This blog focuses almost exclusively on films from before the 1970s. Very occasionally, though, I make exceptions. For films that are pretty much on the cusp, and which evoke more a sense of 60s cinema than 70s, which were made mostly during the 60s (or even earlier, as in the case of Pakeezah) but were released only later, but basically for films that, when I watch them, seem as if they were made in the 60s. Because of the people who star in them, because of the costumes, the songs, the feel of them.
When Vinod Khanna passed away last week, I wanted very much to review one of his films as a way of paying tribute. There are a couple of 60s’ films of Vinod Khanna’s that I’ve seen—the forgettable Man ka Meet, for instance—but I settled on a rewatch of Mera Gaon Mera Desh, not just because it features Vinod Khanna in one of his most memorable outings as a villain, but also because it is an interesting example of a film that may have only been moderately successful, but is the very obvious inspiration for one of the biggest hits ever in the history of Hindi cinema: Sholay.
Mera Gaon Mera Desh wastes no time in getting down to the plot. Even as the credits roll, we see Ajit (Dharmendra), a pickpocket, being chased by irate townspeople. He is deliberately tripped up and sent sprawling by the one-armed ex-Havildar Major Jaswant Singh (Jayant), who then hands Ajit over to the cops. Ajit is suitably miffed at Jaswant Singh. But Jaswant Singh, attending Ajit’s trial, looks on with a benevolent sadness as Ajit explains, in a bitter voice, that society has never given him a chance to be a good man. He is an orphan; he has never known parents, and so society has labelled him a bastard and a ne’er-do-well.
Ajit is sentenced to six months in jail. On the day he is finally released, the jailor gives him a letter that’s arrived from a village in Rajasthan. The sender of the letter has written that if Ajit still wants to better himself, he should come to this village, where he will be given a chance to do so. The sender of the letter will adopt Ajit and give him a new life.
Will he go or not? Ajit asks the jailor for a coin and tosses it (this, he tells the jailor, is his way of taking decisions). The coin indicates that he should go, so Ajit (having been gifted the coin by the jailor) leaves.
Ajit so far has no idea who the sender of the letter—a Jaswant Singh—is. He is, therefore, both taken aback as well as annoyed to discover that his benefactor is the same man who had so summarily nabbed him and handed him over to the police. Ajit is all for going straight back to the town, but Jaswant Singh’s offer—of adopting Ajit, of giving all his lands and his house and his name to the young man—finally tips the scales. Ajit tosses the coin, and decides he will stay, after all.
In his first few minutes at the village, Ajit sees other sights and meets other people that will, sooner rather than later, influence his stay in the village.
Firstly, just as he’s entering the village, a bunch of horsemen ride past, and when he asks two passing villagers who those were, he is told that they were dacoits. Rajasthan, remarks one of the villagers, is known for two things: sand, and dacoits. These daakus, led by a certain Jabbar Singh, have been terrorizing this area for seven years now. The police, too, are unable to do much, because Jabbar Singh and his men slip away so quickly, don so many disguises, and have (as Ajit realizes later) got the villagers so scared of helping the police.
The second person he meets is equally unexpected, and perhaps even more unnerving. This is Laali Mausi (Purnima), who comes hurtling out of the village and hugs Ajit, calling him her son. Other villagers gather around trying to tell her that this is not her son, he’s a stranger, but Mausi will not be dissuaded. When she’s finally been coaxed away, Ajit discovers the truth: Mausi’s son was kidnapped and taken away by dacoits eighteen years ago.
Ajit, in between cursing Jaswant Singh (to whom he, on the surface, is deferential, but otherwise does not respect or show any gratitude) makes friends with the villagers. There are two drinking buddies (played by Asit Sen and Bhagwan), with whom Ajit—ever a one for a drink—soon bonds over a couple of bottles of country liquor.
There is the pretty Anju (Asha Parekh), whom Ajit has a run-in with on his very first day, when she finds him ogling women bathing in the river. [Most un-hero like behaviour, I call this, but Anju seems to forgive Ajit fairly quickly]. There is a little boy who goes around wearing only a shirt and a cap, and whom Ajit employs every now and then to pass on loving messages to Anju [why this poor kid was made to traipse around with the family jewels on display through most of his role I cannot fathom. I feel sorry for the actor, whoever he was].
Several events occur simultaneously. Ajit, drunk and maudlin, tells Jaswant Singh just what he thinks of him, and follows it up by leaving the house. On the way out of the village—he’s had enough of this—Ajit stumbles and falls beside a dozing Mausi, whose love and affection make Ajit finally see the light and realize that this is not merely his chance to have a father and some property of his own, but the chance to belong.
Ajit returns to his work the next morning, chastened and now ready to accept Jaswant Singh and the discipline the old man imposes.
Also, Ajit’s growing romance with Anju hasn’t gone unnoticed; both Jaswant Singh and Anju’s father have seen it, and approve. They will be getting married soon, Ajit is told. He couldn’t be happier.
And then, thundering out of the hills, comes Jabbar Singh (Vinod Khanna, winning hands down the award for best-looking dacoit). He and his men sweep into the village and within moments, Jabbar Singh has shot dead a man and his little son, who happens to be the boy who used to act as messenger for Ajit. For no reason other than that the child is of a family that has been Jabbar Singh’s enemy for a long time.
One of Jabbar Singh’s men had been recognized by Anju’s father, the patel, and he (the patel) has agreed to help the police by standing witness in court. Jabbar Singh’s next stop, therefore, is at the patel’s house, where he warns the patel: do not help the police. The patel refuses to stand down, so Jabbar Singh shoots him dead, too.
Jaswant Singh comes lumbering up, too late, when he sees all this happening. When he chastises the villagers for standing by and seeing the patel killed, all he gets is ridicule—and this makes Ajit realize his responsibility. If he wants to make this village his home, if he wants to be one of them, he must do his duty. He must face up to Jabbar Singh and show the villagers that injustice can be defeated. So, with the blessings (and, more importantly, the training in handling a rifle) of Jaswant Singh, Ajit sets out to get Jabbar Singh.
But Jabbar Singh won’t lie low. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that Ajit is up to something. Who is this man, asks Jabbar Singh, this stranger who has come from the town and has the temerity to confront Jabbar Singh? There’s one way to find out, and that is through the nautanki waali, Munni Bai (Laxmi Chhaya, in what is probably her most iconic role).
There is, however, many a slip between the cup and the lip. Because Munni Bai, while scared of Jabbar Singh and therefore easily bullied into spying for him, finds herself not immune to Ajit’s charms. And Jabbar Singh may just find that his gang has a traitor on its fringes.
There have been dacoit films before. And the mother of all Hindi dacoit films was just four years away. Mera Gaon Mera Desh was somewhere between what went before and what was to come. It lacked a very strong social message of the kind that Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai espoused—and it did not have the high-adrenaline adventure that Sholay brought to the screen. It was, however, all said and done, an enjoyable film in its own right.
What I liked about this film:
The sheer eye candy. The locale is beautiful—Mera Gaon Mera Desh was filmed in Udaipur district, and the lakes, the green fields, the hills (especially beautiful under lowering monsoon clouds), the ruins, even the village houses—are stunning.
Equally easy on the eyes are the leading members of the cast. Vinod Khanna, Laxmi Chhaya, and Dharmendra in particular.
The visuals are excellent (director Raj Khosla is one whose films I always tend to like for that reason; he finds great angles and creates some really dramatic shots).
Lastly: a special word of praise for Laxmi Chhaya. She gets to lip-sync to three of the film’s most famous songs—Maar diya jaaye ya chhod diya jaaye, Aaya aaya atariya pe koi chor and Apni prem kahaaniyaan—and dances up a storm in each of them. She’s feisty, she has the guts to defy Jabbar Singh himself, and she is, all said and done, a far more interesting person than Anju, who’s pretty much the cookie-cutter Hindi film damsel in distress.
What I didn’t like, and some comparisons with Sholay:
On its own, Mera Gaon Mera Desh isn’t a bad film. It’s a straightforward story about a shiftless and unscrupulous character who finds purpose in life, and that purpose brings him up against a criminal far, far more virulent than this man himself could ever have been. It has its romance, its moments of (somewhat forced) comedy, and its melodrama, but Jabbar Singh vs. Ajit is, eventually, the focus of the film. Not a film that is likely to indelibly imprint itself on your mind for the rest of your life, but by no means a film to be avoided, either.
Where Mera Gaon Mera Desh pales is in its comparison to what was obviously its remake, the blockbuster curry Western, Sholay (incidentally, the ‘curry Western’ appellation may well be applied to Mera Gaon Mera Desh itself: it has a lot of the tropes and motifs of the Clint Eastwood films—especially given that Dharmendra’s Ajit is a loner himself, like most of Eastwood’s characters; also, the background music in several tense scenes featuring Jabbar Singh is very reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s music).
Sholay and Mera Gaon Mera Desh share much in common. The hero/es, not law-abiding or heroic to start with. The crippled mentor/sponsor. The dacoit (whose names in both films are similar—in fact, in one scene in Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Jabbar Singh’s name appears on a village blackboard spelled as गब्बर सिंह). The coin toss. The beleaguered villagers. The romance, the comedy. The showdown in broad daylight.
But Sholay is, all said and done, a very different film. In its pace, in its tone. Not so much because of Ramesh Sippy’s direction (which, that said, was very good), but because of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar’s writing. Sholay is a masala film, with all the ingredients—the romance, the comedy (and what comedy! I can never, for instance, forget that chakki peeso-ing dialogue), the adventure, the angst—and it’s been put together very well. The balance between the elements is excellent, the songs are just right and at the right moments, and the action sequences are brilliant.
Most of all, where Sholay wins is in its characters, all of whom are far more interesting than their Mera Gaon Mera Desh counterparts. Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur, unlike Jayant’s Jaswant Singh, plays a very active role in countering the dacoits—right up to the very end. His bahu (Jaya Bhaduri) for whom Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) develops feelings adds a poignant dimension to the story, and the relationship between Jai and Veeru itself makes the film more emotionally charged.
Plus—and who can forget him?—there’s Amjad Khan’s unforgettable Gabbar Singh, arguably one of Hindi cinema’s most evil villains. Jabbar Singh may be handsome and brutal, but Gabbar Singh actually sends shivers down one’s spine with his maniacal laughter, his cold-blooded way of tackling everything that comes his way, whether defiance from Jai and Veeru or stupidity from his own men. He is a villain in every sense: evil through and through, with not a single factor to redeem him. And seemingly invincible—which Jabbar Singh is clearly not. Jabbar Singh comes across, when compared with Gabbar, as more a vicious and somewhat sullen bully than anything else.
That, really, is where the difference between the 1960s and the 70s becomes apparent: in the personality of Gabbar Singh, in his uniquely mad evil. It wasn’t as if the 60s (or the decades before that) didn’t have films with villains. They did, almost 99.9% of them, and villains too, who murdered and looted and plotted and raped without a compunction—but there were probably none that could be considered on par with Gabbar Singh.
In the four years that passed between Mera Gaon Mera Desh and Sholay, the 60s moved into the 70s, the decade of the angry young man and the ruthless villain.
If you want to see a cult classic, watch Sholay. If you want to appreciate it even more, watch Mera Gaon Mera Desh.