Every now and then [with distressing frequency], I come across a film that, just by looking at its cast and crew, sounds mouthwatering enough. This was one of those. Saira Banu, when she still looked pretty. Joy Mukherji, still at the height of his career. Ashok Kumar. Motilal. Ravi as the composer. RK Nayyar as the director. Europe.
And Yeh Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai starts off promisingly enough. A shifty-looking character (Madan Kumar), driving a car, follows a girl to her home. She (Saira Banu) does not notice that she’s been followed, and—when an unexpected visitor (Badriprasad) turns up a short while later— she doesn’t realize that there’s someone eavesdropping on their conversation.
The turbaned and heavily mustachioed old gent who’s come to visit initially faces denial; the girl denies that she knows him. When he brushes that aside and tells her that he has known her since she was a baby, she breaks down and admits that yes, she is indeed Princess Sarita of Chambal. From their conversation [all of which conveniently reiterates all the salient points of her identity, her motives, etc], it emerges that the princess, who detests her ‘royalty status’ and wants to live like a commoner, has, some time back, left home and kingdom and fled to Bombay, where she has become a model.
The old man [who, if you hadn’t already guessed it, is called Dinu Kaka] reminds her that her parents, the King and Queen, have perished in an accident. She should come back to her state now and ascend the throne. Sarita pleads for a little more time. She says her dearest wish is to find true love; the man who will love her for the woman she is, unaware of her status, her power and her wealth.
The man listening in on this interesting conversation follows Dinu out when the old man emerges onto the street—and shoots him dead. He then goes off to meet a woman (Saira Banu again), who greets him as William. This is Sarita [the first time in many years of watching cinema that I’ve come across two look-alikes who even have the same name]. She is William’s girlfriend, and she’s getting a bit sick of waiting around for him to marry her, all these past ten years. [The woman is either horribly desperate, or the very picture of patience, I can’t tell which].
As if all of this wasn’t confusing enough, it gets more so. Against a backdrop of Parliament House, a sonorous voiceover warns us of the evil intentions of ‘an unnamed power that, under the guise of friendship, attacked India four years ago’ [‘unnamed’ only in name, or if you have no clue to modern Indian history]. We are then told that if India stands tall and strong today, it is because of one man who helms the country’s politics, Guptaji (Ashok Kumar).
And, there is Guptaji’s nemesis, the evil politician Mr Jolkar (Motilal). We are given a dose of Jolkar’s beliefs against an unsubtle background of a Hitlerian swastika on a white flag as he talks about revolution, urging people on to take the country forward, even if it means shedding blood in the process.
This man has acquired a gang of misguided and ardent young people as his followers. While he’s addressing them, his secretary-cum-nurse-cum-general dogsbody Olga (Sayeeda Khan) happens to be tapping her pen against her teeth. A phone call comes; Jolkar takes it, listens, acknowledges whatever he’s heard, and putting the phone down, snaps at Olga to stop doing that with her pen; it’s what his daughter used to do. His daughter, he says, has just died in a car accident: that was what the phone call was about.
Having said which, he goes back to his speech. Message taken. This may be a doting daddy, but not in public, at any rate.
In fact, a few days later, Jolkar goes to meet Guptaji at his house, and we realize that these men may be political rivals now, but have not just been members of the same party, but friends as well. Guptaji enquires about Jolkar’s high blood pressure; Jolkar asks about Guptaji’s asthma. Guptaji tries to appeal to Jolkar’s better sense, his innate humanity: bloody revolution is not the way to bring about change.
Jolkar refuses in a genteel, almost regretful sort of way, and Guptaji shrugs and gives in.
What Guptaji doesn’t know is that Jolkar is too far gone. He has clandestine radio conversations with someone in a seedy den guarded by what is supposed to be a Chinese guard (Manmohan, looking pretty shifty-eyed)…
… And he has pulled strings, bribed, whatever, to get out of jail a political prisoner named Sanjay (Joy Mukherji). [Sanjay’s prison cell, with its book shelves, its neatness, and an inane little toy, constantly bobbing about on the table, to which he addresses revolutionary dialogues, is like no prison I’ve seen before].
Sanjay is told what he has to do: assassinate Guptaji. Because, while Guptaji is in power, Jolkar cannot hope to succeed in his attempts to bring about a revolution. And while Guptaji is alive, he will remain in power.
Sanjay doesn’t have any qualms about bumping off Guptaji. Murders etc, as far as he’s concerned, should be taken in one’s stride if there is to be equality, the rule of the people, etc etc. [I have come across my fair share of leftist heroes in Hindi cinema, but never one who seems to possess such a breathtaking lack of conscience].
William soon comes to meet Sanjay. We now get to understand what was going on in the first few scenes of the film. William is Jolkar’s man. He hands Sanjay two photos, both seemingly of the very same girl. One, the gaudily dressed female in red, is Princess Sarita of Chambal—and he goes on to give Sanjay the lowdown on all that he, William, had overheard that night between her and the now-dead Dinu Kaka.
The other girl, says William, is his fiancée, Sarita. And, the clincher: Sarita is secretary to Guptaji. That makes the task much easier, Sanjay realizes—but no, William’s fiancée, unlike him, has a conscience. As devoted as she is to William, she is equally devoted to her boss. She will not connive with William and/or Sanjay to bump off Guptaji.
So, this is the plan: Sanjay has one month in which to get to know Princess Sarita, and convince her that far from being the princess, she is actually his (Sanjay’s) sweetheart. To help convince her, William has thoughtfully brought along a forged love letter from the princess to Sanjay; a gift which she is supposed to have given him when they last met in Delhi (where they are supposed to have fallen in love); and a forged newspaper carrying a news article about the death of the princess of Chambal in an accident.
Yes, says Sanjay, these should do the trick: they will help him convince Princess Sarita that far from being the princess, she is actually his lover, Sarita. Who, of course, is Guptaji’s secretary. When Sanjay and Princess Sarita are married [this is all part of this mad plan], she will be persuaded to impersonate Sarita, so that she can get Sanjay close enough to Guptaji to kill him.
It all sounds horribly [not to mention needlessly] complicated.
[If any sane woman who hasn’t been conked on the head can be persuaded, on the basis of a forged letter, a gift, and a newspaper that she is not whom she knows she is, but somebody completely different, then she deserves the trouble coming her way. Besides, what makes these two crooks think the princess will be any keener on helping do away with Guptaji than William’s fiancée is?]
Anyway, back to business. Sanjay latches on to the princess at a restaurant that evening and tries to ‘remind’ her of who he is, with the help of the letter and the gift, both of which she dismisses. [The gift, by the way, is that same idiotic toy to which Sanjay was talking while in prison. Somebody in the Props Department was cutting corners]. The princess flounces off angrily.
But Sanjay isn’t shaken off so easily. He turns up the next day, posing as a photographer, at the modelling agency where she works. He makes a pest of himself again, and the princess gets annoyed. She is also, however, beginning to be a little intrigued.
Now things start getting [if they could] even more hard to believe. Sanjay comes to know that the princess is going to be proclaimed beauty queen at a pageant [these pageants, I tell you, all rigged]. She will be going off to Europe for fifteen days to participate in a pageant in Paris. Now what? Half a month gone down the line? Of course not, William says. They will ensure that Sanjay gets chosen to be a male whatever-is-the-equivalent [‘Mr Handsome’, as it turns out] so that he can go along too, and continue to work his charm on the princess.
So, when a blushing princess is proclaimed the winner [in a very shabby affair, resembling more a government-sponsored seminar than a beauty pageant], she is thoroughly peeved to find Sanjay bounding up, Mr Handsome, to be going along with her on the Paris jaunt. The emcee, who is also going to be the manager of their tour, reassures her (when she complains) that he will keep Sanjay’s ardent wooing in check.
We are now treated [a dubious treat, this] to a disjointed and whirlwind tour of Western Europe. The trio go to Paris, where Sanjay sings a song to the princess [who, wearing a bad wig and sipping a Coke as she tries to shake him off, reminds me of Sharmila Tagore in Deewaane ka naam toh poochho, though An Evening in Paris is a masterpiece compared to this increasingly incoherent mess].
From Paris, they crisscross across Europe, going to Spain, then to Venice, before doubling back to Switzerland [so we’re told], where the manager arranges a big party to show the Malika-e-Husn and Mr Handsome off to the most illustrious of the land. This party is held at Versailles [Huh? When did they transplant Versailles from France to Switzerland?]. They go to Rome [why didn’t they go there the first time they were in Italy, visiting Venice? Someone at some travel agency needs urgent lessons in planning itineraries].
All through the tour, Sanjay keeps writing letters to William, keeping him abreast of all that’s happening. The princess, Sanjay reports, seems to be mellowing towards him.
Where is all of this going to lead? Is there going to be a logical conclusion to this nuttiness? Why did Motilal and Ashok Kumar consent to work in a film like this? Why didn’t Sadhana protest at having such a hot mess dedicated to her?
I have no answers to those questions. The only question I can answer with conviction is ‘Why isn’t this film better-known?’ Because it deserves obscurity. It deserves, actually, to be forgotten and filed away among the cringe-worthy films of stars we like but whom we’d rather not see working in rubbish like this.
What I liked about this film:
Sadly, so little. Saira Banu’s costumes (by her mother, Naseem Banu) are lovely, but the awful wigs she had to wear got on my nerves. And they’re really not needed; she looks so much lovelier in the few scenes where she’s obviously sporting her own hair.
Ravi’s music isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not his best score. Two songs stood out as being better than the others: the oft-repeated title song, and Mashallah tum jawaan ho, which appears in two versions, male and female (the latter oddly reminiscent of Woh hain zara khafa-khafa, considering the setting, the tone, and the lead pair).
And, there is one surprisingly interesting scene near the end which features Motilal and Saira Banu. I had pretty much given up on Yeh Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai by then, but the poignancy of this scene (combined with the acting of Motilal in particular) was memorable.
What I didn’t like:
Where do I even begin? The scripting, the editing, the dubbing. Most of all, the scripting. It’s not as if the core story of Yeh Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai is abysmal—after all, there is this potentially interesting story about two identical women, unwittingly entangled in a plot to kill a prominent personality. There is the theme about life, and love, and genuine humanity, being more powerful than violence and hate. There is politics, and romance, and love on different levels, not just romantic.
And what is done with that? The more interesting bits are dealt with summarily. For instance, a man’s realization that his loyalties are shifting, or that he is finding something more important in his life than what he has believed paramount all this while. This (not in one case, but two), happens so suddenly and with so little build-up, that it’s not very convincing.
Instead, about two-thirds of the film is spent in a boring and very predictable romance, jazzed up by being set in Europe but not very convincing as a romance anyway. To add to the pain, there are horribly inept coincidences [Two women, looking exactly the same, wearing exactly identical clothes, and in exactly the same place—all by coincidence—at the same time?]. There is a court scene that makes the court scenes of Paying Guest, Waqt, and Mera Saaya look magnificently professional. There are baffling motives, crazy decisions that lack any sort of logic, and just general mayhem.
RK Nayyar, instead of spending all the funds for Yeh Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai, might have been better off getting a far better scriptwriter.
Don’t inflict this one on yourself, unless you’re a huge fan of any of the people involved. And perhaps not even then. Especially not even then.