Wahan (1937)

Aka Beyond the Horizon.

When I began this blog, it was with the intention of indulging in my love for old cinema. While that has remained the main objective of my writing here, I’ve added to it a desire to make this a means of documenting old cinema (especially Hindi cinema) too. Not all old cinema, since that would be too mammoth a task for one person to take up; but films that I think are worth documenting, in particular if they seem to be otherwise obscure now. Films that are landmarks in Hindi cinema history; films that were somewhat different, perhaps, from the usual.

Or, as in this case, films that allow us a glimpse of familiar faces that we know from another, later, period. Leela Chitnis, the perennially poverty-stricken and very distressed mother of 60s cinema, stars in Wahan as an Aryan princess, and Ulhas, the well-known character actor of the 50s and 60s, appears in his debut role as her fiancé.

The story is set in what seems like ancient India, in a town known as Aryanagar. The Aryans, who are the invaders and now the rulers as well, are headed in Aryanagar by their chieftain, Kodandavarma (Chandramohan). Kodanadavarma’s daughter Jayanti (Leela Chitnis) lives with her father and is betrothed (for reasons of political and administrative strategy, not love) to Uttam (Ulhas), her father’s spy master in Aryanagar.

A spy master, it seems, is much needed, because Aryanagar, much to Kodandavarma’s dissatisfaction, is not quite the epitome of peace and high morals. Bootleg is plentiful, gambling is common, and the morals of the Aryans (who seem to think themselves far above the Anarya, the natives whom they’ve defeated and displaced) are at rock bottom.

Among the more prominent Aryan citizens of Aryanagar is the wily, oily Madhuvrat (Master Chhotu), who runs a tavern where he encourages his booze-loving customers to drink up.

Madhuvrat also has entertainment lined up for his clientele, in the form of an Anarya slave girl named Lata (Shanta Apte). When Lata, coerced into singing, does a poor (and unenthusiastic) job of it, Madhuvrat presses down on her foot hard to make her sing louder.

This cruelty is noticed by Uttam, who rushes forward and pulls Madhuvrat off Lata. Madhuvrat tries to ingratiate himself with Uttam, since he knows just how powerful Uttam is; he attempts to persuade Uttam to buy Lata for himself. Uttam agrees, without demur…

… but instead of taking Lata to be his slave, he tells her, once they’re out of Madhuvrat’s tavern, that Lata’s now free. She can go wherever she wishes. Lata, however, has been so touched by Uttam’s benevolence, she refuses to go. She follows Uttam around devotedly, and even when he tries to shoo her away, she holds her ground. Eventually, Uttam is so fed up, he agrees to let her come to his home and attend to him. Lata immediately sets about falling in love with Uttam. She spends most of her day mooning about his house, setting things straight (Uttam is a messy bachelor), and singing love songs.

Uttam, in his turn, doesn’t even realize how Lata feels; not, though, that he’s in love with his fiancée Jayanti. This is just as well, because Jayanti too has just fallen in love…

… with Jeevan (Prahlad), an Anarya, whom she first sees at an important event: the installation of the gigantic idol of the Nyaya Devta, the ‘God of Justice’ in the Temple of Justice in Aryanagar. This Nyaya Devta is very close to Kodandavarma’s heart, and hundreds of Anarya slaves have been roped in (literally) to pull the mammoth statue through the streets.

Jayanti, watching the proceedings along with her Anarya maid Neela (Aruna Devi), sees as the statue of the Nyaya Devta suddenly slips. It’s about to fall, but one of the slaves, trying to save it, lunges forward. He manages to save the statue, but is badly injured in the process. Neela is quite distressed, and as she and Jayanti hurry forward, Jayanti bending down beside the unconscious man, Neela explains who this is: Jeevan, once the crown prince of the Anarya, now a slave of the Arya.

Jayanti is fascinated by this enslaved prince; she summons medical help, she frets over him. And when—after several days—Jeevan is up and about (not that Jayanti has been sitting by his bedside; Jeevan, all said and done, is a slave, and is taken away to recover among other slaves), she gets Neela to arrange a meeting between them. Jayanti is well and truly attracted to Jeevan.

Thus, the stage is set. Uttam and Jayanti, though betrothed to each other, are both Aryans who are (or are going to be) romantically involved with Anaryans.  And each of them, individually, has problems of their own. Uttam finds himself increasingly outwitted by the evil Madhuvrat, while Jayanti has to go up, again and again, against a father who has his own ideas about Aryans and Anaryans, men and women.

Wahan is the earliest historical film I’ve watched. I began with no idea of what to expect, and this film was very unlike any other Hindi film I’ve seen. For one, even though there are indications (‘Arya’, the names of the main characters) that the setting is India, not much else seems to suggest it. The idols of their deities, for instance, are unlike any depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses (and they don’t have the names of any deities from the Hindu pantheon). The clothing is more reminiscent of ancient Rome or Greece, and the general look of the sets too is quite unlike that you see in other films set in ancient India, like Amrapali or Chitralekha.

What I liked about this film:

The surprisingly progressive views that are at times offered. True, the egalitarian, socialist outlook (Anaryans = Aryans) is not new; Indian cinema was pro-poor, pro-oppressed from pretty early on. But there are hints here of other thoughts and beliefs too that are quite modern.

For instance, the idea of religion being not sacrosanct, or of the keepers of religion turning out to be far from pious. From the 50s onward, I’ve seen many films with priests or otherwise ‘keepers of religion’ being shown in a less than flattering light—but it’s often done in a humorous way, with a greedy or bigoted priest (for instance) shown as the butt of a joke; someone to be laughed at, finally to get his or her come-uppance. In Wahan, the priest’s villainy is shown in detail. This is an Anaryan priest, shepherding a flock of poor Anaryans who come to offer up flowers and fruit to the deity they worship.

But the offerings, showered on the deity’s statue, are carefully collected in a hidden room underneath. A large production facility is in place here, massive primitive sledge hammers pounding the fruit and flowers into pulp, which is then used to brew liquor.

From there, large jars of this moonshine are transported by river down to Madhuvrat, who is of course in cahoots with the priest. The priest is constantly egging the devotees on, urging them to do things that may seem innocuous but will eventually serve to feather the nests of both the priest and Madhuvrat, and Madhuvrat, in turn, has plans to topple Kodandavarma and become chief. (This nexus between organized religion, big business and politics sounded strangely familiar…)

Then, there are the women. Wahan features three women (Jayanti, Lata and Neela), and of these three, Jayanti and Lata play rather more progressive women than I’d expected. In both romances, Uttam-Lata and Jayanti-Jeevan, it is the woman who takes the initiative and pushes the man into acknowledging his feelings, or even developing feelings in the first place. A far cry from the man-stalking-the-woman of countless Hindi films of later years.

Plus, Jayanti and her father: oh, yes. A gritty daughter, indeed, to Kodandavarma, whom she addresses as ‘Pita’, not ‘Pitaji’. And when Kodandavarma tells her that it’s perfectly all right—for the sake of the Aryan race and its increase—that Aryan men even marry Anaryan women, but that the same doesn’t hold true for Aryan women wanting to marry Anaryan men, Jayanti raises her eyebrows, looks bemused, and very calmly remarks that Oh, so what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander? (Or words to that effect).  Jayanti may not have much to do in the larger political scenario, but when it comes to her own life, she is very clear about what she wants, and about getting it.

And, last but not least: Leela Chitnis and Ulhas, both of whom I’ve always seen only in their older avatars. It was so refreshing to see these two as young people, as romantic leads, even.

What I didn’t like:

This, of course, was expected: the somewhat theatrical acting. What struck me, though, was that the expressions of most of the actors, while at times somewhat overdone, are at least more or less in keeping with the emotion they’re supposed to depict. Where the theatricality comes in is in the dialogue delivery: it’s often too flat, or too overdone.

Also, the romances don’t come through well: there was zero chemistry here, both in the Jayant-Jeevan pairing, and in the Uttam-Lata one. Neither of the two couples made me want to root for them; I couldn’t care less what happened to them.

Overall, this was an unusual sort of film. At many times, I got the impression of watching a classic play (Shakespeare?) made into a film (an impression heightened by the lack of background music): there was something very like an old play about it all, from the sets to the theatrical acting, to the restrained cast and settings.

Not a fantastic film, but yes, from the point of view of Hindi cinema history, worth a watch.

15 thoughts on “Wahan (1937)

  1. Madhu,
    From your screenshots the print does not seem very good. That is a major deterrent. Hollywood films of post-1935 are available in very good print. I think difference is restoration. I don’t think I am excited enough to watch it. But thanks a lot, I can see that this film can be seen as a part of the history of Hindi cinema.
    AK

    • The print is actually not that terrible. What makes it difficult to watch is the big fat logo of the video company, which obscures so much of the video. That really puts me off. I don’t know what it is with Indian video manufacturers – most of them don’t know how to produce good quality videos. These huge logos plastered across the screen (often multiple logos), random chopping (I remember a Gumnaam VCD I’d bought years ago in which the only song was Hum kaale hain toh kya hua) and of course no attempt even at cleaning up the video for films that have deteriorated over time.

      Such a shame, really, the way we treat our cinematic history.

  2. Is this available with subtitles?

    You know I could rant forever about the appalling way in which India treats its film history, especially pre-independence, although I see a total lack of interest in basically any older cinema now. Tommy Dan has more to preserve Indian film history than the government.

    • No, I don’t think there are any copies with subtitles included.

      I completely agree about the lackadaisical attitude India shows towards its old cinema. It’s shameful, for a country that is so mad about cinema and boasts of such a huge industry, to treat its old cinema in such a cavalier way. Tom has certainly done far more than any of the video producers or the government institutes to help preserve old Hindi cinema.

      • That’s a shame. It’s so frustrating because I’d love to see more older movies but so few of them are available for me.

        It’s absolutely shameful, although I don’t know that my government would be any different. It’s film funds from the EU that ensure we have good preservation.

        • “It’s film funds from the EU that ensure we have good preservation.

          Thank goodness for that! But even otherwise, I think there’s more respect, and generally a better sense of seeing why history/heritage should be preserved in the US than here. My sister, who’s a historian and conservationist, was comparing – just the other day – the parallel examples of Agra and Savannah. How Savannah has a tiny number of monuments compared to Agra (which has three World Heritage Sites), and yet how many more tourists come to Savannah, how much longer they stay, how much more revenue they generate. Here, there’s generally scant respect for history, and little interest or knowledge about how to preserve it. :-(

  3. I woke this day with an ambiguity of what the day’s today?? Actually Board exams have made me enough occupied with textbooks that it’s quite normal not to remember the day and date. Well, discovering that it’s sunday and the usual day of madhu’s blog…I was guessing the topic of today’s upload…Like it’s some birth/death anniversary of Talat Sahab…So a blog on Talat..But madhu has done that. Next, I suspected something on mother’s day..Review of mkm-orienyed film…Mother India?? Damn!! Well, came the blog and as always nicely scripted…Appreciable..

    Well, isnt it unusual to find 1930s and 1940s films in your blog…I mean the frequency is low..Why so?

    • I had actually forgotten all about Talat’s anniversary, and no longer celebrate Mother’s Day on this blog. (I used to, earlier – I remember reviewing I Remember Mama, long back).

      I don’t especially care for the 30s and 40s when it comes to Hindi cinema. I generally find the acting too theatrical for my taste, and even the music isn’t among my favourites (it’s not as if it’s bad, it’s just that I prefer that of the 50s and the 60s, particularly the 50s). Despite that, though, I have reviewed several films from that period. And I’ve watched more than I’ve reviewed.

  4. The plot sounds something which should be re-made into a movie today, one which shows the Aryans as invaders & enslavers, and questions religious superiority, maybe?

    This sounds like a very interesting movie but I always have difficulty following plots of 40s movies because usually print and/ or audio is not great. And I end up losing a lot of dialogues and thus, nuances or intricacies in the plot. It’s a very personal thing, though.

    With regard to what you said at the starting of the post, yes, this blog is such a great repository of hindi cinema- both for well known and lesser known cinema of the yore :-)

    • “The plot sounds something which should be re-made into a movie today, one which shows the Aryans as invaders & enslavers, and questions religious superiority, maybe?

      Very true! That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was watching it: it’s very relevant today (and, dare I say, more progressive than a lot of the stuff that’s being made these days).

      I hear you about having difficulty following plots of 40s films. I personally find the theatricality somewhat taxing. And there are, too, usually far too many songs – most of which I am utterly unfamiliar with, and may not especially enjoy. :-)

  5. Madhu, you’re so right about the theatricality of films from that era. Most films were remade from plays, mostly from the Parsi Theatre which had pretty progressive views for the time. So the dialogues, especially, were more stage-like than should have been on screen.
    Leela Chitnis was an admirable actress (and woman!). Born into a Brahmin family (I mention the caste only because it was rare for women from the so-called savarna families to enter the entertainment industry) and highly educated for the time – she was a graduate – she joined a progressive theatre company and even founded her own repertory before entering films. Ashok Kumar credits her for teaching him how to express much with his eyes alone.
    As heroine, she acted in very many progressive social films – I think it helped that the 30s and 40s had a lot more of those. She was also one of our earliest woman directors. It is unfortunate that she became typecast as the long-suffering martyred mother of heroes who were much older than her.
    She, along with Durga Khote (who was not only from a ‘high-caste’ family, but also a widow when she stepped into films), was responsible for diluting the stigma attached to women entering films.
    I really liked this film when I first watched it, but I had to mentally make a switch to looking at it as a ‘play’ on the screen instead of a film.

    • Thank you for that very interesting insight, Anu. I think I remember reading some of that about Leela Chitnis – don’t remember where, now, but yes, now that you mention it, I do recall that. Your comment reminds me that I still have to watch that Durge Khote film in which she played a pirate. Have forgotten which one it was, but I’ll recognize the name when I see it.

      “I had to mentally make a switch to looking at it as a ‘play’ on the screen instead of a film.

      Yes! I’m glad I’m not the only one who got that impression. It really does look more like a play than a film. :-)

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