The other day, a fellow blogger, mentioning her distaste for Manoj Kumar’s films said that while she has “nothing against the man himself”, she really hates his films. I know what she meant (at least I think I do): I hate that insufferably xenophobic “all that is Indian is good, all that is Western is bad” philosophy espoused by films like Upkaar or, even worse, Purab aur Pachhim.
But I tend to shove that lot of films to the boundaries of my recollection of Manoj Kumar’s films. For me, his best films are the outright entertainers, the romances and suspense thrillers he worked in. Especially the suspense thrillers: Woh Kaun Thi?, Anita, Gumnaam—and this one.
Manoj Kumar puts in an appearance somewhat late in Saajan; it begins with the heroine, Rajni (Asha Parekh), who is one of the chorus girls at Modern Theatres. Rajni’s in dire straits; she and her widowed mother Laajwanti ‘Laajo’ (Sulochana Latkar) are somehow managing to scrape together two sort-of-square meals a day by Laajo’s cottage industry production of paapads [literally paapad belna, this. I’m sure if she’d put her mind to it, she could’ve found something less strenuous to do, like stitching clothes].
Considering Mommy’s in bad health—and coughing her guts out—I don’t think this is a good idea. Especially not for those who’ll be consuming those paapads.
Rajni’s career seems to be stuck in a groove [and a non-paying one at that] because the theatre’s manager Tarakkilal (Janakidas) hasn’t paid the girls in many months. Things have reached the stage where Rajni’s mentor and guru (Gajanan Jagirdar) has paid Rajni and her mother’s rent on their behalf. When Rajni protests, guruji tries to comfort and encourage her.
In the meantime, a chance incident has had unexpected consequences. One day, late for work and unable to catch a bus, Rajni hitches a ride in a long, expensive car being driven by a chauffeur (Om Prakash). The driver, who’s called Balam, is inclined to tell Rajni to go take a walk, but finally relents and drops her off at Modern Theatres.
…where the gossipy Auntie (Shammi) who sits at the desk outside notices whose car Rajni has arrived in. It’s the car of Ashok, the very wealthy son of the city’s wealthiest crorepati, Jwala Prasad Saxena. Auntie immediately jumps to the conclusion that Rajni is in love with Ashok [and, obviously, since she’s gallivanting about in his car, he with her].
Rajni, because she’s late for the rehearsal, is ticked off—and, when she snaps back at him, fired—by Tarakkilal. Leaving the theatre with her loyal friend Bela (Shabnam), Rajni again runs into Balam, in Ashok’s car. Balam is returning from an errand for Ashok, and seeing his pesky new acquaintance [along with her pretty friend, whom Balam falls for], he offers them a lift.
…the result being that Auntie, gawping madly, is now firmly convinced that her initial surmise was true: Ashok and Rajni are an item. She scurries in to break the news to Tarakkilal, and he realises that this could be put to good use. Ashok Saxena is a city bigwig; Tarakkilal is deep in debt. If news spreads that Ashok is in love with Rajni, people will flock to the theatre to see Rajni. The theatre will be a success, and hopefully Ashok too will be persuaded to shower some of his wealth on his sweetheart’s workplace.
So Rajni is called back to the theatre, fawned over, reinstated, made the leading lady—all to her puzzlement. It’s Bela who discovers from Auntie the reason behind all of this sudden benevolence [buttering up, more like it] and tells Rajni. Rajni isn’t keen on perpetrating this illusion, but Bela reassures her. There can be no harm in it, can there? And Ashok Saxena won’t even come to know.
These girls have no clue how far Tarakkilal will go for tarakki. Before long, he’s spilled the beans to a reporter, who publishes an article about the Ashok-Rajni jodi in a newspaper…and Ashok (Manoj Kumar) sees it. And is livid.
Ashok, to be fair, has his share of troubles. [Well, he doesn’t have to roll paapads for a living, but still]. One such bother is the nasty Seth Dharamdas (Madan Puri), who has been pestering Ashok for a loan of Rs 2.5 lakhs. Ashok’s refusal—not just his own, but also that of the board of directors of the company—has annoyed Dharamdas, who’s vowed to get even.
The other irritant is the clingy Sudha (Lata Bose), whose father (Brahm Bhardwaj) is Ashok’s father’s bosom pal. The two buddies [as best friends in Hindi cinema are wont to do] have decided that Ashok and Sudha must get married, but Ashok is averse to the notion. He tries to avoid Sudha, but she’s tenacious as a limpet and has about as much brain power as one, too.
Now, having read this newspaper article, Ashok sees red and storms off to Modern Theatres to confront Rajni. Rajni, waiting for Vinod, a reporter who’s supposed to interview her, mistakes Ashok for Vinod. And Ashok, after a good deal of bewilderment at this girl’s brazen rigmarole about their alleged romance, actually does fall in love with her [despite her very questionable dress sense].
Things start getting complicated now. The many seths to whom Tarakkilal owes money are breathing down his neck. He thinks a tea party—at which Ashok will be the guest of honour, invited by Rajni—will fit the bill. It will impress the seths, and will get Tarakkilal the mileage he needs. Rajni, caught in a cleft, confides in ‘Vinod’ and it’s he who comes up with a solution: his friends, he says, have often said he looks like Ashok Saxena. He can pose as Ashok Saxena. Nobody will be any the wiser.
But, truth will out. Vinod is finally revealed to be who he is, and confesses his feelings for Rajni—who, after a little huffiness [and a song, always a good way of manaao-ing people] is happy to say yes to his proposal of marriage. Ashok’s father Jwala Prasad Saxena (DK Sapru), in an inexplicable [but welcome, since it cuts out needless melodrama and angst] about-turn, forgets Sudha and her father, and bestows his blessings on the Rajni-Ashok match.
It is at this happy juncture that Seth Dharamdas pops up again, bad penny that he is. He’s read in the newspapers about Rajni and Ashok, and figures that one way to try his luck again with Ashok is through Rajni. He gets her address from the Auntie at Modern Theatres, and goes to Rajni’s house—only to see who Rajni’s mother is. He doesn’t meet her, but sends her a note, requesting a rendezvous in a deserted park one evening.
Laajo goes, and panics when she sees Dharamdas. “Sheroo!” she squeaks, and one cannot help but think this man did a good thing by changing his name to Dharamdas—it certainly makes him sound less like someone’s pet dog.
From their conversation, it transpires that:
(a) Laajo’s husband and Sheroo aka Dharamdas were once members of the same gang of smugglers;
(b) Laajo’s husband decided to go straight, and to punish him, the gang decided to frame him—by making it appear as if Sheroo had been killed and drowned. [Hmm. Corpus delicti, anyone?]
(c) Therefore, Laajo’s husband has been in prison for the past 15 years, and still has 5 years to go. He’s not dead, as Rajni has been lead to believe.
Dharamdas reminds Laajo that if Jwala Prasad Saxena comes to know of this grimy secret—that his beloved son is going to marry a jailbird’s daughter—the wedding will be called off in a jiffy. But, since this is a secret and known only to the two of them (Dharamdas and Laajo), he will be kind and keep his mouth shut—for the small sum of 2.5 lakhs. [One admirable trait in this goon: consistency. That was the exact amount he wanted from Ashok]. When Laajo protests that she cannot possibly get hold of such a huge amount, he reminds her that Rajni can—by asking Ashok.
Constant reminders from Dharamdas over the next few days finally push Laajo into acquiescing. And, since she tries to portray her demand from Rajni as a sort of repayment of all that she’s sacrificed for Rajni all these years, Rajni is terribly disappointed and annoyed with Mum. She tells off Laajo, and then—unwilling to dump her sweetheart with such a mercenary mother-in-law—goes and breaks off her engagement, leaving Ashok very puzzled indeed.
But, again. Truth rears its ugly head. Rajni, returning home, finds Dharamdas there and overhears him talking to her mother. She realises that there is some deep, dark secret here and that Dharamdas is the villain—so, that night, Rajni packs her pistol [always a good idea to keep one among the saris]…
The investigating officers, Inspector Khan (Raj Mehra) and his assistant, Tiwari (a very young and slightly gawky Shatrughan Sinha) find plenty of clues: a chalky footprint, lipstick marks on a brandy snifter; a pistol; a letter; a large brass button; a crossed-out appointment written on a notepad.
It doesn’t them long to trace the license number of the pistol that’s been found—and it leads to Rajni, who confesses to the crime.
No, not exactly. Because what follows is something like a twist to the Rashomon effect, with three different people giving their own versions of how each of them killed Dharamdas, and why. And, there seems to be irrefutable proof in support of each of these three claims. The only problem is, Dharamdas couldn’t have been killed thrice.
So who killed him, really?
What I liked about this film:
The total paisa vasool-ness of it all. This is a good entertainer, what with the romance and humour in the first half, and the mystery in the second. The mystery is the best part of the film—it is rather puzzling, and I personally think this is one of the those few Hindi films from the 60s that actually takes the trouble to make sure the details are etched in well.
The cast is very good (it almost reads like a who’s who of Hindi film character actors during the 60s: Murad and Iftekhar are among the other prominent names here, who appear later in the film). And, while the songs (by Laxmikant Pyarelal) aren’t exactly my favourites, some of them—especially the title song, Saajan saajan pukaaroon galiyon mein and Resham ki dori—are nice.
What I didn’t like:
The fact that the mystery comes so late into the film. While the way romance blossoms between Ashok and Rajni is fun enough, it’s far too long-winded. I tend to think of it as wasting time—while I was rewatching Saajan this time around, I kept thinking: “Get around to the murder!”
And, the resolution of the mystery comes about in a way that is too pat, too convenient. I wish there’d been some more cerebral work done here by the cops—as it is, they come off looking rather incompetent. Also, one aspect of the explanation reflects rather poorly on one particular individual, and nobody seems to mind.