Happy 75th birthday, Shashi Kapoor!
Yes, the youngest of the three Kapoor brothers was born on March 18, 1938, in Kolkata. He is one of my favourite actors, and one of the very few whom I like also in his 70s avatar—that charm didn’t desert him with time. But. To return to the time period this blog specializes in: looking through the films I’ve reviewed till now, I realized there are only a handful of Shashi Kapoor films here. Prem Patra (another favourite), Pyaar Kiye Jaa, Pyaar ka Mausam, The Householder, Benazir.
So, this calls for another review, another Shashi Kapoor favourite of mine. Sharmeelee, which, though it was released in 1971, has enough of the feel of the 60s—in fashions, music, crew and cast involved—for me to include it in my list. Most of all, it has Shashi Kapoor at his absolutely irresistible best.
We are introduced to the eponymous sharmeelee (‘shy girl’) through a frame that says a lot [without the central character saying much, except to sundry creatures].
Kanchan (Raakhee) sits on a rock beside a mountain stream and trails her feet in the water—and derives a lot of joy out of that simple act. She is all alone, surrounded only by the woods, the mountains and the birds and animals—and is happy. A girl who shuns crowds, and whose best friends right now seem to be a parakeet, a rabbit, and a pigeon. [Shades of Nimmi in Amar? Thankfully, no].
Finding a wounded pigeon, Kanchan takes it to the local Christian priest-cum-doctor, Father Joseph (Nasir Hussain). Kanchan is so shy that she can barely even tell Father Joseph why she’s come to him, but the priest knows Kanchan well. He is an affectionate and understanding man [though his avuncularity starts getting on my nerves after a while], and Kanchan is not intimidated by him, even if she is shy.
The scene shifts suddenly, and we are introduced to Kamini (also Raakhee), Kanchan’s twin sister. While Kanchan is shy and a school dropout (she’s only studied till Class VIII, Mummy have decided that a good, traditional housewife—as Kanchan will no doubt end up—needn’t be well-educated) Kamini is Westernised, sassy, smart—and doing her MA. When she enters the scene, it is to burst into her home, where a middle-aged woman and a girl are sitting.
These two, it turns out, are the mother and sister of a prospective bridegroom for Kanchan. They mistake Kamini for Kanchan, and like her immensely—with the result that when the twins’ mother Shanti (Anita Guha) appears, ushering in a sari-wrapped and nervous Kanchan, the two guests are dumbstruck. They recover swiftly, though, and the mother lets their hostess know that they would like Kamini as the daughter-in-law of their house. Not Kanchan.
When they’ve left, Kanchan and Kamini’s mother curses Kanchan. This is the eighth time someone has come to ‘see’ Kanchan and has ended up preferring the vastly more vivacious and chirpy Kamini. Kanchan is painfully shy, and all these ‘modern’ people can’t seem to see beyond that.
To her credit, Kamini seems to truly love her sister, and doesn’t deliberately try to wreck her matrimonial prospects. It just happens.
Kamini now goes off on a trip to Kashmir with a group of collegemates. Their plans seem to be very ad hoc, because when they turn up at the guest house, the surprised caretaker says he can arrange bedding, but can’t provide food. Visitors bring their own food, he says. And the nearest settlement is three miles away; he’s not venturing out in this blizzard to bring food for this bunch of ignoramuses.
Kamini’s sharp eyes spot some illuminated buildings nearby. It’s an Army Officers’ Mess, says the caretaker, and completely off-limits to civilians. That doesn’t deter Kamini; she and her friends are really hungry by now, so she sneaks off to the mess, and arrives in the verandah outside just in time to hear (and, more importantly, see) the gorgeous Captain Ajit Kapoor (Shashi Kapoor) spouting poetry.
Kamini is impressed. But food beckons, and she takes herself off to the deserted mess kitchen, which she hurriedly raids. Everything is dumped into a handy basket, and she’s scurrying out when she runs into the mess waiter (Rashid Khan). He raises the alarm, and Kamini races off, followed through the snow by Ajit. When he yells for the thief to stop (“Or I will shoot!”), Kamini plays possum…
…and, when found to be a very pretty and (seemingly unconscious) girl, is picked up and brought back to the mess. Everybody (especially Ajit) is quite enchanted, and Ajit even orders the mess waiter to pack up all the food at hand, to be taken for the hungry girls. [Not a good idea, this, considering it means that all his colleagues now have to forego their dinners. Ajit is smart enough to personally accompany Kamini and the food to the guest house, leaving his brother officers with nobody on whom to vent their frustrations].
At the guest house, romance swiftly blossoms between Ajit and Kamini while he sings a song and they exchange dreamy looks [and a rather fake-looking rose].
Ajit’s besottedness does not go unnoticed, and neither does his generosity. The next morning, his CO, the Colonel (Iftekhar) summons Ajit. Instead of hauling him over the coals for dispensing military rations in this arbitrary fashion, the colonel congratulates him on his initiative, and tells Ajit to invite the girls over for breakfast.
[The colonel, unsurprisingly, was not one of those present at the mess the previous night, so has probably not had to go hungry].
Ajit, reaching the guest house, all afire at the thought of meeting Kamini again, has his hopes dashed when the caretaker tells him that the girls have left—they only stayed the one night. Oh, the disappointment!
Anyway, the scene now shifts back to Kamini and Kanchan’s hometown, where Father Joseph has received a letter which has made him very excited. He tells Shanti and her husband that his son is coming home. [They exchange looks of trepidation]. “But you’ve never been married, Father?” “No, of course not. But I have a son!” [Trepidation changes to wide-eyed shock].
But no, it’s all above board and completely innocuous. Father Joseph has been the foster-father of the orphaned son of a military officer who used to live in this town. The priest has brought up the boy-now-man [how he’s managed it without the rest of this close-knit community knowing it is beyond me].
And who might this be? Ajit Kapoor, of course. [Why am I not surprised? A film produced by Subodh Mukherjee, and no OTT coincidences? Is that possible?]
So Ajit comes home on leave, is met by Father Joseph, his housekeeper Rosie (Ruby Myers), and Rosie’s daughter, Lily. Much happiness and light.
Father Joseph also broaches the subject of Ajit’s marriage. It’s time the young man got hitched, and he knows just the girl.
Seeing a flicker of sadness in Ajit’s eyes, the priest asks if Ajit is in love, and Ajit admits that though he had fallen in love with an unknown girl in Kashmir, that girl vanished, taking Ajit’s love with her. So Ajit has reconciled himself to marrying whichever good girl Father Joseph has chosen for him. [Whether the bride will be pleased to marry a man in love with some wraith out of his past isn’t discussed].
The girl, of course, is Kanchan. Shy, pretty Kanchan, whom Ajit is invited to come and see for himself. And Ajit, seeing her, jumps to the obvious conclusion: this is his lost love! Okay, she is acting rather too shy and demure—completely different from when he’d met her—but that’s probably for the benefit of her family. He flirts gently with her, and by the time he leaves, Kanchan is delirious with happiness. She’s finally been ‘approved’ [yucky term, I know, but that’s it] by a man. And what a man, too.
Alas, poor Kanchan is doomed. A couple of days later, Kamini returns from her gallivanting with her friends, and inundates Kanchan with many hugs and congratulations, because she’s heard from her parents about her sister’s engagement. When Kamini asks Kanchan what her betrothed is like, Kanchan shyly suggests waiting till dinnertime—he’s invited. But Kamini, bubbly and brash, dashes off to see him for herself.
…and, in the process, the misunderstanding is sorted out. She is initially furious that this man, whom she’d fallen in love with, is preparing to marry her sister; but Ajit’s assurances—that he didn’t know there were two women—works. Poor Father Joseph is given the task of explaining the painful truth to Kamini and Kanchan’s parents. Kanchan overhears. Her engagement to the man she has fallen in love with is over. Now Kamini is engaged to him.
[Father Joseph’s broken-record-like parroting of “God bless you. God bless you,” is little consolation].
Ajit and Kamini are on cloud nine and looking forward to their wedding, when one day, at the club swimming pool, Kamini runs into an old flame, Kundan (Ranjeet). Kundan tries to get fresh, and is soundly thrashed by Ajit.
We now also get introduced to Kundan’s boss, Tiger (Narendranath). Tiger has VILLAIN written all over him. [Firang moll in bed? Check. Cigarettes? Check. Daaru? Check. Gold phone? Check].
Tiger gives his minions some instructions, which basically centre round some dodgy espionage and getting rid of. Along the way, Tiger assures Kundan that Kamini will be his, not to worry.
Kundan’s libido, however, won’t bear any more waiting, so he takes matters into his own hands. [Um. Pun unintended]. On the day of the wedding, he writes a note to Kamini, asking her to come and meet him on a lonely hillside—and signs as Ajit.
Kamini [who should’ve been expected to have been able to recognize her betrothed’s handwriting by now] goes off, and Kundan pounces on her. He threatens her with blackmail—all those love letters and photos of their good times together—but Kamini snaps back that Ajit already knows. This is when things get rough, but Kamini manages to break free, jump into her car—and run Kundan over. Smash. Splat.
Her luck is so terrible, though, that a police jeep stuffed to the gills with cops happens to be passing by, and the officer in charge smells a rat. They chase her car (she’s succeeded in stuffing Kundan’s corpse into it, in the meantime). But, at the end of a tunnel, Kamini loses control of the car, and by the time the cops arrive, they see her car hurtling down the hillside in flames and into the river below.
Kamini’s father is summoned to the local police station and given the news—that his daughter, a murderess, has presumably died in an accident. Her body hasn’t been found; it’s probably been borne away by the river or eaten by wild animals.
Back home, there’s desolation. What will happen to poor Kanchan now? Kamini has blackened the family’s name. Nobody will ever marry Kanchan.
Their maid (Dulari) comes up with a solution: why not pass Kanchan off as Kamini, and get her married to Ajit? The girls’ mother, who should’ve known better, immediately agrees that this is a grand idea. [And how, pray, will they account for the fact that ‘Kanchan’ isn’t present at her sister’s wedding—and is not heard of afterwards? And, anyway, will the marriage really be legal?]
Kanchan tries, in her docile way, to refuse, but is bulldozed into silence. Thankfully, she does show some spine, even if on the sly. She writes a note to Ajit, telling him the truth, and asking him to arrive for the wedding only if he is fine with marrying her, Kanchan.
Kanchan sends this note through Lily (Father Joseph’s housekeeper’s daughter), but it’s intercepted by Kanchan’s mother. She uses subterfuge to substitute the note with a photograph of Kanchan’s…
…with the result that Ajit arrives, all unaware, for the wedding, and Kanchan is so relieved and happy.
A short-lived relief, as it turns out, because when Ajit comes into their room that night and passionately addresses her as “Kamini”, the truth comes spilling out. Ajit feels (justifiably) that he has been betrayed and made a fool of; he blames Kanchan, tells her he doesn’t want to ever see her again, and drives off in his jeep.
Kanchan, meanwhile, tries to commit suicide, but is saved by Father Joseph [and more of that “God bless you. God bless you”]. But what will happen now? She has been deserted by the man she loves, and he will have nothing more to do with her. He is right now back in the army camp, drinking himself into a state of deep depression [not helped by the fact that his colleagues seem to be an exceptionally thick-skinned lot who don’t realize something’s wrong]. Tragedy, despair, and desolation abound.
Sharmeelee is a bit of a cross between a couple of scenes from Aankhen, and a Mills and Boon novel. The twin sisters, the one man both of them love, the villain-and-his-villainy angle: all of it is covered. A good, entertaining, time-pass film. Not great cinema, but great mush.
What I liked about this film:
The sheer eye candy. Shashi Kapoor and Raakhee are simply gorgeous individuals, and that gorgeousness gets amplified much more when they’re together. I’ve watched this film again and again just to feast my eyes on them.
I also love Raakhee’s acting as Kanchan/Kamini: besides the fact that her look—costumes, hairdos, jewellery, etc—is very different, it’s her acting that changes. The tone of voice, the eyes, the body language. Kamini is sultry, sexually self-confident, bold—and it shows in every movement, every look. Kanchan’s shyness and her innocence shows in every look of hers too, and her entire demeanour is totally different.
SD Burman’s music. Khilte hain gul yahaan is my favourite, but a very close second is Megha chhaaye aadhi raat. I also like Kaise kahen hum pyaar ne humko, while Reshmi ujaala hai makhmali andhera is a lesser-known but good cabaret number.
What I didn’t like:
Much as I love Sharmeelee, the ‘bad West, good East’ thing irks me. Kamini, initially, doesn’t seem like a bad sort, even if she is a ‘modern girl’. Ultimately, though, there is no doubt about the message: traditional girls, good girls, are the ones who will win. The West and all that is associated with it is bad.