Bhabhi (1957)

I made such a mistake doing a Westward the Women post for International Women’s Day. Granted, it’s a good film, and highly recommended—but does it really teach a woman anything substantial? Knowing how to harness a mule or drive a wagon isn’t all there is to life. So here’s compensation: a film replete with lessons for women (and men, too). There are do’s and don’ts for just about any situation in life, including—though never stated—filmmaking.

Pandari Bai in Bhabhi

Bhabhi begins at an old man’s deathbed. He’s attended by his weeping sister (Durga Khote) and his eldest son Ratanlal (no idea who this actor is). Ratan has three younger brothers—Ramesh, Rajan and Baldev `Billu’—all of whom his father leaves in Ratan’s care, along with a debt of Rs 1,000, for which their home has been mortgaged. The father pops off, but when Ratan goes to the creditor, a lawyer named Motilal (Bipin Gupta), to promise to pay off the debt, Motilal insists the money was given as a loan. He is kindness itself and offers to help when Ratan expresses a desire to begin a small business.

After his father's death, Ratan goes to meet Motilal

Armed with a letter of recommendation from Motilal, Ratan goes to a cloth merchant in Mysore. He is received with even more kindness, and soon begins hawking cloth from door to door.
Years pass. Ratan (now Balraj Sahni) is a successful and wealthy cloth merchant. Ramesh (Jawahar Kaul) is on the way to becoming a lawyer, and Rajan (Raja Gosavi) will be, as Ratan puts it, `in just a few days’, a doctor. Billu (Jagdeep) is studying in college, and Ratan—a widower—is trying unsuccessfully to bring up his motherless infant.

Ratanlal grows rich, under the benevolent eye of his dead father...

The obvious solution is for Ratan to remarry. His new bride is Shanta (Pandari Bai), a college-educated woman who, on discovering that Ratan left off his schooling after his father’s death, hides the extent of her own education. Lesson #1: A woman cannot be more educated than her husband. Even if she is, she can be considered a dutiful wife only if she pretends to be less educated.
Fortunately for Ratan, baby and household, Shanta is loving (cloyingly so), maternal and a homebody.

Shanta takes to Mithoo

Some years have passed. Ratan’s son, Mithoo (Daisy Irani) is now about six years old. Shanta and Ratan don’t have any children of their own. Lesson #2: A truly virtuous second wife won’t have any offspring who may possibly distract her from lavishing her affections on any stepchildren she may have.
Ratan’s siblings, however, have made little progress. Ramesh has just qualified as a lawyer; Rajan is still working to be a doctor; and Billu’s still in college. From what I can tell, this is a singularly dumb family. Shanta’s cousin Lata (Nanda) who lives with them, seems to think so, at least of Billu: she sings Tie lagaake maana ban gaye janaab hero to him. Lata, by the way, was married and widowed as a child; she doesn’t even remember being married, and is a bundle of pranks.

Lata teases the no-good Billu

Ratan’s employee Munshiram (Shivraj) comes to Ratan with a request for a loan—he wants to get his daughter Mangala (Nalini? Don’t know) married. Ratan offers a happy solution: Ramesh will marry her. But Ramesh is in love with Motilal’s daughter Tara (Shyama, looking gorgeous). What’s more, Motilal approves of the match. Lesson #3: As an eldest sibling, you can boss around your younger brothers and sisters to the extent of deciding whom they’ll marry—without even considering asking them first. [I’m not an older sibling, so can’t get to try this, sadly].

Ramesh romances Tara

Caught in a dilemma, Ratan conjures up another solution. (This guy is good at thinking on his feet). Rajan, the brother labouring to be a doctor, will marry Mangala. Lesson #4: Read lesson #3, above. Ditto. (Maybe I should rename this lesson #3a).
Anyway, Mangala seems quite content to find herself suddenly engaged to someone different. Lesson #4 (really 4): A good woman quietly accepts whoever she’s told to marry—even if her bridegroom changes to someone else the next day.

Ratan tells Munshiram Mangala will be marrying Rajan, not Ramesh

Ramesh-Tara and Rajan-Mangala get married the same day, and as they’re entering the house, Shanta emerges with aarti thali in hand to welcome them. She welcomes Ramesh and Tara, but Lata races forward when Ratan and Mangala are to be welcomed, and insists on doing the aarti herself. The neighbourhood women, crowding around Mangala, tut-tut about Lata’s inauspiciousness. A widow, and welcoming the bride? Not done. By the time Rajan arrives, Mangala’s belching fire.
Lesson #5: A girl who’s bovine-docile one day can change into a harpy the next. All she has to do is get married.

Rajan and Mangala have a tiff on their suhaag raat

Mangala is such a harridan, she soon drives Rajan off; he returns to medical college. But Mangala doesn’t stop at that. She rails at Lata, complains to Shanta (who personifies the `water off a duck’s back’ idiom: no raving and ranting can make her leave off her fixed smile) and cribs to Tara. Tara is initially unbiased and prone to tell Mangala to take it easy, but Mangala works away at it, and Tara gradually becomes anti-Shanta/Lata/Ratan/whoever.

Mangala manages to brainwash Tara

Lata, meanwhile, has been spending her time playing with Mithoo and Billu, flying kites, plucking roses from the garden (roses which Billu forbids Mangala from picking for her pooja), and being cheeky to Tara and Mangala.
Tara finally loses her temper and bursts into the kitchen to complain to Shanta about Lata. Lata, who’s also sitting there, continues to tease Tara and Mangala, but Shanta brushes it off with a beatific smile. Lesson #7: A smile may not be always appropriate (in fact, as in this case, it can be inflammatory), but it’s what a good woman resorts to when faced with a quarrel.

Tara complains to Shanta about Lata

Tara accuses Shanta of indulging Lata, who as a widow, shouldn’t be enjoying herself in this shameless fashion. Lesson #8: A widow, never mind if she doesn’t even know she’s a widow—or was ever married—must never smile or sing or fly kites.
Lata, in that horrific moment, realises the futility of her joyous life, and goes off to change into a white sari (how on earth do people in Hindi films unearth white saris at the drop of a hat? Do they keep them tucked away in a cupboard to be pulled out at a moment’s notice?). Unknown to Shanta, Lata also writes to the brother (Om Prakash) of her dead husband, asking him to come fetch her, since she’s family.
Lesson #9: Family is people whose dead relations you were once married to; never mind if you don’t even remember your spouse or that you were married. People you live with and love (and who love you) aren’t really family.

Lata decides to turn widow with a vengeance

Lata’s brother-in-law and his tyrannical wife (Manorama) are pleased to be getting an unpaid maidservant to look after their house. Their son (Agha), who works with his father in a small-time nautanki, is neutral. He does protest when Lata’s put to work, but he’s ignored. Lata spends her days sobbing her eyes out while she goes about sweeping, scrubbing, cooking and getting thrashed by the sister-in-law.

Lata's in-laws pile on

As if that wasn’t enough cause for anxiety, Tara’s brother Jeevan (Anwar Hussain) begins brainwashing Tara and Rajan into getting Ratan to divide the property four ways. Ratan, after much soul-searching and sorrowing, agrees and the division happens. Ramesh gets the family firm; Rajan is given a bungalow; Billu gets other property; and Ratan keeps the village house, to which he now repairs, with his aunt, Shanta and Mithoo.

Ratan divides the property four ways

In the meantime, Rajan has begun drowning his sorrows in drink. Ratan falls very ill, and Shanta’s at the end of her tether, both emotionally and financially, though she smiles bravely (or irritatingly—depends on how you look at it) through it all. She even travels to lecture Rajan on how he’s disappointed them all by taking to drink. Rajan, from that moment, is a changed man, repentant and resolved to do better. Lesson #10: Even if you don’t have money to save your family from starvation, you must travel long distances to stop younger siblings from wandering off the straight and narrow. And if you cough up a suitably effective harangue, even a drunk can suddenly become sober.

Shanta lectures Rajan on his drinking

This is the happy half of the film. There’s more to come: more angst, more sheer evilness on the parts of Jeevan and Lata’s in-laws, more family misunderstandings that keep people away from each other. And there are many more lessons, including one that’s been reinforced in films all the way from Munimji to Haathi Mere Saathi. Lesson #11: Always train your pet to do just about anything. You never know when it’ll come in use.

At which point, nauseated at the very memory of this film, I’m going to take myself off. With one last lesson, Lesson #12: good songs do not a good film make. Neither do a good lead actor and a so-so supporting cast when the basic story is preachy, depressing, and utterly painful.

What I liked about this film:
The music. It’s by Chitragupt, and absolutely lovely. The beautiful Chal ud jaa re panchhi is probably the most famous, but there are lesser gems too, including Kaare-kaare badraa, jaa re jaa re badraa.
Jagdeep. As Billu, he’s one of the few people in the film who’s tolerable. True, he does have some fairly weepy and emotional scenes, but he’s refreshingly, genuinely funny.

Jagdeep in Bhabhi

What I didn’t like:
The rest.

My usual favourites, Balraj Sahni, Nanda and Shyama (why did she get so many of the beautiful harridan roles? Bhabhi; Beti; Bahurani; Chhoti Bahen; such a lovely woman should’ve done more of the Aar Paar and Barsaat ki Raat roles)… even these people can’t save Bhabhi. Like Om Prakash, Manorama and Agha, they’re wasted: their roles are screechy and harsh, or weepy and self-sacrificing, or half-wittedly light-hearted, or just generally one-dimensional. As for Pandari Bai and Raja Gosavi: their accents go for a toss and become very strained in some of the emotional scenes. Probably not an issue if you’re depending on subtitles to see the film, but if you know Hindi (as I do), then it can make you wince (as I did).

The story. All the old clichés, of the ever-suffering, ever-smiling mother figure of the bhabhi; the strident bride who snatches her husband away from the bosom of his doting family; the conniving and greedy brother-in-law with an eye on the wealth; the patriarch who will do anything to bring his family back together again—are all here. And as if that wasn’t enough, the tale’s sprinkled liberally with other social messages, all of them hammered hard and long. Some, like that of the treatment of widows, are progressive and laudable, but the way they’re presented is so awful, it’s really not worth the time and effort.


35 thoughts on “Bhabhi (1957)

  1. I’d thought I’d take a screen cap from one of those cute Nanda-Jagdeep scenes, or one of the songs featuring Shyama – she looked so lovely in this film. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to finally use one of Pandari Bai’s stills. It captures the essence of the film to a T! Pained, and painful.


  2. Wow, made such a good reading. WAs nearly on the floor laughing. Only the dirt there held me back!
    Would you be so nice and give us the full story, so that we also learn all the lessons needed to enjoy a fulfilled life.
    And I’m so happy, that the widow is a child widow and not a widow, who is no more a virgin. Okay, they are the 50s, I shouldn’t be too cynical.
    Pandari bai looks as if she has sprung up from my family album. O how I love these suffering women. My family has a horde of it. All worthy of writing books on.
    I agree with you, I also doen’t understand why Shyama got such terrible bhabhi roles. Maybe it has got to do soemthing with her eyes. Someone wiht such eyes can only be evil.
    But I find her lovely. Know that song: “O chand, dekho chupke karta hai kya ishare”. She lookss gorgeous and that heartstring puller song. simply great!


  3. just saw the somg “tie lagake”. it is painful to see Nanda dance and it seems somebody has asked her to keep her eyes WIDE open!


  4. All it’s missing is Meena Kumari! Oh wait, she was still cheerful back then.

    And also: ugh. Will give this a definite miss.

    ps I love Jagdeep. He always cheers me up.


  5. Dustedoff, you are hilarious! Not to mention very, very forbearing. To come through such a painful experience and still provide fodder for entertainment as well as valuable lessons in female etiquette requires an angelic disposition and the patience of a saint! lol

    I love the songs of this film, especially Chal ud ja re and Chali chali re patang, but wouldnt EVER re-watch it – not for all the gold in the world! Glad you cataloged it for the blogging world’s benefit though – at least now I know I will never be a good woman!


  6. harvey: Yes, wasn’t Shyama absolutely lovely? I do wish she’d done more lead roles, or even more sympathetic ones – I thought she was so beautiful and nice in Barsaat ki Raat, I empathised with her despite the heroine being Madhubala!

    Heh… I like the similarity you draw between Pandari Bai and the ladies in your family album! ;-) We had plenty of (invariably middle-aged or elderly) ladies in our family, but someone or the other always managed to make them smile cheerfully when a photo session was in progress. As for the story, well: there isn’t much, really:

    Spoiler coming up:

    Billu is on Ratan’s side and decides to leave off his studies so he can start working and earn enough to look after his bhaiya and bhabhi. He goes off to Bombay, and the bhabhi sends homemade pickle for Tara, who’s expecting. When he reaches Tara’s house (she’s staying with her brother Jeevan while Ramesh is handling the family business in Mysore), Tara isn’t around, but Billu meets Jeevan and smells a rat… he soon figures out Jeevan’s behind the splitting up of the family. Meanwhile, since Mangala is on her own (Rajan having gone off to become an army doctor), Jeevan manages to get her to sign off Rajan’s share of the property. All very convoluted, but basically it ends with Ramesh and Tara, along with their baby, returning to the fold, along with a very repentant Mangala and Rajan, just in time to see the happy ending: Lata has come back and is being married to Billu; but Ratan has died a short while back so the bhabhi is now a widow. You really don’t want more detail. Just so depressing.

    Spoiler ends

    memsaab: Yes, Jagdeep is such fun! Even in a tearjerker like this one, he’s a welcome relief.

    bollyviewer: Thank you :-) It was just so awful, I had to review it to warn others off! And yes, though the songs are superb, I wouldn’t watch Bhabhi again for the world. Such a strain.

    I’d rather be labelled a bad woman, than be such a pain in the you-know-where.


  7. Nice, review. I haven’t seen this film, but it sounds almost exactly like “Ghar Ki Izzat” (1994) starring Kader Khan (Balraj Sahni role), Asha Parekh (Pandari Bai role), Rishi Kapoor (Jagdeep) and Juhi Chawla (Nanda). By the sounds of this film, the original wasn’t much better than the remake.


  8. I like the thing about widow remarriage about this film. But I can just imagine how painful it is to watch these black and white roles going through their moves.
    And Bhabhi becomes a widow! That is the height of melodrama. You can just imagine, what is in store for her after the family reunion.

    Basically, I think the film reflects the fear of the joint hindu family breaking up due to the now (50s) rapidly striding urbanisation and modernisation. This played at times a major, at times a minor part of story lines of the so-called social dramas till in the 80’s. Nowadays, this component hardly plays a role in the films. The Batwara (also the reflection of the angst of the partition) is no more a tragedy as in the films of the 50s or 60s.

    more of such reviews!


  9. “more of such reviews!”

    Nooooo!!! Because it means having to see more of such films! ;-)

    Seriously, though, you’re very right: back then, modernisation and urbanisation was almost equated with being evil, and a literate, city-bred bahu was too often depicted in films as evil, conniving, and selfish… I think with social norms having changed quite a bit (at least in urban India, and to a large extent in rural areas too), these issues aren’t major enough for films to dwell on them any longer.


  10. I love your part ironic part cynical reviews!

    *Nooooo!!! Because it means having to see more of such films!*

    Nahin beti, tumhe yeh ghar ke izaat ke liye karna hi hoga! Humari khandan ki izzat ab tumahre haath me hai!

    Memsaab mentioned Meena Kumari! Didn’t she, I mean Meena Kumair and not Memsaab, do a film called Bhabhi ki Chudiyaan?
    Oh! that must be some ride!


  11. I like your clarification that it was Meena Kumari (and not memsaab) who did Bhabhi ki Chudiyan!! ;-) I haven’t seen it, but that had Balraj Sahni too.

    I’ve seen some really weepy and preachy Meena Kumari starrers (Main Chup Rahoongi, Ek Hi Raasta, Saanjh aur Savera and who knows how many others), but by far the worst is Chandan ka Palna, in which she marries her boyfriend (played by Dharmendra), but realises, within a few years, that she’s infertile, so pretends to be very fast – by pretending to drink and by wearing shararas instead of saris (huh?) so that her husband and in-laws give up on her. She moves out, leaving her husband to remarry, then sits about praying that his wife will bear him a son. Which she does, and then promptly dies, by which time Meena Kumari’s secret has been revealed (that she was never a `bad’ woman, just pretending). So they remarry, and she gets to bring up the baby.

    Repulsive film; even Bhabhi was bearable compared to that – at least Bhabhi had good music.


  12. “…. by far the worst is Chandan ka Palna, in which she marries her boyfriend (played by Dharmendra), but realises, within a few years, that she’s infertile, so pretends to be very fast – by pretending to drink and by wearing shararas instead of saris (huh?) so that her husband and in-laws give up on her. She moves out, leaving her husband to remarry, then sits about praying that his wife will bear him a son. Which she does, and then promptly dies, by which time Meena Kumari’s secret has been revealed (that she was never a `bad’ woman, just pretending). So they remarry, and she gets to bring up the baby.”

    Please tell me you are joking!! How can any thinking person work on this film?


  13. No, I’m not joking :-(

    I find Meena Kumari irritating in some of her roles, but most of her films are at least watchable – as are Dharmendra’s from the 60’s. This one was sheer bilge, nauseating and absolutely awful.


  14. I couldn’t watch that film till the end. It was disgusting! Not only is the theme a big pain, but to look at meena Kumari wear tight clothes and dance and pretend that she is drunk and very very bad, is very very painful. It hurts so much, that i get cramps even when I think about it.
    Yeah lots of moralic acid in it.
    although the movie has some hummable tunes in ‘kis karan’ and ‘zulfon ko’, it is one of the weaker compositions of Panchamda.
    it is bad on so many levels, that it is hard to describe.


  15. Yeh Melodramatic ! Lovely songs – nice chem between Nanda and Jagdeep. Beautiful Shyama. Just the kind of movie I like to watch when I am sleep-heavy on a Sunday afternoon but not able to drop off.

    One of my favorite scenes is when Mangala is fuming away, her hair open, and her husband says – Yeh kya dayan jaise baal bikhere hue hain. hahahah!

    Typical southie family drama film – AVM Production – dhan tan tan tana


  16. Ava, you’re so right!! I love that comment about it being a typical southie family drama film. AVM did a lot of stuff like that, didn’t they? Where the lead pair, and a few of the other important characters were North Indian actors, but the rest were often locals whose Hindi deteriorated (as Pandari Bai’s and Raja Gosavi’s did) in moments of stress. One southie family drama – also with Jagdeep – which I loved, however, was Ek Naari Ek Brahmachari: good fun.


  17. Madhu,you have to refrain from writing such reviews – I laughed and pushed the stool in front and my cell phone landed on the floor and quit! Maybe I should remember to put my cell phone away before reading your reviews. I saw this movie about fifty plus years ago and all I remember is the patang song. Yes, it looks like it reflected the views of those times – can’t imagine a movie like this in this age, though it looks like some idiot producer did try. And I am still laughing at Harvey having hordes of women in his family that one could write books about and look like the sad Pandaribai!


  18. The best part about having suffered through Bhabhi is being able to come here and read your review, and the comments about other such movies (Harvey’s comments always get me laughing!). Lovely songs, awful movie. There were many of that ilk. :)


  19. Oh I wish, I had found your blog sooner and would have avoided watching the movie. I watched only because of the songs ! Thank goodness for the FF button, and the movie was over ! Could not even stand the side plot with Om Prakash…….

    Bhabhi ki choodiyan started well, no weepy Meena Kumari rather a sweet bhabhi content with her world and then down the drain it goes. Again the music is so good. You should hear jyoti kalash chalke in Sudhir Phadke’s voice. It is awesome. ( you tube has it ).


    • Yes, Jyoti kalash chhalke is gorgeous. I’ve tried in vain to search for the movie – even on Induna, which usually has even fairly obscure films – but with no success. Let’s see when and if I can get hold of it.


  20. The problem with Bhabhi lies in its overly melodramatic and non-artistic treatment, which is a pity since the original story and theme of author Prabhawati Devi Saraswati is impressive. It becomes all the more tragic when one sees the original Bengali film ‘Bhangagara’, which although not a great film by any stretch of imagination, is a decent , well made and subdued film, a characteristic of Bengali films back then. AVM decided to remake this film in Tamil as Kula Deivam, upping the melodramatic content by thousands. Kula Deivam turned out to be an even bigger success than Bhangagara and so AVM remade it as Bhabhi in Hindi, following the Tamil version to the tee. I just wish they had followed the Bengali original more, because for me, subtlety is always a way more powerful tool of expression than melodrama. But Alas! It was not to be like that. Bhabhi too turned out to be a massive success, which though was a good thing, as it helped the talented but under-rated Chitragupt gain much deserved recognition. Chal Ud ja re Panchi remains a gem of a track for now, then and forever.


    • Interesting insight into the history of that film. I think the heavy melodrama is what destroys it. In the hands of a film maker who could control that melodrama and use subtlety instead, I can imagine it might be an interesting film.


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