What a dreadful year this is turning out to be. As if the communal violence at the start of the year wasn’t bad enough, we were then hit by coronavirus. And as I struggle to cope, trying to keep my spirits high in the face of failing economies, loss of income, and of course the threat of a lethal disease—the last thing I needed was the passing of two of my favourite actors. Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, both very good actors, immensely watchable and with a charisma hard to match, died within 24 hours of each other.
This blog is not about cinema after 1970, so there will not be a separate tribute piece for these two brilliant actors, but yes: I did want to put it out there, my sorrow at their passing, a blow that oddly enough (given that I never even met either of them) hit really hard.
What this is, though, is a tribute to another actor, someone whose birth centenary it is today. Achla Sachdev.
Born on May 3, 1920 in Peshawar, Achla Sachdev worked in All India Radio, Lahore before independence, and having moved to Delhi after Partition, worked in All India Radio Delhi. While some sources put her debut film as Fashionable Wife (1938) and others say that she debuted as a child artiste, this source seems to suggest that her first acting role was as Shabbo, a young woman who is raped, her husband killed and her home destroyed, in BD Garga’s documentary Storm over Kashmir, from the 40s.
However she made her debut, Achla Sachdev went on to become one of Hindi cinema’s quintessential ‘screen mothers’, acting as the ever-devoted, long-suffering and loving mother of dozens of characters. Unlike, say, Nirupa Roy (who got to play rather more conventional lead roles in films like Rani Rupmati or Razia Sultana), Achla Sachdev was rarely anything other than the mother—even in English language films like The Householder.
Raat ke Raahi was one of the exceptions. Achla Sachdev’s character here is not a mother. In other ways, she is the somewhat weak-willed, devoted character Sachdev often played, but yes: she is not a mother.
The film begins at a deathbed, where Rita (Jabeen Jalil) is attending to her dying mother. Mum has been waiting for Rita’s elder sister Mary to come, but she can’t hold on any more. Before dying, Mum tells Rita that instead of living alone in this house Rita should go to Mary.
After her mother is dead, Rita weeps over a letter she had received but had never shown Mum. It’s from Mary: Mary says she can’t come, sorry.
Rita, according to her mother’s wishes, leaves soon after to go and live with Mary. On the way she runs into Bobby (Shammi Kapoor) at an inn owned by Bobby’s friend Johnny (Anwar Hussain). Bobby quickly hijacks Rita, ordering Johnny and Johnny’s girlfriend-cum-business partner Daisy (?) around, and sitting with Rita, chattering nineteen to a dozen. This man obviously has nothing much to do with his time, and Rita is quite fed up with him by the time she leaves Johnny’s Inn.
Then, on her way to Mary’s, Rita’s coach is stopped by a bunch of goons who try to molest/rob her (their intentions aren’t very clear), but before they can do any harm, who should turn up but Bobby again. He’s pretty good with his fists, and the goons soon run away. Rita isn’t impressed; more, she comes to the conclusion—from the goons’ behaviour when it comes to Bobby—that this man is the most dangerous goon of them all.
What Rita doesn’t know, however, is that Bobby’s image as a no-good loafer and drunk is all a façade; he is actually in cahoots with the local police. Inspector Robert (?) is a good friend of Bobby’s, and the two of them are working on trying to investigate a local crime network.
Meanwhile, Rita arrives at her sister Mary’s home. Mary (Achla Sachdev, always in dresses and with her hair mostly open, looks quite different from her usual sari-clad, bun-at-nape style) is happy to see her, but becomes a little shifty and nervous when Rita asks after Mary’s husband James. Mary deflects the question, but Rita is soon to find out…
… because when James (Nasir Hussain) comes home, Rita gets a rude shock. Her brother-in-law is rude, perpetually drunk, and thoroughly nasty. He’s the reason Mary couldn’t leave the house even for a day to see her dying mother.
Now James, having seen Rita, decides she must be part of his work staff: he runs a sarai or inn, which is really nothing more than a dingy dive frequented by disreputable drunks. James tells Rita she will come and serve his patrons. Dance for them, perhaps. Rita, who is a feisty sort and not a wet blanket like her sister, flatly refuses to do anything of the sort—which makes James fly into a rage.
Later that night, Rita realizes that her brother-in-law isn’t merely a drunk and nasty man, he’s also criminal. Hearing a noise downstairs, Rita looks out surreptitiously, and sees boxes and cases (full of what she assumes is stolen goods), being loaded on to a coach and driven off.
Something is wrong, Rita tells Mary. James is up to no good. But Mary, devoted wife that she is, tries to hush Rita and tell her that nothing’s wrong, Rita must forget she ever saw anything. James is all right, he’s not so very bad… but Rita doesn’t believe any of it.
Soon enough, Rita has met the very suave and kind Vaasan (Iftekhar), who seems to be the epitome of gentility.
And Bobby, whom she runs into several times again, always leaving Rita with a poor impression of him, finally makes a move to show Rita what sort of man he really is—with, of course, a predictable result: Rita falls in love with him.
What Rita doesn’t know right now is that Bobby is working with Inspector Robert. Or, what’s really troubling, that Bobby is the brother of the nasty James. And with James is an always-in-disguise, black-cloaked figure who supervises the criminal operations of the gang.
What I liked about this film (and what I didn’t like):
It’s going to be difficult for me to say this with any certainty, because the only versions of Raat ke Raahi that I found on Youtube (all of them copies of one version) are horribly edited and truncated, with sections (possibly not entire reels, but I could be mistaken) all jumbled up. Somewhere between the release of this film and its re-release in a digital format, it’s been really messed up, so if you watch it on Youtube, at least, you should be prepared to have to put in a good deal of guesswork about what’s happening.
That said, one of the biggest pluses of Raat ke Raahi for me was the refreshing, non-stereotypical way in which Christians are portrayed: not one of the almost all-Christian characters of the film speaks in Bambaiyya Hindi (or anything but good proper Hindustani). Bobby himself is pretty good at Urdu shaayari, and both quotes famous shers as well as concocts some of his own.
Then, there is the musical score (lyrics by VM Adil and music by Bipin Babul) of the film. It has several peppy, infectious songs that I liked a lot, among my favourites being Aa bhi jaa bewafaa, Tu kya samjhe tu kya jaane, and Maine pee hai.
Lastly: the cast. Shammi Kapoor, house favourite on Dustedoff, is very watchable as always. But what came as a pleasant surprise were the somewhat unusual roles of three important character actors of Hindi cinema: Achla Sachdev, Nasir Hussain and Iftekhar all play roles that are a departure from their usual type.
As to what I didn’t like, it’s hard to say, as I’ve already mentioned, since I don’t know at whose doorstep to lay less-than-satisfactory scripting and editing. The story didn’t strike me as particularly engrossing, and the fact that it was quite obvious who the mysterious dark-cloaked figure was, made it that less interesting.
Still, watchable for the cast, for the songs, and for the fact that it is one of the rare films featuring Christian characters who aren’t horribly stereotyped.
Happy birthday, Achla Sachdev! Thank you for the films.