Monday, September 27, 2010

Dev Anand's first film: Hum Ek Hain (1946) and its rhetoric of nation

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on  September 26, 2010.

Kamala Kotnis & Dev Anand
Dev Anand—of the lithe frame and the tilted gait; the impish turn of the head and the quick nod; the doffing of the cap and the dreamy gaze—will be 87 years old this September 26th. When it comes to an Indian film legend who is so deeply rooted in the public imagination as Dev Anand is, and about whom information is galore, I had rather not add to the redundancy of information—information redundancy (or regurgitation) being the bane of today’s Internet world. Instead, I take this occasion to remember his first film.

Let me hark back to a time when Dev Anand was not yet the wildly popular Dev Anand that he would become from the 1950s onward and cause many female hearts to flutter. In life, a certain finesse or confidence emerges with the passage of time and accumulation of experiences; and it is snapshots in time—such as a photo, or a film, or a piece of writing, or a rendering of a song—that capture these various stages of self-formation so palpably. In 1946, when Dev Anand debuted in Prabhat Film Company Limited’s Hum Ek Hain (We are one) under P. L. Santoshi’s direction—Santoshi wrote the dialogues and song lyrics as well—the Dev Anand mien (as one can call it), is still some distance away, although one gets, in the lanky newcomer, a whiff of that persona to come.

In Hum Ek Hain, a story of unity in the face of religious and class differences, Dev Anand shared equal screen space with a host of others, including debutants Rehman, Rehana, and Kamala Kotnis, all saplings in the shade of a banyan tree-like figure that is Durga Khote, a mother who looks on dotingly over her brood—biological and otherwise.
A rather detailed synopsis here. (Spoiler alert: This section of my post gives away the story; so if you prefer suspense, you might want to skip the synopsis bit, and go down to my critique of the film.) The setting is an Indian village. Times are bad, with famine and starvation taking a toll on the poor farmers. A heartless zamindar (or landlord) called Badebabu (? actor) exploits his farmers’ vulnerability by forcing them to sell their small pieces of land—their only subsistence—in return for meager portions of food. In stark contrast, there is a very noble, kind lady whom the villagers refer to as Zamindari Ma (played by Durga Khote), the widow of the good zamindar who is remembered in death as in life for his generosity and good deeds. Zamindari Ma keeps alive the glorious tradition set by her late husband, and rises magnificently to the occasion by opening her granaries to one and all—not just to the farmers who work under her, but also to all the other farmers in the village, including those who work under Badebabu.

She also takes under her wing many orphaned children, and adopts three of them—a Muslim, a Christian, and a low-caste girl—as her own. So, Shankar (her biological son), who is a likeness of his noble parents, now has siblings in Yusuf, John, and Durga. The old faithful of the family is Rehman Chachha (? actor), and Zamindari Ma relies on his counsel. And one big happy family it is, affirming the “hum ek hain” motto under the music director-duo of Husnlal Bhagatram. Song 1: “Meri aankhon ke ujiyaarey ho tum”

As Zamindari Ma spins her charkha, time flies, and the children grow up. Shankar (Dev Anand) looks after the zamindari of his father; Yusuf (Rehman) is a hunting enthusiast; John (? actor) is a doctor; and Durga (? actor) is—well—just all grown up, a lively lass. Zamindari Ma, her heart swelling with pride, says: “Teen ladke, teen tarah ke” (Three sons, of three kinds); she leaves out poor Durga, I guess. Shankar completes the line for her, with Yusuf and John in tow: “… lekin ma, hum ek hain (but mother, we are one).” Durga seconds that, and so does Mithoo the family parrot.
Meanwhile, Badebabu’s son, Chhotebabu (also a crook, like his father; played by Ramsing), has come back to the village as a “vakil” or lawyer, and goes around throwing his weight. Both father and son are intent on fixing the latter’s marriage with Vidya (Kamala Kotnis), the daughter of their family friend from town, Shyamacharan (? actor). Father and daughter are visiting the village and staying at Badebabu’s. On an outing, Vidya witnesses Chhotebabu’s haughty behavior, and is not impressed. She instantly falls in love with the upright Shankar who puts his foot down at Chhotebabu’s domineering ways. Shankar reciprocates Vidya’s feelings.

Yusuf and John also find their ladyloves—Nargis (Rehana) and Dolly (? actor), respectively, and both alliances are fixed. Durga is very excited for her three brothers, but comes to know from the local astrologer that Vidya’s wedding with Chhotebabu is almost finalized. She breaks the news to a dejected Shankar. Meanwhile, an upset Vidya tells her father that she cannot stand Chhotebabu one bit. Shyamacharan is an understanding parent and makes the trip to Zamindari Ma to fix the Shankar-Vidya marriage. Shubh vivaah. Three in one go. Song 2: “Meri aayi hai teen bhabhiyaan”

After the celebrations, Chhotebabu turns up at Zamindari Ma’s household in a suspiciously cordial mood. In a false show of solidarity, he chimes “hum ek hain,” and says how happy he is for the three brothers. When Shankar leaves for town with his new wife to visit his ailing father-in-law, Chhotebabu visits John at the clinic and tells him that the place is too run-down for practice and that he needs to build a bigger hospital. He prods John to write to Shankar for money, and introduces him to an engineer who will head the construction work.

Chhotebabu is hand in glove with the unscrupulous engineer, and together they plan to fleece John. Shankar sends the money, and construction begins, and so does the engineer’s menacing demands for more and more money. John hesitates to ask Shankar again for money, but Chhotebabu assures him that he will visit Shankar in town and get the funds.

Meanwhile, the crop yield is poor that year, and the farmers under Zamindari Ma are unable to pay “lagaan” or taxes. Shankar, who is the family accountant, is informed; and, naturally, he feels reluctant to divert more money to the construction work when there is shortage of funds—and especially so, given the family’s priority of the farmers’ well being. As he discusses this with Vidya, Chhotebabu walks in and notices Shankar’s worried look. When Shankar explains the quandary that he is in, Chhotebabu spews more venom and condemns John for wasting money and urges Shankar to go in person and stop the construction.

Shankar immediately returns to the village and tells the engineer to stop work. John objects, but Shankar tells him that he will explain it all to him at home. The engineer walks off in a huff, the work stops, and John gets angry with Shankar. Back at home, during mealtime, Zamindari Ma notices that John and Shankar, for the first time in their lives, look sullen. Soon, to everybody’s shock, the two brothers fight openly and John remarks angrily that the most important thing in life is money and that he has just realized it.

John then takes his wife’s jewelry to Chhotebabu, who, feigning horror, offers to fund the construction work—but on one condition: no one must know that Chhotebabu is financing the project. Having extracted this promise, however, Chhotebabu goes to Shankar and wonders aloud about John’s new source of money—and prophesies that John’s irresponsible spending will only bring Shankar, the eldest brother, a bad name. In a wily way, he also introduces the idea of “batwaara” or splitting of the family property. Shankar is horrified, but nevertheless the seed is sown.

When Shankar questions John about the source of the money, the latter refuses to tell—followed by a fierce exchange of words. Yusuf intervenes, but the other two only get angrier, and Shankar blurts out that splitting the property is the best option. Pained, Yusuf leaves the house with his wife, followed by John and wife, all in the middle of the night. Zamindari Ma appropriately wakes up from a nightmare of her three sons on a capsizing boat and finds two of her sons gone. She is upset with Shankar and orders him to go bring back his brothers. An irate Shankar refuses and leaves as well with his wife.

As Zamindari Ma sits staring vacantly at her empty nest, Chhotebabu comes pretending how sad he is—and offers to help with the zamindari work. The grief of seeing a broken home is too much for Zamindari Ma, and she takes to bed.

Denouement is in the form of a raging fire in Zamindari Ma’s fields. She rushes out concerned for her farmers, who are frantically trying to save the crops, and faints. Hearing the commotion, her three sons arrive—and in the face of calamity, realize their mistake of straying from the family motto of “hum ek hain.” The farmers catch the culprit (Chhotebabu’s henchman, of course). The angry farmers, accompanied by Shankar, Yusuf, and John, arrive at Badebabu’s, who apologizes for his son’s wicked deeds.

Shankar, Yusuf, and John almost speak in one voice when they realize that this fire is just an extension of the inner fire of brotherly feud started by Chhotebabu. The demand is unanimous: the arsonist should leave the village. The unconscious Zamindari Ma magically springs to life when she hears her three sons declare, with a newfound zeal, the family motto of “hum ek hain.” The lesson of unity firmly in place, the “hum ek hain” song fills the air one last time. Song 3: Version 2 of “Meri aankhon ke ujiyaarey ho tum” that starts as “Hum jaag uthey hain sokar”

Reflections and a critique: If Amar, Akbar, and Anthony famously symbolized religious unity on celluloid in 1977 and thereafter, their predecessors on the eve of Indian independence were Shankar, Yusuf, and John. Director P. L. Santoshi’s story on national integration resounded with the volatility of those tension-filled times of 1946: the fear of communal disharmony dividing India is represented in the film by the fallout between the brothers, which threatens to break up the family and endanger the life of the all-straddling matriarch, quite a Mother India figure.

The Mother India imagery is quite explicit in the film’s publicity material. An advertisement in The Times of India dated 17 August 1946 had an eye-catching silhouette of a partial outline of India’s map, filled with nameless individuals, all children of the same mother, defiantly screaming “Hum Ek Hain.” The ad declared the film, then in its “6th sonorous week at Central [Cinema]” to be a “picture of the moment.” Further, it reproached the colonial policy of sowing disunity amongst the ruled when it emphatically announced: “Turn east—and hear India speak! [This] is today’s tip to the west! …The voices of millions sing in unity—and Prabhat has caught the magic of the words ‘Hum Ek Hain.’”

In the context of the then emerging nation, the idea of unity is unequivocally tied to the figure of the mother. Disunity—within the family or within the nation—is a threat to the mother, the life-giver. This rhetoric of nation, which is the centrality of the mother in the scheme of things, is, however, based on a very simplistic arrangement: it conveniently dispenses with the father, the absent zamindar of the narrative. And clearly it is a world of mothers and sons—with the mother’s deepest and most meaningful relationship with the son and not the daughter.

I end this piece on a lighter, musical note, with a delightful dance by the inimitable Cuckoo as she, the village belle, performs before Chhotebabu and Vidya. The opening credits name Guru Dutt for “dance composition.” Song 4: “Ho nadiya ke paar mora saawarey”

Acknowledgments: My reading of the film would not have been possible without access to the full film. On my last visit to India, I got the VCD of this film from which I have uploaded four songs onto my YouTube channel. But when I was searching for a better print of the film, I realized that what I have is an identical copy of the VCD available at the Desi Torrents Links and Streams site, where it has been uploaded (and possibly digitized in the first place) by a generous soul who goes by the username of Trinidad. My heartfelt thanks to Trinidad, or the person who made it first available. Just go to the site, or google “Hum Ek Hain 1946,” and you should find it. In there, you can also find screenshots and songs from the film, a profile of Dev Anand, and a description of 1946 in Hindi films.

Also, members at the hamaraforums site have uploaded the audio of the songs in MP3 format, with as much song information as is presently known. For song credits, I have entirely relied on them.

P.S.: If anyone identifies some of the actors/singers here, please help fill in the blanks.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Copycat blogger rouses my righteous indignation

A screenshot of sunheriyaadein's blog page

The last one day has been a colossal waste of time for me—courtesy a blogger called sunheriyaadein whom I consider more a copycat than a blogger of any standard. I felt I must record this rather unpleasant experience—that of being plagiarized from, which I accidentally discovered—loudly and clearly with everyone out there. Putting this in writing clearly on my blog, will, I hope, in some measure, deter the copycats prowling on the Internet, who just copy and paste text.

Yesterday was a laidback Friday, and I happened to be browsing a few blogs on old films when, in the Bhooli Bisri Sunheri Yaadein blog, I chanced upon a recent write-up (August 3, 2010) on Mohammed Rafi, whose death anniversary it was on July 31. As I glanced through it, this ode to Rafi started to sound and look uncomfortably familiar in places. I realized I was reading my own writing from one year back.

This blogger (whose real name is a mystery, and who has not listed any email where she can be contacted—I am tired of searching!), had blatantly lifted excerpts, verbatim, from my post on Mohammed Rafi (that I wrote aound his last death anniversary for the passionforcinema blog on July 29, 2009, later republished in my blog here on July 31, 2009) and passed it off nicely as her own! My first reaction was sheer anger and outrage.

Of course, I could give benefit of doubt and deem this to be inadvertent; however, this is too verbatim a case. Anyway, I quickly ran a trial version of Copyscape through my imitator’s posting, and, sure enough, Copyscape caught four clear instances—the exact ones that I had found. (I have recorded them below.)

I am more worldly-wise now and have installed Copyscape as a deterrent, and have become more aware of the importance of protecting one’s intellectual property, and this cannot be stressed enough. I left a long comment with links to the plagiarized passages on my imitator’s blog, but that is “awaiting moderation,” and so I won’t be surprised if it never shows up there. So, I am left with no choice but to post all the details here.

Looking from the other side: I never really imagined someone would find me worth copying from! So it is a compliment, perhaps. Still, although imitation is the best form of flattery, as the saying goes, it is just plain annoying to see someone else stealing one's thoughtfully-crafted paragraphs. Any honest writer will vouch for that.

For your convenience, I have listed below the shamelessly plagiarized excerpts, including the Copyscape links to them. This is what the plagiarist's blog posting looks like when I write this rant. Here goes:

1. My original: So much is written about Rafi (1924-1980) that I don’t quite know where to begin and what new to say really. I am stumped. It should just suffice if I say that Rafi was one of the most versatile singers in the history of Hindi film music. His pan-Indian (and beyond) appeal seems to get only stronger with time. From the doleful Jugnu (1947) to the patriotic Shaheed (1948) to the classical Baiju Bawra (1952) to the effervescent Mr. and Mrs. 55 (1955) to the regal Raj Hath (1956) to the poetic Pyaasa (1957) to the meltingly romantic Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)—phew! the list is endless—Rafi sang it all. And more.

The copy: So much is written about Rafi (1924-1980) that I don’t quite know where to begin and what new to say really.  Rafi was one of the most versatile singers…From the doleful Jugnu  to the patriotic Shaheed  to the classical Baiju Bawra to the effervescent Mr. and Mrs. 55  to the regal Raj Hath to the poetic Pyaasa  to the meltingly romantic Barsaat Ki Raat - phew! the list is endless—Rafi sang them all. And more.

Screenshot of copied excerpt 1 (highlighted)
2. My original: In his earlier years, before he had fully come into his own, Rafi sang for Ghulam Mohammed (Naushad’s protégé) a lovely duet with Lata in Pardes (1950), called “Akhiyaan milaake zara baat karo jee,” a song to which I am very partial for two reasons: Madhubala’s striking beauty, and Rafi’s deep, powerful rendering that is reminiscent of Pankaj Mullick, not to mention a very young Lata’s exquisitely honeyed voice.

The copy: In his earlier years, before he had fully come into his own, Rafi sang for Ghulam Mohammed (Naushad’s protégé) a lovely duet with Lata. This one is picturised on Rehman and Madhubala and I love this  for lots of reasons: Madhubala’s striking beauty, Rafi’s deep, powerful rendition, peppy music and young and dashing Rehman!

Screenshot of copied excerpt 2 (highlighted)
3. My original: … picturized on Ajit (much before he turned villain for the screen). Bombay—that teeming metropolis, teeming then in the 1950s just as it is teeming today—the land of opportunities—was masterfully captured by lyricist Prem Dhawan to composer Hansraj Behl’s tune that is born for the harmonica.

The copy: This is Rafi singing for Ajit. in the good old days before he turned into a villian on screen. Bombay—that teeming metropolis, teeming then in the 1950s just as it is teeming today—the land of opportunities, sapno ka shehar—was masterfully captured by lyricist Prem Dhawan to composer Hansraj Behl’s tune.

Screenshot of copied excerpt 3 (highlighted)
4. My original: Equally at home on different turfs, Rafi could convincingly slip under the skin of characters that were poles apart: he sang for the brooding Dilip Kumar in Deedar (1951) with the same ease with which he lent his voice to a frolicking Johnny Walker in C.I.D. (1956). And, truly, it is difficult for the listener to decide where Rafi excels more.

The copy: He could convincingly slip under the skin of characters that were poles apart: he sang for the brooding Dilip Kumar in Deedar with the same ease with which he lent his voice to a frolicking Johnny Walker in C.I.D. And it is so difficult for the listener to decide where Rafi excels more and who his voice suits the best!

Screenshot of copied excerpt 4 (highlighted)

End of everyone’s waste of time. We all have better things to do.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Remembering Jairaj and Renuka Devi in Bhabhi (1938)

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on September 1, 2010.

Jairaj and Renuka Devi in Bhabhi (1938)In Awara (1951), Raj Kapoor famously tells Nargis that it is not her fault that she initially mistakes him for a vagabond—actually, there is something about his face that makes him look like one: "Is mein tumhara kasoor nahin, meri soorat hi aisi hai." This memorable apology followed by Nargis warming up to Raj is quite the staple of the Raj-Nargis romance.

More than a decade earlier, in Bhabhi (1938), P. Jairaj (1909-2000) makes the exact same apology about his visage to Renuka Devi (1918-1989), who early on in the film thinks he is a goonda: "Aapka dosh nahin, meri soorat hi aisi hai."

And that kicks off their tender and subdued onscreen romance in this production from Bombay Talkies Ltd. Watch Jairaj's apology to Renuka Devi and her jittery father (played by V. H. Desai) here:

Released on 17th December 1938, at the Roxy Talkies theatre in Bombay, Bhabhi, directed by Franz Osten, was a huge hit.

A quick synopsis: Based on "Bisher Dhuan" by writer Sardindu Banerjee (1899-1970), who adapted it for Bombay Talkies, Bhabhi is the story of an upright young man named Kishore (Jairaj) who promises his dying friend to take care of the latter's wife, Bimala (Maya Devi), left all alone in the world. Kishore brings Bimala to his house, where they live as brother and sister. Society disapproves, and so does Kishore's father, who disinherits his son. Meanwhile, Renu (Renuka Devi) and her father, Vinay Babu—a funny old man, a bundle of nerves—move in next door. Kishore and Renu fall in love, much to the annoyance of the pompous Anupam (Rama Shukul), who plans to marry the wealthy Renu. Anupam plays villain and creates much heartbreak for the lovers. On a side note, Renu's friend Bela (Meera), who is Anupam's cousin, falls for Kishore. Finally, all misunderstandings are cleared, thanks largely to Deenbandhu (the comforting and rather avuncular P. F. Pithawala), Kishore's former teacher.

About the film's leading pair: P. Jairaj (born Paidypathy Jairula Naidu) and Renuka Devi (born Khurshid Jahan, later Begum Khurshid Mirza), both hailed from illustrious families and joined films at a time when the profession had a dubious reputation. While Jairaj was born in Karimnagar in the Nizam's state of Hyderabad, and had India's reigning literary empress, Sarojini Naidu, for an aunt (a fact that he kept under wraps), Khurshid Mirza was born in one of Aligarh's most progressive families that founded the Aligarh Women's College.

Jairaj incurred the displeasure of his family when he ran away to Bombay in 1929, where he started off in silent films. Legend has it that they did not speak to him for nearly twenty-five years. For her part, Khurshid Mirza at least had the support of her immediate family—when she decided to try her luck in films starting in 1937, she was already a wife and a mother. Of course, her extended family and friends back in small town Aligarh were appalled. But the girl from Aligarh was way too determined to bother about other people's opinions, just as the lad from Hyderabad was set in his goal of making something of his life.

Apparently, Jairaj was all set to go to England to study engineering but it did not materialize, and he was rather dejected: fortuitously a relative put him in touch with a friend who worked for a film company in Bombay. Seizing the chance, Jairaj landed in Bombay, although he never thought of himself as hero material: the move simply meant self-reliance, some odd jobs here and there.

But, as luck would have it, he was soon offered a role in Sparkling Youth (Jagmagti Jawani) in 1929/1930. (His monthly salary as an actor was 75 rupees.) There was no turning back after that. Altogether, Jairaj acted in 11 silent films. 1931 saw the arrival of the talkie, and Jairaj with his strong command of Urdu (his Hyderabadi roots came in handy) had a distinct advantage. The drawback, though, was that he would have to sing his own songs, and Jairaj was really not much of a singer. He was grateful when playback singing arrived in 1935.

Certainly, Jairaj was spared the torture of having to sing for himself in Bhabhi—and—what's more—he did not have much lip-synching to do either; interestingly, Jairaj's character sings only in the very end, and that too very briefly. A largely songless hero in a Bombay Talkies production is, perhaps, unusual. Possibly the songs were interwoven with the storyline in such a way that only female vocals were required. Renuka Devi sang for herself, and so did Meera, the supporting actress.

About Renuka Devi, Baburao Patel of Filmindia magazine declared that "Bombay Talkies have found another Devika [Rani]" and that "her performance has that distinctive grace and poise which can only be associated with a lady of culture and education" (January 1939). This was an accurate assessment of the unconventional Begum Khurshid Mirza, who became Renuka Devi for the screen starting with her first film, Bombay Talkies' Jeevan Prabhat (1937), co-starring Devika Rani and Kishore Sahu. Bhabhi was Renuka Devi's second film. (She moved to Pakistan after partition and later became a successful television personality.)

If there is one song that Renuka Devi is famous for, it has to be the raag Malhar-based "Jhuki aayi re badariya saawan ki," in Bhabhi, picturized on her and Jairaj, with the latter dutifully accompanying the former, on the piano. Composed by Saraswati Devi, 1912-1980 (the earliest known, if not first, female music director in Hindi cinema), the song captures the beauty of the Indian monsoon and the accompanying exaltation of the human spirit. It is one of the best "saawan" songs in our films—simple and super hummable. Some sources attribute the lyrics to Meerabai though this is not verified. (Does anyone know?) J. S. Casshyap is the lyricist and dialogue writer for the film. "Jhuki aayi re badariya saawan ki":

My take on the film's theme: Why cannot a young widow live with an unmarried man, as his sister, in peace, without arousing ignoble thoughts in the minds of those around? Bhabhi touches upon the issue of society's narrow mindedness when it comes to man-woman relationships, although in an implicit way. The critique of an ignoble society is not the overarching concern here; in the end, it is more a case of the lovers triumphing rather than society being chastised—the latter is something that the viewer expects rightfully and discovers missing. As Kishore and Renu realize the depth of their love for each other, Bimala's case—and what it stands for—somehow seems to take a backseat.

That disappointment is, in great measure, offset by the melody of the "Haan qaidi" duet; as Jairaj and Renuka Devi s(w)ing their way to happiness, I wonder why the song is so painfully short. This truncation of beauty seems most unfair—so what do I do? I record the song over and over again on my audiocassette, and listen to it nonstop, and just pretend that it is one long song. "Haan qaidi":

P.S.: Does anyone know who is singing for Jairaj? In an interview with Bunny Reuben, Jairaj mentioned that he tried to sing for the screen only once—unsuccessfully. This was for a film called Patit Pawan (1933); despite a month's practice, a nervous Jairaj, wanting the song to be done and over with, reeled it all off in one go, totally breathless, without pausing for the orchestra. The song was scrapped, of course; and a mortified Jairaj vowed never to sing again.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A page from Indian film history: Karma (1933)

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on March 19, 2010.

“… it [Karma] marks a beginning, and a very successful one, to break away from the general run of Indian films and to produce something entitling India to a place in screencraft among other countries in the world.”
                                    -The Times of India, 16 March 1934

The kiss of 1933The husband-wife team of Himansu Rai (1892-1940) and Devika Rani (1908-1994) appeared together only once on the silver screen—in Karma (1933), described as the “first Indian talkie with English dialogue which set all London talking.” In India too, when the film released, there was a lot of talking—tongues wagging, rather. The reason? A kiss between Devika Rani and an unconscious Himansu Rai that is today still as famous as it was shocking then: sure enough, when I start typing in “Devika Rani” on that know-it-all entity called Google, the first suggestion that crops up is “Devika Rani kissing scene,” followed by other keyword combinations—all in search of that kiss from 1933.

The bilingual Karma, released as Naagan ki raagini in Hindi, was Devika Rani’s first acting role (she sang one song in English, and that was possibly the first English song in Indian cinema), while it was her actor-producer husband’s last. Himansu Rai, from then on, until his early demise seven years hence, concentrated on production, and managing the Bombay Talkies studio that he would found, along with his wife, in 1934.

In today’s globalized setup, where cross-cultural films, international productions, and foreign premieres are becoming fairly common, it is worth rewinding back to 1933, when such things, perhaps, had more of a novelty factor.

Himansu Rai, educated in Shantiniketan and London, was a dynamic personality whose aim was to bring Indian cinema of the day on par with the cinemas of Europe and America. Technique wise, Indian cinema—compared to its Western counterparts—was still very much in its infancy. For India to get a grip on the language of cinema, Rai felt it was necessary to initially at least collaborate with Western production houses—that would pave the way, eventually, for a self-sufficient film industry in India.

Karma, a joint production by Himansu Rai Indo-International Talkies Ltd., Bombay, and Indian & British Productions Ltd., London, and directed by J. L. Freer-Hunt, with music by Ernst Broadhurst and Roy Douglas, premiered in England to great success. (The background musical score evokes the mood of a Douglas Fairbanks film, with a touch of East thrown in.) As the London Star evening newspaper wrote about Devika Rani, “You will never hear a lovelier voice or diction or see a lovelier face.” Judge for yourself. Excerpt 1:

Given the time period of the film—it was set in contemporary India—it is not surprising that the film held immense appeal for a Western audience. All the ingredients of an exotic colonial drama were in place: a love story set amidst grand palaces, tiger hunts, snake bites, holy men, frenzied natives, miraculous cures, and centered around that curious eastern notion of karma that binds human actions to consequences.

According to The Times of India, cited earlier, “There was some fear on the part of the producer, Mr. Himansu Rai, that a film in English and designed for the international market might not appeal to the people of this country, since ‘Karma’ is as different from the average Indian film as chalk is from cheese.” The fear was, however, “happily … dispelled” when the film opened favorably, first in Bombay and Delhi, then in “places as widely apart as Madras and Karachi”—although certainly it was a bigger hit in England than in India.

The fact that the film had received high praise in England created a public curiosity in India; approbation from the West (mixed with the cultural insecurities in the people’s psyche) flattered them enough to pay attention to the showcasing of Oriental India.

Still, India was not amused by the kiss between the grandniece of Tagore, and her husband. It was long, fairly unrestrained, and an outrageous departure from the mores of the time. But the kiss went past film censorship (it began with the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1918), which was then more wary of nationalist, anti-Raj feelings than it was of demonstrations of human love.

The film was shot at the Stoll Studios in London and at various outdoor locations in India that included palaces and an ancient Shiva temple. There is attention to detail in capturing the ambience of an Indian princely state of the times—be it lifestyle, apparel, public festivities, or local beliefs. Which is why the opening credits acknowledge “the gracious indulgence of H.H. The Maharawat of Partabgarh” for the film’s depiction of “a pageantry which the jealously guarded traditions of Indian states permit to none but the Ruler himself”; “the exceptional privileges granted by the priests of the temple”; and “the courtesy and guidance of the Central Publicity bureau of the Indian State Railways in placing at our disposal their unrivalled store of information.”

And thus begins the love story of two Indian royals, at the heart of which is the clash between tradition and modernity, a tension that is heightened during the colonial encounter.

A note here: I have had to piece together the story from a bunch of scenes, and that too from memory. I hope I have done justice to the logic of the narrative. One more thing: With the prince and the princess addressing each other as “darling” and “beloved” and so on, and with no else calling them by their names, I guess their names remain a mystery.

The princess of Sitapur (Devika Rani) and the prince of neighboring Jayanagar (Himansu Rai) are deeply in love with each other. The prince’s father (actor Dewan Sharar, who wrote the story) disapproves of the “modernizing” ideas of the princess, which he surmises as her converting “temples into hospitals,” “palaces into schools,” “rice fields into playgrounds”—and as the king’s adviser adds—”peasants into cricketers.” The adviser, a holy man, has a plan to tackle the princess: it is easier to put a stop to her radical ideas by actually letting her marry the prince. As the king’s daughter-in-law, her powers will be undermined.

The princess, meanwhile, thinks of a way to make the king of Jayanagar agreeable towards her; he is fond of hunting, so she plans to offer him a chance to go tiger hunting in the forests of Sitapur. There is a problem, though. There has never been any hunting in Sitapur and it could offend the people’s sentiments. The prince is concerned for the safety of the princess, but she is confident in her decision and tells him that she will schedule the hunt just after the local festival when the people will be in a good mood.

The hunt is announced, and the king of Jayanagar accepts the invite although he wants his son to lead it. The people of Sitapur are uneasy. They resent the tiger hunt—and that too by the neighbor, their traditional rival. Moreover, they reason that a marriage between Jayanagar and Sitapur will result in Jayanagar controlling Sitapur. A few angry people conspire to prevent the marriage by getting the prince out of the way.

On the eve of the hunt, the princess—who has just realized the reason behind the king’s consent of the marriage—“if we marry, your father’s influence will prevent all our plans for progress”—is visibly upset. Soon thereafter, an intruder unsuccessfully tries to kill the prince, and the princess is deeply shaken. She is tempted to call off the hunt, but the prince thinks that would be cowardice. The princess decides that while the hunt is on the next day, she will pray for her beloved’s safety at the Shiva temple. Excerpt 2:

The prince shoots a tiger the next day, but also, accidentally, shoots a man. So the injured man rides back on the prince’s elephant while the prince decides to walk. On the way back among the tall grasses, a king cobra bites the prince, who is then rushed to the snake charmer’s hut. The princess, who is just leaving the temple, is informed. The words of Jayanagar’s holy man haunt the princess: “Those who follow the torch of progress too swiftly sometimes get their fingers burnt.”

She rushes to the unconscious prince, and sits with his head on her lap, praying fervently. Now follows the famous lip lock scene in the film. To the background of the snake charmer’s music, we see the princess bending low and desperately kissing her lifeless lover, hoping to wake him up through her touch. “My prayers must be answered,” she pleads.

The snake charmer tells her about an “old cure” that must happen before sunset: “If Shiva wills it, another snake shall strike the prince again and draw out the poison.” He goes into the forest and brings back another cobra.

Meanwhile, the king hears the news of his dying son; distraught, he ascribes it all to karma, and blames himself for earning the ill will of the people of Sitapur. He decides to perform some good deeds: “prayers to the gods” and “alms to the people.”

We hear the snake music one last time, as the cobra glides by the prince and bites out the venom. The prince opens his eyes. “Praise be to Shiva,” “Har har Mahadev,” and “Jai Shiv Shankar” fill the air as an overjoyed princess hugs the prince tight. The end.

As the belief in karma stands vindicated—spectacle and pageantry aside—the West is left to its reflections on the subject.

A conclusory thought: Given the political context of the times, of the reality of a rising Indian discontent against the empire (it is worth remembering here that the three Round Table Conferences organized in London between 1930 and 1932 to discuss India’s demand for self-rule were a failure due to the highhandedness of the British), one almost wonders if the film’s depiction of the power of the people’s wrath against the ruler pricked the British conscience in any way. Did the British viewer feel a certain compunction, fear a backlash against the Raj, perhaps?

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