Today is the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s most familiar character actors, the very well-known Nasir Hussain (or Nazir Hussain, or Nazir Hussein, or Nazir/Nasir Husein, whatever; Hindi cinema credits are famous for being inconsistent). Not the same man as the film maker of the same name, but an important personality in his own right. Born in Usia (Uttar Pradesh) on May 15, 1922, Nasir Hussain came to cinema in a roundabout sort of way. Having worked briefly in the railways (where his father too was employed), Nasir had ended up joining the British Army, and was posted overseas—in Malaya—during World War II. Taken captive, he was freed and subsequently went oj to join Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, the INA.
After his INA experience, Hussain could not find an alternate career and wound up doing bit parts in theatre. From here, a chance meeting with Bimal Roy finally brought him into cinema. Their very first film together (they were to go on to make several more films, with Nasir Hussain in front of the camera and Roy behind, such as Parakh, Do Bigha Zameen, and Devdas) was this one: Pehla Aadmi, in which Nasir Hussain was not just an actor, but also assistant to the director—as well as the writer of the story and the dialogues.
Nasir Hussain, then just twenty-eight years old, features in Pehla Aadmi as an elderly man, Dr Vijay Kumar, a resident of Pegu, in Burma. The doctor is a widower and lives with his son, Kumar (Sr. Balraj Vij). Their next door neighbour is another widower, Mr Chowdhury (Pahadi Sanyal), whose daughter Lata (Smriti Biswas, in the only role I’ve seen where she is the female lead) is in love with Kumar. Kumar reciprocates whole-heartedly, and they spend much of their time loafing around in gardens, singing.
All of this is happening in 1943. Rangoon is being bombed, and though Pegu seems quiet and far from the turmoil, news keeps filtering in.
… and news arrives that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose has reached Burma. Amidst footage of Bose being lauded, and Bose addressing adoring crowds, comes the slogan (which is repeated throughout the film, either as voiceover or appearing on placards, signs, and so on) of “Give me blood, and I will give you freedom.” Bose eggs on the Indians settled in Burma, encouraging them to join the INA and head towards Delhi, to free the motherland.
Dr Vijay Kumar is very eager that Kumar go off and join the INA. Kumar is reluctant; he is on the verge of asking for Lata’s hand in marriage, and anyway, as he tells his father, why should he feel anything for a motherland he has never seen? Vijay Kumar counters this by showing Kumar a portrait of Kumar’s mother, who died in childbirth. You never saw your mother, but she is still your mother, he says. That tilts the scales, and Kumar agrees to enlist.
Meanwhile, both the fathers too have been aware that Lata and Kumar are in love and wanting to get married. So the doctor has a talk with Mr Chowdhury, and it is agreed that Kumar and Lata will get engaged right now, before he goes off to train in the INA. They can get married later (they are being very optimistic, I think, but anyway). So, one fine day, Kumar slips a ring on Lata’s finger while they’re together, and just like that, they’re betrothed.
Kumar goes off to the training camp, where he meets other men original from different parts of India. (Among these is another Bimal Roy regular, Asit Sen. Younger and not quite as rotund as he got in later years, but still recognizably the same man. And, as in several later Bimal Roy films, in a somewhat comic role as a gluttonous gourmand).
The training passes in a mix of rigorous training for warfare, combined with a building of camaraderie between the men: they train together, eat together, sing (there’s an unusual multilingual song here), they tease Kumar about his surreptitious attempts to write a letter to his beloved Lata.
Far away, back in Pegu, Lata misses Kumar, and keeps waiting for news of him. But things are going to get worse.
Once the training is over, Kumar and his colleagues are allowed a couple of days’ leave. Men whose homes are nearby are permitted to go home, so Kumar comes visiting. Everybody, of course, is relieved and happy that he’s back, but it’s all too short a visit. He has to go back the very next day, and this time to the front. Kumar’s regiment is going to be joining the INA’s march towards India. Dehli Chalo is the slogan.
Lata is heartbroken about Kumar leaving, probably forever. He tries to comfort her, by giving her his photo to keep (and taking her photo) and by reassuring her that she will always be in his heart.
But Kumar goes away, and a woebegone Lata only briefly finds some solace in going to Kumar’s father’s home and comparing notes with him on letters received from Kumar. Then, Dr Vijay Kumar, feeling increasingly guilty that he is not doing anything by way of practical help to the INA, decides to offer his services as a doctor. His offer is readily accepted, and Dr Vijay Kumar goes off to work in one of the hospitals set up by the INA to look after its soldiers…
Based on Nasir Hussain’s experiences in the INA, Pehla Aadmi is quite a tribute to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the INA. It’s one of the rare films set completely in Burma (though not filmed there), and it comes across as something of a precursor to many later films (Shehnai, Neela Akash, Waaris,Aas ka Panchhi, Abhilasha, etc) about men going off to war and the women they leave behind.
What I liked about this film:
The footage of Netaji, and the way it’s woven into the story. The story of Pehla Aadmi doesn’t focus on Netaji; it is about ordinary people who comprise the INA, or who are somehow connected to it; but we see Netaji and how he eggs the people on, how he gathers support for his cause, and the effect it has, through their eyes.
RC Boral’s music is good. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but most of them were pleasant. In particular, I liked Tum toh mujhse door baithe, Hum Hind ke sipaahi hain, Taaron ki roshni mein duniya nayi basaayein, and Kyon na geet khushi ke gaayein.
What I didn’t like:
The melodramatic, über-patriotic fervour of the film. Of course, this is par for the course; and given the very credits of Pehla Aadmi—which roll to a song about Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, even as the crew and cast number many people who are listed as ex-INA—it’s clear from the start that the focus of this film is patriotism. It bored me a bit (perhaps because I’ve seen other films very similar in style?) and could not, all said and done, evoke very much emotion in me, either of patriotism or of sorrow for those who died.
Paradoxically, perhaps, I could sense the passion and fervour of those who made this film, and that made me appreciate it (rather like in the case of Dharti ke Laal). I could get a sense of what Nasir Hussain and others of the INA went through, and could see their need to salute not just Bose, but all those who stood beside and behind him in the bid to free India, even if it meant siding with the Japanese and declaring war on the Allies.
Not a fabulous film (and very different from most of Bimal Roy’s better-known films from later years), but historically speaking, a respectable landmark.
Thank you for the cinema, Hussain Sahib. May your work live on.
Little bit of trivia:
Nasir Hussain, besides being famous in Hindi cinema, was a very important figure in Bhojpuri cinema: the most important figure, indeed, and one whom I’ve seen referred to as the ‘pitamah’, the patriarch of Bhojpuri cinema. The then President Dr Rajendra Prasad had egged Hussain on to make a Bhojpuri film, and Hussain had taken up the gauntlet, by writing and producing (besides acting in) the blockbuster Ganga Maiyya Tohe Piyaari Chadhaibo (1963). Hussain went on to produce many more Bhojpuri films, with lyrics often by Majrooh Sultanpuri.