s sworn enemy Uday Singh. Hearing this, Uday Singh’s son Ranjit rides home in a fury, where Mangal (Sadiq Ali) is indeed meeting the lovely Kunwar (Sheela) on the sly.
In true Rajput tradition, pride and honor propel Ranjit into chasing Mangal Singh down. Mangal doesn’t want to fight, but Ranjit attacks him anyway, and Mangal is forced to fight in self-defense. Back at home a desperate Kunwar begs her father to stop Ranjit and tells him that she loves Mangal. It doesn’t help; enraged, Uday Singh chases after the boys as well and arrives just as Mangal kills Ranjit after a thrilling sword fight on horseback (beautiful beautiful horseback).
Uday, too, forces Mangal to fight him, and although Mangal does his best to fight only defensively, he wounds Uday Singh badly. Thinking him dead, Mangal rides home wounded himself, to his parents. He explains what has happened to his father Sangram Singh (Sohrab Modi). Sangram Singh is proud of Jehangir’s tradition of justice, and he is relieved when he hears Mangal’s story.
Uday Singh arrives at this point, bleeding badly, and demands an audience with Sangram Singh. He wants Sangram to turn over his son, but Sangram insists that they go to Jehangir and let justice take its course.
They debate over this for a while, Sangram trying to convince the enraged Uday Singh that it’s better to seek the emperor’s decision. But Mangal’s mother Shobha (Jilloo), listening from the next room, convinces Mangal to run. The two men hear him galloping away; Uday accuses Sangram Singh of engineering his son’s escape and storms out. I have to admit, I find the bloodthirsty old man hilarious.
Furious (and humiliated), Sangram Singh chastises his wife for her part in this drama.
Meanwhile, Uday Singh has made his way to the palace where Jehangir and his beloved Empress Noor Jehan (Naseem Banu) are playing chess in the zenana—with live women as chess pieces. It’s FAB.
They are interrupted when Uday Singh rings the bell of jusice, but he dies before Jehangir can get to him. Jehangir decides to investigate on his own, and tells his men to bring Ranjit Singh to him. Ranjit of course can’t come, so Kunwar is brought in front of the emperor and empress. She valiantly tries to protect her beloved Mangal by professing ignorance of anyone with a motive to kill her brother and father.
Her efforts are thwarted by Sangram Singh himself, who comes to tell Jehangir that his son is the culprit. He is confident that justice will prevail, and vows to find Mangal and bring him before the court. Jehangir reassures Kunwar that she will get justice for her father and brother:
The poor Rajput women in this film! The men pay them no heed at all, except to scold them. Noor Jehan asks Sangram Singh to take poor bereft Kunwar under his guardianship, since she now has no men to protect her. He agrees and Kunwar is happy with the arrangement too. A word about Naseem Banu here: her beauty is legendary, so I was curious to see her. She indeed was absolutely lovely, and in fact reminded me quite a bit of her daughter Saira—even their voices are similar (although somehow she wasn’t as annoying). Very fun indeed to see her!
Anyway, Mangal has fled to Delhi, where a friend has taken him in. He sends a messenger to let his parents know that he is all right and tells the messenger to ask at the dhobi colony for Rani, his family’s washerwoman. She will show him the way to Sangram Singh’s palace at Agra. This gives us a chance to see poor villagers at play; there is some sort of festival or something happening, and the dhobiwalas are trying to convince Rani to dance for them.
Hilarious! They tease her into dancing for them, and it’s fun to see the contrast between their easy ways and the rigid formality of the Mughal and Rajput palaces, where the woman are hidden at all times behind veils and curtains. Certainly it looks a bit more fun to be Rani than it does to be Kunwar or even Noor Jehan.
She takes the messenger to see Sangram Singh. The messenger is a tall glass of water!
He seriously towers over everyone and everything, and his poor head gets cut off in a few frames. Sangram Singh goes with him to Delhi to bring his son back. This engenders another hilarious little episode illustrating Rajput pride—Mangal’s friend Haider insists on living up to his Rajputian (is that a word?) duty as a host.
Haider attacks Sangram, wounding Mangal when he throws himself in between.
Not part of his stringent duty as host, apparently. I laugh and laugh, and have to wonder if this may be Modi’s way of taking the piss out of that macho code of honor and duty. This entertainment is what deprivation of subtitles costs me.
In any case (I know this is getting long) Jehangir finds himself unable to reconcile Mangal’s running away with his protestations of innocence, especially when Mangal’s excuse for running enrages him.
Well—apparently it is, because he finds Mangal guilty and sentences him to die at the end of the holy month, despite the pleas of Sangram Singh for mercy. Coming from Sohrab Modi as they do, those pleas are pretty eloquent too. Poor Sangram! He returns with the news to Kunwar and wife Shobha, who takes the opportunity to get a little of her own back at him.
(I think that theirs is not a happy marriage.) Kunwar sets off to see if she can convince Noor Jehan to plead with Jehangir on her behalf, passing washerwoman Rani (Sardar Akhtar) and the other washerfolk as she goes. They are singing and washing clothes at the river, and it looks so lovely and (relatively) carefree.
They see Kunwar’s carriage pass and figure out where she’s going. A discussion about a wife’s influence on her husband ensues, and it’s very cute.
In the zenana, the ladies in waiting are teasing the eunuch Bijli who is in charge. All this comic relief is nice and not at all CSP-like!
Then gorgeous Noor Jehan enters. I want to screen cap every frame, honestly. Her crown alone is to DIE for.
She is practising her archery skills from her balcony and philosophizing with her ladies when Kunwar arrives. She hears Kunwar out, and is clearly very sympathetic, but doesn’t give her much hope.
Kunwar leaves, and Noor Jehan continues her archery practice. Aiming at a flying bird, she lets an arrow fly—and it pierces the back of Rani’s washerman husband, killing him instantly.
Passing the river again on her way home, Kunwar hears the commotion of the wailing dhobiwalas and asks her coachman to find out what’s happened. The men tell him that an arrow from the palace has killed Ramu and Kunwar puts two and two together.
She races home to tell Sangram Singh. She is sure that Jehangir won’t be able to sentence his beloved Empress to death!
But are they underestimating Jehangir’s firm belief in his principles of law and justice? Or Noor Jehan’s in fairness and equity? She has gone to ask her husband for mercy for Mangal Singh, but despite a good effort hasn’t been able to change his mind about how rigidly the law should be applied.
His last words to her before Sangram Singh and Rani ring the bell of justice are to say that she’d better hope she never has to face his court:
Oh beautiful Jehangir! Oh beautiful Noor Jehan! You are certainly cornered now. The Empress is no less principled than her husband. Later she tries to give him courage.
Can you tell that I just can’t stop screen capping? Can Jehangir stick to his guns and sentence his beloved to death? Even if he can’t, will she let him get away with it?
Every frame is a marvel. Watching, it feels like you’ve traveled back in time to Jehangir’s Agra. The details are fascinating, and the story compelling. Some of the speeches go on a bit, but I didn’t get bored for one instant. In history, Jehangir is noted for his sense of fairness and for justice. This is a great story (fiction though it may be) explaining how he learned to temper justice with mercy.
And Chandramohan—my Chandramohan! I must find out more about you! (I did not need another thing (or person) to obsess over.)