Over the years, I have heard and read much praise for this relatively little-known film. Its songs, which various people have introduced to me over the years, are good, and Anu—whose taste and opinion usually match my own—had good things to say about New Delhi in her review of the film. I decided it was time to watch it for myself.
New Delhi is set, of course, in New Delhi (though a bit of Old Delhi intrudes now and then, even as it does in everyday life in Delhi today). The film begins outside New Delhi Railway Station, where Anand Kumar (Kishore Kumar) has just arrived from Jalandhar, to study radio engineering. Anand hails a passing taxi at the same time that Janaki (Vyjyantimala), who is standing a few steps further along the road, does too. One taxi draws up; both Anand and Janaki get into it, and then start arguing over whose taxi this is.
The taxi driver, when asked to explain whom he stopped for, pleads that he thought these two were together. Eventually, since Janaki is inclined to go to the nearest police station and have the cops intercede, Anand throws in the towel and gets out.
Anand manages to get to a sarai, where he checks in for a couple of days while he goes about looking for more long-term accommodation. The very first house he arrives at, on the heels of a ‘to let’ ad in the newspaper, seems nice enough. This is occupied by a young artist, Ashok Banerjee (Prabhu Dayal) who quickly makes friends with Anand and is happy to let him have the accommodation.
Ashok, however, hasn’t reckoned with his father. Old Mr Banerjee, arriving on the scene soon after and discovering that Anand is a Punjabi, says that he’s already rented out the accommodation. It soon becomes obvious that this is just an excuse, and that he wants, as tenant, only a Bengali.
Anand soon realizes, as he goes from one prospective landlord to the other, that people are woefully insular. Sindhis only want Sindhi tenants; Marawaris only want Marwaris, Gujaratis only want Gujaratis, and so on. Nobody wants a Hindustani, they say; they only want people from their own communities, their own regions, their own castes. A despondent Anand winds up sharing his woes with Kumaraswamy (Dhumal), the general dogsbody at the sarai.
Kumaraswamy is resourceful and optimistic. When Anand sadly admits that the latest ad—by a Mr Iyer, asking for tenants—is also likely to come to nothing, he is reassured: no, this one is going to come through.
… And so it does. Because the man who turns up at Mr Iyer’s is not Anand Kumar the Punjabi but the dhoti-kurta clad Anand Kumaraswamy, who admits that he doesn’t know Tamil because he’s been brought up in Punjab. But he looks so obviously the good South Indian young man that Mr Iyer approves of him immediately, as does a visiting friend, Mr Subramaniam (Nana Palsikar), who is a big shot in the local South Indian Cultural Association. This is what our youth should be like, they say: proud of their heritage.
Meanwhile, we catch up with Janaki. She goes to meet a dear acquaintance and family friend, Sadhuram (Radhakrishna), who owns a ghee shop. Although there’s a big sign outside to the effect that Sadhuram’s ghee is so pure that anybody who can prove it’s adulterated will be rewarded a thousand rupees, Sadhuram himself is busy behind closed doors, filling vanaspati in tins labelled ‘ghee’. It’s the label that matters, he tells Janaki, when Janaki teases Sadhuram Chacha about this subterfuge. The only pure ghee to be found here, he informs her, is what burns in the little lamp placed before the idol in the little temple inside.
… Which comes in use now and then. If a canny customer comes by, wanting to test a sample of Sadhuram’s ghee, Sadhuram scoops out a spoonful from the lamp and takes it out to the customer. Easy as pie.
There is a bit of news: Sadhuram’s niece, Mohini, is getting to be of marriageable age, and her mother (Sadhuram’s sister) has decided to come from their native Punjab to Delhi to find a suitable groom. Janaki suggests that it might be a good idea for Mohini to come too.
Soon after, Janaki has several accidental meetings with Anand. No, they don’t fall in love; instead, they let fly at each other and pass snide remarks. One day, however, when Anand goes to Daryaganj (and again bumps into Janaki), a misunderstanding erupts. Some passersby, all of them belligerent, think Anand is making a pass at Janaki, and start to assault him.
Anand manages to give them the slip and ducks into a nearby music and dance school. Here, for lack of any other plausible reason to account for his presence to the principal (Mirza Musharraf), he pretends he’s come seeking admission. Minutes later, Anand finds himself admitted to the school, where his teacher is none other than a scornful Janaki.
Fortunately, Anand is quickly able to mend matters with Janaki; he sings her a song, to prove that he can sing, and in the process, confesses his love for her. Soon, with many shy glances (on Janaki’s part) and somewhat more overt expressions (on Anand’s part), they are an item.
When Janaki invites Anand to come and attend her performance at Pongal celebrations, Anand regretfully refuses, since he’s promised Mr Subramaniam that he’ll attend the Pongal function being organized by the South Indian Cultural Association. So it’s with pleasant surprise that Anand discovers that the star performer at the Association’s function is none other than Janaki herself—and that she is Mr Subramaniam’s daughter. Mr Subramaniam, who has been so approving of Anand from the beginning, is happy too, especially when he realizes that this very worthy Madrasi will make a fine son-in-law.
Things now shift into top gear. Anand receives news from home: his family—parents and sister—are shifting to Delhi, since Daddy, Daulat Ram Khanna, has got a job in Delhi. They have already arranged for a house in Delhi, and Anand is peremptorily ordered to come receive them at the railway station, before helping them set up home. This takes some adroit jugglery (since it happens to coincide with a date with Janaki, to go boating at India Gate’s Boat Club), but Anand manages.
Khanna Sahib (Nazir Hussain) is a strict disciplinarian, Ma (Mumtaz Begum) is benign but no pushover, and Anand’s sister Nirmala ‘Nikki’ has a delightfully informal relationship with her brother. Anand has managed to lure Kumaraswamy away from the sarai, and the man, within minutes, becomes part of the household.
Anand is able to wheedle Nikki (with the help of a monetary incentive; you can push sisterly love only this far) into helping him get out of the house. He takes her off to visit the Red Fort, hoping for an opportunity to shake himself free of Nikki there and hurry off by himself to India Gate to meet Janaki.
Anand is lucky: who should he run into there but Ashok Banerjee, who is trying (unsuccessfully) to sketch the monuments around. Ashok, meeting Nikki and enchanted by her at first glance, asks if he may sketch her, and when she agrees, Anand grabs at the chance. Nikki is entrusted to Ashok for the next half-hour, while Anand rushes off to India Gate to meet Janaki.
Soon after, Anand is back in Red Fort, this time with Janaki. They’re walking along, chatting (she has given him all the news: for instance, that her father’s office is getting a new manager, a Punjabi who will probably be—like all Punjabis—a brash, loud sort), when they run into Nikki and Ashok. Anand, in a quandary (Nikki is obviously Punjabi), hurriedly introduces Nikki as being ‘almost like a sister’, being the daughter of dear friends. Nikki is confused and Janaki is taken aback, but since Anand rushes off with Nikki right after, there’s nothing to be done.
The next day, Janaki’s father goes to his office and meets the new manager—who is none other than Khanna Sahib, Anand’s father. Khanna Sahib is at his most domineering, and has soon got everybody in the office petrified. Mr Subramaniam ends up having to tear through his breakfast and his preparations for office every morning, almost forgetting his shoes and socks in the process (he is saved by Janaki, who reminds him). Mr Subramaniam tells Janaki to ask Anand to introduce his father to him, Mr Subramaniam.
… And Anand, when Janaki passes on the message and he realizes why, also realizes that he’s in a fix. He, after all, has been masquerading as Anand Kumaraswamy; Mr Subramaniam will not take kindly to the unveiling of this deception. And Khanna Sahib, staunch old Punjabi that he is, will be none too eager to have his only son marry a Madrasi.
There is only one thing to be done, and Anand does it: he bullies and cajoles Kumaraswamy into pretending to be Anand’s father. The result completely fools Janaki and Mr Subramaniam, so much so that tea at the Subramaniam household is all bonhomie and goodwill—until Mr Subramaniam, happening to go out into the balcony, looks down and sees, passing by, his boss. All bubbling over with good cheer (he has pretty much finalized the match for his only daughter, after all), Mr Subramaniam invites Khanna Sahib to come on up and have some coffee.
Anand, as soon as he hears who’s coming up, realizes that disaster looms. Working pretty much along the lines of a Wodehousian character, he pretends his father (Kumaraswamy, who has anyway half-collapsed from sheer fright) has had an epileptic seizure. With Janaki’s help, ‘Baba’ is helped into an adjoining room and laid down on the bed and Anand says he’ll go off and fetch a doctor.
The ‘doctor’ (Anand, in wig and beard) arrives to find that Khanna Sahib, solicitous for his colleague’s samdhi-to-be, has ensconced himself in a chair beside the sickbed (Kumaraswamy has, with great presence of mind, covered himself up to the eyebrows). Khanna Sahib has plonked a shoe down on the sufferer’s nose, believing that this is the best cure for an epileptic seizure. ‘Dr Sahib’ dismisses this, shoos Khanna Sahib out, and revives the terrified Kumaraswamy. Janaki is told, by the doctor, that Anand will be along soon—he’s gone to get some medicine.
Whew. All is, or so it seems, all right for now. But how long can this deception last? Anand knows that it is high time he at least told Janaki the truth: that he is no more a Madrasi than is chhola-bhatura. Janaki loves him enough to not let this come in the way of their love; but Khanna Sahib? Mr Subramaniam? For these two old gentlemen, both excessively proud of their respective communities and cultures and regions, it is unthinkable that their offspring should marry someone from another state…
What I liked about this film:
The overall feel of it. New Delhi addresses what was (and, sadly, still is, even sixty years later) a very real problem in India: the insularity of communities, the ‘us-and-them’ belief that dominates. We are good, we are cultured and civilized and upright; they are barbaric, uncouth, or—at the very least—just simply odd. There are plenty of films that have tackled this issue in one way or another, but most of the ones I remember from the good old days fall into the ‘very serious’ trap, with high melodrama and all.
New Delhi, while it does get very dramatic, even sinking into melodrama now and then, manages to remain on a rather more light-heartedly even keel through it all. There are moments of humour even when things are getting serious, and almost nobody is depicted as being so irredeemably nasty that nothing but death can solve matters. And, in a refreshing take on the usual, nobody is ever left completely without people who care for them—in fact, there’s a heartwarming instance when a couple of unexpected saviours come to the rescue of someone in very dire straits.
The music, by Shankar-Jaikishan, is good, even if it’s not terribly well-known. My favourite song from the film is Murli bairan bhayi Kanhaiyya tori murli bairan bhayi; Nakhrewaali comes a close second.
And, another thing I liked: the heroine. Vyjyanthimala’s Janaki is not your typical filmi heroine: she’s rather more feisty, and though she does crumple under for a brief while and teeters on the edge of despair, she has a good deal of spunk. For instance, she doesn’t baulk at telling Anand, to his face, how spineless he is for expecting her to coax her father into agreeing to their match, while not himself being able to summon up the courage to talk to his father.
Lastly: that scene with Kumaraswamy posing as Anand’s father, when they go to Janaki’s house. Great fun.
What I didn’t like:
Not much, really, though it does get pretty melodramatic in the last scenes. Even then, the scenes are only as long as they need to be: it isn’t melodrama piled on melodrama, and the relief comes quickly.
Worth a watch.