Yes, Shyama, of the dancing eyes and the gorgeous smile, passed away almost a week ago, on November 14, 2017. I could not possibly let the death of one of my favourite actresses go unmentioned on this blog, but I’d already done, some years back, a post of my favourite Shyama songs. A film review, therefore, seemed in order. But which one?
Looking at Shyama’s filmography, it’s interesting to see just what an eclectic lot of roles she played—simultaneously. Whereas just about every one of her contemporaries got quickly slotted into character types—‘typical’ heroine; tragic heroine; comedienne; vamp; nasty relative and so on—Shyama seemed to fit perfectly into just about any of these roles. She was the lovely romantic heroine in films like Lala Rookh, Aar Paar, and Duniya Jhukti Hai; she played a madcap character in Shrimatiji and a vicious, selfish and greedy woman in films like Bhabhi, Chhoti Bahen, Bahurani and Bhai-Bhai. She stole the limelight from none other than the exquisite Madhubala in Barsaat ki Raat, and she acted in several frothy, peppy films alongside the greatest comic of Hindi cinema, Johny Walker himself.
So, in tribute to Shyama’s underrated versatility and acting ability, a review of a film that does a good job of showing off her talent. Do Behnen, in which Shyama plays two sisters.
The film begins by introducing us—effectively enough, through a song that switches tempo, style and lyrics—to these two sisters. Vasanti, the elder, is a gentle, sweet soul, the very picture of the ‘good’ Indian woman: sari-clad and demure, she’s sitting in front of the family mandir doing pooja. Her younger sister, Malti, is the spitting image of Vasanti but is also the exact opposite. She dances about, wearing Western clothes, not giving a damn.
The two young women, however, are not completely one-dimensional. Vasanti, despite her near-perfection, can give back as good as she gets when Malti teases her about being wimpy about pressing their mother’s (Mumtaz Begum’s) aching head. And Malti herself, for all that seemingly frivolous façade, is caring enough to worry about Ma’s headache—and give her a good solid massage, champi-style.
One day, going in a bus, Malti finds herself sitting next to a man named Anokhe (Rammohan) who seems to be so besotted with her that he even buys her bus ticket when she finds she doesn’t have change. Although they part ways once the bus reaches its destination, Malti runs into Anokhe a few days later and tries to return the money for the bus fare; this gets them talking, and soon Malti is head over heels in love with him.
Meanwhile, the girls’ father, Mr Mathur (SK Prem) has been looking around for a suitable groom for Vasanti. He is keen on Ramesh (Rajendra Kumar), the son of a wealthy doctor-researcher (Tiwari). Mr Mathur takes the help of a mutual friend to be introduced to the doctor’s assistant, Mufat Lal (Radhakrishan, who along with Leela Misra, who plays his wife, provides the comic relief—if one can call it that).
Mufat Lal arranges a meeting between Ramesh’s father and Vasanti’s, and they agree that Ramesh and his sister Rekha (Chand Usmani) will come to the Mathur’s home so that Ramesh can see Vasanti for himself.
Vasanti, lovely and quiet and looking the perfect Sati Savitri, is immediately approved. Both Ramesh and Rekha think she’s wonderful. However, when Vasanti goes away to the kitchen with the tea tray, Malti—who is lurking around and hasn’t put in an appearance in front of the guests—decides to play a trick on them. She grabs the tea tray from Vasanti, prances back into the drawing room, and starts chattering to a very startled Ramesh and Rekha.
It’s only when the brother and sister get up, affronted and saying no, they were mistaken, that the truth is revealed. Malti is delighted at the prank she’s pulled off, and Ramesh is relieved that the girl he’s already fallen in love with is not this hoyden.
Vasanti and Ramesh get married soon after, and all is bliss. She is loved by all—even the family dog, Tiger, who happily eats from Vasanti’s hand. Ramesh adores her: her beauty, her quiet charm, her singing, even her handwriting—he says it looks as if ‘pearls were strewn on the paper’, and begs her to write his letters for him.
How long can this utopia last?
Malti’s affair with Anokhe has been progressing by leaps and bounds. He tells her that he’s trying to find a job, but things are really hard right now, so a loving Malti takes off a valuable ring from her finger and gifts it to him. He is all smooth charm, telling Malti how much he loves her, what she means to him, when they will get married, blah blah.
Until one fine day, when Malti’s father (alerted by the man who had helped fix up the Vasanti-Ramesh match) comes rushing in to find her in a club with Anokhe. Daddy is furious and drags his daughter home, to fling her into her room and swear that he’s not going to let her out until he’s found a groom for her and got her safely married.
Malti gets a severe tongue-lashing from her mother as well, but when Malti starts crying, her mother melts and consoles her daughter. This is not the way good girls behave, she says. Malti shouldn’t be meeting any men, not even if they—as Malti says Anokhe has promised—offer marriage. To get a daughter married is her parents’ responsibility.
After her parents have gone to sleep, Malti (obviously deciding she has no desire to be labelled a ‘good girl’) packs up her bags, puts in a boxful of her jewels, and runs off to Anokhe. Soon, they have gone away to another city where they check into a hotel and settle down to wait until Anokhe can get a job. Getting a job isn’t an easy task; every evening, Anokhe comes back to their hotel room to tell Malti that he hasn’t been successful. Some man who’s promised him a job has asked for some money in return. Malti immediately goes off to her cupboard and gets out the money Anokhe wants.
… which Anokhe goes and spends at a kotha that same evening, while Malti waits anxiously for him. When he comes back to the hotel late that night, Anokhe is very drunk. Malti is shocked to see this side of her beloved, and tries to plead with him, but Anokhe is obnoxious: he even tries to force Mali to have a drink with him. Malti manages to escape this fate, but the rift in the lute has appeared.
Next morning, though, Anokhe is contrite. He apologizes to Malti and confesses: he drank because he is so desperate. There seem to be no jobs to be found anywhere, and the man who was demanding a bribe now wants Rs 2,000 to get Anokhe the job. Where will Anokhe ever get 2,000?
Malti turns cheerful and encouraging, telling Anokhe that it’s just a matter of time. He’ll soon find a job. More importantly for Anokhe, she’s supportive in a practical way: she takes out her jewellery and gives it to Anokhe to sell. Anokhe protests, but Malti, starry-eyed and sweet, tells him that he is her ornament. After he has found a job and they’ve gotten married, he can get more jewellery for her. Anokhe goes off, all smiles, and the rift seems to have been repaired.
But no, because that’s the last Malti sees of Anokhe. Ten days pass, and she, fretting and impatient in her hotel room, has no idea where he’s gone. Finally, the hotel manager (Keshav Rana) comes up to Malti’s room, demanding payment for the board and lodging of all these days. When a tearful Malti admits she doesn’t know where her man is gone, and doesn’t have the money to pay for her stay here, the manager gets furious.
He goes, finds Malti’s home address in the hotel register (I’m surprised a girl who eloped should have entered her real address in the register), and phones her parents.
All this while, Vasanti, much to her husband Ramesh’s annoyance—he cannot see why she should be so depressed about her ‘fallen’ sister’s plight—has been staying with her parents. Both Mummy and Daddy are distraught and upset at this latest antic of Malti’s, and Vasanti has been trying to cheer them up. Now, when news comes of Malti’s whereabouts, Vasanti immediately offers to go with her mother to fetch Malti home. Daddy is still angry and doesn’t want his younger daughter to come back—she has dishonoured not just herself, but her entire family—but his wife and elder daughter are more forgiving.
So Vasanti and her mother turn up at the hotel. There’s a relieved and bittersweet reunion between them and Malti, and they take the train back to their home town. But, just as they’re crossing the road outside the railway station, a car comes out of nowhere and hits Vasanti, killing her instantly. While a shattered Malti and her mother are standing there and crying, a policeman approaches them. What was the name of the woman who was killed?
Vasanti and Malti’s mother looks at him, hesitates, and then says, “Malti.”
And that sets off a chain of events that will wreak havoc with the lives of several people. Because Mummy, in her hurry to give her ‘tainted’ daughter a chance at a life of respectability, has forgotten the details. That Malti, even if she pretends to be Vasanti, is not really Vasanti, is not really married to Ramesh and does not really think of his house and his family as hers. That there are stark differences between the two sisters, too, that can emerge and blow Malti’s cover.
More importantly, that Malti will end up desperately unhappy and exhausted from the farce she’s expected to play out, every single moment.
What I liked about this film:
While Do Behnen does have some fairly regressive elements (more about those later), I liked the fact that it gave the bad girl another chance. And that the bad girl wasn’t shown as being bad all through. Unlike Sharmeelee (with which I found myself comparing this film), Do Behnen doesn’t have the ‘bad girl’ being an utter reprobate. Malti is gullible to fall for a scoundrel like Anokhe, and because she’s headstrong, because she thinks this is true love, and because she doesn’t give a damn about all that she’s told, she makes a mistake by eloping with Anokhe.
This—that it’s a mistake, and not something she should be crucified for, or for which she deserves to be killed by the end of the film—is what makes Do Behnen refreshingly different from most other Hindi films of this period (and of later years too). What is even more astonishing is that Malti is actually shown to be living in with Anokhe at the hotel: they are staying in the same room, and though there are twin beds, there is no curtain pulled across in the middle. This is not a shy girl trying to preserve her virginity for after she’s married to the man she loves: this is a girl who knows what she wants, and is not afraid of ‘what people will say’.
And Shyama pulls it off very well. Pulls off both roles, to be precise. Because Vasanti is very different from Malti: they are chalk and cheese, almost. Shyama is thoroughly convincing as both the gentle and sweet Vasanti, and as the first flamboyant and feisty, later distressed and broken Malti. Shyama in a double role was the reason I first watched Do Behnen, and she did not disappoint.
Lastly, the music, by Vasant Desai. There are several good songs in Do Behnen, but the one that really stands out for me is the beautiful Saiyyaan pyaara hai apna milan, which appears in two versions, happy and sad, both lovely.
What I didn’t like:
As I mentioned previously, the occasional regressiveness. True, Malti gets a chance to make amends for her mistake, but why does everybody keep on hammering away at the idea that ‘Malti had dishonoured the family’? It’s not as if Malti’s aborted attempt at eloping is known to all and sundry; it appears only her immediate family, Ramesh’s family, and Mufatlal and his wife know. But Ramesh and his sister go hammer and tongs at Malti, badmouthing her horribly to whom they presume is Vasanti. (This, by the way, was another thing I didn’t like about the film: Ramesh’s character. He doesn’t play a huge role in the film, but most of the time, wherever he appears, he’s very nasty about Malti. He yells at ‘Vasanti’ for grieving for ‘Malti’, and is constantly trying to tell her that it’s just as well Malti died, because her taint would have rubbed off on the entire family).
Plus, some plot holes.
How can someone who’s never heard a song before sing it, to the same tune as the original, by just acquiring the lyrics of the song? And, where—at a crucial juncture in the story—does a weapon arrive in a character’s hands, so very fortuitously?
While I am hiding behind that ‘spoilers’ barrier, I might as well bung in one other thing that irked me: why must the ‘bad girl’, even if she’s proven to not be bad enough to have been killed off, have to atone by being bunged into jail? Is that punishment really necessary to have Malti redeem herself?
End of spoilers
But, all of that is forgivable, really, in a film that’s otherwise quite enjoyable: it’s fast-paced, it’s interesting, and Shyama is in her element.
Goodbye, Shyama. Or not—because you will always live on.