Permit me one last Sadhana-related post before I put aside my unexpected (even to me) sadness at her untimely death. I know I’ve already been through two tribute posts, but even as I was writing those posts, I couldn’t help but think of the Sadhana films I haven’t reviewed on this blog (and there are several of them, including all the ones she made with Rajendra Kumar). When I think of Sadhana, I always think of her in Raj Khosla’s suspense films. Three of them, two opposite Manoj Kumar (Woh Kaun Thi? and Anita), and this one, opposite Sunil Dutt, with whom Sadhana also starred in Gaban and Waqt.
Mera Saaya gets off to a flying start—with a doctor (Shivraj) hurrying into a grand haveli, accompanied by the bustling munshi (Mukri) of the absent owner of the haveli, a lawyer named Thakur Rakesh Singh (Sunil Dutt). From the hurried exchange of instructions, voiced frustration, and anguish, it emerges that Rakesh has gone abroad. Now, his wife Geeta (Sadhana) has fallen ill, and that too so desperately ill that the doctor, when summoned, realizes there’s little to be done for her.
Two women—Rakesh’s Radha mausi (Ratnamala) and a maid named Sargam (Kumud Bole) are in attendance. The doctor chastizes Radha Mausi: why has Geeta’s condition allowed to deteriorate to such an extent? While scurrying about, ordering oxygen to be got from the hospital and so on, he tells the munshi to contact Rakesh and call him back to India.
Rakesh arrives, hurrying through Udaipur Airport, in the car, and into the house—up to the bedroom, where Geeta is lying in bed, so dazed that she barely seems to recognize Rakesh. He clutches her, sweeps her up into his arms—and she dies. [No, that is not what a Hindi film heroine is supposed to do, at least not in the first 10 minutes of a film].
The suddenly bereaved husband is left seriously bereft. Rakesh is inconsolable; even as the days pass, we see him unable to forget his dead wife. He has a memorial chhatri built for her in the grounds of his home [with a sadly misspelt ‘Geeta Smriti’ inscribed on a tablet outside]; he spends his days listening to old tapes of her singing love songs to him and staring at her portrait.
… and is sitting beneath that very photograph when a friend, Inspector Daljit Singh (Anwar Hussain) turns up. Daljit Singh bears some very odd news. And a photograph, which he shows Rakesh. Does Rakesh recognize this woman? It’s a photo of Geeta [looking far from her usual chic self, which should have made Rakesh suspicious at once, but doesn’t]. Rakesh wonders where the inspector got Geeta’s photo, and the cop reveals the scoop of the century.
This isn’t Geeta, but another woman. Recently, in an encounter between the cops and a gang of dacoits, two dacoits were killed and this girl, Raina, was arrested. When she was brought before the villagers who’d been preyed upon by the dacoits these past months, one man recognized her. Sometime back, he said, this woman had danced in front of the temple—a dance performance that had turned out to be mere distraction, serving to draw people’s attention away long enough for the dacoits to attack.
In front of his very eyes, this woman had stabbed someone to death. She’s the devil.
But Raina staunchly denies that she is the killer, or that she had anything to do with the dacoits. She claims she’s innocent. And—here comes the shocker—she claims she is Geeta, Thakur Rakesh Singh’s wife.
What nonsense, says Rakesh. His Geeta died in his very arms. He’s not baffled or surprised, or anything of the sort: he’s pure angry at this unseen woman, who by her wild claim, is pouring salt on his wounds.
The inspector agrees. But the woman must be exposed, he says, and her claims proved to be lies. For that, if Rakesh and his household will come to the police station to formally identify [un-identify?] her, that will be perfect. Rakesh assents, so the next day, the main members of the household—Rakesh, Radha Mausi, Sargam, Munshiji and his opium addict friend Baanke (Dhumal)—arrive at the police station.
Daljit Singh tries a ruse to catch Raina out: he summons a man, calling him “Thakur”, and implying that this is Geeta’s husband, but Raina denies that this is him. The inspector tries it with yet another man, with the same result. Then, Rakesh enters—and Raina runs to him, hugging him and asking him where he’s been, cribbing about the inspector’s trying to foist odd men onto her as him, and so on. Rakesh flings her away and storms off, leaving the woman looking very distressed indeed.
She now notices Radha Mausi and Sargam peering in through the barred window, and rushes to them, addressing them by name, which of course surprises them. Radha Mausi bristles when the woman says, “Mausi, don’t you recognize me?!” and replies that Geeta didn’t call her Mausi, so she cannot be Geeta. At which Raina says Oh, yes: she had forgotten. The entire household called her Mausi, but when Geeta tried calling her Mausi, Radha Mausi said no, Geeta should call her Ma instead.
This shakes Mausi and Sargam up so, they leave. How could this woman, who looks exactly like the dead Geeta, know this tiny detail?
Meanwhile, we get a brief glimpse at Raina’s ex-colleagues, the dacoits, who’re encamped in their lair. The leader of these men, Suryavar Singh (Prem Chopra), is tense and remarks gruffly that since the woman will now be going on trial, they need to do something…
… which we get a hint of [though no more than a hint] in the next scene. Raina, preparatory to being taken to court, is in the police station, seated on a bench along with some other women prisoners. An old woman—caught brazenly picking pockets right outside the police station—has been arrested; she comes in, plonks herself down next to Raina, and quickly hands over a tiny note to Raina. As soon as Raina’s read it, the old woman snatches it back and chews it. Raina looks horrified [yes, well. Paper isn’t high on nutrition, is it?].
And we’re in court. Here, Raina again denies being Raina and insists she is Geeta, Thakur Rakesh Singh’s wife. When asked by the judge (an avuncular sort) if she’d like to appoint a lawyer to represent her in court, she refuses. Why should she need any lawyer other than her own husband? He is one of the best lawyers in the city.
Rakesh, of course, refuses outright. In the meantime, the public prosecutor (KN Singh) has announced that Rakesh is his key witness—and Raina, when informed by the judge that she may plead her own case, has also said that Rakesh will be her main witness.
The court clerk, therefore, comes to Rakesh’s house to serve the summons. While Mausi mourns over the way the law is not letting Rakesh get over the death of Geeta, Sargam listens in at the window, looking as if she’s up to no good [you can always tell in Hindi films, can’t you?]
She then turns away and flounces out of the courtyard, passing on the way her two admirers, Munshiji and Baanke. These worthies, over a game of chess, have been discussing the case (with Munshiji contributing most of the meaningful conversation, since the opium-addled brain of Baanke is incapable of retaining any lucid thought for any length of time). The two men gaze, dreamy-eyed, at Sargam, and when she’s gone, wonder where the girl goes off to every evening. They forget it the very next moment and go back to their chess, their views on the case, and Sargam.
Baanke is baffled about why some strange woman, just because she happens to look like Geeta, should be trying to pass herself off as Thakur Sahib’s dead wife. Munshiji supplies the answer: Thakur Sahib is very wealthy. The woman is after his wealth; what else?
But there is something very odd about Raina’s claim to being Geeta. When Rakesh appears in the witness box, she gets confused. Her questions aren’t questions; more incoherent babbling. But, with some encouragement from the judge, she begins to talk, to ask Rakesh questions, and to provide proof that she is Geeta. She talks about their wedding, about minute details—how the pallu of her saree had caught in the car door as she was getting in; what Rakesh said in praise of her as they drove on.
Rakesh, though, is not so easily won over. He calmly informs the court that the description of their wedding—down to Geeta’s pallu getting caught in the car door—appears in a book he had written. Anybody could have read it there. And there had been a chauffeur in the car; he could easily have overheard the conversation between Rakesh and Geeta.
Inspector Daljit Singh and the Public Prosecutor, discussing the case in the prosecutor’s chambers after court, agree that this is a baffling case indeed. Both are inclined to think, too, that one of the members of Rakesh’s household—a servant, easily bribed—is responsible for this woman knowing so much about Rakesh and Geeta.
But the next day, Raina (or Geeta, as she insists she is) hurls a bouncer: she tells Rakesh something even he hadn’t known about himself. That he has a mole on his back, near his right armpit. Sure enough, when Rakesh is egged on to take off his shirt [odd sort of court, this], there it is, clear to everybody. And when the woman requests a face-to-face meeting, alone with Rakesh, she tells him some startling facts nobody but Geeta could have known.
The evidence appears to be piling up; everything points to this woman being Geeta. But Geeta had died in Rakesh’s arms, in full view of most of the people of his household. Everybody knows—most importantly, Rakesh knows—that Geeta is dead, and this woman cannot possibly be Geeta. Then how does she know so much? How can she possibly know even the most intimate details of Rakesh and Geeta’s life together? Who is she?
What I liked about this film:
The screenplay and direction. One major plus point of Mera Saaya is that while it’s very obviously—what with the songs and the (admittedly very thin) comic element, in the form of the Baanke-Munshiji-Sargam relationship—in the masala film mould, it’s a good example of a suspense film. The scripting is taut, with nothing that’s superfluous (even Baanke and Munshiji’s brief comic dialogues tie in with their impressions of what’s happening in court, or who Raina is). The songs, yes, are there, but these too often serve some purpose: mostly to reinforce Rakesh’s relationship with Geeta (which further reinforces the sense of desolation he feels at her death, and the ensuing frustration—even anguish—when Raina surfaces, claiming to be Geeta).
The songs, composed by Madan Mohan. The title song (repeated in snatches throughout the film) is lovely; Nainon mein badraa chhaaye is romantic in a beautifully classical way; and Aapke pehloo mein aakar ro diye is the very embodiment of grief. There’s the playfully teasing Nainonwaali ne ek matwaali ne, and the cheeky, still-popular street performance of Jhumka gira re Bareilly ke bazaar mein.
There are Sunil Dutt and Sadhana, who look good, and have believable chemistry.
… not just as the young couple so deliriously in love with each other, but also as the deeply suspicious and angry man facing the desperate woman who wants him to believe she’s his wife. There’s resentment on his part, because she is digging up his wounds, reminding him of the woman he loved—and yet, perhaps her face and her voice are too much like his beloved Geeta’s to let him be completely oblivious. In particular, there’s a touching little scene where Rakesh, now in his lawyer’s robes and interrogating Raina, suddenly finds her bursting into tears. There’s confusion, even pain, in his eyes for a few moments before he snatches his hand away from under hers and reverts to his gruff, lawyerly self. Almost as if, for that brief spell, he had forgotten that this woman was an impostor…
What I didn’t like:
Some of the court scenes, which go really haywire [getting a man to take off his shirt in court? Really?] Several times during the court scenes, too, I found myself gritting my teeth and wondering why nobody had the common sense to ask certain very basic questions that would have helped solve the mystery a little sooner. For instance, why did Rakesh spend all his time trying to shout down Raina’s claim of being Geeta, instead of asking her—as any logically-minded person would—who had died in his arms, then?
And the red herrings. Oh, how irritating that they should have no logical explanation, really.
But, despite all of that (and it’s not much, no matter what I write), this is still one of the best suspense films made in 60s Bollywood. Gripping, interesting, and with great songs. Do watch, if you haven’t yet.
Little bit of personal trivia:
My mother remembers the lead-up—newspaper advertisements, posters, etc—to Mera Saaya’s release in Calcutta, where she lived until she got married. “A lot of people were scandalized by the name of the film,” she says. Because, in Bangla, ‘saaya’ refers to a saree petticoat. Why anybody would want to name a film ‘My Petticoat’ was beyond comprehension. And in deplorably poor taste.