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16 September 2022

Dushman (1971)

Directed by: Dulal Guha
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Starring: Meena Kumari, Rajesh Khanna,
Mumtaz, Nana Palsikar,
Leela Misra, Naaz,
Kanhaiyalal, Anwar Hussain,
Sajjan, Rehman, Gurnam Singh,
Johnny Walker, Bindu,
Master Tito, Master Deepak

Deciding on which Rajesh Khanna film we wanted to watch next was a trip in itself. Shalini doesn’t like Sharmila Tagore, so that ruled out some of Rajesh Khanna’s biggest hits. I didn’t want to watch serious movies, so that ruled out films like Aap ki Kasam and Aavishkar. We finally picked Dushman, a film that saw the actor play against type. While there’s certainly a romance in the film, it is not a typical love story at all. So, if you’re ready to join us for an outing with Rajesh Khanna and Meena Kumari with a dash of Mumu, read on!

 [The credits give me the first shock – the film is rated 18+ - whatever for? But we are happy that Meena Kumari gets top billing.]

Surjit Singh (a moustachioed Rajesh Khanna, wearing gold earrings) is a truck driver who loves the bottle. One foggy night, driving rather rashly, Surjit barely avoids an accident, but goes off the road, and a tyre is punctured.  Leaving Jaggu (Gurnam Singh), his assistant, to deal with it, Surjit makes his way to the village where Chamelibai (Bindu), a local dancing girl lives. 
Me: I like the song.

Shalini: It’s fun. They both look so young. And RK and Bindu seem to be enjoying themselves. But I wonder why she likes him? He’s quite insulting.
Me: I like that the Madam has a frown on her face.
[We agree that Bindu and Helen, etc., looked so much more beautiful than the gym-toned androgynous bodies that today’s heroines sport. We also agree that while Chamelibai’s kotha was so much more realistic, we preferred to visit the Pakeezah-type kothas, not to mention the jewellery and clothes in the latter.]

Surjit spends the night with Chameli but oversleeps. The next morning, trying to make up for lost time, he drives across the fields and hits a man and his buffalo, killing both on the spot. Shaken, Surjit refuses to run away, and is caught by the villagers.
Me: Man! Meena Kumari could kill with just a look!

S: She looks quite ill and frail, no? Her face looks so pinched.
Me: Well, her husband has just been killed, woman!
[But Shalini is right; the devastation of her illness was showing on MK’s face.]

Surjit is brought before Justice Rehman Khan (Rehman) where he pleads not guilty. It was a foggy evening, and it was an accident. Finally, the judge adjourns the hearing for a later date.

The next day, Malti (Meena Kumari) and her father-in-law, Ganga Din  (Nana Palsikar) visit the judge. Malti asks him to sentence the family to death as well; punishing Surjit will not bring back her husband, the family’s sole support. Her father-in-law is a cripple, her mother-in-law (Leela Misra) is blind, there’s a sister, Kamala (Naaz), to be married off… Malti has two sons, and her husband had dreamed of educating them. What’s more, a buffalo was killed in the same accident as her husband, and they don’t have the money to replace it. Besides, who would plough their fields anyway?

S: Man, Meena has the saddest family situation ever.
Me: ‘Justice’ is indeed a hollow word for her.

So the judge hands down a very unusual punishment – Surjit will have to live with Ramdin’s family for two years, and be responsible for them. He must plough their fields, sow grain and take on the responsibilities that the dead man left unfulfilled. No one, least of all Ramdin’s family, is pleased with this verdict. But the sentence stands.

Me: I like the scorn in RK’s face.

S: And panic at the judgement. I really like that the script explains and sets up the decision that Rehman makes.
Me: Yes, it addresses his humanity, his compassion and his desire to use the law to help both offender and victim.

Surjit is ushered to the village by havaldar Harishchandra (Asit Sen) who warns him that he is being watched. He has to keep within the boundaries of the village and no, he shouldn’t think of running away. 
Me: The look RK gives him when AS says he will chase him!

They are greeted by a welcoming committee - the villagers are waiting with sticks to beat Surjit. And the havildar has to stop them. Neither is Ramdin’s family happy to see him. Gangadin hits him with one of his crutches and his wife (Leela Misra) curses him loudly. Surjit himself is as truculent and unpleasant as he can be.

Only Billu (Master Tito), Malti’s younger son, greets the newcomer, but Malti angrily calls him inside, tell him that the man outside is their ‘dushman’ (enemy). Not really understanding his mother’s reasoning, Billu continues to be friendly, now addressing Surjit as ‘Dushman chacha’

S: Billu is a kind child.

Me: And like a child, soon forgest about Dushman chacha and only wants his food.
[We both agree that Master Tito is sweet and not at all precocious.]

Meanwhile, Jaggu has crept into the village to meet Surjit. He has planned Surjit’s getaway that same evening. However, they are caught by the villagers and handed over to the police. Surjit whines that while he’s supposed to live with the family, they don’t give him anything to eat.

S: I like that RK’s character is a working man but not poor like MK’s family. He hasn’t experienced real hunger.
Me: He's never had to be responsible for anyone other than himself either.

The Inspector (Abhi Bhattacharya) offers Surjit a meal but points out that the family had very little to begin with, and now, thanks to Surjit, they have nothing. Chastened, Surjit leaves the food behind.

Meanwhile, a local timber estate owner, Sarju Babu  (Anwar Hussein) is plotting with his manager (Sajjan)  to ‘help’ Ramdin’s family by offering Malti and Kamala jobs in his factory, an offer only Malti accepts. Elsewhere, one of the village traders, Durga Prasad (Kanhaiyalal)  is upset because his tractor has broken down. Surjit offers to repair it and the grateful man offers him Rs30 as payment.

Surjit quickly buys food for the family, but when he brings it home, Malti orders Kamla to throw it away.

Me: I can understand Malti’s feelings but I doubt hurting a hungry child is the solution.
S: Yeah, she has a responsibility to her children that should outweigh any principles.
[ “Main marne jaa raha hoon,” cries Billu, which made us laugh, but the scene broke our hearts.]

Billu is still hungry and Surjit takes him off to the village to buy him some rotis, and the little boy asks if he could share it with his older brother Lallu (Master Deepak), who has gone hungry to school. Lallu wants nothing to do with Surjit either, but Surjit begs his forgiveness and asks for a chance to atone.
Me: I like the sincerity of his appeal to the child.
S: The script is smart; it’s natural that the kids would be the first to forgive.
With both boys now calling him ‘Dushman chacha’,  Surjit is more than eager to redeem himself. But it is hard to plough the field with only one buffalo, and the boys tease him when he tries to take the other one’s place. But the rest of the family is no closer to accepting him, and Surjit is frustrated.
Me: I love that he blames Shankar Bhagwan for the wheel coming off his truck!
S: We are more than 40 minutes into the movie and there’s no Mumu! That’s just so wrong!

Meanwhile, the village trader, Durga Prasad, accuses Surjit of stealing his tractor but Surjit demurs – he only borrowed it. It’s left to the Inspector to tell him the definition of ‘borrow’ but when Surjit says he will pay to rent the tractor, the Inspector lends him the money.
S: AB is really a good guy!
Me: So is Durga Prasad. 

Surjit has only ploughed one of Ramdin’s fields; Durga Prasad tells him that the other field is haunted. A mad woman had hung herself from the tree in the middle of the field, and now, lore has it that her spirit haunts the field. Surjit laughs; he will cut down the tree and plough that field.

Meanwhile, Gangadin has seen the ploughed field and is beginning to thaw; not so much his wife, who cannot forget that the man her husband is praising is her son’s murderer.

In the middle of the night, so as to not offend the villagers who have been warned by the temple priest that Surjit’s actions will bring death and destruction to the village, Surjit goes off to hack down the tree.
Me: I like how RK is slightly nervous and not as brave as he was in the morning.
S: It’s dark and eerie. It’s natural to be nervous.

But the ‘ghost’ turns out Phoolmati (Mumtaz!), a local village girl. She has been hiding her meagre earnings in the tree so her alcoholic grandfather wouldn’t steal it. She’s saving money for her wedding, if it ever happens.

Phoolmati sings and dances while hosting a mobile ‘bioscope’ show. The reels contain scenes of famous monuments and places from all over India.
S: My mom tells me that I used to dance around the courtyard when I was little, singing this song.
Me: I’d love to see that video!

Meanwhile, Sarju Babu wants Ramdin’s fields, since that’s the only land he doesn’t own. Malti, who’s working there, is too blinded by her grief and anger to see what he’s really after. But when Sarju Babu tries to get Ganga Din to sign his fields off to him, Surjit puts a stop to it.

The fields are filled with crops and once he sells them, Surjit can get Kamala married off. Malti is furious. Her entire family seems to be thawing towards Surjit and it seems like her husband is being replaced.

Sarju Babu is also furious – Surjit is putting a spoke in his own plans. So he orders his men to set fire to the crops. And with that goes up Surjit’s dreams of fulfilling his obligations to Ramdin’s family.

What will he do now?

Dushman, directed by Dulal Guha and based on a novel by Virendra Sharma, is a refreshing film though Shalini was very disturbed by the sentence imposed on Surjit. It may have been a chance for Surjit to redeem himself, but why should the victim’s family be forced to house his killer? But the script made space through an imaginative sequence that allowed us to see how the judge arrived at his decision.

The scenes where the villagers find out they have been duped comes up organically and realistically, and their reactions too are very natural. The script pays attention to the little details, setting up plot points for exposition later.

Thought has also gone into developing Surjit’s character. He’s a hard-drinking, rough-speaking, arrogant guy who is not intimidated by the villagers, and is willing to call out their hypocrisy. But he's also a decent man at heart. The character worked because of Rajesh Khanna. He played it with the right mix of hardness and vulnerability. And he remains in character throughout. He is scornful of Malti’s hostility yet hurt by Kamala’s rejection of him as a brother. 

He is grateful for the boys’ kindness but doesn’t change into a saint overnight. You can see his frustration not from what he says but from his expressions and the way his shoulders slump as he turns away.

The humour in the script comes from the dialogue and the expressions of the various characters in the scene. Luckily, there’s no comic side-plot as such, even though Asit Sen provides some laughs. 

The scene where Surjit blames Lord Shiva for all his troubles was hilarious. As were Phoolmati's scenes with Durga Prasad – where she tries to get RK into trouble but gets caught in her own trap – and with an itinerant palmist (Johnny Walker in a cameo).

I am realising yet again just how well RK modulated his voice. It’s very expressive. And here too, where he flirts rather shamelessly with Mumu, the effect is mesmerising. There's a rather playful chemistry between the two stars that translates well on screen and makes you root for their love to succeed. 

Their romance could have been better integrated into the plot and Mumu disappears for long stretches which, to be frank, was quite tiresome. But with the plot centring on Surjit’s redemption, it made logical sense that she didn’t have much to do, except sing a few (mostly forgettable) songs.

Meena Kumari did the best with the little she did have. Her character’s behaviour, too, was natural in context. So, while she made stupid decisions, one understands why. She looked weak and dispirited (which fit her character) and made us feel very protective of her. Yet, she could do more with one look than most actors could with reams of exposition. She also depicted her mental turmoil accurately, torn as she is by thoughts of revenge and devastated that her silence could hang an innocent man.

So, what didn’t we like? I felt the ending was rushed, and slightly more dramatic than it needed to be. Surjit could have chosen to stay back of his own volition. There wasn’t enough Meena Kumari and Mumtaz for either of us. 

Naaz was irritating as hell; in fact, when Kamala dashes off to commit suicide, Surjit mutters, "Maro saalo. Sab maro!" And we knew exactly how he felt! We also can’t believe the makers thought that putting Meena Kumari through a totally unnecessary but seemingly mandatory attempted rape scene was a good idea. The music, which except for Sachhai chup nahin sakti, was as banal as could be, with only RK and Mumu making them watchable. But, these are minor nitpicks.

Dushman is on the whole a good film that could, with a little more restraint and tighter editing, have been great.

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