Kalapi (1966)

A Gujarati film starring Sanjeev Kumar.

I am always keen to watch regional films starring people I’m familiar with from Hindi cinema. With (say) Bengali cinema, it’s not too difficult—so many Bengalis (Sharmila Tagore, Kishore Kumar, Biswajeet, Suchitra Sen, Mala Sinha, etc) were big names in Hindi cinema, and managed to do quite a bit of work in Bengali films too, many of which are subtitled. With Punjabi (which I understand enough of to be able to get the gist without having to rely on subtitles) it’s also satisfying, because Punjabi cinema seems to be pretty much completely populated by the same names one keeps running into in Hindi cinema: Nishi Kohli, IS Johar, Balraj Sahni, Prithviraj Kapoor, Indira Billi…

But to come to this: I stumbled upon Kalapi completely by accident, and immediately bookmarked it. Because a subtitled version is available on YouTube, here (though I must warn you, the subtitles are pretty bad), and because of Sanjeev Kumar, one of the greatest actors of Hindi cinema. Also, I am on an eternal quest to find old regional language films that are subtitled, and since I’d never watched a Gujarati film before, this would be a first for my blog.

Kalapi is based on a real person: Sursinhji Takhtasinhji Gohil, the ruler of the principality known as Lathi in Saurashtra, Gujarat. The 23rd Thakore of Lathi, Gohil has a place in history not as a ruler, but as a poet of immense standing. Under the pen name of ‘Kalapi’, Gohil produced an impressive corpus of poetry as well as Gujarati translations of four English novels. Kalapi’s poetry consisted primarily of love poems; he was such an adept at the ghazal form that his Aapni Yaadi is considered one of the best ghazals in Gujarati. Since 1997, the annual Kalapi Award has been awarded to Gujarati ghazal poets.

The story of Kalapi in this film begins with the wedding of Kalapi (Sanjeev Kumar) to a Rajput princess (Padmarani). The new bride, waiting for her bridegroom to come, is approached by her young maid Mongi (?). Mongi is all innocence and wants to know why she won’t be sleeping with her mistress tonight. The bride patiently explains that this is how it is; now that she is married, her husband will share her room. Not Mongi.

Kalapi, when he arrives, is loving and passionate and teasing, all at once. He names his new bride Rama and immediately gets down to charming the wits out of her.

The post-wedding romance of Kalapi and Rama is heady: he spouts poetry to her, she is entranced. Real life intrudes occasionally, in the form of the local British agent’s man bringing missives to Kalapi. Kalapi shrugs these off; he’s really not interested in all of this, in ruling and in the work it entails. All he wants to do is write poetry.

This is brought home even more forcefully to Kalapi when the coronation takes place. A reluctant Kalapi, having been crowned the thakore of Lathi, is obliged to sit on his throne, watching as a dancer (Madhumati) sings and dances in front of the entire court.

It’s obvious, from the seething boredom on Kalapi’s face, that he would rather be doing just about anything else. This annoyance bubbles over when Kalapi is back in his chambers with Rama. He complains about how much he hates this, hates the pomp and show, the farce. How much he hates being king. Rama tries to calm him and to point out that he can rule best by being of service to his people; when Kalapi still doesn’t listen, a now-frustrated Rama points out that this is unfair on her: as a Rajput princess, it is her right, her ambition, to be queen; why should his opinions come in the way of her fulfilling her destiny?

It dawns on Kalapi that his beloved Rama has an agenda very different from his own. They may love each other, but Rama’s ambition is not at all what Kalapi wants. She wants him to be king, mostly so that she can be queen; but he only wants to be a poet.

Years pass. Presumably; the next we see, Rama and Kalapi have a little boy named Balu. Balu is much loved by all, and is looked after mostly by Rama’s old and faithful maid Nathi (?). The other maid, the young Mongi, has grown up (and is now Aruna Irani). One day Kalapi happens to see Mongi, and he falls in love with her, naming her Shobhna in the process. Mongi returns his love in full, and there are many moonlit nights, many love poems. Kalapi promises her that they will marry, and that she will be his queen.

Kalapi is not particularly concerned about their romance being discovered; so, though Mongi is leery of attracting attention. Unfortunately, she proves to be right, though neither she nor Kalapi realize it at this stage. Rama has been suspicious; and one day, she calls her faithful Nathi to spy on Mongi and Kalapi. Mongi has gone to the temple, and shortly after she leaves the house, Kalapi too rides out, ostensibly to play tennis.

Nathi, following Mongi, witnesses their romantic rendezvous and reports back to Rama. Rama, jealous and unhappy, sets about trying to scotch this affair and get her husband back.

But will Rama succeed? Or will Rama’s own love for Kalapi come in the way of her jealousy?

The real life Kalapi, Sursinhji Takhtasinhji Gohil, did fall in love with  a palace maid named Shobhna, though he had been married, at the age of fifteen, to two princesses, Rama and Anandiba (interestingly, while Anandiba is mentioned in passing a couple of times in Kalapi, she never appears onscreen in the film). Tragically enough, Kalapi died very young, at a mere twenty-six years of age. He is supposed to have died of cholera, but this is disputed, and the rumour was that Kalapi’s love for Shobhna had aroused the jealousy and ire of Rama, who was behind Kalapi’s death. How Kalapi actually died, and of what, is still uncertain.

Sursinhji Takhtasinhji Gohil ‘Kalapi’ (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

Kalapi, I would have thought, would take Kalapi’s story to the logical end: to his death, to the culmination of this doomed romance with the maid Shobhna. But director Manhar Ras Kapoor and writer Prabodh Joshi turn this, instead, into something a little different. It becomes a showcase of Kalapi’s poetry (which, I admit, is a good endeavour) playing out against the love triangle between Kalapi, Rama, and Shobhna.

What I liked about this film:

The music, by Avinash Vyas. From what I could gather, most (all?) of the songs’ lyrics were Kalapi’s. For me, the experience was spoiled a little because of the very substandard subtitling, but even then, I could see glimmers of what seemed like very good poetry indeed.

Plus, it’s always a pleasure to watch Sanjeev Kumar act: he’s so natural, so utterly real.

What I didn’t like:

The somewhat ambiguous depiction of Kalapi’s character. In the beginning of the film, before Kalapi falls in love with Mongi/Shobhna, he’s relatively easy to read: a man who would rather be poet than king, a man in love with his wife. There is a slight hiccup in the relationship when Kalapi realizes that Rama has ambitions that don’t quite match his own, and this results in a slight cooling off of his ardour; but he seems to recover sufficiently, and fairly soon, to accept this and to continue to at least keep up appearances.

However, once Mongi/Shobhna enters into the equation, it becomes a little baffling. Kalapi falls blindly in love with her, but why, it’s not very clear. Or, to explain my bewilderment a little: it’s not as if Rama is simply awful, or that Kalapi begins to detest her after realizing how ambitious she is. In fact, even after Shobhna becomes Kalapi’s lover, Kalapi and Rama go on a holiday to Matheran, where there’s a good bit of romance and quality time spent together. Kalapi doesn’t look like a man not in love with his wife (and given Sanjeev Kumar’s thespian abilities, I can probably assume that this is as intended by the writer, not the fault of Sanjeev Kumar). One gets the impression that Kalapi is in love with two women at the same time—not an impossibility, of course, but it’s never really explained, and never confirmed.

On the other hand, Rama’s reaction to her husband’s infidelity is more interestingly handled. Quite naturally, Rama is distressed and jealous of Kalapi’s relationship with Shobhna, and this distress leads her to some rather desperate measures. But (and this is another indication of the fairly realistic depiction of Rama), she doesn’t let her hot-headedness prevail. Perhaps, deep down, her love for Kalapi is so strong, she realizes she cannot bring herself to harm him (or even Shobhna, because harming Shobhna will be tantamount to harming Kalapi). This is a more nuanced character than Kalapi, and one I could understand a little better than I could Kalapi: there was conflict here, and Rama was a woman I could empathise with, somewhat.

(And, by the way: why even mention Anandiba, if she remains just that, a fleeting mention? It’s not as if Kalapi’s other wife even pulls the strings in the background or does and says anything that affects what goes on in this story. She isn’t shown, and she may as well not have been a part of this film, because all that brief mention of her achieves is to make one wonder where she is in all of this, what she feels about Kalapi and Rama and Shobhna, whether Kalapi even visits her now and then, or what).

On the whole, Kalapi was a so-so film. It dragged a fair bit, and I would really only recommend watching it if you’re keen on seeing a Gujarati film about an interesting and important real-life personage. Or, if you like Sanjeev Kumar to the extent of wanting to cover his entire filmography.

Kalapi can be viewed online, with hard-coded English subtitles, here.

20 thoughts on “Kalapi (1966)

  1. I thought that Padmarani’s face resembled the veteran actress Sarita Joshi. Google confirmed that they were sisters. Anyway, since you have not recommended it highly and since I have got in the habit of watching films you have unrecommended I may
    watch it at leisure.
    Another thing, whenever I click on a link in the blog we lose your blog and the other link opens. I mean it would be easier if the link opened it a new tab. Is that possible?

    • “I mean it would be easier if the link opened it a new tab. Is that possible?

      I’m sorry, I don’t know how to do that. But can you not do a right-click on the link and use the ‘Open in new tab’ option?

    • :-) Yes, I was surprised about the Gujarati ghazal poet too. Interestingly, throughout the film (and especially in the songs, which I suppose are all mostly the words of Kalapi himself) there are a lot of Urdu/Persian words.

  2. I was pleasantly surprised to see you review this film. I watched Kalapi over a year ago because I’m Gujarati and well I love Sanjeev Kumar. I do agree with a lot of the points you made.
    Even I wish Anandiba was in the movie but I read that Kalapi never loved her and she wasn’t an important part of his life so maybe that’s why they decided to exclude her. I wish Monghi hadn’t been introduced so soon in the movie (30 mins) because then the whole film essentially became a love triangle. Also I felt they dragged the love triangle quite a bit. Instead, more time could have been devoted to showing Kalapi’s life before marriage.
    I had read about Kalapi before watching the film so I was surprised that it ended with his third marriage. After marrying Monghi he was happy for a while but he soon lost interest in love and wordly matters, he became more spiritual towards the end of his life, which is also reflected in his poetry, so they could’ve explored that dimension of his life.
    To answer your confusion about his relationship with Rama, I think he still had affection for Rama and cared for her but he stopped loving her because of their different worldviews and ambitions. Especially when she tore his poetry he realized she would never understand or support his dreams. The love was gone which is why he started getting attracted to Monghi but still carried out his duties as a husband towards Rama and held her in high regard.
    The highlight of the film was definitely the poetry. I loved that they devoted sufficient time to showing the poet side of Kalapi and it definitely added to the beauty of the film. I would say one can watch the film just for the ghazals.
    A major drawback according to me is that the sets and costumes weren’t impressive at all. Nothing about it indicated that the characters were royalty. Honestly there was no huge difference in the way Rama and Monghi dressed, they could have easily used costumes to signify the class divide. Even the palace interiors didn’t seem too decadent or luxurious, it was all too plain. I was also surprised that Rama was doing several jobs herself instead of ordering servants. Lathi was a very small kingdom so I definitely wasn’t expecting sets rivalling Mughal-e-Azam but it was a let down.
    This comment is already so long so I’m just gonna say despite all the flaws I did enjoy this movie and would recommend it to people fond of poetry and Sanjeev Kumar.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write such an interesting and insightful comment! That definitely helped me understand the film (and more importantly its historical basis) better.

      I agree with you about the evocation of the royal grandeur being substandard. Yes, even though Lathi was a small principality, at no time does the palace actually look like a palace; the costumes aren’t that rich either, and if you come to think of it, the only two maids around with Rama are Nathi and Mongi, which is highly improbable. There must have been many more servants.

  3. I must admit that I never watched any of Sanjeev Kumar’s regional movie. But after reading your review I have decided to watch it ASAP. First for him, second, he was so young at that time, looks so handsome. Especially after finding his filmography in his biography, I watched quite a few of his movies where he has a friendly appearance. Now I will get a chance to watch him for almost two hours and that should be a treat to behold! Thank you for this!

    • Talking of a young and handsome Sanjeev Kumar, have you watched Gustakhimaaf, with Tanuja? It’s one of my favourite early Sanjeev Kumar films – funny, and good. His chemistry with Tanuja is superb.

      I hope you enjoy Kalapi. Let me know what you think of it!

  4. Dear Madhulika,
    I’m visiting your blog after a while – life keeps getting in the way – and was pleasantly surprised to see you have reviewed ‘Kalapi’. I wouldn’t imagine this film would be of interest to any one except those interested in Gujarati literature and die-hard fans of Sanjeev Kumar.
    Kalapi (meaning peacock) is considered one of the foremost romantic poets in Gujarati literature. His poems, compiled as ‘Kalapi no kekarav (Cry of the peacock)’, have a unique sentimentality and lyricism previously unseen in Gujarati poetry. He was influenced by English romantic poets like Wordsworth and Keats. On the other hand, you also see the use of classical Sanskrit Chhands (metres) and the ghazal form in his work.
    The ghazal is actually quite popular in Gujarati literature and music. It is often (but not always) characterised by greater use of Urdu/Farsi origin words. In my opinion, day-to-day Gujarati possibly has more Farsi origin words compared to say languages like Marathi and Bengali.
    But coming back to the film, a somewhat apocryphal story runs in our family. My grandfather, who is considered one of the foremost Kalapi scholars and knew his family well, was invited to a screening of the film and on returning home said “The film isn’t very good but the main actor is one to watch”.
    Sorry for the long post. One last thing – It’s rare to read such well-written and considered opinion these days. And you’ve maintained the high standard consistently over the years. Thanks so much.

    • Dear Anoushka, thank you for coming by again, and for the kind words! Long time no see.

      And thank you so much for such a very interesting comment – that really helped me understand Kalapi and this film a bit better. I was especially happy to read that bit where you mentioned that Gujarati still has a lot of Farsi words, since that had puzzled me. I wasn’t sure if that was usual, or if Kalapi’s being a writer of ghazals meant that he included a lot of Farsi words in his poetry. You answered a question I hadn’t got around to asking, so thank you for that.

      • Anoushka, that was such an interesting comment, thank you. Like Madhu, I too was wondering why/how a Gujarati poet would write ghazals that had a preponderance of Urdu/Farsi words. Your comment answered that thought. :)

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