If Hindi cinema has ever had an iconic onscreen villain—not a villain in one film, but in film after film—it has got to be Pran. There have been other actors, from Wasti to Ajit, Ranjeet to Madan Puri, who have played memorable villains in films: but none, in my opinion, was quite able to sustain it and make it so much his forte that his own name became a synonym for villainy (it’s common knowledge that for many years, Indian parents refused to name baby boys Pran because of Pran).
In film after film, from period dramas like Halaku to comedies like a Half Ticket, from weep fests like Do Badan to supernatural stuff like Madhumati—Pran was in them all. With aplomb, he carried off every shade of villainy, whether it was the lisping and ruthless truck driver Mohan of Kashmir ki Kali or the tuneless dacoit-cum-gentleman of Munimji. He even did the occasional unusual role (as a doctor in Aah, and as a kotha frequenter in a cameo in Devdas), until, in the late 1960s, he began to play some sympathetic characters as well. From the cynical Malang Chacha of Upkaar, to Dev Anand’s long-lost brother in Johny Mera Naam, to his role in Zanjeer: Pran proved that he wasn’t just a great villain, he was a great actor, period.
Today would have been Pran’s hundredth birthday: he was born on February 12, 1920 in Delhi. And, to mark the occasion of his hundredth centenary, I thought I’d review a Pran film with a difference. Not Pran as the villain, but Pran as the hero. A young, gangly Pran, probably not even twenty-two years old yet, plays opposite a girlish Noorjehan in one of the first Hindi films to get a lot of pre-release publicity: Khandaan.
Pran here plays Anwar, the son of Amjad (Ghulam Mohammad). Amjad and his wife have a young daughter named Najma (Baby Akhtar); in addition, Amjad”s household includes his orphaned niece Zeenat (Noorjehan).
Anwar, Zeenat and Najma are practising amateur theatricals when the story begins. In the course of the enactment (which includes Zeenat, acting as the Empress Noorjehan, shooting an intruder with a pistol), Najma—playing the intruder—insists on being shot with a real pistol, not the shabby fake Zeenat’s armed with.
When challenged to produce a real pistol, Najma says she knows where she can get one: from her father’s desk drawer.
She succeeds in the theft, but is caught by her parents. Najma is given a scolding and booted out affectionately, but once she’s gone, her mother (?), all shaken up, wishes Amjad would get rid of the pistol. It’s killed two people, it’s inauspicious. If you can’t get rid of it, at least keep it locked away, she says.
The dark past of this pistol is soon cleared up, when Anwar learns of it from his father. Amjad tells his son the sordid secret: this pistol belonged to Amjad’s father, Akbar. When Amjad was about twelve years old, Akbar murdered a ‘woman of ill repute’ with whom he was in love. He also murdered her lover, killing both of them with this very pistol.
Akbar was sentenced to 28 years for the murders. His wife, horrified at what had happened, and unable to bear the trauma of being regarded by everybody as the wife of a murderer, shifted, along with Amjad, from their native Lucknow to Delhi. Amjad himself was shattered by the incident: other sons, he tells Anwar, receive inheritances—property, wealth, name and fame—from their fathers. What did he get? Ignominy.
This is why, when he received the news of his father’s death in jail, Amjad breathed a sigh of relief. He now shows Anwar the pistol, on which are etched the names of their ancestors who have owned it since it was first bought. One name—Akbar’s—has been scratched out. Amjad says he did that when he learnt he was now rid of the father who had brought shame to the family.
Unknown to Amjad, however, Akbar (Ibrahim) is far from dead. One day in Lucknow, he turns up at the home of a lawyer named Ram Saran Shukla (Durga Mota). Ram Saran did not merely represent Akbar at the murder trial, he was also Akbar’s best friend, and so Akbar has come to him. His sentence was reduced to 25 years on grounds of good conduct, and the only dependable person he knows is Ram Saran. Where is his family, he asks. His son?
The long and the short of this conversation is that Ram Saran tells Akbar of the fallout of his imprisonment: Amjad’s bitterness, and the fact that Ram Saran, feeling sorry for the (then) boy, decided to tell him that his father had died in jail. Amjad is now comfortably off and believes the past to have been left far behind, Ram Saran tells Akbar.
Anyhow, with Akbar having no means of earning a livelihood, Ram Saran offers to take him along to Delhi, where he can refer him to someone he knows.
Thus we have Ram Saran turning up at Amjad’s, where he is greeted with great joy. (I loved the sincere and matter-of-fact ease with which these interactions between a Muslim family and their old family friend, who’s a Hindu, is shown. Anwar and Najma address Ram Saran as Dadaji, Amjad calls him Chachaji, and the girls—even Zeenat, who veils herself from ‘male outsiders’—treat him as if he actually was their grandfather).
Ram Saran tells them that he’s visiting Delhi with some other people, and while he’s here, has a favour to ask of Amjad. With him, he’s brought along an old man who’s looking for employment. He’s a good man, but in dire straits, and poor. Will Amjad help him? The old man (Akbar, though Amjad does not recognize him, and vice-versa) is summoned, and Amjad feels sorry enough for him to employ him as a gardener. Akbar is touched, and promises to do his very best.
He does, and has soon endeared himself especially to little Najma, who is very touched that he makes garlands for her: the old gardener never did! She, all innocence, also asks him if he has nobody of his own, and the old man says he does have a son, who is well-off. Najma, naturally, is indignant: if his son is wealthy, why is he having to work for a living here? The old man doesn’t say.
Meanwhile, Anwar and Zeenat are deeply in love. Anwar’s parents approve and want them to get married. There is, however, one haddi in the kabab: Iqbal (Ajmal), also a distant cousin of Zeenat’s. Iqbal has studied in England and has brought back from abroad all the worst idiosyncrasies of the stereotypical vilayat-returned desi of 1940s Hindi cinema. Everything that smacks of tradition is anathema to Iqbal (who introduces himself as Eyeball)…
… except Zeenat, whom he’s nuts about. However, since Zeenat only loves Anwar and their love even has the approval of Anwar’s parents, Iqbal’s romance is completely one-sided.
Until now, when Iqbal makes the acquaintance of a theatre actress named Nargis (Manorama, looking very different from her later avatar as the bossy-villainous-comic actress of films like Seeta aur Geeta). Nargis has just arrived in town to do some shows, and has checked into a hotel where Iqbal is also staying. He comes to her rescue after she accidentally gets locked into the bathroom, and Nargis is grateful for Iqbal’s help.
This happens to be the same day that Ram Saran comes calling at Amjad’s house. When Ram Saran takes his leave, Amjad, Anwar, and the girls plead with him to stay for a meal. Ram Saran refuses regretfully, saying he must return to the hotel where he’s staying with the people he’s travelling with: they’ll be wondering where he is. When Anwar and Najma’s mother is told this, she refuses to accept it as an excuse. Let Chachaji go back to the hotel if he wishes, she will have food sent for him and his travelling companions.
But Ram Saran, arriving at the hotel (which is the same one where Nargis and her troupe are staying), finds that his companions have ditched him. They’ve gone off to the railway station. Ram Saran checks out in a hurry and leaves, and the room he’d been occupied is given to Nargis, who’d given instructions to be given a double room as soon as one is vacant.
So Anwar, with the promised meal all neatly packed in a tiffin carrier, arrives at Room #10 of the hotel and assumes that Nargis is the daughter of the family Ram Saran had come to Lahore with. Nargis, in turn, thinks Anwar is the hotel manager, come with the lunch she’d ordered. It takes some time for the misunderstanding to be resolved, but it is, to their mutual amusement.
When Anwar finally leaves, Iqbal—who has been waiting to meet Nargis again—comes into her room and makes a proposition: will Nargis work her charm on Anwar? He’s ripe for the picking, and if Nargis just puts in a little effort, she will be able to entrap him, thus breaking up the Anwar-Zeenat jodi and leaving the field clear for Iqbal. Nargis agrees, for a price: Rs 1000.
You can probably guess what happens next; the average Hindi film femme fatale, when she decides to get her claws into a naïve young man, invariably succeeds.Except that here, it’s not just a case of the love story needing a course correction: there’s a much-hated long-lost father to be united with his son as well.
What I liked about this film:
The music, by Ghulam Haider (the lyrics are by Nazim Panipati, DN Madhok, and MD Taseer). My favourites include some lovely songs by Noorjehan: Hum khelenge aankh-micholi, Tu kaun si badli mein mere chaand hai, and Mere liye jahaan mein chain na karaar hai.
The scenes that depict non-romantic love. I don’t know who wrote the script or the dialogues for Khandaan (the copy I watched on Youtube has most of the credits lopped off), but their forte seems to lie in depicting familial love (or near-familial). The scenes between Ram Saran and Amjad’s family, as I’ve mentioned, were realistic and heartwarming in an unaffected sort of way. A similar tone marks the interactions (and there are several of them) between Najma and the old gardener (who, despite being her grandfather, doesn’t—like the girl herself—know it). There’s a sweetness and a warmth to their scenes together, a sincerity in the dialogues, that I really liked.
And, Pran. Yes, he is very young and far from the accomplished actor he was to become in later years, but there’s a believability that comes through, despite the melodramatic situations and the somewhat clunky dialogue he is often required to deliver. I especially like that he portrays the naïve, pleasant and youthfully innocent Anwar who loves Zeenat and is devoted to his family as believably as he portrays the Anwar who has fallen prey to the wiles of the evil Nargis. Two very different sides of the same man, and played adequately.
What I didn’t like:
Ajmal as Iqbal. He is distinctly unfunny: the mannerisms, the tics, the stilted Hindustani dialogues with a liberal sprinkling of English—all drove me up the wall. One of the all-time irritating greats of early Hindi cinema.
And, the equally irritating portrayal of a love gone sour. When Anwar and Zeenat are in love, they’re a little sachharine-y, but that’s pretty much par for the course. When Anwar’s infatuation with Nargis comes between them, everything goes for a toss. Zeenat, regressive as they come, spends all her time moaning and groaning and praying that Anwar will return—and does her bit by offering him money which he needs to take Nargis wining and dining! If all you can do to get your love back is help him woo your rival, you deserve the philanderer back.
Anwar, on his part, is just as bad: he hits women left, right and centre. Zeenat’s proffering of money is rewarded with a blow that sends her, and the money, reeling. Najma, in turn, happens to be in the way of a passing Anwar (who’s very angry at the way his love life is progressing), and gets kicked for no rhyme or reason other than that she’s in his way.
Eventually, though, not a terrible film. True, there are those irritating bits (and there’s a good bit of melodrama, especially near the end), but it’s no worse than many other films of the 40s and 50s. Plus, it has decent music.
Happy hundredth, Pran! May your films endure.