Insaaf ka Mandir is a relatively little-known film which I’d seen many years back, but had forgotten most of. It was fellow blogger Jitendra Mathur who reminded me of this, and my memories of the film were pleasant enough for me to want me to rewatch and review this.
The story begins with Sunil (Sanjeev Kumar), a student who’s just completed his law studies at college when he receives an urgent telegram: his father is very ill, Sunil should head home immediately. A classmate of Sunil’s, Sunita (Snehlata), comes by and, in a brief conversation, confesses to Sunil of her love for him; Sunil, embarrassed, tells her that he will not do anything against his father’s wishes.
Sunil reaches home, to be greeted by a servant, Sundar (Asit Sen) and the news that Daddy is no more. Sunil is devastated, and more so when he reads the letter Daddy has left behind with Sundar to be handed over to Sunil: because it turns out that this man, who brought Sunil up, was not his father after all. He writes that he does not know who Sunil’s biological father was, but admits that he knew Sunil’s mother. He provides the name and address of a woman named Durgadevi Jain, who lives in Bombay; Sunil should go to her, she will put him in touch with his mother.
Sunil, therefore, goes off to Bombay with Sundar in tow. They alight at the railway station and, unknown to them, their arrival is noted. A young man and an older, more shady-looking character (Kanu Roy) see Sunil and Sundar emerge from the railway station. Later, both these men report to Mrs Jain (Nadira), to let her know that Sunil has arrived in town. She is obviously excited about this news.
Some insight into Mrs Jain and her situation is offered by a bit of gossip among her platoon of servants, who are all hard at work getting the house ready for a party. Mrs Jain, it seems, has no offspring of her own, and her late, very wealthy husband had stipulated in his will that if she were to marry again, she would not inherit any of his wealth. The bequest, however, would be hers if she remained unmarried, and if she chose to adopt a child, she was even free to pass on the bequest to her adoptive offspring.
This, say the servants, is Mrs Jain’s opportunity to hold onto that wealth: she’s going to adopt Sunil and pass the legacy to him.
These servants, it seems, aren’t merely spouting rumours; they know a good deal of what is actually happening. Because—that evening, when Sunil arrives at Mrs Jain’s house, this is exactly what Mrs Jain tells him, in front of a roomful of party guests (and after a party song has been sung, what’s more). Sunil is flabbergasted: who is this Mrs Jain, who, no sooner has she met him, is hell-bent on adopting him? When he tries asking her about his mother, Mrs Jain tells Sunil that she’ll tell him who his mother is and where she is, only when he’s become her adopted son.
Sunil is so angry at this, he leaves immediately.
Of course, this means he now has no way of getting to the mother whom he’s come to Bombay to find. What will he do? Sundar, fortunately, has an idea: a friend of his, Shambhu, had come away to Bombay years ago and works at the courts as a munshi with a lawyer, Mr Badri Prasad. Perhaps Shambhu may be able to help get Sunil a job, and then Sunil and Sundar can stay on in the city and try looking for his mother.
Shambhu (Manmohan Krishna) is (seemingly) a sweet, kind man. Unknown to Sunil, however, this very man, at Mrs Jain’s party, had been disguised as a bearded waiter, and had been looking very shifty-eyed.
Now, minus that disguise, Shambhu takes Sunil to Badri Prasad (Tarun Bose) who is warm and welcoming. He quickly makes Sunil feel at home, and that feeling is enhanced by the appearance of Badri Prasad’s daughter Sunita, who is none other than the college mate who’d been in love with Sunil. Sunil and Sunita exchange glances and shy smiles, and Badri Prasad doesn’t just employ Sunil as his junior, he also gives Sunil a place to stay: a furnished flat that Badri Prasad owns, but which has been lying vacant.
Just as Sunil enters his new home, he sees something surprising: Mrs Jain comes stealthily up the stairs, and shoves an envelope between the slats of the apartment door opposite Sunil’s. Sunil watches her quickly slip away, and then, curious, goes to investigate. The apartment opposite is locked, but the landlord’s man, going down the stairs, is able to tell him that that apartment is occupied, for one week a month, by a beautiful girl. The rest of the month, an array of occupants go in and out—ghosts (?!) one week, wrestlers another, and so on.
All very puzzling.
The girl, at least, is somebody Sunil soon bumps into. This is Suzie D’Souza (Laxmi Chhaya), who one day turns up in the apartment opposite Sunil’s. She is (justifiably) taken aback when she finds Sunil wandering into her home, all unbidden, and pulls a gun on him. Her temper’s a bit frayed, but Sunil doesn’t learn much and has to leave.
Later still, Sunil and Sunita (who are now an item) go out to a restaurant at the New Star Hotel—and who should be the dancer there, but Suzie? And who should be sitting among the patrons but Mrs Jain, surreptitiously passing on a note to the hotel owner, John (?). Sunil notices all of this, and is puzzled: what is happening?
Meanwhile, in an attempt to find his mother, Sunil has put out ads in the newspapers. One of these is seen by Mrs Jain and she comes to Sunil to dissuade him; putting out ads is not the way to trace his mother. He’s a successful young lawyer, well-off and well-placed: any woman, looking for somebody to leech off, can pass herself off as his mother. How is he to know who’s really his mother? Does he remember her? Sunil has to admit he doesn’t, and willy-nilly, he ends up stopping the ads.
Then, one day, Sunil overhears part of a conversation between Shambhu and Sunita: they’re discussing Sadhna (Aruna Irani), Mrs Jain’s stepdaughter, who died of poisoning two years earlier. A letter had been found, addressed by Sadhna to her father, the late Mr Jain (who died just a day after Sadhna); in this letter, Sadhna had said that she was upset at having lost her beloved father’s trust; she could not live with this hurt, and so was ending her life. Sadhna’s death was passed off as a suicide on the basis of that letter, but Sunita and Shambhu are convinced it was murder. Sadhna was killed by her stepmother, Mrs Jain.
What is the truth? Is Mrs Jain really not just a bossy female, but also a murderous one? Why is she so adamant about adopting Sunil? And where is Sunil’s mother, who is she?
Insaaf ka Mandir sets up an interesting premise, a murder mystery of sorts entwined with a young man’s quest for the mother he does not remember at all. This could have been a very entertaining film, given that it starred some pretty good actors and had a good base story, but it falls down somewhere along the way and doesn’t quite manage to deliver.
What I liked about this film:
Sanjeev Kumar, who—as always—is a joy to watch. He was a major reason for me to want to rewatch Insaaf ka Mandir, because Sanjeev Kumar always manages to act so convincingly.
And, the music, by Sapan Jagmohan. Insaaf ka Mandir has some good songs, of which my favourite is the peppy Pyaare aaja chori chori, picturized on Laxmi Chhaya’s Suzie as she dances in the New Star Hotel.
Plus, the premise of the story, as I mentioned, is a good one…
What I didn’t like:
… but sadly, expanding on that premise and converting it into a believable film is where this fails. There are so many plot holes, so many gaps, that it eventually fails to be convincing.
For one, there’s the plethora of sensational people and episodes, which doesn’t really add up. Mrs Jain is too obviously involved in some very shady business (she looks it, even, going about always wearing sun glasses, her head and often much of her face covered with her ghoonghat, and creeping furtively about). There is Suzie, who seems just too jumpy to be innocent (and she’s a dancer, so obviously not a good girl). Plus, there’s a man who, for reasons unknown, goes about with half his face painted black. Why?
Then, there are the gaps in Sunil’s investigation, the too convenient coincidences (as luck would have it, he sees a photograph at a police station of a man who used to be a blackmailer but who, unknown to Sunil right now, is also the key to one mystery—and, somehow, Sunil seems to realize this). There are letters which conveniently turn up at the right place at the right time; there are people whose suspicions, even though they are based on nothing more than “Because that’s the way it is,” are proven right.
For me, the slipshod scripting of the mystery angle of this film was the most irritating aspect of it all. If that had been properly done, the clues in place, the deductions logical, I would have liked this a whole lot better.
Still, there’s Sanjeev Kumar. And Prithviraj Kapoor, as the judge who presides over the trial of Mrs Jain for the murder of Sadhna, is impressive as ever.
Last but not least, there’s Nadira. While her acting may be somewhat over the top in places, she’s generally good, and I liked that her character was an interesting one, a surprisingly nuanced depiction of a type that’s usually stereotyped. This woman wasn’t all black or all white, but a believable shade of grey.