There are some films I see because of the people who act in them (Shammi Kapoor, Asha Parekh, Mumtaz, Dharmendra, etc). Some I see because of the people who direct them (Guru Dutt, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla). Some—relatively few—I see simply because of the music (Parasmani, Aah, Saranga—pretty awful otherwise, but great music).
And then there are some I see because they’re a bit of it all. Like Kabuliwala. The story’s by Rabindranath Tagore, it’s produced by Bimal Roy (directed by Hemen Gupta), it stars Balraj Sahni, and it has one of the loveliest patriotic songs I’ve ever heard: Ae mere pyaare watan.
I first read Kabuliwala when I was a kid; the story was in one of my school textbooks. It’s a simple, bitter-sweet, sad but yet eventually hopeful tale of the love between a little girl and a Pathan. Tagore’s work was a short story, but it’s built up deftly into a film, with believable characters (who fortunately don’t detract from the original story) and a gentle, quiet pace that retains the simplicity of the tale.
It begins in Afghanistan, where a poor Pathan, Abdur Rahman Khan (Balraj Sahni) lives with his old mother and his little daughter Ameena (Baby Farida). Khan is a widower and has had to mortgage his land and home to pay for the treatment of Ameena, who’s just recovered from a long illness. Khan realises that the only way he can earn money to pay off his debts is to travel to India and take up some trade there.
Ameena insists she will go along with her father to India, so her grandmother advises Khan to leave at night while Ameena’s asleep. Khan takes a memory of Ameena with him: an imprint of her little hands on a piece of paper.
Many days and many miles later, Khan arrives in Calcutta and begins peddling wares he’s brought from his homeland: almonds, fruit, and shawls. The local children regard him as a bogeyman of sorts, but Mini (Sonu) is more curious. Khan is reminded of Ameena, and warms to the little girl instantly. He plies her with goodies from his sack (which Mini is sure he uses to bag little children!), and Mini soon overcomes her fear of the Kabuliwala.
Mini’s father (Sajjan, in a very likeable departure from villainous roles in films like April Fool and Farz) is kindly disposed towards Khan, and sees no reason to stop Mini befriending him. Mini’s mother Rama (Usha Kiran), is however not at all pleased. Like their paranoid servant Bhola (Asit Sen), she’s scared that Khan will kidnap Mini.
But the friendship between Khan and Mini develops quickly; he adores the little girl, and when she informs him that her birthday is round the corner, he promises to buy her bangles as a gift. Rama, protective and tetchy, insists that Khan be shooed away. Mini’s father, though embarrassed, complies and Khan (obviously hurt but acquiescent) goes off.
[Aside: Though this doesn’t add much to the story, I’m putting it in here for the sake of this screen cap: it’s adorable. At Mini’s birthday party, three little boys play music while Mini dances. Very cute!]
Nobody realises that Mini’s missed Khan terribly, and has kept aside a share of her birthday sweets for him. The next day, when he still doesn’t turn up, she goes off looking for him.
When Mini’s absence is noticed, the household swiftly reaches a state of near-panic. Rama is certain Khan’s kidnapped her daughter. Mini’s father goes rushing off to the neighbour’s, to the house of the doctor (Tarun Bose) and others, looking for his daughter. Khan has overheard that Mini’s gone missing, and he sets off to search for her on his own.
It’s begun pouring with rain in the meantime, and Khan takes shelter in a pavilion. When the rain finally stops, he discovers Mini lying asleep—drenched—under the staircase leading up to the pavilion. Bhola (how I want to throttle this man!) has been telling everybody that the Pathan’s abducted poor Mini, and now, when he sees Khan with Mini in his arms, he raises the alarm.
Khan is thrashed by a mob, but Mini’s father, who arrives just in time, manages to rescue him. Mini, now burning with fever, is taken home. The doctor is fetched. He gives her medicine, but is worried: she’s critically ill. Khan, who discovers the truth from Mini’s father, is distraught. Mini’s father, looking out, sees the Pathan on the pavement opposite their home, praying for Mini’s life. Khan keeps up an all-night vigil on the pavement, and next morning—when Mini is much better—comes to say hello to her from the window.
But trouble erupts all of a sudden a few days later. Khan has sold some goods on credit, including a relatively expensive shawl. When he goes to the owner’s home to demand payment, the man denies having bought anything from Khan. A quarrel breaks out. Khan loses his temper, pulls out a dagger, and stabs the man—and is immediately arrested.
This isn’t one of those films that rely on a mind-blowing plot and sudden twists in the tale. Not much actually happens, when you come to think of it. It’s a simple story, but well depicted and highly recommended. And yes, this is one of the very few films that can actually give me a lump in the throat.
What I liked about this film:
The setting. It very effectively brings to life Calcutta in a slower, quieter era when little girls wore saris, when the portrait of King George hung in courtrooms, and when people had the time to sit and chat with a child about imaginary elephants.
The characters. Sahni’s Abdur Rahman is of course very good, but the two other characters I was very impressed with were Mini and her father. Sonu is believable, not insufferably cute like a lot of other child actors tend to be. Sajjan, quiet, sensitive, yet with a sense of humour, is perfect as her father—and their interactions, with Mini sitting under his table as he plods away at the novel he’s writing—are to be treasured.
Ae mere pyaare watan. One of Manna Dey’s best ever songs, in my opinion: it gives me gooseflesh. The music, by the way, is by Salil Choudhary.
What I didn’t like:
Sahni is an excellent actor, but I think he overdid the jovial Pathan act in some scenes. He’s best where he’s restrained: the scene where he presses the sleeping Ameena’s hands to a sheet of paper is hauntingly touching.
Little bit of trivia:
Bimal Roy billed this as his `homage to Guru Dev’; the film was made for Rabindranath Tagore’s centenary, in 1961.