My family first acquired a TV in 1982. For the next few years, Doordarshan remained our main source of entertainment. And the films Doordarshan telecast at 5.45 PM every Sunday (and a couple of times during the week, mostly at odd times) were the highlights of the week. We saw loads of films during those years. Everything that was shown—from the simply horrendous Fauji to Fedora, which I didn’t understand—was grist to the family mill.
Looking back, I now realise just how tolerant I was back then of cinema that now induces irritation at best, ‘kill-this-film maker’ fury at worst. Watching Adalat now, after having first seen this when I was a pre-teen, I can see that what I thought of as a tragic but entertaining film is really not that great. In, fact, almost tedious.
Adalat is the story of Nirmala ‘Nirmal’ (Nargis, credited as the award-winning actress at Karlovy Vary). Nirmal is in her final year of college, doing her BA and staying with her widowed, weak-hearted mother [Protima Devi, as pathetic a figure as she was in Professor. And you know what happens when someone has been established as having a weak heart in the first few minutes of the film].
The two of them live with Nirmal’s mother’s brother and his shrewish wife. Nirmal’s maami (Chand Burque) is a vicious and very shrill woman who’s constantly yelling at the other two women, telling them how it’s the generosity of her and her husband that allows them to stay on here, living off the earnings of the maamaji. Maamaji seems blissfully unaware that anything’s wrong; his wife has given him to understand that she’s the one doing all the housework…
…whereas in reality, it’s Nirmal who does all the cleaning and cooking that allows the household to manage without a servant.
And, in college, she’s a fine student. Plus, she’s fallen in love with a classmate named Rajinder (Pradeep Kumar, who really looks far too old to be in college). Rajinder and Nirmal’s romance consists largely of accidentally banging into each other.
They eventually do (sort of) express their love for each other, and that too just as the term is ending. Nirmal has won a gold medal for a beautiful poem she recites at the college mushaira. When she comes home, her maami gets on Nirmal’s case again, and Nirmal—a hot-tempered girl, as it is—lets fly and tells her aunt off. She vows that she’ll go get herself a job, so that she can look after her mother and maami won’t get a chance to pass any more snide remarks.
Nirmal’s luck is pretty good, because she’s not gone very far when she runs into an old friend, Leela (?). [Rather, Leela runs into Nirmal—literally. Like a good Hindi film character, Nirmal’s crossing the road without looking, and Leela nearly mows her down in her car]. Anyway, there’s a cheery reunion, and when Leela learns that Nirmal is looking for a job, she insists on taking Nirmal to a place where there’s a job just waiting for her.
This turns out to be a sangeet vidyalaya (a ‘school of music’) run by Kedarnath (Pran). Kedarnath is immediately taken by Nirmal, and—just as Leela had predicted—offers her a job as a teacher. At Rs 500 per month. Nirmal can’t believe her good fortune. Kedarnath gives her an advance of Rs 100, and after an ecstatic Nirmal has left, promising to report for duty the following day, Kedarnath does a little jig with Leela. The gist of their flighty conversation is that Leela’s got him a nice juicy pigeon which he’ll pluck at his own leisure.
Nirmal, gullible and naïve soul that she is, has no idea what’s happening. Some days later, when the sangeet vidayalaya holds a function and she gets a glimpse of the unashamedly lecherous all-male crowd, she does get a bit of a start. The start swiftly develops into full-fledged flight as the audience leaps onto the stage, the lights go out, and the men start dragging away the girls onstage.
Nirmal finds herself being pounced on by Kedarnath, who flings off his turban and fake moochh etc to reveal himself as a younger and definitely ill-meaning creature.
Fortunately for Nirmal’s virtue, the police seem to have been tipped off by someone, and choose this moment to raid the premises. The ‘audience’ is dragged off, as are the girls (including Nirmal), and the next day, the news of this episode is splashed all across the newspapers.
There’s a hearing in court, and the judge is sympathetic enough to have the poor girls remanded to a rescue home. Nirmal begs to be allowed to go back to her home, since she does have one.
But, hai re kismat. Back home, the family has already heard the news, and Nirmal is told in no uncertain terms that she is not welcome back. Her ma [remember that weak heart?] chooses this moment to pop off, leaving Nirmal with no-one on her side.
…worse still, when Nirmal finally picks herself up and walks off towards an uncertain future, who should pop up but the eternal bad penny, Kedarnath. [I’m wondering why he isn’t languishing in jail in the aftermath of that raid, but maybe that’s too much to expect of the cops. It’s never explained].
Now looking more dapper, but as black-hearted as ever, Kedarnath tries to again get fresh with Nirmal.
She tries to run away, and in the process, is hit by a car. [It seems to be Nirmal’s fate to get hit or nearly hit by traffic. I’ve rarely seen a more accident-prone heroine; even her meetings with Rajinder consist mainly of collisions between their cycles]. The man in the car, Colonel Thakur Ranbir Singh (Murad), gets out to check on Nirmal, and kindly offers to take her to a hospital—or, when she insists she’s fine, to drop her home.
He hustles Nirmal into his car, and she admits to him that she actually has nowhere to go.
At this, Thakur Ranbir Singh tells Nirmal that she should accompany him to his home in Allahabad. His wife is an invalid and needs a companion, and Nirmal seems the perfect choice. Nirmal is initially hesitant [I’m not surprised; the last ‘elderly gentleman’ she trusted turned out to be Kedarnath], but finally agrees when Thakur Sahib tells her that she is like a daughter to him.
At Thakur Sahib’s home, his wife is very pleased to meet Nirmal, and warms to her immediately. And—surprise, surprise [or no surprise, if you’re familiar with the tropes of Hindi cinema] their son arrives that same evening—and is none other than Rajinder himself! He and Nirmal are overjoyed to find each other here, and, unseen by his parents [and unheard] spend their time in expressing their love for each other.
But there’s no smooth sailing for Rajinder and Nirmal’s romance, after all. One fine day, Thakur Sahib announces that he’s made arrangements for Rajinder to go abroad to study law. All Rajinder has to do is go to so-and-so office and collect his ‘passport for Britain’, and then he can leave—in two days’ time.
Rajinder and Nirmal are devastated, of course. How will they live without each other for the next few years? Rajinder suggests they get married at once; at least he will make Nirmal his wife before he leaves for foreign shores. When Nirmal expresses doubts about his parents agreeing to the match (she is, after all, destitute, no fit bride for a family as elite as the Thakur’s), Rajinder brushes her off by saying they won’t tell his parents right now. That can happen later, when he’s back. Now, he wants to marry her in the sight of God.
So they get married, with only one pandit as witness [and no marriage certificate, I’m guessing]. Rajinder leaves two days later, and a couple of months down the line, Nirmal collapses one day.
The doctor who’s summoned examines Nirmal and tells Thakur Sahib’s wife that there’s no need for worry; in fact, there’s cause for celebration: this young woman is going to be a ma.
There is shock all around—even from Nirmal, who seems, for all her education, to be woefully unfamiliar with the facts of life.
And in comes Kedarnath, now a decrepit and sorry figure. He calls Nirmal his wife, and explains to Thakur Sahib that when he (Kedarnath) and Nirmal had got married, he had been a wealthy man, but now that he’s fallen on hard times and all his wealth has evaporated, she’s left him.
Thakur Sahib and his wife jump to the obvious conclusion: this unscrupulous young woman is only after money, and having deserted her own husband, now has an eye on their wealth—which she’s trying to get by claiming a relationship with Rajinder. Out with the hussy!
So Nirmal finds herself destitute once again. She manages to break free from Kedarnath, but where will she go now? What will she do?
There’s plenty more to come, more tragedy and sacrifice and misunderstandings. Thankfully, there’s also Achla Sachdev, in a small but important role:
And one of my favourite ‘never-a-major-lead’ actors, Jawahar Kaul:
What I liked about this film:
The music. Really, if there’s one reason to watch Adalat, it’s Madan Mohan’s absolutely sublime music (incidentally, one of his assistants for this film was Chic Chocolate). The score includes two of my favourite ghazals (Yoon hasraton ke daag and Unko yeh shikaayat hai ke hum), plus the lovely Zameen se humein aasmaan par bithaake gira toh na doge. There’s also the cheery Jab din haseen dil ho jawaan, and the unusually structured Jaa jaa re jaa saajna, where the verses alternate between sad/slow, and coquettish/fast.
One very short scene towards the end of the film.
In the courtroom scene, Rattanlal (Jawahar Kaul), who’s the public prosecutor, has been questioning Nirmal, who’s in the dock for murder. He has not the faintest idea that this is his mother, but she knows that this is her son. As he’s speaking, addressing the judge and jury, building up his case against her, she gazes at him—you can see the longing in her eyes—and then slowly slides her hand along the railing, until she is able to rest her hand on top of his. Rattanlal is so surprised that he loses the thread of what he’s saying, and sits down soon after, unable to continue.
It isn’t a melodramatic scene, but it’s very poignant (mostly because it isn’t melodramatic?) The mother, yearning for her son, touches him surreptitiously, and the son—unaware that this is his mother—is taken by surprise. The love in Nargis’s face, the utter bewilderment in Jawahar Kaul’s: easily my favourite scene in the entire film.
What I didn’t like:
The melodrama. There’s very little that’s subtle in Adalat: the many sorrows that plague Nirmal; Kedarnath and all his equally nasty cronies; the high-handed Thakur Sahib and his wife: they’re all pretty over the top.
I would probably have tolerated it (as I did when I was younger) if it hadn’t been for the fact that Nirmal herself didn’t elicit a spark of sympathy in me. For a woman whose education was made much of (it’s mentioned every now and then), Nirmal seems not just naïve, but really rather lacking in common sense too. And initiative. When Thakur Sahib dismisses her claim that she is his bahu, why doesn’t she suggest they telephone Rajinder—or write to him?
And (spoiler ahead)… why doesn’t she show some initiative when Kedarnath has her ‘locked up’ in the kotha? If other women, like the one who smuggles out the baby, can sneak in and out during the night, what is to prevent Nirmal doing so as well? Spoiler ends.
In my opinion, too, Rajinder is a coward. He’s quick to believe the worst of Nirmal, all because his overbearing father says something. For someone who pledged undying love to Nirmal and should have been expected to trust her, Rajinder shows a sad lack of anything even remotely approaching trust.
But. The music. Someday I’m probably going to make a list of ten otherwise-avoidable films that have wonderful music. [Well, maybe not just ten. Maybe hundred.] Adalat will feature on that list.