Nartakee (1963)

I remember watching Padosan as a child, and I remember my sister saying, “How could someone so handsome consent to be made up as someone like Bhola? And to act so silly?” I already liked Sunil Dutt a good deal, but that comment made me sit up and respect him a lot more than I already did. In a period when there was a very definite idea of what a ‘hero’ should be like (and the 60s was a decade where heroes tended to be more cookie-cutter than in the 50s), Sunil Dutt did roles that ranged from a man having an affair with another man’s wife (Gumraah), a dacoit (Mujhe Jeene Do), a buffoon (Padosan), a cuckold (Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke)… and in a slew of everything from suspense films (Mera Saaya, Humraaz) to family melodramas (Milan, Meherbaan, Khaandaan, etc).

Versatile, unafraid of experimenting—and a man, too, who seems to have worked in several films that focused on social reform. In Nartakee, for instance, where his character is that of a college lecturer, Nirmal, who comes in contact with a reluctant nautch girl who would much rather learn how to read and write than dance and sing for patrons.

Sunil Dutt and Nanda in Nartakee

Nartakee begins in a college where Seth Jamnadas (Om Prakash) is in a meeting of the managing committee. The college principal (Moni Chatterjee) and one of the professors, Mr Verma (Nana Palsikar) are in the forefront of trying to convince Sethji—who provides the money for this venture—that they do need more staff, even if that means more of an expense. Jamnadas is convinced only after much pandering to his ego.

The new lecturer who arrives, Nirmal, faces some initial ragging from the students, but his matter of fact way of dealing with the caricature drawn on the blackboard, and his admittance that he, too, got up to pranks like this when he was in college makes him quickly accepted. One of the students is Azad (Agha, whose obviously well-beyond-undergrad-age is accounted for by having him be a repeat student: he has failed in this class for the past nine years), and Azad is especially well-disposed towards Nirmal.

Nirmal meets his class - including Azad

Not so with Ratna Jamnadas (Zeb Rehman), who flounces in late, doesn’t even ask for permission to enter, and is generally rude and sulky. Nirmal realizes who she is, and soon (but politely) puts her in her place. Ratna flees the classroom in a fit of humiliated rage.

Ratna tries to be cheeky but is put in her place

… but when Nirmal, summoned by her father, comes to their house the next day, he makes it quite clear to Seth Jamnadas that his position doesn’t cut any ice with Nirmal as far as Ratna—a mere student, no more, to him—is concerned. Seth Jamnadas is sufficiently cowed to not argue further.

At Sethji's house

In the meantime, we are introduced to the nartakee, the eponymous dancer. This is Lakshmi (Nanda), the star singer and dancer of a kotha run by a bossy madam whom everybody (including Lakshmi herself) refers to as Mausi. Mausi goes off every morning to worship at the river, to do darshan at the temple, and generally put on a great show of piety, but she fools nobody; everyone knows just who she is.

Mausi is not just an exploitative madam, she’s also vicious and nasty when it comes to Lakshmi’s love for books and learning. Lakshmi can barely spell her way through a children’s primer, and dearly wants to study, but Mausi, far from letting her go to school, has even forbidden her to read the primers she’s managed to lay her hands on. One evening, as soon as her performance is over, Lakshmi races off to her room to bury her nose in her primer, and Mausi, following, snatches it from her hand and throws it off the balcony.

Mausi sees Lakshmi reading

Nirmal, who’s come to the neighbourhood, attracted by Lakshmi’s song, sees the book fall, and retrieving it, takes it up to the kotha. Here, he gets shooed off by Mausi when she discovers what his motive—academic rather than lecherous—is. Also, since a desperate Lakshmi comes rushing to take the book, he gets a glimpse of her.

This glimpse helps Nirmal recognize Lakshmi the next day, when she turns up at his college [why Lakshmi decides to try her luck at a college instead of a school is beyond me; even if Mausi has already dragged her away from one school where she’s tried to get admission, it doesn’t mean that Lakshmi is now eligible for college]. Lakshmi’s deer-in-headlights stint at the college is embarrassing; the principal keeps seeing her as she rushes about the corridors, and keeps telling her to get to class; and when she ducks into a classroom, she’s soon found out as being not just an interloper but a near-illiterate one too. Humiliated and mortified, Lakshmi goes running out, tries to avoid the principal [doesn’t this man have an office to go to, or does he keep roaming the corridors of the college all day long?]—and falls down the stairs.

Lakshmi and the principal

Fortunately for Lakshmi, Nirmal is passing by, and (along with others) comes to her aid. He recognizes her, and admits it, but doesn’t say who she is. He helps get her to a doctor, and patched up. Lakshmi is very grateful, and when she discovers that  Nirmal also has a night school (he’s set up one, along with his student-and-now-friend Azad), she decides to join.

Soon, Lakshmi can do more than just spell her way through books. She’s learning, and as her learning progresses, the relationship between her and Nirmal too changes subtly. It is soon obvious that Lakshmi is devoted to him, and that Nirmal too feels a certain sense of belonging.

Lakshmi becomes a pupil of Nirmal's

That doesn’t make Nirmal oblivious, however, to the fact that the neighbours are beginning to whisper (after all, Lakshmi’s is a well-known face; if she’s going into Nirmal’s house every night, what can it possibly be for?)… and that Seth Jamnadas’s daughter Ratna, after that first disastrous encounter with Nirmal in their classroom, has by now fallen in love with the handsome young lecturer.

Ratna falls in love with Nirmal

Where will the nartakee and the lecturer end up? Together, or not? How will their differences (which not they, but society, impose) be removed, if at all possible?

What I liked about this film:

The simplicity of it. While the credits rolled, I spotted Bimal Roy’s name as the editor, which reassured me—and, sure enough, even though Nartakee wasn’t directed by him, who, as a blog reader informs me, isn’t the Bimal Roy of Madhumati and Prem Patra fame. Its director was another Bengali, Nitin Bose, and the story had elements of the sort of film for which Bengali directors like Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee were to win acclaim: a simple, down-to-earth story with nuanced characters, and almost nobody who can be classified as an outright villain. Even the people who are set up, within the first half of the film to appear inimical to the growing love between Nirmal and Lakshmi, end up not being all bad.

(Spoiler ahead):

Ratna, for instance, the spoiled wealthy girl who can have a hold over Nirmal (her father, after all, has enough clout to—if he wishes—get Nirmal fired). In your more run-of-the-mill masala film, Ratna would end up being the nasty other woman who does all she can to break up the Nirmal-Lakshmi jodi. In Nartakee, however, Ratna has the grace to realize that the man she loves loves another woman, and she steps away without coming in their way. Instead, she actually wishes them well and gifts Lakshmi a valuable heirloom).

Secondly, even when people are shown to do reprehensible things, the motive behind that is eventually revealed—and it invariably proves to be a plausible reason. Professor Verma, for instance, is in dire straits because his wife is dying of cancer and he has five children (including two adult daughters to be married off). Mausi, like Lakshmi, had, in her youth eloped with a wealthy young man—who, finally unable to tolerate ostracization any more, had committed suicide; because of that experience, she has become embittered and has lost all faith in love and marriage.

(Spoiler ends).

The way the romance between Lakshmi and Nirmal progresses is also refreshingly believable. It’s not as if he falls in love despite himself or because of any misunderstanding about her identity. Nirmal knows full well who Lakshmi is, and his interest in her is initially mere compassion for someone who wants so much to learn but is not allowed to. On her part, Lakshmi initially sees Nirmal only as a teacher, a guru; it is when she begins to get to know him better, sees that he does not treat her with either the disdain or the lechery that she encounters in others, that she begins to fall in love with him.

This love doesn’t come like a bolt out of the blue, and (considering the way everybody seems to be ranged against them), it isn’t a ‘let’s proclaim it to the world’ sort of romance: it’s quiet, comforting, a deep affection rather than a mad passion. And, it’s shown in one of the most touching scenes of the film, when a richly clad Lakshmi, in zari sari and heavy jewellery, brings dinner for Nirmal to eat. As she’s leaving, he tells her, gently, that she looks lovelier in simple clothes. Lakshmi’s eyes fill when she turns back to him and says, everybody tells me to dress flashily (“bhadkeele kapde” is the phrase she uses); he’s the only one so far to tell her to dress simply. It affects her deeply. He is the only one who sees, not the outer shell, but the inner woman, the soul and not the body.

A touching scene from Nartakee

Ravi’s music is good, with one standout song, the lovely Zindagi ke safar mein akele thhe hum. There are a couple of other good songs as well, including Tumne aankhon se pee ho toh main kya karoon.

What I didn’t like:

Nanda being cast as a dancer. While Nanda’s innocent sweetness conveys the character of Lakshmi perfectly (and while Nanda’s dancing is all right for less dance-centric roles, as in Usne Kaha Tha or Bhabhi), a dancing girl is supposed to be trained in dance. Nanda, unfortunately, cannot dance; even I, dance ignoramus that I am, can see that, and it pained me to watch her dance.

Nanda in and as Nartakee

But, despite that, a good film. Just be ready with the fast forward button when Nanda’s mujras come on.

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32 thoughts on “Nartakee (1963)

  1. ” whose obviously well-beyond-undergrad-age is accounted for by having him be a repeat student: he has failed in this class for the past nine years” – We have a winner right here! Your opening paragraph made it sound like my kind of film, but such a VERY rare concession to an actor’s real age sealed it for me.

    • Yes. Such a refreshing change from seeing Rajendra Kumar in Dhool ka Phool, for instance, or Pradeep Kumar in Adalat. That needs a certain suspension of disbelief. In contrast, Shashi Kapoor as an almost-doctor medical student in Prem Patra was well cast, considering he was in his very early twenties when that film was made.

      Thank you for commenting, Stuart! :-)

  2. I remember watching this in the DD days, on a Thursday afternoon. At that time I was convinced that Sunil Dutt was either a daaku or a teacher (I know better now) and I infinitely preferred him playing the teacher. So this was bound to work for me, and on a recent re-watch, I still liked it. Nanda’s “dance” was jarring even to my uncritical teenage self, especially since they make so much of Lakshmi’s dancing skills. But I can suspend disbelief in a good cause (Sunil Dutt, Nanda and cute romance?), so the movie is still on my “like” list. :)

    • I’ve been hearing about this film for a while now, from others who frequent this blog, and the Sunil Dutt, Nanda, and cute romance angle was what drew me, too. And it’s so well done, too, I discovered. Not just a romance, but more. Yes, this is on my ‘like’ list, too. :-)

      I am amused by the idea that Sunil Dutt was either a daaku or a teacher. Yes, he’s far better playing the teacher.

  3. I noticed this film few years back when I made my list of Nanda in eight voices, I thought that Sunil Dutt and Nanda do make a good pair, but Nanda’s dance moves put me off and so did the music. But this film seems to have a good pedigree. So if I chance by it, my might give it a second chance.
    Thank you for the good review, otherwise I might never even have considered it.

    • I’d forgotten your list of Nanda in eight voices. :-( I should really go back to your blog and look through it again one of these days.

      Do give this a second chance, Harvey. Fast-forward through the dances (or close your eyes, because the songs themselves aren’t bad).

  4. This is a film I haven’t seen, & hadn’t heard much of. Your gentle, affectionate review has convinced me to seek it out. First stop – YouTube.

    Your point about Nanda’s (lack of) dancing skills is well-taken. This was an “attribute” she had in common with, among others, Nutan, Meena Kumari, & Madhubala. The most egregious example of a leading lady who couldn’t dance to save her life in the role of a nautch girl or <i.kothewali that I can recall is Meena Kumari in Paakeeza. Perhaps Nanda was selected for this role because she always (well, at least in her pre-Ittefaq days) looked so innocent. Logically, Vaijayantimala should have been a shoo-in for the role of a nartakee (cf. Sadhana, Devdas) but somehow she always seemed more worldly-wise than ingenuous.

    • Youtube has several channels on which this film’s uploaded. I watched it there, too.

      I would not compare Meena Kumari and Nanda when it comes to dancing. Nanda made me flinch, she was so lacking in grace. Meena Kumari, while (obviously) not in the same league as many of her contemporaries, didn’t jar so horribly. For instance, I don’t think she’s terrible in Ini logon ne le leena dupatta mera or in songs from some earlier films, like Azaad. Nargis in Ghar aaya mera pardesi is, in comparison, pretty much on par with Nanda in Nartakee.

      I do agree with you about Nanda’s innocence probably being the reason she was chosen for this role. There’s a dewy innocence and a sort of baby-faced charm about her that I don’t think could be matched by any of the other major actresses of the time. I was, like you, thinking of the ‘dancing actresses’ who might have fitted the role, and rejected all, because none of them – Vyjyanthimala, Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh, the Travancore sisters – exuded that almost childlike innocence. Only Nanda had it.

      • Nanda and Meena Kumari, both of them weren’t dancers but the difference between them is that Meena could dance but Nanda couldn’t. For instance Meena’s performance in ‘Thade rahio’ is appericiable not only her dance is fine but also her grace and expressions are too good. In songs like ‘Inhi logon ne’, ‘Baharon ki mehfil suhani rahegi’, ‘Mera dil ab tera o sajana’ etc. her dancing skills can be seen.
        Nanda couldn’t dance but she could act. I mean to say that for an actor/actress acting is more important than dance and looks. There were many actresses like Nargis, Nutan, Suchitra, Madhubala and so on who couldn’t dance but were good actresses.

        • Yes, Meena Kumari’s very graceful in Thare rahiyo. Also in Chalte-chalte, where whatever little dancing she does is gentle and elegant.

          I agree with you about acting being the primary requisite for an actress (and I agree with the names you suggest). My only contention with Nanda’s being cast as the dancer here is that it’s a bad bit of casting, because though she’s a fine actress, and she portrays the innocence of the character brilliantly, she’s not convincing as a woman whose dancing is so acclaimed, because she can’t dance well. What was needed here was an actress who could both dance well and project innocence. Whoever did the casting seems to have sacrificed one for the other – or perhaps they just didn’t have a choice, because the combination of the two seems a rare one.

        • When Pakeezah was released Meena Kumari was approaching middle age. It would be more apt to compare her and Nanda at similar point in their life and career. Here’s a clip from Black and White version of “Inhi Logon ne” filmed in 1956, when Meena was only 24, same age as Nanda in Nartakee.

          Meena looks pretty and energetic and her expressions complement the fast tempo of the song.

          Nanda should have taken cue from Nargis in Adalat, who only sings but does not dance. But then, the film is titled ‘Nartakee’ and I am at a loss of words.

          Finally, was Baburao Patel still active in the 60’s. He was brutal when it came to Nargis’s dancing in ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’. I just wonder what he had to say about Nanda.

          • Baburao Patel was definitely active in the 60s. I can well imagine what might have been his reaction to Nanda’s dancing here – I shudder to think of it. That man was really poison pen exemplified, wasn’t he?

            I agree with you about comparing Meena Kumari and Nanda at a similar age. In that original Inhi logon ne (and even, to a lesser get extent, in the later, coloured version of the song), Meena Kumari has a certain grace about her. I think it’s not a question of energy – Nanda seems to have plenty of it, and even trained dancers like Vyjyanthimala and the Travancore Sisters did some extremely energetic dances – the difference, at least to my admittedly amateurish eyes, seems to lie in the inherent aptitude for dance. Nanda looks as if she’s just jumping around with great vigour; the grace is missing.

  5. This is the fourth time today that I am trying to post a comment here! I don’t know if the problem is with my computer or with this site, but this will be my last attempt.
    I remember hearing about this movie when I was in school. One of my friends had an uncle who was a distributor for this movie, and she used to relay tidbits about this movie to us. He took her to Bombay for the premiere showing of this movie, and she told us about the people she met and saw there. However, this movie sank without a trace after that, and she also never spoke about it afterwards. I wonder if her uncle lost a bundle on this movie and what happened to his investment.
    You are right about Nanda’s lack of dancing skills. Her dances were best watched by hitting the Fast Forward! But she looked sweet and innocent in this movie, and Sunil Dutt looked great. I loved the songs too. I just finished watching the movie, and it is a pretty good movie, except for the dances! Thanks for an excellent review!

    • Ach! As soon as I saw the opening sentence of your comment, I scurried off to look in the spam folder (though there’s nothing in your comment that I can see as being mistakenly flagged as spam)… but nothing there. I think it got swallowed up somewhere en route. :-(

      That’s an interesting anecdote, Lalitha. I can understand, I think, why this movie sank. It’s perhaps a little offbeat – even with the usual elements (the dancing girl, the teacher, the forbidden romance), it treats them too differently to be acceptable to the average viewer. Plus, the songs – other than Zindagi ke safar mein akele thhe hum – aren’t very memorable, even though they’re good. And much as I like Nanda, her dancing is really terribly.

      Thank you for your comment, Laliltha! I’m so glad you enjoyed this review. :-)

  6. Bimal Roy the editor of this film Nartakee is NOT Bimal Roy the director of Madhumati,Devdas etc. He just shared the name with the legendary director,he was an editor only, NOT Producer/Director.

  7. Interesting review and a clean film !
    Interestingly, Zeb Rehman who has played the role of Ratna Jamnadas in this film started her career as Priti Bala and worked under that name in several of her initial films. In this film too, she is credited with that name in the titles. ( The name was probably because of her slight resemblance to Madhubala ! ). She later changed her name to Zeb Rehman which was her real name. The luck eluded her even with the changed name and she appeared in a few c-grade films as heroine and some films in small roles.

    • That’s very interesting! I hadn’t known that bit of trivia. Somehow, the one role with which I always associate Zeb Rehman is as the foreign princess in Aankhen. Not a large role, but still one which stands out for me in some way.

      • I watched this movie today, just because of your review, Madhu. :) And yes, I liked it very much indeed. Somehow, Sunil Dutt always fit right into these kind of roles – the morally upright young man; he didn’t come off as smug when he did them, he just looked earnest and oh, so good looking too.

        I have often commented on Harvey’s blog about my dislike for Nanda (poor Harvey!) but I changed my mind when I revisited Hum Dono for the Dev Anand month over at my blog. I’m beginning to find her very, very endearing. She was perfect for the emotional/dramatic parts of this film (but, by God, she couldn’t dance!) and she brought out both the vulnerablility and innocence of her character. Thank you for bringing this film to my attention.

        p.s. In the print that I saw, Zeb Rehman is credited as Priti Bala.

        • Yes, someone else also pointed out that Zeb Rehman was billed here as Priti Bala – supposedly an attempt to create some sort of connect with Madhubala, whom she bore a very slight resemblance to. It obviously didn’t seem to do much for her career, because she went back to her actual name, which was Zeb Rehman.

          I’m glad you liked Nartakee, Anu. Sunil Dutt, I agree, does come across as being earnest, not the smug sort (Dharmendra, much as I love him, does come across as sanctimonious and irritating in some of the roles – not Chupke-Chupke – where he’s played teachers).

          Nanda, I think, is much more likeable in the middle years of her career. Not when she’s really young and girlish, not when (as in Jab-Jab Phool Khile) she’s being forced into a style (both sartorially and otherwise) that isn’t really her, but in films like this or Hum Dono. There’s a wholesome sweetness and innocence about her that’s really endearing, I think.

  8. I haven’t even heard of this film! :( Thank you for this review, Madhu. You make me want to watch it.

    I came to your comment about Nanda and dancing, and it was funny – because, when I first read she was cast as a dancer, my first reaction was, ‘Nanda? Dancer?’ :)

    • And here I was, certain that you were one of the people who’d mentioned this film to me. It might have been Shalini – both of you tend to be similar in that you both know of some very obscure but good films that I’ve never heard of.

  9. My initial reaction just by looking at the screen shots, don’t tell me that Nanda is Nartiki ! Who was on the casting team ? I do like Nanda but not in all roles. I had an aunt who we used to call Nanda, the resemblance was uncanny. Well the review is so good, will watch the movie.
    P.S. I do like Sunil Dutt as a daku:).

    • I agree with you about liking Nanda but not in all roles. I especially don’t much care for her in some of her later roles – Jab-Jab Phool Khile, for instance. But some of her films, and her roles in them, are good. This one I’d count in them, despite the fact that she makes for such an unconvincing nartakee! Give it a try if you get the time, Neeru. :-)

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