As frequent visitors to this blog would know by now, one of my weaknesses is good music—and there have been, over the years, dozens of films that I’ve watched primarily because they had good scores. In some instances, just one song that I really liked. More often than not, my luck’s been pretty shoddy and I’ve ended up sitting through frightful films like Akashdeep, Saaranga, and Akeli Mat Jaiyo.
With Waaris, which I watched mostly because of Raahi matwaale, I had hopes [cautious, considering my track record, but hopes nevertheless]. It stars Suraiya and Talat Mahmood, both favourites of mine, and it was produced by Sohrab Modi, who even if (when acting) had a penchant for ‘declaiming to the skies’, did make some good films.
Waaris (‘heir’) begins by introducing us to part of the property and wealth the said person is heir to: the grand haveli of Rana Himmat Singh, in Himmatpur. Rana Himmat Singh (Jagdish Sethi) is chatting with his munim and checking that everything is ready for the upcoming 21st birthday celebrations of Himmat Singh’s son and heir, Kunwar (Talat Mahmood). The munim assures Rana Sahib that everything is ready. Also ready, he says, is the other stuff Rana Sahib had instructed him to attend to: the packing of a suitcase with bedding, clothes, etc.
We are now introduced to Kunwar himself, who is whiling away his time shooting the flames off a series of lit candles. Rana Sahib affectionately informs Kunwar that, after the birthday party is over, Kunwar must head off to Bombay for a year to prove himself. And the proving will be done without the crutch of the family name as a support. Rana Sahib has already arranged for a job for Kunwar at the Himmat Mills [no prizes for guessing who owns this—Himmat Singh loves putting his name to everything in sight].
Kunwar will be working as an apprentice at the factory, and is not to tell anyone who he is. He will be given a salary of Rs 150, and he’ll have to learn to live within that. Once he’s proved he is capable of doing that for a year—of fending for himself [never mind the job that’s been handed to him on a platter], Kunwar can come home to Himmatpur. [And, though it goes unsaid, presumably start extinguishing candles all over again].
So, once the birthday party (with a rather nice qawwali to accompany it) is over, Kunwar boards the train to Bombay. Third class, too.
In the middle of the night, a ticket collector (Gope) comes around, and catching a youth—who calls himself Kuldeep Singh—discovers that Kuldeep Singh is travelling without a ticket. Kuldeep Singh pleads that he’s received an urgent telegram that his father was very ill, and so had to travel, even though he didn’t have the money for it.
Kunwar, sitting nearby, takes pity on poor Kuldeep Singh and offers to pay up the seven odd rupees needed to buy a ticket. This is duly done, and the ticket collector goes off, thwarted.
Later in the night, when everybody in the compartment has fallen asleep, Kunwar wakes up and glances towards Kunwar, to see that the poor creature’s shivering in his sleep. So Kunwar, now Kuldeep’s self-appointed guardian angel, takes off his own coat and drapes it over Kuldeep.
In the process, he makes the startling discovery that ‘Kuldeep Singh’ is actually a woman (Suraiya).
She tells him that her name is Shobha, and shows him the telegram with the news of her father’s illness. She says that she’d been too scared to get into the women’s compartment [Why? I’m guessing it was empty and therefore a lone woman would be vulnerable, but Shobha doesn’t elaborate]. Kunwar reassures her, and tells her to go back to sleep.
…while he sits up and sings a song. [Not the best way to encourage someone to sleep, since it’s a pretty rollicking sort of tune, no lullaby. But if you’ve a voice like Talat’s, I suppose anything is forgiven]. At any rate, Shobha soon pokes her head out and joins in Kunwar’s song.
All is camaraderie. So much so that when the train finally arrives at Bombay, Kunwar alights on the platform along with Shobha—once again thinly disguised as a man—and passes her off as Kuldeep Singh, his servant.
At the platform, in response to a message from Rana Himmat Singh, the manager of Himmat Mills, Kailash (Yaqub) has arrived to meet Kunwar.
He has no idea who Kunwar is, and is surprised [not to mention affronted] that he’s been pulled away from his work to come and receive a spring chicken such as this. And a spring chicken with a lackey who’s a spring chicken too. Kailash says some very cutting and sarcastic things to Kunwar, who brushes them off.
Kailash, we are shown in a brief scene in between, isn’t merely nasty to Kunwar; he seems to be generally nasty to anybody whom he considers below his status. He glares pointedly, for instance, at an office clerk who is too hard at work to get up and greet Kailash when he arrives at his office in the morning.
And he’s having an affair with a little bit of flirtatious fluff, Ruhi, who waltzes in and out of his office and eggs Kailash on to make excuses to his gullible wife Kanta (Nadira). [Now that’s what I call an unusual bit of casting. I’d have expected at least a Nirupa Roy here, or someone more obviously put-upon].
In the meantime, Kunwar and Shobha [the latter now in her own clothes] have arrived at Shobha’s father’s little hovel, only to discover that the old man’s long dead. The neighbours are sweet, but Shobha is tormented by memories of her father and refuses to stay on there. She’d rather go wherever Kunwar will take her. [This is swiftly becoming more and more of an ‘ungli di toh pauncha pakad liya’ tale].
Anyhow, Kunwar, sweet man that he is, takes Shobha along with him to the little home that’s been arranged for him. His servant (Jeevan) and the man’s wife are understanding, and quickly make arrangements for Shobha to stay there too, and she settles in. By the time Kunwar comes home from work (after reporting to a surly Kailash), his little bachelor pad has been transformed into a haven of domestic bliss.
A duet follows, and soon Kunwar and Shobha are deeply in love. Kunwar, who has mentioned Shobha in his letters to his father, now announces that he wants to marry the girl. Back home in Himmatpur, Rana Himmat Singh throws a fit [he probably would have thrown something more substantial if Kunwar had been present]. Who is this girl? Who knows who her parents were? What her jaat-biradari is? No, Kunwar cannot marry her. Absolutely not.
To be fair, Rana Sahib’s disapproval isn’t totally unfounded. He had written to Kailash, instructing him to report back about Kunwar’s personal life. [Yes, very snoopy, but anyway]. And Kailash, having visited Kunwar’s home and been served tea by Shobha, has not just passed some snide comments about Kunwar living with a girl, but has also written to Rana Sahib telling all. Considering Kailash is hardly a paragon of virtue himself, this is a prime case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Things now move very quickly. Kunwar receives a letter from his father, forbidding the proposed wedding and telling Kunwar to throw Shobha out. This has the opposite effect; Kunwar decides to marry Shobha immediately.
On the same day as Kunwar’s wedding (of which, of course, she doesn’t know, though she has bumped into Kunwar at the office), Kanta hears from a servant about the existence of Ruhi. The servant also mumbles out Ruhi’s address, and a desperate Kanta rushes off there, only to overhear Ruhi singing a seductive song to Kailash. She politely gives Ruhi time to finish her song, then bangs at the door, ready to confront Kailash…
…who takes the wind out of her sails by telling Kanta that she, Kanta, isn’t his wife. Never was. Ruhi is his wife.
But I’m going to be the mother of your child, Kanta pleads. This has no effect, and Kanta goes away, distraught and in what seems to be a suicidal mood, since she next is seen at a chemist’s, trying to buy a medicine which, consumed in an incorrect dose, can be poisonous. [And, in what must be a first for Hindi cinema, the chemist actually refuses to sell it to her].
Kunwar, who’s also at the chemist’s, along with Shobha (for whom he’s buying a wedding present—a bottle of perfume, for 4 rupees and 12 annas), recognizes Kunwar and introduces the two women. Kanta is sweet enough to leave her own worries behind and wish both of them a very happy married life.
Which is dealt a sharp blow soon after by Kailash, who fires Kunwar on Rana Himmat Singh’s orders. Poor Kunwar now has no job, cannot go home to Himmatpur, and has a wife to look after too. What shall he do?
[Yes. If heartbreak can be a reason for joining up, why not unemployment?] So Kunwar enlists, and goes home long enough to say farewell to Shobha before he boards the troop ship that’ll take him and thousands of other Indian soldiers to the battlefields in Europe.
And disaster strikes. The ship is bombed, and the news, broadcast over the radio, is received by Himmat Singh, by Shobha, and by Shobha and Kunwar’s faithful servant. All, as can be expected, are devastated.
The news of Kunwar’s death finally brings Rana Sahib to his senses, and he realizes he’s been too cold-hearted and harsh. He sends for his daughter-in-law, therefore, only to be told by the servant at Kunwar’s house that bahurani, now that she is all alone, decided that she should leave Bombay. The man doesn’t know where she’s gone…
But we do, because Shobha, weeping but denying that Kunwar could really be dead, is singing a sad version of Raahi matwaale as she goes home all by herself in a train.
And guess whom she accidentally meets in the train? Kanta, fleeing from certain infamy. Kanta, who recognizes her, and who, while chatting with Shobha, looks at Shobha’s beautiful ring—an heirloom which Kunwar had gifted her when they married. Kanta, who admires the ring, and is examining it when the train crashes. [Ghoonghat, anyone? Kati Patang?]
What next? Plenty, really, including yet another (even sadder) version of Raahi matwaale, some more songs, and some fairly absorbing drama.
What I liked about this film:
Nadira as Kanta. When I began watching Waaris, I hadn’t really thought of Nadira as one of the main reasons I should watch this film. Nadira, after all, is usually fairly predictable as a character: the snooty princess, the shrewish wife, the nasty mother-in-law. Her role in Waaris is, I’m glad to say, refreshingly different.
In the first half of the film, Kanta is pretty much sidelined; the story centres around Kunwar and Shobha. In the second half of the film, however, the focus is Kanta. This is a character who battles her own conscience, yet realizes that it may not be an utter sin to take advantage of opportunity. A woman who is three-dimensional enough to be willing to do anything for her child, but cannot help but feel guilty nevertheless. A very believable character, and very well acted by Nadira.
And, yes: Anil Biswas’s music. My favourite song(s) from Waaris are the three versions of Raahi matwaale, but there are other good songs too, including Le lo balaiyaan (a qawwali that was new to me), Ghar tera apna ghar laage, and the lullaby, Taaron ki nagri se.
What I didn’t like:
Not much, now that I think of it. Yes, it does get a bit melodramatic towards the end, but not out of the ordinary.
And, since it’s a fairly interesting story (which seems to have inspired later Hindi films—or was this already an established plot element?), it’s definitely a film I’d recommend.
PS. I couldn’t resist adding this. The only photograph of Talat’s that I possess is a lobby card with a still from Waaris. It’s this one:
And, PPS.As you’ve probably noticed from the screen grabs, this is up on Youtube, on the Lehren Retro channel. The quality, as you’ve also probably noticed, is abysmal, but not enough to really interfere with watching the film. Especially if you happen to be as die-hard a fan of old Hindi cinema as I am.