My mother’s grandfather was one of those domineering patriarchs who governed everything his family did, including the films they saw. The films deemed worthy of watching were very limited; Hollywood, by virtue of producing films with a Biblical theme, managed to get some (like Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur) past his strict censorship, but Hindi cinema didn’t have a chance. Kismet holds the distinction of being the only Hindi film he allowed his family to see. Considering it’s quite a formulaic potboiler (with an anti-hero and a girl who gets pregnant without being married), I was surprised at his choice—but then, it may have had something to do with the fact that Kismet was a huge hit that ran for 3 years in a theatre in Calcutta, where my mum’s family lived. Great-granddad must’ve thought anything that sustained so must have some merit.
The story begins in a jail, where long-time thief Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) is being released after completing 2 years: this has been his third stint in prison. Though the jailor exhorts him to be law-abiding, Shekhar’s first task on emerging is to pick the pocket of a thief whom he sees stealing a gold watch from an old man. I think Shekhar will be a goodie and return the watch to the old man; but no, he takes it to a fence (David) and sells it.
While he’s with the fence, the original thief, Baanke (?) turns up, and is pretty put out at finding that Shekhar had whacked the watch from him.
They make up soon enough, and Baanke invites Shekhar to join him in the near future in busting a wealthy man’s safe. He doesn’t say where, but assures Shekhar that he’s working at getting access to the safe.
On his way out, Shekhar bumps into the old man from whom Baanke had stolen the watch. The old man’s very distressed. It turns out the watch was the last possible thing he could sell to keep body and soul together (that was why he’d gone to the fence). Now, he doesn’t even have the money to go and watch Rani at the theatre.
Shekhar’s amused that his old fogy, hardly able to afford a square meal, is still a theatre buff. He therefore decides to treat him to the theatre, and the two of them go off to the Indramahal Theatre, owned by Indrajit Babu (?). While they’re waiting for the show to start, the old man points out Indrajit Babu and his wife (?) in a box opposite. He tells Shekhar that he, the old man, was once the owner of this theatre and Indrajit was his employee. But drink, that curse of the masses, took hold of him and reduced him to serious, crushing penury. He is now heavily in debt to Indrajit, who has taken over the theatre in part payment.
The show—consisting of the song Aaj Himalaya ki choti se—begins, with Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) leaning on a crutch and singing amidst a horde of very active extras who dance and stride and prance about. The old man nearly starts crying when he sees Rani, and out comes another sob story. When Rani was a little girl and a very accomplished dancer, her father—now this wretched old man—had, in a drunken fit, gone on playing the tabla long after Rani had tired. She had fallen and suffered a paralytic attack that ruined one leg. Since then, she’s been crippled. (The flashback scene has some very good dancing by the very accomplished Baby Kamala).
The show over, the old man sneaks away (he’s long disappeared from Rani’s life), but not before Rani sees him with Shekhar. She tries to stop her father, but he leaves, and Rani, limping after him, is nearly hit by a car but Shekhar saves her. There’s immediate chemistry here—Rani is anyway biased in favour of Shekhar since she thinks he is her father’s friend.
In the crowd emerging from the theatre are Indrajit Babu and his wife, who’s wearing a distinctive and expensive pearl necklace. Shekhar takes advantage of the crowd and steals it, then hides it in a violin case he finds lying in a tonga waiting for passengers.
When the police arrive and find Shekhar loitering about, they suspect him (remember that criminal record?). But a search reveals nothing, so they let him go. The tonga, meanwhile, has gone. Shekhar gets another tonga and follows, to find himself ending up at the house where Rani lives with her younger sister Leela (Chandraprabha) and their guru.
Much transpires: Shekhar breaks in and retrieves the necklace; the police see him and give chase; he falls down a rickety staircase in the house; Rani discovers him; the police demand entry and accuse Shekhar of being a thief—but Rani protects him, saying that she knows Shekhar well enough and that he’s a good man.
Shekhar is suitably grateful, and since it’s a rainy night and he’s very wet, agrees to stay the night at their house. The next morning, he discovers just how deplorable the two girls’ plight is. Though their father has decamped, Indrajit Babu holds Rani and Leela liable to pay his debts; every now and then, therefore, Indrajit Babu’s manager turns up, trying to bully Rani into paying back the money. Rani is now in such dire straits that her only recourse is to sell off their piano—but she won’t do even that, because it’s the one thing that reminds her of her father.
When the manager’s taken himself off, Rani confides in Shekhar and it emerges that the girls used to take in tenants, but haven’t been able to get anyone in ages. Shekhar sees this as a good opportunity to help out with their finances and remain in close proximity to Rani. So he becomes a tenant, and a romance soon blossoms, with them sweetly singing Aare baadal dheere to each other.
When Rani shows him an old photograph of her wearing a pearl necklace (which she, to make ends meet, had to sell), Shekhar realises it’s the same necklace he’d stolen from Indrajit Babu’s wife. He gets it back from the fence and gifts it to Rani. All is sweetness and love.
Unknown to Rani and Shekhar, there’s another, though not quite so innocent, romance blossoming in the neighbourhood. Indrajit Babu lives next door, and his son Mohan (Kanu Roy) has loved Leela well but not wisely. She’s been urging him to marry her, but Mohan’s too scared of his formidable father to speak up and say he wants to marry Leela. One day, Leela ends up confessing all: she’s pregnant, and if Mohan doesn’t marry her soon, her name will be mud.
And there’s one last bit of complication in all of this: a long-lost son. The inspector who’s investigating the theft of Indrajit Babu’s wife’s necklace one day comes to their home, and by accident stumbles upon an old and painful episode in the family’s life. 20 years ago, Indrajit Babu’s elder son Madan (his name had, helpfully, been tattooed on his forearm) had run away from home after an altercation with his father. Indrajit Babu’s wife, though Madan and Mohan’s stepmother, loves both boys as her own and has never left off pining for the lost Madan.
And so, we have it all: a thief who shows little sign of reforming, a lost son, an illicit relationship, imminent scandal, looming bankruptcy, a lost father, and a girl with a bad leg. How much more distressing can this get?
It isn’t, actually: somehow Kismet, despite its plethora of seemingly hopeless cases, doesn’t descend into morbidity. It may have meant to be very pathetic, but it’s redeemed by its tuneful songs, by Ashok Kumar’s debonair and charismatic style, and by the unintentional comic relief provided by the very theatrical acting of some characters. A fairly dated film, not bad but not great either.
What I liked about this film:
Ashok Kumar. Where Mumtaz Shanti is theatrical, Ashok Kumar is charming—and his acting is effortless and believable.
Aaj Himalaya ki choti se. I have never been much of a fan of Pradeep, but his forte is definitely patriotic songs. This one, with excellent music by Anil Biswas, is one of the best: a marching song with an infectiously patriotic fervour to it. The smart thing about it is the way it cocks a snook at the British. Kismet was made in 1943 when the British were still very much in India, so Pradeep couldn’t risk putting in words that were obviously anti-British. He got around the censors by putting in one line against the Germans and Japanese, thus giving the song a superficial anti-Axis tone. But the entire flavour of the song (which was also how audiences interpreted it) is definitely anti-British.
What I didn’t like:
The unnecessarily convoluted plot. Fewer elements and fewer complications, and this film would’ve been a whole lot better.
The theatrical acting of some of the cast. While Ashok Kumar, David…
and the actor who plays the inspector (?)…
… are fairly natural, Mumtaz Shanti and the actor who plays Baanke got on my nerves with their exaggerated diction and histrionics. Thoroughly unconvincing.
But. This is an important landmark in the history of Hindi cinema—the first instance of an anti-hero; a very major hit (it grossed an amount which would supposedly have been the equivalent of over Rs 600 million today); and entertaining enough.