After many years of telling myself I should read Mirza Hadi ‘Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada, I finally got around to reading a Hindi translation a couple of weeks back. This turned out to be an underwhelming experience (more details here, on my Goodreads review of the book), but it impelled me to read a synopsis of Umrao Jaan Ada. I ended up reading, too, about the screen adaptations of the book (which is regarded by many as the first Urdu novel), and was surprised to discover that, besides the Rekha-starrer and the (much later) Aishwarya Rai-starrer, there were two other films, both released in 1958, based on Umrao Jaan Ada. One was Mehendi; the other was Zindagi ya Toofaan. I haven’t got around to watching Mehendi yet, but the fact that one of my favourite actresses of the 50s, Nutan, starred in Zindagi ya Toofaan, made me eager to watch this one.
The start of Zindagi ya Toofaan is fairly faithful to Umrao Jaan Ada. An ex-convict, just emerged from jail, is met by two cronies and boasts to them that he will have his revenge on the man whose testimony was instrumental in putting him behind bars.
… and the scene shifts to that man’s home, where there is much celebration. A betrothal has taken place, the man’s young daughter having been engaged to her cousin, her father’s sister’s son. The girl and her brother are playing with her future groom, and behaving like children, disdaining the sehra and all the other trappings of weddings for rather more harum-scarum games.
That night, the criminal creeps into the house, and carries off, all unseen, the newly-betrothed daughter of the house. He takes her to a tawaif, who pays him for the child and takes the girl under her wing. She names the girl Niloufer, and introduces her to another little colleague, Firoza. Under the eagle eye of their new employer, Niloufer and Firoza begin their lessons in song, dance, and all the other arts of the courtesan.
Grown up, Niloufer (now Nutan) and Firoza (now Minoo Mumtaz) are the toast of Lucknow. At their kotha come hosts of men, all eager to listen to Niloufer’s songs and to watch Firoza’s dancing. Among these is the suave and somewhat louche Nawab Sultan Sahib (Yaqub), who keeps lusting after Niloufer, and whom she calmly keeps telling: “Please do not try to remove the curtain that hangs between us, Nawab Sahib.”
There is also Mirza Sahib (Om Prakash), who goes about with a bunch of keys at his waist, claiming that they’re the keys to various properties he owns across Lucknow and beyond. Mirza Sahib gives the occasional hundred rupees as nazraana at Niloufer’s and Firoza’s performances, and after he cadges a lift in Nawab Sahib’s buggy, gets himself dropped off in front of one of the most impressive old havelis in town.
One day, Niloufer travels to Unnao, having been invited to perform at a wedding. On the way, her little buggy crosses a horse rider, Akhtar (Pradeep Kumar), who soon after picks up an ornate slipper he finds lying on the dusty road. Akhtar guesses the owner of the slipper is in the buggy he sees up ahead, so he hails the buggy driver and stops it.
And, of course, thus meets the beauteous Niloufer. Akhtar is instantly bowled over by her (and it’s obvious that Niloufer too is not unaffected by him). But Niloufer, having thanked him for retrieving her slipper and returning it to her, goes her way.
That evening, in the grand haveli at Unnao where Akhtar has gone to attend the wedding of his friend (Suresh), he bumps into Niloufer in the garden. They get talking, of course, and Akhtar is openly admiring.
But further on, the conversation takes a disturbing turn for Niloufer. Akhtar (having surmised that Niloufer is a ‘shareef ghar ki ladki’) openly says that he detests tawaifs. Unlike the many debauched and dissolute nawabs and gentlemen of his acquaintance, he has no fondness for going to kothas and patronizing tawaifs.
His tirade is so vehement that Niloufer cannot bring herself to confess who she is. She slips away quietly from the garden, and next morning, when Akhtar meets his friend, the bridegroom, he’s told that the entire party from Lucknow has left last night itself. The friend also remarks that even the tawaif who had come to perform has departed, without even taking any of the fee she had been promised. She was supposed to have danced and sung for them tonight.
The tawaif holds no meaning for Akhtar; he is more concerned about that unknown beauty, the stranger whom he has fallen in love with. He returns to Lucknow, and there, still mooning about her, he happens to visit a relative (or good friend, it’s not clear). And, in the coincidences that are so rife in Hindi cinema, this happens to be Nawab Sultan Sahib, Niloufer’s admirer. Nawab Sahib prescribes a remedy for Akhtar’s heartache: come and visit a tawaif.
Akhtar refuses, of course, but Nawab Sahib is singularly persistent. Akhtar eventually ends up accompanying him to the kotha where Niloufer works. Akhtar sits, sullen and with his head hanging, refusing to even glance up at the tawaif who comes around (it’s Firoza, offering paan and flirting with each of the men).
Soon enough, Akhtar’s shyness is being made fun of all through the kotha. The two musicians-cum-servants-cum-general dogsbodies (played by Johnny Walker and Lotan) snigger about it, and Niloufer too, hearing about this young man who cannot even look a tawaif in the eye, finally deigns to emerge and see for herself who it is.
Of course, the moment when they recognize each other is fraught: for her, who sees his face before he looks at her, seeing Akhtar here at the kotha is disconcerting. And Akhtar, when he eventually looks up and sees who the tawaif is, is shocked beyond belief.
But Akhtar forgets his prejudices very swiftly; he’s too much in love with Niloufer to let the shock of discovering that she is one of those despised tawaifs get in the way of his love for her. Soon, he is visiting the kotha everyday, spending hours talking to Niloufer, both of them gazing soulfully into each other’s faces while other visitors, such as Nawab Sahib, are left to cool their heels.
Akhtar is even getting ready to get married to Niloufer.
Things, however, will not be as smooth as this pair would like them to be.
While watching this film on YouTube, I read some interesting comments from other viewers. I’ve no idea if any of this is accurate or not, but for what it’s worth… It seems Zindagi ya Toofaan was not released in India (why not, it isn’t clear) but was released in Pakistan. Which is why, I suppose, an MM Video (Karachi) production of the film is the one which seems to be the only one available: all the videos uploaded by various channels on YouTube are basically the MM Video one, but with the logos of other YouTube channels superimposed on the MM one.
Furthermore, it’s claimed that Nutan, in her autobiography, had mentioned Zindagi ya Toofaan as being one of her favourites of all her films.
What I liked about this film:
The story, which is fairly straightforward. There is a brief comic side romance between the characters of Om Prakash and Minoo Mumtaz, but otherwise the story focuses pretty much entirely on Niloufer and Akhtar, and how their romance affects the people around them: the jealousy of Nawab Sahib, the occasional spite of Firoza, and the shock and fury of Akhtar’s family, who cannot countenance having a tawaif as a daughter-in-law.
Nutan as Niloufer, Niloufer is the quintessential Lucknow courtesan, not a mere dancing girl or prostitute, but a woman skilled in tehzeeb, in delicacy and the art of shaayari (one interesting scene is actually at a mushaira where Niloufer excels). She is a sophisticate, not a bosom-heaver whose every move is calculated to titillate. One of the more striking examples of Niloufer’s sophistication is that in all the many performances at the kotha, there’s only one where Niloufer dances in front of men (and there’s good reason for her dancing here: this song (Mubarak sabko phoolon ka sajaakar laaye hain sehra) is the Zindagi ya Toofaan equivalent of Pakeezah‘s Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge; the fact that Niloufer dances is a sign of her desperation).
But Niloufer isn’t all virginal upper class lady, either. It’s obvious, in her coquettish behaviour with the men who frequent her kotha, that she is used to being lusted after. It’s not as if she’s crude: just flirtatious in a self-confident, assured way. For me, one of the most subtle examples of Niloufer’s ease with her profession, balanced with her grace, is in a scene where she and Akhtar are sitting together and cooing to each other, vowing eternal love and fidelity—and all heedless of the fact that Mirza Sahib is right beside them. Niloufer even breaks off from her love-talk with Akhtar to direct some teasing words at Mirza Sahib. That someone is privy to what most people would consider a very private conversation makes no difference to her (oddly enough, Akhtar doesn’t seem to mind either, which was something I didn’t understand).
And, the music. The much-underrated Nashad was the composer for Zindagi ya Toofaan, with Nakhshab (who also directed the film) being the lyricist. Between them, they managed to create some lovely songs, including the title song, sung (in different versions) by Khan Mastana and Asha Bhonsle. Besides Zindagi hai ya koi toofaan hai, my other favourite songs from the film include Badi mushkil se hum samjhe, Dil hai bada beimaan, and Zulfon ki sunehri chhaaon tale.
(Interestingly, rather like Pakeezah, Zindagi ya Toofaan too has thumris being sung in the background through several of the scenes that are set in the kotha).
What I didn’t like:
I cannot really comment on this, because all that I didn’t like about Zindagi ya Toofaan was almost certainly the result of what has happened to the print of the film in the years since it was released. Scenes get chopped off in mid-sentence; suddenly, the audio and the video go so completely out of sync that there are huge gaps between what’s being shown and what’s happening onscreen. In several places, everything goes into extreme slow motion. In places, parts of a scene are repeated. In some even more disconcerting places, portions of a scene get repeated in a completely different scene much further on in the film.
I doubt if any editor or director could have botched up the job so badly, so I’m guessing whoever has transferred the film to a digital version is responsible for mutilating this film so. They’ve probably only transferred it and not focused on creating a version that can be enjoyed by anyone who’s watching it. I watched the version on the Cine Scope channel, but since other YouTube channels that have the film in their list (SEPL Vintage does, as do Nupur and Cinecurry Classics) carry the same length of film (2:06, approximately) my guess is they’re all the same film, and all equally mauled.
If someday I get a chance to see the full, unadulterated version of Zindagi ya Toofaan, I think I will take it up. Even mauled, it’s a good film.