This Gothic mystery story has an interesting claim to fame: it was the film Nutan wasn’t permitted to watch at the premiere, even though she starred in it.
Nutan had debuted in the film Hamari Beti (1950; it was directed by her mother, Shobhna Samarth) when she was all of fourteen. The following year, after having spent the intervening period at a finishing school in Switzerland, she was cast as the female lead in Ravindra Dave’s Nagina, which starred Dilip Kumar’s brother Nasir Khan. Nagina was released under an A certificate because it was considered too frightening for children; Nutan, then not even sixteen years old, was escorted to the premiere of the film by family friend Shammi Kapoor, but was not allowed in because she was underage.
The story begins [rather choppily; I wonder if this is the modern-day slash-and-burn style of video editing that’s reflected here, rather than the original film’s editing] with Srinath (Nasir Khan) having a conversation with his wheelchair-bound mother (Anwari Bai). As it later emerges from the story, Srinath’s father, a jeweller named Shyamlal, has been missing these last twelve years, ever since he was accused of having murdered the wife of a zamindar, Raiji, over a valuable gemstone (a ‘nagina’) set in a ring.
Srinath’s mother is convinced that her husband is innocent. But where is he? Srinath vows to find out, and to clear his father’s name.
With this aim in mind, Srinath takes a train to Raipura, where Raiji (Bipin Gupta) still lives in a dilapidated old haveli. En route, however, there’s a mishap. Srinath, walking through the lurching corridors of the train, trying to find a place to sit, ends up bumbling into a man (Hiralal), lying still, with blood flowing from his scalp: to all appearances, dead.
Srinath backpedals and turns, and just then, a young woman flees the compartment. Srinath, suspecting she’s connected to the murder, runs after her and manages to finally stop her. But Mukta (Nutan) denies that she had anything to do with the man’s death. She ran because the sight of the dead man shocked her.
Srinath lets Mukta go, and ends up being accused of the murder (though, now that all the confusion has died down a bit, a second look at the spot where the corpse had been lying reveals that it’s now gone). The train, by now, has stopped at Raipura, and the cops are about to take away Srinath when the engine driver comes forward to say that he had seen the ‘corpse’ running away, following after a girl.
So Srinath is set free, and (presumably) no-one, the cops included, wonders who the man was or why he was chasing after the girl, or what. [This is only the first of many questions this film poses but then lets slide].
Srinath goes off to meet his friend Dixit (Gope) who lives in Raipura. Srinath tells Dixit something of why he’s here, and Dixit warns him: don’t go anywhere near Raiji’s haveli; there’s a ghost at the place, and mysterious wailing and sobbing is heard around there at night. There’s even a signboard to this effect, with a huge ‘Khatra’ (Danger) written in big, bold letters.
Srinath doesn’t listen, and ends up going to the haveli. Part of the mansion is absolute shambles, collapsed roof and falling walls and all. The rest is still habitable, and here Srinath stumbles into the cantankerous and suspicious Raiji, who seems to live all alone here with his mute servant Goonga (?). Srinath pretends to be on a legitimate errand, searching for a doctor; but he gives this up soon enough and follows Raiji into the haveli…
… where he spots a portrait of a woman, wearing a distinctive ring on her finger. Srinath guesses this painting is of Raiji’s late wife, but when he tries to probe, Raiji gets murderous.
He and Goonga chase Srinath into the depths of the haveli, seemingly intent on killing him. But Srinath is helped by a mysterious female, only her hand—with that same ring on it—visible on his shoulder as she guides him to a hidden passage that can lead him to safety.
Of course Srinath, in the time-honoured tradition of Hindi film heroes who encounter mysterious females in ruins, returns to the haveli as soon as it’s dark again. There’s much cat-and-mouse playing about, and a lonely song in the night, before he finally comes face to face with the woman, who turns out to be Mukta. Mukta [as anybody might have guessed, from that ring on her finger] is Raiji’s daughter, and soon she and Srinath are very much in love. In the several times they have encountered each other by then, Srinath has succeeded in nabbing the ring from Mukta, and now wears it.
Mukta tells Srinath that after her mother died twelve years ago, she was sent off to live with her maternal grandparents. Despite much pleading to let her come back to Raipura, Raiji refused, though he sent Goonga with the ring for Mukta. Mukta, on her own initiative, came to Raipura with Goonga—this was on the train, when a man named Nihal turned up, and Goonga thrashed him badly. [More questions. Who is Nihal? Why did Goonga feel the need to hit him so? Why was Nihal chasing Mukta, and how did she escape? All questions which, alas, remain unanswered].
All this while, too, Srinath has been trying to track down whoever is doing the wailing in the ruined part of the haveli. He hasn’t been able to discover who it is, but Mukta does, now. She finds a man, thin and wild-haired, a rather scary leather contraption fitted over his head to (somewhat) mute him. Some rescuing (sort of) and a conversation (sort of) and Mukta discovers who this is: it’s Srinath’s long-lost father, Shyamlal, whom Raiji has kept imprisoned in the depths of the haveli all these years.
… and whom he periodically comes and threatens: tell me where the real ring is! Tell me! And whom Shyamlal, now free of that leather halter and therefore able to speak [how did Raiji expect him to tell where the ring was, all this while, if he cannot speak?] turns around and says that Raiji was the one who murdered his own wife. He was trying to shoot Shyamlal dead, and Raiji’s wife came between them, dying as a result [that would count as accident, not murder, to be precise]. There is again some talk of a ‘real’ ring and where it might be. The ring that was sent to Mukta and which Srinath now wears is, apparently, not the real one.
But where is the real ring? And why is there a fake ring around? Why does everybody want the real ring? Who is Nihal? Where does he fit in? What is the secret behind Raiji’s anger and his keeping Shyamlal captive?
So many questions, but—unfortunately—no answers. There might actually be some answers hidden away under the layers of completely unnecessary creaks and cries and banging doors and howling winds, but personally, after a while, I couldn’t be bothered.
Sadly, this is one of those films I’m going to rack up as one of those I’ve watched, and am reviewing, just because of its historical significance (especially, I should think, for people who are fans of Nutan’s). It was so confusing, chockfull of [supposedly] blood-curdling elements and massive mysteries that never got resolved, that I almost couldn’t bring myself to review it.
What I liked about this film:
The music, by Shankar-Jaikishan (lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra), which includes some very enjoyable songs, such as My my my dear aao near, Ro-oon main saagar ke kinaare, and Tumko apni zindagi ka aasra samjhe thhe hum. In particular, I was intrigued to finally listen to songs sung by the legendary CH Atma (who, I’ve read online, was the first Indian singer to tour abroad). His voice doesn’t sound to me like a very good fit for Nasir Khan, but yes, he’s impressive indeed.
And, while Nutan is a little gauche, you can see the faint glimmerings of the fine actress she grew into. Plus, there are moments between her and Nasir Khan where I really liked them together.
Incidentally, talking of Nasir Khan: while I’ve seen him in other films, including Daaera and Shrimatiji, this was the first film in which I was actually able to spot similarities to Dilip Kumar: in a mannerism, a facial feature, a way of saying something. He’s not a patch on Dilip Kumar in terms of acting skill (or, to my mind, looks, even) but he’s pleasant enough.
What I didn’t like:
See, above. Oh, goodness. The confusion, the plot holes, the why/how/who/what that is simply never explained.
Seriously, watch this only if you like Nutan or Nasir Khan a lot.