I’ve been very busy the last couple of days, and the busy-ness doesn’t look like it’ll come to an end soon. My husband, therefore (and what a model of husbandly devotion!) offered to write the review of Abe-Hayat for me. This, mind you, without having seen the film, just on the basis of a very sketchy gist I’d narrated of the first half while we were on our evening walk. Tarun said he’d do a 3-sentence review:
Once there was an evil jaadugar named Saamri. There was a prince, and a princess. The prince killed Saamri, and then he and the princess lived happily ever after.
Not bad, actually. It just shows how easy it is to predict a Hindi fantasy film from the 50s.
For those of you who want a bit more from a review (and who want the truth, because Tarun did get it slightly wrong), the following might help.
To begin with, Saamri (? I can’t identify this actor, probably because his whacky eyebrows and that curly wig, beard and moochh get in the way. Later note: Anu tells me he may be SL Puri. I envy her powers of discernment. Through all that hair, too! Wah). Saamri is very evil. This you can gauge by the fact that, on the very day they were to get married, he abducts two of the beautiful daughters of the ruler of Halam. (Further watching convinces me that Saamri is mostly just a very desperate lecher who will do anything to get a woman – any woman – to marry him. I feel a bit sorry for him. I’m sure that hairdo isn’t his fault).
One of the two princesses kills herself, but the other one, Rukhsana (?) has better luck: she is befriended by the Sabz Pari (literally, the ‘green fairy’; Ameeta), who is Saamri’s sister. The Sabz Pari tries to teach Rukhsana how to handle Saamri and keep him dangling.
Unfortunately for her, her brother comes along just then and gives the Sabz Pari what for – by changing her into a marble statue. She makes a rather decorative life-size garden ornament.
We now switch to the present, back to the kingdom of Halam. The poor of Halam are a happy lot, because they’ve found an unlikely champion: Jalal (Premnath), the son of the Wazir of Halam (?). Jalal spends his time snatching fruit off stalls and giving it to street urchins, or whipping the turbans off the heads of passing noblemen. The poor reciprocate by dancing along with him when he goes singing through the streets. They don’t seem to notice that for all his democratic ideals, Jalal’s as gorgeously dressed as any of those aristos.
Unknown to him, Jalal is not the only richly-clad member of the nobility to feel for the poor. The one remaining princess of Halam (remember? Her sisters were carried off by Saamri) is Shahzaad (Shashikala), a feisty, strong-willed female who can wield a mean sword…
… and is not above defying her mother (Ruby Myers) and father (Mubarak). When they stop her from wandering out of the palace to see how the rest of Halam lives, Shahzaad disguises herself as a young man, moustache and all, and goes out by herself.
She ends up in a seedy little place which is certainly a gambling den, and half of which looks like a tavern. [Something wrong with the setting, there? Everybody in this film goes “Ya Allah!” at the drop of a hat, and there are other allusions to Halam being a staunchly Islamic land]. One of the seedier elements here is Aqeel (Pran), who is the prince of a neighbouring land. Aqeel has been sent by his father to pester Shahzaad’s dad to repay a long-overdue debt of 80,00,000 dinars (what on earth did he do with all that money?!)
The Sultan has got his Wazir to carry out the negotiations with Aqeel, and the result has been that Aqeel has given an ultimatum: repay in 8 days’ time, or else. Now Aqeel is spending those 8 days gambling – and winning, and sniggering evilly as he robs some poor soul blind (the poor soul, being so poor, should not have been gambling in the first place).
Fortunately for the poor soul, Jalal steps in and gambles, reducing Aqeel to a shambles. [I think that’s rather poetic. At least it rhymes.]
There’s also a pretty dancer (Helen), whom Aqeel leers at and tries to fondle. This results in a brawl, with furniture and men flying in all directions. Poor disguised Shahzaad gets knocked on the head, and is rescued by Jalal and his good friend Sharfu (Ram Avtar). They drag ‘him’ off to the hakim, who administers a bitter potion that will heal ‘his’ bruises, but which immediately makes ‘him’ drowsy. No-one knows where this stranger has come from, so Jalal carries ‘him’ to his own home, even accommodating the stranger in his own bedroom (not in his bed, though; that would be too scandalous for 1955 Hindi cinema).
In the course of the night, Shahzaad’s disguise goes for a toss. There’s a moment of awed silence as Jalal and Shahzaad (who till now has been in a stupor and hasn’t had a good look at Jalal) stare at each other. The next moment, of course, they’re in love and singing it out loud. [How come people in a fully occupied house or mansion can sing loud and clear at night with nobody waking up? Naujawaan was an exception].
This is followed by many a loving rendezvous. Shahzaad sneaks out every night to meet her beloved and sing yet another song, while her resourceful maids think up creative ways to keep Shahzaad’s parents from realising she isn’t in bed.
In the meantime, Shahzaad and Jalal’s romantic interludes have become just that: interludes. They’re interrupted constantly, by wandering lions (whom Jalal quickly dispatches), by Sharfu (who seems to act as an errand boy) and by Aqeel (who kidnaps Shahzaad and then realises how lovely she is).
Jalal, being Jalal, manages to rescue her from both Aqeel and the lion.
When Shahzaad’s parents discover (as they were bound to, sooner or later) that she’s been gone all night, she tells them of how she’d been attacked by a lion and then saved by Jalal. (She omits to mention being almost mauled by Aqeel too, an omission which will prove costly).
Shahzaad’s parents are very grateful to Jalal for having saved their darling daughter, and he is summoned to court. The Sultan generously orders him to “ask for whatever you wish” – and Jalal asks for Shahzaad’s hand in marriage. The result being that he is instantly exiled. This horrid task has to be carried out by his own father, the Wazir, who goes through much battling with his conscience before he can bring himself to put professional loyalty before paternal affection.
Meanwhile, that 8 days’ grace that Aqeel had accorded Halam are up. He now comes to the Sultan and starts pestering him for the 80,00,000 dinars due. When the Sultan admits that he’s broke, Aqeel offers to forgive the debt – if Shahzaad will become his wife.
Since the Sultan has no option (and since he doesn’t know Aqeel for the lowlife he really is), he agrees. Shahzaad will be married to Aqeel.
Jalal’s loyal old pal Sharfu immediately goes off to report this to Jalal (who, conveniently, seems to be hovering right outside the borders of Halam). Jalal, suitably angry at the thought that his girl will be married off to another, goes charging back into Halam and the Sultan’s palace, and arrives just in time to prevent Shahzaad being manhandled by Aqeel, who’s been trying to woo her. [This man needs lessons in wooing.]
A duel ensues, which is interrupted by the Sultan, his Sultana, the Wazir, Jalal’s mother, and just about every other Tom, Dick and Harry in Halam. The Sultan is miffed that Jalal has disregarded the banishment imposed on him, and commands the Wazir to arrest and kill Jalal.
Though he tries to resign, the Wazir is bullied by his boss into arresting Jalal.
Our hero ends up in jail, awaiting his execution. And Aqeel’s parents arrive (his mother is played by Mumtaz Begum, though I couldn’t identify his dad behind all that shrubbery). Arrangements are made for the wedding, and Shahzaad whiles away her time by singing sad songs, mourning her to-be-hanged sweetheart and her impending marriage to Aqeel.
On the day of the wedding, even as the ceremonies begin, the inevitable happens: Saamri lands up and carries off Shahzaad! [How does he know when one of the princesses is getting married? ESP? Why does he wait till the last moment? Why doesn’t he kidnap them before? Does he kidnap any other girls just before they’re married? So many questions that remain unanswered].
Pandemonium prevails. There’s much shrieking and weeping, and the Sultan – Shahzaad’s father – passes out after Saamri puts a spell on him. Actually, good for the Sultan, considering that now:
(a) he will either have Saamri or Aqeel for a son-in-law, and neither of them is exactly endearing;
(b) if it isn’t Aqeel, he (the Sultan) will have to figure out a way to return those 80,00,000 dinars
(c) the good guy is going to be executed any minute now
The shahi hakim (the imperial physician) is sent for, and after some examination, announces that the only substance that can restore the Sultan is the ‘water of life’, the aab-e-hayat.
But who will fetch the (notoriously difficult to obtain) aab-e-hayat? A public proclamation is ordered, and Jalal hears it just as the black bag is about to be slipped over his head. And being the loyal subject that he is, he pushes the executioner aside and sets off to beg permission to be allowed to go find the aab-e-hayat – and Shahzaad, of course.
Much will happen. Jalal will encounter strange and magical beings in his quest for sweetheart and sweetheart’s daddy’s life. He will find himself being pursued by two starry-eyed fairies: Sadabahaar (Smriti Biswas):
… and the Sabz Pari (don’t ask how she turns back to living being from statue):
There will be flying carpets:
– and magical horns that will have strange effects. There will be djinn and more fairies; there will be flying thrones and peppy nightclub-like dances. There will be Saamri, twirling his bone-like wand (ugh!) in front of a vast (but disproportionate) skull. And there will be loads of adventure.
What I liked about this film:
There’s a quaint charm about the fantasy of it all – and both Shashikala and Premnath have a flair for comedy that is particularly delightful in the first ten minutes or so of Jalal and Shahzaad’s meeting. In fact, there’s a good bit of humour in the first quarter of the film, what with Shahzaad trying to sneak away to meet Jalal, and her maids trying to keep the Sultan from knowing what’s up.
The special effects, too, especially for that day and age, aren’t bad at all. The flying carpets and so on don’t look completely artificial, and though Saamri’s den is silly (and I wouldn’t really think balloons would have been a part of a supposedly medieval land like Halam), the rest of fairyland looks passable.
The music. Sardar Malik (father of the – ahem – music director Anu Malik) composed for only a handful of films, and this was one of them. The pièce de resistance of this score is the superb Main gareebon ka dil hoon watan ki zubaan; but there are others too which I liked a lot, prime among them being Ik jaan meri aur laakh sitam and the Geeta Dutt song, Mera dil meri jaan chaahe le le.
Oh, and the eye candy! Premnath, Shashikala, Ameeta, Smriti Biswas… lots of beautiful people here. There’s a very young Helen too, as a dancer in the tavern where Shahzaad first meets Jalal:
And, just because everybody else looks so wonderful too, some more screenshots:
What I didn’t like:
All those unresolved questions. And the melodrama that swamps the story every now and then, mostly when it’s Jalal or Shahzaad and their parents.
Still, lots of entertainment here. The entire story may not make sense; one of the villains may seem to be unjustly maligned; and at least half an hour could have been chopped off with no questions asked – but it’s still good fun.
P.S. Why, if Shahzaad was such a good fencer, did she not fight back when being carried off by ruffians like Saamri and Aqeel? A waste of a fencing master and some good swords.
P.P.S. Later note:
With much thanks to pacifist, who solved the mystery of the sabz pari, who despite her name, was not a ‘vegetable fairy’, but a ‘green fairy’. It now turns out that her name may literally have meant that (sabz being ‘green’ in Urdu), but it also means ’emerald fairy’. And, according to the nautanki play called Indrasabha, the Sabz Pari or Emerald Fairy was a fairy in the realm of Indra. She fell in love with an earthly prince named Gulfam, a union (or proposed union) that drew much flak from all and sundry. You can read about it here, in the last paragraph on the web page.
(And, thanks to pacifist, hear about it in song, here.)
That tradition, of course, explains why the Sabz Pari in Abe-Hayat is so smitten by Jalal – it’s the old story of fairy and earthling. This Sabz Pari’s story doesn’t turn out as happy as the traditional tale (thanks to the existence of Shahzaad), but anyway.