Among the lesser-known films for which my Uncle Vernie played was Shrimatiji, made by (and featuring) some of his closest friends. IS Johar, who was one of Vernie Tau’s chums, wrote, directed, and acted in it. The three music composers for the film (Jimmy, Basant Prakash, and S Mohinder) too were friends of Vernie Tau’s, Jimmy an especially close pal.
My father had recently expressed a desire to watch this film, mainly to hear his elder brother’s music. When I discovered it starred Shyama (whose gorgeous smile and dancing eyes make her one of my favourites), I decided I needed to watch it too. And, since the only other film in which I’ve seen Nasir Khan was Ganga-Jamuna, I wanted to see if he was any different in a much earlier film.
I am glad to say I loved Shyama in this. And that Nasir Khan, young and unfettered by tragic hero status (unlike older brother Dilip Kumar) is likeable. It may not be the best comedy I’ve ever seen (not by a long shot), but bits of it were entertaining enough—and I really liked a couple of the songs.
Shrimatiji is set in 1942, and begins on a deserted country road where Indra (Shyama) is sitting at a bus stop all by herself, waiting for a bus to take her back to the city. It is in the middle of the monsoon and the road is a series of puddles.
Indra had come to a village to try and get a job as a school teacher, but her attempt has failed, so she’s headed back.
Only, the bus doesn’t stop (it races by, splashing mud all over poor Indra), and even a passing car goes past…
…only to screech to a halt. The driver, Jeevan (?) offers Indra a lift. She initially refuses, but a sudden flash of lightning in a darkening sky makes her change her mind. She accepts Jeevan’s offer, and since he’s quite polite and gentleman-like, doesn’t find reason to regret her decision. Or not immediately, at least.
Soon after, they approach a fancy hotel beside the road. Unseen by Indra, Jeevan smartly snips a wire in his car [how come people in Hindi films have electric wires dangling within easy reach in their cars?]. He explains to Indra that his car’s out of petrol, so it’s just as well they’re outside the hotel—they can spend the night here.
Indra has been pretty naïve all this while: she hasn’t realised that Jeevan has designs on her. Now, while she goes to the ladies’ to change into clean clothes (remember? She’d been splashed), Jeevan concocts a rather convoluted plan to have his wicked way with her.
This plan involves a friend of Jeevan’s, as equally unscrupulous as Jeevan himself. Jeevan briefs him, and goes off…
…while the friend accosts Indra, now sitting at a table in the restaurant. He has already informed a police constable who’s standing nearby—though not within earshot—that Indra is a thief, who’s just stolen a purse full of valuables. [why the constable doesn’t arrest her right then is anybody’s guess]. The friend asks Indra if he might sit at her table, gives her some rigmarole about him being a palmist, and discreetly slips the purse—which he’s been carrying with him—into Indra’s suitcase, which is lying beside them. [Nobody notices, of course—neither Indra, nor the cop].
But the cop now summons a colleague, and they pounce on Indra. Jeevan’s friend accuses her of having stolen his purse and put it in her suitcase, and Indra’s busy yelling her innocence… when the manager of the hotel (Murad) arrives along with Jeevan. Jeevan assures everybody that Indra is his wife—his ‘shrimatiji’, and that she actually is innocent. A Major who’s in the manager’s company happens to know Jeevan well, so vouches for him.
Jeevan’s friend gets hauled away by the cops [what does he get out of this adventure, I wonder?]. The Major whips out a camera, wanting to take a photo of Jeevan, ‘Mrs Jeevan’, and the manager. They oblige, and Indra goes along with it, realising that if she denies being married to Jeevan, she’ll be accused of the theft and probably arrested.
The manager, having apologised to the shrimatiji for this incident, offers the newlywed couple (as Jeevan has described them), the only room available.
Once there, of course, Indra discovers the truth: that Jeevan, far from being a gentleman and leaving the room for her, intends to spend the night there—in her company.
And this where Indra shows herself to be a far more feisty character than I’d expected her to be. Instead of pleading with him or crying or shrieking for help, Indra spits on her hands [literally!] and sets about thrashing Jeevan up. She kicks and bites and slaps him, and finally corners him with the help of a cut electrical lamp cord: a couple of nasty shocks, and Jeevan is blubbering for help.
Indra runs away, and the next thing we know, she’s back in the city, where she lives with three roommates (one of whom is a young Indira Bansal). All four girls are equally broke and are deeply in debt. So deeply that they are reduced to ordering one cup of tea between the four of them, and portioning it out.
When they go out searching once again for jobs, they return to discover that their creditors are crowding the staircase to the girls’ flat. They manage to sneak in by a window at the back, compare notes, realise their situation’s desperate, and—well, break into song. [It’s one of the most delightful songs I’ve heard about housekeeping, so I’m okay with this].
The next day, Indra is at a typing school (and making a sad mess of her work), when two men arrive looking to employ a secretary. The pair call themselves Motumal (Majnu) and Chhoturam (IS Johar). Indra makes quite an impression on them when she accidentally flings the top half of her typewriter, ribbons, cartridge and all, onto their feet. Chhoturam and Matumal tell the lady in charge (Tuntun, in a cameo) that they’d like to employ this girl.
Indra is very happy, and even more so when, in their office, her new bosses tell her that they’ll be paying her a princely salary of Rs 300 per month. Chhoturam gives her Rs 600 as an advance, plus a further Rs 5,000, with instructions that she should go and have that amount changed for notes of a smaller denomination.
Our girl is thrilled to bits, and hasn’t the slightest inkling that these two characters are actually secret agents who are spying for the Japanese. When she’s gone off, Chhoturam and Motumal tune into their radio and contact a Japanese officer, to whom they report that they have hired a new secretary and sent her off with the forged currency. Soon India will be awash in fake currency, and the war effort will collapse.
Meanwhile, Indra has used the advance she’d received to pay off the girls’ creditors. The money, within a matter of hours, is found by the police and traced. Fortunately, the girls come to know of this before the police can get to them, so they hide. Indra, certain that the ‘shareef’ Chhoturam and Motumal couldn’t be to blame, decides to go back to their office to return the money.
Just as she’s about to enter, though, Indra overhears her two bosses, in conversation with Jeevan [yes, like a bad penny—rather appropriate, in this case—he keeps popping up]. It doesn’t take much listening for Indra to realise that Chhoturam and Motumal are as crooked as their pal Jeevan.
She flees, but in the process slips, drops the briefcase, and has to scramble to escape. Motumal and Chhoturam give chase, and while they’re trying to catch up with Indra, Jeevan picks up the briefcase (full of real money, since Indra had already accomplished that task). He makes a quick exit.
Now Indra and her buddies are really in the soup. They have no money. They can’t go back to their flat, since that’s the first place the police will come looking for them. And there’s a warrant out for Indra’s arrest, on charges of aiding and abetting forgery.
Luck hasn’t deserted them completely, however. Soon after, sitting on the pavement outside a theatre, they see four men—dressed as Romans—emerge from the theatre, quarrelling with a fifth.
It turns out that these four, headed by Rajesh (Nasir Khan) are the lead players of this theatre. They’ve had a difference of opinion with the manager, and, as a result, are threatening to quit.
Indra takes advantage of the situation and jumps into the fray along with her friends. They offer to act, dance and sing in the theatre, a proposal which irks Rajesh and his pals (one of whom is played by Ram Avtar), who suddenly realise that their jobs are in serious danger.
The men scoff at the girls, saying they’ll never make it. And Indra takes up the challenge. If we’re accepted, she tells Rajesh, you four men will have to be our assistants, and do whatever we tell you to. And vice-versa, adds Rajesh, who is convinced the girls won’t succeed.
But they do (thanks to a peppy but impromptu number by Indra, who gets cold feet at the last minute). The audience is happy, the manager is happy, and he employs the girls, who are the happiest.
Not so Rajesh and his cronies, who now have to cater to every whim and fancy of the girls.
And this, not even midway through the film. There’s plenty more to come. After all, what is an old-fashioned Hindi film without a romance (and when you have four young men and four young women, four romances?) Plus, there’s the fact that, all said and done, the police still believe Indra was party to the circulation of forged currency. And Chhoturam and Motumal believe Indra has run off with the real money (which, of course, is actually in Jeevan’s hands). And the war is still on.
Complicated? You bet.
What I liked about this film:
Shyama as Indra. Shyama, as I mentioned, is a favourite of mine—and in Shrimatiji, as Indra, she is at her kickass best. Indra does have her moments of being the helpless, caught-in-a-cleft female, but she usually triumphs. Jeevan, for example, gets his just desserts when she bashes him towards the beginning of the film. And there’s a memorable episode near the end where, faced by the enemy, Indra holds her own, wielding a single stick pretty effectively while the men on her side cower uselessly or lie about unconscious. Atta-girl!
The music, by Jimmy, Basant Prakash, and S Mohinder. My favourite is Barkha ki raaton mein, for its lovely melody, while Ae babu o babuji and Lipstick lagaanewaale dil ko jalaanewaale are so much fun that it’s impossible for me to dislike them. Incidentally, while Ae babu o babuji has been sung by Shamshad Begum, Jimmy—who taught Kishore Kumar how to yodel—yodels a bit in it.
What I didn’t like:
The completely crazy all-over-the-place story in the last half hour or so of the film. About three-fourths of the film is fast-paced, loony but funny (rather like one of those screwball comedies so popular in Hollywood in the 30s and 40s). It isn’t perfect even then, because scenes are telescoped into sometimes ludicrously short sequences that don’t have much of an impact. But the worst is in the last half hour, when lots of pretty silly stuff happens, totally unbelievable volte-faces take place, and one’s left wondering why.
Still. With old Hindi comedies being so few and far apart, that can be forgiven. This isn’t a Roop Shorey style Ek Thi Ladki (though it does seem as if IS Johar was attempting something of the sort—there are too many resemblances to that film), but it’s good for a few laughs anyway.