For many years now, I’ve been fascinated by what I call the ‘supernatural’ subgenre of Indian suspense films. Offhand, I can’t recall too many [any?] non-Indian films that used a supposedly supernatural theme to veil what was a definitely corporeal, criminal deed. Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi, Mahal, Woh Kaun Thi?, Bees Saal Baad, Poonam ki Raat, Anita—all of these (and plenty more) used tropes such as spooky songs, ‘ghosts’ (invariably women in white), mysteriously creaking doors, swinging lampshades and seemingly haunted havelis, all forming part of a grand plan to convince someone that they were surrounded by bhoots when in reality they were surrounded by crooks.
Raaz is one of those films. And yet not.
In 1966, a 24 year old named Jatin Khanna won the Filmfare-United Producers Combine Talent Contest. The coveted prize here included contracts with the twelve producers who formed the United Producers Combine. Jatin Khanna—who adopted the screen name Rajesh Khanna—was to be launched by GP Sippy in his film Raaz, although this ended up being Khanna’s second film, his debut being in Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat, unconnected with United Producers. Despite that, Rajesh Khanna and his co-star Babita were both billed as being ‘introduced’ in Raaz.
The story gets off to a flying start [with the soul of one character—played by an extra with horrid diction—flying off heavenwards]. Paro (Ratnamala) hears screaming and rushing into the room where her husband has been playing with their baby daughter, finds that said husband is now a corpse. While someone tries to gag Paro’s screams, another accomplice scurries off with the toddler [I have never been quite able to understand this penchant for carrying off other people’s children. Why would one willingly want to saddle oneself with an infant? Do these people even realize… but I digress].
Another scene, 18 years later, explains the past. Paro is a prisoner of Sarkar Nath (DK Sapru), who is her brother-in-law. Sarkar Nath is very bitter at Paro’s having rejected him, and [according to Sarkar Nath] fallen in love with his brother’s wealth and position instead. Paro tearfully protests: she never loved Sarkar Nath. This has no effect, and the villain lets her know that he is taking his revenge on her daughter: the way Paro deprived Sarkar Nath of his love, so he has deprived Paro’s daughter Sapna of her love. Can she hear Sapna’s song of longing as she sings for the beloved she has lost?
Many thousands of miles away, in Africa [which is always referred to here as Africa, not in terms of a specific country, let alone a town or city], the song is replayed. This time in the dreams of Kumar (Rajesh Khanna), who also dreams of a railway station with a sign proclaiming it to be Veeran Nagar.
This is a recurring dream, it seems, when Kumar’s friend Rakharam ‘Rocky’ (IS Johar) comes galloping along to ask why Kumar is freaking out at midnight. Kumar is so convinced that Veeran Nagar exists and that some unknown beloved is calling out to him from there, beckoning him, that he insists on going off to India to get to the truth. Rocky, good friend that he is, insists on accompanying him.
Kumar is very taken aback to find Veeran Nagar railway station looking exactly as it did in his dreams [why he should be surprised, I can’t see; if you’re gullible enough to believe that your dreams reflect reality, you should expect that reality to match your dreams, no?]. Rocky finds a tongawallah, Bansi (Asit Sen) to take them to shelter, but as soon as the tongawallah sees Kumar’s face, he starts gibbering in fright and races off.
Someone (Kamal Kapoor) is surreptitiously watching this all, but does not come forward. Kumar and Rocky manage to finally get another tonga [Rocky achieves this by tipping Kumar’s hat over most of his face, so nobody can see his face]. They get to a guest house of some sort, and the conversation with the owner—carried out across a closed door—has him agreeing to let them have rooms. But when the door is opened and the man sees Kumar, the same panic ensues. The man refuses to let them in, and since the tonga has by now gone, Rocky and Kumar are obliged to go trudging about on foot.
Everybody they meet has the same reaction: running away in fright. Everybody, that is, except an eccentric-looking old gentleman (Harindranath Chattopadhyay, burdened with loud costumes that are reminiscent of Rajendranath). He makes some mysterious comments about Kumar, said remarks punctuated by some weird cackling. He does, however, take Kumar and Rocky back to his home to stay, so at least something comes of that.
The next day, Kumar goes off in search of the truth. He wanders over to some quarries, and is assaulted by a foreman (Rahul) who accuses Kumar of having earlier humiliated him in front of all the workers. He now proceeds to beat up Kumar, and does a pretty good job of it.
This thrashing is interrupted by the arrival of Bela (Laxmi Chhaya), who had come calling for Kumar earlier that day and had instead met Rocky. Bela pleads with the foreman to let Kumar go, and later takes Kumar to her home and patches him up. When he wonders why she’s being so kind, Bela is surprised. Doesn’t he remember? He saved her izzat. When Sarkar Nath was going to make mincemeat of her izzat, Kumar came by and saved Bela.
Kumar now bumps into the tongawallah Bansi again, and again Bansi flees, eyes popping out of his head. This time, however we get a glimpse into Bansi’s memory: he remembers peeking out from amidst the undergrowth, watching Sarkar Nath’s men dump Kumar’s dead body—stabbed in the back—in a grave and start shoveling on the earth. [Hmm. Now I see. Sadly, since Kumar can’t see into Bansi’s head, he doesn’t see].
Now comes the big meeting this has all been leading up to: Kumar runs into Sapna (Babita), wandering about in misty woods, dressed in white and wearing a black cloak, singing Akele hain chale aao. He sees her one moment standing under a tree, her white dress very visible… but when he goes rushing up, there’s nothing but a bunch of white paper flowers dancing in the breeze. This is all very spooky, and Kumar is thoroughly spooked.
Later, though, Sapna comes to him, and addressing him by name, tells him how glad she is that he’s back. She’s waited for him all these years, but she had faith in her own love for him… Kumar looks embarrassed and admits he can’t remember a thing, so Sapna sets about reminding him. How they had met, how they had fallen in love. She, the daughter of Raja Sarkar Nath; he a mere employee of her father’s.
Still in flashback, Raja Sarkar Nath conforms to the archetypal ‘stern father’ figure [not that he’s actually Sapna’s father, but since Sapna doesn’t know that, it probably doesn’t matter at this stage. Though I’m guessing it will matter when we get down to brass tacks. After all, if your girlfriend’s dad is a crook, it puts you in a difficult position. But if he’s merely her uncle, and guilty of fratricide too, it puts a different spin on things]… Sarkar Nath summons Kumar to his office about Kumar having beaten up Thakur Singh, the quarry foreman whom the now-in-the-present Kumar has already encountered.
Sarkar Nath is angry: how did Kumar presume to thrash Thakur Singh? Kumar’s contention—that Thakur Singh was ill-treating a poor old woman working at the site—goes unheard. Sarkar Nath shoos him out with an admonition to mind his manners.
A few days later, while Kumar and Sapna bill and coo in the back of Bansi’s tonga, they are seen by Thakur Singh, who goes and blurts it all out to Sarkar Nath. Who, of course, throws a fit and stops Sapna from going anywhere. Kumar’s old friend Baba, instead of consoling him, cackles gleefully and tells him that Sapna is the daughter of a rich man, and that’s to be expected of her. She’s used him and now dumped him like a dirty sock [my words, not Baba’s, though his sentiments seem to be the same].
So poor Kumar sang Akele hain chale aao, firmly believing [shame on him] that Sapna has indeed been bewafa. And Sapna came, joining in at the end of the song, assuring him of her love.
But Daddy did the dirty. Along with the sneaky Thakur Singh [who’s been keeping a voyeuristic eye on Kumar and Sapna], Daddy tracked down Sapna and Kumar, and had Kumar flogged till he was half-dead. Kumar was left to die, but his friends rallied around and along with Sapna’s love [and her skill at running away from Daddy], they were able to bring Kumar back from the brink. Only for Daddy to come charging in again and drag Sapna away (on the pretended pretext of allowing her to marry Kumar).
Doesn’t Kumar remember all of this, Sapna asks him. And Kumar, though obviously pretty bowled over by Sapna, has to ruefully admit that he doesn’t. Not a thing.
Which, considering the fact that the evil Sarkar Nath is away right now, leaving Veeran Nagar to its own veeran self, is fine. Because all Kumar is facing right now are the horrified squeaks of Bansi and his ilk, who think he’s a walking ghost. When Sarkar Nath returns [and Sarkar Nath is too much of a hardened goon to fall for the ‘walking bhoot’ belief]—it might just be curtains for Kumar.
The problem, of course, remains: who is Kumar? Bansi, after all, did see him killed and buried. Yet, this man not only looks the spitting image of Kumar, but answers to his name and dreams of things that Kumar knew of—but he has no clue how or why.
What I liked about this film:
The basic premise of it, and the fact that—almost till the end—the mystery remains a mystery. And that when it is cleared up, it’s cleared up in a way that (refreshingly for Hindi cinema) makes sense. Plus, the clearing up of the mystery reveals a truth that isn’t really forced; it’s not as if someone’s concocted some farfetched plan involving a dependence on too many coincidences and unexplained bits.
Some of the songs. Akele hain chale aao is the best-known, but there are others too which I didn’t mind, especially Sochta hoon ke tumhe maine kahin and Dil sambhaale sambhalta nahin. The Pyaar kiya toh darna kya parody, Pyaar kiya toh marna kya, is all shades of loony, but somewhat funny in its own way.
And, lastly, Rajesh Khanna. Considering this was only his second film, it’s not surprising that he’s a wee bit awkward at times, but less than plenty of others I’ve seen in their debuts. Plus, he’s dishy. Very dishy. Dishy enough to be wasted on Babita, to be honest: I’ve never liked Babita too much, and here, paired with a hero who’s so gorgeous, she fades even more into the background.
What I didn’t like:
The comic side plot involving IS Johar’s and Laxmi Chhaya’s characters. This was completely unnecessary (as comic side plots all too often tend to be) and seemed to be basically a vehicle for a couple of songs. Raaz had an interesting enough suspense plot on its own, and I found myself thinking that—had this side plot been removed and most of the songs chopped off—it would’ve been a far better film.
Not that the suspense plot in itself is flawless. It has its plot holes, the things that are left unaccounted for. For instance, why does Thakur Singh seem unfazed by the appearance [or reappearance, whatever] of Kumar? After all, Thakur Singh, as is revealed later, knows an important secret. And why don’t the people who seem so happy that Kumar’s back—Bela and her younger sister Indu, and Sapna herself—never wonder where Kumar has been? Most importantly, what about Rocky? There is no back story to account for Rocky’s presence in Kumar’s life, and that leaves a whacking big hole in the story. Because if Rocky’s been around for a few years as Kumar’s friend, he’d be in the know…
If you’re willing to forgive that [I did], this isn’t a terrible suspense film. It’s not anywhere in the same league as the biggies—not even the excellent Ittefaq, which Rajesh Khanna was to star in, just two years later—but it’s entertaining enough.