Cinema looking at itself is not an uncommon feature; there have been several notable films, both in India (Kaagaz ke Phool, Sone ki Chidiya) as well as abroad (Cinema Paradiso, 8½, The Bad and the Beautiful, etc), which are about cinema and film-making. But this film, relatively obscure, really should be part of the annals, simply because of its sheer devotion to Hindi cinema. Not because it’s about film-making, not because there is even (as in Solvaan Saal), a single scene on the sets of a film. But because it celebrates Hindi cinema in so many ways, on so many levels.
Sadhu aur Shaitan begins by introducing us to the eponymous ‘sadhu’ of the story: Sadhuram (Om Prakash), a widower who lives with his two children Ganesh (Master Shahid) and Munni (Baby Fauzia), and the maid Ramdeyi (Dulari) who looks after home and the children. Sadhuram is a somewhat excessively ‘good and righteous’ man, the living image of piety (all a little over the top as far as I’m concerned, but at least he isn’t stuffy about his righteousness).
Sadhuram is such a good man that the two pandits (Sunder and Ram Avtar) at the local temple, where Sadhuram stops every morning (after having done prolonged pooja at home) talk of his goodness…
… and even the manager (Nasir Hussain) of the bank where Sadhuram works as a teller remarks on Sadhuram’s goodness and honesty and reliability.
Sadhuram’s honesty, in fact, seems so widely acclaimed that even bank customers coming to withdraw money happily say that they don’t need to even count the currency Sadhuram hands over: Sadhuram will have been diligent and exact in counting just the right amount.
Among Sadhuram’s admirers is a nutty taxi driver named Bajrang (Mehmood), whose ramshackle taxi is named Laila. Laila goes back when he wants her to go forward and vice-versa; she breaks down every now and then, and one of the back doors doesn’t work, so any passenger getting in at the back must get in only through the one door that is functional (this is an important plot point).
Bajrang often gives Ganesh and Munni a lift to school. On one of these trips, Bajrang happens to meet the children’s teacher Vidya (Bharathi), who doesn’t merely teach them at school, but also is the tutor who comes home to give them lessons. Bajrang falls head over heels in love with Vidya, and it doesn’t take long (a song is thrown in) for him to win her over.
It turns out that Vidya’s brother is Pandit Dinanath Shastri (Kishore Kumar), a Hindustani classical singer who is singing or humming all the time. Shastriji has just opened an account at the bank where Sadhuram works. Shortly after Vidya gets acquainted with Bajrang, Bajrang calls at her home to sell her a ticket for a taxi drivers’ charity show, for which he then manages to persuade Vidya to dance, and Shastriji and his group (which includes Mukri and Keshto Mukherjee) to sing and play.
While the dramatis personae are being introduced, we’re also introduced to the Shaitan. Dilawar Singh (Pran) is a notorious daaku, wanted by the police and involved in many nefarious activities. Right now, disguised as a Sikh, he’s running from the police in Bombay when he hails a taxi near Gateway of India. As luck would have it, this is Bajrang’s taxi. Bajrang notices the police jeep following them, and points it out to his passenger, who urges Bajrang on through a maze of lanes and bylanes, managing to shake off the cops in the process—without the idiot Bajrang putting two and two together and guessing why the cops had been following his taxi.
However, when Bajrang demands the fare from his passenger, Dilawar Singh whips out a swordstick and threatens Bajrang, finally getting the message across.
Dilawar hurries off, but he’s made an impression on Bajrang: enough that when the police inspector (Anwar Hussain) questions Bajrang, Bajrang is able to give a fairly good account of what happened.
Meanwhile, Dilawar Singh changes disguises, and now calling himself Sher Khan, sets off to perpetrate more crimes. He is supposed to supply two children (for what? It’s never explained) to somebody, and so, along with his bunch of goons, he is on the lookout for unattended kids. They spot Ganesh and Munni waiting outside school for their father Sadhuram to collect them, so Sher Khan decides these children look like good prey. Having enticed them with ice cream, Sher Khan is moving them towards the getaway car, when they happen to bump into Bajrang.
Bajrang doesn’t recognize Sher Khan (though, given that he’s more focused on the children, and Sher Khan quickly runs off, perhaps this isn’t altogether unexpected). Bajrang bundles the children into his taxi and drops them home.
Meanwhile, Sadhuram’s boss, the bank manager, tells Sadhuram he (the manager) will be going out of town for a couple of days. While he’s away, Sadhuram is to safeguard the keys to the bank’s vault. The keys are handed over; Sadhuram is rather nervous about this massive responsibility, but his boss is content that he has chosen the right man for this job.
Sadhuram, that key weighing heavy in his pocket, comes home to find he has a visitor: Sher Khan aka Dilawar Singh. Dilawar Singh, whom Sadhuram recognizes as his old friend from college; such a dear old friend that their old photos hang, framed and prominent, on a wall in the sitting room.
Sher Khan spins Sadhuram a long and convoluted yarn about having gone to Kashmir and been adopted by a millionaire who subsequently died, leaving Dilawar (who converted to Islam, following his adopted father’s faith) all his many millions. Sher Khan is very wealthy now, and planning to set up a business in Bombay. But, he tells Sadhuram, he was expecting some money to arrive, which he has promised as an advance deposit on a property he’s meaning to purchase. He needs to pay Rs 15,000; because that expected money has been inexplicably delayed, he is now short Rs 5,000, and the owner of the property won’t wait.
Sadhuram is so good, so kind (and so gullible), he insists on taking Sher Khan to a moneylender (Randhir), and standing surety. It is Sadhuram whose name is entered in the moneylender’s accounts, because it is Sadhuram he knows and trusts.
Once that’s done, Sadhuram goes home with Sher Khan. He insists that Sher Khan stay with him, though Sher Khan says that his being a Muslim might interfere in Sadhuram’s daily pooja etc…? But Sadhuram is dismissive of that; religion should not come in the way of friendship. At home, Bajrang drops by, and is a little taken aback on meeting Sher Khan, and seeing the cane Sher Khan is carrying. Is he reminded of the Sikh who threatened him? But no; Bajrang, though he looks alarmed, doesn’t say anything, not now, not later.
Later that night, Sadhuram happens to mention to Sher Khan that the bank manager has entrusted the vault key to him (Sadhuram may be a good man, but he’s also unbelievably naïve, to the extent of being stupid). Of course, Sher Khan actually being Dilawar Singh and rotten to the core, he quickly hatches a plot. He fakes a fainting spell, goes up to his room to recover, but in fact comes down a minute later, having secreted in his clothes a bar of soap.
Now Sher Khan fakes another spell, and hoodwinks Sadhuram into handing him the key (clutching a bit of iron, he says, will bring him relief). While Sadhuram goes to fetch a glass of water, Sher Khan presses the key onto the soap, and gets a good impression of it…
… with the result that, after a couple of days (enough time for Sher Khan to hand over the key imprint to his cronies and have a duplicate key made), Sher Khan slips into the bank at night, murders the guard, and loots the safe. And, of course, then absconds.
When Sadhuram comes to know what has happened, he puts two and two together (he should have done this a long time back) and realizes what must have happened. But, instead of going to the cops and squealing, Sadhuram tries to go about his work and home as usual. With disastrous consequences; he can’t focus, he makes mistakes, he’s a wreck.
Eventually, floundering around, Sadhuram bumps into Sher Khan with the loot in his briefcase. Sadhuram confronts him; Sher Khan and he get into a standing taxi, minus its driver, and carry on their confrontation inside. Sher Khan is adamant, even offering Sadhuram a share of the stolen money. But Sadhuram will not be cowed, and when a desperate Sher Khan pulls out a pistol, there’s a struggle…. and Sher Khan drops down dead.
Barely has this registered with a horrified Sadhuram than the taxi driver returns. It’s Bajrang. Sadhuram is so distressed and jittery, he scurries off without saying a word about the corpse lying in the back. And Bajrang, who never has occasion to peer in the back, doesn’t realize it. It’s business as usual as he takes on various passengers, and instructs them to get in from the one door that’s in working order. Not realizing, of course, that Sher Khan is lying slumped against the other door.
What happens then, is where all that love for Hindi cinema comes in.
What I liked about this film:
The many nods to Hindi cinema. The most obvious is in the fact that there are so many famous faces appearing in cameos throughout the film, especially playing passengers whom Bajrang takes on whilst Sher Khan is lying dead in the back. There’s Sunil Dutt, as a priest:
There’s Shubha Khote as a new bride, in Bombay for the first time, and all agog at the sights.
There’s Ashok Kumar, as a hair-dresser in cinema, rushing from one film studio to the other to do the hair of some major star. Ashok Kumar’s character, of course, is yet another shout-out to Hindi cinema.
Then, not in the taxi but walking jauntily along on the road, there are Dilip Kumar and Mumtaz, looking straight out of Ram aur Shyam. Bajrang, getting out of the taxi and trying to shoo them aside, spouts dialogues that have one allusion to Hindi cinema after the other: “Ei! Do hanson ka joda!… soorat kya Dilip Kumar se milti hai, acting bhi Dilip Kumar ki chaaloo?… seedhi tarah se sadak chhodke chal, varna main tera Ram aur Shyam nikaalke aadmi bana doonga!” (“Hey! You two, pair of swans!… your face is like Dilip Kumar’s, so you’re acting like Dilip Kumar too?… get off the road, you, or I’ll whip the Ram and Shyam out of you and reduce you to a regular man!”)
There are Tuntun, and Jankidas, who plays her father.
Plus, when the taxi drivers’ association holds its charity show, there’s another lot of famous faces appearing in the dance drama they enact. Lalita Pawar puts in a brief appearance as a tangewallah’s wife:
And when the tangewallah goes off to sleep and dreams of going to heaven, who’s there but Jeevan as Narad Muni, reprising one of his many roles in countless Hindi mythologicals as the mischief-making sage.
Also reprising their roles as deities from multiple mythologicals are Mahipal (as Vishnu):
And Trilok Kapoor and Nirupa Roy as Shiv and Parvati, respectively.
As if that wasn’t enough, there are other references to cinema. For instance, in the dance drama that Bajrang, Vidya, et al present, the lead-up to the song Mehbooba mehbooba bana lyo mujhe dulha, is obviously a take on Hum kaale hain toh kya hua, including Mehmood’s outfit, make-up and Dakkhani accent.
Then, there’s also this: when Dinanath and his troupe get into Bajrang’s taxi and Dinanath starts practicing his classical vocals, Bajrang requests him to sing film songs instead. Somewhat grudgingly, Dinanath obliges. Of course, funnily enough, all the songs he chooses to sing are very apt to the situation, with that corpse lying right under their noses, so to say….
What I didn’t like:
The corpse lying right under their noses. This is the corpse of a full-sized adult male lying on the floor of the back of the taxi. His head and shoulders may be propped up against the bottom half of the door, but the rest of his body is necessarily going to be occupying a good bit of the back of the car. There’s no way anyone can get in at the back and not see him or put their feet on him from the very outset. Perhaps someone like the Sunil Dutt character or the Ashok Kumar character, both of whom are the only passengers in the taxi at that particular time, might be sitting all scrunched up against the other door and may be myopic enough to miss the corpse, but it’s highly unlikely. And people like Dinanath and his lot, who’re sitting all ranged across the back seat, cheek-by-jowl with the corpse, cannot have not noticed it. They are sitting with their feet on it, I’m sure.
Then, the other plot holes. Both Sadhuram’s children as well as Bajrang have met Sher Khan before (Bajrang when Dilawar was masquerading as the Sikh, but still); how come they do not comment on this? The children, at least, should wonder why this kindly gentleman had fed them ice cream just the other day.
Plus, there are several digressions that go nowhere or are pointless. Why do Dilawar Singh and his men make that one, halfhearted attempt at kidnapping the children? If they do have to supply children to someone, why not make more attempts? Also, why does Dilawar Singh/Sher Khan go through all that trouble of getting Sadhuram to borrow Rs 5,000 for him? Except for showing us how Sadhuram is such a good man that he will stand surety for his friend (something one would already have imagined him doing, given he’s so good), it does nothing much for the story.
And yes, I must admit I do not like Mehmood in a lot of roles. This one has him mostly being very over the top silly, and barring a handful of scenes (and dialogues) I didn’t like him here.
This isn’t a simply awful film; at least it wasn’t outright boring. It’s fast-paced, there’s a lot happening (okay, not all of it logical), and of course, there are all those film stars to see. Really, that, for me, is the one reason to watch Sadhu aur Shaitan: to wait and see which famous star will appear next in what tiny role.