A scene near the beginning of Oonche Log is an interesting revelation of some of the themes that govern the film, and eventually have a bearing on its climax.
Major Chandrakant (Ashok Kumar) is a blind, widowed ex-officer of the Indian National Army. He now lives in Ooty. One evening, he receives at his home a friend, the school teacher Dhuni Chand (Kanhaiyyalal). There are more dissimilarities than similarities between the two men: Dhuni Chand is poor, barely managing to make ends meet on his salary and what he makes from the odd tuition, while the major is comfortably off, spending his time writing his memoirs.
Also, the major—though blind—is otherwise in fairly good health, while Dhuni Chand carries around with him a bunch of pills. Pill #so-and-so must be taken with cold water, pill #so-and-so with hot water, this for when he’s anxious, that for when he’s too excited, and so on and so forth. This time, when he comes to visit Major Sahib, Dhuni Chand is very anxious (he’s come, with much trepidation and after much nagging from his termagant of a wife, to suggest their daughter as a prospective bride for Major Sahib’s younger son).
Dhuni Chand is so anxious that he needs to take one of his pills, and asks for a glass of hot water. Major Sahib’s old servant Jumman (Kumud Tripathi) brings a glassful of water and places it on the coffee table. Dhuni Chand has his medicine with a sip of water, and the major, his hand accidentally brushing against the glass, discovers that the water is cold instead of hot.
Soon after, Dhuni Chand, trying to tell the major just how wonderful his daughter is, says that she writes poetry. He reads out some of her verses, and Major Sahib is surprised to hear a snort of derisive laughter from Jumman, who is hanging around near the kitchen door.
Later, when Dhuni Chand has gone his way, Major Sahib summons Jumman. You humiliated my friend, he says. Just because Dhuni Chand is poor does not mean that I do not respect him—but you showed no respect for him, and by doing that, you shamed me, he says. Jumman is told to bring the switch that hangs from a hook in the nearby wall, and having done so, automatically positions himself with his back to Major Sahib.
Major Sahib lashes him thrice across the back.
Just then, Major Sahib’s elder son, a police inspector named Shrikant ‘Shri’ (Raj Kumar) enters the room. Shri is appalled to see his father lashing Jumman, and—when Jumman has gone back to the kitchen—tries to reason with his father: wouldn’t it have been better to have merely scolded Jumman? He is an old man, a poor man. A servant, too, who has faithfully served the family all these years. Is a lashing really necessary?
While Jumman eavesdrops from the kitchen door and tries to signal to Shri to shut up, Major Sahib gives his rationale. Jumman should know better by now that Major Sahib will not tolerate such behaviour.
Later, as Jumman is leaving for the day, Shri sees that the Major has given the old servant Rs 50: a compensation, by no means small, for the lashing.
Major Sahib has some very strict principles, but he is also extremely fair. And Shri, like his father, has principles too—but his is a somewhat more balanced personality. He will not go so far as to lash a man for not adhering to those principles; he will also not go to the other extreme and give him money to alleviate the pain of suffering the punishment for his transgressions.
And on this is founded the story of this film. Even though the catalyst for the ‘action’, so to say, is neither Major Sahib nor Shri, but Shri’s younger brother Rajnikant ‘Rajjo’ (Feroze Khan), who studies in a college in Madras. When Rajjo comes home for the vacation, Shri tries to caution their father: Rajjo is veering off the straight and narrow—“He has changed”. There is nothing concrete Shri can point to, but this is possibly a result of the pranks and frivolity he sees Rajjo display within the first few minutes of returning home.
Major Sahib is dismissive. Of course Rajjo will change; he was a boy when he went off to college. Now he’s a man. Shri is being unnecessarily anxious. Unduly anxious.
But Shri’s fears, it appears, are not completely unfounded. Unknown to him and Major Sahib, Rajjo has sneaked off for a date with his girlfriend Bimla (KR Vijaya) in Kodaikanal. Not, in itself, anything to be suspicious about: they sing a lovely, romantic song and dance through the trees and along the lake.
However, Shri is around when, on Rajjo’s birthday, a slew of envelopes arrive, nearly all of them greeting cards addressed to Rajjo. One envelope, addressed to Shri Kant—which, of course, can be interpreted as ‘Mr Kant’—Rajjo passes to Shri, thinking it’s for him. And Shri, opening it and reading the enclosed letter, discovers the shocking truth. The letter is from Bimla (whom Shri doesn’t know), but it’s self-explanatory. She is pregnant, and unless Rajjo hurries up and marries her, her name will be mud. Please come soon, she writes.
Shri is quick to realize the implications of this. Their father will be devastated—after all, it’s not merely a question of reputation and honour or even the fact that Major Chandrakant has given his word that Rajjo will marry Dhuni Chand’s daughter; it is a matter of principle. This is not how a son of Major Chandrakant’s should behave. If Rajjo will hurry and fix up his marriage with this Bimla, perhaps all may not be lost. They can keep this sordid truth hidden.
The problem, however, has just begun. Within a short time, it escalates and takes on proportions that neither Shri nor Rajjo could have imagined. And it throws up conflicts of different types: between love and duty, between trust and honour, between vengeance and guilt.
What I liked about this film:
The offbeat theme, based on renowned Tamil film maker and writer K Balachander’s play, Major Chandrakanth.
Yes, the ‘unwed mother’ trope is a familiar one in Hindi cinema, but Oonche Log examines it from a different angle. Not the angle of the woman, not even the angle of the man who is responsible and should, by the norms and expectations of society, marry her—but the angle of those related to them. The brother of a sister who is wronged (and wronged to such an extent that there’s no going back). The brother and father of a man who has gone against all the principles that they hold dear, and which they have tried to inculcate in him (and which he mouths obediently). How do these men—the nearest living relatives of the two central characters—react to what happens?
What sets Oonche Log apart from the run-of-the-mill Hindi film is that the affair between Rajjo and Bimla, while it is the pivotal plot element, is not the focus of the film. Very little screen time (most of it taken up by two songs) is devoted to it. Romance, in fact, is not a part of the film. Shri, despite being engaged, is never shown with his fiancée (whom anyway we only see, that too from a distance, in a photograph). And Rajjo’s ‘love’ for Bimla is, despite the dreaminess of those two songs, probably not much more than lust.
(Interestingly, since the peripheral characters are all male, this makes for a fairly male-centric film. Apart from Bimla, the only other female character we actually get to see is Dhuni Chand’s wife, and that too very briefly. The men form the bulk of the cast here).
The last half-hour or so of the film is of particular note: it’s a fine bit of writing, because the twists and turns in the plot allow for some good insights into human nature. How far can a man trust another? Especially one who is a stranger—until an odd coincidence reveals that these two men are not strangers after all, but tied by a till then invisible thread that has suddenly become a rope, a noose around both their necks? What should take precedence? Principles, or love? Family, or integrity? When push comes to shove, what does a man choose?
And, yes: the music. Chitragupta composed the music for Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics for Oonche Log, and gave it two of his loveliest songs: the dreamy Jaag dil-e-deewaana, and the romantic Aaja re mere pyaar ke raahi.
What I didn’t like:
Oonche Log could have done with better writing, better direction, and better editing. The problem is that the main story, the actual crux of the film, lies only in about the second half of it. The first half only aims to build up to that climax. Which is all very well, except that the first half tends to meander and go off on tangents. Some are critical to the story or to the characterizations; others are not. For example, that scene which I quoted in the beginning of this review seems inconsequential when first viewed, but ends up being crucial to understanding the characters of both Major Sahib and Shri—but there are several other scenes of this sort, which, beyond a point, become tedious. Most of the scenes involving Jumman and/or Dhuni Chand seemed to me to be forced: superfluous, mostly there for (questionable) comic relief, and distracting.
Besides that, though, I found this a good, fairly satisfying film. I had watched it mainly for the songs, and because I remembered Shilpi Bose mentioning it as one of her father’s films, but I hadn’t held out much hope. Raj Kumar and Feroze Khan are not among my favourites, so I was banking on Ashok Kumar and Tarun Bose to see me through. Ashok Kumar delivered; Tarun Bose (despite having relatively limited screen time) did, too. And, to my surprise, Raj Kumar wasn’t as irritating as I usually find him.
All in all, a film worth a watch. At any rate, offbeat.
Little bit of trivia:
While Major Chandrakanth was originally written in Tamil by K Balachander, he only adapted to the screen and made a Tamil-language film from it the year after Oonche Log (which was directed by Phani Majumdar) was released. Major Chandrakanth (the name of the play was retained for the film) was released in 1966 and made its star, Sundarrajan, so popular that he became known as ‘Major’ Sundarrajan in the wake of his role in this film.