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BANNER

19 August 2016

Pukar (1939)

Directed by: Sohrab Modi
Music: Mir Saheb, S Fernandes
Lyrics: Kamal Amrohi
Starring: Chandramohan, Naseem Banu, 
Sohrab Modi, Sheila, Sadiq Ali, Sardar Akhtar
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Doordarshan was the only television channel available, they used to regularly telecast Hindi films on Sundays. We didn't have a television then, and so, when invited to do so, would make our way to a friend's house to watch the films, irrespective of whether they were meant for children or not. My parents didn't come, but it always seemed to me that the whole neighbourhood was present there, the children happily sitting on mats on the floor, while the adults occupied every single chair in the house. Looking back, I wonder what Mamta's parents thought of the wholesale invasion of their house every Sunday evening.

DD, at the time, used to go through phases where they felt that they had to show 'uplifting' films, as opposed to mere 'entertainers'. Hence, we got regularly scheduled doses of Shantaram, Mehboob Khan and... Sohrab Modi. I remember watching Sikander, Jailor, and Pukar in subsequent weeks. Mamta and I decided that someone up in the DD echelons had a sadistic temperament, inflicting these old black and white films on us, while what we wanted was our dose of fluffy entertainment.

Years later, I can appreciate the craft behind these films better. Yesterday, I was trawling YouTube looking for films to take my mind off something. I chose Pukar because I remembered next to nothing about the film. Seeing that it starred Chandramohan and Naseem Banu meant that I at least got to see some beautiful people. Besides, Sohrab Modi's films usually had something interesting to say. So, Pukar it was. Suffice it to say that I wasn't disappointed.

Part of Modi's 'Historical' trilogy (the other two being Sikander and Prithvi Vallabh) before he moved on to make socially relevant films, Pukar is a well-mounted spectacle, and if you can overlook the slight theatricality of the dialogues, this being the late 30s, it is immensely interesting as it challenges the principle of what justice means.
 
Set in the period when Mughal Emperor Jehangir (Chandramohan) ruled over Hindustan, the film opens with the tolling of the emperor's famed bell of justice. It was said that anyone could ring that bell at any time, and Jehangir, rightly famed for being a just, impartial ruler, would personally address the grievance then and there. So, when a man pleads for justice for his murdered son, Jehangir's response is swift. 
'A life for a life', proclaims the emperor, despite the offender's wife pleading that she would be widowed and her children destitute if her husband were put to death. The state will take care of her and the children, promises the emperor, but there will be no appealing the sentence.

The scene quickly moves to the palace grounds where the emperor's soldiers are practicing their swordsmanship and archery. One man is missing, however, and his friends laugh over Mangal Singh having fallen prey to far more lethal arrows - those from the eyes of Kunwar, the daughter of Uday Singh. 
This speech enrages Ranjit Singh, Kunwar's brother, because their families are lifelong enemies. When the soldier doesn't back down from 'maligning' his sister, Ranjit Singh rushes off home only to discover Kunwar (Sheela) alone; Mangal Singh (Sadiq Ali), having heard him arrive, has already left the place.

That is not enough to assuage his wrath, however. Enraged, Ranjit follows Mangal and provokes him to a fight, and the latter is forced to defend himself. 
Kunwar has rushed into the palace to pick up arms to save her lover, but is prevented from doing so by her father. She begs her father to stop the young men from fighting, confessing that she loves Mangal, but her pleas fall on deaf ears. Humiliated by the news that his daughter is in love with the son of his sworn enemy, Uday Singh sets off behind his son. Unfortunately, he arrives at the scene only to see his son's dead body, and a penitent Mangal.

He too forces a fight on the young man; Mangal, not wanting to kill his beloved's father, restrains himself, but is still a good enough swordsman that he manages to wound Uday Singh. 
Assuming the man is fatally injured, Mangal flees home and confesses the whole to his mother. Frightened for her son, she advises him to talk to his father. Mangal is reluctant. His father will not accept his truth.
Sardar Sangram Singh (Sohrab Modi), though irritated by his wife's interjections on his son's behalf is, however, relieved when he hears the whole tale. He has faith in the law; it's not blind. The emperor cannot punish his son for defending himself.  

Just then, a severely wounded Uday Singh puts in an appearance. demanding that Sangram Singh turn his son over to him. He wants an eye for an eye, blood for blood. Samgram Singh refuses. They will go to the emperor.
As the two men debate the necessity for justice to take its course, Sangram Singh's wife, Shobha (Jilloo), fearing for her son's life, helps him escape. As they hear the horse galloping away, Uday Singh accuses Sangram Singh of conniving to help his son escape, and storms out promising to avenge his son, Ranjit. A humiliated Sangram Singh excoriates his wife for her actions that have dishonoured him and helped turn their son into an outlaw. 
At the palace, the emperor and his beautiful consort, Empress Noor Jehan (Naseem Banu) are enjoying a quiet evening playing chess. The game, involving live women as chess pieces, is interrupted by the ringing of the bell. It is Uday Singh demanding justice; unfortunately, he dies before the Emperor can speak to him.
Curious about Thakur Uday Singh's death, and wondering what brought him to the palace to demand justice, the emperor decides to investigate the matter himself. He orders Ranjit Singh be produced forthwith to help with the matter. Instead, it is Kunwar who appears at court. The kindly emperor reassures her that she is now his ward, and that he will do his best to solve the murders of her father and brother. 

The empress, present on the occasion, questions her gently.  Grieving over her father's and brother's deaths, and desperate to save her lover from the consequences, Kunwar proclaims that she knows of no one who could have any motive for murdering her menfolk. Nor, in answer to Noor Jehan's suggestion, anyone who was hated by her father and brother, and who killed them in self-defence. Unfortunately for her, Sangram Singh appears right then to confess that it is his son who was responsible for the twin deaths. He promises the emperor that he will personally bring his son to court; he trusts the emperor's justice.

Here, the beautiful empress intercedes on Kunwar's behalf, requesting Sangram Singh to take the unfortunate girl under his protection. Both Sangram Singh and Kunwar acquiesce readily.
Meanwhile, Mangal who has fled to Delhi, where he has sought refuge with a friend, sends a messenger to inform his parents that he is okay. Sangram Singh is furious at what he sees as his son's cowardice. He sets off to bring his son back to Akbarabad, and reaches there just as Mangal is about to leave his refuge, for fear that his presence will bring ruin to his friend.
Mangal is pleased to meet his father until he realises that Sangram Singh has come to arrest him and take him back to face the consequences of his actions. Which leads to an amusing contretemps when the friend refuses to let Sangram Singh 'arrest' Mangal under his roof - it is an insult to his hospitality.
Nevertheless, father and son return to Akbarabad where Mangal is put on trial. His grieving mother and Kunwar pray ceaselessly for his release.

Meanwhile, the emperor is listening to Mangal's defence. Partly convinced that Mangal acted in self defence, he wonders why Mangal ran away instead of seeking recourse in the law. Much to Sangram Singh's mortification, Mangal's thoughtless response evokes the emperor's fury. Worse, his cowardice only serves to convince the emperor that Mangal is guilty.
There's still time for the sentence to be pronounced, however, and Sangram Singh, though he advises his son to accept his fate with courage, pleads with the emperor for mercy. He has done his duty as a soldier; as a father, he begs that his son's life be spared. The emperor is not cruel; however, his justice cannot be questioned. 
 
And so Mangal is sentenced to death, but since the holy month of Ramadan begins on the morrow, he is given a reprieve; he will be executed two days after Id-ul-fitr. Sangram Singh returns home, a broken man. His wife is devastated, and Sangram has no strength to bear her grief that bursts out as taunts.
Kunwar, though heartbroken at the news, decides to make a last-ditch effort to save her lover. She decides to approach the empress, hoping that she would intercede on Mangal's behalf. Noor Jehan, practising archery on her balcony, is very sympathetic, but she knows there's nothing she can say that will sway the emperor from what he sees as justice.
However, Kunwar's hapless query leaves Noor Jehan pensive, and she sends word to the emperor that she would like to meet him. When the emperor enters her chambers, she pleads with him to spare Mangal's life, evoking the power of mercy over that of justice.
Jehangir cannot agree. Sympathetic though he is to his wife's opinion, he believes that justice has to be blind - king or beggar, they have to be treated alike. That Mangal Singh is the son of a loyal royal servant should, in no way, lessen the punishment for his crime. In fact, he warns Noor Jehan, if she ever appears before him in court, he would have to choose justice over his love for her.
Little does he know how prophetic those words will be. 

Meanwhile, Kunwar is on her way home, having lost all hope. As she passes by the river, she is aroused out of her reverie by the commotion outside.
When she hears what has occurred, she realises its implications. Her optimism infects Sangram Singh, who is equally hopeful.
Now Sangram Singh will see whether the emperor's principles can withstand the storm that is about to break over his head. If not, perhaps he has found a way to save his son's life. He proceeds to the palace with the bereaved Rani in tow, promising to help her voice reach the ears of the highest in the land. 

And very soon, the bell of justice tolls once more.
But are Kunwar's and Sangram Singh's hopes misplaced? Will Rani get the justice she seeks? Is the bell tolling the empress's fate? Or is the empress above the law? Will justice triumph? Or will Emperor Jehangir turn his back on 'Jehangir's Code'? Will Empress Noor Jehan let him?
If not, what decision can Emperor Jehangir make? And how will that decision affect the empress's and Mangal's fate and Kunwar's hopes?
Based on a story by Kamal Amrohi, who also helped with the script and wrote the lyrics, Pukar examines how an emperor famed for his justice finds a solution to a complex problem, but also learns how to temper his justice with mercy. Fictionalised though this is, Modi gets his basic facts right, and is attuned to both costumes and setting. The bell of justice and live people as chess pieces are both historically accurate; so is the fact that the Empress remains veiled from all male sight (with the exception of the the emperor) when she is hearing a public plea, or when she is the defendant in open court.
The speeches, declamatory though they are, posit interesting arguments about love and honour, duty and loyalty, justice and mercy, but they are intelligently woven into the script, and arise from the events that unfold on screen. They make intelligent points for, and against, and one is left to decide for oneself, which is more important in context. The emperor's change of heart is mirrored by that of Sangram Singh's, and the final solution comes from the empress's mercy. 
 
There is no comic side plot, though a few scenes here and there make one smile. Directed with finesse and told in a compelling manner, Pukar engages our attention from start to finish. Not to mention that both Chandramohan and Naseem Banu kept my eyes riveted to the screen every time they appeared. 
I wrote in my review of Mughal-e-Azam that I shuddered to think of the original casting of Chandramohan as Salim because I could not imagine anyone other than Dilip Kumar in that role, but seeing him here as Jehangir, I think he would have made a stunning Salim there as well.
Do watch. There is a very clear, clean, complete print available on Tom Daniel's channel on YouTube.

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