I’ve seen this film – a ‘raja-rani’ film, like Rustom-e-Hind – several times, but the most memorable viewing of it was at my parents’ home a couple of years ago.
My parents live in Meerut, about two hours’ drive from Delhi. Every year, at Christmas and Easter, my husband and I, and my sister, her husband and her two children spend at least a couple of days at Meerut. Those days consist of much chatting, feasting, relaxing, and long afternoon siestas.
Flashback to about two years ago. My father’s been saying he wants to rewatch Aan – which had been released when he was 15 years old – so I’ve gotten hold of the DVD, and we’ve decided we’ll watch it one afternoon while we’re all in Meerut. My husband and my brother-in-law will be snoozing in their rooms, my sister will probably be reading, and the children will almost certainly be busy either reading or playing.
“Come along,” Papa tells Mama – she likes old Hindi films, even though she’s not as devoted a viewer as Papa or I. “It’s a classic.” So Mama draws up a chair, too, and sits down.
As the credits roll, we see Jai Tilak Hada (Dilip Kumar) pushing a plough, drinking water, and riding off on a horse. He is the sardar, the chieftain, of the Hadas of Sanganera, which is part of the Tamba kingdom. [“Dilip Kumar drew a lot of flak for Aan,” Papa informs us. “Many people were very critical of him for having done such a frivolous role. They thought such a good actor should’ve confined himself to films like Andaaz and Shaheed.”]
Jai Tilak – Jai for short – has, as his best friend, Chandan (Mukri), a blacksmith. We soon meet the other important characters in Jai’s life too. There’s his childhood friend Mangala (Nimmi), who, unknown to Jai (who thinks of her only as a buddy), is in love with him.
And Jai’s mother, the widowed Sardar Ma (?), to whom the Hadas’ loyalty to the royalty of Tamba is paramount. Jai’s ancestors have had a long tradition of wielding their weapons only on behalf of the Maharaja of Tamba.
Now, when Jai asks Chandan to forge a sword for Jai – so that Jai can take it along to the annual festivities at the Maharaja’s palace, where he can show off his skill – the Sardar Ma forbids it.
(Incidentally, Jai seems to be the only one who’s blind to Mangala’s love for him. The Sardar Ma, Chandan and the rest of the clan seem to realise that she adores him, and the Sardar Ma has even gone so far as to talk it over with Mangala, assuring the besotted girl that she will one day be Jai’s bride).
Unfortunately, all these schemes to decide Jai’s lovelife for him are going to come to naught.
When all the Hadas turn up at the palace, the Maharaja (Murad) is welcoming and gracious – he thinks of his subjects as his ‘children’. But the Maharaja’s ambitious (plus lecherous, proud, unscrupulous and any-other-not-nice-adjective you can think of) brother Shamsher (Premnath) doesn’t agree. He sends his elephant – carrying Shamsher’s sword – around the arena, with an open challenge to anybody in the audience, to come and duel with Shamsher.
[My sister, who’s long been (almost) as nuts about the early Premnath as I am, abandons her book and pulls up a chair to watch the film too].
The Sardar Ma, of course, glares at Jai for even thinking that he’ll duel with the Prince, and our hero subsides. But another challenge awaits: Shamsher’s fiery sister Rajeshwari ‘Raj’ (Nadira, in her debut role) is quite a horsewoman. She has just ridden an obstreperous charger into the arena. She sends out a challenge too: whoever can tame her horse will get a reward.
Jai does, of course [Why hasn’t his mum objected this time? Does she think it’s okay for Jai to stand up against the princess, but not against her brother? That smacks of sexism…]. He manages to control the horse, and Raj has to eat humble pie.
Shortly after, in a chamber of audience, the Maharaja meets Shamsher, Raj, and his ministers. It turns out that the Maharaja has to go abroad for surgery, and is on the verge of giving last-minute instructions for the fate of Tamba while he’s away. Much to the annoyance of Shamsher, the Maharaja’s announcement – on a fancy-looking scroll – is that he’s handing over Tamba, not to his brother or his sister, but to the people of Tamba. Long live the public!
The Maharaja is all benevolent smiles, but Shamsher and Raj are furious. This is unacceptable! After the Maharaja has gone, Shamsher takes up the scroll and rips it in two.
Off to the side, someone in a very scruffy and obviously artificial beard looks on.
…and later that night, two of Shamsher’s men enter the Maharaja’s chamber and kill him. Shamsher means to have it proclaimed that the Maharaja has died during his surgery abroad – after which Shamsher, having already ripped up the Maharaja’s farmaan – will crown himself the Maharaja.
The dead ‘Maharaja’ is dumped in a dungeon –which is approached through a very innovative doorway:
What they don’t know is that the bushy-bearded man is watching intently, and has seen all that’s happened. When the coast is clear, he takes off the shrubbery, and we see that it is – the Maharaja! [“How did that happen?” I ask – I mean, earlier, this guy was in the same room as where the Maharaja was presiding. What’s the secret? Twins separated at birth? A mask? Really bad eyesight on the part of Shamsher and his cronies? The rest of my family is as puzzled as I am].
The real, live Maharaja (now with fake beard and moustache back in place) surreptitiously comes to say goodbye to the corpse, which turns out to have been a loyal someone called Soorma Singh, who had vowed to lay down his life for his Maharaja.
The scene shifts now to the countryside of Sanganera, where Shamsher (apparently not plagued by an overactive conscience) is going driving. Along the way, he comes across Mangala and her friend, singing and prancing down the road.
[Isn’t it just slightly dangerous to be waltzing down the road? Shamsher’s car comes up right behind these two women, and they don’t have the faintest idea. Morons, as my mum succinctly puts it].
Mangala soon proves herself to be even more of a moron than I’d have given her credit for. She sings – half-cheekily, half-seductively – to Shamsher, and doesn’t even have the sense to shut up when he starts leering at her. Shamsher vows to get his grimy paws on her sometime, and drives off in a roar of tires and dust, leaving behind an upturned cart and a screeching Mangala. [She throws a tantrum, gritting her teeth, shaking her fists at the car, and howling threats at Shamsher. All of us agree that a tragic Nimmi is vastly preferable to a childish Nimmi].
The scene now shifts to Jai and Raj. After he’s tamed her horse, Jai’s decided his next task is going to be to tame the shrew. Raj is too much of the imperious princess to take kindly to be tamed, but a couple of songs, one sneaky smooch, and even Raj – though she refuses to admit it – is actually pretty smitten by her admirer. Instead, she does all she can to drive him off; he’s too low-born for a princess.
She spews threats at him, orders him shoved into prison (from where he continues to sing ballads in her praise), and orders him whipped (an order she swiftly revokes when she hears the lashes). An important element in the Raj-Jai romance is Raj’s impudent maid Manohari (Sheela Naik?), who seems to spend all her time – not in ‘maidly’ duties – but in singing provocative songs, or passing cheeky comments. [No wonder Raj always looks so huffy when Manohari’s around. I would be too, if I had help like that].
[By this time, what with Manohari’s song-and-dance around the fantastic bathtub with the fake waterlilies, we’re doubling over with laughter. My sister’s kids, curious, come to see what’s up, and think this is so much fun, they join the audience too.]
While Jai is trying to make Raj fall in love with him – his main technique seems to be to break her spirit – there are other things going on. Shamsher, for instance, has decided to make good on his promise to Mangala. He has her kidnapped, and eventually imprisons her in that same tooth-gated jail dungeon where he’d once deposited the murdered ‘Maharaja’.
This gives Mangala loads of opportunity to moan and groan and make awful faces. An unknown (and unseen – she’s in a cell above Mangala’s) woman who’s in the same predicament, sympathises with Mangala and sneaks her a vial of poison, saying that this is a way to defend her, Mangala’s, honour. [Why this woman hasn’t used the poison herself is a question. Or where she got it. Security in Shamsher’s prison seems to be lax].
And, just in case we hadn’t forgotten, the real Maharaja is alive and well – and intent on making sure that the people of Tamba get their rightful due.
Much more is to come. There’ll be more songs – and some dancing, including one dance by Cuckoo, one by Nimmi, and a brief one by Sheela Naik. [Papa, watching her, says: “Doesn’t she look like that relative of ours in Calcutta? Almost as if she were a younger sister.” Considering this auntie of ours is dignified and bespectacled and grey-haired, it’s a bit hard to imagine her dressed in ghagra-choli and pirouetting… but yes, there’s a definite resemblance].
[In fact, by this time, what with the guffaws and giggles and squeals of the six people crowded around my laptop, my brother-in-law has given up his attempt to grab some shut-eye. He comes out of the neighbouring bedroom, bleary-eyed and rumpled. “What are you people watching?” he says, gets one glimpse of Sheela Naik making eyes at Mukri, and decides this is too fascinating to miss. He joins us].
There’ll be Jai, trying to romance a reluctant Raj, there’ll be misunderstandings (and more plot holes)… and there’ll be the Maharaja, intent on (from behind the scenes) passing his kingdom onto his people to govern. [“That’s a nod towards the States’ People’s Movements,” my sister, a historian, explains. “When the republic of India was formed, there were all these princely states, several hundred of them. The States’ People’s Movements were aimed at ensuring a democratic government…” But another song begins, and she’s lost her audience].
I wouldn’t call this one of the best films ever made, but yes: it’s watchable. Especially on a lazy afternoon, with your family clustered around and passing inane comments.
What I liked about this film:
Dilip Kumar’s acting. He is such a natural, and so especially likable in a swashbuckling, romantic role.
Naushad’s music. Dil mein chhupaake pyaar ka is by far my favourite song from Aan, but there are others too that are particularly good, such as Khelo rang hamaare sang and Tujhe kho diya humne paane ke baad.
The dream sequence. It’s a fine example of the splendour of Mehboob Khan’s films – everything is bigger and vastly more extravagant than real life. The thoughts of the dreamer are played out superbly, and the way the subconscious comes to the forefront is interesting. Plus, it’s a pleasure to watch. [Incidentally, one of the images in my current blog header is from the dream sequence].
Ah, and the Technicolor. [Papa tells us, “This was one of the first Hindi films to use Technicolor. It was sent abroad for processing; every single frame was coloured manually.” I don’t know how accurate that is – if my daddy has his facts right or not – but the gorgeously colour-saturated frames sure look wonderful].
What I didn’t like:
Besides the obvious plot holes and the somewhat overlong meandering of the film, this:
[“Don’t these women’s eyes hurt with constantly opening them so wide?” is the whispered consensus].
Honestly, what really got my goat was the theatrical acting of most of the women characters – Nimmi, Sheela Naik, the woman who acted the Sardar Ma, and even in some scenes, Nadira. Surprisingly, the men were mostly fine. The OTT histrionics seem to be confined to the women.