I started my first draft of this post by writing that “I watch some films because of the people who made them”. Then it struck me that that, almost invariably, is the only reason I do watch a film. After all, everybody—the director, the music director, the lyricist, and of course the cast (besides the many hundreds of other, often unnamed, people) who work on a film are those who made them. Sometimes, it’s the cast that appeals to me: give me people like Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sadhana, Waheeda Rehman—oh, and many more—and I will happily begin watching any film they’re in (whether or not that experience will end up being as rewarding a one I’d hoped for is another matter). Sometimes, it’s just the name of a well-loved and much-respected director—Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Vijay Anand among them—that’s enough.
Sometimes, it’s the music. Sometimes, it’s just one song.
In this case, it was just one song. I was singing Chanda mama door ke to the LO the other day, and I thought: that’s a nice song, and Geeta Bali looks so pretty; I wonder what the film’s like.
And so I watched Vachan.
The story gets off to a flying start, with no time wasted about setting up a romance for the hero and heroine. They—Kamla (Geeta Bali) and Prem (Balraj)—are already very much in love, even though their circumstances couldn’t be more different. Prem is a very wealthy young man, the only offspring of a widowed mother (Praveen Paul), who spends her days complaining of high blood pressure and yelling at the opium addict munim, Ghasi Ram (Radhakrishan), who seems to be not just a munim but some sort of general factotum in the house.
Kamla, on the other hand, is from a poor and rather distressed family [and they’re going to get much more distressed in the days to come]. She lives with her father (SK Prem), and two brothers—Kumar (who has just given his BA exams, and wants to do an MA after this), and Kishore, who is in school. Daddy, whose eyesight is pretty bad, works as an accountant. It’s not a job that pays well (Kumar’s assertion that he wants to do his MA and Kishore’s plea for money to go on a school tour to Agra makes him look very worried, but he gamely agrees: he will work harder and do all he can to get the money to pay for all of it).
But disaster strikes early, and hard. Daddy is sacked—because of his poor eyesight, he’s been making far too many mistakes at work. He rushes off to plead with the boss (Madan Puri), who says he can’t help it; the errors are too many. They cannot keep him on any longer.
An idea strikes Daddy: will the boss take on Kumar in his stead? After all, Kumar is a bright young man, and he’ll be certain to pass his BA. The boss, fortunately, isn’t utterly unreasonable; he agrees. If Kumar passes his BA, certainly he can be given his father’s old job.
A relieved Daddy breaks this news to Kumar, who, for the briefest of moments, looks disappointed that his dream of an MA has gone down the drain. But he rallies around, says that this will be good for them all, and that he can always do his MA on the side. Plus, he knows he did well in his BA exams. He’s sure to pass.
Daddy couldn’t be happier. Now all that is needed is to get Kamla married too. Kumar, who knows all about the Kamla-Prem love affair, tells Daddy that Kamla already has a groom identified, so Daddy [instead of berating his daughter about gallivanting around with men, as any other filmi father would do] finds out who the man is—and goes off to meet Prem’s mother…
… who, in as refreshing a change from the norm, says she only wants a bahu, not a dowry. Munim Ghasi Ram looks horrified at this, and when Kamla’s father has left, does try to reason with Prem’s mother, but she is adamant. They have all they want; why be greedy?
All is happy. Kumar and Daddy visit the jeweller to order Kamla’s wedding jewellery [I am a little surprised that Kamla is not involved in choosing her own jewellery]. The date for the wedding has been fixed, her trousseau has been bought, other arrangements are being made. Kamla and Prem, out on a date, find themselves near a small temple and, in anticipation of their coming marriage, Prem slips a ring on Kamla’s finger. [No, there’s nothing about “This makes you my wife, so let’s have some fun, shall we?”].
Of course, because everything is going so well, disaster must strike. And it does. The BA results are announced. Kumar, buying a newspaper, sees he’s come first, and is so excited and eager to break the news to his father that he climbs on to his bicycle and goes pedaling off, very fast—and rams into a truck. Daddy, who has also learnt of Kumar’s success in the exams, has hurried home so quickly that he’s bumped into someone and broken his spectacles. No matter, no matter, says Daddy, in a hurry to get home…
… and when he does, it’s to see Kumar’s corpse there, surrounded by a mourning Kamla, Kishore, and neighbours. Daddy is so heart-broken, he bangs his head on the stone floor beside his son’s corpse, and concusses himself [yes, well. As if they didn’t already have enough on their plates, now Daddy must go and harm himself too].
The scene shifts to some weeks later; Kamla’s wedding is now only ten days away. The doctor is about to open the bandages around Daddy’s eyes; Daddy is glad he will finally be able to see.
But no. He cannot see. And suddenly, things are much worse than the family had thought they would be.
Because Daddy’s job is gone, and Kumar is gone, and soon Kamla will be gone too. With Daddy blind and Kishore a child, how will they make ends meet? Kishore bravely tells Daddy that he will give up school and do whatever petty jobs he can get to earn something. Kamla, overhearing this, feels very guilty—and even more so when a pair of passing beggars, a blind old man and his young son, burst into song, begging for a little to keep body and soul together. [What perfect timing].
So Kamla decides that she cannot possibly get married now. Seven years, she tells Prem. Give me seven years, in which I can work to support my father and educate my brother enough so that he can grow up and start earning. Prem says that there’s no need for that; he will look after Daddy and Kishore, and pay for Kishore’s education. But Kamla is adamant. Her father will not agree to that, anyway.
When Prem’s mother comes to know of this latest misfortune that’s befallen her future samdhi, she throws a fit [ably supported by Ghasi Ram, who adds fuel to the fire]. Ghasi Ram points out that if Prem marries Kamla now, his blind father-in-law and useless little brother-in-law will come and foist themselves on this house. And how can Prem think of waiting seven years?
So, when Prem comes to tell his mother of his decision to wait seven years for Kamla, his mother puts up a fine display of emotional blackmail, beating her head on a wall and then racing upstairs to throw herself off the roof so that she is spared the trauma of seeing her only son withering away into middle age still unmarried. Prem, naturally, capitulates.
Prem, therefore, is married off to Shyama (Neeroo). And Neeroo, when she inadvertently discovers that Prem had been in love with someone named Kamla, is furious. So furious that their marriage starts off on a bad note.
And meanwhile, Kamla is toiling away [no, not stitching clothes or rolling out papads à la Leela Chitnis etc, but at a typewriter, in an office], keeping her family afloat.
Pandit Mukhram Sharma, who was to go on to write several classic (and often surprisingly progressive) family dramas such as Gharana, Ek hi Raasta, Dhool ka Phool and Sadhana, wrote Vachan too: this was among his earliest films. It does bear the stamp of a lot of his later work—the strong central female character, the conniving villain who poisons the easily influenced mind(s) of weaker characters (in this case, nearly all female), the family breaking apart under misunderstandings. Vachan’s is not as powerful a story as—say—Dhool ka Phool or Sadhana, but it’s still a good, solid family drama.
What I liked about this film:
The music. While I watched Vachan for Chanda mama door ke, I realized it also had several other songs which I liked: Zara seekh lo akhiyaan sharmaana, Jab liya haath mein haath, and Woh din kahaan gaye mere. It is worth noting that Vachan marks the debut of one of my favourite Hindi film composers, Ravi (he even sang a duet, Yoon hi chupke-chupke, for this film).
Geeta Bali. She is the fairly usual, simpering young woman in the first few minutes of the film; it’s only when calamity strikes and Kamla rises to the occasion that Geeta Bali gets a chance to show off just how good an actress she was. There are moments when a brief flicker of an expression is enough to convey an emotion for which there are no words—for example, when Ghasi Ram comes visiting and tells the family (including a thirteen year-old Kishore) that he wants Kishore to grow up and marry his daughter, Kamla glances at her little brother with an amused smile, but there’s a twinkle in her eyes which suggests more. Ghasi Ram is nuts; why’s he talking about marriage to you?! True, a good bit of the film doesn’t require her to do more than the usual bearing-it-all-with-patience, but in the brief moments when she gets to show some spirit, Geeta Bali is great.
What I didn’t like:
I can live with the melodrama, of which I’ve seen far worse, so I will only mention that in passing here. But Balraj. Why Balraj? Geeta Bali deserved a better co-star here. Agreed, he doesn’t have a role throughout the film—he is there for a while, then disappears for a good while—but still. At least someone better-looking, and I wouldn’t have minded. This man was neither a great actor nor anything to look at.
Watch this for the songs, and for Geeta Bali.
(Incidentally, if you’re a Rajendra Kumar fan, watch this for him, too. Vachan’s credits list him as being ‘introduced’ here, but perhaps they mean just in a relatively major role, since he had appeared in bit parts in a couple of other films before. Here, he plays the grown-up Kishore).