I came to this film by way of a song (that happens with unsettling frequency to me).
Five years ago, when Shamshad Begum passed away and I was researching a song list featuring her voice, I came across Jaiyo jaiyo sipahiya bazaar, and was blown away. Not just by Shamshad Begum’s ability to sing in multiple languages, but by the general appearance of the song. There was apparently something fun going on here. So I made a mental note that if I came across Nishaan on Youtube, I’d watch it.
Well, I did. And, in a refreshing change from a lot of those films I’ve seen because of songs, this one turned out to be pretty good. It’s a classic raja-rani film, with feuding families, a really black-hearted villain, twin brothers as heroes, and an enterprising heroine.
Nishaan begins by letting us know that two neighbouring states—Bhavanigarh (the good guys) and Bhairongarh (the bad guys)—have been at daggers drawn for several generations. They do not allow the citizens of each other’s states into their own, so when Madho Singh (Balkrishna Kalla), who is the right-hand man of the Maharaja of Bhavanigarh comes galloping down to the barrier between the states and asks to be let through, the Bhairongarh guard scoffs at him. Even when Madho Singh explains that it’s imperative that he enter Bhairongarh to fetch the doctor—the Maharani of Bhavanigarh is about to have a baby.
The guard’s insensitive attitude doesn’t faze Madho Singh; he jumps his horse over the barricade, and goes off to the doctor. The doctor (JS Casshyap) has been attending the Maharani all through her pregnancy, and understands her case; he immediately rushes off—Madho Singh lends him his horse, assuring the doctor that he’ll make his way home on his own.
Bhairongarh’s soldiers, having been alerted by the guard at the frontier, however arrest Madho Singh before he can get back to Bhavanigarh. Madho Singh is dragged off to be shoved in front of Zorawar Singh (Nagendra Rao), who is the ruler of Bhairongarh. Zorawar Singh likes to think of himself as Maharaja Zorawar Singh, and is therefore very irritated when Madho Singh contemptuously addresses him as zamindar. There is much anger on both sides, and Zorawar Singh is furious at the thought that Bhavanigarh is getting an heir.
… but he’s wrong, because Bhavanigarh hasn’t got just one heir, it’s got two. The Maharani gives birth to Siamese twins, whom the doctor, being such a genius, manages to surgically separate very quickly and efficiently. The babies are fine, the royal parents are thrilled to bits, and soon a somewhat battered but otherwise whole Madho Singh is back too.
The happy Maharaja decides to hold a grand feast in honour of his two new sons. The world and his wife have been invited for the celebrations, and Zorawar Singh, who hasn’t received an invite, is incensed. He will not be insulted thus! So he and a group of his most shifty-eyed minions gatecrash the party. Madho Singh is all for shooing them out, but the benevolent Maharaja stops him. On a day as auspicious as this, nobody—not even an enemy—should be sent away.
Zorawar Singh, unfortunately, has no such high ideals. In the middle of the festivities, he and his men break loose, brandishing their swords and killing people left, right and centre. The Maharani hurries away to her chambers with her women; the Maharaja is killed by Zorawar Singh. When the Maharani learns of his death, she collapses. The doctor, who hurries to her, is told to take the little princes and escape. Nothing else matters.
So the doctor, wisely not waiting to argue, gathers up the babies and, using a trapdoor which leads into a tunnel (where would royalty be without convenient tunnels leading away from their palaces?) escapes. Behind him, Zorawar Singh and his minions set fire to the palace and all other habitation around it.
Back at his own home-cum-clinic, the doctor receives a visit from a wealthy couple, whom he trusts enough to tell who these two babies are. They also notice something interesting (if hard to believe): the babies are completely in sync with each other. One cries, and the other begins to cry too. One falls silent, so does his brother. That’s probably because they were once joined together, explains the doctor in what sounds like a most unscientific explanation. Their bodies have been separated, but their feelings cannot be separated.
Just then, a wounded Madho Singh arrives too. He’s weeping, because he thinks the entire royal family has been wiped out. The doctor reassures him and takes him to see the princes for himself. In the midst of this, an injured soldier of the Bhairongarh army arrives, seeking medical help. The doctor manages to get rid of this man without much difficulty, but it brings home to him and Madho and the couple one disturbing fact: they are on Bhairongarh territory and these twins are in very real danger of being discovered.
The couple offer to take them away immediately, but Madho interjects: the very fact that they are twins may draw unwanted attention to them and arouse suspicion. He suggests an alternative: he will take one baby with him into the forest, where he will train him to be a warrior. The couple will take the other baby.
This everybody agrees to, and so the two princes, Vijay and Vikram, go to different homes, and grow up completely unaware of a brother’s existence.
Grown-up, Vijay (Ranjan), who’s been brought up by the couple and is a wealthy young man, encounters the beautiful Ranjana (Bhanumathi) at a stage performance. Simultaneously, Ranjana is also noticed by a leering Zorawar Singh, also seated in the audience. Zorawar Singh may be old and creaking in the joints, but he imagines himself quite a Lothario. He therefore instructs his henchman Himmat Singh (VPS Mani) to get Ranjana for him—which Himmat Singh attempts on the staircase, after the show is over and everybody is streaming out of the theatre.
Vijay, descending the steps just behind Ranjana, comes to her aid. Although he fells Himmat Singh, Himmat Singh manages to get in a blow too, piercing Vijay’s shoulder…
… which brings Vikram, sleeping far away in his jungle cabin beside Madho Singh, wide awake with a sharp pain in his shoulder. Madho Singh is unconvinced when Vikram starts babbling about being wounded in the shoulder and then having a pretty woman, with her soft hands, come up to him and start bandaging the shoulder. It’s all a dream, says Madho.
Which it isn’t, not for Vijay, who has thus endeared himself to Ranjana. Just a few exchanged glances, some very brief banter and a song at a piano later, Ranjana and Vijay are an item.
Around this time, the doctor steps in. He has bided his time till Vijay and Vikram’s twentieth birthday; now he sends out a missive (by pigeon post) to Vikram, summoning him along with Madho Singh to a spot in the countryside. (I like the fact that it’s not as if Madho Singh has completely cut off all ties with the world, and that the meeting of the two brothers doesn’t hinge on a series of coincidences).
At the ruins of the temple of the clan deity of the Bhavani dynasty, Vikram (accompanied by Madho Singh) and Vijay (accompanied by the doctor) meet and are introduced to each other. There is some initial astonishment, but then Vikram realizes why he’s been getting these odd ‘dreams’. Because he has a brother, a twin brother, who was once actually joined to him!
While the doctor returns home, Vijay stays on in the jungle with Vikram and Madho, the two brothers taking it upon themselves to start harassing Zorawar Singh—by attacking his troops, now here and now there. The troops are spooked but Zorawar Singh, infuriated by what seem to him concocted stories of being attacked by exactly the same men at exactly the same time, but in spaces far apart—is not impressed.
Soon, though, things start hotting up. Because Zorawar Singh, following up on that urge to get to know Ranjana better, soon tries to take her by force. Ranjana (smart cookie that she is) has summoned her lover Vijay at the first sign of trouble, and manages to give Zorawar Singh the slip and run off with Vijay into the forest. Where, what with Vikram already enamoured of the woman he has ‘seen’ through that telepathic connection he shares with Vijay, is soon torn between his own desire for Ranjana and his sense of fraternal duty.
What I liked about this film:
Its overall soundness of script. It’s a good solid swashbuckler, not like the shoddily sketched action films that people like Dara Singh were to, in later years, churn out by the dozen.
While Nishaan stays faithful to some tropes—the brothers separated in babyhood, the common love interest, the old enemy, the faithful friends to help—it also introduces some interesting and somewhat unusual nuances of its own. For example, there is the fact that Vikram, having fallen for Ranjana (a situation which, in countless other Hindi films, invariably has one man—the ‘outsider’ in the triangle—cheerfully giving up even trying), does not back down. Instead, selfishly, he refuses to give way and continues to press his suit. There’s also Zorawar Singh’s mistress, Neelam (Maya Banerjee), who despite not having too many scenes in the film, is an interesting character. (In some ways, actually, this film reminded me of The Prisoner of Zenda: one woman, loved by two men who look identical; the enemy’s mistress, who is eventually sympathetic; and some pretty impressive fencing).
There’s the dancing. Unlike films which featured great dancers—Waheeda Rehman, Vyjyanthimala, the Travancore Sisters, etc—Nishaan doesn’t have Bhanumathi doing too much dancing. Instead, there are several ‘group dances’, with a group of dancers, both male and female, dancing together, and beautifully too.
And, the reason I saw Nishaan in the first place: Jaiyo jaiyo sipahiya bazaar. A delightful song, and one that’s delightful in many ways: Shamshad’s singing of it, Bhanumathi’s acting, the situation. There are a couple of other good songs in Nishaan (I especially liked Teri meri yeh kahaani roz nayi and Pardes na jaiyo), but none of the calibre of Jaiyo jaiyo sipahiya bazaar.
What I didn’t like:
The acting is occasionally a little theatrical (not much, and not enough to be really irritating). And Ranjan doesn’t look the hero. His acting is fine, but I’m used to better-looking heroes.
But that’s it. Just two little niggles, and neither bad enough to take away from the otherwise general view-worthiness (is that a phrase?) of this film. If you like swashbucklers, do give this one a try. It’s available on Tom Daniel’s Youtube channel (tommydan55), here.