Today is the hundredth birthday of one of India’s greatest and most popular dancers of yesteryears. Sitara Devi was born in Calcutta on November 8, 1920, to a father who was a Sanskrit scholar and also both performed as well as taught Kathak. Her mother too came from a family with a long tradition in performing arts, so it was hardly a surprise that from a very young age, Sitara (her birth name was Dhanalakshmi) began to learn Kathak. By the time she was ten, Sitara was giving solo performances; two years later, at the age of twelve, she (having since moved to Bombay with her parents) performed onstage and so impressed film-maker/choreographer Niranjan Sharma that he recruited her to work in films.
Unlike several other skilled danseuses—Vyjyanthimala, the Travancore Sisters, Waheeda Rehman, etc—Sitara Devi did not let cinema take over her dance completely. She danced in a number of films, through the 40s and right up to Mother India (1957), which is believed to be her last onscreen appearance. She continued to give stage performances, even performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Sitara Devi wasn’t merely a film actress; she was also a great dancer. I wanted to pay tribute to her through a review of one of her films, and decided I’d choose Hulchul, which I wanted to watch for other reasons as well (more on this later).
Hulchul begins in a jail. A new arrival (Yaqub) makes his way into the jail, hailed by all the other inmates with much joy. Nanda is back, is he? Nanda, in turn, greets his old friends, enquiring after their health, asking how long this one has to go, and what that one is eating, so on. Nanda is, obviously, an old hand here.
But Nanda finds that there’s a stranger here, too: a man named Kishore (Dilip Kumar) who’s not one of the regulars. Never mind; Nanda will get him out too. Nanda is already planning an escape. Kishore doesn’t seem very interested; he doesn’t seem very interested in anything.
Part of Nanda’s escape plan relies on the fact that the jailor is occupied today. There’s much rejoicing and fanfare at his house next door, the sound of shehnais and celebration. Today is Jailor Sahib’s wedding day. Good distraction for Nanda and his minions to pull off a jailbreak.
They do, bursting out of their cells, grabbing guns from surprised guards, and knocking the guards out. Kishore too gets out of his cell, and arrives on the scene where Nanda is ready to shoot Jailor Sahib (Balraj Sahni), who, still clad in his wedding finery, has deserted his new bride even before he’s had a chance to lift her ghoonghat.
Kishore leaps forward and jerks the gun away, spoiling Nanda’s aim and saving the jailor’s life. The jailor immediately takes control of the situation, with the result that the would-be-escapees end up back in their cells. Nanda is annoyed at the way Kishore foiled his plans, but he’s philosophical enough to take that in his stride, and to wonder why Kishore acted the way he did.
Kishore’s explanation is simple: in that moment, with the jailor still wearing his bridegroom’s clothes, all Kishore could think of was that bride who was waiting for her husband. He was reminded of his own love, and he knew what anguish would be hers if her husband were to be killed on his wedding night.
Nanda asks about Kishore’s sweetheart, and Kishore tells his story.
Kishore’s father died when Kishore was still a boy. An old friend of his father’s therefore came and took orphaned Kishore to stay with him, to be brought up with his own children (both Kishore’s father and his friend appear to be widowers; there’s no mention ever made of the children’s mothers). This friend has two children: an older boy named Chandan, and a little girl named Asha. Somewhat in the style of Wuthering Heights, Chandan hates Kishore from the very beginning, while Asha becomes friends with Kishore too from the beginning.
More Wuthering Heights stuff happens: Father dies, and Chandan turns even more vicious. Kishore is transformed into a stable boy and made to do all of Chandan’s bidding. It’s as a stable boy, too, that he grows up—and now is in love with Asha (now Nargis). Their romance sizzles: at night, Asha sneaks out of the house, and she and Kishore walk to a nearby harshingaar tree, to sit under the falling blossoms and sing of their love…
… and to fall asleep. Chandan (now KN Singh) finds them thus and is so furious he’s ready to shoot Kishore. He forbids Asha to meet Kishore, but this only makes them more determined to defy Chandan. Asha and Kishore try to run away, and Chandan again thwarts them. Asha and Chandan both try to use emotional blackmail on their sibling, and finally Chandan capitulates. Asha and Kishore can marry, but not this way, not by running away together in this sneaky fashion. They will get married in the style to which Asha’s family is accustomed.
Chandan knows his opponent well: Kishore’s sense of dignity and self-respect is powerful enough for him to realize that he is too poor, too much of a nobody, to marry Asha with the pomp and fanfare Chandan is talking of. So Kishore asks Chandan for some time: a year, perhaps more, in which he can make something of himself. He will go to the city, he will earn well, and when he is worthy of that lavish wedding, he will return. Chandan agrees.
Kishore therefore goes to the city, and finds that the city has no jobs or opportunities to offer him. He is pushed down a flight of stairs from a grand edifice, and stumbles into the path of a car being driven by the wealthy Neelam (Sitara Devi). Neelam gets some passersby to help put the unconscious Kishore into her car, and she takes him to her own home. Here, she devotes herself to looking after this still-unconscious stranger whom she’s brought home, much to the annoyance of her associate, Paul (Jeevan).
Neelam is a dancer, as well as the owner of a carnival, and Paul is the star attraction at the carnival: he does the ‘leap of death’. He and Neelam seem to have something beyond a professional relationship, and Paul is so jealous of her obvious solicitude for Kishore that, in a huff, he leaves. Neelam isn’t even paying attention.
When Kishore comes to, and Neelam has assured him that he’s safe and welcome in her house, Neelam is told by a servant that Paul has gone—gone not just from Neelam’s house, but quit the carnival. He’s left a message that he will not be doing the leap of death from now on. Neelam is distraught. Now what? How will she find a substitute for Paul so quickly? The leap of death is the most popular show at the carnival; the carnival will pack up if the leap of death doesn’t happen.
At which point Kishore butts in and volunteers to do the leap. Neelam agrees, and though Kishore is almost falling apart with fatigue and pain and hunger, he obliges, setting himself aflame at the top of a tall ladder and diving into a large tank of water below to extinguish the flames. He’s a big hit, Neelam is much relieved, and thus begins Kishore’s association with Neelam.
At the very start, Neelam shows Kishore around her home (where he too will continue to live). Neelam’s home is full of stuffed animals, including a cat. This, says Neelam, was a beloved pet of hers. But it had one failing: it tried to run away. So here it is now, never more able to leave Neelam. She caresses it fondly, and an appalled Kishore asks if she had the cat killed. Of course, Neelam admits; it was the only way to keep it by her side forever.
Hmm. Kishore gets the idea. Which is why, even when it’s obvious that Neelam definitely slots him as a lover (if only in theory, not in practice) and begins addressing him as ‘Hero’, Kishore doesn’t disillusion her quickly. He needs the money, and he can’t afford to have Neelam get angry at this stage. Neelam spends much of her time very obviously trying to seduce Kishore.
Paul, watching from the sidelines, gets increasingly jealous. He tries to sabotage Kishore’s ‘leap of death’ act by partly sawing through the rungs of the ladder, but Kishore manages to escape. He also attacks Kishore in the theatre box where Kishore is watching Asha perform (interestingly, Sitara Devi, instead of performing the Kathak she was mostly known for, dances ballet here—she was also trained in Russian ballet).
While Paul is busy trying to kill Kishore, Neelam has been amping up her efforts to get Kishore into her arms (or, er, wherever). One night, she comes to him and makes her intentions known so clearly that Kishore finally speaks up: he’s in love with another woman. Neelam admits frankly that she guessed as much; after all, if he wasn’t in love with another, why would he not have fallen prey to her charms all this while?
To Neelam’s shock, Kishore makes it very clear that he has no intention of being unfaithful to Asha. Asha is the only woman he loves, and will ever love.
Neelam is so furious at this, she loses control and is now hell-bent on revenge (remember that stuffed cat? Neelam does not like her pets wandering away). She throws a fit, and breaks a series of breakable objects in her house (including a massive aquarium; the poor fish flap about on the floor).
She then goes to Paul and tells him to murder Kishore, which of course is right up Kishore’s alley.
Paul goes after Kishore with his gun, and meanwhile Neelam is surrounded by all those stuffed animals she’s decorated her house with. They’re driving her batty, their roars (which end up sounding more like doors creaking loudly) echo through her tormented mind—and Neelam, in the time-honoured tradition of all the best onscreen vamps—comes running and puts herself between Paul’s bullet and Kishore.
Kishore is too shocked to do anything, and Paul puts all the blame on him (how did this happen? Wasn’t there a forensics department at work? Didn’t they even find Paul’s fingerprints on the gun?). Kishore is accused of, and found guilty of, Neelam’s murder. That’s why he’s now in jail.
Outside the jail, in the neighbouring house, the jailor finally returns to his bride. He sits down on the bed, assures her that everything is now under control. And he reaches out and lifts up her ghoonghat.
Yes, well. A complication.
Little bit of trivia:
(This, besides Sitara Devi, was the other reason I wanted to watch Hulchul).
In 1949, K Asif (who was the producer of Hulchul) had promised Balraj Sahni the role of the jailor in Hulchul; and to get a feel of the jail, had even arranged for Balraj Sahni to visit Bombay’s Arthur Road jail, where he met the jailor as well. But by the time filming began, Balraj Sahni found himself in prison—he had been arrested while participating in a communist procession. Ironically enough, he eventually ended up in the Arthur Road jail, and face to face with the jailor whom he’d met earlier!
Sahni’s being in jail didn’t mean that he was dropped from the film. He continued to play the part of the jailor, and on every day of his shooting, was escorted to the sets by policemen. In his autobiography, Sahni has some interesting tidbits to share about this period, including this one:
“The day I had to report for the shooting, all the inmates would become animated. It was as if everyone had suddenly got film fever! I then used to be flooded with all manner of requests. Someone wanted a bottle of scented hair oil, or a tin of tooth powder; a film-fan wanted me to get him a photograph of Nargis and Dilip Kumar; or I might be asked to procure a packet of tea, or a particular brand of bidis or cigarettes. I would then arrive at the studio carrying in my pocket a long list of all these odds and ends. K.Asif would hand it over to his assistant and by evening, the ‘cargo’ would be delivered at the studio for me to carry it back to the jail!”
What I liked about this film:
The acting of Dilip Kumar, Nargis, and Sitara Devi. Dilip Kumar and Nargis have so much chemistry in their initial scenes, they are really convincing as lovers. The way they linger over each other, their gazes caressing the other, their voices low and dreamy: it’s easy to believe Kishore and Asha really, truly love each other.
And Sitara Devi is very good as the rather predatory Neelam too. She isn’t classically beautiful, but there’s something about that wide mouth and those eyes, that’s striking. Plus, the way she uses her hands, tousling Kishore’s hair, moving her fingertips along his face: the sensuousness is very believable, and she does come across as a very passionate woman who will not stop at anything. It does tend to get a bit melodramatic in her last scene, but not terrible.
Lastly, the music, which is credited to ‘Sajjad’ (is that Sajjad Hussain?) and Shaffi. Like any good self-respecting film of the 50s, Hulchul is chockfull of songs, and some of them are particularly good. Among the songs I liked were So rahe hain bhekhabar sonewaale gaon mein (picturized on a dance by Cuckoo); Koi kis tarah raaz-e-ulfat chhupaaye and Haai sadqe tere o baanke mere.
What I didn’t like:
The way it’s never explained why Asha married the jailor. I can guess why (Chandan was a bossy brother who merely took advantage of Kishore’s absence to marry his sister off to a more ‘worthy’ man), but I would have liked to see some sort of flashback, something which showed that Asha tried to resist. I can understand that, not having anyone else to stand by her, it would have been difficult to hold her own against a man like Chandan, but given that she was ready to go up against him when it came to running away with Kishore, it seems rather tame of her to have given in without a fight.
Overall, though, not a dreadful film. For me, it was worth watching for the songs and for the interesting background to Balra Sahni’s role here.
Plus, for Sitara Devi.