Kathputli (1957)

I had been meaning to see this film for a while now, and Richard’s recent post—on the occasion of Vyjyantimala’s birthday—encouraged me to hurry it up a bit. So I finally got around to pushing the DVD to the top of my rental queue, and saw it. Impressions? Well, somewhat mixed. I think I’d club Kathputli in the same category as Barsaat ki Raat: beautiful on the eyes and the ears, but disappointing in other ways.

Vyjyantimala in Kathputli

Pushpa (Vyjyantimala) and her younger sister Chandni (? No idea who this actress is) are poor orphans. Pushpa, though illiterate, is doing her best to ensure that Chandni gets a good education. She collects and sells scrap for a living, and when she gets time for a breather, she goes off to enjoy a puppet show—and happens to look up into the face of the handsome puppeteer Shivraj (Jawahar Kaul).
The show over, Pushpa goes dancing home, imitating the puppets that so fascinated her.

Pushpa imitates the puppets...

An admiring Shivraj follows Pushpa home, and they become friends over a shared handful of chana. Shivraj too is poor—his only possessions of any worth are his puppets—and he’s barely earning enough to keep body and soul together.

...and strikes up a friendship with Shivraj

Pushpa has a bright idea to get Shivraj into the big league: he should perform on stage for the rich people. She drags him off to a theatre company and tries to get the boss’s assistant, Manohar (Agha) interested in her scheme. Pushpa’s plan is that Shivraj’s puppets will dance on one half of the stage, and in the other half, dancers will perform the same steps. She gives Manohar a sneak preview, but Manohar isn’t impressed.

Manohar is unimpressed

Manohar’s boss, Lok Nath (Balraj Sahni), who owns the theatre company, happens to notice all this singing and dancing. He’s very impressed with Pushpa and offers her a job with the theatre, which Pushpa promptly refuses. The theatre’s evil, she says; and the people associated with it are wicked. No, thank you.
Pushpa goes off, but Lok Nath has a chat with Shivraj and offers a deal: he’ll hire both Shivraj and Pushpa to do a puppets-and-dancer act onstage.

Lok Nath offers Pushpa a job at the theatre

When Shivraj tells Pushpa of Shivraj’s proposal and tries to persuade her, she again refuses. After a little bit of bickering, they make up and start making plans: they will work together, but for themselves. They’ll wander from place to place, with Shivraj making his puppets dance while Pushpa sings and tells stories. There seem to be some hints of a romance here, but other than Shivraj telling Pushpa she’s very `good’, it doesn’t progress.

Pushpa and Shivraj dream of the future

What does happen is that Shivraj, walking across the street to pick up a couple of puppets which have fallen by the roadside, gets run over by a car.

Shivraj has an accident...

In the accident, Shivraj’s leg and left hand are badly injured and have to be put in plaster. He won’t be doing any puppeteering for a while, and what with the hospital’s bills, Pushpa realises she’d better accept Lok Nath’s offer.
So she goes to Lok Nath’s house and ends up being reassured by Lok Nath that he’ll make her a star. Over the following days, Lok Nath and his entourage begin grooming and training Pushpa, preparing her for the stage.

Pushpa asks Lok Nath for a job

There’s also a brief interlude, with Lok Nath singing the interestingly-worded Manzil wohi hai pyaar ki, raahi badal gaye (“the destination of love remains the same, the travellers have changed”) while Pushpa pirouettes about. The way Pushpa and Lok Nath look into each other’s eyes, I’m beginning to wonder if I wasn’t mistaken the first time; Pushpa’s romance seems to be with Lok Nath, not with poor Shivraj.

Lok Nath makes Pushpa a star - and falls for her?

As if to lend credence to this, we’re next introduced to Lok Nath’s little son, Bula. Bula is a sickly child, almost perpetually ill. Despite the best efforts of the doctor, and Lok Nath’s own (mostly undivided, except when it comes to the theatre) attention, Bula doesn’t seem to get any better. He misses his mother—who has been dead some years now—and Lok Nath can’t seem to be able to do anything to comfort the kid.

Lok Nath sits by Bula's bedside

…except introduce Pushpa, who one day happens to visit Lok Nath’s house while Bula is ill. The two of them immediately take a liking to each other, with Bula insisting that Pushpa sing lullabies and visit him every night. This looks more and more like Lok Nath and Pushpa should be getting married and giving Bula a new mother. What’s more, we learn that Lok Nath’s first wife had also been a very successful actress and dancer whom Lok Nath had launched—much like Pushpa, who’s now, after an initial attack of stage fright, a big success.

Pushpa makes it big on stage

Meanwhile, Shivraj has been recuperating at Pushpa’s house. When the plaster’s finally removed from his leg and hand, however, it’s discovered that he’ll always limp—and that his left hand is now useless. He’s despondent, but Pushpa assures him that that doesn’t matter to her. Next we know, she’s telling Manohar that she’ll be marrying Shivraj.
Okay. Now that was something I didn’t see coming (though I suppose her taking care of him while he was recovering should’ve been an indication).

Pushpa tries to lull Shivraj's fears and decides they must marry

So Pushpa and Shivraj get married, and Pushpa becomes even more of a star. They now live in a smart flat that Lok Nath’s procured for Pushpa, and Shivraj is getting steadily more uncomfortable with all of this. He doesn’t like the idea that Pushpa’s providing for him, and though she assures him she’ll gladly give up her wealth for his love, he’s still edgy.
Finally, one day, Shivraj makes an attempt to earn his living: he carves a wooden puppet and takes it to a maker of toys. The man has no need of Shivraj’s puppets, but he promises to forward the puppet to a toy manufacturer in Patna who may be able to give Shivraj a contract.

Shivraj tries to get a contract

One evening, while dancing, Pushpa collapses on stage. A doctor’s called to attend to her. Shivraj spends the interim in raging at Lok Nath, telling him he’s brainwashed Pushpa into continuing with the theatre, luring her with fame and fortune, manipulating her to suit his own purposes. He even accuses Lok Nath of trying to entice Pushpa by using the pathetic Bula as bait—an allegation which eventually results in fisticuffs.

Shivraj lambasts Lok Nath

In the midst of all this, the doctor comes with news: Pushpa is soon to be a mother. Shivraj, distracted for the time being, cools down a bit and goes off to be with his wife, but the rancour remains… and who knows when it’ll surface again? Will Pushpa’s marriage to Shivraj survive the turmoil of her career and his disability? Will Bula ever get the mother, and Lok Nath the wife, they yearn for? Where will all of this lead?

What I liked about this film:
The music, with Shankar-Jaikishan at their best. Bol ri kathputli has long been my favourite, but there are other equally lovely songs. Vyjyantimala’s superb dancing, is of course, a great showcase for most of the songs: nearly all are picturised on her.

Balraj Sahni. He’s one of those actors whom I have a lot of respect for, and he’s excellent in Kathputli as the father trying to bring up an ailing child on his own; as the tentative lover (?), and as the mentor who’s ready to champion his protégé through the roughest of patches. And yes, he also looks very handsome in a genteel sort of way.

Balraj Sahni with Vyjyantimala in Kathputli

What I didn’t like:
The story is just too flimsy, based on a frail plot stitched together with songs. What irked me the most was the wishy-washy relationship between the three lead characters. The chemistry between Shivraj and Pushpa is close to nil right through, and I had a hard time believing these two people were in love. On the other hand, there were definite signs of a deep affection between Pushpa and Lok Nath—but the film would have us believe this was more along the lines of a guru-shishya relationship, a mentor and a mentee’s mutual respect and liking.
There are interesting little glimpses of each character: the problem is, those glimpses often contradict each other. The viewer ends up—as this one did—with little or no understanding of the story beyond what was obviously stated. The silences, the unsaid thoughts and the implications remain so ambiguous that it’s frustrating.

Despite that, Kathputli is still way better than another Balraj Sahni-Jawahar Kaul-Agha starrer of 1957, Bhabhi. This one’s positively light-hearted compared to that.

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21 thoughts on “Kathputli (1957)

  1. I hate it when the wrong people get together, especially in Hindi films where the marriage bond is unbreakable. I should probably give this a miss and just listen to the songs :)

  2. My impressions of Kathputli which I watched long ago on DD, are somewhat similar. One of these days, I’ll re-watch and see how much I like it this time round – probably not a whole lot more than I did before, based on your review! I love the songs in this though, especially the first version of Bol ri kathputli. Vyjayanthi’s dance is so naturally joyful it doesnt even look choreographed at all. Plus, it makes me want to get up and dance, too (wish I could)!

  3. memsaab: Yes, that irritates me no end too – especially when the woman’s doing the sati savitri act for someone she didn’t want to marry and who doesn’t even treat her anywhere close to decent. Ugh! The worst thing about Kathputli was that the screenwriter seemed to not be able to make up his/her mind about whom they wanted Pushpa to be with. She’s obviously married Shivraj because she wants to, but she has great chemistry with Lok Nath too… confusing!

    bollyviewer: Yes, I love that first version too. Somehow I always enjoy happy versions of songs – Aawara ae mere dil, Jeevan ke safar mein raahi, Ae mere dil kaheen aur chal, Hai apna dil toh aawara and of course Bol ri kathputli more than the sad ones – even though the latter are often the ones with the better lyrics!

  4. Oh, well, not everybody loves this movie as much as I did. :) Well, for me, there are a few reasons why it was one of my favorites… First of all, the music and, especially, dancing go a long way for me.

    Vyjayanthimala does some of her nicest dancing here. But we should also give due credit to Kamala Lakshman. A few people who’ve seen both their dances in this film (including Bollyviewer as I recall ;) actually said that Kamala Lakshman was even better. And she is. She is amazing here!

    I also really like the people-as-puppets theme and how it was developed here – it gets quite interesting as applied to this character Pushpa, and of course it makes for the best dances and songs.

    I love Balraj Sahni in this too. And also the social content, which you can almost expect in a Balraj Sahni film. The romance didn’t turn out the way we expected, but that outcome was also interesting – and probably more realistic than it would have been had Pushpa ended up with Lok Nath instead.

  5. Yes, Kamla Lakshman was good – I’m not good at appreciating the nuances of dance, so can’t give an opinion on whether or not she was better than Vyjyantimala, but still.

    Frankly, it didn’t bother me that Pushpa doesn’t marry Lok Nath – I would have liked her to, but Shivraj was fine too. What bothered me was that though she wants to marry Shivraj – and marries him out of preference, not because of any compulsion, there’s very little spark between them onscreen. I wish they’d built a little more on the Pushpa-Shivraj romance so it seemed more believable.

    As far as people-as-puppets go, I thought Khilona was a particularly fine example of the theme. Mumtaz’s acting was excellent.

  6. Thanks for the review. It has helped me to make up my mind about buying it.

    I have this DVD of songs and almost all the Kathputli songs are on it. They are attractive and made me wonder whether it was worth buying it.

    I like your description of Balraj Sahni – handsome in a genteel sort of way. :-)
    and have been wondering which genteel Jane Austen hero he could have played. The only ones that come to mind are either Edmund Bertram or Edward Ferrars!

    I hope he married Kamla in the end, for his child’s sake. There is one dance of hers on the DVD where she’s making eyes at him.

  7. Are you an Austen fan, too? :-) I love her books – I wonder why nobody in 50’s or 60’s Hindi cinema ever tried making an adaptation of any of her novels (though in the 80’s – or maybe the 90’s – there was a very good Hindi TV series called Trishna, which was a good adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). Balraj Sahni, I think, would have made a very fine Edmund Bertram! Yes, probably Ferrars too: he has a sort of quiet charm about him that’s wonderful.

    Unfortunately Kamla Lakshman’s character is there more or less just for the dance – she’s come to him for an audition, and never gets hired.

  8. Yes, I wonder why they never tried their hands at any Austen novels – Bollywood tried quite a lot of English literature.

    Balraj Sahni would be great as an Austen hero – though I have a hard time imagining him as the young Edward Ferrars. Edmund Bertram is such a prissy and judgmental character that I hope nobody ever plays him, least of all Balraj Sahni! I think he would be quite good as Col Brandon or even Knightley, though.

    I like to spend a lot of time wondering who I’d like to cast as Darcy and always come to the conclusion that Trishna‘s Darcy was really a very good choice (so was the whole cast – its the only P&P adaptation that I really liked). Who would you cast as Darcy?

  9. Regarding Kamala Lakshman’s character, as I recall, she passed the audition spectacularly and was hired to replace Pushpa after Pushpa had stopped dancing, but Kam[a]la’s father got greedy and made more financial demands right before a big show, which Lok Nath just couldn’t meet. So, at the last minute, Pushpa defied the wishes of Shivraj and resumed her dancing so that the show could go on.

  10. bollyviewer: Yes, Trishna was a wonderful adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – miles ahead of the awful Bride and Prejudice, in my opinion. For a 50’s or 60’s film adaptation… well, I can’t make up my mind. All the best-looking men seem to be the type one associates with light-hearted roles, and not imperious.

    Richard: Yes, that’s how it happens. I wish Kamla Lakshman had more of a role. Or at least another dance!

  11. Can one get this TV programme ‘Trishna’ on DVD?
    It would be wonderful to watch this.
    Yes, dustedoff I’m a devoted JA person first and foremost. Hindi films of 50s and 60s come second. :-)
    And I’m ready to fight tooth and nail with anyone who dares to label her as a ‘Regency romance writer’!!! Or call her novels ‘bonnet romances’!!! >:O

  12. I’ve looked high and low for some of those lovely old DD programmes – Trishna among them. The only ones I’ve seen available on either DVD or VCD are Malgudi Days and Mirza Ghalib. It’s sad, really, because the Doordarshan archives do sell copies of old programmes – all performances by classical singers, dancers or musicians.

    Austen is very definitely not Regency romance!! In my quest to find Regency romances that come anywhere close to Austen (or Heyer, another favourite of mine), I’ve read some stuff that’s absolutely nauseating. Maybe I should review Pride and Prejudice next, huh? ;-)

  13. I just contacted DD and requested, begged actually, to be so kind as to release a Trishna DVD!! =8-)

    It may go unnoticed, thrown in the trash, or they might just surprise us!!! :-)

    Which Pride and Prejudice? There are 4 adaptations on DVD. 1940, 1985, 1995, 2005? ’85 and ’95 are my favourite though I blame the 1995 version to have ‘pop cultured’ Jane Austen. :-(

  14. Good show! If they do respond and say they’ll release a Trishna DVD, do let me know – I’ll buy one in a jiffy! Am keeping my fingers crossed.

    Of the four adaptations you’ve mentioned, I’ve seen all except the 1980 version. My favourite is 1995 – yes, pop cultured, but still better than 2005 (which I so didn’t like). But just because my blog is all about 40’s to 60’s cinema (sometimes earlier even), the one I’ll review will be the 1940 one… as soon as I can pluck up the courage to watch it again. I wince at the very thought of it. ;-)

  15. Wow!!! I found the Jane Austen discussion more interesting than the movie. I love her books too. Pride and Prejudice is my all time favourite! I didn’t like Emma much when I had read it first during my college days. I had found the beginning very boring but the rest of the story was ok. Now with all the hype around Aisha, I decided to give it another try and read Emma all over again last week. I ended up liking it a lot! Talk about tastes changing over time.
    Coming back to Kathputli, the missing chemistry between Pushpa and Shivraj was so disappointing. There wa smore spark in Pushpa-Loknath relation. I would have loved to see something brewing between the two, all the more so when she bonds so well with his son. It’s definitely better than Bhabhi but it just didn’t satisfy me. I have to watch another film to get over this one. I don’t get much time to watch and review films these days, not as much as I would like to. And when I watch a good film, it leaves me feeing so good and content. But it wasn’t the case here :-(

  16. Yes, Kathputli was such a disappointment, especially that confusing chemistry – none between the people who should have had it, and definite hints of it between the people who didn’t seem to be the ones to have it! Weird. and considering that all of these people – Balraj Sahni, Vyjyantimala, and even to some extent Jawahar Kaul – are capable of very good acting – that was irritating.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of watching Aisha or not! I read Amrita’s review over at Indiequill, and am in two minds. I don’t love Emma with the deep devotion I have for Pride and Prejudice, but then, on the other hand, I like the book enough to not want to see it mutilated.

    By the way, if you like Pride and Prejudice, another film you must watch is the BBC production of North and South, starring Richard Armitage. 2004, I think. The story is similar to P&P, but is very different too, and extremely enjoyable. Bollyviewer recommended it to me, and I fell in love with it immediately!

  17. I beg to differ. I liked the movie for the very reason you did not like- the story. Yes, life does not always turn out the way it should for so many. A young, poor, sensitive Pushpa is moved by the plight of Shivraj and impulsively marries with him as she also liked him for his art and good looks. Shivraj, as many males in Indian society change after some unfortunate setbacks in life, changes and behaves unreasonably with Pushpa. Pushpa reacts and suffers the way any poor, sensitive, faithful Indian wife would do. The movies are for mirroring some realities in the society at the given period of time. The movie successfully does that and has thus very well succeeded in proving that a woman is merely a ‘ kathputli ‘ in our society. I liked the movie for its story, direction, music, songs, dances, and performances of the artists. Though, I concede that there was a scope for a little bit of better direction and screenplay. Nonetheless, it was a good movie.

    • It has been a long time since I watched this film, so it may well be that if I see it again, I may find my opinion has changed somewhat. Even if it hasn’t – of course, we’re all entitled to our own opinions.

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