This was the first film I watched after Dilip Kumar passed away on July 7 this year. The tributes and reminiscences were still in full flow two days later, on July 9, which marked what would have been the 83rd birthday of Sanjeev Kumar. On a Sanjeev Kumar tribute post on Facebook, I read a comment in which someone recalled Dilip Kumar’s remark about Sanjeev Kumar, who was his co-star in Sunghursh: “Is Gujarati ladke ne toh paseena nikaal diya!” (“This Gujarati boy made me sweat!”)
This, I thought, might be an interesting film to review by way of tribute to both Dilip Kumar as well as Sanjeev Kumar. But I had other Dilip Kumar films to also watch: Musafir and Sagina Mahato for the first time, Ram aur Shyam for a long-overdue rewatch. So, while I watched this and wrote the review, I decided the publishing of the review could wait for now.
Because today, August 21, 2021, marks the birth centenary of Harnam Singh Rawail, the director of Sunghursh. HS Rawail, as he was usually billed, debuted in 1940 with the film Dorangia Daaku, but it wasn’t until 1949, with Patanga (of Mere piya gaye Rangoon fame) that he became famous. Rawail was to make several well-known films through the following decades, but his two best-known works are probably Mere Mehboob (1963) and Sunghursh.
The story, based on Mahashweta Devi’s Laayli Aashmaaner Aaina, begins in Banaras of the 19th century (the riverfront, sadly, looks very mid-20th century). Bhawani Prasad (Jayant), bearded and seemingly benevolent, walks back from the temple after pooja. At his heels follows his grandson Kundan (?). Bhawani Prasad is much venerated, and the way he hands out alms to the poor and blesses those bowing before him, one might be forgiven for thinking him a good man.
Hardly, as one soon realizes. Kundan’s mother (Sulochana Latkar) comes sneaking up, hiding from her father-in-law, to feed Kundan some kheer she’s made for him, and to put an amulet around his neck. The reunion between mother and son is shattered by an irate Bhawani Prasad who sends the bowl of kheer flying. Hasn’t he forbidden her to meet Kundan? Doesn’t she know the consequences of disobedience?
A tearful Ma runs back home to her mother-in-law (Durga Khote), Bhawani Prasad’s wife. She offers empathy and comfort: yes, she too knows what a tyrant Bhawani Prasad is, and she knows how much her daughter-in-law is hurt by this forced distance from Kundan.
Meanwhile, Kundan is deriving some comfort from the companionship of his friend Munni, an orphan whose foster father sells little chikaras on the ghats.
At that moment, while Munni chats with Kundan and wipes away his tears, a shrewd-looking woman, accompanied by a man who is obviously some kind of broker, examines Munni from afar. The man informs the woman that Munni is an orphan, and that her foster father will be happy to hand her into the loving care of wealthy adoptive parents.
The next day, when Kundan meets Munni, Munni is all dressed up, excited and happy. She has been adopted, by a very prosperous couple—she points to the man and the woman, both richly dressed and looking all smug—and will be going away with them. Kundan is sad to be parted from Munni, but happy for her, too. Munni gifts him a chikara and tells him she’ll return to him someday, and recognize him by the chikara.
Kundan gets back to his grandfather, and it soon becomes clear what Bhawani Prasad’s agenda is. When some very wealthy visitors to Banaras have a pooja organized (with Bhawani Prasad’s help), he suddenly turns the tables on them, whipping out a dagger and forcing them to give up their valuables. Kundan is stunned: he hadn’t realized just how evil and greedy Dadaji was. Later still, he gets it from the horse’s mouth. Bhawani Prasad is part of the thuggee cult, a man devoted to the goddess Bhawani with as great a fervour as he is to a life of bloody violence.
Bhawani Prasad has one major grouse in life, and that is that his son Shankar (Iftekhar, in a brief role with barely any lines to his credit) has refused to take up the family tradition. For this, Bhawani Prasad despises Shankar from the bottom of his heart, so much so that he eventually has Shankar killed.
This brings to the forefront Bhawani Prasad’s greatest enemy, Naubat Lal (DK Sapru). These two men are related, and their blood-feud goes back several generations. It’s deep-rooted and widespread, what with Naubat Lal’s teenaged sons Ganeshi and Dwarka baiting Kundan at the ghats…
… and Naubat Lal’s men trying to stop visitors to Banaras from patronizing Bhawani Prasad’s dharamshalas.
Now, Naubat Lal—who has his own eyes and ears in the city’s underworld—turns up at Bhawani Prasad’s home bearing a gory gift: this is the embroidered shawl that Shankar (who has been missing, leaving his wife and mother frantic with worry) had been wearing. It is spattered with blood, and Naubat Lal offers it to the womenfolk, who of course recognize it. Bhawani Prasad comes blustering in, accusing Naubat Lal of murdering Shankar, but a smug Naubat Lal is quick to deny it and to accuse Bhawani Prasad of killing his own son.
Of course, Bhawani Prasad acts all horrified and indignant at this accusation, but his newly widowed bahu is already suspicious…
… and Bhawani Prasad decides Naubat Lal must be silenced before he alerts more people to the truth about Bhawani Prasad. Bhim (Ulhas), Bhawani Prasad’s loyal henchman, is set the task, and the next time Naubat Lal goes for a dip in the Ganga, he’s stabbed underwater.
Naubat Lal’s two sons, Ganeshi and Dwarka, take a solemn vow that they will avenge their father’s death.
Meanwhile, Bhawani Prasad’s wife, along with Shankar’s widow and her two younger children, leaves Bhawani Prasad and goes away to the village. The two women have decided they’re safest far away from Bhawani Prasad. He refuses to let Kundan go; Kundan is destined to be his jaanasheen, his heir, says Bhawani Prasad.
Years pass, and Kundan (now Dilip Kumar) one day runs into a mysterious and beautiful woman (Vyjyanthimala) whom he sees at the ghats, and later at a deserted garden, where he sings to her—all without knowing who she is (though I, with long experience of Hindi cinema, can guess).
Shortly after, Kundan’s Mamaji, his mother’s brother (Sundar), arrives in Banaras with welcome news: Kundan’s younger sister Yashoda (Anjoo Mahendroo) is to be married, and Kundan has been summoned for the occasion to the village. Kundan is delighted, and very excited. He can’t wait to go, to meet his siblings, his mother and grandmother after so many years.
Kundan has also realized, over the years, that this long-standing feud, now inherited by Ganeshi and Dwarka, must end. So, by way of extending an olive branch, he sends an invitation to Ganeshi and Dwarka, to come to the village for Yashoda’s wedding. Ganeshi (now Balraj Sahni), when he receives the invitation, sees in it an opportunity. Dwarka (now Sanjeev Kumar) must go, he says.
Ganeshi goes to Banaras’s most famous courtesan, a dancer named Laila whom Wajid Ali Shah himself has praised highly. Ganeshi wants Laila to help him entrap Kundan (whom Ganeshi has not seen as an adult). Ganeshi carries on a conversation with Laila from behind a curtain, with Laila’s attendants answering him coquettishly on her behalf. When Laila finally deigns to appear, we see who it is.
Laila agrees to go along with Ganeshi’s plan.
Some days later, Kundan has gone to the village for the wedding, and late at night, Dwarka arrives too. He steps into the courtyard where a bhaang-intoxicated Kundan is fast asleep. Dwarka, seeing his chance, is pulling out his dagger…
… when, down the stairs at the other end of the courtyard comes a woman, whose face is never shown (it’s obvious who this is, though). She pulls off a heavy bracelet and flings it at Kundan, who wakes up because of the clatter of the falling bracelet. Dwarka puts away his dagger and makes a show—restrained, but still a show—of having come in response to the wedding invitation. The woman, unseen by both Kundan and Dwarka, slips away.
She soon puts in another surreptitious appearance. Dwarka invites Kundan to drink with him; and Dwarka’s man, preparing the drinks, empties a powder into what will be Kundan’s glass. While the man goes to fetch the pitcher of wine, that same unseen woman tiptoes in and switches the glasses.
With the result that Dwarka ends up being poisoned.
He recovers—Kundan frantically calls in the vaid—but that isn’t enough to make Dwarka kindly disposed. No; once he’s all right, Dwarka immediately goes off to meet his accomplice, Laila, to give her instructions to hurry up and lure Kundan. Bring him back to Banaras. Dwarka seems quite taken with Laila himself, and she calmly lets him know that his brother Ganeshi is quite mad about her too.
But when she’s with Kundan, Laila finally reveals the truth: she is none other than Kundan’s childhood friend, Munni. Munni, whose very respectable adoptive mother turned out to be a dancer and courtesan named Champa Bai. Champa Bai, whose only motive for adopting Munni was to acquire a good apprentice. It was Laila/Munni who flung her bracelet to wake up Kundan, and it was she who switched the glasses. She has been looking out for Kundan, trying to protect him from the very men who have employed her to entice him.
She does not, however, tell Kundan that she is Laila too. That is a bridge they will cross when they come to it. For now, they’re happy being together again.
But it’s only a matter of time before Kundan has to get back to reality, to Bhawani Prasad and his feud with Naubat Lal’s sons.
Sunghursh was the last film in which Dilip Kumar and Vyjyanthimala worked together; it was also, after hits like Naya Daur, Devdas, Madhumati and Leader, the one film which was a flop. Dilip Kumar was nominated for a Filmfare Best Actor Award for his role as Kundan, but lost out to Shammi Kapoor in Brahmachari.
What I liked about this film:
The cast, which features some of the finest actors of Hindi cinema. Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni and Sanjeev Kumar are (as always) superb, but even the others, especially Jayant, are very good.
And I haven’t even got around to mentioning the many familiar names and faces which appear in small roles through the film: Padma Khanna as Mamaji’s fourth wife, for instance; or Deven Verma, as the silly Nisar, hanging around at Laila’s; or a bewigged Jagdish Raj as a debauched and lascivious raja, a role very different from his usual staid, stern cop image.
To some extent, the sets and costumes look marginally more authentic than that of the run-of-the-mill Hindi period film from the 60s.
Plus, some scenes that are notable for the dramatic effect they have. I must admit that the scene that really made me sit up here was Bhawani Prasad’s deathbed scene. This was a haunting one, a scene I’ll probably remember for a while.
The music of Sunghursh was composed by Naushad, to lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni. Sadly, this time, the once-inimitable partnership wasn’t really able to create the magic of scores like Baiju Bawra, Mughal-e-Azam, and Mere Mehboob. In Sunghursh, I liked Mere pairon mein ghungroo bandha de, but that was about it.
What I didn’t like:
The missing potential when it came to the character development of Kundan. Kundan has spent much of his life under the tutelage of Bhawani Prasad, and Bhawani Prasad, from what we see of him, is a vicious and violent man. Yet, when we catch up with an adult Kundan, there is nothing to be seen of how that viciousness has been transmitted to Kundan. Or, given Kundan’s more tempered temperament (and the fact that Bhawani Prasad doesn’t seem dissatisfied with him at this stage), nothing about how Kundan is managing to balance his conscience with pleasing Bhawani Prasad.
This is what I found most disconcerting about Kundan’s character: he seems to be good, he is shown to be good—but how is he hoodwinking Bhawani Prasad? There was scope here to either show Kundan doing an interesting Robin Hood/Zorro role, or to show a sudden and complete turnaround for Kundan (as happened in, say, Prince, for Shammi Kapoor). The way it stands, this is unconvincing.
I also feel rather disappointed that the sum isn’t greater than the parts in the case of Sunghursh. The cast was fantastic, the music was by two of Hindi cinema’s greatest stalwarts, and the director wasn’t someone to be sneezed at. Yet, it’s not as if Sunghursh is a brilliant film. It’s not bad, but it could have been far better.