Early in 2013, to mark hundred years of Indian cinema, I dedicated an entire month to regional Indian cinema. I reviewed several films of different languages, and realized, in the process, just how difficult it is to get hold of old regional films that have subtitles. Even when they’re blockbuster hits, National Award-winning films, films that must have been subtitled at some stage to enable a jury to judge them worthy of a prestigious award.
Among the films that I came across, but which wasn’t subbed, was this extremely popular Punjabi film, which won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Punjabi, as well as the National Film Award for Best Music Direction. My husband’s a Punjabi but speaks the language very rarely, and that too when he has no other option (as a result, his Punjabi is pretty shaky). As for me, the less said about my Punjabi, the better. But I had this film bookmarked from 2013, and when I discovered last year that Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai had been digitally restored and re-released, I thought I may as well take the plunge.
Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai begins in 1947, with two dear friends—Gurmukh Singh (Prithviraj Kapoor) and Prem Singh (Suresh)—setting up a forest contract business. They go to the gurudwara to seek blessings for this venture, and we are then treated to a brief vignette to show just how dear these two men are to each other. Gurmukh Singh waits for Prem Singh for lunch, and when Prem Singh arrives, chiding his pal for waiting, it is to be admonished right back: how dare he think Gurmukh would eat on his own? They are more like brothers than friends.
As time passes, the business succeeds, bringing in much wealth for both Gurmukh and Prem Singh. If there was one sorrow (says a voiceover), it was that Gurmukh Singh and his wife (Veena) remained childless. But, twelve years after their marriage, they have a son, who is named Gurmeet Singh, and all is joy.
But now that Gurmukh Singh and his wife are parents, they decide it’s about time Prem Singh got married too. Gurmukh Singh’s wife insists she’s found the perfect bride for Prem: a girl named Ratan Kaur (Nishi Kohli). Pretty, effervescent, she will be a good wife. Prem Singh, shy and reluctant, does not even want to go and see Ratan, let alone marry her, but Gurmukh and his wife insist, and at the celebrations following the wedding, the shy smiles and glances between Prem and Ratan make it obvious that Ratan has managed to win over her bridegroom very quickly.
Ratan soon settles down, and becomes very fond of Gurmukh’s baby, on whom she showers much affection. Gurmukh’s wife is pleased, until one day, when she goes to invite Ratan to come to the gurudwara with her. Ratan, busy painting her nails, replies that she’s planned to go to the cinema with her friends; wouldn’t Bhabhi like to come along with them, too? Gurmukh Singh’s wife refuses. She’s disappointed, but does not push the matter.
Years pass. Ratan’s brother Shukarguzaar ‘Shuka’ Singh (IS Johar), a wastrel who spends all his time admiring himself in his handheld mirrors, has been telling his sister that she’s got a bad deal here. She has no children of her own and has been expending all her love on Gurmeet, but what does she get out of this? This is all a ploy on the part of Gurmukh Singh and his wife to make sure that when Prem and Ratan pass on, Gurmeet will inherit all their wealth too.
Ratan laughs it off, but by the time Gurmeet Singh (now Som Dutt—Sunil Dutt’s younger brother) has grown up, Ratan too is singing the same tune as Shuka. Spurred on by Shuka, she even starts accusing Gurmukh Singh of having embezzled money from the business. Prem Singh refuses to believe this and refuses, too, to have anything to do with Ratan’s mad accusations about the man he regards as his brother.
So Ratan goes off on her own and files a case. Gurmukh Singh, when he gets the summons, comes to Ratan, pleading with her to withdraw the case: doesn’t she know, too, that he is innocent? This will dishonour all of us, he tells her, and begs Ratan to retract. Ratan refuses, and flounces off, saying that the court will decide.
Gurmukh Singh, in a poignant little scene, goes to the gurudwara and prays. Prays that this case may be won by Ratan, because that is the only way peace will be restored. He knows Ratan all too well by now: she is too bitter, too greedy and too selfish to be quietened by anything less than victory. Even if it be at his own cost, Gurmukh Singh is willing to bear the humiliation—if only it will pacify Ratan. He realizes too, that it was at his insistence, and his wife’s, that Prem married Ratan. They are, in a way, to blame.
But God has other things planned. The court decides in favour of Gurmukh Singh, and Ratan is penalized Rs 80,000.
Ratan gets so wild at her brother Sukha that he, in an attempt to quieten her, promises he’ll settle Gurmukh Singh’s hash once and for all, and get the money out of him. He goes off towards the gurudwara (where Gurmukh Singh is singing, in front of a large congregation) and climbs a tree to get a closer look. Unfortunately for Sukha, a snake that’s curled up on a branch lunges at him. Sukha falls off and breaks an arm…
… and accounts for it by telling Ratan that twelve of Gurmukh Singh’s henchmen thrashed him. Ratan is so furious that she forces Prem Singh to take Sukha along to the police station and have an FIR filed; the inspector, after all, is Prem’s old pal, isn’t he? Prem isn’t especially keen, but has no option.
As luck would have it, the inspector (Jagdish Raj, who else? He seems to have specialized in cop roles, even outside Hindi cinema) happened to have been in the gurudwara, listening to Gurmukh Singh’s singing at the time. He knows Sukha is telling lies, so Sukha is shooed away with a warning.
To Ratan’s surprise, she receives a visitor soon after: Gurmukh Singh comes, bringing a box full of money. Rs 80,000, so that she can pay the penalty imposed by the court. He warns her not to tell Prem Singh, because Prem will insist on returning the money to Gurmukh. Ratan is more than happy to not just accept the money, but to keep it a secret from her husband as well.
Ratan’s fury has affected her love for Gurmeet too; she and Sukha now travel to Amritsar to break up the match that Gurmukh has arranged between Gurmeet and a girl named Charanjeet ‘Channi’ Kaur. Channi’s mother refuses to break off the match; why should she? Ratan and Sukha are put out, but there’s little they can do about it.
We are now introduced to Channi (Vimmi) herself, as she travels home by train to Amritsar. Channi is on her own when she enters a compartment, and discovers that it’s already occupied—by none other than the man to whom she’s already been promised. Channi and Gurmeet recognize each other by the photos they both carry with them, and soon fall in love while eating apples and chatting in the train.
When they run into each other at the Golden Temple, Channi invites Gurmeet home, and he—after some hesitation—consents.
Gurmeet arrives at their home the next day, and an excited Channi rushes to the kitchen and fetches him a glass of milk. Just as she’s holding out the glass to him, who should come into the room but Ratan herself? (Despite the disagreement with Channi’s mother regarding the engagement, Ratan seems to have no qualms about staying on here). Ratan is furious when she sees Gurmeet and Channi, so obviously in love.
Ratan starts yelling abuses at Channi and Gurmeet. In her fury, she also lashes out, flinging the glass of milk aside. It goes flying, straight into the framed, glass-fronted picture beside Gurmeet. The glass of the picture shatters, right in Gurmeet’s face, the splinters flying into his eyes. Gurmeet, to his horror, suddenly finds himself gone blind. Ratan is shocked at what has happened, but it’s too late now.
Or is it? Gurmukh Singh, his wife and Prem hurry to Amritsar and cluster around when the doctor (Tiwari) carefully undoes the bandages a few days later. He’s warned the family that there is no knowing whether or not Gurmeet will have regained his vision, but everybody’s been praying hard… And no, Gurmeet cannot see. He is still blind as ever, blind and helpless.
I must admit that at this stage, I pretty much gave up on this film. I’ve seen countless Hindi films of this sort (Aarzoo, Hum Dono, and Bheegi Raat come immediately to mind), where one half of a pair, suddenly crippled or rendered less-than-perfect, decides that they will be a burden on their beloved, and therefore either disappears or cooks up a farce to hoodwink the sweetheart into thinking the worst, or outright calls a halt to the proceedings.
The last-named is what happens in this case. Gurmeet tries to call off the engagement, and when Channi refuses to break it off, he decides that he will set out on a pilgrimage, going from one gurudwara to another. Prem Singh, who has been blaming himself for this tragedy (his contention being that if he had not married Ratan, she wouldn’t have come into their lives and destroyed their happiness), offers to come along as companion.
But, unlike the usual Hindi film, Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai takes a somewhat different turn, and one which I found touching enough to shed a few tears over. It is melodramatic, make no mistake; but it is also, in its own way, poignant.
What I liked about this film:
Its message of forgiveness and of repentance. I had expected a good deal of religion here (the very name of the film is an indicator of that), and it was there, in big doses, all the way from its songs to the brief tour of the Golden Temple which occurs at one point (where a guide explains to Channi the significance of various treasures at the temple), down to the very graphic paintings depicting the martyrdom of the Sikhs. I tend to get impatient with extended displays of religious fervour, and Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai did come close to making me impatient.
Fortunately, this was balanced by a subtler, more endearing message, that of repentance and of forgiveness. Ratan, unlike the ‘evil till she gets her comeuppance’ sister-in-law/daughter-in-law of films like Bhabhi, Chhoti Bahen, and other similar (mostly AVM Productions films), is not incorrigibly and unrealistically evil. When she realizes the enormity of her actions, she is so ashamed and repentant that she does all she can to make up for it. It doesn’t take long-drawn-out admonitions and appeals to her better self for Ratan’s eyes to be opened.
As for Gurmukh Singh, his wife and Gurmeet, too, their piety shows in the way they forgive Ratan without heaping martyrish scorn on her. They realize that what happened was an accident, and forgive Ratan because even if her anger made her lash out, the consequences of that anger, they know, are not what Ratan would have wanted.
The cast, especially Prithviraj Kapoor as Gurmukh Singh. The others, barring Som Dutt (who never came anywhere close to his brother when it came to histrionics), are also mostly good. One person who surprised me in this film was Vimmi, whom I’ve seen in only one other film, Humraaz, where she was unbearably wooden. Here, she was pretty good, and her character, Channi, was a feisty, spunky girl who had no qualms in telling her prospective father-in-law or future husband just what she thought of their self-sacrificing attitudes. Channi, in fact, was one of my favourite characters in the film, just because she’s such a well-rounded character: loyal, steadfast, strong-willed, yet sensitive, kind, and forgiving.
Lastly, the music, by S Mohinder. Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai has some good songs, of which my favourite is Mittar pyaare nu. Beautifully sung my Mohammad Rafi, it’s a poignant, lovely song.
What I didn’t like:
The melodrama near the end. There is melodrama throughout (this is a drama-heavy film, and sometimes the drama goes into excessively high gear), but near the end, it gets just a wee bit too much.
Still, all in all, not at all a bad introduction to Punjabi cinema.
And yes, a little bit of trivia: The backdrop to the opening credits, which continues for a while after the credits have ended, is a scene of some important gathering on religion. Among the people I recognized here were a very young Dalai Lama (also shown speaking) and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (if I’m not mistaken).