Earlier this year, commenting on a post, reader Shalini recommended Ferry to me. I admitted that I’d seen the film—years ago—on Doordarshan, and had liked it, though over the intervening years I’d forgotten what exactly it was all about. I did remember this much: that it featured a child, and that it was very different from the usual (mainly romantic or noir) films of Dev Anand that I’d seen till then. I decided it was time for a rewatch.
Ferry (aka Kashti) begins on a riverside, as the ferry arrives. People get off, and the boatman is greeted with eager questions by a little boy (Babu) who’s come to the riverside with his dog, Lassie. Has the ferryman brought Raju’s mother this time? No? Raju’s face falls. When will he bring Raju’s mother? How much longer will Raju have to wait?
Raju turns away, disappointed, and goes back where he came from. The boatman explains to a curious bystander: little Raju’s widowed father is the local zamindar, as well as a government official. Six-year old Raju is his only child, and is convinced that his mother is not dead, but somewhere far away. And that if he, Raju, tries hard enough, perhaps she will return to him. Not that Raju has any memories of her.
Raju lives in a big haveli with his father Vikas (Dev Anand) and Vikas’s old chaachi (?). Vikas, being a government employee, has to spend a good bit of time travelling, and in his absence the lonely and motherless Raju gets little in the way of love. Vikas’s chaachi is constantly raving and ranting at the boy for running off to the riverside to look out for the ferry.
When she can’t take it any more, she ties Raju to the bed (and Raju, undaunted, manages to get Lassie to slip off the knots so that Raju can escape and instead tie up a stray rooster in his place).
There is another little ray of sunlight in Raju’s life, his best friend, four-year old Minoo (Baby Bula). Minoo lives next door and in her innocence tells Raju what her mother has said: that Raju’s mother is dead and will never come back. Raju simply refuses to believe it. No, his mother is alive and well. All he has to do is find her.
Meanwhile, we get a brief glimpse of Vikas: he comes home to hear complaints from his chaachi about Raju’s shenanigans. Vikas loves his son too much to let this bother him. Instead, he spends what little time he has with Raju: they play music (a short but lovely instrumental piece in which Ustad Ali Akbar Khan played the sarod for Dev Anand), and at night, they sing again the lullaby that Raju’s mother used to sing to him, and which Vikas, having learnt it from her, now sings to Raju—who sings along.
And Raju asks: where has Ma gone? To a faraway palace, says Vikas. A pristine white palace. With domes? asks Raju, excitedly. With mounted guards and all? Yes, Vikas agrees. Yes, a grand palace indeed. But nobody can go there unless they’ve been invited. There is sadness in his voice, but little Raju is too small to realize what this means. He’s already making plans to fetch his mother from that palace, wherever it may be.
So one day an intrepid Raju, with Minoo in tow, decides to take the ferry across the river into town. Surprisingly, they make it there without anybody realizing, and are soon walking, bewildered, in town. A passing truck driver gives them a lift, and while they’re in the truck, Raju spots a large white mansion with domes and a mounted guard outside. He figures this is where his mother is, so the two children quickly alight and race off. The guard, however, won’t let them in, and all Raju and Minoo can hope for is that sooner or later Raju’s Ma will emerge and call him in.
The two little tykes are so exhausted and lonely and close to desperation by now (Minoo’s started crying, too) that they go to sleep outside the boundary wall of the mansion…
…where they are spotted, later that night, by Vikas. He’s reported the two missing children to the police, and the police (for once doing their job) have traced the truck driver. The truck driver brings them to the mansion where he’d left the children, and Vikas is very relieved to have Raju back.
This escapade unnerves Vikas. When he brings back the children, a group of local men come to discuss the situation with Vikas. Several of them (and Vikas’s aunt and Minoo’s mother) are of the opinion that it would be best for Vikas to remarry. Raju needs a mother. Vikas is noncommittal; he will have to think over this.
Even before the gathered guests have gone, a telegram arrives from Vikas’s office: the leave Vikas had applied for hasn’t been granted. Instead, he has to leave on tour straightaway. His guests, to the annoyance of Chaachi, reassure Vikas: they’ll look after Raju. But no sooner has Vikas gone and Raju been pretty much left to his own devices, than the boy takes off for the hillside overlooking the river. He goes up there, looking out over the river and calling plaintively for the mother who will not come—and eventually falling ill and collapsing right there, by the riverside.
He’s soon discovered and brought home by the local people; the doctor is summoned, and Raju is given injections and whatnot. Minoo’s mother and Vikas’s chaachi stand by Raju’s bedside and quarrel over prospective brides they have in mind for Vikas.
Then, just as it seems this desperation of Raju’s is going to get progressively worse, there’s a sudden unexpected development. A beautiful young woman (Geeta Bali) dressed in a sharaara (the sure sign of someone not quite respectable!) is washed up, unconscious, on the riverbank. Since Vikas’s haveli is the nearest, her rescuers bring the woman there. The doctor arrives, and little Raju, come to see what’s happening, immediately jumps to the happy conclusion: Ma!
The woman’s name is Juhi. She does not say who she is or how she happened to be in the river, but two things happen while Vikas is still away:
First, Raju, and along with him Minoo, grows very close to Juhi. Raju is convinced that this is the mother he’s been longing for all these years, and Juhi returns his affection in full measure.
Secondly, Vikas’s chaachi decides that this woman—from her clothing, and her general appearance—is certainly not a good woman. The local gentry (having noticed Raju’s attachment to Juhi) have advised Chaachi to let Juhi remain in the house, at least until Vikas returns. After all, if Chaachi boots Juhi out, Raju will be inconsolable. Chaachi has had to grudgingly accept that that is the best course of action. But, she triumphantly says, she will not lend one saree to that woman so that she may look respectable. No, she can go about dressed in whatever she’s wearing.
When Vikas finally gets home, therefore, it’s to find his household suddenly turned upside-down. He sees the bond between this strange young woman and Raju; he notices how attached Raju is to her, and how much she, too, adores Raju. Chaachi tries her best to get Vikas to throw Juhi out, but Vikas—an intelligent man, and not one to be swayed by a prejudiced old lady, even if she is his aunt—decides to first find out the truth.
But before that, he makes one small gesture of sympathy. He hands Juhi the keys to his late wife’s cupboard, and tells her to change her clothes.
When, her sharaara discarded and exchanged for a cotton saree worn in the traditional Bengali way, Juhi comes back, Vikas listens to her story.
It turns out (not unexpectedly) that Juhi was the daughter of a tawaif named Munni Bai. Lonely and unloved except by her maternal grandmother, Juhi was a sad little girl who would watch her mother dance for ‘guests’ while Juhi called for her. When Munni Bai (Chand Burke) would end her mujra, she would come to Juhi—not to shower affection on her: only to scold her for interrupting.
Juhi didn’t have any choice, either. Her childhood went in learning music and dance, with Munni Bai supervising her lessons with an eagle eye, determined to make Juhi a dancer worth every paisa her mother spent on her.
Sure enough, says Juhi: she did turn out a good dancer. Men would come from far and wide to see her sing and dance, and though she hated it, Juhi danced on—until one night Munni Bai brought two men to Juhi’s room.
Juhi overheard the conversation, her mother obviously selling her off to the highest bidder—and put her foot down. She slammed the door on the men, and later told her mother that she would give her body only to the man she married, after she was married. At which Munni Bai burst out laughing. A tawaif? Married? Which tawaif ever got married? Which man married a tawaif? Juhi was thrashed and berated, but—thankfully—not sold off.
Then, tragedy struck. Juhi’s grandmother, the only person who loved Juhi, died. And, on her deathbed, revealed a startling secret: Juhi wasn’t Munni Bai’s daughter. Years ago, when Juhi was a baby, she was being pushed in a pram in a public park by her nurse, who was overpowered by some ruffians. They kidnapped the baby and brought her to Munni Bai. The dying woman didn’t know who Juhi’s real parents were, except that she obviously was from a wealthy family.
With the old woman dead and Juhi realizing she had no reason to be tied to Munni Bai any longer, Juhi decided to try and find her real parents. But escaping from Munni Bai was no easy task, and Juhi had to use subterfuge. She pretended to agree to go with the men Munni Bai had earlier brought to her. ‘We’ll go on a river cruise,’ Munni Bai said, excitedly, and that was how Juhi ended up on a boat on this particular river. And, when she tried to reason with the men (‘Marry me, please, if you will not let me go,’—rather naïve), she got laughed at, and in the ensuing bid to escape from their pawing, she went over the side of the boat and into the water…
That is how Juhi has landed up here. Vikas, while he says very little, does believe her. And realizes how much she loves Raju, how much she wants to be the mother Raju believes her to be.
But her wanting to be Raju’s mother isn’t so simple. Because Vikas himself, though he may not be inimical to Juhi, shows no inclination to fall in love with her (and Juhi is not the scheming type, to try to lure him, either). Because Chaachi is hell-bent on having Juhi thrown out. Because people around—like Minoo’s shrewish mother—say, ‘By simply wearing Raju’s mother’s clothes and her jewellery, you do not become his mother for real!’ And because there is, after all, her lurid past lurking behind, even if Juhi herself is, in reality, untainted.
What I liked about this film:
The unusual angle to it. While there is a leading man and a leading lady, the main story is not about their love, but about the deep love that quickly develops between a little boy who yearns for his mother and a lonely woman who yearns for someone to give her love. It is Juhi’s and Raju’s love that is the focal point of Ferry. The chemistry between Geeta Bali and little Babu is wonderful, too: her eyes sparkle, and there’s so much affection, mixed with playfulness and joy, in her interactions with him that it hardly seems like acting.
The treatment, too, of the relationship between Juhi and Vikas. It’s understated, subtle: at no point does either of them make it obvious that they have fallen in love with the other. These two people—a lonely man who loves his son but tries to find solace in his work after the death of his wife, and a woman craving affection—are brought together by their shared love for the same child, but it doesn’t instantly throw them into each other’s arms. The changing of an initial awkwardness into something deeper is gradual, and most of it unsaid. And the way it is expressed—in a metaphorical conversation one night as they look out over the river—is memorable. This bank of the river and that are separated, says Vikas. So close, yet so far apart. Yes, agrees Juhi. But they are joined, are they not, below the waves? Vikas asks, ruefully: Where? Where it’s so dark, that none can see?
To which Juhi, looking at the boat, its sail billowing in the wind as it crosses the river, says, ‘But there is another that can brings the banks together, isn’t there?’
The ferry, is the implied meaning. Is Raju then the ferry that will bring Vikas and Juhi together?
There is, too, the character of Raju. While Babu’s acting is all right, not exceptional, the character is unusual in that Raju isn’t a terribly pathetic little figure. Yes, he misses his mother sorely and that daily ritual of going down to the ferry is heartbreaking, but there’s much, too, that shows him to be a normal child: mischievous, adventurous, and ready to stand up for himself against his father’s tyrannical aunt.
Lastly, the music, by Hemant, which features some lovely tunes. What I find interesting here is that except for one song—Na ro ae ronewaale—none of the others are ever played all at once; they appear in snatches, a little bit sung here and a little there. There’s the boatman’s haunting refrain, O maajhi naav badhaa le; there’s the lullaby, Rangeeli-rangeeli chhabeeli raani nindiya; the song celebrating Juhi’s love for Raju, Yehi hai mere sapnon ka sansaar; and even the mujra song, Kaisi laagi karajwa kataar. All appear chopped up, one verse here sung in one mood, another there, in a different mood, which lends the songs a more real feel (how many people in real life, after all, break off everything to sing four verses of a song at one go?)
What I didn’t like:
The sudden speeding up of things at the end, and what seemed to me a somewhat contrived solution to a certain problem. It’s not that the end is totally unsatisfactory, but there are elements to it that could have been better dealt with.
But, despite all of that, a sweet little film. And an unusual one for Dev Anand, a far cry from the films most people associate him with.
Note: Ferry is available on several channels on Youtube. Most of these seem to have taken the T-Series VCD (which has terrible synching of audio and visual, with dialogues coming a good five seconds or more before the accompanying action; also—though this might be a problem with the original film—there are several scenes where the top of the frame is lopped off, so you see only the lower halves of actors’ faces, and so on). Of all the channels I checked, the version on Narjis is the best quality. Their watermark is the least intrusive (and, as you can see from the screen caps here, that’s saying a lot!), and the aspect ratio is much better than the others’.