Apna Desh (1949)

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.

24 thoughts on “Apna Desh (1949)

  1. A highly admirable review of a little known movie from the B&W era which is a fitting tribute to a versatile actor like Manmohan Krishna. It’s really amazing to know that he was a playback singer too. I would definitely like to watch this movie. BTW decades later, Manmohan Krishna played an utterly disgusting negative role in Wohi Raat Wohi Awaaz (1973) also. Thanks for this well-written and very useful post, .

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    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed this review, Jitendraji. As I’d mentioned in our mail exchange earlier this month, I’d been planning to review Insaaf ka Mandir to mark Manmohan Krishna’s birth centenary. But when I rewatched the film, I realized that (at least in the version available on YouTube), Manmohan Krishna doesn’t have a very major role. I will be posting a review of that film sometime soon, but I decided that for his birth centenary, a film more relevant to Manmohan Krishna was in order – which is why this one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, that’s fine Madhulika Ji. Through your review of Apna Desh, I (and several others like me) became aware of this movie. Hence you have done what’s right and desirable. Besides, choosing a movie to write it’s review is your prerogative too. I am glad that you preferred Apna Desh to commemorate the occasion. I will watch this movie soon.

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  2. V Shantaram does not get enough credit, in my opinion, for the films he made. I mean, when people talk today about the great filmmakers, they will talk about K Asif, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, and perhaps, Vijay Anand. [Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Basu Chatterjee get slotted into the ‘middle-cinema’ bracket.] But Shantaram is never mentioned in the same breath. Yet he made so many original films, with very interesting themes. I watched Apna Desh many years ago; you are right about the theatricality of the acting. But it’s still an unusual film for all that, and did a fine job of showing the complexities of human beings – what makes them bad, or how easy it is to notbe good.

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    • I agree, V Shantaram did make some very good films and with some offbeat themes, too: I think he was one of the rare film-makers who seemed to venture into offbeat cinema all the time! And I agree that he’s not given his due; too many of his films seem to be remembered for their music rather than the story or the direction. And I also think he did a fairly good of portraying women who were something beyond the cookie cutter ‘heroine’.

      This one I liked a lot; it was so different from pretty much all the 40s films I’ve seen.

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  3. Manmohan Krishna’s ouvre included the sole movie he directed – Noorie for the Yashraj banner. It was a sweet movie – perhaps too sachrine sweet but the songs are still memorable.

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  4. I came across your little while trying to look for “Subz Burj”, but damn I found a treasure. I myself have been a big enthusiast of old movies (by old I mean really the old and not merely 90s old).

    It would take some time for me to read much of the posts you have here, nevertheless, I had to leave a comment here for someone at least a bit alike. It has been hard finding people with similar interests (especially the kind and era of movies and songs I generally enjoy).

    Thanks for this blog and for existing!
    Meet you in comments yet to come on other posts. :D

    Regards.

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  5. Such a delightful review of a 73 year old movie..
    I doff my unworn hat to the special genius called V. Shantaram who was in a league of his own..
    In my opinion. He did not make movies only for commercial considerations..

    I had read about this movie a couple of months ago primarily due to the song Dil-e-nadaan which I found quite different and hence interesting.. Since then I had put it down in my list of Movies to-be-watched..
    Now, the review makes me want to fast track it..
    Will watch it at the soonest..
    Thanks again Madhu ji..
    And Happy Centenary Manmohan Krishna !!

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    • Thank you so much, I’m glad you found this review useful. Do please watch and let me know what you thought of the film. I agree, Shantaram was certainly in a league of his own – his films are always so different from the run of the mill.

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  6. Thank you for this excellent review of Apna Desh. I had somehow missed seeing this movie having seen a good number of V Shantaram movies from Aadmi, Duniya Na Mane till Pinjra.
    I agree that V Shantaram never received his due despite making many successful films of various socially relevant themes. My only issues with his films would be the style of acting and the choice of the actors (mainly the leads)..
    My choice of movie for a tribute to Manmohan Krishna would have been Bees Saal Baad. After reading your review, Apna Desh seems to be an apt choice. I have decided to catch up with it.
    Interestingly, he was also there in the Apna Desh of the 70s, as Rajesh Khanná’s elder brother, an honest character, a role which had repeated in umpteen movies.

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    • Yes, I too would probably have reviewed Bees Saal Baad to mark Manmohan Krishna’s birth centenary – but I’d reviewed that film several years back (there’s a link to my review in the beginning of this post). Also Railway Platform and Dhool ka Phool, which also I think are good showcases for him.

      “My only issues with his films would be the style of acting and the choice of the actors (mainly the leads)..

      I agree 100%. Yes, totally. I wonder, though, if it would have really been possible for Shantaram to get some of the more popular stars to work in his films, given that they were often so offbeat. It’s likely nobody from the big league would have wanted to work in his films (conversely, of course, there’s the possibility that Shantaram wouldn’t want any of them).

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  7. Hi all,

    I happened to come upon this interview of Manmohan Krishna by Tabassum on ‘YouTube:’

    Hope the Interview (albeit with the “ads” etc). is of interest:
    LINK:


    ———————————————————————

    Also,…you might perhaps recall the reference made to these songs sung by Manmohan Krishna for K. A. Abbas’s “Sheher Aur Sapna”…(.the LINKs which I had given earlier to a post in November 2021 w.r.t. “Songs in Towns and Cities”).

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    • Thank you so much for these links, Praba! Pyaar ko aaj nayi tarah nibhaana hoga and Yeh shaam bhi kahaan hui are both very good showcases, I think, of Manmohan Krishna’s singing. A very distinctive voice, and (from what I can tell, given my shaky knowledge of music) good control of it. And so much feeling in the voice – you can tell that this is a very good actor.

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      • Hi again!

        Here is the LINK to a delightful celebration of the 100th birth anniversary of yet another unheralded and (sad to say this…) not-much-feted personality, who was so much more than an actor: I am referring to Dina Pathak, and the Tribute (on SCROLL) written by daughter Ratna Pathak Shah — with memorable photographs, preserved by both daughters – Ratna and Supriya)

        Madhu, I’m hoping you will understand why I am using this post of yours (for Manmohan Krishna’s 100th anniversary) to share the warmth and joie-de-vivre that Dina Pathak epitomised in her extraordinary life!

        Enjoy!

        Praba Mahajan
        ————————————
        The Link:

        https://scroll.in/article/1018841/a-daughters-tribute-to-dina-pathak-like-lemon-juice-sweet-and-salty

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        • Oh, this is such a coincidence. Another friend had shared this yesterday too on Facebook, which was where I read it. Lovely article, and it brings Dina Pathak so vividly alive. Thank you for sharing, Praba! (BTW, I have not told you this, but my mother-in-law is named Prabha). :-)

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          • Hey Madhu!

            So good of you to reply to my post – even though you had already read that beautifully written Tribute to Dina Pathak.
            I did want readers here, to see it as well (which I hope they would have done, by now)..

            And as for ” (BTW, I have not told you this, but my mother-in-law is named Prabha). :-),ha! ha!, a coincidence…. almost. I am Praba (without an ‘h’) and am not a mother-in-law, either….

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  8. This one sounds intriguing indeed! Most of the films I’ve seen from the turn of the ’50s are extremely optimistic, even when the characters have some suffering to do–the excitement and fresh start of independence, I imagine. Admittedly I’ve seen far fewer films from this era than you will have, but it seems like an unusual move for one to acknowledge crime/corruption as an ongoing problem that would not simply wither away on its own.

    I hadn’t realized that it was Manmohan Krishna who directed “Noorie”! That was one of the films we regularly borrowed from the public library when I was growing up. I haven’t seen it in years.

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    • I hadn’t known about Manmohan Krishna having directed Noorie either, until I began writing this post! I remember watching that film shortly after it had been released – though I remember nothing of it now except the title song.

      You’re right, this is an unusual film for the 40s. I must admit that most of the 40s films I’ve seen (not many) are mostly ‘family drama’ style – this ‘social issue’ theme is a little rare, though of course there are films like Roti and Neecha Nagar. But yes, totally agree that films from just after independence (and later, till well into the late 50s even) tend to mirror that heady feeling of nation-building, so this depiction of rampant corruption is rather offbeat. Daring, too, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

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