Usne Kaha Tha (1960)

I am occasionally inclined to see a film simply because I adore one particular song of the film. Unfortunately, I score more hits than misses using this criterion. Saranga (1960) is a case in point—it has the classic Saranga teri yaad mein nain hue bechain (one of the few hit songs of Anu Malik’s father, Sardar Malik), but not much else. With Usne Kaha Tha, I had better luck. The lovely Aha rimjhim ke yeh pyaare-pyaare geet liye is a wonderful song, and the film itself is an interesting one.

Sunil Dutt and Nanda in Usne Kaha Tha

In a small town somewhere in Punjab, down a narrow street with a line of bricks forming a pathway through the dirt, live Nandu (I don’t know who this child actor is) and his widowed mother Paro (Durga Khote). Nandu is friends with the neighbour’s daughter Farida (Baby Farida), and Paro dotes on him, so all’s well.

Paro and Nandu

One day, Nandu meets the comely little Kamli (Baby Shobha), who’s come from Ambala with her mother (Sarita Devi) to stay for a while with her maternal uncle (no idea who this actor is) and aunt (Praveen Paul). Nandu saves Kamli from a runaway tonga, and they soon become bosom buddies—until one day Kamli abruptly returns to Ambala because her father’s ill.

Nandu and Kamli become friends

Years pass and World War II has begun. Nandu is now a big, noisy hulk of a man (Sunil Dutt) who spends his time carousing with his friends, the tongawallah Khairati (Rashid Khan) and Wazira (Rajendranath) and gang. He enters his rooster in cock fights and bets on just about anything (for example, how many glasses of lassi Khairati can drink at one sitting). Paro keeps the household running by taking in tailoring, even though her eyesight’s in a bad way, while Nandu goes gallivanting with his cronies.

Nandu with his pals Khairati and Wazira

One day, Nandu has a run-in with a tongawallah who’s trying to bring a tonga through a narrow lane. The tongawallah finally backs off, but not before the pretty girl (Nanda) sitting in the back has accused Nandu of being a hooligan. Nandu is inclined to pick a fight with her, but Wazira stops him.
What Nandu doesn’t know is that the girl is none other than Kamli, now come back, years later, with her widowed mother to stay with her uncle and aunt.

Kamli comes back to town

Nandu makes a killing with his rooster and wins a hefty sum, which he spends on buying a shawl and spectacles for Paro, and redeeming a necklace she’d pawned. Paro is proud and happy, but only until she discovers where he got the money from. She returns everything to Nandu, and he, seeing her disappointment, promises to turn over a new leaf.

Paro is horrified to discover the source of Nandu's new-found wealth

Nandu’s friend Wazira is as rakish as him, and has a weakness for shoes: show him a shoe, and he’ll steal it. In his attempt to better himself, Nandu stops Wazira from stealing shoes at the local temple, and as a result, again has a run-in with Kamli, who accuses him of having stolen her chappal. When Kamli leaves in a tonga, the tongawallah, Khairati, tells her who her nemesis is. Kamli suddenly feels much more kindly disposed towards Nandu.

Khairati tells Kamli that her opponent is Nandu

The next morning, Kamli uses the excuse of `a salwar to be stitched’ to visit Paro. Paro isn’t home, but Nandu is, and after some initial bantering and teasing on Nandu’s part, they become friends again…

Kamli comes to meet Paro - and meets Nandu instead

…and soon fall in love. Kamli’s best friend, Farida (Indrani Mukherjee, in her debut role) acts as go-between, chaperone, and bosom buddy rolled into one. Now follow idyllic days and evenings, mainly spent by the lake, at the local village fair, or in the forest, gaily singing songs.

Nandu and Kamli fall in love

But the joy can’t last, of course. Unknown to Kamli and Nandu, Kamli’s uncle is looking to use Kamli to make some money. He’s a sahukar (a moneylender), and one of his acquaintances (Asit Sen) suggests a way in which Kamli’s uncle can profit from the war. In exchange, he wants Kamli to marry the son of a subedar who’s looking for a good bahu for his son.

Kamli's uncle receives a proposal for Kamli

Paro, egged on by Nandu (and, like the two lovers, totally unaware) goes to meet Kamli’s uncle, asking for Kamli’s hand in marriage to Nandu. The uncle’s very nasty to Paro, and refuses to even harbour the thought of Kamli marrying Nandu. Nandu, says the uncle, is a ne’er-do-well, a good for nothing who lives off what his old mother earns. No, thank you; they’re not sending their beloved Kamli off into a home like that.

Paro goes to meet Kamli's uncle but is rebuffed

Paro is shaken, and once home, breaks down and tells Nandu all. Nandu, in a fit of humiliation (and sudden enlightenment; about time too!) decides to get a job. This gives him an idea:

Nandu sets out to find a job...

[Aside: Isn’t `nation’ an anachronism here? Since India was still a part of the British Empire, I’d have thought this would’ve been more along the lines of `for king and country’].

So Nandu goes off to the Punjab Regimental Training Centre, where he learns to be a soldier. Wazira’s also there, so Nandu isn’t without friends.

Nandu and Wazira at the Regimental Training Centre

It’s a tough six months, but at the end of it, Nandu comes home on three weeks’ leave, elated and excited. He’s bought a bunch of glass bangles for his beloved Kamli, and shortly after he returns, he goes to her house to give them to her—and discovers that Kamli is now engaged. Her uncle has used emotional blackmail—“I will commit suicide if you don’t marry this man, but don’t let that worry you,”—to get her to agree. Nandu is (well, what else?) shattered.

Kamli breaks the news to Nandu

Paro tries to comfort Nandu, but doesn’t succeed. The next morning, Nandu leaves to go back to his regiment, even though he’s still got plenty of leave left. Back at the regiment, he’s told to report to the havildar, Ram Singh (Tarun Bose). Ram Singh is about to go on leave to get married—he’s packing when Nandu arrives—and sends Nandu to the Commander. With Nandu gone, he turns back to his packing and casts one last, loving look at the photo of his bride-to-be.

Havildar Ram Singh looks at his fiancee's photo - Kamli

Will Nandu and Kamli be able to escape the bonds and barriers that society imposes, the duties they both have towards those they love and respect? Or will Kamli become a martyr to honour? And what effect will the war—now suddenly coming closer, with the Japanese having attacked Singapore—have on their lives?

Though Usne Kaha Tha suddenly turns serious in the second half and even descends into moments of melodrama, it’s still worth watching. Not a barrel of laughs—not by a mile—but with some fine acting and a good screenplay.

What I liked about this film:
Durga Khote. I’ve always liked her a lot, and in Usne Kaha Tha, she plays a substantial role, portraying very effectively the anguish of an aging woman who adores her son but has to stand helplessly by as he falls apart. She’s wonderful in this one: warm, stern, strong, and forgiving. One of her best performances.
Indrani Mukherjee. She’s perfect as the girlish Farida, charming and sweet, and with a not-quite-defined relationship with Nandu. Unlike countless other Hindi films where a supporting actress of this sort would be swiftly relegated to the role of a makeshift sister by tying a rakhi on the hero’s wrist, nothing of the sort happens here. And the way Farida cries when Nandu goes off to war… it makes you wonder.

Indrani Mukherjee as Farida in Usne Kaha Tha

Which brings me to one of the main reasons I found this film memorable: the characterisation is superb. Everybody’s very believable, not the one-dimensional cardboard figures all too often seen in Hindi cinema. Kamli’s uncle is not totally evil; Ram Singh is a good man; and everybody is shades of grey. I haven’t read the short story (by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri) on which the film was based, but I’m thinking I should try and get hold of it.
The verisimilitude of the film: the little touches that give it a firmly Punjabi feel; the obviously real scenes at the military training centre and later at the front: it’s all very believable (the Indian Army is listed in the credits). I’m also pretty sure some of the battle scenes are live footage.
The music, by one of my favourite composers, Salil Choudhary. Aha rimjhim ke yeh pyaare-pyaare geet liye is the best, but the other songs too are lovely.

What I didn’t like:
The fact that though the war is on, it doesn’t seem to really affect the lives of those in Nandu’s town. I’d have expected more obvious evidence that there was a war on: shortages, men going off to the front (and not returning), and so on. During the Second World War, the Indian Army reached a peak of 2.5 million men—the largest all-volunteer force in history—and Punjab was one of the provinces that sent a lot of men to war. Surely this should’ve been reflected earlier in the film than towards the end?
The last half hour. I can’t say more without giving away the plot, but it’s too unreal and too simplified a version of what can happen in battle.

This isn’t the film for you if you’re expecting lots of laughs. But despite the hiccups I’ve mentioned, it has a good story and a realistic feel to it. Worth a watch if you can bear to shed a few tears.


33 thoughts on “Usne Kaha Tha (1960)

  1. I looooove Guleri’s short story and have wanted to watch this one ever since I heard the name of the film (the story is also called Usne Kaha Tha). From your synopsis, it seems like the film has taken a few things from the story but isnt very similar. The story has a teenage romance cut short abruptly and then the adults meet during WWI when there is a memorable trench death scene. Dont want to spoil it for you, so I’ll say no more. But do read it – its cheesy and sentimental and very touching.

    Sunil Dutt+Nanda in the B/W days were awesome. Have you seen their Nartakee? Sunil Dutt makes such a pretty idealist – dunno why he got stuck in daaku-mode later!

    Your comment about the believable characters prompted me to check out the director. Its a Bimal Roy Production! No wonder things are waaaay better than in other contemporary movies. Thats one thing I’ve noticed in Bengali movies and Hindi movies made by Bengali producer-directors in the 50s and 60s. They avoid black and white villains/heros and unnecessary dramatics.


  2. You’ve really encouraged me to read the story – I’ve managed to get hold of an online English translation and will be off to read it once I’ve finished writing this! The death scene in this doesn’t happen in the trenches, but in a hospital – and yes, it is very touching.
    I recall a Sunil Dutt-Nanda starrer which I saw when I was a kid, and can’t for the life of me remember what it was all about, except perhaps that she was supposed to be a fallen woman or something. Was that Nartakee? And while we’re talking about Sunil Dutt in idealist mode: he’s so wonderful in Sadhana and Sujata!

    Yes, Bimal Roy Productions, and directed by Moni Bhattacharjee, so the fact that it’s subdued and understated shouldn’t come as a surprise. Have you seen Asit Sen’s Anokhi Raat? That’s another gem.


  3. O an en English version wont be the same! I love how the boy asks the girl, “Teri kudmai (engagement) ho gayi?” and the girl responds with a shy “dhhatt!” Wonder how it gets translated in English. The story was my father’s favorite and he’d preserved his Hindi textbook which had a copy – so all of us got to read it!

    Nanda was supposed to be fallen woman – a dancer no less (poor Nanda cant dance to save her life!) – in Nartakee who is saved from her fate by Sunil Dutt. He was great in Sujata, too (Bimal Roy, again) but I was really mad at his preachings (re “fallen” women) in Sadhana!

    I saw Anokhi Raat years ago and the only thing I remember is Zaheeda’s double role and Oh re taal mile. Just read your post and goodness – I do need to watch it again. I recently saw Asit Sen’s thriller Anari and loved it – so maybe I’ll forgive him for Safar! ;-)


  4. Yes, you’re so right. Even as I was reading it, I thought: I wonder how much I’m missing out on because of the translation! In the film, the dialogue is the same: “Teri kudmai ho gayi?” followed by the “Dhatt!” but the English translation completely misses the playfulness of the interaction – and God knows how much else. Must try and find the original…

    Maybe it’s too long since I saw Sadhana: I don’t remember the preachiness, I just remember Vyjyanthimala and that amazing song, Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko.

    I must add Anari to my list of must-sees! I love thrillers :-)


  5. oh, I have been waiting for a review of htis movie since a long long long time!
    I didn’t evne read it thro’, cause I wanted first to thank you for it.
    looking forward to reading!


  6. harvey, thank you for being such a support! Yes, Nanda is lovely, and Sunil Dutt is both handsome and intense – they are a great pair, really. And the film itself is the kind that can really sink into you.


  7. Bollyviewer: why do you define Anari as a thriller? Do you mean the one with Raj Kapoor and Nutan?
    nanda as a dancer? poor nanda! That reminds me of Jaya Bhaduri as dancer in Bawarchi *lol*. The solution is: a sitting dancer. But she was otherwise a fantastic actress.
    Yeah, lost in translation! That sure is a big problem. But thank god, for translations! Otherwise we would never have been able to read so many books.

    The hindi film history would have been a poorer place without Bimal Roy and his masterpieces!

    Durga Khote is my fav mom. She was not beautiful as she was young, but she really looks like a granny should! I don’t remember the name of the film, but there is this marathi film, where she plays the head of the family , goes on long rides on a donkey and eggs on the two lovers and thus brings two families together. A great natural actress. A pity that in hindi movies old actresses get only roles, where they can be eternally suffering mothers or be evil mother in laws.

    nanda looks so pretty. i remember seeing the song “machalti arzoo…” on you tube. She was so raw, she had a hard time not to blink because of the strong reflectors. But cute!

    As a child I always used to comment that Sunil Dutt has eye brows like those hairy caterpillars. Now I find them sexy. he was a great actor till he started this huffing like a train mode. I would have loved to see him in more comic roles like in Padosan not that Bhola type but something like Hrishikesh Mukherjee heroes like Prof. Tripathi.

    why do all the old women in the movie wear a saree and the younger ones salwar? I thought in Punjab (where I haven’t been), all ladies irrespective of their ages wear salwar.
    Another movie, where a similar problem arises is in Khushboo, where Hema Malini wears the saree bengali type, Farida Jalal like in N. India and Durga Khote (Jeetendra’s mother) wears the 5.5 yards ‘gol’ saree. and all are in the same village.

    Re.: What I didn’t like.
    Well, dustedoff, we can’t expect movies to have that much depth, can we? I mean they have all this things about couples separating, lover marrying your best friend (or something like that), MOTHER (!) alone and what not. How can anbody really think of War and its consequences? This is not a war docu! ;-)

    This sounds to be a movie at last to be put on my list: to watch!



  8. Thank you for reading! And I do agree – Sunil Dutt, despite his very hirsute eyebrows was great (well, I definitely prefer him to his son!). He did have a flair for comedy; Padosan was awesome, but I also liked him in Ek Phool Chaar Kaante. And Nanda… is Nanda. So pretty and sweet!

    By the way, all the women in this film wear salwar kurtas. If they look like they’re wearing saris in some of the screen caps, it’s because they’ve draped their dupattas over their heads. Kamli even gets married in a salwar-kurta.


  9. You know, I never noticed his bushy eyebrows – he was so good looking and so much the idealist in his B/W days that one tended not to focus on any drawbacks! In Sadhana he spends a lot of time preaching about how vaishyaas are incapable of love, or even respect, blah blah blah… And I just realised that I have his debut film (Platform with Nalini Jaywant) – cant wait to watch!

    Harvey, Asit Sen’s Anari (1975) was a thriller starring Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore, Kabir Bedi and Moushumi Chatterjee. The Raj Kapoor one was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film.


  10. Yeah, Platform is supposed to be great! Nalini Jaywant is an actress, I like a lot, except her sleepy eyes. Watch her emotions in the song “kaare badra tu na jaa” from Shikast
    Does anybody have house no. 44 with the haunting song: neend na mujhko aaye.

    u r right, concerning the salwar. have to look properly. since u r talking of the death scene, does it mean, it has a sad end? :-(

    bollyviewer: u r a treasure trove of hindi film knowledge. never heard of Anari with Shashi and such a cast!
    Sunil dutt and bushy eyebrows: I never appreciated male pulchritude in my chidlhood, u see and had a phobia for those itchy caterpillars, saw them practically everywhere. it was a biology phase of my life and always compared human resemblance to different plants and animals, like peanut head, brinjal smile and so on.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, isn’t Sunil Dutt’s preaching of *vaishyaas are incapable of love, or even respect*a nd blah, blah in the beginning/middle of the film. At the end he reforms, doesn’t he?


  11. I’ve been trying to get hold of House No. 44 – such amazing music. I especially love Teri duniya mein jeene se toh behtar hai…sublime. Re: Sadhana: yes, as far as I remember, he does reform in the end – bollyviewer I think has a better recollection of the film and may be able to answer. Or memsaab: she did a review of it not long back.

    You asked about the sad end: well, yes. I got a lump in my throat watching it.


  12. Love Nanda. Love Sunil. Love love love. I have House No. 44 but watched it long ago. It’s probably due for a rewatch.

    And yes Sunil redeems himself at the end of Sadhana :)


  13. your screen caps of sunil dutt and nanda are so beautiful. well, rather all of them are beautiful!
    had to read it again today, just love it.


  14. O, how foolish of me!
    House No. 44 is the movie with kalpana kartik and dev anand.
    the film which I meant was post box no. 999 with sunil dutt and shakila. Shakila was such a beautiful actress. A pity, she didn’t get more roles. Whatever happened to her?
    There is this another beautiful song from the movie “mere dil main hai ek baat”
    sunil dutt plays a detective! Wow!


  15. harvey, I’ve got to see this – Sunil Dutt as a detective? Wow! I’ve heard of Post Box No 999, but didn’t know the cast. And Shakila too? Lovely, lovely. I do like her a lot – she was so wonderful in CID, Nakli Nawab, and China Town – among others.


  16. Thank you for the warning! Maybe I will pluck up the courage someday and see it. After all, if I could sit through bilge like Ek Phool Do Maali and Parivar, then anything labelled “not bad” (even if the rest of the label is “not good either” is grist for my mill…


  17. Dear All
    I have House No. 44 in MP4 format, if anybody badly needs it. Not a good movie, but songs are great. And how did everybody forget the beautiful song ‘failee huyi hai sapanon ki bahen’ from it?


  18. I did mention in dad’s biography in memsaabstory how Sunil Dutt saved dad. I did not go into too much detail. Actually what happened was the scene required dad (Ram Singh) to limp along — he is supposed to be a wounded soldier — when an army tank comes from behind, just in time Dutt (Nandu) saves him and himself comes under the tank when Ram Singh asks him why he did this, he says “Usne Kaha Tha”, and dies implying that Ram Sing’s wife (Nanda) had requested him to take care of her husband. What actually happened on the day of the shooting was some assistant had signaled the tank to move earlier than he was supposed to and since the scene was a war scene there was a lot of noise of bombs and gunshots and dad could not here the tank moving he was engrossed in his act of limping along. After Mr.Dutt pushed him from harm’s way dad blissfully ignorant of what had happened wondered why Dutt was so rough with him. Nobody enlightened him because now they had to shoot the actual scene and they were afraid he would be nervous after such a close call. They just said we need another take. He came to know only after the shot was okayed.


  19. Thank you for that story, Shilpi! Yes, I’d read your account of how Sunil Dutt saved your father’s life in Usne Kaha Tha, but that additional detail makes it even more interesting. Whew! I can imagine what your father’s reaction must have been when he realised what a narrow escape he’d had!

    By the way, one of my readers suggested a few months back that I do a post on what I think are the most memorable scenes from classic Hindi cinema. I started thinking (I’ve still not finished), and of the first five scenes that immediately came to mind, one features your father. And his acting is the main reason that I remember that scene – it’s one of the very few scenes in Hindi cinema that can actually make me cry.

    Will send you the link once the post’s online.


  20. That is wonderful news, Shilpi! I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s very important to document stories, anecdotes, etc from behind the scenes and which show what people we know and like onscreen were like offscreen – often, as we’ve discovered in the case of your father, even so much likeable as a human being.

    Lovely. I will be waiting eagerly to your website for your father! :-)


  21. warning spoiler: Indrani as savitri ties a band on nandu’s arm, (note not his wrist) before he leaves her for the last time- would that signify friendship or something more.. nandu himself seem to suggest something from the words he tells her before he leaves
    it seems plausible that growing up with nandu just next door she would have some of that sort of that close feeling towards him.
    also nandus last words are the title of the film- did anyone understand it


    • Yes, Indrani Mukherjee’s relationship with Nandu was refreshingly different from the usual bhai-bahen that most Hindi films would have turned this into.

      Nandu’s last words (and the title of the film) are, at least from what I understood, an indication of how deeply he loves Kamli. So much that because she had told him to look out for her husband and to keep him safe, that is just what Nandu does – even at the cost of his own life, just because usne kaha tha (“she had said”).


  22. You said you did not know the name of the child actor who played Nandu in childhood. This is Sushil Kumar. He debuted in Dhool ka phool (1959), then in Shriman Satyawadi (1960), Sampoorna Ramayana (1961) as Lav, Reporter Raju (1962) as a child prince, Phool bane angarey (1963) as Ashish. I also watched him as a grown up actor in Dosti (1964), Taqdeer (1967)and Lav Kush (1967).


    • Thank you so much for that information! I have seen Dosti, but hadn’t realised that this was the same actor. Of course, now that you’ve told me, I can see a definite resemblance between him as a child and when he’s grown up a bit. Thanks!


  23. we were thought about this story with first line introduction that chandar dhar shamra guelri ji ney teen hi khaaniya likhi hai aur tino hi mashoor hain. even my mother said that unhoney teen hi khaaniya likhi hain. i find it true love story. sacha prem ki


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