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04 September 2011

Nagin (1954)

Directed by: Nandlal Jaswantlal
Music: Hemant Kumar
Starring: Pradeep Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, 
Jeevan, IS Johar, 
Mubarak, Ruby Meyers
It starts off as a Romeo-Juliet story, set in a jungle instead of in the higher echelons of society. What it turns into, is something I would never have foreseen.

Drums call tribesmen to the village clearing. We learn they are snake charmers who make their living by milking the snakes of poison and selling it.  We also learn that ten years ago, during the Spring Fair, the Nagi tribesmen bought the poison from the Ragis for peanuts – it was a betrayal they have never come to terms with, and the relationship between the tribes floundered. Now, ten years later, the fair is coming along again. And this time, the Ragi chieftain’s decision is that the Nagi tribesmen will not be sold one drop of poison they have harvested.
A Nagi tribal has overheard their decision, and is killed by Sanatan (Pradeep Kumar), the chieftain's son; back at the Ragi village, they believe in the law of the jungle - an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Mala (Vyjayanthimala), the Nagi chieftain’s daughter, swears to avenge her tribesman’s death. She will have Sanatan’s blood, this she swears upon her father.
The next morning both tribes set off for the fair, trying to catch as many snakes as they can on the way; (suddenly the area seems to be infested with snakes) and the Nagis are winning. Until the Ragi chieftain entreats Sanatan to ply his magic – his been. The been’s magic not only calls the snakes to him; it brings Mala too – she is so enthralled by the melody that she breaks into song. 
She is still euphoric when she runs into the been player – until she hears his name, that is. That turns her into a fury, but she can’t be as good an archer as she claims since he keeps dodging her arrows from a few yards away! 
He wants to change the enmity between their tribes with their love; she huffily departs only to be stopped short by a python that conveniently drops down on her; Sanatan rescues her, and finds her huddled in a dead faint at his feet. He doesn’t kill the python, though, he just pulls it off her and throws it off into the bushes. (Strike one for animal rights!)

There, the Ragi tribesmen and their chief are busy making fun of the Nagis – thanks to Sanatan’s been, they have caught more snakes. Here, Sanatan is busy guarding an unconscious Mala. She regains consciousness and thanks Sanatan for saving her life by...
...and she uses his dagger!

He disarms her, and insists on escorting her through the jungle to the Nagi territory. She is not very grateful, but matters become worse when he begins to play the been again. It charms her almost against her will. The hunter has become the hunted.

The end of the journey sees Mala take a different pledge – that of love. (I had a 'What the...?' moment here. Pardon me, maybe it was just déjà vu.) She begs Sanatan to leave since his life is in danger, but contrary as she is, also wants to know when he will return. He tells her that his been is the voice of his heart, so whenever she hears its music, she should come running. Mala returns to her tribe only to be lambasted by her father for staying away the whole night. She feeds him a story about the python and makes good her escape.
On the way to the fair the next day, Mala runs into a man, Prabir (Jeevan), who tries flirting with her; she sends him away with a flea on his ear, but we see him next striking a deal with her father.
Meanwhile, Mala is lost in thoughts of Sanatan, oblivious to her friends’ teasing, until she hears Sanatan’s been again.  
Mala and Sanatan meet daily, lost in their own little world. And you know that when Mala begs to leave on the promise of meeting the next day that that little world is going to be destroyed. Her father is searching for her and is already suspicious. He promises her that if she dares malign his name, he will flay her alive.
Soon it is the spring carnival, and both tribes are present in full strength. The Nagi chief wants his enemies ruined at any cost, and Prabir is only too happy to promise his help. Mala and Sanatan can only meet on the sly, but what is love if it cannot deceive its enemies? Finally, Sanatan cannot take it anymore and runs away with Mala from right under Prabir’s nose. Escaping is not as easy as they thought, and they end up on stage.
When it is time for them to sell their poison, the Nagi chief gives it away for free thus ending any hope of sale for the Ragis. 
And Prabir’s men destroy the Ragi’s bottles of snake poison. Furious at their livelihood being destroyed,, Sanatan goes looking for Prabir and  challenges him to a fight, even as the latter is asking the Nagi chieftain for his pound of flesh – the hand of his daughter in marriage. 
Mala is distraught and her mother (Ruby Meyers) can only tell her to pray to God; but her friends are more resourceful. One of them slips into Sanatan’s hut to tell him the news.

Back at the village, Prabir is busy looting his father-in-law-to-be by cheating at dice, when there comes a handsome ascetic who garners the Nagi chief's gratitude by helping him win. He refuses any reward, but consents to a meal, on one condition - it should be cooked and served by the chief's daughter.
As Sanatan and Mala meet clandestinely, she is worried. How long can they continue to meet like this? She cannot even elope with him, because if she does, then bloodshed will ensue. Sanatan reassures her. But Prabir, meeting Sanatan the next day provokes him, and Sanatan responds by promising to give Mala the engagement bangles himself. That sets the scene for the next song, when Sanatan reaches her hut in disguise, cheering Mala up immensely.
Unfortunately, Sanatan is found out, beaten black and blue, and the lovers separated. When the Ragi chieftain sees his son’s bloodied visage, he is incensed. A war of words leads to a fight between the two chieftains until Mala begs for them to call a ceasefire. Sanatan’s father taunts the Nagi chieftain.
He will control his son; but the Nagi chief should get Mala married off far away; the call of the shehnai shouldn’t reach Sanatan’s ears. If it does, then he will not be held responsible for the consequences.

Mala and Sanatan are held captive in their respective villages. In the morning, the Ragi chieftain keeps Sanatan from going to Mala. The Nagi chief, on the other hand, has deemed discretion the better part of valour, and is leaving for the city the next morning. His daughter will be married off to Prabir there. Sanatan is barely able to walk. And Mala is helpless in the face of their fathers' decision. 
What will happen next? Will her voice reach Sanatan’s ears?

Will Sanatan’s been call to Mala again? And what happens when Sanatan reaches the city as well? Will the decade-long enmity ever end? Or will Sanatan’s father place his word above his son’s life and emotions? A clutch of songs, a sacred snake that is bent on vengeance, Mala outrunning said snake (yes, really!), a powerful sage who is supposed to possess deep knowledge of herbs but prefers to give deep philosophical advice instead, and the power of love later, we learn the answers.

Is this a great movie? Meh. Not really. It's not even a good movie! Romeo and Juliet were tiresome in English; they are bound to be tiresome in any other language. But Hemant Kumar composed such a gem of a sound track for this movie, and Vyjayanthimala's dances were truly magnificent - not because they involved frenetic movements; on the contrary, actually - they were gentle, stylised set-pieces that complemented the quiet melodies. 

But it is not a bad movie; that's about as much as I am willing to go. There is not much of character or plot development - they are all black or white. And Mala's father suffers most from this cockamamie under-development - he is shown to be totally ruthless at times, humane at others; understanding at times, cruel at others - and there is no real reason why he should be any of those things. 

*Spoiler ahead*

The plot, what there is of it, goes haywire the last hour, or so. It's like they suddenly realised that in a movie called 'Nagin', there weren't any snakes.  And then, the movie gets (unintentionally) hilarious when Mala turns into Cleopatra. (In colour. Yeah, don't ask me! The movie did an inexplicable jump there, and suddenly shwet-shyam turned rangeen!) And the last five songs come within minutes of each other and are there for no particular reason that I could see. It may be because they shot the last half an hour or so in colour, but the film, which until then had decent, if not inspired sets, began to look like a demented art director had run amok. And I began to think I'd stepped through the looking glass into an alternate reality. There were statues, skulls, skeletons, horned gods, zebra-striped masked devils with horns and tails, a Kathakali dancer, and smoke, lots and lots of smoke. 

Don't believe me? Take a look:

Trivia: The leitmotif of the film, the flute piece, was played by Kalyanji Virji Shah - of Kalyanji-Anandji fame. 

If you still want to watch this movie, do head over to Tom Daniel's channel on YouTube where he's uploaded a cleaned up print of this film.


  1. It's been years since I watched Nagin, and that's mainly because I (even when I was a teenager!) couldn't really find anything - except the music, and Vyjyanthimala - that I liked in the movie! As it is, I'm not a fan of these snake films. But, ah - what songs. :-) (Also, what hilarious sets - that last lot of screenshots is priceless - "Everything is new and fresh", huh?)

  2. I saw Nagin as a teenager too! To be honest, I had blanked the whole film out and was aghast when I saw it again recently and the film turned into colour.

    *spoiler ahead* - though not for you :) You should have seen my face when Vyjayanthimala is dead (in black and white) in one scene and turns into Cleopatra (in colour) in the next! I had no clue what was happening! Equally suddenly, there were five songs one after another, with may be two minutes between each, and all those sets - I was wondering whether they were supposed to be dead and united in the afterlife or something! I felt very dumb to *not* understand the film!

    As for that last screen shot, I suppose when one comes back to life after being bitten several times by a cobra that everything will seem fresh and new! :)

  3. Anu, where in heavens' name do you find these movies? Your review was a hoot. I have always loved the songs, and had half thought once or twice about watching the movie, but I am glad you wrote the review before I could! Shudder. Those sets made my eyes bulge out! And WHY is it in colour?

    Anyway, it made me laugh out loud, and gave my humor fix for the day, so thank you!

  4. Glad to oblige, Sridhar. I am happy you got a laugh out of this at least. :( Why is it in colour? is a question I asked myself *many* times during that last hour. It was exactly like my last review - 'What the?' 'Why the?' 'How the?' for the last hour (instead of the first. Maybe that is progress?). But yes, the songs...

  5. Anu, and this is the movie you told me was NOT bad?? Gosh, this sounds awful! I mean, I like all the masala usually, but, this just seems so over the top. Vyjayanthimala looks gorgeous, though! In Black&White and in Colour!

  6. Tina, sorry! :( Really, truly, sorry. As I told dustedoff, I had no recollection of this beyond the enemy tribes and falling in love etc., and no one was more surprised than I was when the whole thing began to fall apart! Actually, if you fast forward the last half an hour after Vyjayanthimala dies, right up to the last three minutes of screen time, then it is watchable. :) But be warned you will also lose out on the last five songs.

  7. ps: *Why* are you V Mathur?

  8. Anu, I tried to sign in through my Yahoo account, and it did some weird thing, combining it with Disqus and asking me to open an account etc., which I didn't. :(

  9. I have second thoughts - how can I miss all those wonderful sets! :)


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