I’ve lost count of the number of Hindi films I’ve seen in which a bride is left at the mandap just because her family hasn’t been able to provide a massive dowry. I have no idea which was the first such film to be made, but V Shantaram’s Dahej is one of the early ones. And to be expected too, from a film-maker who was deeply sensitive to the many shortcomings in the society of his time.
It’s a film of the type most of us who’ve seen old Hindi films are fairly familiar with. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl (and vice-versa), the topic of marriage is broached, a dowry is demanded, and various complications arise.
The setting here is Lucknow. The girl is Chanda (Jayashree), the only daughter of Thakur Sahib (Prithviraj Kapoor) and his wife (Mumtaz Begum). Chanda spends most of her time prancing around, dancing and singing with her friends:
Or being pampered by her doting father.
One day, a group of college boys playing football next door send their ball sailing into the yard of Chanda’s home. One of the ‘boys’, Suraj (Karan Dewan, not looking boyish by any stretch of the most generous imagination) comes to ask for the ball. He is instantly smitten by Chanda, and even though Chanda is grumpy and abrupt with him, it’s obvious that she thinks he’s pretty attractive too.
Suraj is the only son of a lawyer, Vakil Bihari Lal (Ulhas) and his wife (Lalita Pawar). Vakil Sahib has a flourishing practice, so they live in great style, in a large and fancy bungalow decorated in the height of just-independent India fashion: aquariums, wood panelling, glass screens etched with prancing deer.
Unfortunately, Vakil Sahib’s success and riches have come at the cost of his own health: he suffers from very high blood pressure, and his doctor keeps advising him to take it easy.
One day, a matchmaker Jamuna (?) comes to visit Vakil Sahib, and suggests a potential bride for Suraj: Chanda. (suraj = sun, chanda = moon. How perfectly matched they will be, says Vakil Sahib, gushing over the proposal). Vakil Sahib knows of Thakur Sahib. Who doesn’t, he says. Such a well-respected family, so old and honourable. And since Thakur Sahib’s family is so highly respected, it is to be expected that they are also very wealthy. They will give a grand dowry, won’t they?
Jamuna, dreading the collapse of these negotiations, hurriedly assures Vakil Sahib that yes, Thakur Sahib will give a very fat dowry indeed. So Vakil Sahib gives her the go-ahead to talk to Thakur Sahib.
Meanwhile, Suraj’s mother has also been intending to get Suraj married. She’s also chosen a bride for him: Leela (?), the daughter of a very dear friend of hers.
So, when her husband gives Suraj’s mother the news that he’s selected Chanda for Suraj, she is very annoyed. Vakil Sahib succeeds in mollifying her a bit (a very little bit) by telling her that Thakur Sahib will give a dowry so huge that Vakil Sahib’s house will be too small to accommodate it. But the fact that her beloved Leela will not be her bahu rankles. Terribly.
Soon, Jamuna brings Thakur Sahib along with her to Vakil Sahib’s house, to finalise the marriage. Thakur Sahib says, in his dignified way, that he won’t be able to give a large dowry for Chanda; but he will give whatever he is able to.
Unfortunately, Vakil Sahib misunderstands completely. He thinks Thakur Sahib is being self-effacing.
With the result that when Thakur Sahib, Suraj and his baaraat (all men) turn up at Thakur Sahib’s house for the wedding, it to discover that the dowry—meticulously inventorised and the list handed over—is pitiful. By the time Vakil Sahib finds this out, Suraj and Chanda are already married; but that doesn’t deter Vakil Sahib. He tells Suraj to leave the girl and come; the baaraat is heading back.
Eventually, Thakur Sahib’s pleading has its effect, and it turns out that Vakil Sahib isn’t as intent on a fat dowry as his wife is. He makes the baaraat wait while he goes home and talks to his wife, who immediately flies into a rage and refuses to have Chanda enter the house. Vakil Sahib goes back with the message, but fortunately for Thakur Sahib, Chanda and their friends and family, Suraj steps in. An upright man, once he has clasped a woman’s hand, will never leave her while he lives, he tells his father.
And so Chanda is brought home. Her mother-in-law is huffy and rude. But there’s little scope for interaction, since the newlyweds’ honeymoon—in their rooms upstairs—is spent in such blissful (and song-filled) intimacy that Chanda has very little occasion to even meet her mother-in-law.
In the midst of all this, one day Vakil Sahib has been feeling especially ill. His doctor prescribes rest.
A client whose son faces a death penalty comes by, however, begging Vakil Sahib to plead his son’s case. And Vakil Sahib, bullied by the man, goes to court—and, in the middle of an impassioned appeal, suffers a stroke and falls to the ground.
He is brought home, still alive but paralysed and not likely to last much longer. In fact, he lasts only long enough to scrawl a brief instruction for Suraj—that he should always obey his mother and be a good son to her—and then he’s dead, leaving behind a widow who blames her new bahu for being inauspicious enough to have killed off her father-in-law. Now where have I heard that before?
And it is from here that the action in the film begins to speed up. Because Suraj, now left fatherless, must pull up his socks and begin working if the family coffers are to remain filled. And because the enforced interactions between Chanda and her mother-in-law will cause friction. And because Suraj’s mother still remembers that she had wanted Suraj to marry Leela…
The honeymoon is over.
Yes, Dahej does sound very clichéd, but I do wonder if it was clichéd at the time. Speaking for myself, at least, I’d say that all the trite dowry-related saas-bahu films I’ve seen were made after Dahej. And, although it does have some of the usual plots and characters (the spineless husband, the bride who has been brought up too ‘well’ to be anything but a docile ‘cow’, the nasty and greedy mother-in-law, the other woman who wants to marry the hero, etc), V Shantaram does introduce some refreshing twists in this oft-repeated tale.
There is, for example, the fact that Chanda is much loved by her parents. When her mother-in-law ill-treats Chanda, Thakur Sahib – who is visiting – immediately gathers up his daughter and takes her back home, vowing that he will not let Chanda return to her awful sasuraal.
Which brings me to another interesting observation: the homes of the two families. V Shantaram, without actually saying it in so many words, shows up the difference between Thakur Sahib’s household and Vakil Sahib’s household very effectively, just by showing their respective houses. Thakur Sahib’s house – an old-fashioned haveli, with beautifully carved pillars and lovely carved jaalis (screens) on the windows and balconies – is obviously an ancestral home where Thakur Sahib’s forefathers have lived and died.
And it’s also a reflection on Thakur Sahib’s reduced circumstances: many of the jaalis on those windows and balconies are broken in places (in one telling shot, Shantaram even uses a broken jaali as a frame). This is a house that speaks of wealth and grandeur, but both past. There isn’t even enough money now to mend a fractured jaali, let alone send Chanda to her sasuraal with a fat dowry.
(I love the jaali on those windows, even though they are broken).
The sasuraal, on the other hand, is a very different home. Vakil Sahib’s house is big and fancy with all the trappings of new wealth but little elegance. The decorations are tawdry; the furniture is mass-produced and with nothing beautiful about it. But it’s all shiny and modern, so obviously of a newly-independent India, madly rushing into the fashionable fifties. (Thought: it may well be, of course, that it’s only I who think of this as tawdry; perhaps Shantaram just thought it was a reflection of nouveau riche).
Lastly, there’s the end. Just about ten minutes before the end of the film, just as I’d given up on Dahej, it took a very odd turn that I’d not foreseen. Odd, unusual, and at the same time very effective as a means of showing just how virulent the practice of giving and demanding dowry can be.
What I liked about this film:
Some of the songs (the music, by the way, is by Vasant Desai). Very specifically, the ones picturised on Chanda and her friends. Although they aren’t the teasing, headstrong (even strong) gang of girls that Richard noted in Dillagi, they’re close friends, almost like sisters to Chanda. They’re the ones with whom she stages her dolls’ wedding, they’re the ones who come to dress her up for her wedding, and serenade the coming of the monsoons.
Even if you don’t watch the film, do watch these songs, especially the fabulous Churi dheere pehna churiwaali, which is a gem of a picturisation. Oh, and also Ae kaale baadal bol; that too is a great song to both listen to and watch.
The subtle comments on the two contrasting households – see above. I thought that a refreshingly interesting way of showing something, instead of telling it all.
What I didn’t like:
Jayashree. Her acting is just too theatrical for me. Karan Dewan, an indifferent actor as far as I’m concerned, has a wimpish role here which gives him little to do except smirk and sing, or wince and cringe.
On the other hand, the supporting cast – Prithviraj Kapoor, Mumtaz Begum, Ulhas and Lalita Pawar – are in their element. Prithviraj Kapoor and Lalita Pawar especially are superb. He, dignified and genteel but up in arms (and how!) at the mere thought of his beloved daughter being in pain; and Lalita Pawar in the quintessential mother-in-law role she was to perfect. Well, already pretty much perfected in this film.