A couple of months back, a blog reader had remarked that Hindi cinema, during the 1930s and 40s, seemed to have a fairly unimpressive-looking lot of leading men. The good-lookers, was the theory, were the ones that came later, though there had been a very few rare exceptions, like Shyam.
While I didn’t agree that most of the leading men of the 1930s and 40s were ugly (or at best, plain), I did agree about Shyam. Shyam was one of those very handsome actors who, with his impressive height and build added to his charisma, could have posed a serious threat to the triumvirate of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Dev Anand. Sadly, Shyam died tragically young, just 31 years old, after sustaining a head injury caused by a fall from a horse during the shooting of Shabistan in 1951.
Born in Sialkot on February 20, 1920, Shyam Sunder Chadha ‘Shyam’ debuted in a Punjabi film, Gowandhi (1942) and continued to work sporadically in cinema over the next few years. After Partition, Shyam shifted to Bombay, and that was when his career really took off. Over the next four years, he worked in a slew of films, including some big hits like Dillagi, Samadhi, and Patanga. One can only speculate on what trajectory his career might have taken had he lived into the 60s. (Interestingly, Shyam was a very dear friend of Sa’adat Hasan Manto: it was a friendship that outlasted Partition, and Manto was deeply affected when Shyam passed away).
I hadn’t realized, back in February this year, that it was Shyam’s hundredth birth anniversary. But the year is still the same, so in celebration of Shyam’s birth centenary year, a review of one of his biggest hit films. In Dillagi, Shyam acted the role of Swaroop, a dashing young man who falls in love with a village girl named Mala…
The story begins with Swaroop (Shyam) having a tiff with his sister-in-law (Amir Bano), who reviles him for being a wastrel, spending his days loafing around, playing his bansuri and generally living off the earnings of his brother. Swaroop’s brother (?) doesn’t seem to think the way his wife does, but matters come to a head, and Swaroop decides that it’s all for the best if he leaves home.
Armed with his bansuri, Swaroop heads off into the unknown… and bumps into Mala (Suraiya), who is roaming about the countryside playing blind man’s buff with her girl friends (this gang of girls is a feisty bunch which gets up to all sorts of mischief in the course of the story). Mala and Swaroop’s encounter results in disaster for him: he falls into a ditch and hurts his foot.
Mala is very distressed, and quickly helps Swaroop to her home, where she applies a salve to his wound. Mala’s father (?) is around, and on discovering that Swaroop is a newcomer in the area and has neither a job nor a place to stay, he offers the young man a job. Chase away the crows from the fields, and you’ll get a hut to stay in, food to eat, plus five rupees a month.
Swaroop agrees readily. Over the next couple of days, as Mala brings him his meals and listens to him play the bansuri (and, inevitably for Hindi cinema, sings and dances along), the two of them fall in love. It’s all starlit nights and gazing at the moon for these two…
… but barely have Swaroop and Mala expressed their love for each other than someone comes along who doesn’t like the idea. Mala’s Mamu, her mother’s brother Popatlal (Amar) is a nasty, malicious character who snoops around and discovers Mala visiting Swaroop. Mamu tries to throw a spanner in the works by carrying tales to Mala’s father, who gives him an earful and refuses to believe his gossip.
Mala’s friends also gang up on Mamu and make life miserable for him, to the extent of dressing up as ghosts and scaring him away from his own house. Mamu invites himself over to Mala’s home and soon makes another attempt to nip the Mala-Swaroop romance in the bud by nabbing Swaroop when he comes one night to meet Mala. But Swaroop gives him the slip, and Mamu ends up again foiled.
Mamu isn’t giving up so easily. He keeps at it, and it’s not long before he succeeds in surprising Mala and Swaroop together—and with Mala’s father as witness. Mala’s father is thoroughly disillusioned; he had not believed his daughter would be so heedless of the family’s honour. Mamu takes it upon himself to quickly arrange Mala’s wedding, and before any of them know it, the bridegroom, a young man named Jyoti (Shyam Kumar, looking young and quite different from his later self) from a wealthy family has arrived to marry Mala.
Wikipedia (not the most reliable of sources) pegs Dillagi as an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, along with the comment that AR Kardar used this again as a theme in Dil Diya Dard Liya. While Dil Diya Dard Liya is definitely heavily inspired from Wuthering Heights, Dillagi has absolutely no resemblance to the Brontë novel (unless you consider the element of a poor man falling for a wealthy girl in a rural setting as sufficient resemblance). What it is, is a fairly standard story of doomed love. There’s nothing that’s new here, nothing that isn’t fairly predictable.
What I liked about this film:
Naushad’s music. Ghulam Mohammad assisted Naushad for Dillagi, and the pairing produced some superb songs, including the classic Tu mera chaand main teri chaandni, Is duniya mein ae dilwaalon, and Meri pyaari patang. Interestingly, while Mohammad Rafi sang playback for Shyam in several of the songs, for Tu mera chaand main teri chaandni, the man who sang playback for Shyam was none other than Shyam Kumar, the actor who played Jyoti in the film.
And, the gang of girls. Mala’s friends in this film are a bunch of very loyal and feisty young women. Unlike the usual sahelis of Hindi cinema, whose role seems to be limited to teasing the heroine about her romance with the hero, here the sahelis play a much more important part. They take matters into their own hands, they are steadfastly loyal to Mala, and they have no qualms about taking up cudgels (quite literally) on her behalf. True, their good intentions sometimes lead them into taking impulsive decisions that go awry at times, but they’re among the spunkiest women I’ve seen onscreen.
Interestingly, another important female character—Paro, Jyoti’s younger sister—emerges as a strong, principled woman too. Paro is the only one in whom Mala ends up confiding, and Paro’s sympathy and sense of justice are exemplary. The way she takes charge, even at risk to herself, was unusual. Full marks to director and writer AR Kardar for at least empowering some of this female characters (even if Mala herself doesn’t come across as very different from the run-of-the-mill Hindi film heroine).
What I didn’t like:
The fairly predictable, melodramatic story. There’s little here that isn’t par for the course. The bolt-from-the-blue romance, the disapproving and nasty relative, the vows of undying love. Nothing new, really.
But, there’s Shyam, who’s a sight for sore eyes. Imagine, if he had lived on, would his status perhaps have reached (even surpassed?) that of men like Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor, who had pretty much come to dominate the scene as debonair leading men in the 50s? Would the films they got have gone to Shyam instead, at least for some of the time? Would Hindi cinema have had a different history?
We will never know, sadly.