This amazing film by Chetan Anand is one of the most unusual movies I’ve ever seen, and maybe the most heart-wrenching. It’s a masterpiece of story-telling; shot largely with a hand-held camera on the streets of Bombay, it follows a 15-month old toddler (Master Bunty—who is so chubby and endearing that he melted even my sticky black heart of non-maternal tar) as he wends his unsteady way in search of his mother, who has died. How Mr. Anand managed to direct a toddler so perfectly I’ll never know (and Bunty gets top billing in the film’s credits, most appropriately)!
It is also Rajesh Khanna’s first or second film, and he is superb, endowing his not entirely likable character with a humanity that makes you root for him, despite his flaws. The film is an indictment on a societal level of the indifference bred by modern urban life, and on a personal level of the wrongs inflicted by selfishness and pride. These points are hammered home by the focus on a little boy who can only say “Mama” and “milk” as he perseveres in his hopeless search.
The movie opens with Lajjo (a luminously beautiful Indrani Mukherjee) walking the streets of Bombay with her baby Buntu, begging for food and trying to soothe him. I should say here that whoever did the sound for the film deserves the highest kudos for his work. The background traffic noise, the sounds of people bustling about their everyday tasks, all overlaid with a jaunty, jazzy music track, lends an upbeat and modern air to the busy crowds, as the destitute mother and child wander unheeded through the city. Despite there being very little dialogue, it is gripping, and Lajjo and her baby are so vulnerable and appealing that I fall in love with them instantly.
Lajjo herself seems hardly old enough to be a mother, although her devotion to her child is obvious. She gives any food that she manages to get to her Buntu, and despite her ragged clothing he is clean and well-dressed.
The two are mostly ignored by passersby, although one evening a young, obviously wealthy young woman (Naqi Jehan) emerges from a nightclub and sees Lajjo standing in front. She starts to approach Lajjo, but Buntu falls and begins wailing and Lajjo scurries to comfort him. The woman stares at them for an instant; the contrast between her situation and Lajjo’s is stark.
We discover through flashbacks that Lajjo is from Kullu (in Himachal Pradesh) where, after losing her own mother at a very young age, she has grown up with a stepmother who mistreats her. A young sculptor vacationing there named Govind (Rajesh Khanna) sees her and falls instantly in love with her; really how could he not? I think Indrani Mukherjee is one of the most striking actresses in Hindi cinema.
It doesn’t take her long to reciprocate either (and really how could she not?).
Govind now lives in Bombay, and Lajjo lurks outside his home with Buntu, watching until he drives off. She leaves a letter in his mailbox and then leaves Buntu sitting on some steps nearby and starts to walk away. She’s unable to go through with it, though, and runs back to gather him up in her arms.
Later, as they play hide-and-seek together by the sea, it’s evident that she has a serious illness (it’s never explained, but appears to be a heart ailment). As Buntu plays amidst the litter and dirt, she struggles for breath.
At his home, Govind finds the letter and is furious with his manservant Moti (Mohan Choti).
She has left several letters already, and there is something clearly wrong in her relationship with him. She tells him in the letter that she is dying of the same ailment which killed her mother, and that she hasn’t got much time left.
Agitated, Govind goes to the police to ask them to search for her. At the station, Inspector Naik (Manvendra Chitnis) takes his statement and asks if he has a photo of the missing girl. He is somewhat exasperated at Govind’s negative response—how is he supposed to find her if he has no idea what she looks like? Govind responds that he has made a statue of her, and Naik can use a photo of that. Intrigued by the strange case, Naik goes with him to his studio and photographs the semi-nude statute of Lajjo. He doesn’t have the highest opinion of handsome Govind, and Govind makes no effort to defend himself.
Meanwhile, Lajjo sits by the sea as Buntu plays on the sand near her. She loses herself in memories again, and we are taken to her small wedding with Govind: just the two of them exchanging vows in a small temple, alone. Oh honey! You should really know better than that! Plus, the vows strike me as being a little…um…one-sided?
They spend the night together, and we are treated to a very lovely song indeed: “Aur Kuch Der Thahar”. The songs (there are only five, and one is shamefully edited out of the DVD—curse you Eagle Home Entertainment!) were composed by Khaiyyam and luckily for me are subtitled, as Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics are as beautiful as the music. I cannot emphasize enough how gorgeous they are; if you aren’t familiar with them do look them up online.
Lajjo awakens from her reverie to find Buntu gone—hey, she’s ill and all alone, what’s a poor mother to do? I can’t get mad at her, truthfully, although by this time Buntu is wandering through traffic and being given sweets by random (though kindly) strangers.
Lajjo begins a desperate search for Buntu, running and shouting his name. This exertion proves to be her undoing, and she collapses and dies. A crowd gathers (too late!) and her shrouded body is loaded into an ambulance as little Buntu toddles past unnoticed.
Inspector Naik notifies Govind that Lajjo has been found. There is a note on her body asking that her child be taken to Govind, but of course there was no child near her. Govind is clearly heartbroken at the sight of Lajjo.
He is also desperate to find Lajjo’s child, convinced now that he is his son. He enlists the help of Moti and sympathetic Naik, and spends hours driving the streets, searching.
When he blows up in a frustrated rage at the police station, Naik points out the obvious: they don’t even know what the little guy looks like and have no picture of him.
Inspector Naik may well be my favorite character in this film. He is irritated by what he perceives as Govind’s role in this whole tragedy, but can’t help feeling drawn towards him and his predicament. He’s a good guy who is also worried about little Buntu, although he has no idea how they will ever find him.
The odds do seem insurmountable! Buntu continues to search for his mother, crying “Mama” at intervals. Very few people take notice of him, and those who do, do not want to burden themselves by getting involved with this child who is clearly alone. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
The black and white photography (Jal Mistry) is beautiful; and the camera work, following Buntu with a sort of point-of-view feel as it does, is riveting. I feel compelled to watch as the child blunders along railway tracks and across busy roads, eats whatever he can find off the ground, plays with a hapless little kitten. On Diwali, parents and children play with firecrackers as a frightened Buntu cries, until he finds a sparkler of his own.
At night, he sleeps wherever he drops, until he is startled awake by the random noises of his urban environment. I can literally feel my hair turning grayer as I fret over him. It’s not all gloom and doom—he finds his way into a temple one day, and helps himself to the laddoos left as offerings there. He’s a chubby little Krishna, stealing butter, and my own heart turns into ghee.
Tun Tun makes a small cameo as an angry mother protecting her child from poor Moti’s questions.
And as Naik continues to help Govind search, he begins to question Govind about Lajjo. What happened between them, that Lajjo ended up alone with Buntu on the streets of Bombay, afraid or unwilling to face Govind? Will they be able to find Buntu? Can he survive the dangers that surround him at every turn?
I think—hope, even—that Eagle’s DVD editing did the story an injustice by ruining the flow somewhat. The second half has some holes and a seemingly pivotal role (that of Govind’s friend Rajni) seems to have been deleted almost entirely. Also, as I said earlier, a song has been cut—tragedy! Hopefully one day I can see this in its intact form, because even with this bit of butchering it deserves to be called a classic.
Despite some very grim moments—I sobbed, to be honest—it is amazing. The performances are wonderful: Rajesh is great as the imperfect Govind, Indrani Mukherjee shines as the ill-fated young mother, and I loved Inspector Naik. His was the voice of conscience throughout, and thank goodness for it. But little Master Bunty stole the film—and my heart—away.