Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971)

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.

Vinod Khanna, Asha Parekh and Dharmendra in Mera Gaon Mera Desh

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 pleads his case in court

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 and the jailor - and a decision to be made

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.

Ajit meets Jaswant Singh

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.

Mausi comes, claiming Ajit as her son

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.

Ajit finds some drinking partners

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.

Ajit and Anju fall in love

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.

Jabbar Singh comes calling

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.

Ajit and Jaswant Singh, and the scared villagers

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).

Jabbar Singh plots

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.

Munni Bai goes off to find out more about Ajit

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.

Jabbar Singh

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).

Purnima and Dharmendra in a scene from Mera Gaon Mera Desh

Vinod Khanna and Laxmi Chhaya in a scene from the film
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.

Vinod Khanna and Laxmi Chhaya in Mera Gaon Mera Desh

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.

Sanjeev Kumar in Sholay

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.

Amjad Khan as Gabbar Singh

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.

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24 thoughts on “Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971)

  1. The little boy who gets gunned down is Master Bunty. Check my VK tribute, I mention a song he sings too :)

    MGMD was a film which had a decent audience pull even when Sholay was running for God knows how many weeks at one of the theaters. While the film is essential a masala Hindi film with a contrived plot and double entendres, (especially in some of sequences between Dharam and Asha Parekh – in fact these were so obvious that even we, school going kids in 1977-78, laughed) , it was very well shot. MGMD was also one of the connects between the 60s and the 70s, nice that u have noticed that, and the VHS commanded wait time. I recall that we at the hostel wanted to see it again around 1988, and had to order in advance at the parlour as the cassette would always be with some other customer.

    The bandit tag suited VK rather well then. Hatyara is a film where he is forced to become a bandit,somewhat like Ganga Jumna. It was a huge hit then, but, like Imtihaan,it has not dated well. Akhri Daku with an extremely good looking VK as the “daku” was not that fortunate, it was Prakash Mehra’s one of those films which did average business. I was thoroughly bored with Daku aur Jawaan though, but maybe would give it a try again now.After 40 years.

    • “The little boy who gets gunned down is Master Bunty. Check my VK tribute, I mention a song he sings too :)

      Yes. I had already written this post by then; all that was left was to publish it. When I read your post, I had told myself I should add that bit of information, but what with this and that, I completely forgot.

      I don’t recall ever having seen Hatyara – maybe I should, even if it hasn’t aged well.

  2. I think that MGMD owes a lot to Mujhe Jeene Do. Jabbar’s first scene where he murders the patel is extremely similar to the opening scene of MJD.

  3. I liked this film a lot, when I saw it. I also found myself nodding to all that you said in “What I didn’t like, and some comparisons with Sholay”and also in “What I liked”.
    A good movie and a very good review, thanks Madhu!

  4. oh!
    all the film reviews of yours are so nice.
    but my problem, is that, i havent seen much of the 50s 60s 70s films.
    if at all, i have seen them, i have done so in childhood and no memories of those films, i can recollect!
    so sad that is!
    i will start watching old hindi classics.
    i am more into old hindi film songs ,than actual movies!
    Hmmm………………………………..

    • That’s a shame. There are so many good films out there. Of course, lots of absolutely fabulous songs, but plenty of films which didn’t have good songs (or even, no songs, in a couple of cases) that deserve to be seen.

  5. I thought this would be your next review! :) I watched Mera Gaon Mera Desh in a tiny, dusty, ‘tent’ cinema in Bangalore. I’ve watched it again, I’m not sure if it was on Doordarshan.

    It was a pleasant enough tale, and like you said, plenty of eye-candy. And yes, Vinod looked sullen rather than evil. But your review makes me want to watch this, so… :)

    • “I thought this would be your next review! :)

      That’s a coincidence! Especially since, till the last moment, I was dilly-dallying between this and Mere Apne. I must watch that too, someday soon.

      • Mere Apne is a very good film. With the kind of budget available to new film makers then, it is nothing short of a classic. I have seen the film God knows how many times. Hall, VRS, TV, DVD.. the film still brings a lump to the throat and a tear in the eye. While on Mere Apne, please see the original “Apanjan” by Tapan Sinha. It is better, but devoid of the production values of a Bombay output. Nevertheless, more realistic. Shall mail you some trivia.

  6. While the budget was better, Amjad khan may have been more evil but MGMD had that Desi earthiness sweat and toil which Sholay didn’t . Moreover Sholay had, okay somebody might beat me up for it, Gawdawful Asrani comedy.

    The set pieces in Sholay looked spectacular in 70 mm- train sequence,the aftermath of Holi, and the elimination of Thakur’s family to name three.
    But don’t you feel that MGMD scored in the way the climax was shot , the deft camera movement as it slithered in and out of the narrow lanes . This movie should also be seen in the big screen.
    I could certainly buy into the way Dharam eliminates the dacoits mostly one or two at a time. It appeared more plausible than any other masala movie.
    Vinod and Laxmi Chaya were other big pluses. I generally do not like the latter but boy, was she good in this movie. “Jab thak hai jaan” is no patch on” Maar diya jaai”
    Most film aficionados do acknowledge the debt Sholay owes to MGMD ( I for one feel that it should have got at least ten % of the profits as royalty — as the similarities are too many)

    • “Moreover Sholay had, okay somebody might beat me up for it, Gawdawful Asrani comedy.

      I am 100% with you on that – it was cringeworthy. I liked the Mausi comedy, though, and Jai’s attempts to matchmake for Veeru. I also agree about the other stuff you’ve pointed out – the camerawork in the lanes, the killing off of the dacoits one by one, and Laxmi Chhaya in Maar diya jaaye. I like Laxmi Chhaya anyway, but in this film, she’s especially good.

      Talking about how much Sholay owed to this film prompted me to re-read some parts of Diptakirti Chaudhuri’s Written by Salim-Javed. Apparently they freely admitted that sections of Sholay had been inspired by various films, including much of Sergio Leone. Not much was acknowledged, it seems, of the far too many ‘coincidental resemblances’ to Mera Gaon Mera Desh, but they were sued by the maker of a film called Bindiya aur Bandook for plagiarism. I haven’t seen that, though.

      • While looking up Bindiya aur Bandook ( which by the way stars…. Laxmi Chaya) I found details about this gem. It was too good to pass

        “Wahan Ke Log (1967)

        Armed with laser guns, three-fingered virtually invincible Martians collude with gangsters to invade Earth. (130 mins.)
        Director: N.A. Ansari
        Stars: Pradeep Kumar, Tanuja, Nilofar, Nisar Ahmad Ansari ”

        It fits into your timeline and a Hindi Martian film. Please please, I want my birthday gift (several months away) . Do review the movie. It should be fun reading up your impressions!

        • Oh, yes. I’ve heard of this film often enough – I even remember downloading it from Tom’s channel when he first optimised and uploaded it. I really should watch it sometime. I think an attempt (failed, after just 10 minutes) of watching Trip to Moon sort off put me off trying to watch Hindi sci fi. ;-)

  7. Honestly, I think Dharmendra is one of those rare actors who can do both action and romance with equal panache. Ditto with Vinod. Rishi Kapoor & Rajesh Khanna would be misfits in films like these.

      • I agree. Even though he did some fairly uninhibitedly clownish bits in early films (that drag song in Haseena Maan Jaayegi, plus Pyaar Kiye Jaa, his general aura is one of a more polished character. Especially in the 70s. I cannot imagine him playing a tapori, for instance.

    • Yes, that way Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna were both very versatile- Rajesh Khanna and Rishi Kapoor would not fit (to my mind, at least) films like these. Though they have acted in their share of films with action sequences (after all, it was the rare film back then that didn’t have some amount of action)…

  8. I wish to add trivia for MGMD. one day during shooting in Udaipur, dharam ji came to Raj khosla and said ” aaj shooting nahi ho sakti”. Raj khosla asked ” kyu nahi ho sakti?” then dharam ji replied aaj aasmaan mai badaal hain. khosla saheb asked khaa hai badaal ? dharam ji said voh aisey nahi camera sey dikhengey. khosla saheb samajh gaye ki aaj unkey hero ka shooting karney ka mann nahi hai. he started singing ” humri gagriya bhar dey na bdariya adding lines after lines on Rain. finally dharam ji stopped him ki kahi sach mein hi baarish na ho jaye. i will always choose this movie over sholay. i feel for sholay and its characters that its a big ship and every passenger has boarded the ship irrespective if they want to go east or south. triangle topis become popular after this movie in dance competitions but the problem was how to balance it. my 9 year old mother watch the movie in talkies when it was released and she says ” Maar diya jaaye ki chodh diya jaaye became popular dialogue. we all feel that here main leads were clearly out shined by villain and vamp. My favorite song of vinod khanna saheb is Hai sharmau because what laxmi chaya singing, jabbar’s personality traits and khanna saheb looks so handsome as old daku wearing black blanket. whenever this movie comes on TV. people think just another 70’s movie is coming but for sholay everybody is enthusiastic. In 1971 it was mass hit along with Hare Rama Harey Krishna. May be MGMD did good business in small towns and HRHK did good in Metro. i love this movie for its earthiness.

    • Yes, its earthiness and its obvious comfort with the village is a major point in its favour. Sholay, in contrast, is more urban, even if it is set in the village.

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