Anu had started this month with a Dev Anand film—and I, following suit, decided I would review a relatively little-known Dev Anand film too, to begin August. But, while Anu’s kept up the Dev Anand theme all through August, I’ve meandered off in different directions, all the way from The Rickshaw Man to jeep songs. But solidarity among friends counts for something, doesn’t it? So here I am back again, with another Dev Anand film. The sort of film that, on the surface, looks like it’s got everything going for it: a suave Dev Anand opposite a very beautiful Waheeda Rehman (who, along with Nutan, was, I feel, one of Dev Anand’s best co-stars as far as chemistry is concerned). SD Burman’s music. Suspense. Some good cinematography.
Does it work?
Baat ek Raat ki begins on a [predictably] dark and stormy night. Madhumati—or Mahal—style, there’s a great big mansion here, out of which a man clad in a coat and wearing a hat, comes blundering out. He bangs into a poor blind beggar who’s loitering about outside the house, and who makes a snatch at the person who’s collided with him. The stranger rushes off without another word, though, and into a telephone booth. The scene changes.
… introducing us to Dev Anand’s character. This is a lawyer named Rajesh, whose munshi (Johnny Walker) comes with the rather unwieldy name of Chunnilal Ishwarlal Dholakia, which he has sensibly shortened to CID. CID rues the fact that Rajesh doesn’t take on any cases and is happier spending his time cycling about the countryside, singing songs.
This latest song, however, has a dramatic ending. Barely has Rajesh belted out the last note, than he sees a woman go plonk into the lake/river/whatever. He dives in and saves her, only to discover that the bedraggled lady (Waheeda Rehman), when dragged onshore, is quickly apprehended by the police [arriving, as ever, late on the scene]. The cops tell Rajesh they’re grateful for his having saved her, because she’s accused of murder. Nobody mentions how she managed to escape from the lockup. [A sore topic, I suppose, but it helps set a precedent: later in the film, too, people seem none too surprised at other arbitrary escapes from police custody].
Rajesh is also asked to report to the police station to testify. When he turns up, he happens to see the accused (whose name, we realise soon, is Neelam) being led away—and, at the same time, up comes a poor old lady (Padma Devi), protesting vociferously that her daughter Neelam is innocent. She couldn’t hurt a fly. The old lady pleads with him to help Neelam, and when he expresses his inability, faints at his feet. Rajesh, rattled and not as completely hard-hearted as all that, decides to hear her out.
The upshot of this is that Neelam’s mother bulldozes him into taking on Neelam’s case [the incentive being what, who knows? By way of garnering sympathy, she tells him she has no money at all—not a good thing to be telling a lawyer you intend to employ]
And, as a result, they go to see Neelam in the lockup. Rajesh’s method of finding out whether or not Neelam is guilty is by badgering her: Did you kill him? Was it you? It wasn’t, was it?
As is to be expected of someone who recently tried to commit suicide and is therefore probably already pretty precarious as far as nervous condition is concerned… Neelam shrieks “Yes, I did! I did kill him!” and faints. [These fainting spells run in families, it appears]. Next we know, she ends up in a mental hospital run by Dr B Roy (Kanu Roy).
Neelam’s mother gives Rajesh a brief history of how Neelam got to be where she was. They’re a family of nats [or nuts, either which way—both seem to work], and one day, while performing on the beach, Neelam was noticed by a Beni Prasad, the keen-eyed, rather avuncular director of Pearl Theatre.
He assured Neelam and her mother that the girl was so immensely talented that she would be a certain hit, and signed her on immediately. And Neelam became Neela, the star.
Rajesh, as Neelam/Neela’s defence counsel, begins his investigations at the pointy end of things. Not by going to the police and asking for their files [or even finding out who Neela is supposed to have murdered], but by going to Pearl Theatres. Here, the boss he meets turns out to be the owner of the theatre, a man named Dwarkadas. He informs Rajesh that Beni Prasad is no longer alive: he was killed in a road accident some days back. Rajesh is immediately suspicious. Two deaths? Surely this cannot be mere coincidence?
Next, then, he takes a peek at a police file [a-ha! Finally!] and discovers that the dead man was someone named Ranjan. Ranjan was found dead in Neela’s house one night, and when the police arrived, Neela was found with the revolver in her hand. Either the report is unforgivably sketchy or the script writer decides this is all Rajesh needs to see right now, so we never get further details. Nothing about witnesses, ballistics, evidence, police investigation reports, or so forth.
For someone who’s pretty certainly not going to get paid to represent Neela in court, Rajesh is now going to have to do the spadework as detective, too. So, with CID to keep watch, he sneaks into Neela’s house—that great big mansion we’d seen at the start of the film. [As counsel for the defence, wouldn’t he legally be allowed to see the scene of the crime for himself? Why this cloak-and-dagger business?]
While CID keeps an eye on the bhaang-addicted and therefore perpetually half-somnolent servant Ramu (Asit Sen)…
…Rajesh creeps about inside, summarily collecting various odds and ends he thinks might help him in his investigation of the case. An LP, for example, of a song—Na tum humein jaano—and a photo album [the significance of either of which is, in the light of later events, pretty much lost on me—unless his purloining the record was what helped him memorize the lyrics to it].
Meanwhile, Rajesh has also had a chat with the police commissioner and Dr Roy. Dr Roy is of the opinion that Neela’s mind is in such a fragile state, she’s incapable of testifying right now. She’s psychic, we’re told [what fun. This could just turn so deliciously supernatural… but no]. Dr Roy’s suggestion is that Rajesh win Neela over with love—by pretending to fall in love with her, so that she comes to trust him. That will cure her. [Dr Roy has obviously watched Deep Jwele Jaai, and thinks this is a good opportunity to see if that actually works].
Between them, Rajesh, Dr Roy, and the commissioner decide that instead of the confined and gloomy spaces of the mental hospital, it’ll be better that Neela be shifted to a larger, more spacious place. Not her old mansion, but another. They choose a weird old bungalow which has some sort of observatory-like domed pavilion atop a spiral staircase, and there, Rajesh awakens a sleeping Neela by singing Na tum humein jaano to her.
She wanders around as if lost, finally joins in his song, comes to her senses, and then runs straight up that spiral staircase and tries to jump off the parapet there. [This woman has a penchant for jumping off high places. If these men had the slightest sense, they would’ve selected a house that was all one level. But, as it emerges in a later sequence, Rajesh probably has an ulterior motive].
Anyhow, Rajesh saves Neela, and does his hardest to convince her that he’s in love with her.
Neela, is, not surprisingly, taken aback. She’s also pretty distressed [who wouldn’t be, after all? This is the second time this man’s thwarted her attempts at suicide].
But Rajesh chisels away at her defences with frequent billing and cooing interspersed with subtle [and not so subtle] badgering. Finally, Neela confesses all. Who Ranjan was [why hasn’t Rajesh found that out from the police records? The police, as it gradually emerges, seems to be especially inept, even by Hindi film standards], what her connection with him was, and how she happened to kill him.
Neela tells him that after Beni Prasad took her under his wing and introduced her to the world of theatre, she soon began her climb to success. Despite being told off by a jealous rival (Bela Bose in an all-too-short appearance) for being illiterate and raw, Neela quickly became a huge success.
Her partner in this was frequent co-star Ranjan (Chandrashekhar). What with dancing and singing alongside Ranjan in show after show, Neela fell in love with him—and he with her. This love story, however, ran into rough waters with a disturbed Ranjan coming to her one day to tell Neela that he could not possibly be with her. She, after all, was a big star, wealthy and famous: he was a nobody. If she married him, what would people say?
A naïve and unselfish Neela immediately offered a solution: that she should give away all her money to him. And Ranjan [who believed in being prepared] whipped out a document: here, this is it. Sign here, please.
But, just as Neela bent over to sign the paper and bequeath all her wealth to Ranjan, he stopped her. A guilty conscience and a sudden spurt of self-loathing made Ranjan confess the truth: he did not love, he had never loved her. All of this had just been a pretence to lay his hands on Neela’s wealth. And Ranjan wasn’t even the one behind it: the plot has been hatched by someone else.
Neela was so furious, she grabbed up her pistol [how on earth do perfectly ordinary people in films end up always having pistols—and that too loaded ones—close at hand?] and told Ranjan she would kill him.
It was stormy and windy and wet outside, and suddenly, just as Neela was about to pull the trigger, the lights went out. In the dark, Neela shot—and when she hurried forward after that gunshot, it was to find Ranjan shot dead.
Yup, there’s no question about it. Neela is a murderess. She herself knows it.
But is she? After all, with a leading male character a lawyer—who has, willy-nilly, actually fallen in love with his client—that cannot possibly be the truth. Hindi film heroines don’t commit such cold-blooded murders.
What I liked about this film:
The music, by SD Burman, which boasts of two particularly good songs—Akela hoon main is duniya mein, and Na tum humein jaano (in two avatars: one, a female solo sung by Suman Kalyanpur, the other a predominantly male solo in Hemant’s voice, though Suman Kalyanpur joins in towards the end). Jo hain deewaane pyaar ke and Kisne chilman se maara aren’t bad, but not stellar, and the others are relatively forgettable.
Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman. These two worked in a clutch of great films together, and while Baat ek Raat ki is far from the best of the Dev-Waheeda starrers, at least the two of them look good in it. Waheeda Rehman, in particular, is utterly gorgeous.
Oh, plenty, and most of it a result of bad plotting and scripting.
Firstly, there’s no delicate layering of suspense: that initial scene, with the coat- and hat-wearing man blundering into the blind beggar outside the mansion on that stormy night, pretty much gives away the truth right at the start of the film. Then, not too much later, when Neela is cowering in the mental hospital, someone—a man, of whom we only see his trouser-clad legs—stops in front of her and grates out: “Sign the will, or else—!’ Yes, well. You get the gist.
Then, the motive for the crime [the actual crime, not what Neela is supposed to have done—you didn’t really think she’d murdered Ranjan, did you?] is a little befuddling. How exactly did the culprit hope to profit? The legalities of the matter might have been hard to navigate. Especially since there was a mysterious disappearance thrown in.
And the cops. Oh, the cops. Hindi cinema has never been kind to the police, but Baat ek Raat ki takes the cake. The cops in this are a class apart: besides never reaching anywhere on time, they seem to have not at all investigated Ranjan’s murder. Valuable clues have been left behind at the scene of the crime [which, by the way, instead of being cordoned off or otherwise sealed, is left open for all and sundry to tramp about in], and nothing seems to have been done in the way of forensics. Down to the fact that the fatal bullet in Ranjan hasn’t even been matched to Neela’s pistol.
To top it all, the court scenes are ridiculous. Yes, courts are another aspect that Hindi cinema rarely manages to get right (or even make an attempt to get right), but this was hard to sit through. What with Ulhas (as the prosecutor) bulldozing people into answering questions the way he wanted them answered [“Only yes or no! I don’t want you saying anything beyond that!”], repeated speeches—devoid of logic or supporting evidence—on how innocent [or guilty] Neela was, and a judge who sat through it all wearing sun glasses.
And if you think Paying Guest had a far-fetched climax, wait for this one.
Sigh. I think I better watch Kaala Bazaar or another of Dev Anand’s better films. Soon.