Aka Garam Coat, though The Clerk and the Coat is the title as it appears in the credits of this film, and is also the title for which the Censor Certificate was issued.
This film had been among my bookmarks for a long time, but I’d been putting off watching it because I had a suspicion it would turn out to be very depressing. And I’ve not been in a state of mind conducive to being able to watch depressing cinema. But after having watched several rather ho-hum films (Kismat ka Khel, Passport) I figured I should take the plunge and watch something good, even if not exactly frothy and cheery. Garam Coat, after all, was written by Rajinder Singh Bedi, for whom I have a great deal of respect.
The story is set in an unspecified North Indian town, where Girdhari (Balraj Sahni) lives with his wife Geeta (Nirupa Roy) and their three children: two girls and a pampered toddler named Chanda. Girdhari is a clerk at the post office, where he handles money orders. His two best friends are his colleagues Munilal ‘Muni’ (Rashid Khan) and Sher Khan (Jayant). Girdhari’s salary is so meagre that he and Geeta have to carefully monitor every paisa. This for the rent, this for the milkman, this for the kiraane ki dukaan from where they buy their groceries. This much for the insurance premium, for the electricity bill, for the girls’ school fees.
At the end of it all, there’s nothing left for any luxuries, so to say. Or even essentials, actually.
When the story opens, for instance, Girdhari has just stepped out into the lane to see his daughters off to school, and he shivers. It’s so cold. Are they sufficiently clad? The older girl points out the sleeveless pullover she’s wearing; her sister says she’s wearing three kurtas, one on top of the other.
Girdhari, when he goes back inside, finds Geeta mending his old coat. He had bought it second-hand, and it’s a really shabby thing, frayed and worn out. Geeta tells Girdhari (it’s obvious that this is an old refrain, a conversation that’s repeated again and again between husband and wife) that he should get a new coat stitched for himself. He’s about to get his salary, surely this time…? But Girdhari refuses; there’s just not enough money.
Girdhari may tell Geeta he can do without a new coat, but that doesn’t stop him coveting a beautiful one he sees hung up in the show window of a tailor’s. When the tailor asks him why he doesn’t get a new coat stitched, Girdhari laughs it off, saying his old one is serving him just fine.
Girdhari is late at office that day, because he stops to break up a fight between two beggars who’re having a tussle over some food. Girdhari distributes his own lunch between the two of them, heedless of the fact that this means he won’t have enough food.
When he finally rushes into the post office, it’s to find that there’s a long line of very irate people waiting at the Money Orders counter. A flustered Girdhari hurries to make out their money orders, and is briefly distracted by the fine coat sleeve of one of the customers—until the man flies into a rage and ticks him off.
But it’s pay day, and Girdhari heaves a sigh of relief after collecting his hundred-odd rupees. Sher Khan and Muni immediately start making plans: they’ll go out for a drink tonight. Girdhari looks a little reluctant (perhaps he’s remembering all the many things his children and wife are having to do without, and which his salary could obtain) but he finally agrees.
Before that can happen, however, destiny drops a bombshell on Girdhari (the first of many, as it happens). When he’s counting the cash in his cash box, Girdhari discovers that he is short hundred rupees. He counts again; Sher Khan and Muni, both hovering in the background and seeing Girdhari’s anxiety, also count. It’s no use; the count is correct, Girdhari is really short that amount. He’s distraught. Now what?
The head clerk, when applied to, is not forgiving. Girdhari says he thinks that in the hustle and bustle of his delayed arrival at work this morning, he must have forgotten to take the money from the first man in the queue. That must be it. The head clerk says that so it may be; but before the close of day, the money in the cash box must tally with the accounts. The money must be paid in.
There is no help for it. Girdhari takes out his salary and pays the hundred rupees. He has less than ten rupees left now; what will he do? Fortunately, his two good friends have an idea: check the accounts, find out the name and address of the man who got the first money order for the day made out, and go to him, asking for the money.
This is done, and Girdhari sets off for the man’s house with Sher Khan and Muni along, who vow to beat up the man if he refuses to pay. Girdhari realizes that this belligerent attitude won’t do, so he makes his friends stay outside while he goes and talks to the man. It takes some doing (the man refuses to accept that he could be in the wrong) but finally, after Girdhari pleads and is suitably grovelling, the man hands over the money.
Oh, the relief. The utter and complete relief of knowing he isn’t facing destitution.
But Girdhari knows that his pals, once they learn he’s fine and has got the money, will want to celebrate with liquor. This happened, this close shave with disaster, because he wanted to spend his hard-earned money on drink, thinks Girdhari. No, he won’t let this go down the drain now. Quickly, giving Sher Khan and Muni the slip, he races off home and hides, telling Geeta to tell his friends, if they come, that he isn’t around.
Geeta is too mischievous to let slip this opportunity of teaching the men a lesson, and much amusement ensues when Muni and Sher Khan arrive, holding a bottle they quickly hide from her. She winkles Girdhari out of his hiding place, and proceeds to pretend she has no idea what’s happening. The men are awkward and embarrassed, and Geeta finally steals a march on them by taking away the bottle, pretending she thinks it’s vinegar that Girdhari has bought. It’s an amusing little incident, and Geeta is thoroughly amused at the discomfiture of all three men.
Now that Girdhari has his money back, they quickly begin planning what all can be bought with it. The children have their own requests: Chanda wants a tricycle, the younger girl wants a doll, and they want gulabjamuns. Girdhari wants to buy earrings for Geeta. Everything, now he can buy everything. Girdhari goes off to the market jubilantly, ready to buy off all he can find. He soon realizes this isn’t easy: at the jeweller’s (played by Brahm Bhardwaj) he discovers that earrings cost far more than he’d thought they did.
Similarly for the tricycle. Finally Girdhari has to settle for a doll for his younger daughter, some balloons, and a potful of gulabjamuns from the halwai. At the halwai, waiting for the gulabjamuns to be packed, Girdhari smells the kachoris, and gives in to temptation. He’ll eat some. And, because he’s so relieved at not being utterly destitute, he takes pity on two poor young men, both small-time workers like him, and insists on buying kachoris for them too. They sit together, Girdhari commiserates with the problems of the two young men, feeds them well…
… And when it’s time to pay for the kachoris, realizes he’s lost that precious hundred rupees. He can’t find it anywhere. The two young men quickly slink off. Girdhari, close to tears, goes running to the toy shop and to the jeweller’s, to see if he dropped the note in either of those places. But no; it’s nowhere. It’s gone, and Girdhari is back to square one.
The Clerk and the Coat begins with this text:
Which is the crux of the matter. That hundred rupees, no big deal to a somewhat wealthier person, is crucial to not just the comfort of this little family, but to its peace of mind, its integrity, its very basis. That hundred rupees is what sees them from one month to the next, it is what enables them to go on.
And when that hundred rupees goes missing, things fall apart.
What I liked about this film:
The disintegration of Girdhari, which looks very real to me. A happy Girdhari at the beginning of the story is not exactly carefree, but it’s not as if he’s so heavily burdened that he can’t sing and dance with his children, flirt with his wife, and play the fool.
When he first finds his cash box short of hundred rupees, Girdhari is frantic, but he recovers from that soon enough after the customer gives him the money. The second time, when at the halwai’s, he finds he’s lost the money, the impact is worse: he panics, so much that he goes to the railway line with the intention of committing suicide (he doesn’t, eventually: he’s not completely lost hope, after all). Slowly, though, the ups and downs—the money he gets and the quick way in which it goes—erodes Girdhari’s composure. We see this man fall to pieces: he takes out his anger on his wife and his children, he is driven by desperation to do things the earlier Girdhari would have been appalled to think of. Poverty and desperation change him, blurring his idea of right and wrong, making him suspicious and unthinking.
It’s an interesting, believable character arc, and Balraj Sahni does justice to the role.
Another element of this that I especially liked was the humanity of other characters. Not everybody who encounters Girdhari is helpful or empathetic (most, in fact, aren’t), but the few who are—in a couple of cases, even when there is no need for them to be anything but antagonistic to him—are a reminder that not everybody in this world is ruthless.
Plus, Jayant and Rashid Khan are utterly endearing as Sher Khan and Muni respectively. They’re the perfect friends: looking out for Girdhari, helping him along, giving him a dressing-down when needed, and being the voice of his conscience too when Girdhari’s desperation drives him to do wrong. There’s nothing melodramatic or sugary about their friendship with Girdhari, but their love for their friend is obvious.
What I didn’t like:
Oddly enough, the songs. Pandit Amarnath composed the music to Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics, and while the songs aren’t dreadful (I can’t think of a Hindi film from the 50s which had outright awful songs), they aren’t utterly memorable, either. Worse, they interfere with the narration of the film. The Clerk and the Coat is not a story that easily lends itself to songs. Perhaps a background song now and then, but that’s all I can imagine, given that Girdhari and Geeta are driven to their wits’ end finding ways to keep body and soul together. In such a situation, bursting into song, no matter even if that song is an expression of their woe, is just far too unreal.
And, the last scene, in which the forgiveness of one person is just too far-fetched. I won’t say what, because that would be a spoiler, but I’ll just admit that I thought the deed committed too terrible to be forgiven so quickly and easily. It was odd, and it was uncharacteristic.
But, despite all of that, a good film. Depressing, yes, but good.