Chhoti Bahen (1959)

This blog’s been on a Hollywood roll long enough (two films in succession? Too long). So we’re back to good old Bollywood, and with a film that somewhat repeats the cast of the deplorable Bhabhi: Balraj Sahni (again as the long-suffering, self-sacrificing eldest brother), Nanda (again simpering and whimpering), even Shyama, again as the daughter-in-law who starts off being nice but changes into a screechy harridan. And, like Bhabhi, this too is about a loving family split asunder.

It begins by hammering in the message about the members of the family being very, very deeply attached to each other. It’s rakshabandhan, and Meena (Nanda) is teasing her older brothers Rajendra (Balraj Sahni) and Shekhar (Rehman). Meena’s tying of the rakhi on her brothers’ wrists is fraught with much emotion. We also discover that Meena, Rajendra and Shekhar are orphans, surviving on the modest income of Rajendra, who works in a factory. Shekhar is studying at a college in a city [Wasn’t Rehman the wrong choice for this role? He certainly doesn’t look young enough to be a college student], and everybody’s hopes are pinned on him—Shekhar will eventually get a good job and do them proud.

More facts emerge. Meena discovers a girl’s photograph tucked away in Shekhar’s book, and we also learn that Rajendra has long been in love with the local school teacher Yashoda (Veena, looking very striking). Yashoda wants them to get married, but Rajendra has been putting it off, with the excuse that he’s too poor to look after her in the style she deserves. A lame excuse, I think, and (though she doesn’t say so), Yashoda looks like that’s her opinion too.

Shekhar has to return to college, and when he’s leaving, Rajendra promises that he will send the college fees soon. Shekhar goes off, but Rajendra is in a dilemma: he doesn’t know where he’s going to get the money to pay for Shekhar’s education.
Meena, however, has a solution to offer. Their chachaji (their father’s younger brother) holds Rs 5,000 of theirs, which had been put by for Meena’s wedding, whenever that happens. Rajendra should use part of that money. Rajendra refuses to touch what he says is her money, but Meena bullies him into it.

Rajendra finally gives in and goes to visit Chachaji (Radha Kishan). Chachaji is a slime ball of the first order, with no scruples whatsoever. He informs Rajendra that the 5,000 was used up in the funerals of Rajendra’s parents; there’s nothing left now. And he’s broke, too: he hasn’t any money to lend. Even Rajendra realises that this is a lie, but there’s nothing he can say.

Back home, Meena manages to persuade Rajendra to sell off some of her jewellery to get the money.

Chachaji’s son Mahesh (Mehmood) is a happy-go-lucky young man who disapproves of his father’s money-grubbing ways. He’s also very close to his cousins Rajendra, Shekhar and Meena, so when it’s time for Mahesh to go back to the city (where he studies), Rajendra gives him the money for Shekhar’s fees.
But when Mahesh goes to meet Shekhar, it’s to find that Shekhar, instead of devoting himself to his studies (as everybody back home fondly believes him to be doing), is busy romancing the beautiful and very wealthy Shobha (Shyama).

Mahesh hands over the money to Shekhar, gives him a lecture on being a diligent student, and then goes off to write to Rajendra about Shobha.
The long and the short of it is that Rajendra comes galloping to the city, to Shobha’s house, where he ends up meeting Shobha’s father (Badri Prasad), a man with a weak heart and an obsessive fondness for gambling on horse races. Shobha’s father is a jolly sort and when Rajendra confides in him—that Shekhar cannot possibly get married until Meena is wedded—he suggests a promising young doctor whom he knows, as a bridegroom for Meena.

Rajendra is very grateful, and returns home. Shortly after, Shobha’s father comes to their house with the groom’s father (Hari Shivdasani). The old gentleman approves of Meena and the match is fixed.
Now Rajendra needs money for Meena’s wedding. He goes to Chachaji to ask for a loan, and Chachaji tells Rajendra that he knows of a rich seth who can lend the money against some surety: Rajendra’s house, for instance? Rajendra is initially reluctant, but he’s so desperate, he agrees.
The next day, when Rajendra goes to Chachaji to sign the papers, he discovers that the contract makes over the house to Chachaji rather than to the seth, in exchange for Rs 10,000. Chachaji gives Rajendra some rigmarole about having pledged his own house to the seth for Rs 10,000, which debt he’s passed on to Rajendra, but it’s clear there’s no seth in this business. Rajendra has no choice, so he signs.

Even Mahesh has found a girl for himself: one evening, an orphan named Sheila (Shubha Khote) takes shelter in his room, escaping from a guardian who wants to sell her off. Mahesh lets her stay on in his room, and later takes her home, much to the horror of Chachaji, who can’t stomach the idea of a penniless orphan as a daughter-in-law.

In the meantime, lightning strikes (metaphorically) Rajendra’s household. Meena, celebrating her upcoming wedding with her friends, falls from a swing and hits her head—and goes blind. Rajendra is too honest to hide the truth from the groom and his father, and tells them. The young man, Dr Ramesh Mathur (Sudesh Kumar, whom I somehow like, even though he didn’t do too many films) doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with marrying a blind girl. His father, on the other hand, refuses point blank, and insists on taking away the baaraat.

The family is devastated, but a weepy Meena persuades Rajendra that there can be one consolation for them: if Shekhar gets married and Shobha comes to live with them, joy will return to their house.
So Shekhar and Shobha marry, and Shobha comes home. She’s very sweet and loving to Meena, even going so far as to throw out her own maid, Chanchal (Kanchan Mala? I’m not sure), when Chanchal is derisive of Meena’s blindness.

But with Chanchal gone and Meena hampered by her blindness, the burden of all the housework suddenly falls on Shobha. She copes with it fairly well, until it begins dawning on her that nobody really appreciates the amount of work she’s doing. Both Rajendra and Shekhar tick her off for not looking after Meena, and Shobha gradually starts becoming resentful. They finally reach a Cinderellaesque stage: Shobha making Meena do all the work, Meena bumbling about blindly and crying most of the time, and Shobha yelling at her or deliberately trying to show her up in a bad light.

Shekhar, caught between Meena and Shobha, takes his wife’s side, and on rakshabandhan (so appropriate!), just as Meena’s coming forward to tie a rakhi on his wrist, Shekhar leaves the house with Shobha in tow. They go back to the city, to stay with Shobha’s father. In his company, Shekhar soon becomes addicted to horse racing and gambling.

Then comes lightning bolt #2. One day, a horse on which Shobha’s father had bet Rs 10,000, loses a race. When the old man hears of it, he has a heart attack and dies. From then on, Shekhar becomes even more degenerate, drinking, smoking and gambling away Shobha’s fortune.
Soon after, bolt #3. Meena—pining away for Shekhar—falls ill. Since there’s no-one else at home now, Rajendra has to look after her. He ends up getting late for work every other day, and one day, he loses his job.

As if that wasn’t enough, Chachaji drops bolt #4. He comes to Rajendra and demands the money he’d lent. If Rajendra doesn’t cough up the Rs 10,000 within the next 24 hours, his house is forfeit.
And since Rajendra can’t possibly get 10,000 from anywhere, Chachaji takes possession of the house. Rajendra and Meena now set off into the world, he taking up occasional jobs as a labourer to buy food for them. It’s a hard life, and with no light visible at the end of the tunnel…

Can things get any worse for this family? Can Rajendra, Shekhar and Meena ever come together again? Will Chachaji give up his avarice, and Shobha her spoilt brat-cruel bhabhi ways? Will Meena ever stop sobbing? And will that handsome Dr Ramesh show up again?

What I liked about this film:

The music. Very good tunes; my favourites are Jaaoon kahaan bataaye dil (one of the few Mukesh songs I really like) and Main rangeela pyaar ka raahi.

Veena. Even though she isn’t a major character in the film, she’s one of the most likeable: a smart, strong woman, patient and gentle but with a self-assurance that’s very alluring. And she’s beautiful. I wish she’d been given more screen time in Chhoti Bahen.

What I didn’t like:

It’s just so melodramatic. Yes, I know a lot of Hindi films of the 50’s and 60’s are full of self-sacrifice and uninhibited emotion, but this is one of those that really go overboard. While things are good (the first few scenes), they’re too good: oversugared and nauseatingly happy-family. When they go wrong, they go wrong all around, with everybody shrieking or crying or suffering silently. Nanda, especially, gets very irritating. She’s such a good actress, but through most of Chhoti Bahen, all she’s called upon to do is weep. Such a waste.

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20 thoughts on “Chhoti Bahen (1959)

  1. What a contrast – from a fluffy Elvis film straight to a family weep-fest! I LOVE the songs from this film, especially the Jaaon kahan batey dil, but I am glad I havent seen it (I think I havent, but it sounds so much like every other family melodrama down the ages that I cant be sure!).

    Veena looks lovely, but how was her acting? I’ve only seen her as a young woman in a couple of films (Afsana and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi) but she tended to go for old-fashioned histrionics – looking into infinity and speaking as if declaiming from a podium! She was like that even in Shatranj Ke Khiladi and I figured that if Satyajit Ray couldnt get her to act, nobody could!

  2. Is this the same Veena who acted in Taj Mahal?
    She really has a strong personality.

    The actors are all well loved by me – Rehman, Balraj, Nanda, Shyama. Sp if nothing else just their presence might make the film more tolerable for me :-)

    I might watch it whenever I care to buy it.
    Thanks :-)

  3. Chhoti Bahen: The name alone sounds so melodramtic. Hands off of films with names of female relatives in it!
    As good as Nanda can be, I think she just can’t be good enough in a film like this. It must have been herculean task though, to cast off the chhoti behen mantle and advance to leading lady roles. Poor Shyama, again in a bad bhabhi role! and poor balraj sahni again in a goody, goody elder brother rle. I woul dhavve loved ot know his opinion about such roles and how he felt enacting them. Poor chap!
    Though Rehman looks too old to be a college student, he still has a suave grin!
    feels great to be back on your blog!

  4. Hahh, i have seen this one, i don’t even remember what led me to the film i think i watched it mostly because it was a LV PRASAD film, the songs are excellent as you’ve pointed out, ain’t it funny how most of the best tunes were picturized on Mehmood & Shobha Khote. i like Main Rickshawala a lot and the only thing i had to say in my notes was ‘melodrama of sorts’.

    I found the ending a bit too stretched and that i had to reach for my remote, i rarely fast forward but the Climax tested my patience, but still i’m glad i watched it as it contains some of my favourite Mehmood songs

  5. bollyviewer: Yes, quite a change, isn’t it? :-)). Actually, though, Wild in the Country is much more melodramatic than most Hollywood films. And Chhoti Bahen wasn’t as unbearably weepy as, say, Bhabhi – that one really got my goat. At least this one had a good cast, and it never descends to the depths of melodrama that Bhabhi plumbed.
    Veena’s acting was pretty good, in the few scenes she was in – restrained, gentle, and generally giving the impression of an emotionally mature person.

    pacifist: Yes, this is the same Veena – she was also there, as bollyviewer points out, in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (among other films). The cast is great, but I do wish this had been a happier film overall. There’s too much self-sacrificing going on!

    harvey: Welcome back – this blog’s been missing you! I have Balraj Sahni’s autobiography somewhere on my computer… must read it one of these days and find out what he had to say about roles like this (he did a lot of them, hai na?)

    bollywooddeewana: I agree about the climax being stretched – it was pretty obvious what was going to happen, but they took their time about it. Still, the music and the cast is good enough reason to watch. And the melodrama isn’t as depressing as some of the other films I’ve inflicted on myself!

  6. I am with memsaab on this one… shudder!!! This doesn’t even sound like it would provide unintentional laughter.

    Nothing cracks me up like a good old weepie–take Dosti, for example. Every time some misfortune befell those whimpering acchai ke putley, I couldn’t stop laughing :-)

    I think it was Bollywood’s first Bromance ;-)

  7. memsaab: Not as bad as Bhabhi, believe me. Now that I’ve seen (and survived) Bhabhi, I can take on just about anything. Not Badi Bahen, perhaps (yes, these filmy sisters are a pain, aren’t they?), but mostly everything else.

    Sabrina: Oh, this is definitely not the type to provide unintentional laughter. In fact, I don’t think too many films of this type do make me laugh – they just make me want to find the person(s) who wrote/directed/whatever the film, and murder them. Preferably really slowly and painfully!

  8. This movie brings back memories: of me, sobbing uncontrollably along with Nanda, and my parents, hoping nobody would connect them with this weepy child! After that movie, I refused to watch movies with Nanda in them. The other weepy movie I remember is Dil ek Mandir. I cannot believe how weepy those movies used to be, and it is amazing that people even wanted to go and see the movies and cry in the theaters.

  9. Haha, I can well imagine your parents cringing! Somehow, such melodramatic films never made me cry, not even as a child. What did make the tears come into my eyes was the last scene in Anupama: it’s very sensitively done, and I can’t see it without feeling weepy.

  10. I admire your fortitude, Madhu.:-) Not even my love of “jaon kahan bata aye dil” and Rehman can prompt me to sit through *this*.:-)

  11. Would you believe it, Shalini? I actually have watched this twice (no, not because I liked it so much – but because I first watched it a few months back, and then again a week back, but that only because I wanted to review it).

    For Rehman, I’d probably much rather see Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam or Pyaasa… he’s so good in those, and they’re such great films, despite being not a barrel of laughs.

  12. I remember watching this movie long long ago. I usually love re-watching movies…but this is one of those very few movies I had vowed never to watch again. But I like Mehmood-Shubha scenes in this and the songs of course!
    I had seen it on tv and couldn’t even fast-forward it. It was such a torture, esp the ending. I was waiting and waiting for it to get over and it seemed so never-ending.

    I somehow found Bhabhi better than this. Chhupa kar meri aankhon ko ( i love this song) and Chal ud jaa re panchhi (I had heard Balraj’s interview on Vividh Bharati about this song and was really curious to find out how it was picturized) were the two main reasons that prompted me to watch the movie.
    And having seen Chhoti Behen which was similar in more than one way, I had expected Bhabhi to be extremely emotional, weepy and melo-dramatic. I guess I had set my expectations so high that I was sort of disappointed with it ;-)

    I had been trying to get hold of your book for a long time. And with so much of Telangana problems going on in the city over the past 2 months, I hadn’t ventured going out much. It struck me rather late that I could actually have ordered it online and I finally did. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Interesting plot plus I loved the way you have described things (both characters and objects); could actually visualize them – be it the paan-daan, or the silver bracelet, or the pendant with lotus petals, carrot red haired Daniyal, Mehtaab’s beauty, Gulnar’ figure, their attires, the look and feel of the havelis and dalaans, the city of Shahjahanabad….Amazing! And I think I’ve got a crush on Muzaffar Jung ;-)
    And not to forget – the crisp murder mystery…it was very intriguing.

  13. sunheriyaadein, thank you so much for telling me you liked The Englishman’s Cameo: that’s a great thing to be told first thing in the morning. You just made my day! :-)

    By the way, Amrita over at Indiequill just published an interview with me about the book. Here it is:

    http://indiequill.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/the-englishmans-cameo-an-interview/

    Re: Bhabhi versus Chhoti Bahen, I guess it’s a question of what one saw first. I saw Bhabhi first and thought it was dismal beyond belief – so, when it was time to watch Chhoti Bahen, my expectations were so low, I actually didn’t mind the film too much! But yes, I’d any day rather see a Dil Deke Dekho or a CID

  14. Nice interview… I had few of those questions in my mind as well. And I am delighted that this is going to be a series and your are already writing short stories featuring Muzaffar Jang!!!!
    I’ve always been hooked to Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Enid Blyton series as a kid, Sidney Sheldon for a while and the likes of Robert Ludlum, Jeffery Archer, Clive Cussler, John Grisham as I grew up. Have read few Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Maeve Binchy books as well. But there was this entire range of historical detective series that I never read.Thank you for all those recommendations, will check them out soon.
    I’m really fascinated by the sets of your book. Would love to go on those historical walks someday.

  15. Thank you so much! I’ve enjoyed – for many years now – reading historical detective fiction, and I think this genre can be often much more fascinating than contemporary detective fiction. If I’m able to convert even one person, I’ll be pleased with myself! :-)

  16. Yes Wipy movies of early days. I remember watching Wachan (Promise) with Meena Kumari and asking my mom why the lady let the man believe she is bad, why she lets him be drunkard and why she does not fight back. My mom’s reply: “…Because she is holding onto her promise and does not want to go back to her word. She is dignified and has self respect….”. To save life of mine I can’t understand what is so great about sacrificing yourself for people who take you for granted.

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