A couple of years back, I dedicated one month of blog posts to the readers of Dusted Off. Since then, many more readers have begun following this blog. Some drop by, leave a comment, or like a post. Some lurk in the background. Some become staunch friends.
It’s been a while, so I thought it was time to repeat what I’d said back then: Thank you. Thank you for reading my blog, for encouraging me, and keeping me going. It’s because of you that I blog. It’s for you that I blog.
To express some of my gratitude for my blog readers, February 2013 on Dusted Off is dedicated to you. All the posts this month will be related to blog readers: reviews of films recommended by readers, lists requested by readers, and so on. To begin with, a film that I’ve wanted to see ever since Shalini recommended it three years ago. I finally found Lala Rookh in Induna’s catalogue a few months back, and pounced on it.
Lala Rookh begins in the province of Noorabad, the Shahenshah of which is Shah Murad (Talat Mahmood). Shah Murad, like innumerable other rulers of fairy tale and legend, has a penchant for going out, incognito, amidst his subjects to see how they actually live. One night, Shah Murad, dressed as an ordinary man, goes out with his servant, Mansoor (?).
While walking through the town, they happen to peek in through the window of a house where a banquet is in progress. A dancing girl is strutting her stuff, and the host (having been persuaded by his guests to do so) is singing.
The camera follows us after the song ends and the host—his name is Abul Hassan (Lotan)—is summoned to another room by his old mother. The old lady admonishes Hassan for spending their last few bits of money on hosting such a lavish party, but Hassan shushes her. These guests are his friends, he says; should he be in need, they will come to his aid.
Unfortunately, the curious friends have eavesdropped on this conversation. When Hassan returns to the feast, they prove that they’re not just curious, but also fair-weather, friends. They say nasty things to him, tick him off when he tries to ask for some monetary help, and rush off without so much as a by-your-leave. Poor Hassan is left much disillusioned. Shah Murad and Mansoor watch on, unseen.
Hassan has barely recovered from this ordeal, when his servant announces the arrival of two strangers. These are Shah Murad and Mansoor, introducing themselves as weary travelers; could they please get a bite to eat? Hassan, who’s a simple, generous soul, immediately forgets the disappointment he’s just faced (and his penury), and makes these two unexpected guests comfortable.
Hassan sets a platter of food before the two men, and while his back is turned, Mansoor quickly shovels the food up his sleeve. When Hassan looks back, his two guests are begging to be fed, and saying they’re so hungry. Poor Hassan doesn’t have money for more food, but he’s so incurably generous, he takes off his coat and sends his servant off to sell it and buy food—which Mansoor again, on the sly, hides.
This tomfoolery goes on for a few minutes, until a desperate Hassan—who’s had to sell off his turban and waistcoat too [thank goodness he’s not reduced to his knickers], is driven to grabbing a knife to cut off his own arm to feed his guests. Murad realises at this point that the joke’s gone too far, and stops Hassan just in time. He and Mansoor reveal the joke to Hassan (though they don’t tell him who they are), and praise his generosity. And when a vastly relieved Hassan wishes he could be the ruler of Noorabad…
…they surreptitiously drug him, cart his unconscious self off to the palace, and let him spend a day there, enjoying all the luxuries of being a pseudo shahenshah. Within a couple of days, Hassan has fallen in love (with a palace maid called Para), has been given enough money to live in comfort for a year, and has been married to Para. As a result of all this, he is not just very happy, but also becomes a friend of Murad’s, who has finally revealed his identity.
All this while, the wazir (?) has been pestering Murad with the reminder that it’s time for Murad to fulfill his late father’s promise, of marrying Princess Lala Rookh of Malikabad. Murad has never seen the girl in his life and baulks at the thought of having to kowtow to a pledge he didn’t make. He tells the wazir that he, Murad, is the shahenshah; in Noorabad, his word is law. Why should he kowtow to another’s choice when it comes to a decision as important as his marriage?
Despite all of Murad’s cribbing, though, he realises that he doesn’t actually have much say in this matter. The wazir has already warned him: the ruler of Malikabad will be deeply offended if Murad calls off the wedding; the insult could well lead to war between Noorabad and Malikabad. Furthermore, Lala Rookh and her entourage have already set out from Malikabad, headed for Noorabad and the wedding.
Murad decides he can’t just sit around and wait. He will go, in disguise, to see what his intended bride is like. If he can meet her as a poor man, he might be able to gauge her character better. Is she marrying him only for his wealth and power? Or is she capable of finer feelings?
Murad confides in Hassan, outlining this plan, and Hassan agrees to accompany his lord and master.
[This unilateral decision does not go down well with Para, Hassan’s bride, who is rather miffed at being left high and dry while her husband goes off gallivanting. She, however, takes the matter into her own hands by joining the duo—disguised as a man and passing herself off as her own brother. Even Hassan does not realise who she actually is].
So Murad, Hassan, and a disguised Para arrive at the place where Lala Rookh (Shyama, looking her usual gorgeous self) and her entourage are encamped. There’s music and dance, and the princess looking serenely on from behind the curtain that veils the doorway of her tent.
…when, suddenly, Murad and Hassan notice a bunch of bandits sneaking up on the camp. Our heroes leap to the rescue, and there’s some very hurried but effective swashbuckling, as they—and Lala Rookh’s own soldiers, who also join in—send the bandits scurrying (or lay them low). In the process, unfortunately, Murad is wounded pretty badly and is barely able to stand when he is presented to the princess’s wazir, who heads her entourage.
Hassan begins to introduce them, and Murad just about summons up the strength to interrupt. “I am a servant of Shah Murad’s”, he says, and faints.
When he comes to, it is to find that the grateful princess is herself tending to his wounds. Murad opens his eyes to find her mopping at his bloodied forehead, and he’s quite dazzled.
Lala Rookh (though she looks shy and confused at being faced by this handsome stranger) rallies around and asks him, since he is a servant of Shah Murad’s, what Shah Murad is like. After all, she is curious, having never even seen her future husband.
So Murad describes her betrothed to Lala Rookh: Shah Murad, he says, has one leg shorter than the other. “Saari duniya ko ek aankh se dekhte hain,” he adds, and Lala Rookh cheers up, thinking that even if he limps awfully, at least Shah Murad is a just ruler—until the wounded stranger qualifies his statement by adding that Shah Murad, after all, has only one eye.
He goes on to give her more details. The harem, for instance—“But I’d been told that Shah Murad does not have a harem!” the poor princess protests—“Oh, hardly worth noticing. Just about a hundred and fifty, or maybe two hundred, women,” says Murad gleefully. “And of those, he had about six executed just the other day. And a dozen others recently committed suicide.”
By this time, poor Lala Rookh is starting to panic. What has she been pushed into?!
She doesn’t get much time to nibble at her fingernails and worry herself into a tizzy, because her wazir, who is a very zealous chaperone, arrives just then. He raises his eyebrows at the princess dirtying her hands looking after a lowly commoner, and makes it quite clear that he does not approve of Lala Rookh’s being so attentive to this stranger.
The wazir has cause to become even more annoyed as the days go by. The young stranger reveals himself to be a poet, and Lala Rookh (and I don’t blame her for this, considering all that she’s heard about her betrothed) asks him if he and his two friends will join the entourage and come along with them. Murad agrees, naturally. Soon, he’s singing songs—ostensibly for the entire company present, but really for Lala Rookh.
The two of them are soon very much in love, and Lala Rookh sneaks off every now and then to meet her sweetheart at night, well away from the camp. They sing and talk (she calls him Ajnabi, ‘stranger’), and his presence drives all thought of her impending doom from Lala Rookh’s mind.
The wazir, however, is nothing if not diligent. He has been keeping an eye on all of this, and one evening, he and his henchmen trail Lala Rookh to her rendezvous with Murad. Just after Lala Rookh has bade farewell to Murad, the wazir’s men attack, stabbing Murad in the back. The wazir then tries to reason with Lala Rookh to give up her love, and when she refuses, reveals that he has had the poor man killed.
Lala Rookh flies at him in a rage, is overpowered, and is quickly tied up and bundled onto a tent-like howdah atop a camel—and the caravan sets off, as fast as they can, heading towards Noorabad. The wazir has made up his mind: if he has to haul his princess to her wedding against her wishes, he will do so.
What now? This is all a terrible muddle, because Murad (last seen sinking to the ground in a faint, with that bloody dagger sticking out of his back) is after all Lala Rookh’s bridegroom. The wazir doesn’t know it, and neither does Lala Rookh.
There are no surprises in store, actually (at least not for the viewers, since we, unlike Lala Rookh, already know that the man she loves and the man she is supposed to marry are one and the same). But there’s a sweet love story, plenty of fun, and enough to make this film worthy of being much better-known than it is.
What I liked about this film:
Loads. I loved the simplicity of Lala Rookh: it was such an uncluttered, uncomplicated story. A little in the style of the traditional Amar Chitra Katha (or even Shakespearian?) tale, where one half of a romantic pair leads the other one on by being in disguise till the very end. There are no villains (the wazir, while he tries to nip in the bud Lala Rookh’s growing romance with the poet, is really just doing his job—and isn’t actually a bad man).
The songs, written by Kaifi Azmi and composed by Khayyam. My favourite is the lovely Pyaas kuchh aur bhi bhadka…tujhko purdah rukh-e-rosha se uthaana hoga, though Hai kali-kali ke labh par tere husn ka fasaana (sung by Rafi in a film where all the other songs in a male voice were—unsurprisingly—by Talat), Alvida, alvida jaan-e-wafa, and Le jaa meri duaaein are also good.
Talat Mahmood and Shyama. Shyama I have long regarded as one of the loveliest actresses in Hindi cinema; Talat I have always thought of as one of the finest male singers. Here, he proves that he can also be good old-fashioned eye candy. As Shalini so aptly put it, Talat Sahib is hot. Utterly hot.
And, in a refreshing departure from the hero who can be easily recognised even when in disguise, Talat manages to look, sound and behave totally different when pretending to be the one-eyed, lame, stuttering Shahenshah of Noorabad.
Lastly, one particular aspect of the film that appealed to me was that its main focus was the romance between Lala Rookh and Shah Murad. There is the brief thread of a comic subplot consisting of Hassan and Para, but the bulk of the story is Lala Rookh and Murad’s, uncluttered by complications. Perfect time-pass.
What I didn’t like:
As far as the film was concerned, not really very much, though I did feel a bit sorry for Lala Rookh, who was driven to tears (and more) because her husband-to-be was being flippant. He should’ve had pity on her much sooner. But then, half the deliciousness of the romance would’ve gone down the drain…
I also wouldn’t have minded it if the Hassan-Para angle had been left off completely after they’d got married. Once Lala Rookh and Shah Murad met and fell in love, I wanted the story to focus only on them. (On the other hand, that just may have turned a bit monotonous after a while, so that too I can understand).
But. And this a major but – what I did not like at all was the way the film ended, and I have a very strong suspicion that Friends Video (whose track record is none too great, anyway) are the ones to blame. Here I’d been, approaching the end of the film, watching poor Lala Rookh trying to shrug off the advances of her yucky bridegroom, totally unaware that under that disguise, he was actually the man she loved. I was grinning from ear to ear, waiting in eager anticipation for Murad to reveal himself.
And what happens? A sudden switch of scenes to Hassan and Para, who’re having some financial troubles and have picked a crooked way out of them—and then we’re back to the palace, for a couple of seconds where Murad and Lala Rookh, now happily married, are smilingly walking along. Huh?!
Considering the rest of the film has a very coherent script, this just did not make sense. I suspect Friends—not content with plastering a very intrusive logo over a quarter of the screen, and pasting a watermark across the centre—have decided they know best when it comes to editing films. It’s about time someone took some sort of punitive action against these morons.
(Edited with an update: Complete versions of the film have since been uploaded on YouTube, so you can now safely watch Lala Rookh without fearing a horrible let-down).
Little bit of trivia:
Lala Rookh was produced by Ismat Chughtai, and was based on the poem Lalla Rookh by the 18-19th century poet, Thomas Moore. In Moore’s poem, the princess Lalla Rookh is a daughter of Aurangzeb’s, and is betrothed to the prince of Bukhara. On her way to their wedding in Kashmir, Lalla Rookh falls in love with a young poet called Feramorz, who joins the entourage and travels along with them.
The bulk of Lalla Rookh consists of Feramorz’s poems, and can be read here. Each section has a brief portion in prose, where the story of Lalla Rookh and Feramorz is narrated.