Yes, this post is a little late as a tribute to one of Hindi cinema’s loveliest actresses—Shakila passed away, aged 82, on September 21—but that was because I was travelling. I heard the news, was saddened and upset, and vowed that as soon as I got back, I’d post something about Shakila. Not a songs list, because I’d already done that. A review of one of her more popular films, then, I decided.
Shakila (born on New Year’s Day, in 1935) was one of several actresses who did the one-off role in a big film (in her case, CID and China Town, though she also had a memorable if not top-billed role in Aar Paar), but was otherwise low-key. She acted with some of the biggest stars of the time, including Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor and Raj Kapoor, yet much of her career was spent working in smaller films, especially fantasies (including the somewhat unusual ‘Muslim devotional-mythological’, Al Hilal), historicals and thrillers. They may not have had been big hits, but a lot of those films did have fairly well-known stars—Sunil Dutt, Pradeep Kumar, Ajit, Manoj Kumar, Premnath, etc—and good music.
And they had Shakila, who, besides being beautiful, brought a certain pep and zing to the proceedings. In Ali Baba Chaalees Chor, for instance, Shakila’s Marjeena is a refreshingly independent female character, who is often the equivalent of the US Cavalry—she always manages to come to the rescue of her beloved, and with aplomb.
Shakila could prance around energetically in a song like Chaaku waala chhuri waala or Main hoon Papa Khan. She could sizzle in Babuji dheere chalna. She could be gloriously fragile and porcelain-pretty in Zulfon ki ghata lekar. On top of all of that, she was a good actress, who could be a believable vamp—drunk, angst-riddled, but keeping her chin up in Hoon abhi main jawaan—as convincingly as she could portray the lonely, orphaned young woman of Tower House or the ambitious and supercilious businesswoman of Shriman Satyawadi.
So, in tribute: a review of what is considered one of Shakila’s top films from the fantasy genre. Hatim Tai. Although several versions, both film as well as television, have been made of this story, the Shakila-P Jairaj starrer is probably the most popular, the definitive Hatim Tai.
The film begins by introducing us to Hatim Tai (P Jairaj), the prince of Yemen, as he goes about distributing largesse to the poor and deprived. One man, however, throws back the asharfis Hatim Tai offers him, saying that they are of no use to him. Can this wealth bring happiness? Hatim Tai is intrigued as well as sympathetic, and asks the man what’s wrong.
The man tells Hatim Tai a sob story. He, it turns out, is a prince named Munir Shami; one day, out riding, he met and immediately fell in love with a princess, Husn Bano, who reciprocated his love. However, just as Munir Shami was proposing to his lady love, she burst into tears and ran away, telling him that their love could never be.
Munir Shami made his way to the court of Husn Bano’s father, who also gave him the same response: no, Husn Bano can never be his. Ever since, Munir Shami has been wandering about, dejected and miserable. Hatim Tai, good man that he is and ever-eager to help others, offers to help by finding out what the matter is. Together, Hatim Tai, Munir Shami, and Hatim Tai’s sidekick Nazru Dhobi (? Looks a little like Maruti) go off to meet Husn Bano’s father…
… who tells all. It emerges that some time back, Daddy was sitting at night in his room, reading a book, when he fell asleep. Even as he slept, a beautiful parizaad—a fairy named Gulnar (Shakila) came flitting into his room. Gulnar went whirling prettily about the the room.
When she accidentally knocked over a pitcher, the sound woke up Daddy, who caught one glimpse of Gulnar, and was immediately smitten. So smitten, in fact, that he went rushing and grabbed Gulnar—an unforgivable act, as it turned out. Because Gulnar turned to stone: a process that happened slowly enough to allow her time to chastise Husn Bano’s father for daring to touch a pari, and also enough time for her to curse him: his daughter, Husn Bano, would be also turned to stone when she got married and was touched by her husband.
This is why Husn Bano can never marry. Her father, desperate to change Gulnar back from stone to fairy, managed to bring together some of the wisest men of the kingdom, and between them, they devised a set of seven questions, each in the form of a riddle, a maxim, or a sentence with a hidden meaning. If a man should be able to answer all seven of these questions, Gulnar will be a fairy once more, and will be able to lift the curse off Husn Bano [I think Husn Bano’s father is being unduly optimistic and taking Gulnar’s benevolence for granted here, but never mind].
Hatim Tai offers to go on this quest to find the answers to the seven questions. Should the spell(s) be broken, he asks that Munir Shami be allowed to marry Husn Bano, and this wish is granted. Hatim Tai and his loyal Nazru set off.
Soon enough, they run into a bunch of jalparis (water nymphs), who carry Hatim Tai and Nazru off underwater, into their realm [some unspecified magic allows these men to go on breathing and being perfectly normal here]. The queen of the jalparis falls in love with Hatim Tai very quickly, and is busy trying to woo him…
… when Hatim Tai, feeling oddly tired, begins to feel an odd magnetic force-like attraction to a throne standing by itself.
Before the Queen Jalpari can dissuade him, Hatim Tai goes and sits down on the throne, leaving the Queen wailing and upset: that throne is reserved for those men of whom she has tired, and whom she wants to discard. Now, before her weeping eyes, Hatim Tai (and Nazru, whose fate seems to be tied with that of his friend and master) float up and onto dry land.
Even as they pick themselves up, Hatim Tai and Nazru see a bedraggled, dishevelled man going past, cursing the Queen Jalpari: he bemoans the fact that he was not satisfied with the time he got to spend with her, and his desire for more has been the ruin of him. Suddenly, Hatim Tai sees the light: that’s the answer to the first question, Ek baar dekha hai, baar-baar dekhne ki hawas hai (“Having seen it once, there’s the urge to see it again and again”). Hawas—lust—he says, can never be satisfied. If one attempts to satisfy lust, it only grows.
Even as Hatim Tai utters this, far away, in the palace of Husn Bano’s father, the first of the seven questions, written in glittering (magical?) letters on a wall vanishes, as if wiped away. Simultaneously, Gulnar’s head turns from stone to flesh and blood. She is much relieved, and everybody else—Husn Bano, her father, Munir Shami—is exultant. It’s working!
Hatim Tai is very relieved too. He and Nazru now move on. When they stop to rest in a grove of trees, however, they suddenly find themselves attacked by some djinn which have taken on the form of trees, Tolkein-like. The two men do their best to defend themselves, but seem to be having a hard time of it—when someone comes to their rescue. It’s Gulnar!
… but no. While this beautiful (and very helpful) fairy looks exactly like Gulnar, she is in fact Gulnar’s twin sister, Husna Pari. Husna and Hatim Tai fall in love in a jiffy, but he tells her that he cannot marry her just yet; he must complete this quest, find the answers to those seven questions, and release Gulnar (and, consequently, Husn Bano) from the curses that bind them.
Husna is not just willing to be patient, she also promises to help in whatever way she can [Gulnar, after all, is her sister]. For a start, she gives them (at Nazru’s request) a huge feast, followed by plenty of weapons and armour to defend themselves, should the need arise.
So Hatim Tai and Nazru set off on their quest once again—and what an adventure it becomes. At breakneck speed, the two friends find themselves going from one dangerous situation to another. Now Hatim Tai finds himself taken captive by a mysterious (and initially hostile) woman with a veiled face:
And he and Nazru come to the aid of a dervish who turns out to have an unexpected past.
Then they find themselves up against a gigantic genie called Nida, who lives inside a huge cave and terrorizes a village next door, from which he demands an unfortunate inhabitant every now and then—unfortunate because Nida eats up everybody he summons.
And then there is Husna Pari’s father, the Shahenshah-e-Parizaad, who is furious when he learns of his daughter’s love for this mere mortal. So furious is the King of the Fairies that he shrinks his daughter and imprisons her in a jar, while also taking captive Hatim Tai and Nazru.
What are the answers to the seven questions? What further adventures await Hatim Tai and Nazru?
Hatim Bai is based on a work entitled ‘Qissa-e-Hatim Tai’ (The Adventures of Hatim Tai) in which, rather like Aladdin, Sindbad, or Amir Hamza and his loyal Amar Ayyar, the hero is a brave, generous, handsome and powerful man who goes on a quest whereby he vanquishes enemies, rescues the impoverished, the imprisoned, the oppressed and those who—perhaps because of their own fault—have fallen on evil days. He has women fall in love with him, he experiences ‘tilism’ (magic, enchantment) and comes out glorious at the end.
Incidentally, Hatim Tai was a real man who lived in pre-Islamic Arabia. Famed for his generosity, he became a part of folklore, with stories about him and his virtues appearing in everything from The Arabian Nights to Sa’adi’s Bostaan—plus, of course, the Qissa-e-Hatim Tai.
I’ll admit I watched Hatim Tai mainly because of Shakila. As it happened, while she was pretty and sweet, I enjoyed the film a good deal more than I’d expected to.
What I liked about this film:
The story, which is a delightful fantasy. It’s chockfull of all the elements that pepper all the Middle Eastern folklore-mythological fantasies I’ve mentioned above: there are magicians and fairies, djinn and jalparis. There is an evil sorcerer whose life resides in a magical parrot. There are horrible ogres preying on hapless villagers, there are all manner of beasts and half-beasts, some good and some bad. There is good triumphing over evil, love conquering all. Best of all, it’s in an entertaining format which (most of the time) is coherent, fast-paced, and much fun. Director and producer Homi Wadia, whose Fearless Nadia films I’ve never really liked for their stories (which tend to be pretty ho-hum) does an excellent job here of keeping the plot entertaining.
What I also find laudable is that while there is a strong comic element (Nazru provides the humour through the film), it’s woven into the narrative very well. There is no separate comic side plot, and Nazru’s nuttiness is generally restrained enough to be funny rather than irritating. (That said, while he makes for a truly ugly man-in-drag, his song Ooi amma main kaahe ko bazaar gayi thhi made me laugh).
Shakila, of course, who is utterly cute and pretty as Husna. She doesn’t have much to do except flit around (rather unconvincingly, since her wings don’t move), but she does get, now and then, to wield her wand and pull off some stunt that saves Hatim Tai’s hide.
And, the music, by SN Tripathi. There are several good songs here, but my favourite is Parvardigaar-e-aalam, one of those rare instances of a Muslim devotional song, and beautifully sung by Rafi.
What I didn’t like:
The special effects and props, which (unsurprisingly) are rather unsophisticated—though, again to my surprise—not as terrible as I’d expected them to be.
Unfortunately, while this film is in colour (Gevacolor), it’s suffered the ravages of time: the colours have all gone haywire, what with greens turning to orange, and reds turning to a greyish purple. I do wish someone would take up the task of restoring the colours in this film: it’s worth it.