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10 February 2020

Jeet (1949)

Directed by: Mohan Sinha
Music: Anil Biswas, Shyam Babu Pathak
Lyrics: Prem Dhawan
Starring: Suraiya, Dev Anand, 
Madan Puri, Suraiya Choudhury, 
Durga Khote, Kanhaiyalal
After watching Railway Platform and being so disappointed with the female characters’ arc in a supposedly progressive film, I wasn’t looking forward to Jeet as a film. The 40s did have some great female characters but I’d been burnt once too often. However, I was very pleasantly surprised. Jeet, like Railway Platform wears its socialist heart on its sleeve. It’s set a couple of years after independence, and the optimism on display is heart-warming. The women characters have gumption, and no, it’s not the fiery rhetoric-flourishing kind. But… l get ahead of myself. More about that later.

Suraiya is Jeet, a young woman who has inherited considerable wealth from her late father and has a very clear idea about what to do with it. She lives with her uncle, Thakur Kalyan Singh (Kanhaiyalal) and is always squabbling with Vijay (Dev Anand), who lives next door. 
Everyone knows that Vijay and Jeet are in love, and seemingly, everyone approves of it. Vijay’s mother (a beautiful Durga Khote) asks him to go to the station to fetch his elder brother, Ratan (Madan Puri), who’s returning home after a long sojourn in America.
Fighting with Jeet has cost Vijay some time, and he finds a very disgruntled Ratan making his way back home. Ratan’s irritation doesn’t subside when he discovers that his mother had invited the village elders to meet him. It gets worse when Ratan runs into Jeet who schools him on the virtues of India vs. America.

Jeet and Vijay have been spending their time (and money) helping the villagers; they dream of a world in which everyone is equal. Ratan scoffs. He has no time for this nonsense. But their mother is sure that Ratan will understand when he sees the play that Jeet is putting up in the evening. Alas, for Ratan; the play takes pot shots at those who aim to be ‘modern’ and even uses one of Ratan’s stock phrases. Ratan – quite obviously – takes it as a personal insult, but Jeet is unabashed. When Vijay tells her that his brother is not a bad soul, she retorts that she has no time for his attitude. Maa had been trying to placate Ratan but overhearing this statement makes Ratan even angrier.
The next day Kiran (Suraiya Chowdhury), Jeet’s cousin returns from the city where she’s been pursuing medicine. Ratan, who had enquired about her earlier, is pleased to meet her again, and it’s clear Kiran finds him interesting as well. Strangely enough, she also seems to be harbouring a crush on Vijay who, one would have said, is hardly her type.
Meanwhile, Ratan has a deeper game in mind. He meets Kalyan Singh to ask his permission to marry Jeet. Kalyan Singh informs him that Jeet and Vijay are inseparable. Ratan doesn’t seem to mind that Jeet is in love with Vijay; he tells Kalyan Singh that arranging Jeet’s marriage is his right as her guardian. Besides – and this is the crux of the matter – if Jeet and Vijay marry, then the wealth of both families will be squandered on social welfare.
Well! Jeet’s uncle is not too happy about that either, but what’s in it for him if Ratan marries Jeet? They finally strike a deal at a fifty-fifty split. And so off goes Thakur Kalyan Singh to Maa with a proposal of marriage for Jeet – only the groom is to be Ratan, not Vijay.
Maa is aghast when she hears of it. But while emphatically refusing the proposal, she lets slip that Vijay is not her son, but a baby she had adopted when Ratan was a toddler. Vijay’s father had saved her late husband’s life, and she feels nothing is too good for the son of such a man.
Unfortunately, both Ratan and Vijay overhear her conversation with Munimji. Ratan seizes upon the chance to kick Vijay out of the house. Despite his mother’s pleas, Vijay leaves willingly and decides to build a hut to live in.
Ratan goes back to Kalyan Singh to press his suit again. This time, he has an ace – Vijay is not their equal. How can Kalyan Singh want his niece to marry a man whose lineage is unknown? Kalyan Singh promptly agrees – he can browbeat Jeet. (Little does he know!)
Ratan is earnestly wooing Jeet, who hasn’t changed her mind about him. She still scorns him, and when she learns from Maa that Vijay has left the house, she sets forth to bring him back. A tiny squabble erupts because neither Vijay nor Maa tell her why he has left the house, and she thinks Vijay is just being silly. Vijay, on the other hand, responds by casting aspersions on her wealth. 
There’s a rift in the lute (as Wodehouse would have said), but when Jeet returns, Ratan makes the mistake of telling her exactly why she shouldn’t be roaming around with Vijay. Light having dawned, Jeet quickly returns to Vijay and their reconciliation is quick. (It’s the sweetest scene I’ve seen for a long time.)  
Ratan is quite sure that Jeet is now his, but being savvy, decides to stack the deck in his favour by getting Maa on his side. Maa is heartbroken at Vijay’s absence, but Ratan cajoles her into believing he wants to change; he can change and become a decent man if only he has the necessary support. Which is, Jeet. Maa is taken aback. Jeet is Vijay’s life. 
But faced with more emotional blackmail and even threats, Maa reluctantly sets forth to sacrifice his love. Here’s where things began to get interesting. Vijay doesn’t agree. (Have you ever seen a Hindi film hero who doesn’t listen to his mom?) As a tearful Maa turns to leave, ruing that she was leaving empty-handed from her son’s door, a sorrowful Vijay reminds her that Jeet is not a toy that he can pick up and give away. The decision is Jeet’s.
Meanwhile, Jeet’s uncle is trying his best to siphon away her wealth one way or the other. He tries to get her to sign a blank stamp paper, after giving her a cockamamie reason for doing so. Jeet, who definitely is far smarter than the average Hindi film heroine, pretends to sign but lets her uncle know she knows just what he’s up to.
Then, when she meets Vijay, he tells her what Maa had asked him. Jeet decides that she needs to end this issue once and for all. Meanwhile, the uncle has called the village elders to his house. He wants them to inform Jeet that she has to marry where he chooses. Once again, the following scene intrigued me – one of the elders pipes up to say it doesn’t matter what they decide, Jeet has to agree. (My jaw dropped. This was the 40s!)
Jeet walks in while they are still debating the issue, and calmly informs the elders that her uncle is trying to cheat her. While he’s still frothing at the mouth at the accusation, in walks Kiran. And Jeet makes a momentous decision. In one fell swoop, she cuts the feet off from under her uncle, and thwarts Ratan’s intentions. Atta girl! Kiran, though happy at the windfall (and no, she doesn’t trust her father either), decides to see how this wealth affects others. Much as she had foreseen, Ratan, upon learning of the sudden change in her fortunes, transfers his attention to her.
Meanwhile, Jeet has told Vijay what she’s done, but there’s another matter to settle. She drags Vijay off to see Maa and informs her that neither of them can bear to see her unhappy. So, off they go to meet Ratan, who is busy billing and cooing to Kiran. Jeet offers to marry him, but Ratan now insists they have nothing in common. Jeet is an old-fashioned, traditional woman, he tells Maa. Neither Jeet nor Maa are under any delusion about Ratan’s duplicity. In fact, Jeet says as much – this is why she gave away her entire fortune. Whatever Ratan wanted from her, he will now get from Kiran. 
Ratan is insulted (by seeing himself as Jeet, and now his mother sees him? I’m not sure.) and so, claims Kiran, is she. They should join hands and avenge their humiliation, she says, and Ratan agrees. 
Will they succeed? 

Despite much ‘let’s hammer these ideals into your heads’ speechifying, I thoroughly enjoyed this film (much more than I did Railway Platform, to be honest). For one, I found the character of Kiran rather intriguing – though Suraiya Chowdhury herself did nothing for the role. She kept swaying while talking. Which was rather distracting, and frankly, after the third iteration, annoying. In fact, in one scene, her father even remarks, ‘Can’t you stand still?’ I had a quiet laugh imagining Kanhaiyalal actually saying this, and not in character. However, Kiran may not be blessed with many scruples, but she is definitely a clear judge of character.
In the second half of the movie, Kiran comes into her own. Her change of heart is both organic and believable; and her repudiation of her father and Ratan not only rings true, but she has the gumption to serve it to them straight. In the hands of a better actress, the manipulative, street-smart Kiran who’s nevertheless both clear-eyed and straightforward, would have been a remarkably nuanced female character. As it is, she added the necessary spice to offset the sweetness.
A young Madan Puri, who bites into his role with relish, and is rather good as the selfish, self-absorbed Ratan. He’s remarkably clear-headed about what he wants, and the path he will take to get there.

Maa is not the regulation Hindi film Maa. She does ask her second son to sacrifice his love for his brother’s sake, but that is only in the hope that her older son will be reformed. When faced with his duplicity, she has no qualms about helping Jeet to stand up to the forces that are arrayed against her. Durga Khote is a very good actress, and she got to do a lot more in this film than just make rotis for her sons. And... how beautiful is she!
Jeet. If there’s one reason to watch this film, it is for Suraiya. She's beautiful, and fit easily into Jeet's skin. Her Jeet is intelligent, loving, capable, and absolutely willing to stand up for her rights and beliefs. 
What I also liked is that while Jeet does sing (and talk) about Vijay being her ‘devta’ and she, his ‘pujaran’, she has no qualms telling him off when he makes an offhand comment about cooking being women’s work. 
And she’s not all sweetness and light either – Jeet is a fully fleshed-out character, and Suraiya played her with the right amount of sweetness and sass. Her romance with Vijay is also sweet – and normal. Perhaps the romance was so believable because Dev and Suraiya were in love at the time.
Half the time they are romancing, they are also talking about their work. Which is, again, unusual. It is clear that the drive comes from Jeet, and Vijay is happy to follow her lead. Then there's Vijay himself played by a very young Dev Anand. Slightly awkward, wholly endearing.
He acquitts himself credibly in the role of a self-respecting young man who loves his mother but refuses to acquiesce to what he sees as an unfair request. He stands up to his brother, and even the village when necessary, without much fanfare.
Everything is low-key, and while there’s drama enough, it doesn’t dial up to the level of melodrama. I could have done without all the moralising or the very convenient tying up of loose ends, but there’s not much crying and handwringing, which is also unusual for a film of this type. Definitely worth a watch, and if you want a nice print with sub-titles, visit Tom Daniel’s site on YouTube.

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