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.


  1. I have Dev Anand's autobiography and he does mention Him Ek Hain over there. After reading your post I do want to see the film. Where do i get hold of it?

  2. Trinidad is a great resource for these old films, and a generous and knowledgeable friend to have :) So nice to see him acknowledged here!

    I have this film (thanks to him) but without subtitles it's a daunting prospect, so I also thank you profusely for the plot synopsis---it will help me enormously! :) And I LOVE, LOVE your description of Durga as a banyan-tree like figure---isn't that the truth! Thanks.

  3. Sharmi: Just go the link I have given in the acknowledgment section, and you should be able to download it.

    Greta: You are very welcome! And a big thanks to Trinidad again.

  4. The cast is certainly impressive - Durga Khote, Dev Anand and Rehman! I do wish there was a better print available, though. These days, after every Bollywood oldie that I watch, I need to go watch a few new ones (or Hollywood oldies that are way better preserved), just to rest my eyes! :D

  5. Ira, I agree entirely; the quality of the Hollywood oldies just takes one's breath away, absolutely stunning. I am still searching for a better print of Hum Ek Hain; will let you know if I find one. But then something is better than nothing...

  6. I am trying to download this movie from exdesi, but I am not having any luck getting a connection to the seed. Could you please seed the torrent, or perhaps upload to some file share site?

    1. Thank you for bringing to my notice that the exdesi link does not work any more-- I had no idea. I googled the film and found that Trinidad has uploaded the film at this site:

      Hope that helps, and works. Do let me know. If it does not work, I will see where and how I can upload my copy. By the way, what exactly does "seed the torrent" mean? I am not very tech savvy and am yet to really figure out how all this torrent/file-sharing works. The one time I tried to download an old film, I ended up with a virus and all kinds of garbage on the computer-- and since then have never tried. Do you have any tips on how to safely download from these torrent sites? Thank you!

  7. Dear lady, the film was debut of only Dev Anand and not the first film of kotnis, Rehana or Rehman ! A little research please!