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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.