Guest Post: The Unsung Villains of Yesteryears, by Balaji Vittal

Balaji Vittal has written several books along with Anirudha Bhattacharjee. I’d read and enjoyed their biographies of SD Burman and RD Burman, as well as their collection of top songs, Gaata Rahe Mera Dil; so when Balaji Vittal wrote to me informing me about the publication of his first solo foray into cinema writing, I was intrigued—especially as the premise of Vittal’s book sounded thoroughly entertaining. Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood explores the villains of Hindi cinema. From dacoits to smugglers to mafia dons and gangsters, from serial killers to terrorists and traitors, to small-time crooks, evil relatives, adulterous spouses, even anti-heroes: they’re all here, described in detail.

Pure Evil isn’t a book that fits completely into the time line of my blog, since a good deal of its focus ends up being on more recent cinema than Dustedoff restricts itself to. While I haven’t reviewed the book here, you can read a fairly detailed review I wrote on Goodreads, here.

And, while we’re on the topic, a piece Balaji Vittal wrote specifically to feature here as a guest post. On the unsung villains of the Hindi cinema of the 40s and 50s: nasty characters who were a little offbeat as far as villains went, in the films they featured in.

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Ten of my favourite devotional songs

I made my first song list pretty soon after I started blogging. And once my blog began drawing some readers, I also began getting requests for themes for song lists. One theme (along with lullabies) that several people have requested over the years but which I’ve not yet been able to compile—till now, that is—has been that of the devotional song. The bhajan.

Mostly, I steered away from handling this theme because the most common and most popular bhajans just didn’t float my boat: I invariably found them too screechy and shrill. But as time has passed and I’ve been exposed to more devotional songs from the films of the 50s and 60s (in particular), I’ve realized that there are many bhajans that I do like. So, finally, a post. A list of ten devotional songs that I especially like. As always, these are from pre-1970s Hindi films that I’ve watched.

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Aakhri Dao (1958)

This was one film where I had a tough time making up my mind: should I review it? Should I not? It’s not a great film, but it’s not absolutely abysmal either. And it has a luminously lovely Nutan, plus some superb songs (courtesy Madan Mohan and Majrooh Sultanpuri) to compensate for other drawbacks in the film. It’s also a film about a murder (as macabre as that may sound, always something that catches my attention).

If for nothing else, as an example of a film that could have been pretty good but ends up a damp squib, this, I decided, was worth reviewing.

The story centres round Raj Kumar Saxena ‘Raju’ (Shekhar), a mechanic who works in a garage, and lives in a tiny room above the garage along with his friend and colleague Popat (Johnny Walker). Popat has been having a chat with a wealthy customer, Muthuswami Chetiyar (Mirajkar) and is keen on getting Muthuswami to invest in a garage for Popat. The incentive Popat offers is a match for Muthuswami’s daughter: Raju, he says, will be a fine bridegroom. Because he guesses Muthuswami will not be eager to marry his daughter to a mechanic, Popat takes care not to let on that the groom he has in mind is that figure hunched over a car at the other end of the garage…

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Around India’s Towns in Ten Songs

Towns and cities. Not countryside, not rural hinterland.

As a family, we’re very fond of travelling. At least once a year, we make sure we go on a road trip (usually) that would take us through several towns, spending a couple of days here, a couple there. Exploring places beyond what we’re familiar with.

Of course, with the pandemic, that’s on hold for the time being. Though my husband and I are vaccinated, the LO (the ‘Little One’, our seven year old daughter) isn’t, and we don’t want to run any risks. So, we’re stuck at home, and I confine myself (and occasionally the LO, who is also fond of old Hindi film songs) to watching videos that take us places. Songs that are filmed in places far and wide, songs that go beyond the usual tourist attractions. Songs which make you feel you were, for those brief few minutes, in another town.

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Apradhi Kaun (1957)

The world of Hindi cinema is peppered with names that anyone familiar with the industry (at least the industry of the 50s and 60s) can quickly slot into categories. Star. Villain. Comedian. Character actor. There are many, many names that automatically fall into (almost exclusively) one of these categories. Those that have shifted from one category to another—like Pran, for instance, once the quintessential villain but in later years the more interesting ‘good man’, or Ajit and Premnath, both initially hero and later villain—have again usually not done too many shifts.

Abhi Bhattacharya is one of those relatively rare individuals who seem to have appeared in a wide variety of roles, a wide variety of films. He was the idealistic school teacher of Jagriti, the ‘other man’ of Anuradha. The kind-hearted, principled example of the bhadralok in films like Amar Prem, and the straying older brother of Dev Anand in Love Marriage. He played Krishna and Arjun and Vishnu (the latter in a slew of mythologicals). He even played the villain, in the Vinod Khanna-Yogita Bali starrer, Memsaab.

This year marks the birth centenary of Abhi Bhattacharya (as far as I’ve been able to find out, he was born in 1921, though I’ve not been able to discover exactly when in 1921). To commemorate his career, I wanted to watch a Bhattacharya film, but a dilemma presented itself: which one? Hindi or Bengali? (since Bhattacharya had what seems to have been a very successful career in Bengali cinema as well). Eventually, I homed in on this film, a rare whodunit in Hindi cinema that’s pretty well made too.

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Wahan ke Log (1967)

This is a film I’ve known about for many years now: I first heard about it on Greta’s blog, and have since been in two minds about whether to watch it or not. It sounded too nutty to miss (aliens toting laser rays and stealing diamonds? NA Ansari in a double role and Nilofer in a bad wig? Tanuja as ghost-who-sings?), but from my previous experiences of films directed by NA Ansari, I’ve realized that after a while, the madness of the script, the plethora of plot holes and the sheer pointlessness of much of what’s happening, can become very tedious.

But this is considered somewhat of a cult film, and one of the very few early Hindi films that had an element of sci-fi in it. So, if just for that (I like sci fi as a genre), I decided to watch Wahan ke Log.

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Sunghursh (1968)

This was the first film I watched after Dilip Kumar passed away on July 7 this year. The tributes and reminiscences were still in full flow two days later, on July 9, which marked what would have been the 83rd birthday of Sanjeev Kumar. On a Sanjeev Kumar tribute post on Facebook, I read a comment in which someone recalled Dilip Kumar’s remark about Sanjeev Kumar, who was his co-star in Sunghursh: “Is Gujarati ladke ne toh paseena nikaal diya!” (“This Gujarati boy made me sweat!”)

This, I thought, might be an interesting film to review by way of tribute to both Dilip Kumar as well as Sanjeev Kumar. But I had other Dilip Kumar films to also watch: Musafir and Sagina Mahato for the first time, Ram aur Shyam for a long-overdue rewatch. So, while I watched this and wrote the review, I decided the publishing of the review could wait for now.

Because today, August 21, 2021, marks the birth centenary of Harnam Singh Rawail, the director of Sunghursh.  HS Rawail, as he was usually billed, debuted in 1940 with the film Dorangia Daaku, but it wasn’t until 1949, with Patanga (of Mere piya gaye Rangoon fame) that he became famous. Rawail was to make several well-known films through the following decades, but his two best-known works are probably Mere Mehboob (1963) and Sunghursh.

The story, based on Mahashweta Devi’s Laayli Aashmaaner Aaina, begins in Banaras of the 19th century (the riverfront, sadly, looks very mid-20th century). Bhawani Prasad (Jayant), bearded and seemingly benevolent, walks back from the temple after pooja. At his heels follows his grandson Kundan (?). Bhawani Prasad is much venerated, and the way he hands out alms to the poor and blesses those bowing before him, one might be forgiven for thinking him a good man.

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Teen Bahuraaniyaan (1968)

I had read a review of this film on a blog years ago, but besides the fact that it starred Prithviraj Kapoor as the father-in-law of three women, I remembered nothing of what I’d read. Then, some weeks back, when Shashikala passed away, a couple of people remembered her role, as a popular film star, in this film. I was tempted to watch it.

The teen bahuraniyaan (the three daughters-in-law) live in one rambling house along with their husbands, their children, and their father-in-law Dinanath (Prithviraj Kapoor)a retired school teacher. The patriarch’s three sons, from eldest to youngest, are Shankar (Agha), Ram (Ramesh Deo) and Kanhaiya (Rajendranath). Appropriately enough, their wives, respectively, are Parvati (Sowkar Janki), Sita (Kanchana) and Radha (Jayanthi). Sita’s sister Mala (Vaishali), who’s come to town to do college, also lives with them.

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Ram aur Shyam (1967)

I wanted to watch a Dilip Kumar film to commemorate the life and career of this extraordinary actor. But which one? There are lots of iconic Dilip Kumar films that I have either seen long ago (Devdas, Footpath, Daag, Deedaar, Udan Khatola, Andaaz) and not reviewed on this blog, or which I’ve never seen (Tarana, Jugnu, Mela, Shaheed, Musaafir). I could watch a film I’d never seen before, but—knowing what a lot of Dilip Kumar’s early films are like—there was always a chance I’d run up against something depressing.

I finally decided to rewatch a film I’d seen years ago. A film that’s a good showcase of Dilip Kumar’s versatility, his ability to pull off comic roles as well as the tragic ones for which he was better known. Ram aur Shyam is an out-and-out entertainer, a film I’d watched and loved as a teenager, and which I knew for a fact would cheer me up.

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