Frequent readers of this blog have probably realised I have a soft spot for ‘real life’ stories: Gladys Aylward, Dr Kotnis, Changez Khan, Shahjahan: I’m game. Of course, I don’t always end up with films that bear any resemblance to the life of the person in question, but there’s no harm in trying.
So, another. Afanasy Nikitin was a horse trader from Tver in Russia, who came to India in the late 15th century, having started off from Tver in 1466. His travels took him down the Volga River, through Persia, and then via dhow to India. He is believed to have disembarked in present-day Maharashtra; over the years that followed, he travelled through a large part of peninsular India, including Bidar and Vijaynagar. He died in 1472 in Smolensk, on his way home; his travelogue of India, however, endures: entitled Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray (‘The Journey Beyond Three Seas’), it describes in detail all that Nikitin saw of what was to him a wild, exotic land like nothing he knew.
It also became the basis for this 1957 film, the first Indo-Soviet co-production. Pardesi or Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray was directed by Vasily Pronin and Ahmed Abbas, and dubbed in both Hindi (a B/W film) and Russian (a colour film). Despite much effort, I wasn’t able to lay my hands for a long time on the Hindi version. But Richard managed to find a subtitled copy of the Russian version on youtube, which I’ve finally got around to watching.
The film begins in Russia, where a haggard Afanasy Nikitin (Oleg Strizhenov) asks for shelter at a monastery. He is allowed in, and while sitting in a cell later that day, begins to ponder over his past. We go into flashback, to six years before, where a younger Nikitin is recuperating from an illness he’d caught on a journey. This young man, we learn, is the type who in Hindi would be said to have “pairon mein chakke”—literally, ‘wheels tied to his feet’. His one desire in life is to see as much as he can of the world, and so he’s always going off on one journey or another. Nikitin’s mother Varvara (V Obukhova) is fed up with him:
As is (though she’s too shy and sweet and bovine to say it) the girl Nikitin’s mother hopes he’ll marry; and his two sisters:
Unfortunately for all these ladies, an old friend of Nikitin’s, Mikhailo (Y Belyakov) turns up, and when he gets a chance to chat with Nikitin, persuades him to come along on a trip to Moscow. Mikhailo and some other merchants of Tver will be going to meet the Grand Prince in Moscow; it’ll be a fabulous trip.
Nikitin agrees, and the men go off to Moscow and to an audience with the Grand Prince (who looks rather a lot like Rishi Kapoor, doesn’t he? The actor’s L Topchiyev).
The Grand Prince has recently met a Lithuanian who travelled to India, and shares his learnings: that the Indians have tails (some have two heads), and are ruled by a Monkey King. Nikitin and Mikhailo, both well-travelled enough to see through this baloney, laugh it off. The result is that the Grand Prince ask them if they’d rather go to India and see for themselves. With them will go other merchants, and part of their mission will be to find possible markets for Russian goods in India—and Indian wares that may sell in Russia. Both friends agree readily.
This news bursts as a bombshell in Nikitin’s home, with mother and sisters pleading with him not to go. Realising that her son won’t listen, Varvara finally gives him her blessings, along with more practical gifts: a pearl necklace that he can sell if he should fall on hard times, and a potion that can be used to cure snakebite.
So Nikitin & Co. set off, travelling down the Volga. Their boat meets up with that of Hassan Bek (P Jairaj), the Ambassador of Shirvan to Russia. He is surprised at the adventurousness of the Russian merchants, and is especially impressed by Nikitin’s intrepidity in going off to India.
Hassan Bek goes his way and the Russians continue—straight into the mouth of disaster after disaster. First, their boat is attacked by bloodthirsty Tatars, who kill some of the Russians, take others prisoner, and either destroy the goods the Russians are carrying, or carry them off as loot. Nikitin and Mikhailo find themselves on their own. They set off on foot, and a while later, a weakened Mikhailo collapses and dies (in dramatic fashion: he crosses himself, falls flat, exclaims “I am dying!” and cops it). Nikitin is now on his own.
But he joins a caravan that is passing through, headed for the port of Ormuz in Persia. As they travel, they find another traveller on his own: the Portuguese Miguel Rivera (V Yakut), who was abandoned by his caravan after he fell ill. Miguel joins the caravan too, and becomes friends of a sort with Nikitin. Of a sort, because one night Miguel steals Nikitin’s money, punctures the caravan’s waterskins, and rides away on a stolen horse.
Nikitin, with his last bit of money, buys a horse from the caravan and chases Miguel all the way to Ormuz. He catches up only by accident, when the ship he boards for India happens to be the same one on which Miguel has stowed away. One night, Nikitin discovers Miguel and, after a tussle, pitches the thief overboard. With Miguel out of the way and Nikitin’s sole possessions down to his clothes and his horse, we’re now free to concentrate on Nikitin in India. Which, of course, is what this film is mostly about.
Nikitin’s ship docks somewhere on the west coast of India, and our man is suitably dazzled by all the sights and sounds. He is impressed by a minstrel, Sakharam (Balraj Sahni), then miffed when Sakharam refuses to accept the money Nikitin holds out.
There are others, though, to whom Nikitin proves useful. A distraught elderly couple (Manmohan Krishna and Achla Sachdev) have come to the temple, crying and shrieking because their daughter Champa (Nargis, though we don’t see her face: her long hair covers it) has been bitten by a snake. The temple priest is the only person who can cure her, and he isn’t around.
It seems fortuitous that Varvara had given her son a cure for snakebite; Nikitin now uses it to cure Champa (all without seeing her face) and thus earns the undying gratitude of her parents.
He goes off; we get a glimpse of the recovering Champa’s face; and the scene shifts to Nikitin, who finds that in his absence, someone has stolen his horse.
In his endeavours to find his horse, Nikitin makes friends with Sakharam, who tells Nikitin that he’d refused the foreigner’s money because he wanted to test him: Nikitin’s anger proves that he is an honest man. Nikitin also learns something useful: that his horse has been taken by the local governor, Asad Khan.
So Nikitin goes off to meet Asad Khan (David), who turns out to be a wily and dishonest creature. Much pleading (Nikitin) and sarcasm/oiliness/nastiness (Asad Khan) later, Asad Khan offers to return the horse if Nikitin will convert to Islam. When Nikitin, staunch Orthodox Christian that he is, refuses, Asad Khan threatens to have him clapped into prison if he doesn’t produce a guarantor within five days’ time. Nikitin, you see, has lost his deeds of passage somewhere along the way, so is actually an illegal immigrant.
Nikitin’s luck suddenly takes a turn for the better shortly after. Guess who arrives in town, runs into Nikitin, embraces him and puts Asad Khan in his place? Hassan Bek, the Ambassador of Shirvan! It’s a small world, and Nikitin gets his horse back.
He now sets off for Bidar, but hasn’t gone far when it starts raining. Nikitin takes shelter in a village where he is spotted by none other than the parents of Champa, who also live in the village. They invite Nikitin into their house and, since the rains in this part of the land are incessant—it will rain now for three months without pause, Champa’s mother says cheerfully—they insist that he stay with them.
Nikitin now finds himself shut into the same house as the lovely Champa, and both of them soon fall in love. They don’t say a word about it—not even to each other—but it’s fairly obvious, except to her parents. Nikitin begins to see roseate dreams about marrying Champa, but wakes up when he realises that the differences between them, of religion and country and tradition, are too vast and that Champa will probably never consent to marry him.
When the rain stops (even though Champa has been praying desperately that it will never stop and that Nikitin will not leave), he does leave, sorrowfully. Champa’s mother mentions that Champa has been betrothed since she was a child and will be getting married soon, which does nothing to make Nikitin feel happier about going away.
He rides off, though, to Bidar. There, he sells his horse and makes a little money; and he meets again an old friend, the philosophical Sakharam.
—And, one evening, wandering through an old temple with Sakharam, he meets the beautiful court dancer, Lakshmi (Padmini). Lakshmi is obviously smitten with Nikitin from the word go, and he seems to be quite enchanted by her too…
So much so, that after his efforts to get an audience with the Sultan of Bidar fall by the wayside, it’s Lakshmi he goes to for help. She tells him that the Sultan is a mere child; the de facto ruler is the Grand Wazir, Mahmud Gavan, an ex-merchant, and a scholar and astronomer to boot.
Nikitin goes to the observatory that Mahmud Gavan has built (more on this later), where he meets a wise old man (Prithviraj Kapoor). They chat a bit, Nikitin warms to the old man—and then meets him again later, when the Grand Wazir’s soldiers drag Nikitin off to the Grand Wazir’s hall of audience. The wise old man is Mahmud Gavan. He asks Nikitin if the Russian would like to go to Vijaynagar—a kingdom which happens to be Bidar’s greatest enemy—and when a surprised Nikitin agrees, Mahmud Gavan springs a surprise: Nikitin will go to Vijaynagar as a spy for Mahmud Gavan.
What next? Does Nikitin agree? What happens of Champa? Of the beauteous Lakshmi? And how does Nikitin end up back in Russia, at the end of his tether?
What I liked about this film:
Padmini. I must confess I’m not much of a Padmini fan, but in this, she’s wonderful. She’s grace, she’s beauty, she’s allure. Her dancing is fabulous, too—watch this fascinating performance where, just by gestures, she says a lot.
The beauty of it all. M S Achrekar won a Filmfare Award for Art Direction for this film; and it does have some lovely frames.
What I didn’t like:
I’m not sure why (perhaps because of the cast), but I had great expectations from this film. Expectations, unfortunately, which it did not live up to. Some parts of the film are fairly true (they include narration from Nikitin’s travelogue), but on the whole, the film just isn’t very gripping. Nikitin’s reasons for faffing about all across India are a little vague (only occasionally are we reminded that he’s here to explore opportunities for trade), and too much of what happens is a pointless aside that doesn’t really add to the story.
Nargis and Padmini’s roles. One of the best actresses in Hindi cinema from the 50’s, and one of the best dancers ever. And what were they doing in this film, with such minuscule roles? Honestly, these two were wasted. Or maybe they were there just because both were so popular in the USSR.
The historical monuments used as backdrops. Yes, a lot of people probably wouldn’t recognise the Tomb of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, the Jama Masjid, or even the barbican of the Red Fort; but they just might, mightn’t they? And considering that the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort were built in the late 1600’s, and that Tughlaq’s tomb, though already built, was hundreds of miles north, in Delhi, rather than in the Deccan… no, that shouldn’t have been done. Also, remember that observatory where Nikitin meets Mahmud Gavan? Jantar Mantar, built in the 1700’s.
Brownface! On Indians? All right, so we’re not as gora as the goras. But to have Achla Sachdev, Manmohan Krishna and Balraj Sahni (the most unfortunate victims) looking as if their faces had been rubbed in chocolate? Arrgh.
Ultimately, this is just a rambling, somewhat boring film. The (too few) scenes between Oleg Strizhenov and Nargis are sweet, though not too great on chemistry. Balraj Sahni is his usual wise, likeable self. The songs, scored by Anil Biswas, are good. But otherwise, the story goes all over the place, without sufficient motive. This should’ve either been more of a romance, or more of an adventure, or more of a drama. It tries to be all, and doesn’t quite succeed.
P.S. One thing that did touch a chord in me: the Indo-Soviet socialist bent of part of the film. I grew up at a time when India and the Soviet Union were the best of friends: lots of our children’s books were from the USSR, and every now and then, Delhi would play host to a USSR Festival or something of the sort. USSR almost felt like a second home, even though we’d never been there (we ‘knew’ it so well, my husband still says his favourite fairytale character was Baba Yaga!).
Well: Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray reminded me of those days. There was Oleg Strizhenov, praising India and talking about how he felt about all the many wonders he saw in India; and there were Strizhenov and Balraj Sahni, or Strizhenov and Prithviraj Kapoor, talking about how everywhere the rich and powerful oppressed the poor… medieval socialism, and it made me feel somehow nostalgic about my Soviet-influenced childhood.