Two confessions, to start with. Firstly, although I am very fond of Ashok Kumar—I think he was a great actor—I find it difficult to envisage him as the dashing hero of a spy thriller. Secondly, I think 50’s and 60’s Hindi cinema (with the notable exception of Haqeeqat) never quite manages to depict war properly. Battlefields are too often obviously sets or, at the most, a bunch of extras letting off firecrackers in a patch of woodland.
So Samadhi, despite being 1950’s top-grossing Hindi film and starring the beautiful Nalini Jaywant—was a film that I approached with trepidation. Which was perhaps just as well, because if I’d begun watching it with expectations way up there, I’d probably have been disappointed. As it was, by the end, I decided it wasn’t bad; in fact, pretty watchable.
The film begins in the early 1940’s, with World War II at its peak. India’s firebrand patriotic leader, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, has revived the Indian National Army (INA), which has thrown in its lot with the Japanese in an attempt to defeat the British and liberate India. Netaji goes to Malaya, which has a large Indian expat population, and tries to get them to donate money for the INA. In a moment of high drama, Netaji auctions off the garland around his neck, and is pleased to find that a wealthy young man, Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) has enough love for Bharat Mata to give up his all (Rs 7 lakhs) for the garland. Shekhar gives further proof of his patriotism by joining the INA.
Shekhar’s widowed old father, the blind Ram Prasad (Badri Prasad) is very proud of Shekhar, as is Shekhar’s younger brother, the teenaged Pratap. [Aside: According to imdb, Shashi Kapoor plays Pratap. Considering that Shashi Kapoor played the kiddy Raj Kapoor in Awara a year later, besides looking quite different, somebody seems to have got their facts wrong. Or do we have a Benjamin Button in Hindi cinema? The film does have a Sashi Kapoor in the credits, but this is very definitely not the man.]
The only person not overjoyed at this development is Shekhar’s elder brother Suresh (Shyam), who’s an officer in the British Indian Army. Suresh has been sent on a mission to Malaya to gather intelligence about the INA, and is horrified to discover that (a) Shekhar has joined up, and (b) Daddy is all for Shekhar being in the INA.
Suresh tries to make his family see his point of view—is there any guarantee that the Japanese will let India stay independent, even if the INA succeeds? —but no one’s listening.
Suresh returns to India after spending a little while in Malaya with his girlfriend Dolly D’Souza (Kuldip Kaur, in one of her best roles). Dolly and her younger sister (Nalini Jaywant) are dancers/singers/performers, but Dolly has an alternate life too: she’s a spy for the Brits. The Japanese had killed the girls’ father on a suspicion that he supported the British, and Dolly is out to take revenge on the Japanese and anyone who sides with them—which includes the INA.
All the while, she and Lilly have been appearing in various shows. One of these is an entertainment programme for the soldiers of the INA, where Shekhar sees Lilly and is immediately smitten (the song’s the delightful Gore gore o baanke chore).
Shekhar’s smitten-ness doesn’t go unobserved. Dolly’s half-lame, all-nasty spy boss (Mubarak; all through, he’s always referred to as Boss) notices—and shortly after, uses that knowledge. Shekhar has been promoted from havildar to captain (Now that’s what I call a promotion!) and has been given a secret letter regarding troop movements. He has to take the letter to Bangkok, and Boss needs a copy of the letter to pass on to the Brits.
So Boss tells Dolly, who begs him not to involve the innocent Lilly. But Boss threatens her, and eventually Dolly agrees to talk to Lilly, who also agrees reluctantly.
Lilly flies on the same plane as Shekhar and even gets a seat next to him. They get talking, but before Lilly can go through all his belongings (which she tries to do while he’s away being discreetly airsick), the plane’s engines pack up and they crash-land.
Shekhar, toughie that he is, decides he can’t wait for a relief plane to come along and so trudges off through the jungle towards Bangkok (Um. How does he know which way is Bangkok?)
Lilly decides to accompany him, and they’re soon billing and cooing. So much so that by the time Lilly gets a chance to purloin the letter (while Shekhar’s sleeping), she’s suffering pangs of conscience.
The thought that Dolly could get into trouble with Boss finally forces Lilly to accomplish a task she’s finding very distasteful. She makes a copy of the letter, and when they arrive in Bangkok, hands it over. The British are able to ambush a large contingent of INA troops and inflict serious damage. Suresh, who was in charge of the operation, is wounded and is brought home by Dolly to recuperate. Lilly is bitter towards him and Dolly, because it’s dawned on her that by betraying Shekhar she has also driven thousands of men to a sure death.
Dolly and Suresh try to protect Lilly from Boss, who’s adamant that Lilly continue spying. Dolly insists she is committed to the cause, but Lilly, whom she regards as not just a younger sister but almost as a daughter, shouldn’t be forced to become a Mata Hari. But Boss isn’t having any of that; he threatens to kill Lilly, since Lilly’s love for Shekhar can jeopardise all their work and their lives. Willy-nilly, both Lilly (that rhymes! Maybe I’ll take to poetry next) and Dolly end up as pawns in Boss’s latest nefarious scheme…
…which is to assassinate Netaji. Netaji is in town for the celebration of his birthday, for which a grand function is being organised. Lilly and Dolly stage a show, while Suresh and Boss arrange for a sniper to be hidden in the hall with his pistol aimed at Netaji.
The sniper, however, misses and is caught by the mob. Netaji interrogates the man in the presence of Ram Prasad, Dolly, Shekhar, and Boss (with Boss fearing all the time that the assassin will squeal), but nothing conclusive emerges. Ram Prasad and Shekhar, however are disturbed to hear the assassin’s description of the man who hired him: it sounds uncomfortably like Suresh.
Boss, emboldened by the fact that his unpatriotic secret is still hidden from the INA, goes on to greater misdeeds. This time, he discovers that Shekhar will be leading a large contingent of INA troops out—but where, it’s not known. The obvious person to unearth this secret is Lilly. But Lilly has had enough and refuses to co-operate; and Dolly takes her part. So Boss gives Lilly an ultimatum: get the secret out of Shekhar, or Shekhar will die. (Since Shekhar will very likely be killed even if Lilly discovers where the INA are headed, this is pretty much a no-win situation for Lilly). What ensues is a poignant scene, with Shekhar and Lilly pledging unfailing love to each other.
Lilly manages to get Shekhar to divulge his destination, which she passes on to Boss. As Shekhar’s contingent is moving out of town, she tries to stop him going, but he doesn’t notice her—and the contingent is later bombarded by the British. All Shekhar’s men are killed and he is wounded, but eventually returns home, bandaged and relieved to be back.
When he goes to meet Lilly, however, Shekhar receives a bad shock. Though she’s initially ecstatic that he’s alive, she soon blurts out the truth, that she’s a spy for the British. It is because of her that the INA, especially the section of which Shekhar is a part, has been suffering such reverses.
Shekhar is furious, disappointed and disillusioned—but like the good soldier that he is, puts duty before love and turns Lilly and Dolly over to the INA. The INA institutes a court martial, and sentences both to death.
Can a miracle occur to save Lilly and Dolly from an ignominious death? Or will the rest of the story be a Samadhi—a memorial—to a dutiful soldier’s lost love? And who will switch sides: Shekhar or Suresh? Both? None?
What I liked about this film:
The conflict that is so much a part of the entire scenario. At a superficial level, there are the more obvious conflicts: the Allies versus the Axis; the INA versus the British; Suresh versus Shekhar/their father; Lilly versus Dolly; and later Lilly and Dolly versus Boss.
More interesting are the other, equally important conflicts that arise as the film progresses. There is, for instance, Shekhar and Suresh’s inability to separate duty from fraternal love—neither seems to be able to reconcile completely to the fact that the other is an enemy soldier. On a similar (yet different) note is Dolly’s relationship with Lilly; it begins with Dolly using emotional blackmail to push Lilly into spying for Boss—but then, as Dolly begins to realise how much Lilly loves Shekhar, the conflict shifts focus: now she is in conflict with Boss, who begins to emerge as the only out-and-out villain in the story. There is also Lilly’s dilemma: caught between her conscience and her unwillingness to be involved in the politics being played out around her.
Yes, conflicts are an intrinsic part of just about every story ever told (or enacted). But this one handled all these conflicts with a sympathetic touch that helps dull the boundaries between black and white in a way that was ahead of its time. Just 3 years after the British left India, and Samadhi showed an Indian officer in the British Indian Army, as not a completely black-hearted and traitorous villain? Unusual. And there’s the refreshing fact that though they do quarrel and make no bones about their disapproval of each other, Suresh on the one hand and Shekhar/Ram Prasad/Pratap on the other are still deeply attached to each other. And they don’t give long speeches about their love: it shows in small ways.
The music, by C Ramchandra. Especially Gore gore o baanke chore and Kadam-kadam badhaaye jaa, both infectious tunes.
What I didn’t like:
The film is puzzling when it comes to technical details. Havildar to captain in one quick move? (Shekhar is actually ordered to step forward while on parade, and the captain’s epaulettes are pinned on him with the announcement, “Havildar Shekhar, you are now a captain”). Wow. Offices of military establishments look like a poorly-paid and ill-qualified set decorator’s idea of what an army office should look like: large maps showing borders of countries but no details; a couple of files; and a 3D map of the terrain. And I didn’t know civilians—even if found to be spies—could be court martialled (though my sister, who’s a historian, tells me that the INA indulged in some pretty irregular stuff and may have done something of the sort. I wonder if the speedy promotions were part of the irregularities of the INA).
And oh, the battle scenes. They’re so obviously on a set, except in some instances of actual footage.
All said and done, not what I’d call a superb spy/war film. And certainly a far cry from the believability of a mid-60’s war film like Haqeeqat or a spy thriller like Aankhen.
Despite that, I wouldn’t complain—it’s unfair, I think, to discount the technical advances that had been made in the interim, and in any case the style of film-making had evolved considerably by the 60’s. Where Samadhi remains watchable is in its acting and the glimpses it offers of humans in a time of war: Dolly, Lilly, Shekhar, Suresh et al are people with familial ties and ties of love that make them more than just warriors for a cause; and Suresh and Dolly, though on the wrong, unpatriotic side, are not all bad.
By the way, the film is based on a true incident—which bit, I haven’t been able to figure out. Does anybody know?
And, to sign off:
Yes, I think I’m beginning to revise my views on Dada Moni.