There is a lot to appreciate in this Bimal Roy production (Moni Bhattacharjee directs), but for me anyway not a lot to LOVE. It is meticulously crafted; I enjoyed the settings and portrayal of life in small-town India, but everything is so picture-postcard perfect that it began to get on my nerves (I like a bit of “messy”). Even the war scenes in the second half feel far too carefully arranged. In the long run, it somehow lacks the heart to really be a classic although it certainly looks like one; but it’s more a coffee-table book of pretty photographs than an engrossing movie. It didn’t help that the painstaking care taken over the characterizations, photography, songs and script was all in service of a complete downer of a plot! But I didn’t mind the gloomy story as much as I missed that intangible sense of life—it just wasn’t there.
Nandu (Sunil Dutt) is a happy-go-lucky type who has been spoiled rotten throughout his life by his widowed mother Paro (Durga Khote). He whiles his time away with things like cock-fighting, gambling and the occasional fist-fight, but his heart is in the right place. His friends include Khairati Chacha (Rashid Khan), a tonga driver; Vazira (Rajendranath) who has an obsession with stealing shoes; and Farida (lovely Indrani Mukherjee in her debut), his next door neighbor.
We are introduced to the beauty of a rural lifestyle through a lively tonga ditty (“Chalte Hi Jaana”). The music is by Salil Chowdhury and beautiful: every song (few as they are) is a gem.
Nandu’s childhood crush Kamli (Nanda) had left town after a very short acquaintance when they were still children. Now a pretty young woman, she returns with her widowed mother to live with her moneylender uncle and aunt (Praveen Paul). She and Nandu fail to recognize each other, and her first impression of adult Nandu is not favorable.
As much as his mother Paro dotes on him too, she is disapproving when Nandu brings her gifts bought with money he got through gambling. However they have that mother-son relationship which makes Indian men into such bad husbands: her scolding doesn’t have any effect on him and she quickly forgives him anyway, as he knows she will.
His reputation as a mischievous loafer doesn’t deter Kamli either from rekindling their all-to-brief childhood romance when she finally discovers who he is.
Their love story is furthered through two songs in quick succession: a very pretty Lata solo (“Machali Arzoo Khadi”) and a nice Lata-Talat Mahmoud duet (“Aha Rimjhim Ke Yeh Pyare”) picturized against idyllic bylanes, tidy huts, sprawling banyan trees, and neat-as-a-pin haystacks. So pretty!
But Kamli’s beauty has caught the eye of one of her uncle Lalaji’s friends (Asit Sen); he suggests to Lalaji that she would make a good bride for a young man he knows, who belongs to a wealthy family in a distant town. When Paro later brings a proposal to Lalaji for Nandu’s engagement to Kamli, he rejects it in no uncertain terms.
Paro returns home to castigate poor Nandu over his reputation (which is, to be fair, not that inaccurate) and tell him that Lalaji has refused him as a groom for Kamli. Stung AND heartbroken, he wanders out into the streets and sees his salvation in the form of a large recruitment poster.
He signs up and leaves his Ma weeping to go off to training camp, planning to make himself worthy of Kamli. Six months later he comes home on leave to discover that his Kamli—who had promised through friend Farida to wait for him—is now engaged to someone else. Greedy Lalaji has emotionally blackmailed her into accepting the enriching arranged marriage that his friend had suggested.
Devastated, Nandu returns to the army base immediately (leaving Ma, still weeping, behind) and reports in to his immediate superior (Tarun Bose).
Nandu’s superior officer is himself packing up for his own leave of absence to get married—to Kamli.
As Nandu sulks and picks fights with his fellow soldiers on the base, his commander gets married to Kamli and the evil Japanese begin advancing towards India. Nandu’s mother falls ill and he returns home once again to see her, but is called back when war begins in earnest.
Upon departure for the front with his unit, he discovers that his beloved Kamli is married to his superior officer. What happens when they go into battle together? Will anyone be happy by the end? (Here’s a hint: War Is Hell.)
Although I did shed a teeny tear or two towards the end and certainly found some moments throughout quite lovely, I was left feeling unsatisfied as a whole. It’s hard to pin down why, exactly; I think part of it was that the characterizations felt rushed and a bit shallow. We understand that Rajendranath’s character steals shoes ostensibly to sell them, but not really why (even drawing a salary in the army, he continues to pilfer footwear). I never truly get Farida’s relationship with Nandu either: what does she feel for him? or he for her? it isn’t drawn clearly or resolved in any way (resolution not always being necessary of course, but I would have liked it to be here). Also every scene felt very stylized to me, as if the director spent more time setting up the composition of the scene than thinking about what would happen IN it. Many shots could be made into paintings:
but ultimately all the nice aesthetics aren’t supported enough by emotional substance. The dvd print is really crystal clear, by the way—it seems that Bimal Roy and his heirs have taken good care of his work. Hooray for that!
Nanda looks beautiful, but doesn’t have much more to do than smile and look pretty or cry and look pretty. Sunil Dutt is adequate as Nandu, although somehow Nandu isn’t entirely likable for me—spoiled, sulky, prone to throwing tantrums. Durga Khote brings her all as usual to Paro, but the one person whose performance really stands out for me—although as I said her character remains sort of mysterious—is Indrani Mukherjee. Every time I see her I am struck by how beautiful she is: Waheeda Rehman beautiful!
I loved her in Aakhri Khat and she had a leading role in Dharmputra as well (although it was not a heroine-centric story), but I have not seen her in any leading roles beyond those two films. She seems to fall into that category of second-lead females, and later mother-type roles which is a pity. I’ll take recommendations for more of her!
Watch this for the lovely songs and beautiful settings, but if you want some good old heartfelt good-cry-inducing emotion look elsewhere.