I tend not to watch too many Hindi films from before the 1950s, and even those that I do, don’t always end up getting reviewed. Mostly, that’s because I either find them fairly forgettable (though there are exceptions, like the superb Neecha Nagar) or otherwise not landmark films in any sense. Nothing that deserves a review.
This one, though, probably needs to be reviewed, even though it’s not extraordinary. Based on a story by Sailajanand Mukhopadhyay (the same story being remade in 1977 as the Uttam Kumar-Sharmila Tagore starrer Anand Ashram), Doctor was made simultaneously in Hindi and Bengali. This was the first Pankaj Mullick film I’ve seen (though I’ve heard his songs many times earlier); and given its music, it deserved, I thought, a review.
Doctor begins with the eponymous doctor, a young man named Amarnath (Pankaj Mullick) returning by train to his ancestral home in the village after finishing medical studies.
Amarnath is met at the train station by the family’s old servitor Dayal Kaka (Amar Mullick) who’s come with a palanquin to take Amarnath home. Amarnath manages to hoodwink Dayal into going off in the palanquin, while himself getting a cycle and joining some other young friends of his who’re around.
Even before he gets home, Amarnath discovers that the countryside has been hit by cholera, and there have been many deaths. One local goddess has been elevated to the position of ‘the Goddess of Cholera’ and is being feted and prayed to at the temple. Amarnath is disgusted; superstition is trumping science once again.
One man, Beni, is dying of cholera, with only his daughter Maya (Panna Rani) beside him. When Amarnath agrees to go to Beni, he is dissuaded by all and sundry. Beni is an outcast; his daughter Maya was abandoned at her wedding mandap, and since then, both father and daughter have been ostracized by the entire village. (It is not clear why she was abandoned, but the general consensus seems to be that the fault lies with Maya).
Amarnath does not listen to anyone but goes to Beni anyway…
… and here, with his dying breath, Beni puts Maya’s hand in Amarnath’s.
When Amarnath comes home, he tells his father, the zamindar Sitanath (Ahindra Choudhary) about what has happened. Sitanath is adamant: Amarnath cannot marry that woman, no matter if he has promised to do so. She is another man’s wife; the fact that the wedding rituals weren’t completed before her bridegroom walked out on her doesn’t change that. If Amarnath insists on marrying Maya, he will no longer be a part of this family.
Amarnath not only doesn’t listen to this rot, he quietly tells his father that he has given his word of honour, and that in his heart, he already accepts Maya as his bride. Here and now, he relinquishes all claim to being Sitanath’s son and heir.
The next we see them, Amarnath and Maya are happily married and setting up not just a home, but a hospital. A friend of Amarnath’s, Akshay Babu (Nemo, whom I had, prior to this, seen only in Shree 420), has loaned Amarnath a large piece of land for this purpose. On this piece of land, a small charitable hospital is built, and Amarnath starts treating, for free, the local villagers. Maya and he have fallen in love from the very beginning and there is a warm companionship about them as they go about working in the hospital, she as a sort-of nurse.
Maya is soon pregnant, and when Akshay Babu comes next, his wife accompanies him. It’s she who confidently tells Maya that Maya is probably going to have a son. (This is definitely more wishful thinking than anything else).
Later that evening, once Akshay Babu and his wife have gone, Maya dreamily talks to Amarnath of their child. How he will grow up, and study medicine. How he will come here, to the rural hinterland, to save lives the way his father is doing… Amarnath too is swept up in this daydream.
However, on the fateful day that Maya goes into labour, Amarnath gets a sudden and frantic summons from a local villager whose wife is having a lot of trouble delivering her baby. The man begs Amarnath to save his wife; her life is more precious to him than anything else. Amarnath refuses; Maya needs him.
But Maya, seeing the man’s panic, persuades Amarnath to go, telling him that she will be fine. There are plenty of people around here to look after her. And if he is needed, they will send for him.
Finally, Amarnath goes to the man’s hut. The baby is born, but though the mother is fine, the newborn isn’t responding to stimuli. Amarnath gets so busy using every means he can think of to elicit some response from the baby that even when a man comes running from the hospital, shouting that he’s needed, Maya is having trouble, Amarnath is too engrossed in saving the young life in his hands. He slams the window shut on the man’s frantic cries, and ignores him.
The baby is saved, just as another man comes from the hospital to announce that Maya has had a son. Amarnath finally realizes what’s happening, and goes rushing back to the hospital—only to find that Maya has died. Amarnath is heartbroken, and tries to cope as best as he can. Fortunately, given that the hospital has plenty of nurses from among the village women who’ve come here with ailing family members and have learnt some rudiments of caregiving, he has help.
Not for long, because Dayal Kaka, the old family servant, turns up and begs Amarnath to give him the child (now a toddler, Somnath) to him. Dayal Kaka says he will take Somnath home and bring him up the way he brought Amarnath up after Amarnath’s mother died. After some initial hesitation on Amarnath’s part and much emotional blackmail on Dayal Kaka’s part, Amarnath acquiesces. But he has one condition: his father Sitanath must not be told who Somnath is. Neither must Somnath, when he grows up, realize that he has been brought up in his grandfather’s house.
So Dayal Kaka takes the boy home, and Sitanath’s first reaction is to throw him out. Who is this foundling, he says. What caste is he? Possibly knowing Sitanath’s prejudices, Amarnath has attached a little note to the child’s clothing, stating that he’s a Brahmin. Sitanath is mollified. Somewhat. He grudgingly consents to let this waif be brought up in his mansion.
But very soon, Sitanath has been won over by Somnath, and is happily giving the boy rides around the drawing room… and so Somnath grows up, totally oblivious of the fact that he is actually the grandson of the man he refers to as Grandfather.
And, years later, Somnath (now Jyoti Prakash), newly qualified as a doctor, returns home from medical college. Amarnath comes to know that Somnath has taken up a job working in a laboratory, and is furious. Work in a laboratory? Why? Somnath should be going off to the villages and saving the villagers, not doing a cushy job fiddling with test tubes.
He is so upset he goes to meet Somnath. Somnath is very surprised at this visit from this elderly stranger (who only hands over a visiting card with the name Dr A Roy on it). He’s even more taken aback when his unannounced guest starts berating him for working in a laboratory.
Somnath has already been drawing flak from his grandfather for the same reason—working in a laboratory, but Sitanath’s objections are rooted in silly pride: zamindars don’t work, especially not for others. Not so for Amarnath, whose motive in dissuading Somnath is purely altruistic (with the focus of that altruism being the rural poor).
Soon after, Somnath runs into this strange old gentleman again, at the home of an acquaintance: Akshay Babu, whom Somnath has also met. Somnath is already halfway in love with Akshay Babu’s daughter Shivani (Bharati Devi)…
… and when he sees the deep bond between her, her younger brother and Akshay Babu on the one hand and the mysterious ‘Dr A Roy’ on the other, Somnath begins to think rather more charitably of the man.
Doctor is not a brilliant film, but its music, composed by Pankaj Mullick himself, is superb. For me, this was the main reason to watch this film. Oddly enough, very early on in the film, I found two more reasons to watch it, and both happened to be actors who may not be great actors, but who had immense screen presence.
Pankaj Mullick, for one, who is tall and broad and looks quite striking, both in his avatar as a young man and as an older, bearded one.
And, later, Jyoti Prakash Bhattacharya as Somnath. His acting, like Pankaj Mullick’s, is adequate, no more. But I must confess I have rarely seen an Indian actor who’s so handsome. While Jyoti Prakash was onscreen, I pretty much forgot to look at anybody else. Jyoti Prakash’s biography (which, I must admit, I got off IMDB and have no means of verifying) is both interesting as well as tragic: he had trained as a commercial pilot but instead became an actor, starring in not just Doctor but several other films, including the Bengali version of the famous Raj Nartaki. Despite being married, he ended up converting to Islam in order to marry fellow film star Sheila Haldar. When Sheila Haldar died in childbirth, Jyoti Prakash committed suicide, aged just 26 years.
What I liked about this film:
The central message of the film is also commendable, given its theme of doctors serving in the rural hinterland, helping the cause of science triumph over superstition, and trying to get rid of the caste system. Eventually, though, this is a story of a father and a son: of Sitanath and Amarnath and their need to reconcile. Their relationship, Amarnath’s obstinacy about concealing his identity (and Somnath’s parentage) and Sitanath’s pride, are the key elements here.
What I didn’t like:
The theatrical acting of the women, especially Bharati Devi. I have one question, which I would love to have an answer to: why is it that so many women of 30s and 40s Hindi cinema act in such a theatrical way, while the men tend to generally act in a more realistic fashion? I’ve seen it again and again, in film after film, without being able to guess why.
Doctor is available for viewing on Youtube on various channels, with Shemaroo having probably the best print around. About five minutes of audio, at two different points in the first half hour, is missing, but the rest is fine.