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21 January 2020

Railway Platform (1955)

Directed by: Ramesh Saigal
Music: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Starring: Nalini Jaywant, Sheila Ramani, 
Sunil Dutt, Johnny Walker, 
Leela Misra, Manmohan Krishna, 
Raj Mehra, Nishi Kohli, Nana Palsikar
Renu Maker 
I had watched Railway Platform earlier and remembered it as a good film. So, when Tom (Daniels) asked if I would sub-title the film, I was looking forward to watching it again. Since I’d forgotten most of the movie, the anticipation was keener. Did the film stand up to a subsequent watch? More about that later, but first, a quick recap of the plot.

Railway Platform begins with a song (Basti basti parbat parbat gaata jaaye banjara) playing over the credits. It’s being ‘sung’ by a poet-philosopher (Manmohan Krishna) in a crowded third-class train compartment. 
His co-passengers are a motley crew – and amongst them, is a young man, Ram (Sunil Dutt in his debut), accompanied by his widowed mother (Leela Misra) and sister, Bimla (or Bimala/Vimala, depending on who’s speaking her name). A contretemps with a fellow passenger who has given up his seat so Bimla can sit more comfortably – Ram addresses him with the familiar ‘tum’ instead of the more respectful ‘aap’ while thanking him – leads to some hurt feelings which Ram’s mother is quick to assuage. 
He has much to worry about, she tells her co-passengers; though she had toiled and saved (and sold all her jewellery) to educate him, he still hasn’t found employment. What’s worse, her daughter is of marriageable age, but they haven’t found a suitable groom – why, the last man who came to ‘see’ Bimla wanted Rs.5000 as dowry.

Just then, the train comes to an abrupt halt. After a while, the mother sends Ram to make enquiries. Ram exits the train, along with other passengers. As they enter the station master’s office, we are shown the disparate classes travelling in this train.
Ram, his family and others in their compartment are relatively poor. The compartment they travel in is crowded and hasn’t enough place to sit comfortably, much less sleep. But there are others – in the first-class compartments, for instance, who have wealth and privilege, and are used to commanding attention. One of them is an imperious young woman (Sheila Ramani) who runs afoul of Ram at their very first meeting.
A minor scene, away from the train, shows us (though not her fellow passengers) that she is Indira, the princess of Andher Nagri. She has run away from home because she detests the man her father (Raj Mehra) has chosen as her groom. She is travelling under a pseudonym (Sheila) and is worried when she realises that she’s still in her father’s territory. The farther she gets away before her father realises that she’s gone, the happier she will be.

There are others, not royalty like this young woman, but wearing their wealth and privilege like badges of honour. A group of them, led by the Kapoors (Nishi Kohli is the only one credited as Mrs Kapoor), include a young man who’s worried he’ll miss the wedding of his friend’s dog, and another who is insistent that he needs to be in Bombay for the first test match between India and the West Indies.
Despite their frustration at the halted journey, the third-class passengers are gleeful that for once, they will be on equal terms with their so-called ‘superiors’; after all, the railway platform is a great leveller. Among the third-class passengers is also a pot-bellied businessman with an eye for the main chance – Naseeb Chand (Johnny Walker) with a child bride and a general factotum named Nihal Chand in tow.
When the station master has managed to quieten everyone down a bit, he informs them that the railway tracks have been flooded further ahead. It’s going to take at least 24 hours before the waters recede, and the tracks can be fixed. Until then, the train will not move, and the passengers will have to adjust as necessary. What’s more, there’s neither food nor water available at this tiny station. The nearest shop is about a furlong away and they can also get water from the shopkeeper’s well. 

Seizing the opportunity, Naseeb Chand makes a deal with the shopkeeper’s daughter, Naina (Nalini Jaywant) – he’ll rent the shop (along with all its contents) and the well for the next 24 hours, and he will pay them Rs.150 for both. Naina has no clue what Rs.150 is worth; she can only count up to twenty. 
So Naseeb Chand explains that he will give her ‘seven twenties’ to rent the shop and well. Naina, and her father, are elated but little do they know what Naseeb Chand is up to – that is, until Naina offers some water to Ram.

She cannot give the water away for free, protests Naseeb Chand. He’s going to sell it. Naina is furious – Sell water? What next? If that’s why he rented the shop and well, he can have his money back, and welcome! But Naseeb Chand has an ace up his sleeve – having foreseen this, he had Naina’s father sign an agreement. If Naina breaks it, he tells her, he will see her in court.
Naina’s altercation with Naseeb Chand ends up with Naina tumbling into the well. As everyone mills around in confusion, it is left to Ram to rescue Naina who obviously falls in love with him and follows him around devotedly. Ram, who doesn’t see her in quite that light, treats her pretty much as he does Bimla.
Meanwhile, Princess Indira (masquerading as Miss. Sheila Singh) has had yet another falling-out with our hero. This time, she ends up slapping him, which leads to fisticuffs with Naina, who’s very protective of her ‘babuji’. Ram is amused by her protectiveness, but is soon led away by young Mrs. Kohli who seems to be attracted by him. ‘Kavi’ (the man has no other name) is silently observing the dynamics of the situation unfold in front of him.

Meanwhile, Naseeb Chand is making hay while the sun shines. The prices are going up with each meal, and while the wealthy have no qualms buying his wares, the poor are left adrift. Poor Ram is stuck in the middle – as his illiterate co-passenger points out, the poor are quick to take on the jobs that Naseeb Chand offers; the rich have no need to work. But Ram, poor yet educated, can neither afford the ways of the rich, nor desires to slave like the poor. He’s a ‘Trishanku’.
An interesting turn of events leads Ram to uncovering the identity of the princess, and knowing that the reward money would solve most of his problems, he hastily sends off a cable to her father, the king. Their future interactions lead to the princess falling in love with Ram, who uses that to his advantage.
Kavi is perturbed – is Ram really going to use the princess to get rich? Yes, says Ram unabashed at the questioning. Money is everything in life – it gives him a place in society, it affords him respect. But what about Naina, queries Kavi. She loves Ram. Ram shrugs. Naina has no place in his plans for his future. What can she give him that the princess can’t?

Poor Naina, watching Ram and Sheila together, is confused – hadn’t Ram said that he disliked the girl? – and heartbroken. 
Kavi reminds her that true love demands sacrifice. Back with Sheila, a pang of conscience forces Ram to tell her that he had informed her father of her whereabouts. Why, enquires an agitated Sheila. For the money, says Ram. They hadn’t been involved then. Sheila is apprehensive; her father could come any moment. What’s she to do? Could they elope? Where, asks Ram. He has no job, and his mother and sister depend on him. Finally, Sheila comes up with a solution – they could be married. Right here, right now.
Ram doesn’t take much persuading. He wakes his mother up to tell her the news, and poor Naina, overhearing, offers to have her father give away the bride. Everything is set. Or is it?

Railway Platform has an interesting – and unabashedly socialist – premise. The leftist ideology is apparent in the warp and weft of the plot and so, parallel to the romantic triangle lies the track of Naseeb Chand and his corrupt ways. The film also takes pot-shots at the bonds that bind religion and business – a priest persuades Naseeb Chand to give him water to ‘bathe the idol’, and the latter promises to build a temple if God fixes the problem with the train.

There’s the mother’s blind faith, and Naina’s devotion. There’s the princess’s love and Ram’s moral dilemma. And above all, there’s Kavi, the face of the oppressed, the voice of reason, the voice of Ram’s conscience. 
Does Naina get Ram in the end? (With the Kavi calling her ‘devi’, what do you expect?)

The film has quite a bit to recommend it – the fast-moving parallel plots with no further digressions (no comic side plot, for instance), the music (Madan Mohan/Sahir) that is woven very well into the narrative, including Sahir’s satirical take on Kavi Pradeep’s ‘Dekh tere insaan ki haalat kya ho gayi bhagwaan' – which Sahir parodies as Dekh tere bhagwaan ki haalat kya hogayi insaan; the acting, which was relatively competent, despite Nalini Jaywant playing the village girl as an ingĂ©nue.

But. You knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you? For a film lauded as progressive, Railway Platform is remarkably regressive in its treatment – apart from the broad stroke colouring of the wealthy as debauched and selfish, it’s the female characters who made me froth. 
Out of the three female characters, Bimla is a cipher. She has three lines of dialogue in all, and is only there so her unmarried status can be continually referred to by her mother and brother.
Sheila/Indira is shown, initially, to be an imperious young woman, with a sense of her own standing in society. But later, when she falls in love with Ram, there’s no class distinction in her behaviour. Moreover, even when she learns that Ram had cabled her whereabouts to her father for the reward money, she doesn’t spend any time excoriating him. The fact that they weren’t involved then absolves him. She is willing to go to work until Ram finds a job, willing to support his mother and sister, willing to marry him without knowing what the future might hold. She’s loving, supportive and decisive. She even tells her father off for questioning Ram’s motives, warning him that if he threatens Ram, he’ll see her dead.
So, what does she get in return for this unquestioning loyalty? A tongue-lashing from Ram about how she loves money so she can flaunt it, whereas he only loves money because he needs two square meals a day. 
Which, even if the reasoning sounds dubious is factually untrue. Every single time he talks of Sheila, it is in terms of the money she will bring him – so he can have a bungalow and drive in a motor car. Even when he tells his mother about his impending marriage, it is “Maa, main raja bannewaala hoon.” 

A very young and handsome Sunil Dutt put in a relatively competent performance in his debut, and I bought his repentance when the king questions him, but not his quick redemption. 
He throws the reward money in the princess’s face and all I could think of was that she was well rid of him. What’s worse is when he then goes to Naina and she (seemingly) rebuffs him; his response is “Tum bhi mujhe sweekar na karoge, Naina?” (Won’t you accept me either, Naina?”) And I’m this close to retorting, ‘No, why should she?”However, this could also be because the print I watched is missing almost half an hour of film which may have redeemed Ram's behaviour.
Naina. Nalini Jaywant is very pretty and is a competent actress but she overdid the puppy-dog act here. But when Ram comes to her in the end, I liked that she tells him, “Makan se mahal nahin pahunch sake, toh jhopdi pe bhi na aao, babu.”  (“If you couldn’t traverse the distance to the palace from your house, please don’t come towards the hut either.”) Atta girl? Nope. Because that is quickly followed by ‘I’m not worthy of you.’ 
Now why the hell Ram wants to marry Naina whom he hasn’t spared a moment’s thought for, or why Naina should want to marry a man who was chasing after another woman (and indeed, sitting with her in the marriage pandal) just a few moments ago, is beyond my comprehension. Actually, why he would want to marry either young woman (or they, him) when he's known them for less than 24 hours is a question only the writers can answer.

Neither did I buy Naseeb Chand’s volte face. Because even after he’s thrashed by the travellers, he’s still overjoyed that he managed to save his money. “Chamdi jaaye par damdi na jaaye,” he tells his forlorn child bride. (“I may be skinned but I shouldn’t lose the money.”)  
Though I did like that he informs the travellers that all the money in his pouch is theirs, but he’s giving it to Naina – on their behalf – as a wedding gift. Once a businessman…

I believe the film was a well-intentioned effort, and it's relatively enjoyable if you're not viewing it with a dyspeptic eye (as I was). However, there were just too many issues class differences, unemployment, injustice, religion, etc., that were all too neatly (and too conveniently) tied up in the 24-hour period for it all to be believable.

p.s. The link up there will take you to Tom's cleaned-up version of the film. But if you're watching the film for Chand madham hai, it’s either not included in the film or has been deleted.

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