Sunghursh (1968)

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.

10 thoughts on “Sunghursh (1968)

  1. A very nice and comprehensive review. Jayant acted out of his skin. I always wondered who his henchman was. Thanks for letting us know. Mere paironme has shades of Nain lad gayee from Gunga Jumna!
    I saw this movie in its original release and liked it very much. I wonder why it flopped. Was the DK magic finally waning in 1968?

    • Thank you!

      True, Mere pairon mein always reminds me of Nain lad jayee hain too: similar vibe, similar picturization.

      Yes, I do think Dilip Kumar was losing his touch by 1968. Acting-wise, he was still at the top of his game, but he was really looking his age (in fact, possibly beyond his age?) by then. Also, the flavour of films was changing – the sort of films that Dilip Kumar had excelled at were few and far between.

      Just my take on that, though.

  2. So agree with your summation, Madhu. I wanted to like this more than I did, simply because the acting was excellent all around, especially Sanjeev Kumar, who was so young and so inexperienced at the time. I can well believe that Dilip Kumar said that about him.

    But the slipshod characterisations and plot holes made it difficult. No one seems to object to Bhawani Prasad being a serial murderer? And as you pointed out, how does Kundan balance his fealty to his grandfather with his own temperament and conscience?

    What I did like, in fact, are that the women’s characterisations are extraordinarily sensitive for that day and age (and even for the present day) – perhaps the fact that the story *and* screenplay are by women had something to do with it? Because while Munni/Laila is shown to be somewhat remorseful of her courtesan life, she is also shown to be assertive and independent, and deems herself fully worthy of Kundan’s love.

    I agree with you that Dilip Kumar looked too old for the role – but his acting made me forget that. And it *was* interesting to see so many actors cast against type and trope – I mean, Sanjeev didn’t go on to become typecast as ‘villain’; Balraj Sahni wasn’t the usual self-sacrificing, halo supporting elder brother; you already mentioned Jagdish Raj.

    Time for a re-watch. :)

    • Well said, Anu, about the women being well-written characters. Yes, that is true – even of Sulochana Latkar’s character, who while she may be at the receiving end of her father-in-law’s cruelty, still has the courage to go up against him. Especially that death bed scene! And Munni/Laila, too – yes, definitely a much stronger woman than the average female character in Hindi cinema.

      It hadn’t struck me that there were so many actors cast against type – but yes, you’re spot on with that comment, too. :-)

  3. I saw this film and gave it a brief write-up in February of 2009. Madhu, I guess I concurred with the basics of what you said here when I remarked, near the beginning of my write- up, “The drama and plot did not make this one of my all-time favorite movies, but it often was excellent to look at and the music was very nice. And, most importantly, there was the cast!” (Though I guess you are right that the music of Naushad in Sunghursh is not as great as Naushad in some of those earlier films.) I also remarked on Balraj Sahni, especially, not acting according to type (Anu’s point about multiple actors here). I think I would have noticed more about all the actors involved and I would have had more knowledge about the director when I reviewed this if I had written it up a little more recently. This was only about a year after I first really fell for old Hindi films (and turned my blog in that direction).

    But I did not call my post “Sunghursh”; I called it “My Favorite Scene In Sunghursh,” posted the video of that, and then started talking about the film after it. The video clip has disappeared since, but it had to be this scene (which you did show a nice screen cap from also :) ):

    I like the “Tasveer-E-Mohabbat” dance, too, but the “Agar Yeh Husn Mera” dance is probably the reason I didn’t feel as negatively about the film as I might have (otherwise). (I also like the music to this dance more.)

    I think I watched the film partway through one more time during the past dozen years (though I’m not quite sure when). I have watched those two Vyjayanthimala dances quite a few more times.

    • I had forgotten all about your post, Richard. I must go and read that right after this.

      Vyjyanthimala’s dances are certainly among the better elements of this film – and I agree about Agar yeh husn mera, which is good, both the dance as well as the music.

      “I think I would have noticed more about all the actors involved and I would have had more knowledge about the director when I reviewed this if I had written it up a little more recently.

      I can understand that sentiment, because it’s something I have felt too, often enough! Despite having grown up with Hindi cinema, I realize now just how much I hadn’t known – even very basic stuff – when I first began blogging.

  4. Madhuji, I remember watching half an hour of this movie, when all the movie channels started airing Dilip Kumar’s movies after his demise. Somehow, I could not watch it for long. Dilip Kumar, perhaps, was a spent force by 1968, at least as a hero.

  5. Thanks to your comprehensive and well-written review, I finally saw Sunghursh in its entirety. In fact, your description of Jayant’s death scene as well as the Dilip–Sanjeev face-offs, made me go for it.
    Years ago, maybe in the 80s, I had seen only half of the movie and somehow, didn’t feel like completing it.
    Despite a great team helming the movie, it falls short of expectations. Even the music is good but nothing great.
    You get a dissatisfied feeling.
    I guess, I was looking forward for some fireworks – some confrontation scenes between the grandfather and grandson. Also the climax was predictable and less impactful.
    Balraj Sahni is a great actor and did really well but, in my personal opinion, he was miscast.

    BTW, young Kundan was played by Dilip Dhawan and it was his first and I believe, the only film as a child artiste. More known for his role in Nukkad, he passed away at an early age.

    Sadhana was HS Rawail’s first choice but was replaced by Vyjayantimala due to her health issues. She had mentioned this bitterly in many interviews.
    In the hindsight, the change was better as Sadhana was never a good dancer and the role required dancing.

    • Thank you for telling me your impressions of it – you put it very well, one does end up with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

      I hadn’t known that child was Dilip Dhawan! Thank you for identifying him. How interesting. I only remember him from Nukkad, though of course I vaguely know that he acted in other stuff too.

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