The Clerk and the Coat (1955)

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.

31 thoughts on “The Clerk and the Coat (1955)

  1. Oh!
    I managed to watch the film a few weeks back and liked it. I agree with you about the last scene.
    I like the songs very much, though I agree the songs do interfere with the narrative. But the main reason to watch the film was its songs. Mainly, I love, Jogiya Se Preet Kiye. Absolutely fantastic song!
    And I liked Balraj Sahni. He is very good and I may add he looks quite handsome. It was something that I hadn’t ever realised. Never thought of him as a conventional hero. But he is natural, effortless.

    :-)

    • Yes, Jogiya se preet kiye is a lovely song, but these were, on the whole, songs that might have been better suited to a less grim film. I somehow thought that the entire tone of the movie was such that the songs seemed like an unrealistic break in the story.

      Agree completely about Balraj Sahni. His acting is really so natural and seemingly effortless!

  2. Hi Madhu – Thanks for this post – I am a little biased (as you would know) about any of his films. I remember first seeing this film when we were in Bombay and the family went for a special viewing in one of studio theaters. You may remember the family whose children Balraj Sahni goes to give tuition – that was the Bedi family and to me it was so strange to see them up on the big screen! (Tried to paste the screen shots here but no luck)

    Maybe one of these days you will review his “Phagun”.

    • Nishi, I was thinking of you when I watched this film! I guessed that was the Bedi family whose children were being tutored by Balraj Sahni’s character. Was one of the Bedis also an officer at the post office?

      I won’t be reviewing Phagun, since my blog is restricted to films from before 1970 – but I do intend to watch the film one of these days! I remember someone else recommending it to me too!

      • My Grandfather was the post master and after he passed my uncle Rajinder Singh was given a job on compassionate grounds – I believe he was 18 years old then.

  3. When I first saw the title of the film, I confused it with MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa(*head to desk* ), which is a great film, but by no means one that I want to revisit soon. Yes, Garam Coat is a lovely film, for some reason, it reminds me of O Henry’s tales. Time to revisit this. Thank you.

    • Well, garam and garam. Balraj Sahni and Balraj Sahni. Depressing, and depressing… I can totally see why you would confuse this with Garam Hawa, Anu!

      And no, while this is good, I don’t think you want to revisit this one in the near future. Not a film for such bleak times. :-(

  4. Any film with Balraj Sahni is normally worth watching.
    He was better looking than many leading men and his screen presence was awesome.
    And yes his chemistry with Nirupa Roy.

  5. You are a brave person Madhu. Watching a depressing film now . Yeah, I know even if it had Balraj Sahni in it.
    All the more as the office milieu is something known to me.. the post office. The situation faced by Sahni at the start is which I have seen happen to a colleague of my father. the amount in the early seventies was a couple of thousand and what all trouble the couple went through! ( both were working in different post offices and the husband was the careless one) My father got involved as he was union secretary and rustling up the amount took time so he had to ask for a grace period for amount to be deposited to treasury or some such place. A donation drive was organized which could fetch less than a quarter, a few soft loans were arranged with the help of my father but it was harrowing time for the couple and It was awkward for me to overhear the conversations that happened in my house after office hours.
    The guy also got a reprimand from his superiors for being careless (but they did not bar his increment much to his relief due to my father’s efforts )
    I will mark this one along with an earlier English film you reviewed .. now have to look that up as the title eludes me … as movies to be seen when things get better.

    • My goodness, what a harrowing anecdote. I actually got gooseflesh reading that.

      To be honest, I watched this one several months back and wrote up the review then. For the past month, I’ve not had the time to watch anything, and now, even though I will probably have a little more free time, I cannot bring myself to watch anything close to this! All I want is escapist fare. (Recommendations welcome).

      • Recommendations as in see and review here ? Or just wish your blues away.
        In the first category there is still the evergreen
        Kathalika neramillai.
        Anubhavi raja anubhavi ( the tamil original of Do Phool)
        Bama vijayam
        If you just want to enjoy a farce you can do no better than watch Michael Madana Kama Rajan . I think subtitles shouldn’t be a problem for this one.
        I also watch Gol Maal and Angoor … whenever I am down the dumps. They always work with the efficacy of “the pick me ups” of Jeeves!

        • Recommendations as in see and review here, because I find that I don’t have the energy to sit through very much these days. If I have free time, I would much rather read. But old films, the type I can review – those are always welcome!

          Thank you so much for the recommendations – Kathalika Neramillai has been on my list for a long, long time but I haven’t been able to find a subtitled version yet. But I’ll look again, and for all the other films you recommend too! Thanks again, I do hope I can find at least something from among these.

  6. Thanks for reviewing the film, Madhu. I will make a note to watch it just for Balraj Sahni. Truth be told, watching films like these sets my teeth on edge. Reading your review, I was thinking – “Man, what a loser! He couldn’t hang on to his salary, for crying out loud”. In Bicycle Thieves at least the man got robbed. But if you lose your salary you deserve your misfortune. Perhaps a bit harsh, you think?

    • I don’t think that’s harsh, because I thought the same way too! That bit about him treating those two young men to a meal, for instance, had me rolling my eyes. You’ve just had such a close escape, you are anyway so short of money, and you spend it all on two complete strangers (who, by the way, aren’t completely destitute, either). So yes, I too was echoing the “Man, what a loser!” remark of yours. :-)

  7. Dear Madhu ji,

    Apparently, the story of GARAM COAT is loosely adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s
    THE OVERCOAT, written in 1842.

    Pl read below (an extract from a Post written by me on another Forum) :

    [ Pandit Amar Nath Chawla was a senior disciple of the renowned Classical Vocalist
    Ustad AMIR KHAN (1912-1974) and this was the only Film for which he composed that
    too at the insistence of friend and writer Rajinder Singh Bedi. There were 5(five) songs,
    all superlative compositions and all sung by Lata Mangeshkar. It is said that Ustad Amir Khan had come personally to attend the recording of the song “Jogiya Se…”. Lata
    refused to accept payment for the songs and returned the cheque, with the words “After many years of singing, these songs have moved me immensely. Yours is a co-operative venture – let this be my contribution towards the making of the film”.
    The song “Jogiya se ” has been featured by Lata as among her ten best songs!]

    With warm regards

    PARTHA CHANDA

    • Thank you for that detailed and insightful comment, Parthaji. Very interesting. I hadn’t known Jogiya se preet kiye held such an important place in Lata’s oeuvre. It is a beautiful song, but I just thought it was wasted in this film – the pace and narrative of the film did not seem to me to accommodate songs easily. But no question about the merit of the song itself.

  8. there was another movie Gaban, based on Premchand’s novel of same name which had a similar storyline. Sunil Dutt played the hero in that one – but I suppose Balraj Sahani would always bring dignity and pathos to a role like this.

  9. The movie is pretty off beat, Madhuji. I had not heard of it. As Anuradhaji remarked, it does seem like a O’Henry story in action. I am also reminded of a more recent movie Raincoat2004, which is about sacrifices made to help a loved one.

    • I must admit I didn’t think it resembled an O Henry story, actually. But yes, it’s a little unusual in that it doesn’t centre round the usual romantic plot of most Hindi movies…

  10. This movie was telecast on Doordarshan some four decades back (when one Hindi movie was telecast every Sunday evening) with the name being told as Garam Coat. Myself being a kid (albeit a very sensitive kid) had liked it very much. Now I am able to recall the story of the movie except the climax. Your admirable (like always) review has instigated me to watch it again now when I am neither a kid nor a youth. I think that watching this movie now as a matured person who has had enough experience of life and world, should be a different one. The story appears to be one from O Henry’s pen but as one reader has enlightened in his comment that it’s been adapted from a work of Gogol, the reality may be that also. All the same, it must be a very good movie and I sincerely thank you for placing it on my TO WATCH list.

    • If you appreciated such a ‘serious’ film as a child, I would certainly say you were not just a sensitive child, but a very mature one too! Which is why I’d be very curious to see what you think of this now, whether you like it more or less. And of course the nuances.

      Do let me know whenever you do get to see it! Would love to read your review of it.

  11. Seen just now. Reviewing it may take time. All the same, let me admit that your assessment of this movie is near perfect. Overall it’s good but with obvious flaws. What Girdhari does in the ending reels is not unnatural for someone deeply frustrated with poverty and helplessness (in life). But ! But the deed itself is unforgivable. A wife like Geeta who is va woman of self-respect, can not (and should not) have forgive it so easily. I had liked it too much when watched it as a kid. Now after watching it as a person in his fifties, I liked it again but a little less this time. Poverty is a curse. And poetic justice happens only in the fictional world. The men (and women) of ethics and principles as depicted in this story, used to exist in those times but now it’s next to impossible to find such a person (living in similar conditions and still sticking to the moral values). The authors of such stories used to keep one such (tragic or comic) twist in the climax of the story. The ending twists in The Necklace by Maupassant (tragic) and The Gift of the Magi by O Henry (somewhat tragic) can be categorised with the final twist of this story (which is pleasant). One thing that I always underscore that there shouldn’t be any communication-gap in the relationships. There was no need for Geeta to hide from her husband that she was doing extra works to run the household (viz. making envelopes and escorting a young girl to her college). She was earning an honest living by doing such things (that too with the help of the kids thereby teaching them good lessons for life). Hence she should have told it to Giridhari with pride (if not earlier, then at the time when he showed unnecessary anger on her and suspected her to be taking some wrong path). But she kept mum (under some fear or hesitation) and allowed Girdhari to do what was terribly disgusting and illogical. Such things affirm my view that communication-gap can destroy even the loveliest of relationships.

    • Very well said, Jitendraji. And I completely agree with you re: Nirupa Roy’s character being unnecessarily reticent about what she was doing. It wasn’t, after all, anything shameful or utterly menial (though even that, I would think, would be forgiveable in their circumstances). So why she made such a fuss about concealing it from Girdhari, I don’t know… though of course I’m looking at this from a 21st century lens of a woman from an urban, well-educated and progressive family, where dignity of labour has never been an issue. So perhaps I don’t even realize the sort of undercurrents and unsaid taboos that might have existed in a household like Girdhari’s.

      But still, the communication gap, I agree, is a huge problem. That is what wrecks the relationship here (and in countless other Hindi films, actually).

  12. And could you identify the eldest daughter of Girdhari and Geeta ? It’s Nazima (credited as Baby Chand), the beautiful actress of the sixties who was restricted to supporting roles only in Bollywood movies.

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