I have watched so many Hindi films from the 50s and 60s that now I am always on the lookout for ‘new’ old films that I haven’t watched. And if someone tells me a film isn’t half bad, I’m more than willing to give it a try. So, when blog reader Manuela mentioned Palki, and wrote this about it: “It’s 100% melodrama, and viewers who regard melodrama as sentimental candy floss for the uneducated will probably hate it. But if you consider melodrama as a legit form of storytelling, it’s very enjoyable.”… I bookmarked the film for watching there and then.
The film is set in Lucknow, to which we are introduced by way of a song. Poor but brilliant shaayar Naseem (Rajendra Kumar) serenades the city by singing Ae shahr-e-Lucknow tujhe mera salaam hai at a mushaira. Naseem is the toast of the town, and is soon to be feted at a mushaira hosted by a Nawab (Rehman). That will be a fine recognition of Naseem’s talent, says a friend, When he hears of this, Naseem’s neighbour and friend Sultan (Johnny Walker) agrees.
The Rs 5,000 that will be awarded to Naseem at this upcoming mushaira will go a long way in helping Naseem fulfill some of his dreams. His blind old mother (Pratima Devi) will be able to live a little more comfortably, and—most importantly—Naseem will be able to marry his sweetheart. Mehrunissa ‘Mehru’ (Waheeda Rehman) is Sultan’s sister, and lives with Sultan and Sultan’s wife (Minoo Mumtaz) in the little home with which Naseem’s home shares a common wall.
Naseem and Mehru have been in love for a long time, and end up having to resort to the odd clandestine rendezvous now and then on the terrace, but everybody, including Naseem’s Amma, Sultan, and Sultan’s wife seem to not just know but welcome this romance, and everybody’s rooting for it. When Naseem discovers there’s a rip in his sherwani, the sherwani is passed along to Mehru so that she can mend it.
And, wearing that sherwani, Naseem goes for the mushaira at Nawab Sahib’s haveli. He is, as expected, a big hit, but just as he dramatically lifts an arm to emphasize a sher, a large gap appears in the sherwani, between the sleeve and the armhole. The crowd at the mushaira, not as cultivated as one would imagine admirers of fine poetry to be, boo Naseem off the stage. Nawab Sahib tries to stop Naseem and hand him the bag of prize money, but Naseem is so humiliated and upset, he doesn’t stop.
Back home, Mehru commiserates (she had been at the mushaira, behind the purdah, so she witnessed Naseem’s humiliation). She agrees: Naseem did right by not taking the Nawab’s bag of money; where he was so insulted, it would be degrading to accept anything. Mehru, in fact, goes to the extent of telling Naseem that if he had accepted the money, it would have amounted to signing her death warrant: his honour is hers, and she would die if he did something so base.
Mehru’s brother Sultan, however, is more pragmatic and realizes that to people as poor as them, the Rs 5,000 is not a sum to be sneezed at. Besides, he reasons (though not to either Naseem or Mehru) that the money is rightfully Naseem’s; Nawab Sahib had decreed it so, even before the mushaira. So Sultan goes off to ask Nawab Sahib, on Naseem’s behalf, for the money. He stops en route at Hakim Dinanath’s (Manmohan Krishna), and the hakim gives him news: the Nawab has given Hakim Sahib the money for Naseem, here it is.
Sultan accepts the money, but knowing how Naseem and Mehru feel about it, he decides to use subterfuge to give it to them. He begs Hakim Sahib to let him have an old metal handi lying nearby…
Shortly after, Sultan comes barging into Naseem’s home, claiming that he’s had a dream in which Naseem’s father, long deceased, appeared, and showed Sultan the place where he—Naseem’s father—had once buried a hoard of coins. Now Sultan says he’s certain the coins are there, exactly as they appeared in his dream. So, getting a pick, he begins to dig up the little coriander patch in Naseem’s home. Naseem and his mother, amused, humour Sultan and let him have his way.
Of course, what emerges is the metal handi, which Sultan has secretly managed to hide away here, and inside it are all those coins that he’s transferred here from the bag the Nawab had sent for Naseem.
They are rich! All is well, and now Naseem and Mehru can get married.
There is much exultation, the wedding is arranged, and amidst much joy and relief, Naseem and Mehru are married. Naseem’s Amma, the precious handi kept in front of her, places all the unspent coins in it.
Unfortunately, the bag in which the Nawab had given the coins (a distinctive bag, with lettering on it, probably indicating what this is) was not thrown away by Sultan when he transferred the money from the bag into the handi. This bag is now discovered by some children, who, playing with it, toss it into Naseem’s Amma’s lap. She places it on top of the coins in the handi, and closes the lid of the handi.
Later, when Naseem and Mehru are finally alone together, Mehru demands money for moonhdikhaai, and Naseem gives her the handi. Mehru opens it, and there, on top of the coins, is the treacherous bag. Mehru realizes what has happened, and is very upset. Naseem manages to calm her down and convince her that he is not the one responsible for this, he didn’t sneakily take the Nawab’s prize money.
That said, now Naseem, in all faith, must return all that money. Rs 5,000 for someone as poor as Naseem is well-nigh impossible. Not in Lucknow, at any rate. Naseem must go to Bombay, where hopefully he’ll be able to earn more than he can here.
So, without having consummated the marriage, assuring his beloved Mehru that they will be each other’s soon, once he’s back from Bombay, Naseem leaves for the big bad city.
It takes him some effort and lots of rejections, but finally, Naseem manages to get a job: a certain Jafarbhai Godiwala (Nasir Hussain), impressed by Naseem’s sense of hard work, honesty and self-respect, gives Naseem a job in his factory. That, along with various part-time jobs in which Naseem works, allows him to start earning a steady income.
He begins to send money orders back home to Lucknow, and he and Mehru, in their correspondence, begin to dream of when Naseem will be able to return to Lucknow. In the meantime, Mehru sends him a list of gifts she wants from Bombay: a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal, bangles for her, a telephone instrument…
Instead of Naseem, what arrives one day is bad news from Bombay. The radio has been full of news of a terrible disaster that has struck Bombay: a series of explosions, caused by carelessly flung cigarettes, have rocked the city, and many hundreds have died, even more injured. In the midst of this, the upper story home in which Jafarbhai Godiwala lives catches fire, and his little son (Master Shahid) is trapped. Naseem rescues him and manages to get the boy to safety, but before Naseem himself can escape, a flaming beam falls down onto him.
Jafarbhai Godiwala sends a message to Naseem’s address in Lucknow, informing his family that Naseem has died. Mehru, when she learns of Naseem’s death, is so traumatized, she loses her mind and goes into a state of limbo, where she completely forgets that Naseem has died.
Mehru’s condition is so pathetic, Sultan and his wife are at their wits’ end. Naseem’s mother, devastated, goes off on Hajj.
Sultan and his wife are so worried for Mehru that, at the recommendation of a friend, they decide to go to a much-revered dargah in Barabanki, hoping that Mehru will be healed. But what happens there is totally unexpected: an old lady (?) notices Mehru, and is so taken by Mehru’s beauty and gentleness, she asks for Mehru’s hand in marriage for her son.
Mehru’s sister-in-law is wary; she tries, somewhat hesitantly, to explain that Mehru is recently widowed and has not quite got over the shock yet, but the old lady doesn’t seem to be bothered by that. No, no; it is Mehru she wants as her daughter-in-law.
So Mehru, her head all a muddle, is married to a man she hasn’t even seen. All she knows is that when she is asked if she will marry this ‘Nawab Naseemuddin’, she is pleasantly surprised that her dear darling Naseem has become a nawab. Mehru is all demure and happy and eager to be finally back with Naseem.
And, of course, this being Hindi cinema, there must be a coincidence. Not only does Mehru’s new husband share Naseem’s name, he is also a man who has inadvertently had some impact on Mehru’s life already: this is the Nawab who had patronized Naseem.
Now, a veiled Mehru waits for her bridegroom, and when he arrives, she teases him from behind her veil: why has he hidden from her the fact that he has become a nawab?
It is only when a shocked Nawab asks his bride what she means that Mehru looks up, sees the Nawab, and again suffers a traumatic shock, which (true blue Hindi cinema style) jerks her back into reality. All of a sudden, Mehru remembers all that had happened: that her beloved Naseem was dead, that she was a widow.
Only, Naseem isn’t dead. Somehow, he had managed to escape, unknown to Jafarbhai Godiwala. And now, having recovered, he comes rushing back to Lucknow and to Mehru.
I thought I’d seen pretty much all the Muslim socials of the 1960s, so this one came as a surprise. It’s really a very unlikely story (Naushad’s, interestingly enough), far too dependent on a series of coincidences, almost to the extent of being bizarre. A willing suspension of disbelief, that’s what Palki requires from its viewers.
What I liked about this film:
The songs, by Naushad. The songs of Palki are not spectacular, but some of them are very nice. I especially liked the superb qawwali Main idhar jaaoon ya udhar jaaoon (picturized on Roopesh Kumar and Vijaya Choudhury), the soulful devotional Dil ki kashti bhanwar mein, and the romantic Chehre se apni aaj toh pardah uthaaiye.
And, all said and done, despite the somewhat strange way in which this story plays out, at least it’s not predictable; and it’s entertaining. I don’t think, for instance, that I’ve seen too many other films in which someone’s had to pretend to be a ghost for such altruistic reasons.
What I didn’t like:
This may sound self-contradictory (given that I’ve written, above, that the story is entertaining), but yes: the somewhat bizarre twists this goes through. Naushad wrote the story for Palki, and one can’t help but wonder what he was thinking as he wrote this. Yes, Hindi films aren’t really known for being realistic, but Palki takes the cake, the laddoos and the gulabjamuns when it comes to being highly improbable.
And yes, I can’t help but marvel at the sheer irresponsibility of Minoo Mumtaz’s character. Mehru is not in her senses; she has no recollection of Naseem’s death, she does not even realize that she is being married off a second time: is it fair, is it even ethical, to marry her off? True, the Nawab is told that his bride to be is a widow; and true, his mother is told that Mehru is not quite thinking straight; but just what condition Mehru is in, is never divulged—not to the Nawab, at any rate. I find that callous and unethical and just not done. One could see it from the point of view of Sultan and his wife, who are so poor that it’s probably very difficult for them to have to look after Mehru again. I can imagine that they are desperate, but I would like to be shown that: I need to be convinced of it to forgive the way they behave.
(Worse, Minoo Mumtaz’s character then proceeds to tell a horrific lie, all in an attempt to not rock the boat; but it just makes things a whole lot worse. Palki, mostly because of this woman and the unthinking, impulsive behaviour of Jafarbhai Godiwala, becomes a case study in what happens when people are foolish and act without thinking).
But, all said and done, despite the fact that this film starred Rajendra Kumar (whom I don’t particularly like), not a film I really regretted watching. And, Minoo Mumtaz in a somewhat more mature role, not feisty and sharp-eyed as in most of her younger films, is different and interesting.