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).