Happy birthday, Manmohan Krishna.
Today is the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s best-known and most-loved character actors, the very versatile Manmohan Krishna of the beetling brows and the prominently curved lips, who could assay pretty much any kind of role film makers cared to throw his way. Usually slotted as the avuncular older gentleman—the now blind former taxi driver of Dil Tera Deewaana, the philosophical mendicant of Railway Platform, the saintly Abdul Rasheed of Dhool ka Phool, who brings up a foundling to be neither Hindu nor Musalmaan, but a human being—Manmohan Krishna did show, in the rare film where he was given a chance to act a rather less predictable character, that he was perfectly capable of that as well. He could be the evil Lalu Ustad in Sadhna; the wolf in sheep’s clothing in Bees Saal Baad, and the imperious daddy, disapproving of forbidden love, in many films.
Born in Lahore on February 26, 1922, Manmohan Krishna had not set out to be in cinema; while a lecturer of Physics at Lahore’s Rajkiya Vidyalaya, he had begun to work in radio, a medium suited to his impressive voice. A trip to Bombay for an interview led to a chance meeting with V Shantaram at a party, and Manmohan Krishna ended up in films. Debuting in Andhon ki Duniya (1947), Manmohan Krishna began a career spanning over two hundred films across forty years: films in which he acted, sang (yes, playback as well, besides lip-syncing for some famous songs, including Basti-basti parbat-parbat and Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega), and even directed a film (Noorie, 1979).
A Manmohan Krishna film, therefore. This is one of his early films, made shortly after Manmohan Krishna debuted in the film industry. I had read about Apna Desh in Balaji Vittal’s interesting book on Hindi film villains, Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood, and decided it might merit a watch—especially since it featured Manmohan Krishna in a somewhat unusual role, as a baddie.
Apna Desh begins with an appropriate song, with Indians joyfully celebrating the coming of independence. Amidst all of that, in between verses of patriotism, there are the ambitious, pitching in with how, now that the British are gone, they can set about amassing wealth without fear or boundaries.
Among those who are especially happy about this particular aspect of Indian independence is Seth Dhaniram (Manmohan Krishna), an industrialist who is very wealthy—and very unscrupulous. When the story starts, Dhaniram has just decided to set up three new companies, and to assist him in this nefarious deed is an equally unscrupulous lawyer, Ganpatrai (?).
Dhaniram summons his manager, Mehta (Keshavrao Date), and tells him about these new companies. Mehta is told, too, that he will be in charge of the accounts for these new entities. Mehta, a ‘good’ man, is uncomfortable: he obviously has at least an inkling of just how crooked his boss is, and is therefore reluctant to get into all of this. But between them, Dhaniram and Ganpatrai wheedle and reason and even use gentle emotional blackmail to get Mehta to finally agree.
Once Ganpatrai leaves, a visitor comes to meet Dhaniram. This is a woman (Pushpa Hans) who always wears sun glasses and goes by the code name of ‘Kaala Chashma’ (‘dark glasses’). Mehta notices Dhaniram and Kaala Chashma talking animatedly but cannot hear any of their conversation…
Later, we see what Kaala Chashma is all about: this woman is named Mohini, and she’s an important cog in a wheel of smuggling and black marketing in which Dhaniram is also involved. The next consignment Mohini is in charge of is a boatload of cloth bales, all to be loaded on to a vessel at the shore off Thane.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Mehta’s family. His eldest son, Satish (Umesh Sharma) is a CID officer. The second son, an effete fellow who’s always preening and combing his hair and painting his face, is Harish (Krishn Goel), while the youngest is a daughter (Rani Pandey).
Harish and his sister still live at home with Mehta and their mother (Sudha Apte), but Satish has moved out and seems to both live and work at the CID headquarters.
… which is where he receives information about that consignment of cloth being smuggled out at Thane. Satish, along with his most trusted colleague, Hamid Khan (?), heads for the spot, Hamid in a jeep with several other cops, Satish on his motorcycle. Satish, being on a bike, arrives well ahead of the others, and manages to have quite an adventure before they come.
Mohini and her gang spot Satish, the stranger who turns up just as they’re loading the boat. Satish quickly disguises himself and pretends to be a coolie, eager to earn a little money by helping out. They let him do that, but Mohini (who’s watching surreptitiously, as yet unseen by Satish) cottons on to the fact that this is no coolie. She hatches a plan, therefore, to get Satish away: she pretends that these evil men (her accomplices) have abducted her, a poor innocent soul, and have God knows what designs on her.
Mohini seems to be convincing; Satish comes to her help, and ‘rescues’ her, though he is slightly wounded in the process. Mohini’s ‘attackers’ flee, and the cops, arriving with Hamid Khan in charge just then, manage to confiscate the cloth bales. That done, Satish offers to drop Mohini home: she tells him that she lives and works at a school of music (which, as it happens, turns out to be true).
Mohini goes back to the music school, and the next day, Satish just happens to bump into her again.
It doesn’t take long for Mohini and Satish to fall in love.
Satish, of course, is blissfully unaware of his girlfriend’s dual nature, so to say. Mohini, once she slips on those sun glasses of hers, becomes the ambitious, fairly ruthless Kaala Chashma, not caring about right and wrong, the law, and even the country that she’s betraying. And that quite literally, because the next consignment to come her way for shipment is a huge one, of guns and ammunition.
But slowly, too, Mohini, under the influence of Satish, begins to look askance at her own self; her conscience begins to waken, and that puts her in a dilemma. On the one hand, there’s this work, which she has espoused so completely that she doesn’t know how to be free of it. On the other hand, there’s the realization that she’s not just breaking the law, she’s even committing treason.
Mohini isn’t the only one who’s changing. So is Satish’s father, Mehta. Mehta has been given, over the past few weeks, several ‘rewards’, of increasingly larger sums of money, by Dhaniram. These, insists Dhaniram, are Mehta’s share of the profits from the new companies he’s been handling for Dhaniram. Bit by bit, Mehta has become accustomed to this money, accustomed enough to stop worrying about it being ill-gotten gains. Accustomed enough to now also be accustomed to wearing, instead of his old dhoti-kurta, a smart suit. And to buy a safe that he can keep at home.
Where will all of this end?
Apna Desh is a somewhat offbeat look at a newly independent India. I must admit that most of the films I’ve seen from the 40s are either social dramas or historicals; Apna Desh, like Roti, some 6 years earlier, is rather different from the norm, in being a film primarily about crime. It shows up the corruption rampant in not just business houses but across the government and administration: Dhaniram is helped in his misdeeds by an array of easily-bribed officials (of whom, by the way, a very young Chandrashekhar, as Inspector Bholanath, is one).
What I liked about this film:
The character of Mohini, an unusual woman for that period in Hindi film history (or what Hindi films I’ve watched). She is feisty (but of course so was Fearless Nadia); but what makes Mohini different from other feisty cinematic females is that she is feisty in a bad way. At least at the start, she has few qualms about doing her job, and even after she’s begun to have twinges of conscience, it’s not as if Mohini goes cold turkey on all the smuggling.
Yet, it’s not as if Mohini is all bad. There is reason for her behaviour, and even when she’s deep in a life of crime, she doesn’t really come across as outright evil. At the music school, for instance, she is so believably nice that she fits right in among the dancing, singing, laughing girls and their teacher. Mohini too laughs and sings and dances with them; this is as much her as is the Kaala Chashma.
And, the music, by Purushottam. Apna Desh has some nice songs, of which one in particular really stood out for me: Hua karti hai ek uljhan si dil mein, beautifully sung by Pushpa Hans herself. There is also an interesting rendition of Dil-e-naadaan hua kya hai, also by Pushpa Hans. Incidentally, two of the actors in Apna Desh were involved in the music for the film: Manmohan Krishna was a playback singer, having sung the title song (at least; I cannot tell if any of the other songs were sung by him too); and Dewan Sharaar, who played the judge in the film, wrote the lyrics for the film.
What I didn’t like:
The somewhat unreal aspect of some of the law enforcement work, which left some gaps. For instance, every now and then, Satish receives information on what the smugglers are doing, where they’re going to be moving an illicit consignment, but it’s never explained who is giving this information or why, if they know enough to be able to pass on this information, they can’t provide details of who is involved in the smuggling.
Also, why on earth is Mohini given such an important role to play, given that she never remembers any of the codes her gang uses to communicate? (Her associate Afzal is the one always telling her what the code is). Incidentally, V Shantaram ensures the secular aspect of this film: on both sides of the law, a Hindu and a Muslim work in close collaboration: there’s Satish and Hamid Khan in the CID; there’s Mohini and Afzal among the smugglers, there’s even Seth Dhaniram and the arms supplier, Baaroodbhai Hathiyaarwala (Parsuram).
And this one’s a perennial grouse with me when it comes to pre-50s films: the theatricality of the acting. Not everybody is theatrical, and not as much as I’ve seen in somewhat older films, but it’s still there.
On the whole, though, I thought this was a good film with which to commemorate Manmohan Krishna’s birthday. Not only did he help in the making of Apna Desh (he was assistant to director V Shantaram), he also did a very competent job as the corrupt businessman who eventually begins to suffer—literally, as a result of the stress brought on by the constant fear of being caught—the consequences of his wrongdoing.