I am not a one to make New Year’s resolutions; more often than not, it’s just something I silently tell myself I should attempt to do over the course of the coming year. At the start of 2014, I decided I should read more classic fiction this year—and, importantly, more fiction that wasn’t originally in English. Since the only two languages I am fluent in are English and Hindi, it meant that the only untranslated works I could read would be in either of those two languages. So, after many years (if I remember correctly, I last read a Munshi Premchand novel in school), I decided to read his landmark novel, Godaan.
…and didn’t even know, till a couple of months back, that it had been adapted into a film. When I discovered Godaan on Youtube, I bookmarked it immediately (noting, though, with trepidation, that it starred two people I’m not especially fond of: Raj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal). And I vowed to watch it as soon as possible, at least while the novel was still fresh in my mind.
Godaan is set in pre-Independence India, in the countryside somewhere in North India, not too far from Lucknow. The story begins one evening, as the protagonist, Hori (Raj Kumar), a poor farmer who’s neck-deep in debt, sets off from his home, telling his wife Dhaniya (Kamini Kaushal) that he’s going to pay his respects to the local zamindar, the Rai Sahib, who’s sent for Hori.
Dhaniya is dismissive, and tells Hori that Rai Sahib can surely wait until Hori has had a bite to eat or something to drink after a long day working in the fields, but Hori cannot accept that. Rai Sahib, to him, cannot be kept waiting. Not because he is brutal or tyrannical (he isn’t, not in the melodramatic, typical Hindi film style), but because he is Rai Sahib, important and awful [awful in the archaic sense of the word].
On his way to Rai Sahib’s haveli, Hori bumps into the milkman Bhola (?), who is leading a fine new cow. They greet each other and chat briefly; Hori praises the cow, and expresses a rueful wish that he could buy her from Bhola; a cow is the shobha, the ornament, of a home, after all. Bhola, who is pretty long in the tooth, mentions (and this is obviously a well-worn topic) that he would like to get married again. And, just like that, a deal is struck: Hori promises to look for a bride for Bhola, and Bhola promises to give him the cow—the payment for it can be given later, whenever Hori has the money.
Hori, delighted, offers Bhola—who has been cribbing about the lack of fodder to feed his milch cattle—some hay. Later today, once Hori’s back from Rai Sahib’s. They go their own ways, content, and Hori makes his way to Rai Sahib (? Bipin Gupta?). Rai Sahib tells Hori that, in the upcoming Ramleela celebrations, Hori is to enact the role of Raja Janak’s gardener; he also instructs Hori to let the villagers—Hori included, of course—know that Rai Sahib expects them to donate Rs 500 for the cause.
He then goes on to talk about how he wishes the government would not burden him with this task of being landlord and all. He would much rather give up all this power and wealth and spend his days peacefully ploughing fields and harvesting crops.
In a later scene, where Rai Sahib is dining with some friends—Mr Mehta (?), Miss Malti (Shashikala), Mr Khanna (Madan Puri) and Mirza Sahib (?)—this hypocrisy of the rich is touched upon again. They talk of being enlightened, of wanting to help the poor, of living the simple life—but all from the comfort of their know-no-want lives.
Meanwhile, a lot happens in the lives of Hori and his family. When Hori and his son Gobar (Mehmood) go to Bhola’s house to leave the promised hay, Gobar sees Bhola’s daughter Jhuniya (Shubha Khote)—and there’s immediate chemistry.
They begin to meet clandestinely, but not discreetly enough. Soon, the entire village knows about them, and Dhaniya is grumbling to Hori and saying she doesn’t want Gobar wasted on a girl like Jhuniya.
Also, the cow has been brought home, with much fanfare. A beaming Hori and Dhaniya, along with Gobar and his two younger sisters, Sona and Rupa, welcome the cow and install it in the courtyard. People from the village come by to admire the animal, to offer advice, and to congratulate Hori on obtaining such a fine cow.
All except Hori’s two estranged brothers, Hira and Shobha. Even though Dhaniya tries to tell him that it doesn’t matter; those two no-good louts would only envy him his good fortune, not rejoice—Hori isn’t convinced. He still loves his brothers, and wants to share the good news with them.
He therefore goes off to tell Hira and Shobha—and ends up eavesdropping on a conversation between them. Hira, bitter and disgruntled, says that Hori must have misappropriated part of the family inheritance; that’s how he’s managed to cough up money for this cow. Shobha tries to reason with him and calm him down, but to no avail; Hira is very resentful.
And Hori, deeply hurt, goes home without coming forward to talk to Hira and Shobha.
Soon after, one hot and sultry evening, Hori tells Dhaniya that he’s going to tie the cow up outside; it’s so hot for them humans inside the house, will the cow too not be uncomfortable? It will be better for her outside. Dhaniya tries to dissuade her husband, then gives in. Hori ties up the cow outside—and, a little later, happens to go out, only to see his brother Hira there, near the cow. Hira mumbles a greeting, says something about having stopped by to see how Hori and his family are getting along, and then goes off.
Hori, puzzled, goes back inside. A little while later, Gobar arrives home—to find the cow lying twitching and obviously at her last gasp. Hori, Dhaniya and Gobar rush out to the cow, but it’s too late. She dies before their very eyes, poisoned.
The family is devastated. Their beautiful, so very auspicious cow is dead, gone. Hori, in his grief, mentions to Dhaniya that he had met Hira standing outside, beside the cow. And Dhaniya, hot-headed as always, gets furious.
In the midst of this family tirade—Hori trying to calm Dhaniya down, she vowing to see Hira brought to justice—the law arrives, in the form of the local daroga (SN Banerjee), along with other prominent members of the villages, including the pandit. Dhaniya, so angry with Hira (who, it transpires, has decamped and is now nowhere to be found), tells the daroga of her suspicions of Hira. When the daroga says he’ll search Hira’s house, Hori—far too kind and loving for his own good—interrupts and begs him not to; he even goes so far as to deny that he had ever said anything about having seen Hira.
Much angst ensues. Gobar, who’s also turned up, gets annoyed with Hori’s wishy-washy ways (Gobar is rather like his mother Dhaniya in this respect; he is not one to take injustice lightly, the way Hori is wont to do). Meanwhile, to pacify the daroga, who’s annoyed at being brought out here for nothing, the pandit hands over a bribe of Rs 50 on behalf of Hori. As if Hori didn’t have enough debts to pay back already.
Things steadily get worse for Hori, Dhaniya and their family. They are just about getting used to the loss of their beloved cow when one fine day, Jhuniya turns up at their doorstep. Pregnant. Gobar has got her into this condition, and has now fled, she knows not where. Jhuniya knows that if she goes to her own home, her father Bhola will have her hide. And will throw her out—so she has come to Hori’s. Dhaniya, initially indignant and angry, quickly softens and accepts Jhuniya as her bahu, so what if a formal marriage didn’t take place. Jhuniya is taken into the household.
This, of course, has its repercussions. Hori and Dhaniya are hauled before the panchayat, to account for their part in siding with the wrongdoers in this scandal. They should have thrown Jhuniya out, everybody insists. For that, to compensate for the insult to the village’s honour, Hori must pay up Rs 100. Hori pleads: he hasn’t a naya paisa. How can he be expected to pay such a fine?
The panch parmeshwar (and Hori does regard them as parmeshwar, infallible and omnipotent and worthy of all his respect) offer a solution. Hori should mortgage his house to one of them (the moneylender). The money he receives in return will be used to pay the fine.
And, because he has no other option, Hori agrees. He signs over his little home.
Then, before they can even recover from this blow, Bhola comes thundering, baying for Gobar’s blood, and then threatening Hori with consequences if he doesn’t throw Jhuniya out immediately. What consequences? Well, Bhola will take away Hori’s pair of oxen. After all, Bhola had given Hori his cow, and see what has happened. Not only has he not been paid for the cow (which, after all, is dead), Hori hasn’t done anything about getting Bhola remarried. And now this.
Hori tries hard to stop Bhola—after all, if Bhola takes away the oxen, how will Hori plough his fields? Nothing comes of his pleas. Bhola drags away his oxen.
Just about all he possesses is gone now, until such time as Hori is possibly able to pay off the money. And buy back his oxen. And pay the various other people he owes money to. And, of course, continue to pay the taxes on his meagre lands. And, perhaps, someday he will be able to buy a cow. Because a cow is the ultimate ornament for a home, a sign of comfort and hope and goodness…
No, Godaan isn’t a story promoting the sacredness of cows. This is a story about a poor farmer’s dream. A dream that gets crushed as he tries in vain to struggle against the many forces ranged against him: the wealthy, the powerful, the greedy, even his own kin, his son and his brother. Godaan is a story of how dreams can remain when all else is gone. It is a story of greed and avarice, of selfish ambition. And of love.
What I liked about this film:
The characterization of Hori and Dhaniya. These two are, on the surface, polar opposites. Dhaniya is quick-tempered, inclined to stand up for herself and those she loves; she does not take things lying down. But she is not, either, a shrew: she is loving, even soft-hearted (for example, in the case of Jhuniya), and her loyalty to Hori is undoubted. Hori, on the other hand, is a gentle, mild-mannered man, quick to forgive (his brothers, for example, or Gobar). His is a character that veers towards submission: his respect for authority—political, legal, religious—is profound. There is not, however, a lack of self-respect or an utter abasement of self: Hori does show his frustration, does speak up now and then. Both are memorable characters, not black or white, but many shades of grey. As the film progresses, you realise that there is much in common between the two: their capacity for hard work, their innate goodness, their love for their children.
And their love for each other. This is not the heady romance of a new love; it’s more mature, more comfortable. Hori and Dhaniya know each other well—Hori, for instance, knows just how to behave, what to say, to manipulate Dhaniya so that her anger against Jhuniya is turned into sympathy for the girl.
Dhaniya’s feelings for her husband are best shown in a quietly poignant little scene near the end of the film.
Hori, having slaved all day in the fields, is sitting outside his hut at night, spinning string. Dhaniya is helping him by winding the string onto a spool. Hori is telling her—or, rather, thinking aloud—of all he will do once he’s recovered his mortgaged land, got back his oxen, paid off this debt and that… he will buy a cow. Dhaniya slowly gets up and goes into the house, but pauses at the threshold and looks back. Her eyes fill with tears, but she says nothing. She knows Hori’s dreams will come to nothing (and Hori too knows it), but she will not break his heart by saying so—or pretend to him that yes, his dreams will come true. It is not pity you see in her eyes, but deep love, empathy, and helplessness.
A very fine piece of direction by Trilok Jaitley, and very fine acting by both Kamini Kaushal as well as Raj Kumar. These two were very good in Godaan; their acting restrained, believable, and perhaps the best I’ve seen from either of them in the films I’ve seen.
The songs, written by Anjaan and scored by Ravi Shankar, are beautiful, even if not extremely well-known. My favourite one is the sad but lovely Hiya jarat din-rain; another good one is Pipra ke patwa.
What I didn’t like:
The scenes involving the wealthy urbanites: these were few and far enough to be pointless and even irritating. Shashikala’s Malti, for instance, is the one with the most scenes—and that’s a total of three, in none of which anything of much consequence happens. (More on this later, in the section below).
I have a feeling Moser Baer might have something to do with this ham-handed editing of the film in the video version I watched, but I can’t be sure.
Since Godaan is based on Premchand’s novel, it’s worth comparing the two.
The main difference—and this is something not uncommon—is in the scope of the two, the literary work versus the cinematic one. The novel, in this case, is very vast in scope: Premchand paints a huge and complex canvas, with a large number of characters, all of them with their own stories. Entire chapters, for example, are devoted to the lives of Malti, Mehta, Khanna, and the circles they move in. The novel shifts between city and village, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. It’s a difficult book to adapt for the big screen.
Though I had approached Godaan with skepticism—I had doubted whether it would be able to do justice to the book—I ended up not being disappointed. True, the intricately woven stories, the many details, are missing (and it would be impossible to put them all into the film; it would be too confusing and too long). But where the film scores is in that it retains the essence of Premchand’s story, the story of Hori and Dhaniya, their dreams, their struggles to survive in a world ranged against them. I just wish there had either been more of the Malti-Mehta-Khanna story in the film, or it had been completely omitted. As it is now, with just some three scenes or so devoted to them, it seems fairly pointless to have bothered to put them into the film—they merely serve to interrupt the otherwise smooth flow of the Hori-Dhaniya narrative.