After many years of telling myself I should read Mirza Hadi ‘Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada, I finally got around to reading a Hindi translation a couple of weeks back. This turned out to be an underwhelming experience (more details here, on my Goodreads review of the book), but it impelled me to read a synopsis of Umrao Jaan Ada. I ended up reading, too, about the screen adaptations of the book (which is regarded by many as the first Urdu novel), and was surprised to discover that, besides the Rekha-starrer and the (much later) Aishwarya Rai-starrer, there were two other films, both released in 1958, based on Umrao Jaan Ada. One was Mehendi; the other was Zindagi ya Toofaan. I haven’t got around to watching Mehendi yet, but the fact that one of my favourite actresses of the 50s, Nutan, starred in Zindagi ya Toofaan, made me eager to watch this one.
When I was reading Balaji Vitthal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s The Prince Musician, I came across a mention of this film, which I had never heard of. But the songs listed as being part of Sitaaron Se Aage were familiar to me, and both leads—Ashok Kumar and Vyjyanthimala—are among my favourites. Recently, reading HQ Chowdhury’s Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, I was reminded again of Sitaaron Se Aage, and decided it was high time I watched it.
And what a showcase of SD Burman’s music this film is—right from the start. It begins with Sambhalke yeh duniya hai nagar hoshiyaaron ka, with Lattu (Johnny Walker) and his cronies, the pickpockets Bajjarbattu and Nikhattu, going about relieving passersby of their belongings. The three end up outside a theatre, where the superstar actor Rajesh (Ashok Kumar) has just completed yet another highly-acclaimed performance.
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.
Years ago, in the good old days when the single channel on Doordarshan was our main source of entertainment and we therefore watched everything that was telecast, I watched 12 O’Clock. I’d already seen Guru Dutt’s big films—Pyaasa, Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, Kaagaz ke Phool, Chaudhvin ka Chaand. I assumed, based on those (I had yet to watch Bahurani or Saanjh aur Savera, and had thought Mr & Mrs 55 a flash in the pan), that 12 O’Clock would be along the lines of the serious stuff Guru Dutt churned out.
… which this is not. Because this is one of a handful of the films Guru Dutt acted in but did not direct.
Sunil Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. The two names themselves conjure up a mix of everything from Pyaasa to Mother India, from Gumraah to Kaagaz ke Phool. Sunil Dutt, whom I tend to associate either with suspense films (Humraaz, Mera Saaya) or angst-ridden (or otherwise philosophical, socially relevant films like Railway Platform or Sujata. Okay, he did do Postbox No 999 and Padosan, but still… Waheeda, whose films with Guru Dutt did showcase her prowess as an actress, but which also tended to paint her as a ‘serious’ actress—although in her case, films like Solvaa Saal and 12 O’Clock showed that she could be as convincing in peppy and light-hearted roles as many of her contemporaries.
If that’s your impression of Dutt and Rehman—two actors who appeared in mostly grim films—this rom-com is worth seeing just for a different, fun, side to both of them.
Let’s say you’re a film maker in the Hindi cinema of the late 1960s. You’ve set your heart on making a thriller. You have some money, but not enough to be able to hope to churn out something with Shammi Kapoor, set in Europe. You see all these glittering films—Teesri Manzil, An Evening in Paris, Jewel Thief—being released, and it irks you. If they can do it, why can’t you? So one day you gird up your loins, and inspired by all of these, and all the James Bond movies you can lay your hands upon, you set out to make your own thriller.
You cannot afford Shammi Kapoor [or is he perhaps too discerning to agree after he’s read the script?], so you settle for Biswajeet instead. You don’t have the budget to shoot abroad, but that doesn’t matter. You will make do by bringing abroad here to India, by plonking a bronze wig onto Biswajeet and having him pretend to be a Parisian named Robbie for much of the film.
Give me a period film, and I’m willing to give it a shot. If it happens to be set in Mughal India, so much the better. If the cast features people like Meena Kumari, Pradeep Kumar, Rehman, Veena, Lalita Pawar and Nighar Sultana: well, there’s hope that the acting will be passable. And when I realize that the music composer is Roshan: then I’m certainly on for it.
Noorjehan, of course (though Richard would probably question that ‘of course’) is about the noblewoman who married the fourth of the Great Mughals, Jahangir. Born in May 1577 and named Mehrunissa, she was the daughter of a man who rose to great prominence in the Mughal court: Itmad-ud-Daulah (‘Pillar of the State’) was the title given to him, and the marriage of Mehrunissa to Jahangir made of Mehrunissa a powerful woman, too. Initially given the title Noormahal (‘Light of the Palace’) by her doting husband, she was subsequently given the title of Noorjehan (‘Light of the World’) and went on to become probably the most influential of imperial consorts in the Mughal dynasty, a wealthy woman in her own right, as well as a woman who exercised a good deal of power from beyond the purdah.
Anu had started this month with a Dev Anand film—and I, following suit, decided I would review a relatively little-known Dev Anand film too, to begin August. But, while Anu’s kept up the Dev Anand theme all through August, I’ve meandered off in different directions, all the way from The Rickshaw Man to jeep songs. But solidarity among friends counts for something, doesn’t it? So here I am back again, with another Dev Anand film. The sort of film that, on the surface, looks like it’s got everything going for it: a suave Dev Anand opposite a very beautiful Waheeda Rehman (who, along with Nutan, was, I feel, one of Dev Anand’s best co-stars as far as chemistry is concerned). SD Burman’s music. Suspense. Some good cinematography.
The first time I began watching this film was on Doordarshan, many years ago. It surprised me, largely because it featured Waheeda Rehman in a very Westernised avatar I had never seen before. It also had an intriguing story. And Dharmendra, always one of my favourites. And Helen. And Johnny Walker.