Unlike Madhumati and Aar Paar, where he was just a supporting actor (though, in my opinion, his contribution to both films far surpassed the actual screen time of the characters he played), in Chhoomantar Johhny Walker is not just the funny man, but also the hero. He gets to sing and dance (the latter even in drag!). He gets to woo a pretty heroine, be brother to another lovely lady, and he gets to kick some serious ass.
Chhoomantar is set in a world of wealthy maharajas and zamindars who go around dressed in brocades, who sit on thrones and order around a retinue of adequately servile minions. It’s also a world of motor cars and theatres, of Bombay at its glitziest and sleaziest. The story, however, begins in a small village where Baijnath ‘Baiju’ (Johnny Walker) lives with his old father and five dimwitted brothers.
Baiju’s brothers may be dimwitted, but at least they don’t cause their father half the trouble Baiju does. The problem is that Baiju is an unmitigated flirt and songster: he has a beautiful voice, which he uses to full effect in all the romantic songs he’s constantly singing to the village women, all of whom are very distracted by Baiju’s singing. The old women can’t concentrate on their daily devotions, and the younger ones are besotted…
…which leads to their menfolk – brothers, fathers, etc – ganging up and beating Baiju at frequent intervals. Almost every other day, a group of men (and one day, even some young women, who’ve rescued Baiju from some belligerent men) end up putting the battered Baiju on a charpai and carrying him to his home,
… where they’ve built up such a collection of charpais that Baiju advises his father to sell them off: the family will be able to make good money from the sale.
Fortunately for him and for all those who love him, Baiju is amazingly resilient and bounces back to life very soon after he’s been beaten. Unfortunately, this only serves to infuriate the many enemies he’s made in the village. Matters reach such a head that the panchayat finally gets fed up and decrees that either Baiju leaves the village of his own accord, or his entire family – father, brothers and Baiju – are banished forever from the village.
Baiju is a loving son and sibling, so decides to leave on his own.
Not long after he’s set out into the big wide world, Baiju runs into a group of robbers who’ve surrounded an old man and are trying to hold him up. Our hero leaps into the fray, wields a single stick with considerable skill, and manages to chase off the robbers, to the eternal gratitude of the old man. He turns out to be a fisherman named Dhammo (S N Bannerjee), who’s headed back home with a pair of heavy gold bangles for his daughter – the bangles are what attracted the robbers.
Baiju and Dhammo (whom Baiju calls ‘chacha’ – ‘uncle’) soon become fast friends and decide to journey on together, for safety’s sake. When they arrive at the town of Daulatpur, from where a road leads to Dhammo’s village nearby, Dhammo invites Baiju to come on over and stay awhile. Baiju declines; he’d like to see a bit of Daulatpur first.
Almost his very first glimpse of Daulatpur is a surreptitious peek at Princess Ratnavali ‘Ratna’ (Anita Guha) and her ladies, singing and dancing in the palace gardens. Baiju is immediately and irrevocably smitten with the princess, and even she, fleeing in a flurry of embarrassed “Ooi ma!”s with her ladies, is not indifferent.
In fact, within the next few days, what with Baiju taking up a constant vigil below Ratna’s balcony, the princess is soon also pretty much in love with her admirer. With the help of one of her maids, Ratna soon discovers Baiju’s name and where he’s from. Unfortunately, around the same time, Baiju’s persistent mooning around below Ratna’s balcony draws the disapproving attention of Ratna’s father, the Raja of Daulatpur (Jagirdar).
The Raja orders Baiju’s shooing off, but it doesn’t work. Neither does thrashing, nor throwing him into the river. Finally, in spite of all of Ratna’s tearful pleading, the Raja has Baiju soundly thrashed, bound inside a sack, and then thrown into the river. That is the end of the upstart, says the Raja.
But no. Because Baiju is fished out of the river by none other than the old fisherman Dhammo and his daughter Saanvli (Shyama). They take Baiju home, look after him, and are very surprised when Baiju, with his usual resilience (which of course they know nothing about), is fit and fine the next morning.
Baiju quickly adopts this new family. Dhammo, of course, is chacha to him, so Saanvli becomes his cousin – and, by extension, his sister. In his capacity as honorary brother, Baiju soon comes to know of Saanvli’s doomed romance. Saanvli, it emerges, is deeply in love with (and loved by) Manohar (Karan Dewan), the son of the local zamindar. When the zamindar comes to know that his only son is romancing a mere fisherwoman, he’s furious, and Saanvli’s romance looks in danger of going kaput.
Which it does, when the zamindar evilly tricks Manohar into agreeing to marry a girl of his father’s choosing. And who should Manohar’s intended bride be, but Baiju’s ladylove, Ratna? Ratna has been listless and lovelorn ever since Baiju’s ‘death’. Her father, convinced by the court physicians (one of whom is house favourite Nazir Kashmiri) that Ratna is suffering from ‘love-sickness’, has decided to get her married. And who better than wealthy, eligible, respectable Manohar?
Saanvli and her champion Baiju – who has his own agenda, now that he’s discovered who the bride is – sneak into the zamindar’s mansion on the day of the wedding, hell-bent on somehow stopping it. Many shenanigans later – including Baiju dressing up as the famous dancer Chhamiabai Kanpurwaali, and dancing – the brother and sister duo manage to enter Ratna’s boudoir, send away all the women there, and reveal Baiju to Ratna, who is of course ecstatic.
Saanvli and Ratna exchange clothing, with Saanvli taking Ratna’s place in the mandap, next to Manohar, while Ratna runs off with her beloved Baiju.
But will these two love stories end happily at this point? Or are there more trials in store for our intrepid hero, his equally courageous (not to mention resourceful) ‘sister’ and their respective sweethearts?
What I liked about this film:
All of it! Chhoomantar has the light-hearted romance and the adventure of a good formula film, but with all the humour that you’d expect of a film whose lead actor is the inimitable Johnny Walker. Who, by the way, sparkles in Chhoomantar. He’s just so much fun here – whether he’s wielding a single stick and putting all his adversaries to rout, or wooing Ratna with romantic songs, or even pretending to be Chhamiabai Kanpurwaali!
The music is the other major highlight of the film. O P Nayyar scored the songs of Chhoomantar, and though the only one I’d heard before is the well-known Gareeb jaanke humko na tum mita dena, the others are also excellent.
And Shyama. One of my favourite actresses, and here (thankfully) not in one the shrewish roles that she so often got saddled with. Shyama as the feisty Saanvli is a pleasure to watch.
What I didn’t like:
Except for a brief and pretty pointless episode featuring Om Prakash in a cameo, nothing. Chhoomantar is plenty of fun, and vastly entertaining. It has only a passing resemblance to reality, with farce piled up high. And, very comforting: nothing is ever really worrying. If our hero gets bashed up, we never see any blood, and he’s fit as a fiddle with the next sunrise. If someone is imprisoned – without food and water – they’ll be supplied surreptitiously with lots of delicacies by sympathisers. And just when one thinks someone good is going to be poisoned – oh no!! – we realise it was all a ploy. Dastardly, but posing no real bodily danger to the one we’re rooting for.
Chhoomantar isn’t one of those all-time classics. It is, however, so frothy and farcical and enjoyable that I’ll unabashedly recommend it to anyone looking for a laugh. If you can get hold of it, do watch. I was lent my copy from Tom Daniel – who compiled the wonderful Johnny Walker Songs DVD, among other projects. Thanks, Tom!