A hundred years ago, on January 27, 1922, in Golconda (Hyderabad) was born Hamid Ali Khan, known to thousands of Hindi film viewers (and, even thousands more who have perhaps never watched any of his films) as Ajit. The man of ‘saara shahar mujhe loin ke naam se jaanta hai’. The iconic villain, suave and eerily soft-spoken though at the same time very oily and dangerous, of films like Zanjeer, Yaadon ki Baaraat, and Kalicharan. The baas of Raabert and Lilly (who was constantly being told not to be silly).
But long before he became the stuff of really bad jokes, before he attained the stature of one of Hindi cinema’s greatest onscreen villains, Ajit was a hero. Coming to Bombay in the face of parental opposition (having first sold his college books to finance the trip), Ajit had to struggle a lot to find work in the cinema industry. He began as an extra, and worked in several films until being noticed by the Gujarati-Hindi director Nanabhai Bhatt (Mahesh Bhatt’s father) who not only gave him the screen name Ajit, but also launched him in a leading role. Across the 50s and 60s, Ajit acted in a slew of films, both as leading man (Nastik, Dholak, Baradari, Marine Drive, Tower House, Opera House, etc) as well as in major supporting roles (of special note here are Naya Daur and Mughal-e-Azam, in both of which he appeared alongside Dilip Kumar).
To commemorate Ajit’s birth centenary, I wanted to review an early Ajit film. My favourite one (Ajit is so handsome, and shows such good comic timing!), Dholak, I had already reviewed years ago. But one of his early films, which I’d watched several decades ago and remembered very little of, was perhaps due for a rewatch: Nastik, about a man who loses his faith in any divinity after the horrors of the Partition and its aftermath.
The story begins as a dejected Anil (Ajit), along with his younger sister (?) and little brother (?) come by train into India in the wake of the Partition. Footage of thousands of refugees pouring into India is combined with studio shots as Kavi Pradeep’s famous Dekh tere sansaar k haalat kya ho gayi bhagwaan plays. Anil and his two siblings have lost everything—parents, home, money—in the Partition, and can only hope to somehow live with some semblance of dignity.
At the dharamshala where they finally ask for shelter, they’re shown to a filthy and battered room, which the dharamshala worker assures them is the best in the place. When Anil asks the tariff, he is told there’s no tariff; but he must make a donation of Rs 20 or so. The wording of the phrase, ‘must’ make a donation, is not lost on Anil. Fortunately for him, though, the man who’s showing them around gives Anil a hot tip: there are many fat men who can’t climb the hundred steps to the temple and needed to be carried up to it. Anil can get work ferrying them up.
… which is what Anil does, day in and day out, in order to feed his brother and sister. At his sister’s urging, he even goes to the temple to give an offering; perhaps the gods will smile on them and make life a little easier.
But at the temple, the mahant Tulsidas (Ulhas), fawning over wealthy seths and lalas who’re offering hundreds of rupees at a time, scoffs at the paltry sum Anil offers. He doesn’t merely scoff; he is furious that Anil has the impudence to think he can stride in here and offer a few annas as an offering.
Anil is angry, of course. Which is why, when his younger brother falls seriously ill and their sister begs Anil to go and fetch the mahant to pray for the child, Anil refuses. The sister goes on pleading, getting increasingly frantic and reminding Anil of how, when their little brother had been ill earlier, their mother had fetched the local priest back home and got him to recite prayers. Prayers which had worked, prayers which had healed him. How can Anil not go?
Thus emotionally blackmailed, Anil does go—with predictable results. The mahant outright refuses to come, telling Anil that his little brother can die, it’s all the same to the mahant. Anil gets so angry, he lunges at the mahant and tries to strangle him. A few people nearby come to his rescue and save the mahant.
Anil is taken captive, and handed over to the police, having been given only time enough to peek into his room at the dharamshala, where he sees that his brother has died.
Anil is tried. Though he protests, telling his side of the story (and admitting that he has now turned a nastik, an atheist, thanks to all that he’s seen of the ‘religious people’ lately), he ends up being sentenced to a year in prison. This is where an increasingly embittered and angry Anil makes a new friend: the canny, worldly-wise Joker (IS Johar).
Joker and Anil are released together at the end of their respective sentences, and Joker accompanies Anil back to the world outside, where Anil goes looking for his sister. He is told at the dharamshala that the enraged mahant had thrown his sister out of the dharamshala, and she has not been seen ever since. What Anil does not know is that his sister roamed around for a while, somehow fending off the overtures of lecherous men who tried to lure her with promises of food—until finally, unable to take it anymore, she threw herself in the path of an oncoming carriage.
She didn’t die, and the man in the carriage, a Vinod Kumar (Raj Mehra) got out, rescued her, took her home. And since then, along with his henchman (a very young Mehmood) he has been trying to push her into gaana-bajaana (which, as anybody familiar with Hindi cinema knows, is basically a euphemism for prostitution).
Anil goes looking for the mahant, eager to have his revenge, but is told that the mahant has left; he went on a pilgrimage long back. Anil is disappointed, but he has other priorities: he must find his sister.
Anil stumbles onto his sister by chance. Having looked all about for her to no avail, he is walking by the lake with Joker. Joker mentions that the grand boat moored further along the banks of the lake is used by a man named Kumar to host mehfils with singing and dancing. When the singing begins, Anil recognizes his sister’s voice and goes running… only to discover that she is the one dancing. Anil loses his temper and calls her vile names, though she tries to protest.
Anil is so angry, he doesn’t want to see his sister again, and rushes off in a fury. Some thinking, though, and some dwelling on long-ago memories of sibling affection, makes him remorseful enough to turn back. By the time he gets back to the boat, though, it’s to see that his sister had died (it’s not very clear how this happened; perhaps she hit her head when Anil flung her away from him?) Anil is despondent and cannot forgive himself.
But he decides there is one thing he must do: find the two men who have been the cause of the deaths of his siblings. Kumar and Mahant Tulsidas. Find them and avenge the death of his brother and sister.
But Kumar, he discovers, has (like that dastardly mahant) also gone off on a pilgrimage. Two evildoers, both on pilgrimage: it makes Anil even more determined to search them out, no matter what it takes, and have his vengeance. So, accompanied part of the way by Joker (who then mysteriously drops out of the picture and is not heard of till much later), Anil embarks on a teerth-yatra which takes him everywhere from Dwarka to Rameshwar to Jagannath Puri, and eventually to Brindavan.
Here, at the ghats, we are introduced to a young woman named Rama (Nalini Jaywant). Rama is encouraged by a passing acquaintance, the Rani Ma (Leela Misra) to pray for the gods to grant her a good husband, and while Rama is obediently carrying out that injunction, who should come by but Anil? Rama is quite bedazzled…
… and her initial fascination with Anil grows even more when she sees him come to the rescue of a little Dalit beggar who dares to touch the Rani Ma while begging. The Rani Ma flies into a rage, and some hangers-on come to help by thrashing the child. Anil jumps in to save the child, to bash up the attackers, and to generally be the good Samaritan. Rama is touched by his goodness, and tells Anil that she’ll take the child home to attend to him. She says she and her father, here in Brindavan on a pilgrimage, live near the temple.
And, very soon, Anil discovers who Rama’s father is: none other than the mahant, Tulsidas, whomhe’s been chasing. Finally, Anil can have his revenge (he’s not concerned by the fact that the mahant’s daughter seems a nice sort, who has fallen in love with him). So one evening, when there’s a Krishna raas leela performance at the temple, Anil sneaks in, manages to turn off the lights, and stabs the mahant.
The mahant doesn’t die, but he’s shaken enough to decide to immediately leave Brindavan, for another pilgrimage: to Amarnath this time.
Rani Ma , who reveres the mahant greatly, offers to not just finance and arrange the trip, but to accompany Tulsidas and Rama there. Rama is distressed at the thought of never getting to see Anil again, but since she can’t say that, she goes along to Amarnath.
At Amarnath, Anil sneaks up on Tulsidas while he’s at his prayers, at the edge of a steep cliff. There’s a confrontation, the mahant begs for mercy, saying that he has a beloved daughter who means the world to him, and who will be shattered if anything should happen to her father. Anil, too angry to care, raises his hand to strike—
—and just then, he is struck on the back of the head and goes plummeting down the cliff. Vinod Kumar (who, it now emerges, is Rani Ma’s son) has also come to Amarnath on pilgrimage, and seeing the mahant in a hard spot, has come to his help. The mahant is relieved and very grateful; both of them go back together, and it’s decided that Rama and the mahant will now stay with Vinod Kumar and Rani Ma. Soon, much to Rama’s annoyance, Rani Ma and the mahant are making plans for Rama to marry Vinod Kumar.
But, in the meantime, Rama has discovered a wounded and unconscious Anil; he had fallen into a snow bank and therefore survived. With the help of a local man, she manages to take Anil to a secluded hut by the river. After Anil has been tended to, Rama promises she’ll return. The man (who owns this hut) tells her to be careful: the river is often treacherous, and when it’s so, it can be impossible to cross. Even the local angel, who stands on a hilltop, warns would-be-river-crossers against it (huh? And gullible Rama believes this bilge). The man however assures Rama that if the river is safe to cross, he will hang a lit lantern in the window so that it can act as a beacon to her.
Anil, who’s heard this (and who’s remembered the mahant’s plea about how much his daughter means to him) decides that his revenge will be to kill Rama. When the man isn’t around, and a storm threatens, he hangs the lantern in the window. Rama, gullible dimwit that she is, pays no heed to the fact that there’s obviously a storm coming on; seeing the lantern shining in the window, she gets into a boat and tries to cross. With near-disastrous results: but her (very good) duet with the local angel helps her get across.
Anil has had a minor change of heart and tries to take down the lantern, but by that time, Rama has arrived safely. Anil, though he’s decided not to kill her, figures there’s another way (given Rama is obviously so besotted) to have his revenge: entrap her in a pretence of love. Rama, already nuts about Anil, is quickly seduced, and ‘marries’ Anil (who insists on this quick, furtive ritual) at a small temple, with only the temple priest around.
What next? Will Anil succeed in his plan?
Nastik, now that I finally rewatched it at an age when I could understand it better (and evaluate it better) struck me as a film that suffers from the classic ‘curse of the second half’: it starts off interestingly, and has a good premise, but somewhere along the way it goes completely regressive and idiotic.
What I liked about this film:
The music, by C Ramachandra, to lyrics by Kavi Pradeep (who, as was his wont, sings a couple of the songs—Dekh tera sansaar ki haalat kya ho gayi bhagwaan and Is jag mein bhagwaan ka jhanda kabhi na jhukne paayega. The songs are good, ranging from a mujra (Kaise aaye hain din andher ke) to a raas leela dance (Kanha bajaaye bansri aur gwaale bajaayein manjeere) to one of my favourite devotional songs, Gagan jhanjhana raha.
What I didn’t like:
The messy, regressive, thoroughly irritating story beyond the first half.
The song Duniya bhar ke naastik kitna namakharam sort of sums up the philosophy of the latter half of the film: it tries to insist, completely unsupported by the evidence that the film itself offers, that an atheist is evil. Just by being atheist, you are a namakharam, a traitor, not true to your salt.
And on what basis? Anil’s reasons for being so nasty to the mahant and Vinod Kumar (and, it must be admitted, though this I don’t approve of) Rama, are logical. The real villains here are the mahant (who is a cruel, proud, and greedy man) and Vinod Kumar, who is an outright criminal. Vinod Kumar’s mother, the Rani Ma, is a heartless bigot; and Rama, while otherwise kind, is immeasurably stupid—to the point of it amounting to cruelty (she definitely causes one death because of her obstinate assertion that she’ll not go to a doctor when there’s a god above).
These are the upholders of the religiosity this dumb film so lauds. Anil, who has good reason to despise this lot, ends up being derided and shunned by all because he’s a lowdown namakharam nastik. The irony of it. I would like to think that perhaps IS Johar (who wrote and directed this film) was trying to be satirical when he showed that the nastik could be accepted and appreciated only when he began to put up a pretence of being religious, but I have a feeling that’s not it. Johar began this well, showing the hollowness and completely unrighteous behaviour of the so-called guardians of religion; then, somewhere along the way, he chickened out and decided to bring his hero back to the path of religion—and without any good reason for doing that turn-around. I would have accepted Anil’s return to the fold of Rambhakts more easily if (say) he had seen how truly religious people can make the world a better place for others; but nothing of the sort happens. He just does an about-turn, no real reason.
So, in the final analysis: this was probably not a good choice to commemorate Ajit’s career. But at least it’s an important milestone in his filmography, and it helps you appreciate him more in films like Dholak (which, by the way, if you haven’t seen it and you like comedy, I’d recommend highly).