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.