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.
Today is the hundredth birthday of one of India’s greatest and most popular dancers of yesteryears. Sitara Devi was born in Calcutta on November 8, 1920, to a father who was a Sanskrit scholar and also both performed as well as taught Kathak. Her mother too came from a family with a long tradition in performing arts, so it was hardly a surprise that from a very young age, Sitara (her birth name was Dhanalakshmi) began to learn Kathak. By the time she was ten, Sitara was giving solo performances; two years later, at the age of twelve, she (having since moved to Bombay with her parents) performed onstage and so impressed film-maker/choreographer Niranjan Sharma that he recruited her to work in films.
Unlike several other skilled danseuses—Vyjyanthimala, the Travancore Sisters, Waheeda Rehman, etc—Sitara Devi did not let cinema take over her dance completely. She danced in a number of films, through the 40s and right up to Mother India (1957), which is believed to be her last onscreen appearance. She continued to give stage performances, even performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Sitara Devi wasn’t merely a film actress; she was also a great dancer. I wanted to pay tribute to her through a review of one of her films, and decided I’d choose Hulchul, which I wanted to watch for other reasons as well (more on this later).
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.
As frequent visitors to this blog would know by now, one of my weaknesses is good music—and there have been, over the years, dozens of films that I’ve watched primarily because they had good scores. In some instances, just one song that I really liked. More often than not, my luck’s been pretty shoddy and I’ve ended up sitting through frightful films like Akashdeep, Saaranga, and Akeli Mat Jaiyo.
With Waaris, which I watched mostly because of Raahi matwaale, I had hopes [cautious, considering my track record, but hopes nevertheless]. It stars Suraiya and Talat Mahmood, both favourites of mine, and it was produced by Sohrab Modi, who even if (when acting) had a penchant for ‘declaiming to the skies’, did make some good films.