Directed by: Mohan Sehgal
Lyrics: Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri
Starring: Kishore Kumar, Vyjayanthimala,
Nana Palsikar, Nazir Hussain,
Radhekrishan, Prabhu Dayal,Dhumal, Jabeen Jaleel, Mumtaz Begum
I must confess that I'm usually wary of watching Kishore Kumar movies, especially his comedies. His brand of humour does not really tickle my funny bone. At the risk of offending many, Kishore Kumar + humour usually equals, in my mind, the painful comic side plots in many films of that period, with the operative word being 'painful'.
The 'other' Kishore, the thoughtful, sensitive director of Door Gagan ki Chaaon Mein, the serious actor of Musafir, the truly physical comedian of Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, the crooner extraordinaire? That is the Kishore I truly love.
So, picking up New Delhi on my trip to India last year, was a whim. The only thing I knew about the film was that it had Nakhrewali... and that was not really a recommendation, since I'm not very sure I like it very much...
Just after popping it in to my DVD player and before I pressed 'play', I looked up the plot online. What I read did not predispose me to watching it. Don't get me wrong. The plot sounded rather engaging, in and of itself. Punjabi boy meeting Tamilian girl, housing woes, star-crossed lovers, warring fathers - these are the alu-masala of filmi entertainers. But honestly, I'd had it up to my hairline, the way south-Indians are stereotyped in Hindi films.
But I was too tired to get up and change the film, so I decided to give it a go. Can I just say that I was proved very, very wrong? I have never been so glad to be wrong. What a little gem of a movie this is! (And why haven't I heard better things about it before?)
A lovely satire on the provincialism that besets our country (apart from the racism, and casteism, and classism....) New Delhi opens with Jalandhar-born Anand Khanna (Kishore Kumar) who has come to the capital to study radio-engineering. As he steps out of the station, he hails a taxi and steps in, only to find another passenger inside - she's got in through the other door.
In the squabble about who hailed the taxi versus who got in first and therefore who gets to keep the vehicle, Anand loses. You can tell he is not used to dealing with such forcefulness. (She tells the taxi driver to take them to the police station!) Flustered, he gets out of the cab, but he doesn't know, then, that this is not the last he is going to see of the definitely-not-in-distress damsel.
In any case, he has far more pressing matters on his mind. First, he needs to find accomodation. That shouldn't be too hard, he thinks, and sure enough, the newspapers are full of advertisements for rooms to let. While staying in an inn, he goes to an address given in one of the advertisements, and meets a young artist named Ashok Bannerjee (Prabhu Dayal), who is very welcoming. Only, it so happens that the senior Bannerjee will only let his rooms out to another Bengali. Ashok is apologetic, but Anand reassures him. Surely there are other rooms available.
Definitely, but much to Anand's chagrin and frustration, he is met with the same refrain everywhere. The Marwari only wants to rent his rooms out to another Marwari (Mhaare ko toh Marwari kiraaydar chahiye, mhari jaatwala...) an opinion that is echoed by the Sindhi, Marathi and Gujarati landlords. Fed up to the teeth, when he sees an advertisement from a Mr Iyer, asking for a Madrasi tenant, he takes the advice of the inn servant, Kumaraswami (Dhumal).
He is now 'Ananth Kumaraswami', and of course, he is given the room. While at Mr Iyer's house, he is introduced to one Mr Subramaniam (Nana Palsikar). Anand explains away his lack of spoken Tamil by informing both of them that he had lived in Punjab all his life. On his way back, he runs into the girl-from-the-taxi again, and once again, he is the one who is bested.
Their next meeting is not very auspicious either! He wins the initial skirmish, but the battle ends with him having to deal with a hostile crowd, who think he is an eve-teaser.
To escape from the ensuing mêlée, Anand seeks refuge in a dance institute nearby, where he is warmly welcomed by the principal, who firmly believes that all the world's ills can be cured if only everyone were in sur. Anand is forced to enroll for voice lessons and is introduced to the teacher, Janaki Subramaniam (Vyjayanthimala) - no prizes for guessing who she is.
Anand's completely out-of-tune singing (attributed to Ustad Machar Khan's training) gives her a chance to take a few potshots at him, but she is soon charmed (though heavily embarrassed) by his very-much-in-sur rendition of Milte hi nazar aap mere dil mein aa gaye... so much so, she compliments him on his singing.
The ice is beginning to thaw... until Anand refuses an invitation to Janaki's house for Pongal, pleading another engagement. Which is at Mr Subramaniam's house. Whose daughter, incidentally, is none other than...
The thaw becomes a welcome deluge.
Later that night, he learns that his father, Daulatram Khanna (Nasir Hussain), is arriving the next day, family in tow, and expects to be received by his son at the station. Only, Anand has already made plans to meet Janaki...
Of course, Anand meets his parents and sister, and escorts them home. He even provides them with a servant - Kumaraswami, whom Anand's mother (Mumtaz Begum) promptly rechristens 'Mundu' because 'that is how we refer to servants in Punjabi households!' And even as Anand is chomping at the bit to go keep his date with Janaki, he is forced by his father's orders to stay home. Anand is not to be deterred from his mission, though, and escapes from the house on the pretext of showing his sister, Nirmala/Nikki (Jabeen Jaleel), around Delhi.
Once outside, however, he has to find some way of meeting Janaki alone. A chance meeting with Ashok frees him from his sister's company. The two couples run into each other, but Anand welshes out of introducing Nirmala as his sister. She is not very pleased, but changes her attitude when Anand confides in her. (Not before teasing him a little, though...)
The next day, Mr Khanna takes up his new responsibilities as manager. His first meeting with Subramaniam, the accountant, is not very cordial. His autocratic tone, the authoritative nature of his interactions with his subordinates, does not endear Khanna to his accountant either.
But this is just a small blip on Subramaniam's happiness. He has learnt from Janaki that Anand's father is in town, and cannot wait to meet him. Anand is in a soup. His father will definitely not agree to his marrying outside the community. But he has also promised Janaki that he will be at her house the next day, father in tow. His back to the wall, Anand comes up with an idea.
Unfortunately, that bright idea turns out to be a damp squib, though they escape unscathed... this time.
Meanwhile, Nikki and Ashok have been furthering their acquaintance with each other, and that friendship soon turns into love.
Now both brother and sister are in love with non-Punjabis. And as Nikki points out, it is time that Anand stopped waffling around. Anand agrees. He decides to tell Janaki the truth after the dance programme at Kala Mandir.
The best laid plans of mice and men, alas...
As the storm breaks over the lovers' heads, Janaki pledges to stand by her beloved. But both fathers are equally obdurate. Subramaniam, who is convinced that Janaki was complicit in this deceit, fixes up his daughter's marriage to a Tamilian groom.
Khanna, meanwhile, is surrounded by his biradari, all discussing how Anand's 'kartootein' will affect his sister's marriage to Lala Choonilal's son. The biradari is most concerned about how a member's action will affect its izzat... and Khanna buys into the same regressive notions.
Anand, not knowing that Nikki is in love with Ashok, is emotionally blackmailed into obeying his parents. The ensuing conversation with Janaki is even more painful when he learns about her proposed marriage. She, in turn, is aghast that he expects her to flout her father's plans without so much as making a push to talk to his own father. When he claims, Main burzdil nahin, majboor hoon', she is furious. 'Mere liye donon mein koi farq nahin', she retorts.
Desolate, with no one to turn to, thoughts of suicide flit across her mind. They crystallise when her father excoriates her for not having died as soon as she had been born. Words said in anger cannot so easily be taken back, as Subramaniam finds out.
So, what really happens to Janaki? Did she obey her father one last time, and commit suicide after all? They did find her shawl and the parandis from her hair on the banks of the Jamuna. (I must confess I'm mean. I cheered when Subramaniam was told of her death. Serves him right! I thought to myself...)
And if not, where is she? How is Anand going to react to news of her death? What about Nikki and Ashok? Subramaniam is left with a lifetime of regrets - too little, too late - but when will Khanna see the light? Will he?
Do watch New Delhi for the answers.
Mohan Sehgal was probably most famous for introducing Bhanurekha Ganesan, otherwise known to Indian film viewers as Rekha, to Hindi films. But he is in his element here. He not only produced, directed and co-wrote this lovely film but, a product of Uday Shankar's dance academy, Sehgal even choreographed the Nakhrewali... sequence.
You can call it a 'message film' if you want, but this is one of the films where the 'message' is subtly put across, not one where the audience is hit on the head with a hammer multiple times. And the writers pull no punches. Everything is grist to their mill - the silly pride in biradari, the false sense of 'honour', the placing of caste and religion over humanism, what passes off as piety... The writers of the film - Radhakrishan, Inder Raj Anand, and director Mohan Sehgal - took intelligent potshots at everything, and did so without preaching. (A lesson that many modern film-makers would do well to learn!)
It's not just about the regional differences either; the writers slyly poked fun at many of the then-relevant issues (most of which are, unfortunately, relevant today as well) - for instance, there is a scene where Janaki goes to the neighbourhood grocer, Sadhuram (writer Radhekrishan), and there's this sign that says 'Anyone who can prove the goods are adulterated will be awarded a thousand rupees.' Inside, the grocer is busy sticking 'Shudh Ghee' labels on tins in which he has mixed Vanaspati. When Janaki calls him out on it, he tells her, 'It's all about the labelling. People care more about the labels than about the purity of the goods.' Incisive and witty dialogues peppered this entertaining, and thought-provoking satire.
The comedy arises organically out of the situations in which the characters find themselves. And it is a pleasure to be able to laugh with the characters as much as at them, all in good humour. It is an even greater pleasure to be able to laugh at the dialogues instead of at slapstick.
What was even more likeable was having South Indian characters who live in Delhi, talk Hindi naturally. Janaki speaks Hindi like a native. So does her father. 'Ananth Kumaraswamy's' Hindi was also unaccented, by the way. No one was stereotyped, not in dress, mannerisms or language, except when it was done to make a point that the film wanted to make.
Similarly, the characterisations were very delicately drawn. No one was fully bad. Or good. They were all, without exception, human. When Anand's father, at the end of the film, excoriates his own biradari for their pusillanimity, he is cautioned against falling into the same trap once again - except that the 'group' had changed. Subramaniam loves his daughter very much, as she does him. You can call him blind, and obdurate, but he is not heartless.
The romance between Janaki and Anand is very unlike the usual filmi romance. Yes, they do fight the first two or three times they meet, and yes, they do fall in love after that, but there is no-stalking-the-heroine until she gives in, nor is there major melodrama when they do fall in love. Their romance is sensible, spirited, satisfying... you get the feeling that whatever problems may arise later out of their north-south union, it will all be sorted out in a very sensible manner.
Vyjayanthimala, styled by her grandmother, Yadugiri Devi, was beautiful. Not only that, she was absolutely stunning in the dance sequences. It is easy to see why she was considered the dancing sensation, and why producers insisted on having at least one classical (or classical-inspired) dance in each of her films. There is the lovely alarippu, Murli bairan bhaayi and later, the energetic Tum sang preet lagaai rasiya number where she dances with such abandon that it is easy to see why dance had to be a part of the repertoire of any heroine worth her salt who came after her.
It wasn't all about looks, or dancing skills either. The talent is definitely there, waiting to be polished. Even so, her Janaki is not a spineless heroine, there for the regulation songs and dances, and then cast aside to weep and wail in the background. Nor is she prone to coy giggles. When Anand asks her what she is doing on Sunday, she tells him she has to go to the museum to research Mughal costumes. 'What are you doing before that?' he asks, and she says, 'Aap bataayiye.' Vyjayanthimala played her Janaki as a very self-assured girl-woman (she was barely 20 years old when she acted in this film) who has the courage of her own convictions, and the spunk to fight, even as she is very sensible about many things. When she learns the truth about Anand, she is not angry as much as grieved. "Par mujhse kehne mein kya harz tha? Kya mujhpe bhi bharosa nahin tha?"
And she not only listens to his explanation, but understands why he did what he did. When he mourns that everyone hates him for what he did, she tells him frankly, 'Main tumse nafrat nahin karti...' When her father fixes her marriage without so much as a by-your-leave, she is not a silent victim. And when push comes to shove, she is willing to take a stand.
That said, Kishore Kumar is not merely there as a filler either. As a man who realises that the capital of the country is divided into so many 'provinces', where each group of people only want to associate with their own, he doesn't seem to be acting when he asks, Where is the place for an Indian? More than half a century later, I don't think matters have changed much anywhere in the country.
Kishore restrained his physicality in this film, playing second fiddle to his spunky heroine. His Anand is very much in awe of his dictatorial father, but is a very loving son to his mother and a teasing, bantering elder brother with his sister. His shy romance with Janaki - there is humour there, and sometimes, outright laughter, but it is not the over-the-top hamming that often characterised his 'acting'.
When he realises what Sadhuram and Janaki were up to, he does not blame Janaki either, though he is grieved that he should be punished so. There is an understanding between the couple that is much more mature than the cinematic relationships we usually see. It is refreshing to see two lovers who simply understand each other's actions without major explanations or apologies.
When he realises that it is his lack of support that partly drove her to it, he is not just apologetic. He realises that it is time he took a principled stand. Yet, there is affection and even love, however misguided; there is acceptance of the circumstances and a care for the other's reputation; there is duty and responsibility, and support for each other, and even rebellion, when it comes, is muted by family bonds.
The leads are ably supported by the supporting actors - Nana Palsikar, Radhekrishan (yes, the writer) and Dhumal are very good in their respective roles. Nasir Hussain is the only one who hammed his way through as the domineering Punjabi father. I mean, even he was more restrained than he usually is, in such roles, but still... Jabeen Jaleel, as Anand's sister was, umm, I'm searching for a kind word here, o-kay. She's definitely not up to the emotional demands of her character. (I'm wondering what Naaz or a young Mumtaz, or even Ratna would have done with this character.)
There is emotional blackmail galore, statements about girls being 'paraya dhan' and 'ghar ki izzat', and other cringe-worthy dialogues about being 'ladkiwale', but the writers are quick to emphasise that these attitudes are very regressive; by the actions and reactions of the others in the frames, we are made to understand just how much. Writer Radhekrishan, in his cameo, is the voice of the writers' (and director's) conscience. His pithy, and practical, dialogues about religion and community, caste and creed, are what you take away with you, when the movie is finally done.