This is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen. Some parts of it left me with rounded eyes and a “WTF” bubble over my head, and some of it just made me angry; all of it left me feeling like I had just sat through ten years’ worth of Ekta Mata serial plotting in just two hours. My impression is that Sohrab Modi had some serious personal problems at the time he made this, and brought them all on set with him. His Jailor is a deranged man in need of medication and a padded cell, for his own sake and that of those around him. It’s dark, bewildering, and messy, and made me want to run screaming.
Madan Mohan’s music is beautiful, in particular the haunting “Life is Like a Punishment” (as “Bas Ek Saza Hi To Hai Zindagi” is subtitled). And Geeta Bali eventually enters like a breath of fresh air (as she is meant to). Plus, a court ruling that is actually rational, and the Indian Stevie Wonder!
But still: bas ek saza hi to hai yeh fillum.
Dilip (Sohrab Modi) is a Jailor by profession, a man with an imposing voice and scarred face. He lives with his wife Kanwal (Kamini Kaushal) and their daughter Bali (Daisy Irani) in a home that greatly resembles a mausoleum. He and Kanwal dote on their little girl, but their own relationship is strained. Kanwal is spoiled and bored, and irritated by the constraints that Dilip tries to impose on her late nights at clubs and parties.
Despite his unhappy marriage, Dilip is respected at work and kindly towards the prisoners (nicer to them in fact than he is to his wife, although I think we are supposed to feel that it’s her fault). On his way there one morning, he stops a young man (?) from committing suicide. In desperation the man has stolen 200 Rs from his employer, and now he is afraid that his blind sister—whom he loves more than life—will find out. Dilip points out the obvious flaw in his thinking.
He gives the young man 200 Rs. and tells him to return it before his employer discovers that the money is gone. At the prison, one of the guards (Uma Dutt) is chastizing the prisoners for singing (the lovely aforementioned “Bas Ek Saza Hi To Hai Zindagi”). Dilip defuses the situation and saves the guard’s face by saying that of course the prisoners can sing, but they should get the guard’s permission first.
Elsewhere the young man is caught as he tries to return his employer’s money, and arrested. And Kanwal frets at home, waiting for Dr. Ramesh (Abhi Bhattacharya)—the man she loved before she got married—to come and see her. When he does, she begs him to rescue her from her desperate unhappiness. Ramesh is somewhat reluctant but finally agrees. When Dilip returns home to find her gone, servant Bansi tells him that Kanwal left with the Doctor. Worried that she is ill, Dilip calls Ramesh’s house and Kanwal tells him she is never coming back.
Infuriated, he grabs his pistol—but before he can leave the house his daughter comes running. Realizing that if he kills Kanwal young Bali will be left with nobody, he does the next best thing (NOT). I roll my eyes and feel a sense of impending doom.
And indeed, we are now flogged interminably with examples of how Kanwal’s perfidy has destroyed her husband. He yells at the guards and is cruel to the prisoners, who now include Prem, the young suicidal man. This abrupt about-face in character makes Dilip scary and unstable and turns the tide of my sympathies to Kanwal. I don’t think this was the intent, but it was my natural reaction.
Kanwal and Ramesh are having a tough time of it too, as society judges them and finds them morally lacking…over and over and over again. They try hard to maintain their cheer, but it wears them down. We do get a fun song and dance courtesy of Lillian to break the monotony—it’s not really enough.
Eventually our steady stream of mid-level misery is amped up to high by a car accident which blinds Ramesh and scars Kanwal—a scar which mirrors that of her husband, making him positively gleeful when he comes to get her.
His cruelty continues after he takes Kanwal home. He locks her up in a downstairs room, refusing to let her see Bali who is still mourning her mother’s “death.”
Meanwhile blind Ramesh is wandering the streets until he stumbles into a temple, where the beautiful—and also blind—Chhaya (Geeta Bali) is singing a lovely bhajan (“Mujh Hi Mein Chhup Kar”).
He starts singing with her (it is really a gorgeous Asha-Rafi duet) (and it’s pretty clear to me that he’s singing to her and not to God, as she is). It’s love at first sound for both.
They bond further over their shared blindness, and Ramesh assures her that he will be staying in the temple itself since he no longer has a home (I guess because he’s a sinner, and his blindness has done his profession as a doctor no favors). She is pleased to hear it, but an eavesdropping local named Choudhary (Nana Palsikar) who wants Chhaya for himself is furious.
At home, Dilip continues to torture Kanwal. He brings home a photograph album of handsome men for her to “judge” and continues to taunt her despite her chastened and humble state. She begs him for forgiveness, but he is a bitter, bitter man.
I think some of the speeches that he makes defending his attitude are badly subtitled, because they seem rambling and disjointed to me. But his actions make no sense either; his behavior in general is completely deplorable. His old housekeeper Jamuna (Protima Devi) and servant Bansi plead with him for some mercy, but he is implacable.
In town, Choudhary has decided to punish the priest for sheltering Ramesh, and to that end holds a dance performance next to the temple. People naturally are drawn to the dance—but Ramesh saves the day (and their souls) by singing another impassioned bhajan. At the end even the sinful dance troupe are entering the temple with folded hands. Chhaya is thrilled by Ramesh’s voice and by his goodness.
Forgiveness is still in short supply in Dilip’s household, and now Bali falls ill. Events escalate rapidly as Kanwal begs Dilip to let her see Bali and he continues to refuse. When he eventually relents, it is too late: Kanwal has killed herself (a scene which is cut from the film, creating great confusion for a few minutes). Bali then dies as well, and he is left with two funeral pyres. I don’t feel in the least sorry for him, and I’m glad to see Bali go too: she was one of those shrill, bratty children that results from no discipline and a surfeit of indulgence.
The Jailor himself reacts to all this tragedy by suddenly returning to his Kind Dilip self, acting like he was never anything different. I am not the only one who thinks this is completely psycho.
Ramesh and Chhaya are separated by Choudhary’s jealous machinations. And now that Dilip is being nice to people again, he bails out young Prem the would-be suicide. Prem arrives home to find his sister—our Chhaya—being attacked by Choudhary. He kills Choudhary and then runs to Dilip’s house to turn himself in (without even speaking to Chhaya first).
He asks Dilip to please take care of his blind, helpless sister and goes willingly back to jail.
So the Jailor takes pretty Chhaya under his wing and soon falls for her sweet nature and beauty. He takes her to an eye surgeon, who says he can restore her vision. But Chhaya—as much as she likes Kind Dilip (she hasn’t met Cruel Dilip)—is pining for her Ramesh. Where is he? Will she find him? Will the Jailor go insane again when he discovers whom Chhaya loves? Will Chhaya be horrified at the sight of Dilip’s ugly face?
If you really want to know, ask me. Don’t sit through Jailor unless you enjoy being tortured by a maniacal bi-polar hero and a bunch of suffering people trying to convey a message that makes no sense. I do highly recommend the songs, and Geeta managed to transcend the dreck she was in here, as she always did. But it’s not enough to save this punishment of a movie.