Rail ka Dibba (1953)

I’m doing something I’ve never done on this blog before. I’m offering a free gift for anyone who cares for it: a VCD, once viewed, of Rail ka Dibba. I’ll ship it anywhere in India and you won’t need to pay a paisa for it.
Now, why I’m doing this. First, the preliminaries: it’s a Friends VCD, and we all know what that means. Their logo takes up much of the screen. The print is bad, the sound quality even worse. And their evil villain editor seems to have chewed up frames, scenes, dialogues—everything—in an attempt to fit the film onto two CDs. And though it’s not a really bad film, Rail ka Dibba left me feeling pretty certain that I won’t be watching it again. Anybody who wants it is welcome to it.

Sundar (Shammi Kapoor) is a poor young man who makes his living by being a 1950’s Hindi film version of a human billboard. A shoe company pays for his clothes, including a jacket on which their advertisement is emblazoned.
One day, faffing about near a lake, Sundar sees a girl (Madhubala) jump into the water. He quickly hauls off his shoes (smart thing to do!) and leaps in to fish her out. Unfortunately for him, the girl is not in the least grateful for his rescuing of her—she lets fly at him and tells him she wanted to drown. She even tries to run back into the water.

Sundar slaps the girl and manages to stem her hysteria. In between sniffles, she tells him her story: her name is Chanda, she’s an orphan and she has no-one in the whole wide world. She’s tried getting work as a maid in various households, but it’s invariably led to quarrels between the master and mistress, leading to Chanda being thrown out. Now, even her landlord has evicted her from her home, since she hasn’t paid rent for a long time. With no place to live and no hope left, Chanda has decided that suicide is the best option.

Sundar is horrified at this girl’s defeatist attitude. He gives her a pep talk and then tells her that she can come over to his place and live there. It’s not much, but at least she’ll have a roof over her head. Chanda cheers up, and Sundar takes her to his home, which is—is the Indian Railways listening?—an old, derelict railway carriage standing by itself near the railway tracks. Chanda immediately falls in love with it and begins to think of it as home.

Soon after, she is introduced to Sundar’s friends: Professor Nirogi (Om Prakash), a perpetually tipsy ex-magician and showman:

And Mohan (Sajjan), unemployed but with very definite political views which he spouts to anyone who’s willing to listen. Mohan also lives with Sundar in the rail ka dibba, and admits to Chanda that he came to this place the same way she did—Sundar saved his life and brought him here.

Professor Nirogi, like Chanda, has not been paying rent, so one fine day his landlord (Jayant) throws him out. The ever generous Sundar insists that Nirogi come and stay in the rail ka dibba too, so now they’re a cosy foursome. The rail ka dibba becomes a little haven of happiness and brotherly (also sisterly?) love: they share whatever meagre food they get, and there’s much self-sacrificing and forced smiles. Even when Sundar loses his job and they’re wondering where their next meal will come from, they grin bravely on, or at least stick together, even if they can’t summon up the energy to grin.

At this point, the scene shifts abruptly to the office of a newspaper called Prakash Daily. The general factotum of the newspaper (actor?) is exceptionally busy on this particular day because Prakash Daily has run up unprecedented sales—from being a rag which ends up being sold mainly to the raddiwallah (the rubbish collector), it’s selling like hot cakes. The owner (actor? Ram Avtar, identified by bollyviewer and memsaab) of Prakash Daily, when he arrives in his office, is unable to figure out why his newspaper is suddenly so popular.

A telephone call, however, seems to solve the mystery: the newspaper had carried an article about vox populi—and the young man featured in it had some interesting political views that readers seemed to have warmed to. Okay, now I’m beginning to see light.

But the scene now shifts back to the quartet in the rail ka dibba. Chanda tells Sundar she’ll try to find work, but he shuts her up. No, he and his pals won’t live off her earnings. Never.
One day, though, Mohan and Nirogi see Chanda dancing as she goes about her work, and Nirogi offers to take Chanda to a theatre where she may be paid to dance. Mohan, Nirogi and Chanda go to the theatre, and she’s hired to do a show.
[Aside: I see no reason for the theatre scene, other than a song-and-dance for Madhubala. She does get on the stage, but it’s a one-time appearance, and though they get paid, the theatre manager steals the money back. End result? Nothing, except that Sundar half-drowns Nirogi when he comes to know that Nirogi put Chanda onstage.]

While Sundar, Nirogi and Chanda are still trying to find ways to make ends meet, Mohan arrives with fabulous news: the newspaper Prakash Daily has hired him, at the fantastic sum of Rs 300 per month. And Mohan, bursting with happiness, has bought gifts for his friends with the advance he’s received: a sari for Chanda, a mandolin for Sundar, a crystal ball for Nirogi. To celebrate, they pile into a taxi and go off to the beach, for a walk, a swim, and some general rejoicing.

In the course of the evening, Nirogi drifts off—to join an itinerant magician who’s doing a show on the beach—and Mohan gets pulled into a political rally of sorts. Sundar and Chanda end up by themselves, and when it starts raining, they look for shelter. Unlike other filmy couples with little or no hold on their libidos, this pair is exceptionally ‘good’: they take refuge in a temple full of priests, and get married.

For some odd reason, neither Sundar nor Chanda think it important to tell their friends of the wedding. (Um. A thought, here: how do they maintain the charade in the somewhat close confines of the rail ka dibba?) Anyway, one can’t really blame Mohan when one day he finds Chanda on her own and tells her that now that he’s earning well and is going to be given a big house to stay in, he’d like to get married to Chanda.

Chanda is horrified, and tells Mohan why she can’t marry him, with the result that he flies into a rage. Sundar comes bouncing in at this moment too, and there’s general mayhem. The men rush at each other’s throats, and Chanda rushes around shrieking (I hadn’t known Madhubala could be this raucous). Finally, Sundar knocks Mohan out and drags his inert body onto the railway tracks. Chanda is getting hysterical by now, so Sundar, still in a fury, explains: this is where he’d first found Mohan—and stopped him from committing suicide—so, now that Mohan’s proved himself to be a slimeball, it’s best to push him back to square one.

Chanda tries to plead with Sundar: if Mohan dies, pulped under a train, Sundar will be a murderer. He’ll go to jail. Does he want to see Chanda left to her own devices all over again?

We never really know what happens at this stage, because the film inexplicably (Friends: Do you have an explanation?) jumps to another scene. Nirogi’s telling Sundar and Chanda that the police will be coming around any minute now, so they’d better make their escape. And so the miyan-biwi go away from the rail ka dibba, away into the world… and the film goes on, in its meandering way.

What I liked about this film:

Madhubala. She’s so very beautiful. I wish I could have said the same for Shammi Kapoor (who, along with Madhubala, was one of the reasons I saw this film). Sadly, what with that moustache, he reminds me too much of Raj Kapoor… I need to see Dil Deke Dekho or another of his later films to erase the somewhat uncomfortable memory of Rail ka Dibba.

One song: Duniya jawaan hai, dil meherbaan. It’s a great song, and Cuckoo’s at her best.

What I didn’t like:

The lack of story. The plot is tenuous enough to be almost non-existent, and very little of consequence happens in it (the synopsis I’ve given above, for instance, is approximately three-fourths of the film). I can forgive films with little happening in the way of a story, but at least character development should happen, or something. Rail ka Dibba, unhappily enough, has almost nothing going on that leads anywhere. There are odd scenes that neither help the story along nor help a viewer get a better glimpse of a character, and there are unnecessary, completely unfunny diversions.

The crux of the film is the rail ka dibba, which almost becomes a metaphor for being, both physically and mentally, with one’s friends and family. It’s a sweet thought, but oh, so ineptly handled. And with a cast that includes some really good actors? (Agha and Pratima Devi are also present, in cameos). Criminal.

So! Who wants the VCD? (No subtitles, by the way).

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24 thoughts on “Rail ka Dibba (1953)

  1. The idea sounds great on paper, and I can imagine what a good director/screenplay could have made of it, especially if they had bothered to develop the characters properly….
    good that I can refuse your offer with a safe conscience, not in the right country!

  2. Yes, I’d think maybe a Bimal Roy or a Hrishikesh Mukherjee might have done something really good with a premise like that. Four people, thrown together by circumstances, trying to survive – much potential there. Sad it turned out the way it did!

    You sure? Your sister? Some other relatives?!

  3. I can exchange it for ‘Fagun’ which has some best songs, but equally worst story and Bharatbhushan as hero. But Madhubala looks fabulus. Most of the old Hindi films I have collected are due to the beautiful songs in them.

  4. I actually didnt think it was so bad! Probably because I watched it with The Memsaab and we oohed and aahed over Sajjan and Madhubala and deplored Shammi’s moustache. Plus, a Shammi not jumping around and not “eve-teasing” the heroine is still a novelty enough for me to enjoy! But yes, it wasnt the best of films and fRIENDS did their evil best to destroy as much as they could.

    The newspaper editor is Ram Avatar, I think.

  5. I haven’t finished reading the review but I just ahve to say this: Madhubala look soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
    beautiful here!!!!!!

  6. Ah, see *this* is what I remembered Rail Ka Dibba to be like – totally blah. Even the Shamshad Begum dominated soundtrack didn’t give me anything to latch on too.:-( I recommend a dose of Kishore Kumar madness to help you forget the railway car – try Naughty Boy.:-D

  7. I liked this movie (although no subtitles in addition to all its other faults, thanks to bollyviewer I knew what was basically going on though)…I loved the chemistry between Shammi and Madhubala, loved Sajjan too.

    BUT I will never ever pay for a fRIENDS product again. And I would not make you pay postage to mail it either. So totally not worth it. They SUCK. They should be driven out of business.

    (and the newspaper editor is def. Ram Avtar, the fat guy from Teesri Manzil :)

  8. Padmakar: Ouch! Yes, Phagun is pretty awful too, isn’t it? I remember seeing part of Phagun years ago on Doordarshan, and not being particularly upset when the electricity suddenly went and I couldn’t see the rest of the film. Especially as Bharatbhushan isn’t one of my favourite actors.

    bollyviewer: Yes, a moustached Shammi isn’t my cup of tea – though I have to agree that a Shammi who doesn’t harass the heroine is a novelty! Thank you for identifying Ram Avtar.

    harvey: Isn’t she? I’d see a film just for Madhubala, she’s so absolutely gorgeous. :-)

    Shalini: Eeeks! I have seen Naughty Boy – that was so bad, I didn’t even have the courage to write up a review of it. :-(

    memsaab: At the risk of being considered an iconoclast (even in my own opinion), I’d say I liked Sajjan a teensy-weensy bit more than I liked Shammi Kapoor here. But even between the three of them, Sajjan, Shammi Kapoor and Madhubala, they couldn’t save this film, not as far as I’m concerned!

    You know what I really hate? Friends seem to have a monopoly on all the very old and obscure films. This is isn’t fair at all!

  9. As far as I’m concerned the Friends people belong in Moral Jail, locked up where we can poke at them with sharp sticks. If only someone who actually loved this cinema had gotten the rights to these films instead :(

  10. I like the story very much. Perhaps the very bad print and cuts took away the pleasure?
    I know that I couldn’t enjoy Kaagaz ke phool for these very reasons.
    The story always seemed so choppy with sudden changes, sometimes in a totally different direction.

  11. memsaab: Bags me a couple of sharp sticks too! Grrr. I really want to hit these people. Why on earth don’t they add just one more CD to the pack and charge us for it? I don’t mind paying extra just in order to see the entire film, not just the scenes there editor thinks are all right. And when I’m paying, I’d also like it if they could spend some time and effort in cleaning up the picture and sound. This was such an absolute disaster. :-(

    pacifist: Yes, it may have contributed, but I think by and large, the going-nowhereness of the film irked me (which wouldn’t have mattered if there had been some character development) – but now I’m not sure about that even. Friends may well have been responsible. Check out the last few comments on my review of Leader: Nasir pointed out some scenes that seem to have been arbitrarily deleted and may well have made the film a more coherent and enjoyable one.

  12. Whoa! That “friends” logo is really distracting and large. Is the other logo that’s so large “ultra” I think? Sounds like the beginning of Brahmachari with the attempted suicide by drowning, na? This reminds me of the time when I lived in an abandoned rail car with 3 guys I met, and how we scraped by, pooling our meager earnings, and…wait, that never happened with me. Sorry. OK, I loved how you wrote “pulped under a train.” Nice choice of words, very graphic! I think when plots jump like this and leave parts without resolution, it’s either poor editing or they just didn’t know what to write, or a little of both. In the last screen cap of Shammi, he looks like a woman in drag. The mustache wasn’t working too well for him in this. I would love so see Madhubala shrieking as well as her dancing scenes in this, but I may never get to it since you reviewed it sufficiently for me here. Dhanyavaad.
    All the best!

  13. Thank you for stopping by, sitaji! :-)

    I think the erratic jumps are probably a result of poor editing – both on the part of the filmmakers and Friends. Even now, I maintain that the basic story isn’t bad; it had plenty of potential, and the idea – of four strangers coming together and trying to survive – is a great one. There was much scope here for making a good film. But.

    Heheee! I like that comment about Shammi Kapoor with a moochh looking like a woman in drag. Too true!! And he’s so gorgeous, otherwise – at least in his later films, about 1957 to 1963-4.

  14. Right, he’s really quite attractive in a unique way, but in those photos you posted, especially the profile one, he looks like a woman, a manly woman, but a woman nonetheless. :)

  15. I agree. It’s probably something to do with the shape of his face – too thin at this point, and that moustache does nothing for him. Maybe he should have done Bluffmaster at this stage: that qawwali in drag would’ve been a piece of cake!

  16. Friends’ new release of Pukar (1939) is just as bad as this it looks like (I haven’t bought it and won’t, but I’ve seen screenshots on a torrent site)…I have a dvd made from a COPY of a VHS tape and the quality is better, and there are subtitles. Unbelievable.

  17. Someone needs to subject Friends to one of those really creative methods of torture Hindi spy thrillers from the 60’s came up with. Maybe the poisoned fingernails from Kahin din kahin raat? Honestly, these guys are terrible.

  18. I have this VCD but haven’t seen it yet. Inspite of it having Shammi and Madhubala, the fact that it’s Friend’s VCD has somehow stopped me from watching it. And now I don’t even think I’ll ever watch it.

  19. Haha!! Thank you for that vote of confidence. I bought this simply because with the sort of cast it had, I was pretty sure it would be worth a watch… well, we live and learn.

    But I still want to watch the other Madhubala-Shammi Kapoor starrer, Boyfriend. Am trying to lay my hands on that. It has great music, and both Shammi Kapoor and Madhubala look fabulous – at least in the songs I’ve seen.

  20. So Phagun turned out to be uninteresting i had ordered thephagun dvd simply because of the ek pardesi ho gaya, i was so excited to have the dvd, upon popping it in the player, turns out its the 1973 one with Waheeda and Dharmendra i was quite disappointed but i enjoyed the 1973 phagun that i didn’t mind all that much

  21. I didn’t even know there was a Phagun from 1973! But I don’t much care for Waheeda from the 70’s, so I don’t really think I’d have much wanted to see it, anyway…

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