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29 December 2017

Munimji (1955)

Directed by: Subodh Mukherjee
Music: SD Burman
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra
Starring: Nalini Jaywant, Dev Anand, 
Pran, Nirupa Roy, Ameeta, 
SL Puri, Prabhu Dayal, Kanu Roy
I’d never been a great fan of Nalini Jaywant until, in recent years, I saw a couple of her movies, and found her extremely engaging. My love for Dev Anand is well chronicled in the pages of this blog for all to see. So, one day, when I was idly trawling the web for something to watch, and the sidebar threw up the crisp, restored version (thanks to Tom Daniel), it seemed inviting enough.

I’d first watched Munimji on Doordarshan, I think, or on one of the re-runs in ramshackle Bangalore theatres that were our haunt on weekend afternoons. In any case, apart from remembering that Dev Anand looked particularly unattractive for a large part of the movie, I didn’t remember much of it.
The film begins with scenes of a dacoity – while Bela (Ameeta) is dancing in the streets, a gang of dacoits strike fear in the residents. The leader of the dacoits calls himself ‘Kala Ghoda’ (Black Horse), and so far, has remained a couple of steps ahead of the police. Bela is not only a willing accomplice, but the leader’s wife. 
During one of these escapades, however, Kala Ghoda is shot by the police but manages to escape their clutches. Cut to a relatively wealthy home where ‘Kala Ghoda’s’ photograph is hanging on the wall (until it falls down and shatters). It turns out in another reality, he’s Ratan (Pran), the ward of Captain Suresh (SL Puri). Ratan is the son of Ramlal, the Captain’s late friend, and upon the latter’s death, has been brought up by the large-hearted Captain. He’s made Ratan the manager of his factory and, keeping his word to his late friend, has gotten him engaged to his only daughter, Roopa.
Captain Suresh has come to his house to meet Malti (Nirupa Roy), Ratan’s maid. He has a birthday present for Amar, Malti’s son. Malti, however, has completely forgotten Amar’s birthday – she’s worried about Ratan’s absence.

Enter Amar (Dev Anand, with a large caterpillar perched on his upper lip, a mole on his cheek, shapeless clothes, and a high, squeaky voice), who’s deeply hurt that his mother hadn’t remembered his birthday. Malti apologises, but since her apology is mixed with her worry over Ratan’s absence, Amar is justifiably bitter.
It’s been ever thus that his mother has treated him unfairly vis-à-vis Ratan. He seems sad but resigned to the fact that his own mother doesn’t think much of him, and as he leaves, we find out the reason for her very un-motherly behaviour.

Years earlier, Malti had come to Ramlal’s house with a baby in her arms. As she arrives, she overhears a conversation between Ramlal (Prabhu Dayal) and the Captain, where the latter promises that Ramlal’s son would be married to his daughter. When the captain leaves, she approaches Ramlal, asking for her child to be accepted as his. Ramlal had abandoned her after marriage, to marry a second time. Now, Malti wants her rights. Or rather, her son’s rights.
Ramlal rejects her again (accusing her of loose morals – I wondered about his) and has her thrown out of the house. Later that night, bent on securing her son’s rights, Malti switches the babies while Ramlal is sleeping. Ramlal seems to be a tad more perspicacious than the usual Hindi film parent – he soon figures out that the baby is Malti’s and comes to her to demand she return his son to him.
Unfortunately for him, divine justice ensures that he conveniently dies of snake bite. Malti is now left with both babies. Securing a job as a live-in maid at Ramlal’s house (through the Captain), she ensures that her son, Ratan, is brought up as the heir to Ramlal’s fortune, while Ramlal’s other son is brought up as Malti’s own neglected son, Amar. All through their boyhood, Malti makes no secret of her feelings for Ratan, even allowing Ratan to thrash Amar for defending her honour.
Nothing’s changed in the intervening years. Ratan still treats Malti and Amar with contempt. Malti still cossets Ratan. Amar is still neglected. Captain Suresh, in fact, is kinder to Amar than Malti – he even gives Amar a day off because it’s his birthday. When Amar returns home, however, Malti is beside herself because Ratan still hasn’t returned.
She insists that Amar go in search of him. Amar demurs, but gives in to her pleas – as usual – and goes in search of Ratan. He manages to smuggle Ratan through the police blockade, and bring a doctor to treat him. Ratan is not very grateful.

Meanwhile, the Captain’s children, Roopa (Nalini Jayawant) and Suresh (Madan Mohan – yes, that Madan Mohan!) arrive after a long stint abroad. The Captain and Amar (in his Munimji avatar) meet them at the pier.
Roopa is not exactly haughty, but she definitely sees her father’s munim as a menial and orders him around. By the time she offers him ‘bakshish’ the second time, Amar is furious. In order to teach her a lesson, Amar discards his make up and (finally!) shows up as his own endearing, gap-toothed (quite rakish) self. By the time he overtakes her, swaps his car for hers, helps her out of an accident, etc., Roopa is unwillingly seated by his side as he calmly takes ownership of her car. What’s more, he bullies her until she allows him to sing as well.
Soon, Roopa is running into ‘Raj’ everywhere – at the club, where he first proceeds to prevent her from being fleeced, and then thrashes her soundly in a game of cards; at a jungle pool where a tiger decides to join her (well, it’s his watering hole!), and where Raj and his elephant help her out… but when she falls off her horse, she’s touched that he isn’t as annoying as before. In fact, he’s quite solicitous, and almost affectionate. Roopa, well on her way to having a crush, is now seriously head over heels in love. Amar is not as unaffected as he pretends to be, either.
But he knows she’s affianced to Ratan, and gentleman that he is, decides to efface himself. However, he hadn’t quite considered Roopa. She is a girl who knows her own mind, and she sets about to win him back. Her teasing and cajoling work – very well indeed. But Ratan is watching – and, not being stupid, is very jealous indeed.
And Malti, learning of Amar’s love for Roopa, demands that he give up his love. Roopa is Ratan’s fiancée, and Malti demands her pound of flesh. Roopa or his mother – Amar has to choose. (I wonder why the heck Amar would choose a mother who’s never given him a soupcon of affection!)
Will Amar agree – again – to give up his joys for Ratan’s? When, if ever, will Roopa realise that her beloved Amar and the Munimji she squabbles with regularly are one and the same? How does ‘Kala Ghoda’ fit into all this? After all, he’s married to Bela.

The story, by Nasir Hussain (who famously said he came to Bombay with a two-line plot in his pocket), follows pretty much the same tropes as his films. However, unlike Nasir Hussain’s own films, Munimji goes into darker spaces with the characterization.

Malti, for instance, dotes on Ratan to the point of obsession, and is definitely a much greyer character than the usual Hindi film mother. Amar, too, knows his mother’s fatal personality flaws, and while he obeys her, is extremely bitter about it – and tells her so!
Roopa is not just the regulation heroine – her relationship with Amar is beautifully nuanced, and they take their time getting to know each other before falling in love. It certainly is not a case of the hero showing her the error of her ways. She continues to be who she is – a woman with her own decided opinion – and is more than capable of telling Ratan off when she deems fit. I loved the scene where she teases Amar about trying to conceal a secret that she’s already been made aware of; later, in that same scene, when Amar tells her the reason for his distancing himself from her, she asks him sadly, ‘Yahi pyaar hai?’ It’s a telling statement.
This may not have been a ‘serious’ movie, but Nalini Jaywant goes through a gamut of emotions as the young woman who stares life’s complications in the face. She and Dev Anand looked absolutely great together, and their ‘chemistry’ – to use a cliché – did come through onscreen. Dev was also quite good in the twin roles, being in character for each.
I’m beginning to also see just how many of Dev’s on-screen romances went beyond the usual. Here, too, he speaks to his beloved; they talk about their issues, and decide to part because that’s the only option they can see. It’s not a unilateral decision – he explains his constraints; she accepts even if she doesn’t quite understand, and there’s a maturity that I don’t usually see in most filmi relationships. (The number of times I’ve muttered, ‘Why don’t you just talk to each other?!’ is beyond counting.)
Pran did what he does best – villainy. He even got to blow out smoke rings and be as thoroughly despicable as a filmi villain. Unusually, he doesn’t get to redeem himself either, though he’s shown to have a few qualms in between.
Madan Mohan, as Roopa’s brother, didn’t leave much of an impression because Suresh didn’t have much to do in the narrative. However, he did look très handsome. Ameeta got to dance to three different songs, but the movie belonged to Nirupa Roy who, playing such an unsympathetic character, won a Best Supporting Actress trophy for her role. 
Incidentally, the actress was 24 years old then, 8 and 11 years younger than her on-screen sons, Dev Anand and Pran, respectively. In an interview, she’d mentioned being signed as the heroine of the film; later, when they signed Nalini Jaywant (who was five years older), many of Nirupa's ‘younger' scenes were cut and she was cast as the mother.

The music by SD Burman was fabulous, and Shivji byahne chale is perhaps my favourite song from a score that boasted the vey popular Jeevan ke safar mein rahi, Dil ki umangein hai jawan, Aankh khulte hi, Ek nazar bas ek nazar, and Ghayal hiraniya among others. 

So, while this is not a great film, there's enough beautiful people and great music to spend an entertaining two and a half hours. You can watch it online on Tom Daniel's channel.

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