Raja, while commenting on my post on saheli songs, mentioned that Akhiyaan bhool gayi hain sona from Goonj Uthi Shehnai was his “all-time favourite”, and “In my list of 1-10, I’d fill all 10 spots with this song.” I’ve had the VCD of this film lying around at home for quite a while, but I’d been putting off watching it (largely because Rajendra Kumar isn’t one of my favourites), but after I had a closer look [hear?] at the songs of Goonj Uthi Shehnai—and realized that some of my favourite songs were from this film—I figured I had to watch it soon.
This post, therefore, is for Raja. For having spurred me on to watch this film. And yes, I think Akhiyaan bhool gayi hain sona is pretty awesome too.
The film begins in the riverside village of Radhapur [there are references aplenty to the love of Krishna and Radha in this film; this is just the beginning]. A classical singer, Raghunath Maharaj (Ulhas) is doing his riyaaz at the local temple, sitting by himself, when it dawns on him that some unseen musician in the vicinity is accompanying him on the shehnai. The notes of the shehnai are so pure, the musician’s skill so indubitable, that Ragunath Maharaj forgets his own practice and goes investigating.
The shehnainawaaz [yes, that’s the word for it; ‘shehnai performer’] turns out to be a boy named Kishan. Kishan is an orphan and has no home, no roots, no nothing [except that very good shehnai, and pots of talent]. Sitting beside Kishan is his friend, Gopi, who is all admiration for Kishan.
Kishan begs Ragunath Maharaj’s pardon for having disturbed the master at his riyaaz, but Raghunath is so impressed by Kishan’s playing, he readily forgives the boy. On discovering that Kishan is all alone in this world, he decides to take the boy home with him, bring him up—and, most importantly, nurture that talent of his.
What follows is a beautiful piece of classical vocals (by Ustad Ameer Ali Khan) accompanied by the shehnai (played throughout the film by the incomparable Bismillah Khan himself) as Kishan settles into Raghunath’s house, and begins to learn the intricacies of music. Raghunath’s little daughter Ramkali ‘Raami’ accompanies them on the sitar and watches Kishan with adoring eyes…
…while little Gopi emulates her from outside the window.
The loves of this precocious bunch of children are articulated one day when Gopi and Raami are arranging a wedding for their dolls. It’s a grand affair, with the neighbourhood children all decked up, Raami and her pals forming the baaraat for the doll-bridegroom, while Gopi brings out her doll-bride. Kishan has been specially invited to play the shehnai at this wedding.
When he’s asked if he’ll play the shehnai when Gopi herself gets married, Kishan puffs out his chest and says that at Gopi’s wedding, he’ll be the bridegroom, not the shehnainawaaz.
At this stage, a party-pooper arrives, in the form of the wicked Kanhaiyya, who, pint-sized though he is, has his eye on Gopi. He runs off to inform Gopi’s mother (Leela Mishra), who comes rushing out. She scolds Gopi, throws Kishan out after calling him a lot of nasty names, and generally makes it obvious that she thoroughly disapproves of Gopi’s friendship with Kishan.
With, of course [and we have so many precedents for this in Hindi cinema], the result that the childhood sweethearts grow up to be sweethearts as adults, too. Gopi (now Ameeta) is still completely enamoured of the shehnai-playing of Kishan (now Rajendra Kumar). [In fact, her reaction when she hears his shehnai made me wonder what or whom she loved more: Kishan or his shehnai. I have a sneaking feeling Gopi would’ve dropped Kishan like a hot potato if it weren’t for his shehnai].
They’re sitting about on the riverbank and chatting when a banjara (lyricist-music director-choreographer Prem Dhawan, in his only role as an actor) and his wife come by. They begin a conversation, and the banjaran explains that she does tattoos for a living: she etches the names of their husbands on the arms of women.
Gopi immediately jumps at the opportunity, and has the woman tattoo Kishan’s name on her upper arm, where it will be well-hidden under her sleeve. [Smart girl, but not smart enough, as we shall shortly see].
…because Gopi’s mother, seeing Gopi creep in late one evening, throws a fit. In her anger, she grabs Gopi’s arm—and Gopi’s blouse rips at the shoulder, exposing the tattoo. Oops.
Ma gets so wild that she snatches a burning stick of wood from the hearth and tries to burn Kishan’s name off.
Fortunately for Gopi, her mother’s brother Gangaram (Manmohan Krishna), who lives with them and is more sensible, restrains his sister. Nothing will come of this, he tells her, after having first wrenched the stick from her and flung her halfway across the room [which does make her rather more amenable to listening to him]. Gopi’s mother is forced to allow the tattoo to remain, but she makes it very clear that she will not have Gopi ruining her good name by going about with Kishan.
Towards this end, she decides it would be best if Gopi were to be married off soon. Unknown to Gopi, she had already been promised in marriage when she was a child, to the son of her now-dead father’s friend. [Tell me something new. And—spoiler coming up—no, it isn’t Kishan, after all].
Gopi’s mother asks Gangaram to write to the young man, whose name is Shekhar. Shekhar should come and visit them and see Gopi for himself. If he approves of her, they should soon fix a date for the wedding.
[Which makes me think: what about that telling tattoo? How does Ma hope Gopi is going to explain that away to Shekhar? By passing Gopi off as a Krishnabhakt?]
Anyway, the letter is duly written and sent off. The village postman, by the way, is Kanhaiyya (now IS Johar), who still has the hots for Gopi and has no compunctions about pestering her or telling Kishan off. Kanhaiyya hasn’t the faintest idea that this letter is going to put paid to his hopes.
Shekhar (Pratap Kumar) arrives one day in Radhapur, driving in a smart car. On his way to Gopi’s house, he happens to hear Kishan playing on his shehnai. Shekhar is mesmerised, and goes up to Kishan to praise his music—and to offer him a job. It emerges that Shekhar is a big shot at All India Radio in Lucknow. He invites Kishan to shift to Lucknow, and to come and play for radio. Such a talent must not be hidden.
Kishan, whose world [read: Gopi] is right here in Radhapur, declines the offer. It’s very kind of Shekhar, but no, thank you. Shekhar is disappointed, but is gracious enough to not make a fuss about it; he merely expresses his hope that someday Kishan will reconsider.
Shekhar then makes his way to his destination—Gopi’s house—and meets Gopi’s mother. Gopi, who shows him into the house and is deputed to make tea, is blissfully unaware of Shekhar’s identity or why he’s come.
As he’s leaving, Gopi’s mother draws Shekhar aside, and the young man tells her that he likes Gopi. The old lady is overjoyed: she will get Gangaram to meet his parents and finalise a date for the wedding. Oh, how happy Gopi is going to be! [Poor Gopi, of course, is completely left out of this entire conversation, so doesn’t have a clue that her fate has just been decided].
Gopi, therefore, sees nothing wrong in going off that evening to meet her beloved Kishan on the riverbank. They sing, he plays his shehnai, and all is joy and romance—until Kanhaiyya discovers them. He’s so incensed that he hurries off to summon the entire village, including Raghunath Maharaj. Everybody comes rushing to see what the fuss is all about.
Raghunath Maharaj is particularly furious. He had decided, on his own, that Kishan would marry his daughter Raami, so discovering Kishan cavorting with Gopi makes him see red.
He lashes out at Kishan, hurling abuse [and fists] at him, and telling Kishan that he is no longer welcome in their house. This orphan, who knows where he’s come from, who knows who his parents were—Raghunath has no need for him. Kishan picks himself up, and [since Gopi has also been hauled off home in the meantime] decides that there is only one solution: he must prove himself worthy.
He will go to Lucknow to meet Shekhar; if he can make it big as a shehnainawaaz, fame and riches will come his way. He’ll return to Radhapur only when he’s wealthy enough for his dubious parentage [dubious, that is, in the eyes of people like Raghunath and Gopi’s mother] to not matter any more.
So Kishan takes the train to Lucknow [by some odd quirk, he manages to travel ticketless—since he cannot afford a ticket—and is asked for the ticket only when he reaches Lucknow. I didn’t know one could do that.]
It is at this point that Kishan realises he’s got a companion who’s come along, unseen by him, all the way from Radhapur [and who, very importantly, now presents a ticket for Kishan]. It is Raami, who firmly tells Kishan that she is here to look after him. With nobody to cook and clean and keep house for him, how will Kishan manage? [Umm. Like millions of other men do?]
Kishan tries to demur—Raami is neither his mother nor his sister (nor any other female relative with the duty of looking after him), but to no avail.
Kishan goes to Shekhar, is immediately welcomed with open arms, and sets up home in Lucknow, with Raami ‘looking after’ him. [Whether her father has been wondering where his girl’s vanished to is never divulged]. And, far away in Radhapur, Kanhaiyya, with the pesky Kishan now out of his way, is making sure that the Gopi-Kishan relationship never resumes. What he doesn’t know is that plans are afoot to get Gopi married to Shekhar as soon as possible.
What I liked about this film:
The music, by Vasant Desai (with lyrics by Bharat Vyas). While the cast is all right—not stellar, but decent enough—and the story is pretty standard tragic melodrama (along the lines of Baiju Bawra, of which this reminded me more than once), it is the music that makes Goonj Uthi Shehnai a must-see.
I confess that I know next to nothing of Indian classical music, but the jugalbandi between Ustad Ameer Ali Khan and Bismillah Khan towards the beginning of the film is mind-blowingly good, and Bismillah Khan’s shehnai playing throughout the film is so splendid, I get gooseflesh just thinking about it.
Even the popular songs are fabulous: the teasing Akhiyaan bhool gayi hain sona and the romantic Tere sur aur mere geet and Jeevan mein piya tera saath rahe are among my favourites. Keh do koi na kare yahaan pyaar, in my opinion one of the best songs of heartbreak, is stirring not only for its music and Rafi’s rendition of it, but also for the poignancy of its lyrics.
What I didn’t like:
The melodrama, which goes really over the top in the last half-hour of the film. Also, the idiotically convenient end of the film, which tries to stay true to two filmi standards of the time (the ‘true love lasts forever’ and the ‘a married woman must be true to her husband, even if she isn’t really married to him’). Guess what happens when you try to straddle the fence. Painful.