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16 December 2022

Yahudi (1958)

Directed by: Bimal Roy
Music: Shankar Jaikishan
Lyrics: Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri
Starring: Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari,
Sohrab Modi, Nasir Hussain,
Murad, Indira Bijli, Minoo Mumtaz,
Anwar Hussain, Ramayan Tiwari,
Baby Naaz, Master Romi,
Cuckoo, Helen, Kamala Laxman

This was originally the movie that Shalini and I had decided upon to celebrate Dilip Kumar’s birth centenary. So, why did we change our minds? Read on.

The credits flash against a series of lovely paintings. By the time we decide that we like period films set in other lands and times, the movie has begun in:

In the Jewish quarter of Rome, Elijah (Master Romi) is trying to escape from his nanny/general factotum, Emmanuel (Ramayan Tiwari). Emmanuel grabs him unceremoniously and takes him back home, where his father, Ezra (Sohrab Modi), lovingly advises him that he is a big boy now and cannot act as he wishes. So saying, Ezra leaves on an errand.

Just then, there’s a commotion in the street and Elijah goes out to the balcony to see what the hullabaloo is about. Roman soldiers are clearing the area of the Jews so Brutus, the Governor of Rome, can pass. As Elijah leans over the parapet to get a closer look, he knocks a loose stone over, and it falls on Brutus. Despite Emmanuel’s efforts to save him, Elijah is arrested on the charge of having tried to kill Brutus.

S: Wow! That is truly cruel!

Me: Roman justice is quite unjust, isn’t it?
S: Sure is. And unmerciful. Man, this is a pretty traumatic beginning!

When Ezra returns, it is to be met by news of his son’s arrest. 

He quickly goes to Rome, where Brutus, now back in his palace, is being greeted by his daughter, Lydia (Baby Naaz). Ezra pleads for mercy, and Lydia, compassionate to his tears begs her father to release Elijah. 

Brutus seemingly agrees, but signals otherwise to a soldier. So, poor Ezra has to watch Elizah being thrown to the lions. Ezra returns home in shock. Emmanuel, feeling guilty that he failed to save Elijah, decides to take revenge. An eye for an eye. However, when he sees Lydia sleeping, he decides to abduct her instead. Chased by Roman troops, Emmanuel brings her back to Ezra, exhorting him to kill Lydia to assuage his grief. 

But Ezra remembers Lydia’s mercy. Moreover, he cannot bring himself to kill a child. As the Romans pound on the front door, Emmanuel urges Ezra to escape – he will hold the soldiers off, misdirecting them, if necessary. Emmanuel dies, but the soldiers never find Lydia. Brutus, maddened by grief and anger, has the Jews expelled from Rome. The first exodus begins.

Fifteen years pass by. Lydia is now Hannah (Meena Kumari), Ezra’s beloved daughter. When we meet her, she’s telling her father off for loving his jewels more than he loves her.

I love Meena when she gets all sulky!

S: She’s so pretty!

Just then, town criers announce that on Princess Octavia’s birthday, everyone is welcome to the celebrations held in the city. Princess Octavia (Nigar Sultana), the niece of Octavius, Emperor of Rome, is affianced to his son, Prince Marcus.

S: So young, and what eyebrows!

The princess (ignorant of her eyebrows charming Shalini) is upset because Prince Marcus hasn’t put in an appearance. Her handmaiden, Yasmin (Indira Bansal), tries to console her. Prince Marcus (Dilip Kumar) is out hunting when he has an accident. And who should appear on the scene but Hannah. Despite Ruth (a very pretty Minu Mumtaz), her maid, exhorting her to leave the Roman alone, Hanna sends her off to get some water, while she tries to help Marcus.

Me: Gosh, so, so lovely!

S: It’s understandable that DK is instantly smitten.

But Hannah flees when she hears Roman soldiers arrive.  Back in the palace, Princess Octavia visits Prince Marcus but is upset by his distant manner.

S: I don’t blame DK for his lack of interest. She’s very clingy.
Me: You are a very unsympathetic woman.
S: People should take a hint.
Me: But she’s in luvv…
S: So is he, just not with her.

Octavia, having failed to entice the prince, commands his friend, Antonio (Anwar Hussain) to discover the prince’s secret. Prince Marcus summarily dismisses Antonio, and dressing up as Jew, uses a secret passage to get out of his palace unseen. As he travels to what is now the Jewish quarter on the outskirts of Rome, he sees a magician and a dance performance in the souk.

Hannah is in the market as well, buying some flowers. Unfortunately, she attracts the attention of a Roman soldier who tries to act fresh with her. Hannah slaps him. Just as the soldier is ready to punish her ‘crime’ the disguised Marcus takes a hand.

Later, Hannah takes Marcus home, and he pretends to be from Alexandria. His name is Monishja, he tells them, and he’s come to Rome to become an apprentice in the jewellery trade. 
S: I like how DK is trying to come up with a plausible story.
Me: Yes, he really must think it up on the fly, doesn’t he?

Ezra welcomes him warmly and employs him as an assistant. Hannah is pleased with the outcome. As days go by, Marcus keeps flirting with a bashful Hannah, but she’s very receptive to his feelings. Before long, Hannah and Marcus are very much in love.

Perturbed by Marcus’s frequent disappearances, Octavia finally sets Antonio to follow the prince. Which he does, by flirting with Ruth. 

Me: Why is Anwar H wearing a floral bathrobe?

S: The costume designer had a curtain they wanted to get rid of?

Marcus barely escapes notice. Meanwhile, Hannah is singing another beautiful song to express her happiness. 

But so much happiness so early on does not bode well for anyone. Emperor Octavius (Murad) has returned to Rome and is quick to assure Octavia that her marriage to Marcus will be his priority.

Octavia is pleased (because nothing bodes so well for a happy marriage as being forced upon someone who has absolutely no interest in you).

When Marcus returns to the palace, he’s met by his father who reminds him that he has a duty to the empire. [Apparently, that duty also includes marrying Princess Octavia.] 

Marcus escapes to Ezra's house where he has been invited for a religious ceremony.
Me: DK has no clue what to do, right?
S: Of course not!
Hannah notices him dropping the bread [not being a real Jew, he can’t participate] and follows him out into the garden. Marcus promises he will explain, if only she would come to the garden at night.

Me: I like the quietness of this scene; she knows he’s not who he claims to be but is not shrieking or sobbing. She’s giving him a chance to explain.
S: My favourite song in the movie.
Me: I love this song, but the lyrics make me want to stab my eyes out. S: Why? What’s wrong with the lyrics? They are appropriate for the situation, no?
Me: ‘Teri nazron ka qasoor’? He lied to her. And now it’s her fault that she can’t ‘recognize his love’? How is she to believe anything he says when he’s been lying to her from the start? I love the song; I love the way Mukesh sings it; I love the way DK enacts it, but the lyrics just gnaw at me. There’s a reason why it appeared on my Whiners and Doormats post.
S: I think it’s because Shailendra needed to find something that rhymed with ‘muhobbat ka suroor’.
When Hannah comes to meet her ‘Monishja’, Marcus admits that he is a Roman. Ezra, who has seen Hannah sneak out of the house and followed her, overhears this admission. He is livid.  

Me: Two men arguing about a woman, without listening to what she really wants.   
S: Poor Meena. Caught between the two men she loves. Though I think her father is right.
Me: I agree with DK that he shouldn’t have to convert to marry.
But the only person I feel sorry for in this whole mess is Meena.
Forced to choose, Hannah chooses her father. 
Marcus returns to the palace, where he drowns his sorrows [as men seemingly always do].
Princess Octavia reminds him that he has a duty to the empire and to his subjects. Theirs will only be a marriage of convenience. [I am wondering why she wants to marry a man who doesn’t want to marry her.]

Meanwhile, a heartbroken Hannah is drowning her sorrow in song [as women in Hindi films are wont to do].

S: Ooh, I like the embroidery on Meena’s outfit!
Me:  So do I! Damn it, woman, she’s crying her heart out and we’re admiring the embroidery?
S: Well, she’s silly to cry over DK. He’s not worth it!

Back in Rome, the wedding day of Prince Marcus and Princess Octavia dawns.Everyone is invited to the grand ceremony. Ezra persuades Hannah to attend. What happens when Hannah realises who Monishja really is?

Does Hannah’s real parentage ever become important? Will Ezra reveal it in time? What’s in store for Hannah and Marcus?

Before we get to the stinging criticism we have in store for Bimal Roy, a word of appreciation. Both Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari were a joy to watch, especially in the lighter scenes. 

Meena, especially, is so radiantly lovely and so exquisitely charming and she was wonderful at being feisty and mischievous. We both agreed that she could express so much with just a twitch of the eyebrows and a lift of her lips. Dilip, too, did the teasing, flirting romantic bits in such a natural manner that it is easy to believe that he’s besotted by her. He's an exemplary performer and a joy to watch.

Me: I loved Dilip Kumar in the first act, liked him in the second and loathed him in the third. Though I must say he was very effective in playing the entitled idiot. I even liked Sohrab Modi. He seems to have dialled down the theatrics in this film. I also loved the music. It’s a great score. What did you think of the whole?

S: I did love all the other things about the movie, including Sohrab Modi. I feel watching your child being fed to the lions gives you a lifetime license to be over the top!
I pointed out that this was one film where Nasir Hussain didn't need to clutch his heart, and Shalini insisted that Nigar Sultana’s eyebrows deserved separate billing.

Yahudi, based on Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s Urdu play Yahudi ki Ladki (1913), differed from it in one crucial aspect. From what I have read, in the play, Ezra only tells Brutus who Hannah is after Hannah has been killed. The film, though, ends on a ‘happy note’ as Hannah leads Marcus away. 

And this is where both Shalini and I parted ways with Bimal Roy. As Shalini so succinctly put it, “Another Bimal Roy movie where the heroine asks the entirely-at-fault hero to forgive her.”
Me: Ugh! Yes! Are we supposed to feel happy that religion didn’t matter in the end?
S: Who the heck knows? I think we are supposed to feel DK’s pain and be in awe of his great ‘sacrifice’ for the sake of love. Blech! The last third of this movie really infuriated me.
Me: If he had had any guts, he would have renounced the throne and gone to Hannah – and let her decide whether she could forgive him for his deception. The love vs. duty trope didn’t work for me at all.
S: If he had been a thinking adult rather than a self-indulgent *&^%@, he would not have embarked on this path in the first place. 

Me: I am sympathetic to the initial deception. How else was he going to meet her in the world he inhabited? I didn’t even mind that he wouldn’t convert to marry her, because he didn’t ask her to convert to marry him. And I liked that he tells her the truth when she asks. I just wish he had done it sooner. And that he had the gumption to say he wouldn’t marry Octavia, duty or not. That’s unfair to both women.
S: I minded all of it! To so glibly pretend to be of the oppressed Jewish faith when he is the Roman crown prince, just because a pretty girl caught his yes is unconscionable. He knew they were not equals; by keeping the truth from Hannah until she had fallen for him, he robbed her of the right to make her own decisions. No, Marcus is a character that’s all too familiar in Hindi films – a man who acts without thought and never pays the price for his actions.
Me: I agree with your summary, but I think he’s young and in love, and yes, thoughtless, not malicious. It’s the third act that I minded most.
S: Notice how he never accepts responsibility for what he’s wrought? ‘Young and in love’ is not an excuse.
Me: It is the lack of courage that bothered me the most. I know we are supposed to feel sorry for him but all I can think of is, ‘Poor Hannah!’ All that talk of duty was just so much bunkum.
S: His entitlement and unthinking selfishness was a deal breaker long before his lack of courage made an entry.
Me: I was a little more sympathetic to love though by the time Ye mera deewanapan rolled around, I wanted to kick Marcus. Hard. 

S: I do understand your aversion to the lyrics now.
Me: I would like to tear Bimal Roy a new one! I am seeing – more and more – how much the male gaze puts a woman ‘in her place’.
S: And the worst part is Bimal Roy would be genuinely shocked/confused if you pointed that out to him. Male privilege means that their world view is the norm.
Me: Indeed. The ‘ideal woman’ means a male ideal. They would be shocked if you said that that creature is a myth.
S: Totally agree. A woman is always the ‘other’, never allowed to be fully, or simply human.

And so, readers, that is why Yahudi didn’t seem the right film to celebrate Dilip Kumar. What do you think? Tell us in the comments below. 

p.s Tom Daniels has a clean, crisp print of Yahudi on his channel.

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