In 1957, Mehboob Khan produced and directed a film that has achieved almost iconic status in the history of Indian cinema. Mother India was the first Indian film to receive a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won several Filmfare Awards, including Best Film and Best Actress.
Mother India is a fine example of the importance of perseverance. If you don’t get it right the first time, try again. Sometime along the way, somewhere and somehow, you will get to your goal. Also, if you did something well once, chances are you’ll do it better the next time round. Practice makes perfect.
I’m not talking about how Radha, the female lead character of Mother India (and of Aurat) manages to surmount all the obstacles in her path and emerge strong. I’m talking about Mehboob Khan himself, who was the director not just of Mother India, but of the film, Aurat, of which Mother India was a remake. Based on a story by Babubhai Mehta (and supposedly partly inspired too by Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth) and with dialogue by Wajahat Mirza, Aurat was a film Mehboob Khan only directed. Seventeen years later, now a producer in his own right, he remade the film, both producing and directing it. And how well he proved that if you do something well the first time round, there’s a good chance you’ll do it well, and even better, the second time round.
Balraj Sahni ranks as one of my favourite actors. He brought a sense of dignity to pretty much every role he essayed, and there were very few roles which he could not pull off convincingly. That said, there was a certain type of film that he very often got slotted in: the family drama. These films, often made by production houses like AVM Productions, equally often followed a fairly predictable pattern.
A close-knit joint family (with Balraj Sahni as its head, usually as elder brother) lives in one home, each member of the family devoted to the other, each going out of their way and being self-sacrificing to smoothen the way for the others. Then, as the result of a wedding (usually of a younger male relative, often a character who’s the younger brother of Balraj Sahni’s character), a somewhat headstrong chhoti bahu enters the household. She is warmly welcomed and is inclined to be as sweet to others as others are to her [after all, the hero has fallen in love with her; she cannot be out-and-out bad]. But, someone evil and self-serving or just plain old malicious lurks in the vicinity. A neighbour, a close relative (often a step-relative, step-brother, step-sister, etc, of the bahu—since, again, blood relations can’t be all bad) or other person who despises the family for its saccharine sanctimoniousness, decides to throw a spanner in the works.
With the result that poor Balraj Sahni’s character gets the short end of the stick. He and his long-suffering spouse lose their home, their child (or children) fall ill, someone goes blind, they are nearly [not definitely, since they have so much self-respect] reduced to begging in the streets.
Hindi cinema has a tendency towards stories that stretch over long periods of time. Days, at the least, but often months, often many years too (that old trope of children growing up has been a part of too many films to name). It is the unusual film, especially in the 50s and 60s, that extends over just a few hours. Solvaa Saal was one such; Gateway of India is another. Both films are about runaway girls who meet the loves of their lives in the course of one night. That, though, is where the resemblance stops.
There are a bunch of films that I’ve read a plot synopsis of, found it interesting, thought I’d try and watch it—and then taken a look at the cast, only to discover it starred someone I didn’t like. It’s happened time and again; with Talaash, having discovered that the film starred Rajendra Kumar, I decided to put the film on the back burner, even though the synopsis sounded interesting.
Then, reading Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s SD Burman: The Prince Musician, and seeing the list of songs (some of them truly lovely ones), I thought I may be able to sit through the film. Perhaps the rest of the cast, the interesting story, and the good music, would compensate for Rajendra Kumar.
Talaash begins with the graduation of Raj Kumar ‘Raju’ (Rajendra Kumar), who is being congratulated by all his classmates for having once again come first in the class. Raju goes off to meet his friend Lachhu (OP Ralhan, who also directed this film, which was produced by Rajendra Kumar). Lachhu has, after seven tries, finally managed to graduate too. They congratulate each other, and talk briefly of their futures. Lachhu will be roped in to work at his wealthy father’s cloth shop; Raju doesn’t know what he’ll do, but he’s certain: the wealth of his family will only be doubled. Yes, he’s not known want, ever, and he will continue to enjoy all that wealth, now through his own hard work.
Considering this is a period film—a ‘raja-rani’ film, so to say—and it has some great music, I’ve not made much of an effort to watch it. I don’t mind Nirupa Roy in leading lady roles (she could look really pretty, and as long as she wasn’t playing the self-sacrificing and long suffering Sati Savitri, she was fine). But Bharat Bhushan isn’t my cup of tea. Along with Pradeep Kumar and Biswajeet, he is one of those actors whom I invariably see lip syncing to great songs, and wish the songs had been picturized on someone else.
But I finally decided it was high time I watched Rani Rupmati.
The story begins by introducing us to the town of Mandavgarh (now better known as Mandu), part of the kingdom of Malwa. Malwa is ruled by Pathans: its Sultan is Shujat Khan, whose elder son, Baazid Khan ‘Baaz Bahadur’ (Bharat Bhushan) seems to be an effeminate, music-loving hedonist who spends all his time doing riyaaz with his ustad.
This blog has been in existence ten years, and I suppose you can tell how important (or not) Valentine’s Day is over here by the fact that in all these years, I’ve dedicated a post to this day only twice—once, with a list of love songs in ten different moods, and (more recently) with a list of romantic duets.
So here we are, jumping on to the bandwagon yet again. This time, it’s a list of romantic serenades, of people singing in praise of the person they’re in love with (or, as in the case of a couple of fraudulent characters in this list, pretending to be in love with). There are serenades to others (Hindi cinema is full of serenades): to mothers and their near-divine maternalism; to the motherland and to the bond between siblings. None of these, I think, are as ubiquitous and as common as the serenade to a loved one. The praise in honour of his/her beauty, charm, sweetness, simplicity, virtues: going by the way Hindi songs serenade a love interest, you’d think the realm of Hindi cinema was crammed with utter paragons.
I started my first draft of this post by writing that “I watch some films because of the people who made them”. Then it struck me that that, almost invariably, is the only reason I do watch a film. After all, everybody—the director, the music director, the lyricist, and of course the cast (besides the many hundreds of other, often unnamed, people) who work on a film are those who made them. Sometimes, it’s the cast that appeals to me: give me people like Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sadhana, Waheeda Rehman—oh, and many more—and I will happily begin watching any film they’re in (whether or not that experience will end up being as rewarding a one I’d hoped for is another matter). Sometimes, it’s just the name of a well-loved and much-respected director—Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Vijay Anand among them—that’s enough.
Sometimes, it’s the music. Sometimes, it’s just one song.
In this case, it was just one song. I was singing Chanda mama door ke to the LO the other day, and I thought: that’s a nice song, and Geeta Bali looks so pretty; I wonder what the film’s like.
When you are as devoted to the pursuit of old Hindi cinema as I am—and you assiduously discuss old cinema with other like-minded souls—you keep getting recommendations. Some recommendations I take with a certain amount of leeway automatically assigned, since I know that the recommender has his or her own biases that are likely to be reflected in the film in question. Others I tend to blindly follow, because over time, I’ve realized that these are people who pretty much share my own ideas of what comprises watchable cinema.
One of these is Anu, who blogs at Conversations over Chai. We have our differences (Raj Kapoor is one), but by and large, Anu and I tend to agree about cinema. So when Anu, chatting with me during my trip in August to meet her, recommended Tamasha, I immediately made a note of it. After all, Dev Anand, Meena Kumari, Ashok Kumar, Kishore Kumar—and a comedy? That certainly sounded like something I wanted to watch.
My relationship with the cinema of Mrinal Sen is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, I have seen (and this I confess with the requisite amount of shame and self-reproach) very little of his cinema. On the other hand, one of my earliest memories of watching a Hindi film is of one of Mrinal Sen’s films: Mrigyaa, which I probably watched when I was about nine years old and, perhaps to my own surprise, understood at least more than I would have been expected to.
But, to come to the point. When I heard of the passing away of Mrinal Sen a few days ago, it seemed appropriate to finally watch and review one of his films. Trying to find a subtitled version of one of his earlier Bengali films might have been difficult at short notice, but Bhuvan Shome held out more promise. Not just in Hindi (it was Mrinal Sen’s first Hindi film), but also such a classic that it was fairly easy to track down.