A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Nina Hilger, who works with Dzintars Cers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Nina said she’d read my list of ten favourite monsoon songs, had been inspired to rent the films in which those songs featured—and wanted to do a radio show on the monsoon in India. Would I be willing to do an interview? Of course, I was very happy to do so—and had an extremely enjoyable hour chatting with Nina and Dzintars, telling them about why I chose those songs, and what the monsoon means to us here in India (both the good and the bad—from hot chai and pakoras, to waterlogging and floods. This was, happily, before disaster struck in Uttarakhand).
It also inspired me to try my hand at another tribute to rain in Hindi cinema. A list of ten rain-related scenes (from pre-70s Hindi films) that I find utterly memorable. These may be memorable for different reasons, both good and bad, but what sets them apart for me is that they’ve stuck in my mind over the years.
One important restriction I imposed upon myself: only scenes that neither segue into a song, nor follow a song, are included. This is why you won’t find here the delightful scene from Chalti ka Naam Gaadi where a damp Madhubala arrives at a garage with her broken-down car, because it’s followed by Ek ladki bheegi-bhaagi si.
Here we go, then, in no particular order.
1. Anand gives a mysterious woman a lift (Woh Kaun Thi?, 1964): Yes, this scene has some plot holes, but it’s one of the first scenes that popped into my head when I began making my list. Possibly because it’s such a good example of the association between Hindi cinema and rain—a stormy night always seems to be a favoured setting for suspense, both supernatural and otherwise.
Here, it seems to be supernatural: Dr Anand, driving through a thunderstorm, gives a lift to a mysterious woman dressed in a white sari. He’s found her standing in the middle of the road, and when—on his insistence—she agrees to get into the car, it’s on the condition that he won’t question her. And there is much to question. She gets in, and the car’s wipers stop. Anand can’t see the road ahead, but she says she can, and guides him unerringly. Anand notices that her finger’s bleeding, and she says, in a detached way that she cut it while sharpening a pencil. And likes the sight of blood.
I’ve watched and rewatched Woh Kaun Thi? so many times, this scene doesn’t intrigue me as much as it did the first time I saw it. Sadhana seemed really spooky (and Manoj Kumar thoroughly spooked). And that last bit—when the wipers suddenly swing into action again, as soon as she gets out of the car—is delicious.
2. Anand and his friend seek shelter in a haveli (Madhumati, 1958): Another Anand, and another stormy night—and the big daddy of old films about the supernatural. Madhumati begins with two men (Dilip Kumar and Tarun Bose) driving through the hills on a rainy night. When their car breaks down, Anand (Dilip Kumar) deputes his driver to find a garage; at his friend’s insistence, the two men climb uphill to a nearby haveli, which Anand—initially reluctant to approach—seems inexplicably to know, once he arrives there.
A romance peppered with tragedy, lust, comedy and more plays out, with some of the most dramatic scenes of the film set in similarly stormy nights. But this scene, with the seemingly mundane progressing swiftly into the unexplained, is perhaps the best of the lot.
3. Shankar arrives at the haveli (Mahal, 1949): This one resembles (or should that be the other way round?) the scene from Madhumati quite a bit: a stormy night, a spooky mansion, and a man who arrives at the mansion. In this case, though the man is new to this riverside mansion, he is the son of its new owner, so is entitled to stay here—and entitled to hear, too, the tale of lost love that the gardener/caretaker has to share.
While it’s not as dramatic a beginning as that of Madhumati, I find this opening scene of Mahal gripping. Partly because of the somewhat forbidding, flat monotone of the narration, which adds to the atmosphere. And partly because the scene proceeds in a series of seemingly mundane activities: the caretaker lights the chandelier (great cinematography, there); hoists the chandelier up—and continues his tale, while the storm rages outside… it’s a fine juxtaposition of calm and storm, the everyday and the unknown.
4. Shabnam and Aman take shelter during a storm (Barsaat ki Raat, 1960): From suspense and the supernatural, to another favourite theme for rain scenes: romance. Hindi film seems to equate rain with romance (a theme which still endures), and Barsaat ki Raat embodies that: a chance encounter on a rainy night, which leads not to just the romance of a lifetime, but to some absolutely sublime music.
This is where it begins. Struggling poet Aman, finding himself caught in a sudden downpour, takes shelter in the verandah of a smithy. He is still standing there when he is joined by another refugee from the storm—the gorgeous (and very wet) Shabnam, who doesn’t realize she isn’t alone until she bangs into him. Her shock and confusion, her embarrassment, her fidgeting as she tries to wring out her sopping wet dupatta—and her eventual running away—lead Aman to not just pen an ode to this encounter, but to fall in love with the unknown belle.
5. Suresh Sinha lends his coat to a stranger (Kaagaz ke Phool, 1959): While it lacks the obvious romance of its parallel scene from Barsaat ki Raat, this scene from Kaagaz ke Phool also heralds the start (though not immediately apparent) of a relationship. Successful and wealthy film director Suresh Sinha, returning from a trip to his estranged wife and in-laws, is caught in a storm and shelters under a banyan tree—and finds that Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) has gotten there first.
Their conversation is interesting, indignant and suspicious on her part (she is convinced he will try to make a pass at her) and amused on his. It also offers an insight into the relative backgrounds and experiences of these two people. He is older, wealthy enough to be well-clad against the freezing rain, wealthy enough to be able to hail a taxi, and also more worldly-wise, still hurting from the day’s experiences. She, on the other hand, is poor (she admits to not having money for a coat), and very naïve. Yet Suresh Sinha’s sudden act of benevolence—to put his coat around her shivering form, before leaving—sets about a series of events that will eventually reverse their roles in life.
6. The rains come (Guide, 1965): Despite the fact that Guide isn’t one of my favourite films, this scene is, for me, a memorable one. In my interview with CBC, while discussing the monsoon songs I’d listed, one particular song I spoke of was Allah megh de—which I thought exemplified the desperation that sets in when the land is deprived of rain. The heat, the drought, the thirst: the anguish.
This, therefore, is the point that desperation finally reaches. Ex-convict Raju, forced into the role of a sadhu fasting in an attempt to bring rain, becomes the man on whom the hopes of an entire region are pinned. In this last scene, as he hovers on the brink of death, Raju finds himself confronting his less-than-perfect self (and also a sublime, super-Godman type self), edging closer to nirvana, while the villagers gathered in the temple are on the verge of giving up hope. And then the rains come, with thunder and lightning.
What I find ironic here is the speed with which the temple empties; everybody rushes out to savour the blessing of the rain, forgetting the man who has sacrificed himself for them. There is jubilation, dancing, embracing, tears of joy—and, Rosie, rushing back into the temple to tell Raju to open his eyes, and see the rain…
7. A stalled car is attacked by dacoits (Teesri Manzil, 1966): From the serious to the suspenseful: a scene that is the culmination of Sunita’s scheme to get Anil aka Rocky thrashed. When their car stops in the middle of the jungle, Sunita (Asha Parekh) confronts Rocky (Shammi Kapoor): he cannot defeat her, because her friend—stowed away in the boot—is with her. But the friend (Laxmi Chhaya) is, to our heroine’s shock, missing. And suddenly, Rocky seems to have turned from a flirtatious charmer to a man very dangerous indeed, as he drags Sunita into the car, begins to lock each door, roll up each window—and finally lock himself out of the car, so that Sunita is alone and secure inside.
This is where the rain comes—because, in the middle of the night, Sunita wakes to pouring rain. It batters the windows and windshield, it obscures her vision, and it hides the coming of a gang of dacoits who suddenly surround the car, and leering at the woman inside, assault the vehicle, trying to get in. What follows is a classic ‘fight in the rain’, while a terrified Sunita looks on from the confines of the car, before (when things fall silent) finally getting out to see what’s up.
8. Radha and her children huddle in a flooded hut (Mother India, 1957): Like Guide, another iconic film—and, iconoclast that I am—one I don’t like (this one because it’s just so depressing). But no matter what I may dislike about it, one thing I will admit: Mother India had some fine cinematography and direction. Both are apparent in this scene where the much-battered-by-fate Radha, abandoned by her husband, neck-deep in debt, and with three children to support, tries to hold out against a storm.
Radha, her children, and a friend, Kamla, are out in the fields when the storm clouds gather; Kamla only has time to cry out, “Our crops will be destroyed if it rains now!”—and then the rain comes pouring down, in torrents so fierce that the little platform on which the group has huddled collapses. The water rises swiftly, gushing forth as the women—carrying the children—try to head for safety, with a panic-stricken Kamla getting swept away from them in the process. Radha finally manages to get her children into a half-collapsed hut, and holds up the wooden planks on which she seats them. She supports them, standing chest-deep in muddy water, while the children weep, and the youngest—a baby—quietly passes away.
9. Amar rapes Sonia on a stormy night (Amar, 1954): If the pure, chaste love of Shabnam and Aman (Barsaat ki Raat) begins on a rainy night, so do other romances—both begin, and progress. Rain (and preferably, rain at night) in Hindi films seems inextricably tied up with getting wet—and then trying to warm up, in invariably naughty ways (remember Aradhana and Ek Phool Do Maali?) This scene from Amar highlights another dimension—not of love, but of lust.
The suave, urbane lawyer Amar (Dilip Kumar), already in love with the beautiful Anju (Madhubala), is at home, shaken by a telegram informing him of his father’s illness—while a storm rages outside. In this scene comes intruding the naïve village girl Sonia (Nimmi), seeking shelter not just from the rain and lightning but also from her unwanted suitor, who’s tried to molest her. She’s met Amar before—there has been a moment of mutual fascination—so she trusts him. But Amar, in an unusual departure from the quintessential film hero, rapes her.
What stands out about this scene is not just the direction (which sets it up in a tasteful, subtle way that actually has the effect of amplifying the horror of Amar’s act), but the very fact that it is such an unexpected scene.
10. Rupa breaks off a relationship (Chhoti si Mulaqat, 1967): Not a very well-known scene (or a well-known film; it was a terrible flop), but one that I remember vividly. Rupa (Vyjyantimala), married as a young teenager to a total stranger—and immediately separated from him—has grown up to be a beautiful, modern socialite, in love with the handsome Ashok, and with no desire to revisit her past. Until her past revisits her, and sends her life careening out of control.
One night, being driven home (in the rain) by Ashok, Rupa comes to terms with her past, her present, and her future, and realises that her conscience will not let her go off with Ashok while her husband waits for her somewhere. Arriving home, Rupa gets out of the car and stands in the driveway, her tears mingling with the rain as she tells Ashok that she can never be his. If romances begin in the rain, romances can even end in the rain. It’s a poignant scene, with Rupa’s grief making her highly emotional, while Ashok tries to plead with her.
… And, as a bonus, one last scene which takes place at a dinner table, on a night far from rainy. I had to include this, because even though it doesn’t take place in the rain, it’s a hilarious take on rain in Hindi cinema. In Pyaar Kiye Jaa (1966), Mehmood plays Atmaram, producer/writer/director/man of all trades of Wah! Wah! Productions. In this scene, Atma narrates a scene from his upcoming film to his family—father and two sisters.
Atma’s story contains all the essentials: the hero, thrown out of home by his father; a street dog, who sees the hero and remembers that years ago, the hero had fed him a biscuit; and rain—a ‘symbolic shot’ (as Atma describes it) to show that as the dog weeps, so do all dogs around the world weep. “I cannot show all the dogs in the world weeping,” Atma says. “I show the sky, the rain coming down—that’s enough.” Touché.
On which note—talking about the symbolism of rain in Hindi cinema, and about all it seems to accompany (romance, lust, suspense, tragedy, ghosts)—I leave the stage for you. Do any rain scenes stick in your memory?