It’s Labor Day here in the US and Canada, and let me tell you something: I have really labored for you guys. I recently got my hands on a very fragile and worn copy of Baburao and Sushila Rani Patel’s 1952 book called “Stars of the Indian Screen.” It features 36 actors and actresses, with a short biography of each accompanied by a gorgeous colored plate like the ones above. And though the book is credited as written by Sushila Rani Patel and edited by Baburao, the bios have Baburao’s trademark snark all over them, by which I mean they are awesome.
Here, daughter Shilpi reveals the real man behind the villains Tarun Bose played so convincingly!
The soft-hearted villain: that is what I call dad, soft-hearted being the literal translation of the Hindi ‘Naram Dil’.
He was a very affectionate man; he bestowed fatherly affection on everybody without discrimination. I once asked him, “What kind of role do you like playing the most?” “The villain; a villain’s role provides you with a greater scope to perform”, he said. But given his nature, it was not surprising that although he loved playing the villain, he hated roughing up his female co-stars or any of the child actors.
Hindi films are so aptly named much of the time! This one is unsubtitled but even I could tell that it is full of people paining and pining, although I am not always clear why. I don’t usually write up the unsubtitled movies I watch unless they are particularly interesting; this one is (at least to me), for several reasons. One is that Uma Devi, later known and beloved as comedienne Tun Tun, sings playback for actress Munawar Sultana. The songs were a big hit for her (composed by Naushad). The second is that it is a relatively early film for character actors who went on to have long careers in Hindi cinema: Protima Devi, Badri Prasad and one of my favorites Shyam Kumar. And also, except for Suraiya, I had not seen the lead actors—Munawar Sultana and Nusrat—so was just plain curious!
Had this been the first Hindi movie I ever watched, I would have slit my wrists before I ever let anyone convince me to watch another. It’s that bad. It’s bad in the worst possible sense, my worst nightmare: a Red Mist movie. It is characterized by that maudlin, useless self-sacrifice which makes even its recipients unhappy: “For the love of God, didi, please don’t sacrifice for me!” “I will I will I will, and you can’t stop me!” “But I don’t want you to, it’s making both of us miserable!” “I don’t care, it’s my duty and my karma!” “But it’s not necessary!” “I am sacrificing because I’m noble, it’s what I do! You can’t stop me!” “But you aren’t helping anything…” “It’s my sacrifice! I’ll cry if I want to!” and on and on and on and on.
The only bright spots in this—and they should have joined hands and said “RUN!” and gone off to make a different movie together—are Geeta Bali, Rehman and Ulhas. I couldn’t even like Pran (although of course that was his objective, as usual).
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.
One of the best things about Hindi movies for me is that they are a window into the growing pains—and hopes and joys—of a brand new nation. (I’m talking mostly about north India only since I don’t watch south Indian movies yet, but still. It’s there, in front of you.) Most cinema is reflective of its origins and time to some extent of course; but the timing of India’s independence, and the fledgling country’s tenacious adherence to specifically Indian traditions and issues, makes Hindi cinema particularly so (this is also true of the pre-independence period, although in a more veiled way). For this reason, I try to slog my way through the 1940s, although I find films from the era sometimes a little too melodramatic and preachy, and a little too song-saturated, to make it easy.
But I really enjoyed this one! It’s feminist! Chock-full of woman power, seriously! Sure, it’s heavy-handed (and laughably idealistic if one is a wee bit cynical), but it has such charm and youthful optimism (that same unknown cynic might call it naivete) that I got sucked right in. Plus, the incredibly young Dev Anand and Madan Puri are so…incredibly young!
In which film does my beloved Shammi Kapoor meet a gruesome death, when he climbs into a large urn to escape detection by his beloved’s father. Her father, suspecting that he’s hiding in there, orders the firewood underneath it to be lit, and he roasts to death as his spineless beloved sings a sad song (needless to say, not my favorite film; it breaks my Cardinal Rule Number One for Hindi films: Shammi should never ever die).