In 1956, Waheeda Rehman made her debut in Hindi cinema in CID, with Dev Anand (Waheeda wasn’t the heroine of CID—Shakila was—but she had a good and somewhat offbeat role as the vamp with a heart of gold). Over the next decade and a half or so, Waheeda and Dev Anand were to go on to act together in several more films, probably their most famous pairing being in the hugely popular Guide (1965).
I have watched, as far as I know, all of the Waheeda-Dev films over the years. The only one that (again, as far as I know) I hadn’t watched yet was this one. Time, I decided, to make amends for that.
As in many other films of his, Dev Anand in Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja is a crook—a thief, to be precise. We are introduced to Chhagan (Dev) when he’s in a shady-looking dive, buying a bottle of booze. Shortly after, Chhagan is accosted by ‘Langad Deen’, a partly-crippled character (played by Jeevan), who has a bit of news for Chhagan: a steamer is about to begin the journey down the river to the pilgrimage spot of Shivsagar. Langad Deen has it on authority that among the people on board is a wealthy jeweller who is carrying a very valuable diamond to be offered up to the god Shiv at Shivsagar.
The idea being that Chhagan will get hold of that diamond, and the two of them (Chhagan and Langad Deen) will split it. But how do you split a diamond, says Chhagan, and goes off on his own, leaving Langad Deen fuming. But Langad Deen has an ace up his sleeve: he yells out to Chhagan that all the tickets on the steamer are sold out, and he, Langad Deen, has bought the last two. If Chhagan wants to be on the steamer to steal that diamond, he’ll have to come along with Langad Deen. He has no option.
Chhagan doesn’t seem to relish the idea of Langad Deen’s company. He goes to the office of the steamer’s manager, where the manager (Randhir, with an absolutely awful ‘Bengali’ accent) confirms that yes, there aren’t any more tickets left. Chhagan cannot go on the steamer.
But while he’s standing at the dock, trying to think of another way to get onto the steamer, Chhagan gets a glimpse of the passengers as they embark.
First up, there’s the ultra-religious (not in a nice way) Tapasvi Maharaj (Hiralal), who owns and runs an ashram for widows. He is escorting a group of widows to Shivsagar, and as he walks along, one of the widows (Sahira?) scurries along in front of him, sprinkling water from a kamandal in her hand, onto the path so that Swamiji’s feet may not be sullied by the dust.
In the crowd standing on either side, there’s a man (Gautam Mukherjee) with a camera in hand. The widow bending before Swamiji loses focus briefly, the kamandal drops from her hand, and Swamiji throws a tantrum. He accuses the woman of being distracted by the camerawallah. She, a widow, looking at a man! How shameful!
The widow, weeping, protests her innocence, and the man (who, it later turns out, is a writer), also comes to her rescue by telling Swamiji that it was his fault. The flash of his camera distracted the widow. Swamiji shouts both of them down, and still in a huff, tells the widow to get going again and to not repeat her mistake.
Not a nice man, this.
Also about to get on board the steamer is another person with a retinue. Baanke Bihari (Sunder) is a very wealthy and dissipated aristocrat (or faux aristocrat, whatever) from Lucknow, and he’s on board the steamer with four sycophants, all of whom spend their time shamelessly kow-towing to their lord and master (one of these hangers-on is played by Rajendranath). Baanke and his men are carrying several cases of liquor bottles, all of them to be immersed at Shivsagar, since Baanke has taken a vow to give up his beloved alcohol.
Then, there’s the jeweller, the Sethji (Jagdish Raj) because of whom Chhagan is interested in getting on this steamer. Sethji’s doing this journey along with his wife (Indira Bansal) and their little son. Some time previously, the son had been very seriously ill and had been more or less given up for dead. Sethji had then made a vow while praying to Shiv for his child’s recovery: if the boy would be well again, Sethji would offer up a valuable diamond at Shivsagar.
Finally, there is Chameli Bai (Manorama), who comes on board with her daughter Roopa (Waheeda Rehman). We—and Chhagan, and the rest of the crowd, both at the docks and on the steamer—do not get even a glimpse of the beauteous Roopa’s face because even before she sets foot on the ground, she’s surrounded by a mobile purdah, carried by two servants. Chameli Bai is very particular about her daughter’s modesty and honour.
Chhagan, not deterred by any of this veiling, sneaks a peek at Roopa’s pretty feet, and decides there and then that he’s going to get a better look at her. As it is, he has to get on that steamer anyway…
… which he does by swimming out and on to it.
Once on board, Chhagan quickly makes friends with the writer (who has again, accidentally, run into the widow, and been berated for it by Swamiji). Chhagan also meets Langad Deen, who has used the extra ticket to bring on board a nasty accomplice, a mute wrestler. This guy is going to help Langad Deen steal the diamond. Chhagan scoffs at the idea, but Langad Deen is quite certain he can swing it.
And so the stage is set. Unsurprisingly, within the first few hours, Chhagan has managed to make the acquaintance of the lovely Roopa. She is easily and quickly wooed too, succumbing to Chhagan’s charm so thoroughly that she hides him from her mother Chameli Bai by pretending to be doing her riyaaz (practising her dancing) instead of chatting with a man.
Mum is very suspicious—and, as it turns out, she has a horrible future in store for Roopa. Roopa had once suffered some ailment that had put one foot out of action for a long time; her desperate mother (an adopted mother, as it transpires, perhaps in an attempt to show us that a birth mother could never be as nasty as this female is shown to be) had prayed to Shiv, promising that fi Roopa was healed, she (Chameli) would bring Roopa to Shivsagar to dance before Shiv before launching her on her career…
… which is to be that of a tawaif. Roopa, so far resigned to her fate, has not done anything to avoid this, but now that she’s met Chhagan and sung a couple of songs with him, she’s beginning to realize that this isn’t a fate she wants. She wants to be Chhagan’s wife, not a dancing girl and/or prostitute.
What now? Will Chhagan, the degenerate atheist who has no qualms about stealing from the gods themselves, succeed in getting hold of the diamond, or will Langad Deen beat him to it? What happens when Roopa discovers that her beloved is a thief, and not the ‘good man’ she takes him to be? What of Roopa herself, who seems to have no control over her own life?
I had mixed feelings about this film. While the premise of it is interesting (and I’ve always had a soft spot for the ‘road film’—though I suppose in this case, calling it a ‘journey film’ would be more appropriate), not all of the film appealed to me.
What I liked about this film:
To begin with, the basic premise. A bunch of people travelling on a steamer, their interactions and relationships, the way things play out between them. There are some interesting characters here, and the dynamics between them are interesting, with the occasional unexpected development lending a sudden twist to the proceedings. The fact that these people are confined to the steamer through almost the entire length of the film—there’s only a brief period near the end which happens offshore—makes their dynamics even more interesting.
And, two songs. The music is by Shankar-Jaikishan, to lyrics by Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri. Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja has several songs, but two of these (interestingly, both in two versions) stand out for me: Tum toh dil ke taar chhedkar, and Aaja re aaja nain duaare.
Plus, the cast, which has plenty of stalwarts (I haven’t even mentioned Iftekhar yet, who appears in an uncredited cameo). The acting, overall, is good.
What I didn’t like:
The way things fizzle out near the end. It’s not as if I didn’t like the end, per se: the circumstances and events, as they are, make sense and tie up ends well. What doesn’t work is the way everything happens so quickly: there are too sudden and unexplained turnabouts, people change their minds and go completely contrary to their characters so far, and as a result, I generally ended up feeling the writer was rushing through this, in too much of a hurry to finish the story.
And, the two romantic relationships. The Chhagan-Roopa romance is the primary one in the film (the secondary romance actually takes up so little space that it might as well not have been there)—but Chhagan and Roopa don’t come across as a very loving couple to me. They fall in love too suddenly, too out of the blue, and then, in the last one-third of the film, they behave really shabbily towards each other. Roopa might be somewhat justified: she has discovered to her horror that her sweetheart is a crook—but Chhagan’s rudeness to Roopa and the way he pushes her around struck me as super nasty and unlover-like.
On the other hand, I would really, really have liked to see a more prolonged and intense building up of a relationship between Gautam Mukherjee’s writer and Sahira’s widow. There is a restrained and beautiful sort of chemistry between them, and I would have loved to see them as the focus of a more mature romance.
Still, all said and done, not a bad film. At least, it’s refreshingly different: how many Hindi films have you seen which are set almost completely on board a boat of some sort?