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29 August 2017

Baharon ki Manzil (1968)

Directed by: Yaqub Rizvi
Music: Laxmikant Pyarelal
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Starring: Meena Kumari
Dharmendra, Rehman,
Farida Jalal, Tun Tun, Wasti
Meena Kumari figures high on my list of favourite actresses. Dharmendra was always easy on the eye, and made for very pleasant viewing onscreen. However, my earlier experiences of the Meena-Dharam pairing had made me very wary of watching anything with the two of them. So when Shalini, who has become my regular partner in crime, suggested Baharon ki Manzili for a watchalong, I was not very enthused. Shalini, however, insisted it was 'different', and since I have a great respect for her love of old Hindi cinema, and since we generally have fun watching together, I acquiesced. 

May I say, at the outset, how grateful I am to her that she persisted?

Nanda Roy (Meena Kumari) has just woken up in the morning, dreaming of her wedding day, and is taken aback at discovering that she appears to be in a strange room, wearing clothes that aren't hers. Apparently she's had an accident, but she has no memory of it, nor does she recognise the maid who appears with her morning tea. She is not Nanda, she insists, much to the consternation of her household staff. What's worse, she claims to be Radha, Nanda's late sister, and is under the assumption that it is the day of her wedding.

While she's staring at her (horribly over-made up) visage in the mirror, a song begins – slow and haunting. (We wonder whether the make up was so it would cover the ravages of her illness. Yet, despite the puffiness of her face, there are a myriad expressions that flit across her face. Shalini notes that Meena uses her eyes to great effect.) 
As the song progresses, the confusion in Nanda’s eyes is mirrored by glimpses into her past, visions that come and go, nothing cohesive, yet alluring. Nanda follows the song and we discover that what seemed like a background song is actually being sung by a young girl (Farida Jalal) at the piano. Nanda is shocked when the girl, Nalini, addresses her as 'Mummy'. She refuses to accept Nalini's explanations, and when Subodh Roy (Rehman), Nanda's husband, walks in, he is shocked when Nanda refers to him as 'jijaji' (brother-in-law).

Despite his explanation that she is Nanda, his wife, that Nalini is their daughter, and that they have been living in Darjeeling for the past twenty years, Nanda is steadfast in her claim that she is Radha, that she lives in Bombay, and that she was injured on the eve of her wedding. No amount of Subodh trying to remind her of their shared past comes close to convincing Nanda that she is who he says she is. Taken aback by her adamance, Subodh goes to meet his friend, Dr Rajesh Khanna (Dharmendra). (Both Shalini and I have a quiet giggle over the name.)

Dr Khanna is a psychiatrist, and a rather good-looking one at that. (However, he is a filmi psychiatrist, so please don't expect exact science.) He does start off by taking the patient's pulse and blood pressure.  Which, in turn, agitates said patient who is resolute in maintaining that she is a) not insane b) not a patient and, c) that she is, in fact, Radha, not Nanda.
Dr Khanna leaves it at that, subscribing perhaps to the notion that agitating your patient is not the best way to cure her.

Nanda's erratic behaviour continues; the next evening, upon Dr Khanna's recommendation, Subodh takes Nanda to the club. She refuses to recognise several of their long-time social acquaintances, and her condition becomes the subject of much excited gossip amongst the ladies. However, Nanda is oblivious to the undercurrents. 

At home, Nanda decides to retire to bed, but when Subodh attempts to accompany her, rebuffs him quietly. He's her jijaji. Subodh, with an awareness of his wife's precarious mental state – even if he doesn't quite understand it – acquiesces gracefully. 

The next morning brings an unwelcome visitor – Shankar (Wasti), Nalini's father-in-law-to-be. He's heard rumours of Nanda's behaviour and baulks at the prospect of his immensely respectable family being tied to an insane relative-by-marriage. 
(Shalini is aghast at the fact that they are marrying off a 16-year-old girl. I can't work up much angst - the paisley wallpaper in Meena’s bedroom and Rehman's dressing gown are giving me the heebie-jeebies.) In a bid to sweeten the deal, Rehman offers a hefty dowry - Rs10 lakhs. (Shalini wonders why anyone would want their daughter married off into such a greedy family. I'm merely thinking, 'Idiot!' - a term that could fit both Subodh and Shankar.)

When Shankar leaves, Subodh is annoyed with Nanda – can't she see that her behaviour is ruining their daughter's life? Nanda is unapologetic. Nalini is not her daughter. Subodh is not her husband. She is Radha. Subodh is furious but helpless.

Later, giving in to Nalini's coaxing, Nanda meets Subodh at the club.

(Shalini and I decide that not having ever seen, let alone visited, such a restaurant or even a kotha meant that we had deprived childhoods. I point out that ‘shareef ghar ke ladkiyaan’ did not go to nightclubs or kothas. Shalini scoffs: 'Who the hell wants to be shareef?'
While at the restaurant, a dance sequence (starring Mallika, Mumtaz's sister) disturbs Nanda so much, she leaves the performance midway, driving aimlessly (and unsafely). She stops short of driving into a tree. Fortunately, Dr Khanna is present to drive her back. 
(I'm wondering where he came from, when Nanda asks him the same question. Me: ‘I knew she was intelligent!' Shalini grins. I also like that Nanda is quite caustic: 'Do you look after every patient the same way?' On the way, Dr Khanna recommends a brain scan, just to rule out possibilities, I guess. We both love Nanda's reply: 'Toh aap apni dimaag ka ilaaj karaaiye.') 

Back in her (heavily wallpapered; Shalini wonders who would wallpaper a ceiling) room, Nanda is disturbed by a dead body falling out of her closet. Her screams bring Subodh and Dr Khanna rushing into the room. However, there's no sign of anybody, dead or otherwise, in the room. 
Amidst all this ruckus, Nalini's wedding goes off smoothly, much to Subodh's relief. While Nanda does not resist the guests’ countless references to her as the bride's mother, she makes no effort to play hostess either.

Acting on his wife's insistence, and Dr Khanna's recommendations, Subodh takes Nanda to Bombay. While she is certain she is Radha, not Nanda, she is looking for evidence to back up that claim. Unfortunately for her, the only person she locates is her erstwhile fiance – Ram Kumar. Equally unfortunately, he doesn't remember either sister well enough to be of any use.

Desolate, Nanda returns to Darjeeling. Her unshaken belief that she is Radha begins to influence Dr Khanna. Moreover, Dr Khanna is beginning to warm up to Nanda, and his feelings make him more sensitive to her plight. 
The good doctor begins some investigations on his own, but he doesn't get anywhere. 

What exactly is happening? Is Nanda insane? Why is she claiming to be Radha, and why does she not remember her life as Subodh's wife and Nalini's mother? Did the accident in present day trigger the trauma of the tragic event that killed her parents and her sister? Or is something more sinister afoot? 

There's much to like in this movie, made in the fluffy sixties. For one, it is unusual to have a heroine who is so staunchly sure of herself. Not once does Nanda have moments of self-doubt, or second-guesses her own motives/feelings. Not for her the morality of a society that decrees that because she's lived with a man as his lawfully wedded wife for 16 years, she owes anyone anything. Not for her the 'mother sentiment' - in her mind, she is not Nalini's mother, and she will be damned before anyone pigeonholes her thus. What's more, the film does not judge her, not one bit. It frames the story from her point of view so we, as the audience, are privy to her thoughts and feelings. For a heroine who is not a virgin to have a 'happily ever after' without a moral judgement clouding the issue is not just unusual, it is earthshattering. Especially, as Shalini points out, this film was made in the mid-sixties. 
What's more, Meena Kumari keeps her character consistent throughout the film. There's not a single moment where you feel that her behaviour is inconsistent with her character. It is a welcome change to note that the script does not err where her characterisation is concerned. This is not a double role but since we are never privy to Nanda, even in flashback, it makes 'Radha' believable. At the end, even we are forced to ask, just who is this woman? Nanda? Or Radha?
Secondly, we have a 'hero' who is equally unapologetic about loving her, married or not, virgin or not. What's impressive is that the film doesn't even make that an issue. Dharmendra was good as the sympathetic doctor, who goes above and beyond the call of duty to discover what's really ailing his patient. The problem with Dharam is that he seems to have zero chemistry with Meena Kumari, so it becomes very hard to accept their love story. Moreover, in the emotional scenes between the two, Meena, despite the ravages of her illness, still beat Dharam hollow – emoting obviously was not our hero's strong suit. As Shalini helpfully pointed out, one doesn't look to Dharam for serious histrionics. 

Rehman was perfect in his role as the husband alternately puzzled, saddened and angered by his wife's recalcitrance. His is a sympathetic role, and there's no mistaking his deep affection for his wife throughout the film. It is obvious that the 16 years between the bookending accidents were happy ones, despite the nefariousness of his actions.
What could I have done without? The annoying SEPL logo at the side of the video, for one. The print is awful as it is, which is why I don't have as many screenshots as I usually do, but the logo was a serious deterrent. 

The equally annoying comic side plot which had our nerves on edge, and did nothing but dilute the tension, for another. Slightly defter direction, perhaps an attention to some loose ends that were left dangling even at the end of the film. Shalini and I both agreed that in the hands of a Vijay Anand, and with a younger cast, this film may well have been one of the best suspense thrillers ever made in Hindi cinema. We both wondered what a Meena in her prime and a young Dilip Kumar would have done with this material. I was quite sure he would have smouldered. Shalini proffered a young Dev who, while not a thespian, could have pulled off the young, urban doctor role quite well.

All in all, it was a very satisfying watch even with its loopholes and I'm very grateful to Shalini for suggesting this film.

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