While I knew of this film, I hadn’t paid enough attention to it until I read Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar. Jeevan Naiyya, produced by Himanshu Rai and directed by Franz Osten (at a time when there were several European, especially German, technical experts in the Hindi film industry) is not a landmark film in itself, but simply viewed as Ashok Kumar’s first film, this is worth a watch.
The story begins bang in the middle of things. Ranjit (Ashok Kumar) and Lata (Devika Rani) are engaged to be married, and the film begins with a telephone conversation in which they’re cooing sweetly inane nothings to each other. Ranjit’s boisterous friends barge in on this conversation and break it up, but it’s obvious that these two are very much in love with each other, and looking forward to being married.
What Ranjit doesn’t know is that Lata has a dark secret she and her father Mathuradas (Kamta Prasad) are hiding from him. This is revealed in a roundabout sort of way, with a scene set in a kotha. Here, a tawaif named Sona (Pramila) dances to the song of Ramlal (H Masih), until Ramlal is called away and leaves precipitately.
Another man comes along: Chaand (?), who seems (from their conversation) to be Sona’s pimp. But Sona is no pushover; when Chaand tries to bully her and push her around, she gives back as good as she gets, and sends Chaand away with a flea in his ear.
Chaand is annoyed; he vows that he will put Sona in her place, by getting another woman in her place. Who this woman is, whom Chaand has his eye on, is revealed soon after, when Chaand sees Lata getting into a car along with her father.
It now emerges that Lata’s mother is Radhey (supposedly played by Kusum Kumari, though since she isn’t shown in the version of the video I watched, I cannot comment). Radhey was a tawaif too, and in order (presumably) that her daughter grow up respectable, she had handed Lata over to Mathuradas to bring up. It’s not clear whether Mathuradas is Lata’s father, or just a dependable and generous friend who has done the mother and daughter this favour.
Now Radhey is very ill, and Mathuradas sends his servant, Raghu (?) to her, with a note asking about her. Raghu is given instructions to report back at Ranjit’s home, where Mathuradas is now going to get Ranjit to try out a wedding ring.
Raghu goes to deliver the note to Radhey, and is intercepted by a very drunk Chaand and an equally drunk Ramlal. They take the note from Raghu, and sometime later, Raghu comes to Ranjit’s home with the reply for Mathuradas: Radhey is dying and would like to see Lata one last time.
Mathuradas is upset, but also realizes the awkward position he’s in: how is he to explain this to Ranjit? (Wouldn’t it have made sense to not ask Raghu to come there? Or an alternate which did not involve speaking about Radhey in front of Ranjit?) Anyway, Mathuradas tells Ranjit that Radhey used to be Lata’s daai, her wet nurse. Ranjit is suitably sorry about her impending death, and Mathuradas goes off to tell Lata.
Lata, of course, insists on going to Radhey immediately, and rushes off along with the faithful Raghu. This is the opportunity the villains Chaand and Ramlal have been waiting for; they, along with some cronies, nab Lata as soon as she arrives. They drag her out into a waiting car, and away.
Fortunately, Raghu has seen this, and so has Sona, who quickly tells him the address where she knows the kidnappers are heading for. Raghu is clever (more so than some others in this film) and instead of trying to tackle all the villains on his own, he rushes off to fetch Ranjit. Ranjit sets off in pursuit, and arrives just as Lata is screaming at Chaand and Ramlal to let her go.
Chaand leaves the room, and the evil Ramlal, now alone with Lata, locks the door and tries to grab Lata. Ranjit, however, leaps in through the window and bashes up Ramlal. (Interesting behind-the-scenes bit of trivia here: Ashok Kumar, despite having been told exactly at what count he was to enter through the window, jumped in before he was due, and knocked over H Masih—who plays Ramlal—so badly that Masih fractured his leg).
Later, when all is quiet and the excitement has died down, Lata tells Mathuradas that she’s unhappy about hiding the truth about Radhey from Ranjit. Ranjit deserves to know. But Mathuradas dissuades her; the truth about Radhey is a shameful one, and how will it serve anybody to have it revealed? Better to keep it under wraps. Lata doesn’t like this, but she finally agrees.
There is a wacky and rather pointless interlude in which some of Ranjit’s pals come dressed up as the Michelin man, an Arab, and a big-nosed couple…
… but then, Ranjit and Lata are married. The wedding over, Ranjit gifts Lata a priceless heirloom, a diamond necklace. (This scene took many takes to get right; a painfully shy Ashok Kumar, butter-fingered at the thought of having to touch Devika Rani’s neck, kept dropping the necklace).
Meanwhile, though, Chaand is busy plotting. His buddy Ramlal has been arrested by the police, so it’s now Chaand now on his own. And he’s decided to have his revenge, and to compensate for the loss of the potential tawaif he had hoped Lata would be. Therefore, wearing a sherwani and disguised in beard and moustache, he sneaks into Ranjit and Lata’s wedding reception.
Managing to get Lata by herself, Chaand blackmails her: if she doesn’t pay him Rs 5,000 at once, he will take all the gathered guests about her far-from-pristine origins. Lata tries to defy Chaand, but he quashes her by saying that the revelation may not hurt her, but it will wreak havoc with Ranjit; Ranjit’s name will be mud, his reputation will be torn to bits and he will be shunned by all of society because his wife was the illegitimate offspring of a tawaif.
So Lata takes off her diamond necklace and gives it to Chaand, and thus seals her fate.
I watched Jeevan Naiyya, as I mentioned, for Ashok Kumar; he, all said and done, was the main attraction here for me. And really, while his acting is far from perfect—his voice is thin, his diction unnatural and theatrical, and he looks awkward at times, especially when he’s with Devika Rani—it makes for an interesting ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparison, if you look at Ashok Kumar less than ten years later in Kismet, for example. How this man changed himself, how he worked on his diction and his acting to become one of Hindi cinema’s most natural and convincing actors: it’s really pretty remarkable.
What I liked about this film:
The music, and one dance. This was the first film I’ve watched that had its music composed by one of Hindi cinema’s first female music directors, Saraswati Devi. One song here is a standout, mainly because Kishore Kumar reused it in Jhumroo (1961): Koi humdum na raha koi sahaara na raha. Besides that, though, there are some other songs I like, among them Kyon aankh milaa karke (picturized as a mujra, but with the song being sung by a man) and a series of songs sung by a wandering jogi.
The dance that I especially liked was one which is staged at Ranjit and Lata’s wedding reception: a man (is this Mumtaz Ali? I don’t know; he, anyway, is credited as the ‘dance master’ for Jeevan Naiyya). While the song is a nice one (and the earliest patang song I’ve come across so far in Hindi cinema), what really struck me was the grace of the two dancers. They don’t use any props, but they still bring to life the joy of kite-flying vividly and beautifully.
What I didn’t like:
This, of course, is nothing new: the theatricality of the acting. Yes, by now I know this was par for the course and that it was the way everybody acted by then, but I still don’t like it. Even Devika Rani , possibly the most accomplished and experienced of the actors, while her expressions are on point, ends up with diction which is flat and often unnatural. Some of the extras are thoroughly irritating, especially one couple who act as Ranjit’s servants: these two couldn’t act to save their lives.
Plus, the story goes haywire near the end and develops holes. For instance: why would anybody’s life be in danger if his eyes, healing after an accident that blinded them, weren’t unbandaged on a particular day? That sounds like utter bilge to me.
While Jeevan Naiyya isn’t very well-acted, and the story now may seem mundane and predictable, I suppose back then this might not have been such an oft-used set of tropes. At any rate, it moves fairly fast and it isn’t boring.
And, if for nothing else, watch it to see how Ashok Kumar changed himself.