Inspirations to watch (and review) films come to me from all over. Friends and relatives are occasionally badgered to suggest genres; blog readers’ requests and recommendations (some of them, alas, long-pending) are taken into consideration. And, sometimes, I get inspired by the most outlandish of things. For instance, this film—which I first watched years ago, on TV—jumped to the top of my to-watch list because one day, while washing up in my kitchen, I was reminded of Mala Sinha.
[And no, not because I happened to be scrubbing a colander].
It just so happened that I noticed the brand name on my new frying pan—Alda—and remembered that Alda is Mala Sinha’s real name. Alda Sinha didn’t like her first name because her schoolmates insisted on distorting it and calling her Dalda instead, so she changed it.
I cannot make up my mind whether I like, love, or am indifferent to Mala Sinha. I adored her in one of her first films that I watched—Aankhen—but that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I find Aankhen itself delightful in a campy, totally OTT way. I liked her restrained, nuanced acting in Pyaasa very much, and she was excellent in Gumraah, Mere Huzoor and Dillagi—among other films. On the other hand, in films like Maya, Jahanara, Ujala, and Dil Tera Deewaana, I’ve often found her too melodramatic for my liking. Or, at times (when the character she’s playing is supposed to be the bubbly type), just plain old grating on the nerves.
So, having been reminded of Mala Sinha, I decided to rewatch a film that actually showcases her acting ability, is about a strong female character, and is (despite being pretty melodramatic in places) not a bad watch.
Bahurani begins in the village of Shyampur, where a bull runs amok and goes careening through the village, scattering terrified villagers like confetti. Everybody races off in a panic, leaving a baby sitting bang in the path of the bull.
Fortunately for the baby, help arrives in the nick of time. Padma (Mala Sinha), the strong-willed daughter of the village vaid, runs forward and lifts the baby out of harm’s way—and proceeds to give the bull a talking-to. The bull complies and sits down docilely enough.
The scene now shifts to the house of the local zamindar (Nasir Hussain. You know there’s much angst and weepiness coming when Nasir Hussain plays a wealthy member of the landed gentry). Zamindar Sahib’s elder son, Raghu (Guru Dutt) is playing with his toys, along with his friend and servant Sukhia (Mukri) and his doting daai maa (Protima Devi).
Raghu, you see, has never quite grown up in mind. He lisps, cannot think beyond his toys, and has been saddled [for reasons I have been unable to fathom] with a frightful wig.
Poor broken-minded Raghu is also saddled with a thoroughly nasty younger half-brother, Vikram (Feroz Khan). Vikram no sooner sees Raghu than he pulls out his whip and starts lashing out at the ‘paagal’ (as Vikram and most other people seem to regard Raghu). Raghu is, unsurprisingly, quite terrified of Vikram.
Vikram’s mother, Zamindar Sahib’s second wife Rajeshwari (Lalita Pawar, as evil a stepmother as ever set foot in a filmi household) is devoted to her vile offspring and loathes Raghu. Raghu’s only friends seem to be Sukhia and daai maa—even Zamindar Sahib seems to be one of those hands-off fathers who doesn’t have an inkling of what Raghu’s life is like, caught between toys and a whip-wielding Vikram.
Vikram’s cruelty knows no bounds. One day, out riding, he comes upon a group of peasants toiling in the fields. His angry yelling about them being lax in their work (and therefore, in paying taxes to the zamindar) makes one peasant (Nazir Kashmiri) speak up. Vikram lashes out with his ever-present whip at the man, who is rescued by Padma. She helps the peasant up, gives Vikram a piece of her mind, and basically tells him what he can do with that whip of his.
Sukhia has been witness to this episode, and scurries off homeward to tell Zamindar Sahib all about it. Also present at the narration of this incident is the zamindar’s Diwan (Shiv Prasad). Both men are quite intrigued by what Sukhia tells them, and Zamindar Sahib insists on going to Shyampur to meet this feisty girl for himself.
…and, having met her and discovered what a gem she is, tells her father (Badri Prasad) and Padma that he’d like her to marry his son. The vaid is too much of a wimp to refuse Zamindar Sahib (and probably thinks it’s a great honour, anyway). What surprises me, though, is that Padma—who has met Zamindar Sahib’s unpleasant son—doesn’t protest or look at all reluctant. [Perhaps, like too many women who are in for a rude shock, she thinks she can change the man once she’s married to him].
Zamindar Sahib hasn’t taken his own wife, Vikram’s mother, into consideration. Rajeshwari sees red when she learns what her husband has planned. No; she will not let him force Vikram into marrying a nobody like Padma. Zamindar Sahib tries to plead, argue and reason, but she doesn’t budge. And when he tells her it’s a question of his honour—he’s given his word—she suggests he marry Padma to his other son, Raghu. Raghu? Zamindar Sahib is horrified, but ends up agreeing that it’s the only way to save face.
So the baaraat that arrives at Vaidji’s doorstep is Raghu’s—he is accompanied by his father, Diwanji, Sukhia, and a few others. Neither Rajeshwari nor Vikram come for the wedding. Neither Vaidji nor Padma realize, until the ceremony is well under way, that something is wrong with the groom. Vaidji is unable to come to terms with this, and it’s only when he overhears people gossiping that he’s “sold off his daughter to a paagal” that he yells to Padma, telling her to stop.
Padma, though, refuses to stop. She has already read out the mantras; for her, there is no difference between the first phera—which she has already taken—and the seventh, which she is yet to take. She will marry the man she has already accepted in her heart as her husband…
…even if it means that, when she reaches her new home, her mother-in-law’s welcome is distinctly huffy. And even if it means that her husband has not the faintest idea of what is expected of him. He sees that she is kind, and her kindness elicits a response which is rather like that of a child for a mother: Raghu confides in her about how badly Vikram treats him. He even shows her the scars of whiplashes on his back, and Padma is horrified.
She ends up spending her suhaag raat patting Raghu to sleep and singing him a lullaby—and vowing to teach Vikram a lesson.
Soon after, Raghu introduces Padma to daai maa, and it is from daai maa that Padma comes to know the truth. When Rajeshwari married the zamindar and came to this house, she couldn’t be bothered with having to look after a toddler, so she began dosing his milk with opium. Raghu has spent all his childhood in an opium-induced haze, which is why he’s more or less remained a child, at least mentally. [Why that opium doesn’t seem to have affected him physically is left unexplained].
Padma sends for a doctor to examine Raghu. Vikram, hearing of this, comes storming in and intercepts the doctor as he’s leaving the house. Many threats and much bullying follow, but nothing comes of it—the doctor has already finished examining Raghu and has prescribed medication. And Padma, being the daughter of a vaid, is rigorous in ensuring Raghu takes his medication on time.
She also begins to teach him the alphabet—a painstaking process, since Raghu has a hard time with it, and becomes frustrated and childishly rebellious. Also, like a child, he sometimes becomes very affectionate—and Padma finds herself in a distressing dilemma. She has tried hard to suppress anything but a sort of maternal fondness and sense of responsibility towards Raghu; his affection (which is totally non-sexual, as she knows) catches her unawares and rattles her, leaving her battling her own emotions.
In the meantime, other things have been happening. Vikram has become besotted with a tawaif named Chanda (Shyama, pretty much wasted in a role which requires her to do very little except dance, simper and lip-synch to a mujra-qawwali).
Chanda’s mother (Manorama) and ex-paanwallah father (Agha) have got it all figured out. Raghu, as everybody knows, is nutty as a fruitcake; the heir to the zamindari (and all its concomitant wealth) is, in effect, Vikram. If Chanda can snag Vikram, the entire family can live in luxury the rest of their lives. They, therefore, start scheming and plotting…
…not that it’s needed, because between them, Vikram and his stupidly doting mother are anyway doing their best to bring about the downfall of the family. He keeps going to her, begging for large sums of money to finance his debauchery; and she is too blind to see any harm in giving him what he asks for.
Meanwhile, behind closed doors (which Padma has slammed shut to keep out prying servants), Raghu is making swift progress with his studies. As time passes, we see him going through piles of books, his hair and beard growing, and [in one of the cheesiest visual metaphors for the dawn of knowledge that I’ve seen], becoming enlightened:
What will be the result of this? Some people are going to be surprised, of course. Some will be not so happy. In the long run, the consequences will be sorrowful for some [and will allow some unknown artist of questionable talent to try and pass off a portrait of what looks like Madan Puri as Nasir Hussain].
Mala Sinha as Padma. This is one film in which I really liked Mala Sinha, because she gets to act without being melodramatic—and part of that credit must go the script (by Inder Raj Anand), because the characterization of Padma is so good. She is a strong-willed and smart woman, yet without arrogance or pride. She has the guts to stand up to her own father-in-law and show him his own faults, yet when he admits to them, she has the grace to let him know that it is not she who has won, it is truth. Padma is a rare combination (in Hindi cinema) of a woman who refuses to be turned into a doormat, yet remains dignified, gentle, sweet and wise through it all. Mostly.
Inder Raj Anand also does a good job of showing occasional shades of grey in characters. For instance, in one poignant scene, when Rajeshwari’s husband accuses her of being a bad stepmother, she replies, “What was I to do? When you married me and brought me home, everybody about me whispered, ‘She is a stepmother. She will ill-treat the child.’ They expected me to treat Raghu differently!” [This sounds more like an excuse, written thus, but Lalita Pawar manages to imbue it with a sense of reluctance and helplessness that shows her as being not quite the black-hearted villain Rajeshwari appears at first glance].
The songs, written by Sahir Ludhianvi and composed by C Ramachandra. If you thought C Ramachandra was good only for Western-inspired music, this may come as a revelation: of all of Bahurani’s songs, the only one which has the frothy feel of a typical Chitalkar composition is Umr hui tumse mile. The rest—from the touching lullaby Main jaagoon saari rain to the qawwali Yeh husn mera yeh ishq tera—are all very different, and good. Another good one is Balma anaari man bhaaye.
Interestingly, in a film where I didn’t think there’d be much scope for a dyed-in-the-wool communist anthem, Sahir manages to sneak in one song—Bane aisa samaaj, mile sabko anaaj—which pulls no punches when it comes to supporting the rule of the millions.
What I didn’t like:
Oh, the melodrama in the last couple of scenes. Truly cringeworthy, but thankfully not due to Mala Sinha—Padma manages to retain her dignity, even if she does come close to losing her temper.
Little bit of trivia:
Bahurani was remade in 1981 as Jyoti, starring Hema Malini, Jeetendra, and Vijayendra Ghatge.