When I was reading Balaji Vitthal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s The Prince Musician, I came across a mention of this film, which I had never heard of. But the songs listed as being part of Sitaaron Se Aage were familiar to me, and both leads—Ashok Kumar and Vyjyanthimala—are among my favourites. Recently, reading HQ Chowdhury’s Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, I was reminded again of Sitaaron Se Aage, and decided it was high time I watched it.
And what a showcase of SD Burman’s music this film is—right from the start. It begins with Sambhalke yeh duniya hai nagar hoshiyaaron ka, with Lattu (Johnny Walker) and his cronies, the pickpockets Bajjarbattu and Nikhattu, going about relieving passersby of their belongings. The three end up outside a theatre, where the superstar actor Rajesh (Ashok Kumar) has just completed yet another highly-acclaimed performance.
But Rajesh is not happy. His long-time co-star Rajni (Rajasulochana) is not being as professional as he would like, and Rajesh, who is enough of a star to have a huge say in the theatre company’s work, is beginning to think they need a new heroine. He has a chat with the theatre manager Shyamlal (Jagdish Sethi) but the other man is reluctant to rock the boat.
Rajesh’s stature as a celebrity means he’s in danger of being mobbed as soon as he steps out of the theatre building, so helped by his general dogsbody Shambhu (Manmohan Krishna), who disguises him in wig, beard, achkan, etc, Rajesh slips out. He makes his way successfully through the mob, but not before Nikhattu has picked Rajesh’s pocket.
The crowd of fans is soon told the truth by Shyamlal, who informs them that Rajesh left before their very eyes, and in what disguise.
This piece of information, combined with the wallet—with Rajesh’s photo on the inside—that Nikhattu offers up that evening as part of the day’s collections, makes Lattu realize that Nikhattu has nicked the wallet of their idol. This will never do; they must return it, and with an apology note too.
Lattu accomplishes this task, while Rajesh is discussing with Shyamlal the knotty problem of the non-performing Rajni. Only later, when he’s on his own, does Rajesh realize that his wallet (which he knew had gone missing) is back, and with an apology too. He guesses (based on where the wallet had been slipped back into his pocket) where the repentant perpetrators are to be found: at the Paris Bar.
So Rajesh, again in disguise, goes to the Paris Bar, confronts Lattu & Co., and receives, along with a second apology, much adulation. Rajesh is so impressed by Lattu’s sincerity, he lends him 1000 rupees to take up some respectable work.
There has to be a good reason why all this is happening in a bar/club: and here she is! Kanta (Vyjyanthimala) is the dancer at the Paris Bar, and she comes on now, doing a song and dance that leaves Rajesh wide-eyed with wonder.
Later that evening, still in disguise, he manages to make his way to Kanta’s house. Kanta, who lives with her uncle, aunt and cousins, is suspicious. Yes, she says, there have been others too, men coming to her home late at night after seeing her perform, men all praise for her dancing, men who—like this ‘old man’—insist they will help her put her talent to good use, if only she will entrust herself to them. Yes, she’s seen them all, and she trusts no-one.
Rajesh is thus booted out, but before leaving, he gives a visiting card to Kanta, who flings it away contemptuously.
Next day, at the theatre, a frustrated Rajesh watches as Rajni makes a hash of her lines, and cannot dance a step even though the choreographer (played by the multitalented lyricist, composer and choreographer Prem Dhawan) shows her, once again, exactly how it’s to be done.
At this point Rajesh notices Kanta sitting at the back, looking on. He goes to her, introduces himself (he readily admits that he was in disguise the other night) and asks if she would be able to do the dance Rajni is supposed to be performing. When Kanta agrees, Rajesh dismisses the rest of the lot (though they hang around in the wings, and so watch what transpires).
Basically, Kanta shows that yes, she can dance. Rajni is scornful, but a little worried too. Rajesh is ecstatic, and so is the manager, Shyamlal, who offers Kanta a salary of Rs 1000. Kanta refuses. Shyamlal goes on increasing the salary he’s offering, but Kanta goes on refusing. Eventually, somewhat bluntly, she says that she will settle for nothing less than 25,000. Advance.
Having dropped this bombshell, Kanta leaves.
Later that evening, a puzzled Rajesh (disguised, as usual) heads for the Paris Bar. Asking for Kanta (who isn’t dancing today), he is directed downstairs to a gambling hall, where he finds Kanta acting pretty mercenary and trying her luck at a game of chance. Rajesh (whose luck seems to be especially fantastic) wins Rs 1000 for her, then insists she leave the table. They go to the bar, Kanta orders coffee for both of them, and they’re waiting when the Paris Bar’s proprietor turns up, leering at Kanta and offering her a bracelet which he tells her is hers. For a moment, Kanta looks as if she’s going to accept it, but then she refuses and leaves.
Rajesh, sensing something is wrong, follows her out and asks her to come with him, for a drive.
During the drive, Kanta reveals why she, a ‘good’ girl, was at the gaming tables. Some years back, her uncle (the man whom Kanta lives with) lost 25,000 at the gaming tables—25,000 which wasn’t even his own money; it was from the place where he worked (Uncle is that lethal combination of gambler and embezzler—and more, as we soon discover). The owner of the Paris Bar agreed to let the debt be paid back slowly, so that Uncle would not have to go to jail. In return, Kanta was to dance at the Paris Bar. Her monthly salary goes towards repaying that 25,000 debt to the owner of the Paris Bar.
So Rajesh, aka Robin Hood, along with Lattu & Co., goes to meet the Paris Bar’s owner the next day. He hands over 25,000 and gets back the deed for it, though after having to employ some strong arm tactics: the man isn’t willing to let go of it so easily.
But Kanta is by now in dire straits. When she got back home the previous night, her uncle (?) and aunt (Leela Misra) accused her of being sluttish, dancing as she does at the Paris Bar. Kanta lashed out at them, reminding them of the truth and why she’s having to work at the Paris Bar. When they went on berating her (Auntie griped about who will marry her daughters when they discover their cousin is a tawaif), a furious Kanta left—with Uncle and Auntie abusing her till the end.
When Rajesh turns up to let Kanta know he’s repaid the debt, Kanta immediately concludes that he now holds her fate in his hands, and that this is Rajesh’s way of gaining control over her. She is very surprised when he denies anything of the sort, even tearing up the deed and throwing it at her feet.
Kanta now accepts the role in the play Rajesh and Shyamlal are producing. She practices diligently, and her rehearsing with her ‘friend and mentor’ Rajesh makes Kanta begin to realize that she feels something for him that is more than friendship or gratitude… things are looking up for Kanta. No hypocritical uncle and aunt, no exploitative employer, no more dancing in a sleazy bar.
Kanta goes through the usual first night jitters and all, but with Rajesh’s support and guidance, she gets through it, and with her very first play, which is titled Saiyaan, she becomes a star. Kanta is extremely popular, and Rajesh, though they’re now preparing for their next production—a play called Sitaaron Se Aage, written by Rajesh himself—cautions Kanta. She shouldn’t let her success go to her head. She’s still a long way from being where she could be.
Kanta is hurt (and I’m beginning to think: was this film a precursor to Abhimaan? Is Rajesh jealous?) but she tries to swallow down that hurt—and Rajesh is sensitive enough to realize that it has hurt—and they continue to practise.
Meanwhile, though, trouble is brewing. The person who’s really jealous of Kanta’s success is Rajni, whom Kanta displaced as lead female star. Rajni has raved and ranted at the manager, Shyamlal, who says he’s helpless.
Now Rajni tries another avenue. She’s having an affair with a junior actor named Mohan (Iftekhar, in an unusual role: the first time we see him talking in this film, it’s a romantic scene, between Rajni and Mohan). Rajni has concocted a plan to sabotage Kanta’s career, and to further Mohan’s career, at the same time.
What they need to do is get Rajesh out of the picture. Rajesh is Kanta’s mentor and support; with him gone, Kanta won’t have a leg to stand on. At least, even if Kanta is still retained as the lead, Mohan will get a chance to take on the part that Rajesh is currently playing…
So, on the opening night of Sitaaron Se Aage, Rajesh dramatically swings down a rope (which, unknown to him, Mohan has partly sawn off above)—and just as dramatically plummets to the floor below.
What I liked about this film (and what I didn’t like):
I’m including the two under one head, because what I liked was so little compared to what I didn’t like.
What I liked was SD Burman’s music (to Majrooh Sultanpuri’s words). While Sitaaron Se Aage may not have one of those all-hit scores like Nau Do Gyaarah, Pyaasa or Guide, it does have some wonderful songs—my favourite being Chanda ki chaandni ka jaadoo, followed by Sambhalke yeh duniya hai nagar hoshiyaaron ka. Roye jiya aan milo more piya was a revelation, because (though I’ve probably come across this bit of information before, I hadn’t heard the song before I watched this film), it’s obviously been inspired by one of the immortal Western hits of the 50s, Sway (which, by the way, is my favourite Dean Martin song).
Now, on to the stuff which I didn’t like, and that centres mostly round the way the story plays out. In its essence, this could have made for a fairly emotional but touching story: the way it’s handled, though, makes it melodramatic and downright irritating at times. For one, it’s patchy. Too much time is devoted in the first half of the film getting Kanta and Rajesh together (as in together on stage: the development of their romance is pretty close to zero). Beyond the halfway mark, the story suddenly switches to Lattu & Co., and goes from being a drama to a somewhat lame comedy. Then, in the last 15 minutes or so, it suddenly switches gears again and speeds up, hurtling towards a somewhat predictable but abrupt end.
Another thing that annoyed me: the way the two main women in the film (I’m not counting Shammi’s character, who’s there only briefly) are depicted. Either as the prime manipulator (Rajni is the one who leads Mohan ‘astray’) or as the naïve ‘manipulatee’ (for someone who had the guts to stand up to her uncle like that, Kanta shows a sad lack of spine when confronted with Shyamlal and Sinha—it takes a long and sanctimonious lecture for her to see the error of her ways. Ugh).
Plus, of course, there’s the fact that so much good talent—even great talent, when it comes to acting—has been so wasted. With a cast like that, and a basic storyline that could have been good, there was a chance here of creating a pretty likeable film. What it is, though, is forgettable. Watch the songs, but that’s it.