One reason I’m glad I began this blog is that, because of it, I’ve met (although in most cases only in cyberspace) a lot of other people who are as enthusiastic about cinema as I am. Through these friends, I’ve been introduced to ‘new’ old films, to songs and directors and actors and styles of cinema that I hadn’t known before. Occasionally, too, my friends have been able to persuade me to give up a prejudice and watch a film I had no great expectations from. This is one of them.
At least four fellow bloggers/readers/friends – Yves, Bawa, Harvey and Pacifist – had been advising me, for a while now, to watch Teesri Kasam. I was assured that Raj Kapoor wasn’t at all Chaplinesque (something I dread in RK’s films) here, and that the film itself was excellent. I’d been trying to get hold of Teesri Kasam too, but the DVD rental company I subscribe to never seemed to have it in stock. Finally, last Sunday, I watched the film on Youtube. And yes, it is a wonderful film. Sensitive, lyrical, quiet, and easy to like.
We’re introduced to the protagonist, Heeraman (Raj Kapoor) very early in the film. Heeraman owns a bullock cart which he drives, transporting passengers and cargo for a fee across the rural countryside. Within the first few minutes, we see the result of two decisions Heeraman takes: one, to transport stolen goods; and the second, to transport a load of bamboo.
The first lot – the stolen goods – nearly get Heeraman arrested. He just about manages to escape with his bullocks, and vows to his sister-in-law (Dulari) that he’ll never ever carry stolen goods in his cart again.
The second time, Heeraman’s cartload of bamboo nearly collides with a racing tonga, narrowly avoiding skewering the tonga horse and its driver on the projecting bamboo. Heeraman ends up getting beaten. Another vow follows, this time that Heeraman will never again carry bamboo in his bullock cart.
Heeraman’s managed to save up enough money to enable him to buy a bullock cart with a good thatched cover. He’s barely got it home and finished showing it off to his brother, his bhabhi and little niece, when a man called Birju (C S Dubey) comes along and hires the cart, for Heeraman to take a woman passenger to a village far, far away.
All Heeraman sees of his passenger is a shapely leg as she climbs into the cart. He (though he’s too polite to raise any objections) is immediately on his guard: surely this is some ghastly witch or sorceress, disguised as a beauty. Who knows when she’ll throw off her sheep’s clothing and devour him? He stops en route at a temple and offers up some quick prayers…
… and is very pleasantly surprised when he catches a glimpse of his passenger asleep.
The woman (Waheeda Rehman) soon makes friends with Heeraman. They share a first name, she says: her name is Heerabai. It turns out that she’s a dancer (the dancer; she’s immensely popular) with The Great Bharat Nautanki Company. The Company, as all the villagers refer to it, will be holding a series of dance/theatre performances at a village fair – that’s where Heerabai is headed.
And so begins the saga of Heerabai and Heeraman. This film, so vastly different in tone and mood and setting from the last film I reviewed (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), still has something in common with that film: it is not dependent so much on action and plot developments as on emotion, on what is said and what is left unsaid. Also, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Teesri Kasam was based on a work by an award-winning writer: in this case, the original was a short story called Maare Gaye Gulfaam by Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath Renu.
As they travel on together, over the next 30 hours, Heeraman and Heerabai will get to know a little about each other. He will discover that she is obviously more literate than him, more a ‘woman of the world’ – in the sense that she uses the occasional English word (‘gramophone’, ‘rehearsal’); she can read fluently, and she has travelled a fair bit. This is an urban woman, not polished and highly educated or fashionable, but certainly not the country bumpkin that Heeraman himself is.
And he is, even though the utter simplicity of Heeraman is more endearing than insular.
Heerabai will come to know the simplicity and the innate goodness of Heeraman. She will discover that he sings beautifully (folk songs from the hinterland); that he had been married as a child but his bride died soon after; and that he has not remarried – because his bhabhi would make him marry a little girl, and he couldn’t do that.
Between them, the shy village cart-driver and his relatively sophisticated passenger, will arise a friendship so warm that Heerabai, when they reach the fairgrounds, will plead with Heeraman to come and watch her perform. She will even be generous enough to arrange for free passes for Heeraman and his four friends.
But the Heera Devi (as Heeraman refers to her) that he knows as a gentle, sweet and dignified lady is also the coquettish Heerabai who will dance and sing and flirt, and will smilingly accept the often lewd accolades of the all-male audience that comes to see the nautanki.
Even Heeraman’s best friend (Krishan Dhawan) will leer at Heerabai and try to get a few moments alone with her.
And the local zamindar (a surprising but effective bit of casting: Iftekhar, almost repellent in his arrogant licentiousness) will approach Heerabai to stay back at the village after the fair is over, so that he can spend some time with her, alone…
So we come to Heerabai’s dilemma. The nautanki is her life; she cannot imagine living without it. Yet, she realises that to Heeraman, she is Heera Devi, not Heerabai. She is the ‘devi’: the goddess, the personification of all that is good and virtuous. He plunges into a brawl with a stranger when he overhears the man referring to Heerabai as a randi, a whore. He tells her—when they are trundling along in the bullock cart—that according to local folk lore, she cannot, as a maiden, bathe at a certain spot in the river.
But Heerabai knows, knows all too well, that she is not the pure maiden Heeraman believes her to be. As she says in one moment of anguish to a friend of hers: “How long will I pretend to be the Sati-Savitri to Heeraman?” How long? And will that pretence not eventually take its toll on both Heeraman and Heerabai herself?
What I liked about this film:
The gentle, almost lyrical quality of it. In an era when action—not necessarily violence, but things happening, events and occurrences and plot twists—are the norm, Teesri Kasam concentrates on conversation, on the interactions and relationships between people. And that is combined with some of the most sensitive, non-melodramatic characterisation I’ve seen in Hindi cinema in the 50s and 60s. Part of that lies in the fact that the actual speaking cast of Teesri Kasam is very small: Heeraman and Heerabai are the main speaking parts, with only a handful of other people involved. The result is an uncluttered story, the story of a man who loves a woman he has put on a pedestal, and the woman, who realises, uncomfortably, that she is not really worthy of the man.
And yes, I have to agree with everybody who told me that the Raj Kapoor of Teesri Kasam is not the ‘lovable tramp’ I find so irritating in a lot of other Raj Kapoor films. Heeraman is a shy, sweet man, simple and innocent but without the mannerisms I find so irritating in most of RK’s other films.
Last but not the least: the songs. Teesri Kasam’s songs are the result of a well-proven collaboration: Shankar-Jaikishan, Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri. There are plenty of wonderful songs here, both with outstanding music and great lyrics: Sajan re jhooth mat bolo, Sajanwaa bairi ho gaye hamaar, Paan khaaye saiyaan hamaaro, Maare gaye gulfaam, and Chalat musaafir moh liya re pinjre waali munia.
Thank you, Bawa, Harvey, Yves, Pacifist. I liked that, a lot.
Little bit of trivia:
Teesri Kasam was the only film produced by the lyricist Shailendra. From Prahlad Agarwal’s Teesri Kasam ke Shilpkaar Shailendra:
“Shailendra ne likha tha ki wah Raj Kapoor ke paas Teesri Kasam ki kahaani sunaane pahunche toh kahaani sunkar unhone bade utsaahpoorvak kaam karna sweekaar kar liya. Par turant gambhirtapoorvak bole, “Mera paarishramik advance dena hoga!” Shailendra ko aisi ummeed nahin thi ki Raj Kapoor zindagi-bhar ki dosti ka yeh badla denge. Shailendra ka murjhaaya hua chehra dekhkar Raj Kapoor ne muskuraate hue kaha, “Nikaalo ek rupaiya, mera paarishramik! Poora advance!”
Translation: Shailendra has written that he went to Raj Kapoor to narrate the story of Teesri Kasam, and Raj Kapoor, having heard the story, enthusiastically agreed to work in the film. The next moment, however, he said with a very serious face: “You’ll have to pay me my fees in advance!” This was a blow to Shailendra, who had not imagined that Raj Kapoor would so summarily overlook the friendship of a lifetime. Watching Shailendra’s crestfallen face, Raj Kapoor grinned and said, “Out with it! One rupee, my fees! All in advance!”
And that was how much Raj Kapoor took for working in Teesri Kasam: one rupee.