In one pivotal scene in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Kammo (Padmini), the daughter of a dacoit chief tells her naïve beloved that they, the dacoits, are not to be scorned or derided, because they wield guns to make things equal between the rich and the poor. They take from the rich and give to the poor, because the poor have always been preyed upon by the rich.
“Kammoji, tum log chochilist ho?” asks Raju (Raj Kapoor), wide-eyed. Because chochilists, as he informs Kammo, also work to make things ‘barobar’ between the rich and the poor. And when he is reassured that yes, that is the philosophy of the dacoits, Raju decides there and then that he will no longer think of dacoits as evil people.
This romanticised portrayal of dacoits is what puts me off most Hindi daaku films. That, combined with Raj Kapoor (whom I more often than not do not like) and Padmini (a superb dancer, but not among my favourite actresses), made me steer clear of Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai for years. I knew it had good songs; I’d even heard people praise the film. But I didn’t get around to watching it till a couple of weeks back.
Am I glad I did? Yes, and no. Because there were some pleasant surprises in store for me, but there was also the vindication of some of the fears that I’d harboured from before my viewing of this film.
Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai introduces us to Raju, an orphan of no known home, who is a bhaand—a minstrel—by profession. Raju is so simple [some—including me—would call him a simpleton] that when, walking through the woods one night he is accosted by a rifle-wielding wounded man (SB Nayampalli) lying on the ground and asked to produce any weapon he may be carrying, all Raju can produce is a fork.
When this makes the wounded man relax enough for him to instruct Raju to bind his bleeding leg for him, Raju obeys, under the impression that he’s rescuing a policeman wounded by the dacoits. At the man’s insistence, Raju helps him into a nearby ruin, and generously gives the man not just a drink from his own carefully-horded little pitcher of Gangajal, but also gives him all of Raju’s own meagre dinner of rotis and turnips.
In the midst of this meal, the man passes out [no, it’s not as if Raju’s cooking is so lethal; it’s just that the man has lost a lot of blood]—and, from out of his clothing spills jewellery. Raju leaps to the conclusion that this man must have been on the run from the dacoits, trying to save whatever little valuables he possessed.
Raju is soon to find out exactly who this mysterious man is, because when Raju steps out of the ruin, he’s captured by a gang of dacoits and dragged off to their hideout among the ravines.
Here, it doesn’t take even a nitwit like Raju long to discover who his hosts are. Raka (Pran), the dacoits’ second-in-command (the man Raju had tended is the chief, the sardar), is convinced that Raju is a police informer—how else would he have chanced upon the sardar? Many of the other men in the gang, including the old Tau (Nana Palsikar) are in agreement with Raka: Raju is certainly an informer, if not a cop himself.
The sardar, however, refuses to accept this. He’s recovered now, and firmly believes that Raju is an innocent, the naïve minstrel he claims to be. After all, would a police informer offer up a fork when asked for a weapon? [it could be a well-thought-out ploy, but that does not seem to occur to the sardar]. Furthermore, says the sardar, he has (literally) eaten Raju’s salt—he cannot turn this man out; he will always be grateful for Raju for saving his life.
Raju will therefore stay there as the sardar’s guest. No end-by date is mentioned, so one may well assume that this means that Raju is going to be staying on here indefinitely. This does not seem to worry Raju, who soon settles in, and swiftly becomes acquainted with the sardar’s daughter, the feisty Kammo. This relationship begins by Raju accidentally colliding with Kammo and being slapped by her, but when she discovers that Raju saved her father’s life, Kammo is quite repentant.
…and soon, she’s the one who scolds the more bullying of the gang’s younger boys when they pick a fight with Raju [yes, Raju is too much of a wimp to even stand up for himself against a bunch of belligerent children]. She also teaches him—with little success—to fire a gun, and soon falls in love with him. And Raju reciprocates in his own naïve, rather childish way.
This doesn’t go unnoticed. Raka, who’s had his eye on Kammo for a long time—even though he himself is being assiduously pursued by Bijli (Chanchal)—does not like this budding romance one bit. He already dislikes Raju, and the fact that this country bumpkin has managed to score with Kammo rankles. One evening, when he and the other dacoits have goaded Raju on, there’s an impromptu song-and-dance competition [what do you expect, when among the men playing the dacoits is Herman Benjamin?].
…and Raka realises how he can make use of Raju. There’s an upcoming wedding, that of a wealthy local zamindar’s daughter, and Raka has been informed that the zamindar has had a magnificent and very expensive necklace made for the bride. The dacoits have been planning a raid on nearby Rajgarh for the past few weeks; the wedding is to be held just the day before their raid. It’s too mouthwatering an opportunity to pass up. The gang will mingle with the wedding party and the band, and Raju will be at the forefront, playing his dafli and convincing everyone that this lot really are musicians.
They succeed, and Raju, completely oblivious, wanders around, eating jalebis and watching the wedding ceremony. This is when Raka (who’s in disguise, like most of his men) attacks. There’s instant chaos, with the dacoits firing and looting, while the wedding guests run about trying to escape. In front of Raju’s horrified eyes, the bridegroom is killed, and the dacoits snatch away the bride-widow’s valuable necklace and her mangalsutra. A passing child who happens to come in the way of the fleeing dacoits is also shot dead.
And Raju, finally, realises that these dacoits may not be the harmless chochilists he’d thought them to be. Distraught and disillusioned, he goes off to the Superintendent of Police (Raj Mehra) and informs him that Raka and his gang have just committed this outrage and are planning an attack on Rajgarh. The people of Rajgarh must be protected!
The SP, who’s received confirmation of the attack on the wedding, believes Raju and sends a posse off to Rajgarh. He assures Raju: they will decimate the dacoits.
Raju is very distressed. Kill the dacoits? Oh, no, no. Please, no. They are men with wives and children. [Yes, well. How did he expect the police to protect the people of Rajgarh? By evacuating them? By begging the dacoits to leave them alone? Seriously, this man’s stupidity knows no bounds].
As is to be expected, the SP refuses to listen. So Raju does the only thing he can think of: he goes rushing off to stop the dacoits in their tracks, and to warn them that the cops are waiting for them at Rajgarh.
Raka is suspicious, of course. Even more so when Raju readily admits that he was the one who informed the police of the dacoits’ intentions in the first place. Still, Raka sends a man on to check if the police are actually encamped at Rajgarh or not—and the man is promptly killed by the cops.
The dacoits flee, taking Raju with them. Now they’re convinced he is a police informer. Hasn’t he just admitted to it?
Raju’s confession that he tried to plead on behalf of the dacoits to the police—and that he also begged Raka not to send that dacoit on a recce at Rajgarh—however gets him brownie points with the womenfolk and some of the dacoits. His life is spared, but Raju’s tottering faith in the dacoits is shattered when he sees what Raka has gifted Kammo: the necklace that had been snatched from the bride the night of the wedding.
Is that it? A brief adventure into a life he thought exemplary, only to discover that it’s far from it? Or is Raju destined to remain with the dacoits, constantly being tossed back and forth between them and the world that lies outside the ravines? Or will Raju himself be the means of a change in the dacoits’ lives?
To my surprise, Padmini, who not only acts well (with barely an accent in most places), but also plays an interesting character. Kammo is an unusual (for Hindi cinema) heroine, in that she’s feisty and stands up for herself—but has the courage, too, to admit when she’s wrong. And her fearlessness does not make her either nasty or any less feminine (another thing Hindi cinema was wont to do in the good old days: equate feistiness with being a tomboy or utterly spoilt). This dauntless-yet-caring trait is also manifested in the other important female character in the film, Mai (played by Lalita Pawar), a doting mother and a devoted wife, but very gutsy.
The songs, written by Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri and composed by Shankar-Jaikishan. There are some very well-known and popular songs here, including the title song, Aa ab laut chalein, O basanti pawan paagal, and Begaani shaadi mein Abdullah deewaana.
The beauty of its frames. MR Achrekar won the Filmfare Best Art Director Award for Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, and if for nothing else, this film is worth watching for its visuals, the striking angles and the stunning landscapes—especially the craggy riverside rocks that lead to the dacoits’s hideout.
Raj Kapoor as Raju, even though he won the Filmfare Best Actor Award for this role. I find Raj Kapoor in his simpleton roles very hard to tolerate, and here he’s at his worst. Raju’s character, on paper, might not be so very irritating: he’s a well-meaning sort, perhaps impossibly naïve but good at heart. On film, though, Raju comes across as being a sanctimonious little idiot who has the brains of a peahen. (The scene where Kammo’s trying to teach him to shoot is ample proof of this character’s brainpower).
Along the same lines—perhaps fine theoretically, but hard to swallow otherwise—is the entire premise of the film. Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (and Raju’s own philosophy) is idealism at its most rose-tinted: as if dacoits, or other criminals with long and bloody records, can be so easily reformed. It’s not as if I oppose reformation; but how logical is it to expect wanted men to decide to give themselves up, en masse? With the sort of records Raka and his men have, even if they aren’t executed, they can probably expect to end up in jail for the rest of their lives. Why, then, would they listen to a nut job like Raju?
Ultimately, not a film I’d want to see again.