Miss India (1957)

Before I watched this film, the only other Nargis-Pradeep Kumar films I’d seen were Adalat and Raat aur Din. Both had them playing a married couple, both films had superb music. But they couldn’t have been more unlike each other. Adalat was tiresome, regressive, and depressing; Raat aur Din was intriguing and fast-paced, and overall a good mystery.

One good film, one a dud. Dared I hope that Miss India might be better than Adalat? This was a film I really knew nothing of, except that its music was by SD Burman.

There was only one way to find out: by watching it.

Miss India begins at a graduation ceremony in a Delhi college where the chief guest praises the ‘Miss Indias’, as he dubs them: the educated, self-reliant young women of India, the women who will make good wives for their husbands and good homes for their families. [I roll my eyes and mentally start pushing this into the Adalat slot. Same vibes]. Among the women graduating is the highly accomplished Rama (Nargis), who has graduated in law. [Ah. There has to be a reason for this. There is hope yet].

Back home, Rama’s father Lala Kalicharan (Badriprasad) and her stepmother (Praveen Paul) have varied reactions to Rama’s graduations. Daddy is pleased as punch, StepMommy is annoyed and questions the sense in educating this girl to this extent: who will marry her? Daddy is so proud of Rama, he announces that he will find a good groom for Rama, a groom who will consider her education her greatest dowry. He will advertise right away in the newspapers. [Yo, Daddy. That’s why you educate a girl: so you can marry her off pronto].

In Bombay, Jagdish (Pran), his female partner Putli (Nishi Kohli) and several of their fellow goons, including Mehmood (played by Mehmood himself) and a couple of others (including a young Rajendranath) are lolling about, examining the newspapers for news that could be of use to them. They happen upon Lala Kalicharan’s ad, and Jagdish sees an opportunity to make some money. More so, since Lala Kalicharan, who used to be a station master, had testified against Jagdish’s father, who had been caught stealing [Jagdish, obviously, is carrying on the family business]. Stealing from Kalicharan will be sweet revenge.

Putli demurs: won’t Kalicharan recognize Jagdish? Is it safe? Jagdish tells her that he won’t answer the ad himself; he is known to the police in Delhi, so he dare not show his face there. No; he has a man in mind for that job.

This man is Anil (Pradeep Kumar), who has just completed a spell in jail.

Anil is happy to go along with Jagdish’s scheme, which is to pass Anil off as the prince of a state called Gopalpur. A letter is duly sent to Lala Kalicharan, from the ‘Prince’, and Lalaji is suitably chuffed. Even more when the Prince arrives in Delhi, with four ‘secretaries’ in tow (Jagdish’s passel of goons, all dressed up in achkans and churidars). When the Prince insists that he will accept no dowry, Lalaji’s joy knows no bounds.

The marriage is fixed for the following week, the Prince suggesting an auspicious date. He even presses a ton of jewellery on Rama (or rather, on Rama’s father, since the Prince does not insist on even meeting his bride to be). Kalicharan is touched: the Prince is a gem.

The wedding takes place, and while Anil still doesn’t see his bride’s face, Rama takes a peek at her husband from behind her ghoonghat.

Before she leaves her natal home, Rama is wished well by her father. Kalicharan tells her that though he had not intended to give a dowry, seeing the Prince’s generosity, he has mortgaged the family home and used the money to buy many thousands’ worth of jewels, which he’s handed over to the Prince.

Rama is left in the hotel room to await her new husband. As she’s pacing about, she discovers that the window of the room opposite is open—and the woman at the window (Shammi) is also a new bride. The two young women exchange some quick, rather shy notes until the other girl’s husband arrives and she bids Rama goodbye.

Rama keeps waiting for her husband. Singing (no, not Someday my prince will come, but Aaja re aaja raat milan ki). Finally, she falls into an exhausted doze, and is jolted awake by a police officer, who’s arrived with several other men. From their hurried and angry remarks, Rama learns the awful truth: her husband is no prince, but a wanted criminal. He has decamped, run away without paying the bill, which is why the hotel manager (Brahm Bhardwaj) has seen fit to summon the police.

Rama is all shaken up [well, naturally] and annoyed, too, at the hotel manager’s persistent grouching about his unpaid bill. She whips off the gold bangles the Prince had given for her, and offers them: Here, use these to pay the bill.

But the police officer has brought along a jeweller too, and he confirms what the cop already suspects: that the jewellery is fake. Poor Rama has no option but to take out an old necklace, a gold one which is the sole remaining amaanat of her long-dead mother. This is approved by the jeweller, and happily accepted as payment for the hotel bill.

Rama is distraught. Now what? She decides she can’t burden her father with her woes, so… the next morning, Rama phones him and tells him that they’ve received a hurried telegram from Bombay; the Prince has been summoned back urgently. They are now at the airport, the plane’s about to leave. Daddy is a bit upset that Rama can’t even come and see him before leaving, but such is life.

Rama, of course, isn’t at the airport; she’s at the railway station. She takes the train to Bombay, and once she’s there, a kindly Victoria driver takes her to the Modern Hotel, which is run by a couple (Tuntun and Ram Avtar). They tell her that there are no vacant rooms. Just then, one of the lodgers comes downstairs, on his way out of the hotel. This is Anil, disguised as a Pathan. He gives some quick instructions, and is gone. Rama, head bent and not paying attention, doesn’t realize whom she’s just missed recognizing.

His appearance reminds the hotel owners that there is a way out. This Pathan is out all night and only comes to the hotel to sleep through the day. They can give his room to Rama for the night. She can be there at night, he can be there during the day. And they’ll get the entire tariff twice over! Yay.

Now is when you’d expect Rama to run into her wayward husband, but no. Though it involves much quick thinking, some lies and a lot of subterfuge, the hotel owners manage to keep Anil and Rama from running into each other while imagining that they’re the sole occupants of the room.

But one night, Anil comes back unexpectedly and there is a flurry as the couple race to prevent disaster. It doesn’t work; while neither Anil nor Rama realize what has been happening – and neither of them even discovers the other, let alone meeting – both are thoroughly incensed by the pandemonium in the hotel and both leave, going their own ways. [Why Anil has been disguised as a Pathan and is staying in a hotel in his hometown is never explained].

Rama spends sometime going here and there to try and track down her errant husband. She goes to a seedy looking bar, but no luck. Then she goes to a women’s social service group, but discovers that the women are all vociferous proponents of divorce as a means of female emancipation—which gives Rama a chance to give them a lecture on how a woman’s place is beside her husband, and how she does want back the husband who deserted her. [Aarrgh. If this is a sign of the ability and education of Miss India, God help us].

Then, realizing this search can take her a long time and she needs some means of livelihood in the meantime, Rama decides to search for a job. This comes to naught. Or sort of. The boss says that Rama’s Sati Savitri look won’t do; she’ll need a makeover; his secretary, a hip young miss, makes some quick suggestions on what wonders could be wrought with some lipstick rouge, a haircut and so on. An indignant Rama gets the opportunity to lambaste them and tell the boss that she’d rather work in a place where her ability and talents are respected, not her looks.

A dispirited and unhappy Rama is wandering around that night when she hears someone whimpering in pain. Following the sound to its source, she discovers an almost unconscious Anil, lying hidden behind bushes, bleeding from a bullet wound in his shoulder. He’s been running from the police and has been hurt.

Rama looks around, and there’s a deserted shed, a garage of some sort, nearby. She helps Anil into that—he is barely conscious and doesn’t know who’s come to his rescue. Rama has just got Anil lying down, when she hears the police nearby. They’ve discovered blood, and are following the trail. They’re sure to arrive at the garage soon.

Fortunately for Rama, there’s a pair of overalls [exactly her size too, yippee] hanging on a nail along with a cap nearby.

When the police enter the garage, following that blood trail, therefore, they find this somewhat buxom youth named Ramu [nobody in the film seems to wonder why Ramu is so well-endowed in places usually only a woman would be]. Ramu shows them the cops the profusely bleeding gash on his arm and gives them some garbled story about having harmed himself over some girl. Ramu has a tendency to be irritating and garrulous, so the police inspector is quick to shake him off and get going.

Once the cops are gone, Rama/Ramu gets around to tending to Anil. When Anil is conscious enough to register all that’s happening, ‘Ramu’ assures him that all will be well. Ramu will look after Anil.

And this it is that Rama spends all her time waiting hand and foot on her worthless husband. She takes on part-time jobs to earn money for food and medicine, she feeds Anil and dresses his wound [why Anil doesn’t use his underworld contacts to find a doctor to attend to something as potentially dangerous as a bullet wound is beyond me].

When Anil is finally healed, Ramu even insists on being with Anil all the time. Which Anil, egoist that he is and finding nothing surprising about a random chhokra being so clingy, readily agrees to. Ramu will get a job at the warehouse Anil and his gang operate. What they store here is never explained.

There, of course, Ramu encounters Putli, who does not hide her attraction to Anil. And Anil, happy to have her lavish her attentions on him, is not fobbing her off. Rama/Ramu gets a bit desperate trying to prevent her husband falling for the wiles of this woman [yet again. Poor, poor men, always being preyed upon by vamps, left, right and centre].

Worn out by the constant charade, Rama one day goes to a restaurant to have a cup of tea, and there sees someone she has met before.

It’s the bride who was in the room opposite Rama’s on her wedding night. Rama quickly takes off her disguise and introduces herself. In turn, her new friend introduces her husband, Pyarelal (IS Johar). Pyarelal is a social worker and activist of sorts, and Rama’s tale of woe—about having found the husband who had deserted her but not knowing how to get him back—makes him decide to take in her case. He’ll help Rama get Anil back.

A plot that involves some nifty acting on the part of Rama, and comes with complications that will test her—and Pyarelal’s—ingenuity.

What I liked about this film:

The pace and entertainment value. IS Johar, who wrote the story, screenplay and dialogue (besides directing the film) mostly manages to steer clear of anything that isn’t really relevant to the plot. The story, therefore, is fairly fast-moving, and once Pyarelal launches his plan to reunite Rama with Anil, it gets especially interesting.

Nargis, in the thick of the Rama-gets-Anil plot. She gets to indulge in a fair bit of loony prancing around, play-acting and more, all somewhat Wodehousian—and she seems to be enjoying it a lot. Plus, she’s good at it.

Lastly, the music, by SD Burman. I must admit there were no songs here I recalled having heard before, but I liked them a lot. My favourites include the wonderful two-songs-in-one, Jaaoon main kahaan/Yeh bheegi-bheegi raatein, Wah wah badlaa zamaana, Albela main ek dilwaala, and Jaise ko taisa.

What I didn’t like:

The entire premise of Rama wanting to get back Anil. This is a man who didn’t just desert you on your wedding night, he also stole all your jewellery. He is an out-and-out no-good man, and you know it. To go on insisting that you want him back, is horribly regressive, as far as I’m concerned. Of course, I do see that Rama washing her hands of Anil and her short-lived marriage would have put paid to the story right there, but her wanting to trace him again could have been structured in a way that allowed a more feminist approach. If Rama wanted to get Anil back just so she could have her revenge, and then some more… I may have approved of that.

And, this ties in with the traditional Indian = good, modern Western = bad idea, also not my cup of tea. The prospective boss’s opinion, that Rama needs a makeover to get the job, or the women who try to push her to get a divorce, only to have Rama push back and give them a piece of her mind: all of this just serves to reinforce the idea that a good Indian woman, even when educated, is one who still thinks of an erring husband as her devta. Ugh.

But. Despite that, a pretty entertaining film, and downright fun at times.

24 thoughts on “Miss India (1957)

  1. Nargis did a few B grade films post Raj Kapoor and Mother India. Good for her. No complaints on that score.
    But Nargis also lost her looks. This was sad. The gaps in her teeth widened and she looked decidedly matronly.
    I haven’t seen Miss….
    How does she look?

    • She looks all right here – she was still fairly young, you see. Not the matronly look of Raat aur Din, for instance. And she seems to be having a lot of fun pulling off the masquerade and playing tricks on Pradeep Kumar’s character.

  2. You know, I don’t even mind her giving the boss a piece of her mind or not wanting a modern makeover. I don’t even mind her pushing back against divorce as a panacea for all marital woes. She can be feminist within the traditional confines of her upbringing – but, and this is a huge but, why, specifically, is her husband her devta? Because he married her, cheated her and left not only her but also her father in poverty?

    She is a good actress, though these are the films I point out when people say Meena Kumari had a ‘sati-savitri’ image; in my opinion, Nargis did far more regressive roles than MK did. I’m thinking of MK’s Bhabhi ki Chudiyan, Baharon ke Manzil, Majhli Didi, etc. All set in very traditional settings, but the characters she portrayed never lost their self-respect and knew how to stand up for themselves. Even against their husbands.

    Besides, I have no idea why Nargis had a law degree in this one – apart from a court scene in the climax. But you’re right – it was fast paced, and there were very little tangential sub-plots which add nothing to a film but tedium.

    • You’re very right, Anu. Yes, why she still thinks of him as her devta is the problematic part. Rather like Kumkum’s character in Mr & Mrs 55… ugh, just the thought of her condoning her husband’s beating her up makes me see red.

      And yes, her having a law degree seems to make little sense (also, she and everybody else seems to have forgotten about it when she’s going around looking so desperately for a job, no?)

  3. I watched this film years back just cause it had music by SDB. And when I was done, all I remembered was exactly you put it Madhu – that I did not know the songs at all, but I liked them. Now, approximately 25 years later, all I remember is still the music, and not too much about the film plot – EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT – an intense dislike for the doormat character that Nargis played in the film. There is not one thing about Pradeep Kumar’s character for her to stick by him – and yet she does – just cause – actually just cause what? Cause she was married to him? All that education was a complete waste on that character.
    I do remember her having fun dressing up – think there is a Shamshad song picturized on her dressed as a man – which I found kind of amusing. Maybe I am not remembering that part right.
    Finally, a pet peeve of mine, though I should have gotten over it by now – the actors NEVER looked like they were just out of college. While Nargis may not have looked “matronly”, but she definitely did not look like a young law school graduate.

    • I so totally agree about Nargis’s character being such a doormat. If that’s all that she got out of her education (or, really, the chance to defend her useless husband in court), then I don’t think her education did much for her.

      Also agree completely about the actors looking far older than they’re supposed to be. But that’s so common in old Hindi cinema, isn’t it? If you can have Rajendra Kumar and OP Ralhan, both probably in their 40s (or late 30s, at least) playing college students in Talaash, anything goes.

  4. So education IS to find a husband. Or, keep him, I guess. It’s sad because there are many earlier Indian movies where the girls have jobs and stuff, something I’ve always liked about Indian films from that era.

    • many earlier Indian movies where the girls have jobs and stuff

      Exactly! There’s even this Mala Sinha-Bharat Bhushan film called Gyaarah Hazaar Ladkiyaan (‘Eleven Thousand Girls’), the title of the film supposedly derived from the number of working women in Bombay at the time.

      And, as Anu points out in her comment, there are films depicting very ‘traditional women’ too (my favourite is Majhli Didi) who are very strong characters, not doormats or husband-worshipping wimps.

        • Talking of the 1960s and films like that… Nutan. Shudder. To think that someone who could have acted in films like Sujata and Bandini could have ended up in all those horribly regressive roles in the 60s.

          • What are some of the Nutan films in this ilk? I remember disliking Saraswatichandra when I saw it way back, but cannot recall too many others – I guess I thankfully watched more of the films that I admired her for, or the chulbula ones like “Paying Guest” or “Tere Ghar ke Saamne”

            • She acted in a series of really awful films, mostly opposite Sunil Dutt, in the late 60s. Khaandaan, Meherbaan, Bhai-Bahen, Gauri, Devi among them – all of which had Nutan (and usually Sunil Dutt too) playing a married couple who are totally self-sacrificing and meek, but are surrounded by conniving and evil relatives etc. Dreadful films, a very far cry from the frothiness of Paying Guest or Tere Ghar ke Saamne or even the sheer excellence of the more ‘serious’ films she had worked in earlier.

  5. Hello Madhuji,

    I am here after a long time. I was out of the blogging scene for a while and I don’t know what happened. Anyway, I am back but doubt my own consistency.

    I have watched Miss India. I agree with Anuji here. I think, if they had shown some redeeming quality, some guilt for what he did or as they usually show a good man in wrong place- it might have added up to her wanting him back. But since they didn’t….

    Oh! & I now know what serendipity means. I just finished a post on a very popular series. That series was dubbed in Tamil and titled Adhe Kangal (which for a long time I pronounced wrongly and wondered why they are calling it आधे कंगाल).

    If you get time please visit my blog.

    Regards

  6. I’m in full agreement with you, Madhu on Miss India. I went into the movie simply for love of a song (O mere sajna aaja re aaja) and came out with just a love for its songs. Given that I’m not really a fan of Nargis, a good soundtrack was a good enough ROI for one of her movies. :-D

    Now that you’ve watched Miss India, you should check-out Mr. India (1961) with Geeta Bali and I.S. Johar. It’s a MUCH better movie with nice songs and a sparklingly, hilarious performance by Geeta Bali.

    • Oooh, thank you for the Mr India recommendation, Shalini! I have never seen it (or, come to think of it, never even heard of it, as far as I can recall), so am looking forward to watching it. Thank you. :-)

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