Did the producer and director Devendra Goel specialise in film names that incorporated numbers? Have a look at this (admittedly select) filmography: Ek Saal, Ek Phool Do Maali, Ek Mahal ho Sapnon ka, Do Musafir, Dus Lakh… Was he, perhaps, doing a countdown to what he hoped would be some blockbuster magnum opus that would put Mughal-e-Azam or Mother India firmly and permanently in the shade?
I don’t know, but this I can say: of all the Devendra Goel films I’ve seen (six), this is by far the best. It’s coherent, interesting, romantic – and it stars a wonderful lead couple: Ashok Kumar and Madhubala.
We don’t see the lead pair till a few minutes into the film. Instead, it begins with a conversation in a doctor’s room in Bombay. The greying and grim-faced doctor (unusually cast, Mehmood in a cameo) has to break the bad news to the retired Colonel Sinha (S K Prem?): his beloved daughter Usha has a brain tumour. It’s a vicious growth, too: inoperable and incurable. Usha cannot hope to live more than a year at the most.
Colonel Sinha is devastated – he’s a widower, and Usha is his life. She isn’t right now in Bombay – she’s gone to her nanihaal (her maternal grandmother’s home) in Lucknow, to celebrate her birthday. Her father cannot bring himself to tell Usha the bad news, but decides right then that he will do anything he can to ensure that Usha is supremely happy in the 12 months she has to live.
The scene now shifts to Lucknow and we finally get to see Usha (Madhubala), who’s at a party being hosted by her grandmother (Pratima Devi, in a guest appearance). A group of dancers, led by a bright-eyed and smiling Sheila Vaz, sing the ironic “Tu jiye hazaaron saal gori” (“May you live thousands of years, beauty”), and Usha simpers her way through the verses, as the singer wishes a loving husband, children and whatnot on the birthday girl.
… and someone takes advantage of the fact that everybody’s attention is on the dancers.
This is the suave gentleman thief, Suresh (Ashok Kumar), who uses his education, charm and air of self-sufficiency to dupe people so that he can lay his hands on their wealth. Right now, at Usha’s birthday party, he uses his nimble fingers to pluck Usha’s granny’s necklace – worth Rs 10,000 – from around her neck.
A lot happens within the next few minutes: granny raises a hue and cry, a private detective named J B Pinto (Johnny Walker – more on this character later) steps forward, offering to search out the culprit, and Suresh manages to surreptitiously slide the necklace into a lady’s handbag which he sees lying open beside a telephone. There is some dilly-dallying while JB Pinto tries to initiate a body search. Usha’s granny shoots down the idea (her guests being subjected to such suspicion? No!), and announces that she’d rather let her necklace go missing than antagonise her friends.
Soon after, Suresh discovers that the bag in question is Usha’s; he follows her through the corridor as she goes off with it, engages her in conversation, and manages to slip the necklace out, which he returns to Usha’s granny. Granny is pleased, but Usha thinks this man is a flirt whom she’d rather not get to know better.
But she does – on the way to the railway station the next day, when both Usha and Suresh are going to Bombay, and she rushes into the taxi he’s in. She ends up going willy-nilly with him to the station, but shakes him off soon after.
Only, when she arrives home in Bombay, she soon discovers that Suresh too has turned up there, and as none other than her father’s new estate manager.
There’s a story behind this. Suresh’s wad of recommendations and glowing tributes to his efficiency are all forged. He has his eye on Colonel Sinha’s wealth, and has come to Bombay with the express purpose of slowly (well, preferably swiftly) robbing Colonel Sahib of all his money. Also in on the plot is Suresh’s partner-in-crime, Rajni (Kuldeep Kaur, looking like – as PG Wodehouse would have said – “What she wants is a cracking good gallop every morning and no starchy foods.”).
Rajni, besides being Suresh’s accomplice and equally (if not more) unprincipled, is also in love with him. She’s been nagging Suresh to marry her, but Suresh tells her flat out that he has no time for – and no belief in – stuff like love. Give him money, give him material things, and he’s happy. Love is for the birds.
Colonel Sinha deputes Usha to show Suresh around – to introduce him to the staff, take him around the estate, and accommodate him in their own house. All this close proximity – this being a Hindi film – soon leads to Usha falling head over heels with Suresh (why he doesn’t is hard to fathom; all that gorgeousness and this man remains unaffected?!).
One day, a friend of Usha’s comes calling, bringing with her a garland from another friend’s engagement. (Why? Why would one give away a garland that had so much sentimental value; and why would anybody want it anyway? To recycle the flowers and sell them?)
The friend soon discovers Usha’s love for Suresh, and Usha tries to prove to her that her love is not unrequited. She sings a song and when Suresh turns up, she lovingly slides the garland over his neck. But oh, tragedy! – only to have him fling it off. “I only came to hand over this letter that came for you,” Suresh tells her, and poor, heartbroken, rejected Usha faints prettily, just as her father – who has been standing at the door and has witnessed the entire scene – comes rushing in.
Soon after, the colonel comes to meet Suresh on personal business. Usha’s father explains the situation – that Usha has only a year to live, and that he wants that one year to be the happiest of her life. Now Colonel Sahib thinks that Usha’s happiness, since she’s so in love with Suresh, lies in that love being reciprocated. If Suresh will pretend to love Usha in return, he (Colonel Sahib) will make it worth Suresh’s while. This, by paying Suresh Rs 10,000 a month.
Suresh hems and haws a little and asks for some time to think over the proposition, but that ten grand is too lucrative an offer for him to resist. Soon, the game starts: Suresh convinces Usha that he loves her, and Colonel Sahib, every month, begins handing out a cheque of Rs 10,000 to Suresh. Everybody’s happy. Suresh is happy because he’s getting richer by the month. Usha is happy because she’s found – as she imagines – true love. Colonel Sahib is happy because Usha is happy.
But far away, in Lucknow, someone is definitely unhappy. Rajni has been getting restive. Suresh’s initial letters and phone calls to her from Bombay have kept her in the know, so she’s aware of how he’s built up a web of deceit to keep Usha and the Colonel hooked. Now, though, Suresh’s communication with her has fallen off – he’s banged the phone down on her the last time they spoke – and Rajni fears that Suresh is actually in love with Usha, not just playing along.
…so she employs the private eye, JB Pinto (who uses the suffix PDF – ‘private detective first class’) to check on Suresh and Usha. JB Pinto and his assistant (who is also the light of JB Pinto’s life), Mary (Minoo Mumtaz) are given an advance to go to Bombay and find out what the real story is.
But what is the story? Is Suresh really just acting a part, or is he succumbing (who couldn’t, really?) to Usha’s charm and beauty? And even if Suresh does fall in love with Usha, how long can this love last? Just that one year? Or is there some way love will triumph, finally?
Some melodrama does ensue (how could it not, with that set of circumstances?) and there’s a lukewarm comic side plot, but mostly it’s the romance between Suresh and Usha that occupies centre stage here.
Interestingly, Ek Saal reminded me a good deal of the wonderful Charles Boyer-Olivia de Havilland film, Hold Back the Dawn. I rate that film as one of the best romances I’ve ever seen, and it’s on similar lines as Ek Saal: an unscrupulous man fakes love for a woman for selfish reasons, and much drama – also, as in Ek Saal, at a hospital bed with the heroine struggling for life – ensues. If you watch Ek Saal and like it, do look out for Hold Back the Dawn: it’s lovely.
What I liked about this film:
Madhubala and Ashok Kumar. In my opinion, Hindi cinema’s most beautiful actress – and one of its best actors. They make a fine pair together. And oh, Madhubala. Ethereal as ever.
The fact that, for once, Christians (JB Pinto and Mary) talk in normal khadi boli Hindi, not that awful stereotypical “Humko yeh nahin maangta” type that seemed to be universal amongst Hindi cinema Christians.
(The repercussions of that, by the way: entire generations of non-Christian Indians grew up thinking all Christians talk that way, or can barely understand Hindi. A case in point: my mum-in-law. My husband’s a Hindu, I’m a Christian; the day after we got married, I was sitting in my in-laws’ dining room and writing out thank you cards. One was to a lady who knows only Hindi, so of course I wrote my thanks in Hindi. My mum-in-law was flabbergasted: “You can write Hindi?!” Since then, she’s discovered that my Hindi is actually better than her son’s).
By the way, Johnny Walker and Minoo Mumtaz – a time-tested comic jodi – are also great here. They have two delightful songs – both fabulous, one of them part of Tom Daniel’s Johnny Walker Songs Compilation DVD – picturised on them: Miyaan mera bada beimaan and Dil toh kisi ko doge.
Some songs. I wouldn’t call the score of Ek Saal one of Ravi’s best, but it has a few songs that I really like: the two Johnny Walker-Minoo Mumtaz ones, and the classic Sab kuchh lutaake hosh mein aaye, both male and female versions.
What I didn’t like:
The end has too many convenient coincidences: it’s too pat. And the comic side plot, though I adore Johnny Walker and Minoo Mumtaz, really wasn’t needed.
But: a fairly good romance, good acting, and the sublime Madhubala. I can forgive a lot for that combination.
By the way, some trivia: the story was based on an idea that was I S Johar’s.
And, finally: I discovered another of those firang (Anglo Indian?) actors who occasionally have more than walk-on parts in classic Hindi cinema. Ek Saal features in a few scenes, R H Stowell, who acts as Dr Lawrence, an English doctor who specialises in brain surgery. I haven’t been able to find R H Stowell in any other films (Hindi or not), so I wonder if he really was a full-time actor or not. Would love more information about him!