For all those who thought I’d deserted classic Hindi cinema to wax eloquent about Robert Mitchum: good news. I’m back. After gushing for a week (well, a little more) about Mitch and his films, I’ve returned to Bollywood—and with a film that’s a must-watch for anyone who likes Muslim socials; who thinks Madhubala is gorgeous; or who loves old Hindi film music—especially qawwalis.
I fall into all three categories, so Barsaat ki Raat was long overdue for a rewatch.
Amaan Hyderabadi (Bharat Bhushan) is a penniless but superb, much-published poet (surprisingly common in Hindi cinema. It’s sad how all these guys are apparently swindled of their royalties). He lives as a paying guest in the household of Mubarak Ali, a qawwal with two daughters. The younger, Shabaab (Ratna) is mischievous and lively; the older, Shama (Shyama) is beautiful, deeply in love with Amaan—and very reticent, which means she hasn’t whispered a word to the object of her affections.
To Shama’s distress, Amaan goes away indefinitely to Hyderabad, primarily to recite his poetry in a radio programme. In Hyderabad, he stays with an old friend, Shekhar (Chandrashekhar), who is now a police officer.
One rainy night, wandering around looking for inspiration, Amaan finds it in a gorgeous (and very wet) girl (Madhubala) who bumps into him when both seek shelter under the eaves of a blacksmith’s shop.
Amaan is bedazzled, and by the time he’s on air the next day, he’s written a paean to the beauty he encountered the previous evening. Her name, we discover, is Shabnam, and she’s the elder daughter of the police commissioner, Khan Bahadur (K N Singh). Shabnam has long loved Amaan’s poetry (and him), even though she’s never seen him. She hears him on radio, though, and from the lyrics, figures out that Amaan is the same man she’d met—and to whom she was very attracted.
Shabnam and her mother (Mumtaz Begum) have, in the meantime, been trying to find a tutor to take Shabnam’s naughty little sister Razia (Baby Shobha) in hand. Shabnam asks her friend Shanti (Peace Kanwal, in an all-too-brief role) to take up the task, and Shanti agrees.
Shanti also arranges a function in Amaan’s honour, where he recognises Shabnam. A quick conversation with Shanti, and Amaan learns his beloved’s name, and whose daughter she is.
Amaan has more luck coming his way: Shekhar informs him that the police commissioner needs a tutor for his daughter. Amaan leaps at the offer; is put out when he discovers it’s the scruffy Razia he’ll be teaching; but realises that it’ll let him visit Shabnam’s house. So he turns up with Shekhar and is greeted with happy surprise by Shabnam, and a graceful retreat by Shanti, who knows that Shabnam is nuts about Amaan.
Shabnam’s father takes some time to realise this fact. When he does, he throws Amaan out, raves and rants at Shabnam, and tells his wife that he’s received a proposal for Shabnam from a lawyer in Lucknow called Aftab. Aftab’s a great catch, and Shabnam will marry him—or else.
He hasn’t reckoned with Shabnam, though, who sneaks out to meet Amaan at their usual rendezvous, the blacksmith’s shop where they first met. Khan Bahadur and Shekhar trail Shabnam and Amaan to the blacksmith’s, but the blacksmith hoodwinks them.
Amaan now takes Shabnam off with him to Indore, where he gets a contract to recite on radio. But Khan Bahadur and Shekhar hear his voice on the Indore station (isn’t this a little farfetched? Don’t these guys have anything better to do? Why the Indore station, anyway? Why not Jhumri Talaiyya?) and recognise his voice immediately.
Shekhar and Khan Bahadur phone Indore, but Amaan comes to know and escapes with Shabnam.
Next, Khan Bahadur guesses (don’t ask me how; ESP?) that Amaan will next head for Jabalpur, where, according to Shekhar, Amaan and he have a mutual friend called Sudhakar (Rashid Khan). Amaan will certainly turn to Sudhakar for help with the elopement.
Khan Bahadur’s obviously risen so high in the police force because of his good guesswork: Amaan does take Shabnam to Sudhakar’s house. Sudhakar insists the runaway couple get married at once.
But true love’s path is terribly rocky. While Amaan and Sudhakar are away fetching a qazi to perform the marriage, Shekhar arrives and bullies Shabnam into returning to Hyderabad with him—to the rage of her father and the emotional blackmail of her mother. Both agree that Shabnam’s disgraced the family by running off with Amaan, and the only way to redeem what’s left of their reputation is to get her married off to Aftab as soon as possible.
So Shabnam’s parents bundle the family into the train to Lucknow, little aware that also headed for Lucknow is Amaan, now running scared because he knows Khan Bahadur can have him arrested for elopement. What a feeble character: I’d have expected more spirit from a hero.
On the train, Amaan meets a bunch of poets, one of whom claims to be Amaan Hyderabadi. Amaan can’t say he is Amaan since one whiff of his whereabouts will bring the police after him, so he keeps mum. (Thought: If that’s the case, then how come nobody’s arrested the interloper yet? And nobody does, either, during the course of the film).
Eventually, though, Amaan reveals his identity to the aspiring poet, and they work out a clandestine contract of sorts. Amaan will write poetry, the other man will pass it off as his own. Most of these verses are going to be sung by a young qawwal called Chand Khan.
Another coincidence, now. Aftab, Shabnam’s fiancé-to-be, is a good friend of Amaan’s, and Amaan goes to stay with him while in Lucknow.
…so the day Shabnam arrives with her family at Aftab’s house, Amaan is in the next room. Nobody but Aftab knows he’s there, so they chatter on, Shabnam’s mother glibly saying that Shabnam’s got her heart set on marrying Aftab. Amaan overhears, and is both angry and broken-hearted. While sneaking out of the house, he meets Shabnam, offers his bitter congratulations on her wedding, and vanishes, leaving Shabnam desolate and actually physically ill.
And now for yet another coincidence. Mubarak Ali, Shama and Shabaab have also arrived in Lucknow and are getting ready, with trepidation, for a qawwali competition. They’ll be pitting their skills against Chand Khan, the qawwal for whom Amaan’s been doing a lot of ghost writing.
So Amaan and Shabnam are now apart, Shabnam weepy and Amaan bitter and cynical. Shama, desperately (if quietly) in love with Amaan, is also in Lucknow. The qawwali competition is coming up, and unknown to the parties involved, Amaan is—in a way—going to be in opposition to Mubarak Ali’s family.
Will Khan Bahadur ever realise he’s being an unfeeling brute? Will love triumph? And if so, whose? And who’ll win the qawwali contest?
What I liked about this film:
The music. Between them, Roshan and Sahir Ludhianvi produce one of the most awesome scores in Hindi cinema. The credits roll to the lilting rain song, Garjat barsat saawan aayo re, and after that it’s just one great song after another. The second half of the film is dominated by what I personally feel are the best qawwalis in filmdom: Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai and Yeh ishq ishq hai (Manna Dey, Mohammad Rafi, Asha Bhonsle, Shiv Dayal Batish and Sudha Malhotra in a brilliant qawwali that segues into the second, equally fabulous one), Pehchaanta hoon khoob tumhaari nazar ko main, and Nigaah-e-naaz ke maaron ka haal kya hoga.
Madhubala and Shyama. Oh, so luminously beautiful, both of them.
(And I was so relieved to see Shyama in a sympathetic role, and not as an evil bahu out to break up a loving family).
What I didn’t like:
The story. It had potential: a love triangle, a disapproving Daddy and a penurious poet, in a setting with lots of lovely Urdu shaayari thrown in, can be very enjoyable, but Barsaat ki Raat fizzles out after showing some initial promise. There are too many coincidences and too many mysterious motives, with people crowding the screen and not doing much beyond either weeping (if they’re female) or spouting poetry/throwing their weight about (if they’re male). Even the three main characters aren’t particularly well-etched: Amaan is wistful and cynical by turn (with some traces of sweetness during his interactions with Mubarak Ali’s family). Shabnam is drop-dead beautiful but either giggling idiotically or sobbing into her dupatta through most of the film. Shama is slightly more interesting, but not much.
And the end happens so fast and so suddenly that it took me a while to realise the film was actually over. I still can’t believe it.
But: I would willingly sit through all of that just for the music, it’s so sublime. Don’t expect too much of the story, and you’ll be fine. It isn’t as mindless and irritating as some other films with music that’s way ahead of the story (examples that spring to mind are Leader and Ek Phool Do Maali), so I at least am willing to forgive the inadequacies in the script.