After all the unhappiness over the past week or so – first Ravi’s death, and then Joy Mukherji’s – you’d think the last film I’d want to see would be one that starred the ultimate tragedy couple: Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari.
But, thanks to Anu, who assured me that Azaad was loads of fun, I decided I should try watching this one. And yes, Anu: I loved it. Loved Meena Kumari’s pretty peppiness. Loved Dilip Kumar at his swashbuckling, handsome, thoroughly attractive self. Loved the smoke rings (almost perfect circles) that Pran blew. Loved Sai and Subbulaxmi’s awesome dancing. Loved C Ramachandra’s fantastic music.
‘Azaad’ is the leader of a band of gangsters who hide away in the hills around the fictitious village of Bhopur. Azaad and his men are believed to have committed dozens of murders and thefts, and the local police are at a total loss about what to do. A previous inspector has been transferred out of Bhopur after having failed to deliver, and the new inspector (Raj Mehra), though he’s keen and level-headed, is hampered by having, as his main assistant, the earnest but nutty head constable #441 (Om Prakash).
Though they’ve been trying, the inspector and #441 haven’t been able to net Azaad yet. Neither have they been able to catch Chandar (S Nazir), another goon who’s been wreaking havoc in the vicinity.
Shobha is much loved by both Charandas and his wife [I’m going to call her Mrs CD from now on]. Now that Shobha’s grown up, they are looking out for a groom for her. If only their young son Kumar had not gone missing all those years ago, they mourn—they’d have a groom right here, at home. But Kumar has long vanished [we aren’t told how that happened, yet], and alas, Shobha has to now be wedded elsewhere.
Charandas goes off out of town to meet a prospective bridegroom, and while he’s gone, Mrs CD receives a surprise visit from an old acquaintance. This is Janki (Shammi), and she has a sob story to relate. Sundar (Pran), a man who’s known to Charandas and Mrs CD, has ‘ruined’ Janki and left her. Now Janki has come trailing after him, and wants him back. [She obviously hasn’t learnt her lesson yet].
What these ladies don’t realise is that Sundar:
(a) is the boss of the vile Chandar—the same man who’s been ravaging the countryside. Sundar is a baddie, big time.
(b) Sundar has his eye on Shobha. [To be fair, the ladies do know this, but not its full extent]
(c) Sundar has commissioned Chandar to now kidnap Shobha, so that Sundar can have his wicked way with her (presumably).
Now we’re introduced to another character: the very dignified, very wealthy (he has dozens of houses across India, and two stables in Yorkshire) Khan Sahib Abdul Rahim (Dilip Kumar, with moochh, beard, and a large mole on his left cheek). Khan Sahib is much respected, so the new inspector, along with #441, comes to visit. [And to sponge on Khan Sahib. They need to collect Rs 50,000 for the government war funds—this film is set during the days of the Raj].
We now switch back to Shobha’s house. One night, a bunch of goons break in, knock out Mrs CD, and kidnap Shobha. One of them waves some shrubbery under Shobha’s nose, apparently to knock her out; the smart girl that she is, she pretends to swoon instead of putting up a useless fight.
These hooligans are Chandar and his men [not that Shobha recognises them]. They bung her onto a charpai, and hurry off with her into the woods.
Midway, however, they are ambushed—and Shobha, on her charpai, is carried off by another lot of men. They finally put her down far away, and except for one old man (Dilip Kumar, in a very grey and very hirsute facial disguise), all leave to attend to Chandar’s men.
The ‘old man’ tries to revive Shobha, but of course she gets up of her own accord, since she’s been conscious through all of these adventures.
The ‘old man’ takes Shobha under his wing, and promises that he’ll return her to her home the next day. Meanwhile, she’d better take shelter in a cave; he’ll be there to protect her. Shobha agrees.
The next morning, though, the old man, instead of taking her to her home, persuades her to come to his home, in the hills beyond. Since she’d be hopelessly lost in the jungle anyway, Shobha again agrees.
It’s a long and complicated route they follow, through the hills, a jungle (where we’re shown a fight between a leopard and a wild boar), and a rough cable car, operated by a quartet of well-oiled men who spend the rest of their time in calisthenics.
Shobha takes it all in her stride. She doesn’t even really bat an eyelid when the ‘old man’ takes her through a tunnel and into a fine mansion—where he introduces her to two girls named Gopi (Sai) and Chanda (Subbulaxmi) and their mother, his mausi (aunt), Paro (Deepa).
[Oddly for a girl who’s generally sharp-witted, Shobha doesn’t seem to be struck by the fact that the ‘old man’s mausi’ looks about half his age. Yes, I have relatives with wildly discordant relative ages too, but Hindi cinema doesn’t usually believe in that].
Shobha soon makes friends with Gopi and Chanda, and the ‘old man’ reveals himself to be—Azaad! Dashing and handsome [and young enough to perhaps be actually Paro’s nephew], and the much-feared leader of the dacoits in Bhopur. Shobha is initially wary, but he soon wins her over.
He also confesses to her that he and his men are not really dacoits. They are actually latter-day Robin Hood and his Merry Men [well, sort of]: they steal from the thieves, and return to those from whom the thieves had stolen stuff. Azaad refuses to tell her why, if he’s really such a good man anyway, he and his men hide out here in the hills.
In the meantime, Charandas has returned to Bhopur, and has discovered Shobha’s abduction. [When he comes back to Bhopur, he brings with him the parents of a prospective bridegroom for Shobha—they inexplicably disappear after this one and only scene in the film. I guess these two people were there because they really wanted to be in a film, and must have known the financier or producer or chai-wallah].
Soon after, Charandas receives a very odd letter, from Azaad. He takes this to the police station, where he, the inspector, and #441 mull over the puzzling contents of the letter. Azaad assures Charandas that Shobha is safe in his house—and that he would like to marry her.
The gall of the man! Charandas, who’s been wearing himself out trying to find a suitable boy for Shobha, will now be reduced to having a dacoit for a son-in-law?
Absolutely not, he says.
Some digressions follow, comic and otherwise. One that is important to the story is the introduction of the local jagirdar (Murad), who is in cahoots with Sundar and Chandar. We discover that the Chandar-Sundar-jagirdar troika is the one behind all the thievery and murder that’s been plaguing Bhopur. Right now, the jagirdar and Chandar are cribbing because a haul of jewellery has turned out to be bags full of sand and pebbles—Azaad has, once again, got the better of them.
Back to Shobha and Azaad: after a last little bit of shy (on her part) and flirtatious (on his) chatting, Azaad has told Shobha he’s finally taking her home, since her foster parents will be worried. [Shouldn’t this have occurred to him much earlier?]
Shobha therefore goes to bid farewell to all of Azaad’s family: Paro mausi, Gopi, Chanda, and Paro’s old husband. This is an occasion for a nice little song-and-dance…
…and Shobha’s trip back to Bhopur, accompanied by Azaad, provides ample opportunity for more singing.
Near the journey’s end, however, Azaad has made other arrangements. The inspector and #441, who’ve chosen a nearby tree to keep an eye out for suspicious goings-on, see a ghoonghat-ed woman being escorted out of the jungle and into a horse-drawn carriage, which they immediately recognise as belonging to Khan Sahib Adbul Rahim.
Khan Sahib?! In league with that ruffian Azaad? What is the world coming to? [Well, we—who’ve watched enough cinema—can guess, but these people are completely clueless]. What is the link between Khan Sahib and Azaad? Who is Azaad, anyway? And what happened to Charandas and Mrs CD’s long-lost son Kumar? [Another sitter for lovers of old Hindi films]
Rather convoluted, but loads of fun.
What I liked about this film:
The fun of it all. Everybody—especially Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari—seems to be enjoying themselves immensely. He swings about on ropes, has fist-fights with the villains, acts in two very different styles (as Azaad and Khan Sahib), and generally seems to be having a ball. She’s unbelievably pretty, bubbly, and utterly enchanting. Delicious pair, this (incidentally, if you want to see these two in a similarly delightful film, let me suggest Kohinoor: another good romp).
C Ramachandra’s fantastic score. There are loads of songs here, and many of them went on to be huge hits. My favourites are the melodious Radha na bole na bole na bole re, Kitna haseen hai mausam, Pee ke daras ko taras raheen akhiyaan, and Aplam chaplam chaplai re…
…which also happens to be a stunning dance performance. I freely admit that I’m not much of a connoisseur of dance. But this particular sequence had me sitting up and staring in open-mouthed, wide-eyed wonder. Sai and Subbulaxmi are so flexible, so graceful, so perfectly synchronised. And their eyes sing. How gorgeously expressive. (They also have another dance in Azaad, O baliye o baliye… aa chalein wahaan, but I think that pales in comparison to Aplam chaplam chaplai re).
For once, I actually liked the comedy in a Hindi film that wasn’t primarily comedy. There’s no real ‘comic side plot’ here, but #441’s attempts to nab Chandar or Azaad (or, as he at one time suggests, Chandar/Azaad—“Maybe they’re one man, playing a double role, as in the films”) are hilarious.
With two wives, a platoon of children, unmarried sisters, an old father, etc to feed, #441 is desperate to get a promotion, so most of his time is spent in coming up with crazy schemes to nab criminals. The inspector’s unsympathetic thwarting of #441’s ‘ideas’ (that’s what #441 calls them) never seem to dampen his spirit. Neither does the sad fact that most of the offenders he seems to nab turn out to be completely innocent or not really worth pursuing.
What I didn’t like:
This may seem self-contradictory, but those comic interludes. While they’re funny, they come too thick and too fast. Along with the songs [and another fight between wild animals—this time a tiger and a sloth bear], they break the narrative to the extent that after a while, I couldn’t keep up with what exactly was going on in the ‘real story’ itself.
…which is another flaw Azaad suffers from: it gets too complicated. There’s too much happening, too many pasts, too many mysterious motives and unexplained incidents. The last half hour or so, at least, had me pretty much all at sea through much of it.
But, I still love this film. It’s entertaining, good-looking, good listening. A definite addition to my ‘rewatch’ pile.