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03 February 2012

Sheesh Mahal (1950)

Directed by: Sohrab Modi
Music: Vasant Desai
 Lyrics: Shams Lucknawi, Nazim Panipati, Aaziz
Starring: Naseem Banu, Nigar Sultana, Pushpa Hans, Sohrab Modi,
Mubarak, Pran, Amarnath, Jawahar Kaul, Leela Misra
Sheesh Mahal. The ancestral haveli that has withstood the vagaries of time. In fact, time has stood still within the four walls of the Thakur Jaspal Singh's (Sohrab Modi) haveli. Even if the winds of change have swept across the world outside. He still believes in living his life the way his ancestors did - king-size. His extravagance worries his children, Thakur Balram Singh (Amarnath, I think) and Ranjana (Naseem Banu). 

Such innocuous worries do not bother Thakur Jaspal Singh. He continues to spend like there is no tomorrow, and pays no heed to any sage counsel. However, when a proposal is brought for his younger daughter Ranjana, he erupts. The proposal is from a merchant, and it doesn't matter that Thakur Jaspal Singh is indebted to him - how dare he even think that such an alliance would be acceptable? (The merchant's lineage was not a problem when it came to borrowing money from him.) 
He is so proud of his lineage that he has married his elder daughter Nalni (Pushpa Hans) to the scion of an impoverished thakur family; even a letter from his daughter narrating her woes (her husband is seriously ill, and they have no money for his treatment) does not change his opinion that noble birth is much more important than personal wealth. Ranjana is in tears, and Balram grits his teeth in silence - how can they make their father understand? The thakur commands Balram to bring his daughter and husband back home for Diwali.

Here, the thakur is spending money (that he doesn't have) lavishly, celebrating Diwali, giving to charity - much to the chagrin of his munimji and his children. Nalni, particularly, is aghast. Her husband is ill, her child neglected, they live in dire poverty; and here, her father is talking about giving away lakhs in charity. Balram tells her the bitter truth - he has heard that the merchant has given orders for foreclosure; Sheesh Mahal is to be auctioned.
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Nalni picks up enough courage to talk to her father about the auction. Her father pooh-poohs the notion; he has filed an appeal in court. Nalni persists - if they lose the case, what will happen to her siblings? What proposals will come for either Balram or Ranjana? The thakur is shocked - why, anyone who know their lineage, of course! Nalni tries once more - who will bother about lineage when there is no money in the household? Someone who values lineage and breeding over wealth, retorts the thakur. But do not ask him to do anything that will bring dishonour to his name.

Balram can keep quiet no longer. What honour is left? Their honour was besmirched the day his father mortgaged the haveli; now, the auction will toll the bells of their dishonour. The thakur is enraged, but Balram is unrepentant - if being truthful is being rude, then he will keep quiet thereafter. But he begs his father to pay heed to his own old age, if not to his children's future.

Unheeding of the sage counsel, the thakur rushes towards his own destruction. Diwali is planned on as large a scale as always. With no other option than to go through with it, the children give in with as much good grace as they can muster. Diwali is scarcely over when their troubles come to a head. First comes the news that Nalni's husband is dead. Then comes the auction of Sheesh Mahal.
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The thakur and his family move to a small house nearby, but it never rains but pours - Ranjana's fiance Sundermukh (Pran) has no interest in being engaged to daughter of an impoverished thakur, no matter how honourable their name. The thakur is shocked! He goes to meet Sundermukh, sure that there is some misunderstanding. 

Meanwhile, Roopa (Nigar Sultana), the spoilt daughter of the new owner Seth Durgaprasad (Mubarak) of Sheesh Mahal is being presented with the photograph of Sundermukh as a potential groom. Her father brushes off the proposal; but Roopa runs into Sunder at the races, where, he, knowing who she is, proceeds to charm her.
She is no fool, but is intrigued enough to promise to meet him again. One meeting leads to another, and soon Roopa is head over heels in love with Sunder. (This gives Pran the rare opportunity of singing a romantic duet.)
Roopa's father is not very pleased with his daughter's relationship with Sunder, and forbids her to have anything to do with him. Meanwhile, Thakur Jaspal Singh and his family are making the best of their new circumstances. The girls take care of the house, Balram has sought work in a factory, and the thakur spends his time painting. Life is hard, but they manage to keep their spirits up.
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Even though the old thakur is as obdurate as ever. (He refuses to let his daughter seek a job as a primary school teacher because 'Tum naukri karne ke liye Thakur Jaspal Singh ke ghar nahin paida huyi ho, beti'. (You weren't born into Thakur Jaspal Singh's household so you would have to work.) Can I say 'aaargh!''?) This leads to Balram working two shifts so he can provide for the house. The inevitable happens, and Balram loses his leg in an accident at the factory.

The loss of income hits the family hard. But Jaspal Singh is as obstinate as ever. His daughter will not work. He will sell his paintings, and they will manage on the earnings. This time, however, Ranjana does not ask her father's permission. She sets out to find a job. While there are no vacancies in school, she receives a better-paying offer - that of maid-companion to Roopa, the new resident of Sheesh Mahal. The salary is Rs100 a month, with boarding and lodging. Ranjana is quick to accept, and smart enough not to tell her father where she is working. Jaspal Singh is not quite convinced, but Ranjana entreats him on behalf of his grandson, and promises him that she will never reveal her background.

Ranjana begins her job at the Sheesh Mahal. Roopa takes to her almost immediately, and her mother is kind. When she first runs into Roopa's brother Vikram (Jawahar Kaul), he is struck by her beauty, until, she tells him off for being rude, and asks him to learn some politeness. Quite miffed, he wanders off to complain to his mother, who informs him (kindly) that he asked for it. That doesn't endear Ranjana to him.
Meanwhile,  Roopa, who has been forbidden to meet Sunder, has not forgotten him. The embers of first love are being fanned by Sunder's letters; in his latest, he begs her to meet him at midnight. The letter first falls into Ranjana's hands, and then into Vikram's.

Ranjana tries to warn Roopa of the pitfalls ahead (the lovely Husnwalon ki), and keeps her employer from her midnight assignation by the simple ploy of locking her in her room. She keeps the tryst in Roopa's place, followed by Vikram who is sure that the only reason Ranjana is working in their house, is so she can conduct a clandestine love affair. In the garden, Vikram soon discovers his mistake while Ranjana discovers that Roopa's lover is none other than her ex-fiance. Veiling herself, she orders Sunder away, and even sets their dog on him when he demurs. (Attagirl!)

Vikram confronts Ranjana, but she manages to minimise Roopa's role in the whole affair.

Vikram is not convinced, but Ranjana advises him that anger will not solve anything. It would be better if they nipped this affair in the bud. Vikram agrees; he is beginning to fall in love with Ranjana, and not just because she is beautiful. He goes to his parents and tells them the whole (how refreshing!) and the parents decide that the only way to get Roopa out of a fortune-hunter's coils is to marry her off as quickly as possible.

But they have not reckoned with Roopa - she is not one to buckle down to an arranged marriage. She telephones Sunder, who suggests they elope. He is sure her parents will come around once they are married. So they plan the elopement for the same night, when Ranjana has a day off.
As luck would have it, her father's distressing cough brings Ranjana back to the Sheesh Mahal to request some of Mrs Durgaprasad's cough medicine. She arrives just in time to see Roopa leaving the house. Roopa is aghast, but is adamant that she will not give in to an arranged marriage. Ranjana gently reminds her that elopement is not an answer. Roopa is forced to return home.
Her parents, who witness their argument are more than grateful to Ranjana. Seth Durgaprasad not only gives her the medicine she came for, but sends her home by car, and his wife wraps Ranjana up in her expensive shawl. Which, promptly leads Thakur Jaspal Singh into believing that Ranjana had sold her honour. (Of course!)

Will Ranjana convince her father that she did nothing dishonourable? Will Roopa ever know of Sunder's perfidy? Will she give in to her parents' wishes and marry where they wish? Will Sunder give up just because he has been bested twice? What will happen when Vikram confesses his growing love for Ranjana? Will Thakur Jaspal Singh be able to look beyond his family's izzat to his daughter's happiness?
I came across this film while searching for Shamshad Begum's songs; it piqued my interest, and I can say that the movie was more than a pleasant surprise. Yes, Sohrab Modi is painful, declaiming arrant nonsense about honour and lineage and family pride, but he is so in keeping with his character that you can understand where he is coming from, even while you do not agree with his antiquated ideas. Especially when every other character speaks and behaves so rationally. 

Which other contemporary film can you think of where a girl's brother, once he knows what his sister is up to, tells his parents what happened? Or where, a heroine, accused of bringing dishonour to her family, has her sister supporting her, asking their father if he had ever known her to behave dishonourably, or to tell lies - and if not, then why cannot he believe her?

What is more, while Nalni spends all her time singing sad songs, there is not a single tear-filled scene. She is not dressed in white with her pallu over her head, there is no manipulation of the tear glands using the child (in fact, he is nowhere around most of the time), no one is sitting around bemoaning their fates... on the contrary, except for the old thakur, everyone else seems stolidly matter-of-fact. No misunderstanding lasts very long. No, not even when the thakur insults Seth Durgaprasad; Balram sends an understanding Seth on his way, and then upbraids his father for his false pride, which masquerades as 'honour'.

The 'usurpers' of the Sheesh Mahal are not low-class upstarts; the parents are practical people who have not forgotten that they came up the hard way; the son is not a lecher who is just waiting to jump on the maid servant, the daughter is spoilt, but not bad at heart. They are Just. Normal. People. What a refreshing change. 

There is no irritating comic side-plot; just a narrative that is moved quickly along, aided by some lovely, lovely songs, and lots of beautiful people. Do watch. 

ps: What was irritating? Only the 'Shemaroo' logo at the corner. 


  1. "What was irritating? Only the 'Shemaroo' logo at the corner."

    Subtlety is not the forte of the Hindi film DVD companies, is it?

    I first heard of the film at bollyviewer's blog. I loved it at the first description. Since then I have often listened to the songs!
    The film with its straightforwardness and sensibilty sounds like the films by BimalRoy.
    I love Sohrab Modi. He has got this roaring voice, which I love to listen.
    It is high time I got hold of this film.
    Thank you, Anu for this good write-up of this film. Enjoyed reading it tremendously. Thanks!

  2. Subtlety is not the forte of the Hindi film DVD companies, is it?

    I really don't know why they have to put it in such a place where, if any of the characters are standing on the left side of the screen, their faces are covered by the logo. Who in their right minds think that is a good thing??

    As for Sohrab Modi, he declaimed alright, but he didn't roar much in this movie.  :) It is available on  YoutTube if you want to watch it.

  3. I first came across a mention of this film on Richard's blog - I think he posted the Pran romantic song there, too. It sounds like a good movie (and I can't help but like Jawahar Kaul - Dekh Kabira Roya gave me a soft spot for that man, even if I didn't much like most of the other films he acted in!) Will definitely look out for this one. Films with people who act normally are so rare.

  4. It's on YouTube, Madhu. :) Seriously? I was so surprised when I watched it; I wasn't bored for a moment, and even Sohrab Modi's insane pronouncements didn't get me annoyed. (My friend had a great uncle who could have been a twin! So I know such people exist.) Even Pran comes off more as a fotune hunter than a larger-than-life villain. The dialogue delivery is slightly stagy, but much can be forgiven when you have such normal characters - thankfully, no one was in self-sacrificing mode!

  5.  "thankfully, no one was in self-sacrificing mode!"

    That in itself is more than enough to make me want to see it! Have already added the Youtube link to my bookmarks - I just hope it lasts long enough for me to watch it.

  6. It is uploaded by Shemaroo itself- so, I'm guessing it'll be around. It's finding time to watch everything I've bookmarked that becomes an evenmore serious obstacle. :))

  7. I had bookmarked this movie some time back and forgot all about it until I saw this post, and now I am definitely intrigued.  The only question is - when am I going to watch it? 

    Talking of not letting the daughter work as a teacher because she was born into a Thakur gharana reminds me of a similar incident when I wanted to work at the local Michael's store, they had an opening and I know most of the girls there, since I am one of their frequent customers.  I got the forms and when I started filling them out, hubby and Dad were outraged that I would waste my degrees and work at a crafts store, even though I kept telling them that I enjoyed doing crafts!  Eventually, I didn't join because the timings weren't right for me, but I kept telling them that I want to do something because I enjoy doing it, rather than do a high pressure job which brings in more money.  Okay, end of story!

    I will let you know my thoughts after i watch the movie, but the thought of seeing a movie with normal people behaving normally is definitely more appealing than even tonight's Super Bowl!

  8. :) I can sympathise. My father blew a gasket when I began teaching in an elementary school near my house while waiting for my results.
    Anything is more appealing than the Super Bowl to me :)) After so many years here, I still cannot sit and watch American football.

  9. I watched this yesterday, Anu. I don't usually watch movies this old (I have a dread of the usual stage-performance); I hadn't heard of this movie or the actors :( but since you recommended this so much, I thought I would take a chance.I loved it! Really nice straightforward characterisations, and so refreshing to see 'real' people on screen. Especially since none of them are crying all the time too. Not even the brother who loses his leg. Thank you.

    ps: I had to make Rishi watch it with me because it didn't have sub-titles. He complained bitterly in the beginning but even he admitted that the film was much much better than he thought it would be.

  10. nice........

  11.  How did  I miss this comment, Tina? And where are you, by the way? Haven't seen you around for a long time. Everything okay?


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