A lot of my memories of 50s and 60s cinema date back to the 1980s, when almost all the films I watched were those shown on Doordarshan. In the early years, with Doordarshan being the sole channel, my sister and I (our parents were rather more discerning) watched every single Hindi film that was telecast, down to painful stuff like Jai Santoshi Ma and the thoroughly obscure Fauji, with Joginder Singh (who, if I remember correctly, also produced and directed it) in the lead role.
But, to get around to the topic of this post: Abhilasha, not a very well-known film but one which made an impression on me because of two songs I liked a lot. And because it depicted a mother-son relationship that was a little different from the usual.
That was all I remembered of the film, but I’d been wanting to watch it ever since. Fortunately, it’s now available on (a sadly scratchy) VCD by Priya, versions of which are to be found on Youtube.
The film begins at a party at the home of Brigadier Ranjit Singh (Rehman) and his wife Meena (Meena Kumari, in an awful wig). While their parents dance and chat, the children gorge on ice cream and look on. Meena, going to a little girl, gathers her up in her arms, rubs away the melted ice cream smeared over the kid’s face, and generally coos over the child. Ranjit glances towards them, and there’s an exchange of understanding smiles. It’s a sweet little domestic scene.
Except, as it turns out moments later, this isn’t Meena and Ranjit’s child. She’s a guest’s daughter. Ranjit and Meena don’t have any children.
There is, too, a sad tale behind that. Meena had given birth, and one day, playing on the rooftop with her baby, tossing it up in the air, she had tossed it right over the parapet [Yes, just the thought of it makes my hair stand on end, so you can imagine what it does to Meena]. Meena, no matter how much she is told that it was an accident, cannot forgive herself.
This, says the doctor to whom Ranjit takes Meena for a gynaecological examination, is the cause of Meena’s inability to conceive. She has convinced herself she can never be a good mother, which is why she is unable to conceive. Until Meena can forgive herself and accept that she can be a good mother, the chances of her conceiving are slim.
One evening, while some friends are over at their home, Meena receives the surprising news that Ranjit has been promoted to Major General, and has been transferred to Poona. While the sahibs and memsahibs are celebrating, Ranjit and Meena’s butler D’Souza (Harindranath Chattopadhyay, looking far too old—despite the black wig—to be husband to a relatively young woman) is in hospital, pacing about anxiously while his wife gives birth to a son. She dies soon after, and D’Souza is left—literally—holding the baby.
That night, Meena hears the wailing of the baby from D’Souza’s little room beside their bungalow. He’s trying to quieten the baby, and the baby refuses to be quietened. Meena becomes increasingly distressed at the distress of the child, and finally rushes down and calms the baby. Then, realizing that D’Souza might not welcome this intrusion, she comes back to her room.
But the baby starts crying all over again, and Meena goes all to pieces. Ranjit, unable to do anything to comfort her, takes matters into his own hands and goes down to D’Souza’s room.
There, while D’Souza is blabbering apologies for the baby’s disturbing their sleep, Ranjit takes the baby from him and, having reassured D’Souza, takes the infant up to Meena. Within moments, her cooing to the baby, giving it its milk bottle, and singing to it makes the baby quieten down. Ranjit realizes that D’Souza’s baby is a Godsend: the baby needs a mother, and Meena needs a child. If D’Souza—who anyway seems incapable of looking after the baby [though Ranjit is too tactful to say so] is amenable, can Ranjit and Meena adopt the child, bring him up as their own?
D’Souza readily agrees; that his son be brought up as such a high-ranking officer’s, to be given the education and upbringing that will entitle him to a better life than his biological father can provide: what could be better? Ranjit also proposes that this remain a secret between D’Souza and the Singhs, and D’Souza agrees.
So the baby becomes Ranjit and Meena’s son [it’s never shown how they account for the sudden appearance of this baby, though it’s possible that the shift to Poona might have helped]. Both Ranjit and Meena dote on him.
Shortly after, Meena gets pregnant [Yup, that doctor had been right]. She has a son, and the two boys—Arun (who is actually D’Souza’s son) and Ajay grow up together. We have a brief interlude with a kiddie party (the boys’ birthdays are celebrated on the same day) where it’s apparent that Ranjit and Meena love both boys equally…
… and then we flash-forward to 15 [or whatever; oddly enough, it’s not explicitly stated] years later. Arun (now Sanjay Khan) and Ajay (now Kashinath Ghanekar, who starred in the only Marathi film I’ve reviewed so far, Pathlaag) are—respectively—in the final year of BA and two years from becoming a doctor. They have been sent to the airport to receive Ranjit’s best friend, Rai Bahadur Daulat Ram (Murad), his wife (Sulochana Latkar) and their daughter Ritu (Nanda), who are returning to India after having spent the last 20 years in London.
On their way home, Daulat Ram asks the young men what they’re doing; on discovering that Arun is in college, he asks Arun to get Ritu admitted to the same college.
Ritu, being driven to college by Arun the next day, is puzzled (and piqued) by his reticence: is he always this quiet, she asks. Arun, unlike the outgoing Ajay, is the strong, silent type. Ritu is not; she’s vivacious and mostly feisty, giving back as good as she gets when someone in college pastes a cheeky note on her back.
The only time Ritu is cowed down is when a group of young men gang up on her in college and start ragging her. To her surprise (and it seems, to his own) Arun springs to her defence and hits out at his classmates.
It’s not long before Ritu and Arun have fallen in love, though it’s shown in an odd sort of way—choppy and not very coherent dialogues, long silences and what seems like friendly teasing, followed by the ethereal Waadiyaan mera daaman.
Arun now shares a bit of news with Ritu: he’s off to Dehradun (presumably to the IMA) to join the army. He’ll be gone for two years; will she wait for him? Of course she will, says Ritu. And she will miss him every moment of every day.
Which she does, even dreaming of him at night, with his photograph tucked under her pillow…
… a photograph her father finds and smiles at knowingly.
He decides (in a discussion with his wife, and later, after talking to a shy Ritu) that he should talk to his friend Ranjit and fix up a match between Arun and Ritu. It’s almost time for Arun to come back, too, after getting his commission. (In the meantime, by the way, old D’Souza has died; Arun receives the news in a letter from home and is sad, but of course has no idea that the old man was his father).
Back to Poona, where Ritu, now that she knows her parents know (and approve of) her love for Arun, is very happy. She goes on a drive with Ajay to the very place she had gone to with Arun just before he left. There, remembering her parting with Arun, she sings (imagining Arun beside her, no doubt) the same song he had sung to her. She’s unaware, all this while, that Ajay thinks her song is addressed to him. She is blissfully unaware, too, that he is in love with her and doesn’t have the slightest inkling that Ritu’s sweetheart is Arun.
It seems Ajay isn’t the only one under the impression that Ritu is in love with him. When Daulat Ram and his wife come to Ranjit and Meena, asking for Arun’s hand in marriage for Ritu, Ranjit and Meena are surprised. They agree, but when they’re on their own, they puzzle over this: isn’t Ajay in love with Ritu? And Ritu in love with him?
Ajay too receives a rude shock a few days later. While he’s been out, Arun has come home—and Ajay arrives to find Ritu and Arun sitting cozily in front of a fire, whispering sweet nothings to each other. His dreams are all shattered, but Ajay is mature enough to not show any trace of his disappointment when Arun meets him.
Everything looks rosy for the young couple. Their parents are pleased; Ajay (whose feelings neither Arun nor Ritu are aware of) has reconciled himself to a life in which Ritu will be bhabhi rather than wife. The only obstacle is that since Arun has just got his commission, he’ll have to wait two years before he can marry—or he’ll need permission from his CO to marry now. Even that is, all said and done, nothing to be really worried about. After all, the CO may well give his permission. If he doesn’t, all they’ll have to do is be patient.
But Ranjit Singh’s conscience won’t let him rest. This is a matter of marriage, of two lives—even two families—being bound together. It’s important that Daulat Ram (whom Ranjit knows to be a man very strict about ‘blood’ and ‘breeding’ and ‘lineage’) know the truth.
Before he can tell Daulat Ram who Arun really is, Ranjit has to tell Arun the truth. It is the young man’s right [why Ranjit did not think it important to spring this on Arun earlier is anybody’s guess].
… and the truth, when revealed, shatters Arun. In ways, too, that Ranjit and Meena could not have imagined. Suddenly, from being the ‘well-bred son of a wealthy and esteemed Hindu family’, Arun has gone to being the poor son of a Christian servant. In his own eyes, and in the eyes of Ritu’s parents—who will no longer even dream of letting him anywhere near their daughter.
Abhilasha doesn’t tread new ground when it comes to plot; this trope about the ‘high and low’, about barriers built by society, has been used in countless films, some good (Sujata comes to mind), many forgettable. Abhilasha manages to be, to my mind, somewhat in the middle. It has its good points and its bad.
What I liked about this film:
The somewhat unusual way in which the last half-hour plays out. True, there is a good bit of melodrama here (and a climax reminiscent of Sujata), but some of the conversations and the reactions came as a pleasant surprise. The fact, for instance, that Ranjit and Meena, even when they discover that Ajay loves Ritu, love Arun enough to not want him to give up his love for his foster brother. This love for one who is not of their blood, but still of their family, is one carried through very convincingly: even for Ajay, who is privately anguished, but outwardly happy for Arun and Ritu.
Arun’s reaction to the news that he’s not whom he’s believed himself to be all these years is interesting (I won’t say good to watch, because Sanjay Khan does get rather hammy in these scenes). He goes to bits, and lashes out at both Ranjit and Meena, insisting on calling them ‘Sir’ and ‘Memsahib’ respectively, and letting them know that he is from now on never going to forget that he’s D’Souza’s son (he also rubs it in that if they’d told him the truth earlier, at least he’d have had the chance to treat his ‘real’ father with the respect he deserved—which I can understand). One especially poignant scene between Meena Kumari and Sanjay Khan where she tries to tell him that he is her son, no matter what, is memorable.
And the music, composed by RD Burman to lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri. The sublime Waadiyaan mera daaman (the male version, by Rafi) is perhaps Abhilasha’s greatest claim to fame, but there are a few other songs that I like: the peppy Pyaar hua hai jabse, the lullaby/birthday party song, Munne mere aa sadke tere aa, and Ek jaanib shamm-e-mehfil.
What I didn’t like:
The stilted, not too convincing romance between Arun and Ritu, which is just pure badly scripted, with poor dialogues and sudden, unexplained falling in love, even though the film would have us believe it’s happened gradually.
And, as I’d mentioned, the predictable, rather melodramatic end.
Despite that, however, this, I thought, was a film that deserves to be better-known. It’s pleasant, the songs are nice, and the message is a sweet one.