Oh, how I loved this film—right up to the sad, sad end. It’s a tragedy drawn from a story in the Shahnameh epic of Persia, and it vividly portrays the disastrous consequences that lies and deception (not to mention violence, war, vengeance) can bring. Now, I am not a fan of tragedies generally (although I’m totally on board with the message), but the story is not what I loved this film for anyhow. True confession: Prithviraj Kapoor, in his mid-fifties here, is amazingly sexy. His romance with Suraiya is sweet and touching, and he towers literally and figuratively as the legendary larger-than-life strong-man of the Persian emperors. Plus, he looks like Shammi, never ever a bad thing!.
Besides the formidable charisma of Prithviraj, there is a cracktastic assortment of villains populating a region where even table servants wear helmets to protect themselves from their cruel masters. Premnath, also aging, somehow also manages to pull off a hero act opposite a very young and gorgeous Mumtaz; and the film features some absolutely sublime songs from music director Sajjad Hussain. These include one of my all-time favorites: “Phir Tumhaari Yaad Aayi.” All these things, combined with wonderful sets and costumes, make for total full-on paisa vasool.
The film opens as the elderly Shah of Iran (it was Persia back then, but it’s Iran throughout the movie) on his deathbed, extracting a promise from faithful Rustom that he will take care of the new emperor, and the whole country as well.
A tall order for most, but not for Rustom!
He enjoys hunting in the nearby country of Samangan on his beautiful (really beautiful) and faithful steed Raksh. One day, he comes across the Shehzadi Tehmina (Suraiya) whose entourage is unable to continue its journey because a tree has fallen across the road. He picks the tree up and moves it, impressing everyone including the haughty princess. When she tries to pay him for his trouble, he bends the coin she gives him in half and gives it back.
Days pass and she moons over him in her palace, wearing the bent coin as a ring. She tries to get her loyal servant Karlos (Azad) to bend another one for her, but he fails miserably. For those of you who are not old enough to be as impressed by the mature Prithviraj as I (or should that be mature enough to appreciate the old Prithviraj), Karlos is a fine alternative!
She finally instructs Karlos to go and steal Rustom’s beloved horse, knowing that Rustom will come after Raksh. This strategy works like a charm and Rustom bursts into the palace one evening as everyone is having dinner (Rustom never knocks, he just breaks down doors). Whatta man!
Tehmina’s father the King assures Rustom that they will help him find his horse (he’s unaware of his daughter’s ruse and her motivations) and invites him to stay the night as a guest. Tehmina poses as a servant and plays a song for Rustom in his room after dinner. He spots the ring she’s wearing and remembers the coin incident. I also always wonder if veils in real history were as transparent as they are in movies, because I don’t see how they can fool anyone.
Later, when he calls for his clothes after his bath, he sees the ring again on the hand that brings them. Yes, this is just gratuitous:
When she appears in his room again that night, he lets her know that he has recognized her. She confesses all, and it’s a surprisingly moving and tender scene.
Duty first, Sita last! Although he appears to reciprocate her feelings, he makes preparations to leave the next morning; he tells her that in addition to duty, he worries that marrying her would put her in harm’s way. But she’s confident he can protect her, and he caves.
Hooray!!!! They are married and Rustom stays on in Samangan.
Meanwhile, back in Iran, danger is looming in the form of the King of Mazandarer. Mazandarer is the country I spoke of earlier; it is full of bald, beefy men with Arabian Nights Facial Hair who feed off steroids and ginormous meaty drumsticks, and communicate by roaring and grunting. Arrrrrrrr!
The King himself (Murad) looks like nothing so much as a demented old bag lady wearing a bib, a vividly patterned nightgown, and a helmet.
The big pearl earrings don’t help any (or hurt, either, I guess). I am enchanted by this ill assortment of freakish characters.
Anyway, Mazandarer has been told by his astrologer that he will die at the hands of Rustom. Surrounding himself with glaring henchmen, he flees to his friend King Afsayed of Turannak’s palace for shelter. Afsayed’s son the Prince is as insulted as Mazandarer’s guards at the thought of Rustom defeating him, and he suggests they lure Rustom to Mazandarer by kidnapping the Emperor of Iran—Rustom will surely come to rescue him. Everyone is pleased by this idea (except possibly Mazandarer).
The Prince travels to Iran disguised as a poet, where he gets an audience with the young Shah and sings a song extolling the beauties of the land of Mazandarer. As planned, this engenders a desire in the Shah to see such a wonderful place, and he travels willingly with the Prince to the border—where he is totally unimpressed.
It gets no better when he and his accompanying retinue of soldiers are all arrested and brought to Mazandarer’s palace.
The dungeon-master is an evil and sadistic (and bald, with Arabian Nights Facial Hair!) man with an assortment of spiky and smoking hot (in the literal sense) instruments of torture and death. The Shah is hung up in chains and they cruelly try to force him to say “Mazandarer zindabad!” to which he always replies “Iran zindabad!” like a loyal emperor should.
In Samangan, Rustom is teasing his wife, blissfully unaware of these events unfolding. Her lady-in-waiting Huma (the lovely Lillian) chastises him for playing a little too rough. Let me tell you, lifting Suraiya could not have been easy at this point in her life.
He is thrilled to discover that he’s about to become a father, but Tehmina’s worst nightmare is about to come true. Messengers from Iran arrive with a summons for Rustom to rescue their Shah, and he has to go. Duty first, Sita last! It’s very sad.
Off he goes on trusty Raksh to rescue his emperor, leaving poor Tehmina prostrate with grief. In Mazandarer, the king and his men prepare for Rustom’s arrival.
Their armor and scary weapons prove no match for Rustom’s brawn. He rather easily overcomes all of them, killing the king and rescuing the Shah (still muttering “Iran zindabad!”). When the Prince of Turannak rides to meet Rustom himself, his father King Afsayed begs him to reconsider. But the Prince is arrogant and determined to pick a fight with Rustom; it’s a fight he doesn’t win either. Afsayed is devastated by grief when his son’s body is returned to him:
Ummm…now you are! Gossip travels fast in these parts too, it seems:
He swears to avenge himself by killing Rustom’s child, but first he has to find him. He sets off for Samangan but Tehmina’s father sends her with her infant son and loyal servants to a secret place hidden in the forest. Thwarted, Afsayed begins waging a war on Iran to keep Rustom distracted while he has his soldiers search Samangan for Rustom’s son Sohrab. Tehmina decides to keep his father’s name a secret from her son to keep him out of danger.
Over the years, Rustom is kept busy by Afsayed’s army and is never able to return to Samangan, although he sends a man when he can to keep him informed of Sohrab’s progress (he is not informed that his son is growing up to resemble a Manic Pixie Dream Girl).
Sohrab (Premnath) is raised in the forest and becomes as strong and adept at fighting (and uprooting trees) as his Dad—but no matter how he begs, nobody will tell him who that is. He also falls in love with Shahru (Mumtaz), and really who can blame him?
Afsayed’s men are still combing Samangan for Sohrab, though, and one day they finally come across him. He freaks out when a soldier asks him who his father is. One of the smarter ones spots the amulet he wears on his arm.
Oh no! Afsayed has more than enough ammunition to put a plan in motion now. He arranges to have Shahru kidnapped, and as planned Sohrab comes riding to her rescue. Afsayed pretends to be angry with his soldiers, apologizes, and invites Sohrab and Shahru to stay with him.
We are all entertained at this point by a gori dancer who wriggles her way around Sohrab in a lamé fringed dress, enraging Shahru. Sohrab seems pleased by the attention, which emboldens the dancer so that she starts slapping Shahru in the face with her skirt fringe. Sohrab is less pleased by this development and throws her to the ground, whereupon some male dancers in blackface and weird afro wigs enter and jump around shouting “Hey! Hey! Hey!”
It’s cracktastic! The gori girl gets back in Sohrab’s good graces, irritating Shahru, and the whole thing ends in a bitch-slapping brawl between the two women. How men do love a catfight. (Also, I feel I should root for the representative of my people, but I can’t—I root for Mumtaz instead.)
Too hilarious. Afsayeb now looks at the amulet on Sohrab’s arm and pretends to faint. When he comes to, he tells Sohrab that Sohrab’s father was his best friend. Sohrab, hungry for any information about his father, is horrified to learn that he is dead, murdered. He “forces” the truth from Afsayed:
Sohrab vows to kill Rustom, and Afsayeb puts his army at Sohrab’s disposal. This is where one of my favorite songs of any Hindi film comes in, as Sohrab thinks about his beloved on the eve of setting out to do battle with Rustom. Raja provided a translation of it in the comments of my last post if you are interested, and you can find it here on Atul’s blog as well. Do watch it: it’s just one of the loveliest songs EVER. Sajjad Hussain zindabad!
And the film…well, if it’s possible, I am as smitten with Prithviraj as I am with Shammi. The story, and the treatment—sets, costumes, over-the-top villains, Murad! My god, Murad—is so entertaining that I was positively glued to my chair. I know I overdid the screen caps here, but believe me—I edited. It’s a sad ending, as I said, and I always prefer a happy one; but the message about truth (and non-violence) would have been lost in a happy ending, so I am resigned to it. Plus, the journey there was so much fun.