Today is the 100th birth anniversary of one of my favourite Hindi film actors, the extremely talented, very versatile Balraj Sahni. Born on May 1, 1913 (an interesting coincidence, considering he went on to become the first president of the leftist All India Youth Federation), Balraj Sahni became a prominent writer—first in English, later in Punjabi—and, of course, a brilliant, much-respected actor, with a dignity and screen presence that made him stand apart in films as different as Do Bigha Zameen, Waqt, Kabuliwaala, Haqeeqat, Anuradha, and Sone ki Chidiya.
On the occasion of Mr Sahni’s birth centenary, I wanted to review a film of his. Unfortunately, going through his filmography, I realized that I’d actually reviewed almost all my favourite Balraj Sahni films already. Whether it was the oppressed, yet unfailingly gentle Shambhu of Do Bigha Zameen, or the kind yet oblivious Dr Nirmal Choudhary of Anuradha. Or the poet Shrikant, who brings back from the brink the shattered orphan, Lakshmi, in Sone ki Chidiya. Or the eponymous Kabuliwaala, seeing in little Minnie his own daughter Ameena… I’d already praised them all. And some more.
This, therefore. A relatively little-known Balraj Sahni film, but an enjoyable one nevertheless, and with some surprises in the casting.
The setting of the first scene is the village of Anandpur, where the blind Chandan (Balraj Sahni) lives all by himself, weaving baskets for a living. Chandan is an orphan and has no living relatives, but is by no means alone in the world. Kaka (‘uncle’; Nasir Hussain, as avuncular an uncle as anyone could hope for) is an old, one-legged soldier who regards Chandan as his own son.
Or son-in-law, since Kaka’s daughter Basanti (Shyama, as spunky a Basanti as a later and more famous Basanti) is in love with Chandan—and he with her. Chandan and Basanti have been childhood sweethearts, and are now saving up to get married. Both Kaka as well as Basanti’s younger sister Radha (?) are as excited about the match as the happy couple themselves.
To this village come two city slickers, Parker (Johnny Walker) and his assistant, Bhagwan (?). Parker and Bhagwan are selling lottery tickets—just Rs 7.50 per ticket, and the chance to win huge sums of money. Who will buy a ticket?
Nobody will, sadly. The villagers are not exactly rolling in wealth, and gambling such a large amount is beyond their means. Parker, disheartened, gives up and is on his way out when he stops at Chandan’s home to ask for a glass of water.
In the polite conversation that ensues, Parker reveals his business in Anandpur, and Chandan offers to buy a lottery ticket. Parker is taken aback, but recovers swiftly enough to urge Chandan on.
Chandan goes into his room to fetch the money, and Basanti—who was passing by, and has realized what’s happening—comes in, too. Smart girl that she is, she tries to dissuade Chandan. Rs 7.50 isn’t a small sum (it is, in fact, the total of Chandan’s savings).
But Chandan is adamant. Parker has come all the way from the city; what will he think of the villagers if not a single one of them buys a ticket?
So Chandan empties out his gullak, hands over the money to Parker, and doesn’t really bother about the ticket which he receives in return. It’s a foregone conclusion, not just for Chandan, but for everybody around, that poor blind Chandan isn’t going to be winning any lottery.
The scene now shifts to Bombay, where Parker and Bhagwan have returned. Parker goes to meet his girlfriend Leela (Minoo Mumtaz) at the hotel where she’s a dancer. We discover, in the course of the evening, that:
(a) Leela hasn’t been paid in months
(b) Parker isn’t welcome here, because he has run up huge unpaid bills in food and drink
(c) As a result of (b), Parker is at daggers drawn with the owner/manager of the hotel…
…which causes Parker to, in a fit of anger, tell Leela to quit her job. She can come over and stay at his place.
Leela, who seems to have as little foresight as her beau, immediately chucks up her job, packs her suitcase, and goes home with Parker—only for them to discover that the many men (all of them rather belligerent) to whom Parker owes money have decided to camp out at Parker’s shabby little kholi, waiting for him to show up.
To cut a long story short: Parker and Leela are in serious need of money and not [this is important, since it goes towards establishing their standing in the story] because of circumstances beyond their control, sheer bad luck, or worthless relatives. It’s all mostly their own doing—Parker’s perhaps more than Leela’s.
Shortly after, however, it appears that Parker’s guardian angel has suddenly woken up. Chandan’s ticket has won the lottery, of Rs 4.5 lakhs!
Parker and Bhagwan are very excited, and scurry off to meet their boss, Mr Khanna. Parker starts pestering Mr Khanna about the commission due to him, Parker, but Mr Khanna dampens his spirits by telling Parker the rules: the winner of the lottery must come to the office to collect the prize money, and the commission will only be given once that is done.
So Parker and Bhagwan go to fetch Chandan. They bring a noisy band, in a large van, and create quite an uproar. Everybody’s excited, some [especially Basanti and her little sister] already dreaming of how Chandan will put the money to use.
Chandan takes a while to get used to the idea that he’s now a lakhpati, but Parker finally manages to galvanize him into getting ready to go to Bombay to claim the money.
This is where an unforeseen obstacle rears its head [as far as Parker’s plans are concerned]. Kaka, ever-protective of Chandan, refuses to let Chandan go off to Bombay on his own. Kaka will accompany Chandan and make sure that no harm comes to him. Parker tries to dissuade the old soldier, but Kaka isn’t listening. Parker gives in. Chandan and Kaka, along with the precious lottery ticket (which had, briefly, been feared to have been lost), go off with Parker and Bhagwan to Bombay.
In Bombay, Parker takes the two villagers to a large house. [Leela has sold off her jewellery to pay for this—an investment in the scheme that she and Parker have hatched, as we’ll soon get to see]. Parker introduces Leela to ‘Mai Baap’ (as he has taken to calling Chandan), and Leela immediately begins to fawn all over Chandan too, offering him a comfortable room, a meal she’s cooked with her own hands, etc, etc. Chandan is quite overwhelmed, but Kaka, more cynical and worldly-wise, is less easily placated.
Next morning, they have to go to meet Mr Khanna. Parker, entering Chandan’s room to escort him out, whispers that a man, a hanger-on, has arrived and is sitting outside Chandan’s room, wanting to come along with them too. Will Chandan please co-operate with Parker and put the man off? “When we go past him, I will say, ‘Will you come with us, too?’ In response, all you have to do is say, ‘Oh, there’s no need for you to come with us.’ That will put him off,” Parker says.
Chandan, unsuspecting and gentle, complies—totally unaware that the man sitting outside had been Kaka. Kaka is stunned and deeply hurt that Chandan has so summarily snubbed him.
Parker skips back to whisper to Kaka that Chandan is perhaps a little excited about the money that’s coming to him, so should be forgiven. It does not help; Kaka is still upset, and accompanies them to Mr Khanna’s only after some persuasion from Parker.
At Mr Khanna’s, Parker quickly gets the proceedings under way. When Mr Khanna asks if Chandan would like the money in cash or cheque, Parker jumps in to say that a cheque would be best; he will open a bank account for Chandan.
Mr Khanna is suspicious, but Chandan trusts Parker implicitly. When Mr Khanna tries to express his doubts or offer an objection, Parker interrupts, assuring Chandan that he has Chandan’s best interests in mind. After a while, Mr Khanna gives up, but he’s uneasy.
Once they’ve left Mr Khanna’s office, Parker says they must celebrate: “Bhagwan, go buy some sweets”. In a whisper, he instructs Bhagwan to lace Kaka’s share of the mithai liberally with bhang. The result, of course, is that Kaka gets high, then sinks into a deep sleep. Parker has, in the meantime, hustled Chandan off elsewhere and has told him that Kaka will join them later.
Basically, Kaka’s been abandoned. When we wakes and discovers that Chandan, Parker and Bhagwan are gone, he tries searching for them, but in vain.
Eventually, heartbroken and very hurt (he, after all, thinks Chandan has deliberately dropped him like a hot coal), Kaka goes back home to his village.
Parker accounts for Kaka’s disappearance by producing a letter—purportedly from Kaka, left behind for Chandan—and reads it out to Chandan. This letter is full of insults and abuses directed impartially at Parker and Leela.
Chandan is shocked, but is [rather like Jane, from Pride and Prejudice] unwilling to believe that Kaka could really have believed such awful things about Chandan’s dear friends. Surely there must be some misunderstanding.
And, sure enough, to the blind Chandan, Leela and Parker (and Bhagwan, to some extent) are the sweetest, most loving friends he could have hoped for. Leela is ever-solicitous, and is soon making it fairly clear that she thinks of Chandan as something more than just a guest in the house.
This becomes even more apparent to Chandan when Parker—changing his voice and pretending to be Leela’s father—accuses her of wasting herself on this blind man. Leela and he stage quite a drama, with Leela defending Chandan and her love for him.
Chandan is surprised, and feels awkward, too. After all, he loves Basanti, who is waiting for him back home in Anandpur (where, unknown to Chandan, she is being harried by the irritating Banwaari—Raj Mehra).
When Chandan insists on returning to his own home back in his village, Parker assents. He personally drives Chandan to the village—which Chandan finds completely empty. He feels his way around, recognizes (by touch) his own home, too, but there isn’t a single soul about.
Then Parker pretends to have discovered a printed announcement, lying in Chandan’s house. He ‘reads’ it out to Chandan: the village has been completely wiped out by plague. Nobody is left alive.
Chandan is shattered. All his friends, his dear Kaka, his beloved Basanti: all are dead? Parker comforts him, and hurries him back to Bombay.
…where he soon sets about milking Chandan of his wealth, in a way that leaves Chandan thinking Parker is a truly generous, sweet soul who couldn’t harm a fly and whose dearest wish is to help the widowed and orphaned.
Will Chandan realize what Parker and Leela are up to? Will he find out that Leela doesn’t care a jot for him, or that Parker, far from being a friend, is a leech of the first order? Or that the truth about ‘the village devastated by plague’ is quite different from what Chandan has been given to believe?
Besides the fact that this isn’t a very well-known film, it’s an unusual film. The casting is unusual (Johnny Walker as a villain? And that too an out-and-out crook with no compunctions?). The premise is interesting. And the execution—scripting, acting, and direction (by M Sadiq, who also directed Chhoomantar, Chaudhvin ka Chaand, and Taj Mahal) are good. Worth a watch.
What I didn’t like about this film:
(Yes, I’ll first get through this bit, because it’s so short). Chandan’s gullibility really gets my goat at times. I can understand that his blindness is a real handicap, especially in Bombay, where he knows nobody other than Leela, Parker and Bhagwan; but his refusal to see any ulterior motives in their behavior—even when it’s pointed out to him—is irritating.
What I liked:
The music, by OP Nayyar. I especially love the signature Johnny Walker song, Main hoon Mister Johnny maine sab mulkon ka piya hai paani, and the peppy Minoo Mumtaz-Johnny Walker song, Dekhoji dekho meethi ada se. My favourite, though, is the beautiful Dil toh razaamand hai, which occurs in two versions—happy and sad—in the film.
Balraj Sahni, in particular. Watching Mai Baap, I was struck by how many films Balraj Sahni starred in, even as a leading man, where he wasn’t the cookie-cutter hero. A film like Black Cat (where he’s a cop, on the trail of an arch villain) is an exception; Mr Sahni seems to have specialized in films in which (even though he was the central character) that character was either pitiable or in some way flawed, not quite the paragon Hindi cinema usually portrayed.
Look at Do Bigha Zameen, where his character is ground into the dirt because of crippling poverty. Or Anuradha, where he’s a good man, but too caught up in his work—laudable though it certainly is—to even notice his wife drifting away. Or Laajwanti, where he’s a suspicious and ruthless husband. Or Izzat, where his character rapes a village woman, leaving her pregnant.
Mr Sahni, I think, had it in him to play—with finesse—characters who were real, not the cardboard cut-outs who were always noble, always good and brave and powerful. He could pull off, with equal skill, a large-hearted Pathan and an army officer at the front; a man willing to sacrifice his all for his family, and a man who thought only of his own needs and desires.
It takes a great actor, a man true to his art, to take risks like that.
Happy birthday, Mr Sahni, and RIP. There will not be another like you.