Saturday, September 22, 2012

A page from Maratha cultural history: Ramshastri (1944)

A truncated version of this post first appeared as "Of truth and politics" in The Hindu on September 21, 2012.

Actor-director Gajanan Jagirdar as Ramshastri

Ramshastri (1944) is considered to be one of the most significant Indian films of all time—in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is thought to be one of the greatest American classics ever made. The two have more in common: both feature exemplars of the legal profession. In their respective contexts and very different time periods in which they are set—the political intrigue-ridden world of eighteenth-century Maratha India and the racism-ridden world of early twentieth-century Southern America—Ramshastri and Atticus Finch boldly epitomize the ideal of judicial integrity. Finch, played by actor Gregory Peck, unshakably adheres to the truth at all times and helps shape public sentiment the way Ramshastri, played by actor-director Gajanan Jagirdar, does in the eponymous film from Prabhat Film Company in 1944.

The very successful Ramshastri, made in Marathi and Hindi, was Prabhat’s swansong of sorts—despite later films such as Dev Anand’s first starrer Hum ek hain (1946) and the Khurshid-Dev Anand starrer Aage badho (1946)—with co-founder V. Damle’s death in 1945 leaving a void that resulted in the company’s decline and eventual bankruptcy in 1953. V. Shantaram, one of Prabhat’s co-founders, had clearly laid down the company’s motto at the start in 1929: "art for life’s sake," as opposed to art for art’s sake. Prabhat’s films tackled social problems head-on, thus hoping to improve the day-to-day quality of life for its viewers. With Ramshastri, Prabhat traveled back in time to the eighteenth-century Maratha Empire, although highlighting issues of contemporary relevance, such as the importance of fairness of judgment and the indispensability of ethics in administration.

Keshavrao Bhole composed the music for the Marathi version, with lyrics by S. A. Shukla and Shantaram Athavale, while the Hindi version (which, woefully, seems to have vanished) had music by G. Damle (relation of V. Damle?) and lyrics by Qamar Jalalabadi.

Anant Marathe as the young Ramshastri
Baby Shakuntala? as Ramshastri's child-wife
Based on the life of Ramshastri Prabhune (1720-1789), the legendary chief justice at the court of Peshwa Madhavrao, the film starts with the young Ram (Anant Marathe), eager for knowledge, battling odds to educate himself in the face of adversity. In the opening scenes, we are introduced to the boy who will not lie, no matter what, much to the annoyance of his greedy uncle, who hopes to make money off the lie that his nephew is attending scripture school for Brahmin children. Ram’s widowed mother and his child-wife, Janaki (Baby Shakuntala?), are pleased by his integrity, but times are tough. Ram leaves home for Benares in search of a teacher but is turned down for not knowing enough to start with. This only fuels his desire to learn, and in Ekalavya style, he educates himself by overhearing the teacher’s lessons—the big difference here being that the guru is nowhere as unkind as Drona. Impressed, the teacher accepts Ram as his student. Twelve years roll by, and Ram is now Ramshastri. Ram’s mother is dying, and she is happy to see her scholar son before her death.

The scene then shifts to Pune, where Ramshastri settles down as a religious scholar. This part of the film appears rather disjointed, and that is probably because the film had three different directors (Raja Nene and Vishram Bedekar other than Jagirdar) at different times, with the result that there is a jerky feel to the narrative.

Hansa Wadkar? as Shyama
The film suddenly cuts to a slave market, where Shyama the slave girl (possibly Hansa Wadkar) is being auctioned off. Ranoji, a poet-singer, and an employee of the ruling Peshwa Madhavrao, falls for Shyama—together they sing the lovely "Hasoon Bolna," my most favorite song in the Marathi version—and runs away with her to get married. There is opposition from Ranoji’s rival at the auction, Tulaji (an employee of the peshwa’s wily uncle Raghunathrao), who argues that since slaves don’t have the right to marry, the marriage is invalid, and that Ranoji’s hands must be cut off. The peshwa, not very imaginative in such matters, agrees.

Meenakshi as Ramshastri's wife
Ramshastri intervenes on behalf of the newly-weds, and argues that the slave market is in itself an illegal institution, and can neither be authorized by religion nor by the state, and that marriage under Hindu law cannot be invalidated because the girl is a slave. Ramshastri’s earth-shattering conviction wins over the peshwa, who then appoints this fearless advocate of human rights as the chief justice of his court. It is jubilation back home, where Ramshastri’s wife (actress Meenakshi I would guess from the resemblance to her granddaughter Namrata Shirodkar) looks on fondly as her son sings "Me Kaashila janaar"—he, too, will go to Benares like his illustrious father—with Shyama and Ranoji joining in, as the royal guards bring in the newly appointed chief justice’s regalia. A note about the music: Keshavrao Bhole's compositions are irresistibly beautiful and have a simplicity that cannot be ignored.

Soon, Ramshastri becomes famous for his impartial judgments that are based on the case’s merits, as opposed to his favoring the mighty and the influential. In one instance, he condemns the peshwa’s governor who has swindled the plaintiff, a foreign contingent, much to the dismay of the peshwa’s chief secretary who had slyly granted the governor a reprieve.
Lalita Pawar as Anandi, oozing villainy

At this point, the film abruptly and somewhat jumpily cuts to Anandi (Lalita Pawar oozing villainy), the wife of Raghunathrao, colluding with General Sumersingh Gardi—buying his loyalty rather—against Peshwa Madhavrao. The sickly peshwa is dying, and Anandi is busy hatching a plot to ensure that her husband will be the next peshwa. Just before he dies, the peshwa gets Ragunathrao to promise that he will protect the former’s younger brother, the heir, Narayanrao, which Ragunathrao does, carried away by the emotions of the moment.

Pomp and splendor of the peshwa's durbar
On coronation day, the pomp and splendor of the peshwa’s durbar come alive as the film recreates the pageantry of bygone days: there is the swish of swords and spears, as the cavalry rides by and the royal flag flutters, while flower petals are strewn at the feet of the monarch-to-be. Prabhat’s co-founder S. Fattelal, the film’s art director, was known for his keen artistic eye that he had honed under his mentors—the famous artist brothers, Anandrao and Baburao Painter.

In keeping with protocol, Ragunathrao, as guardian to the new ruler, is supposed to offer the first salute to his nephew Narayanrao—a fact that has the uncle wincing. Ramshastri insists that Ragunathrao, regardless of his guardian status, offer the first salute since there is only one occupant to the peshwa throne. Ragunathrao complies but an irate Anandi stomps out of the court. She mocks her husband for not staking claim to the throne; the meek Ragunathrao then promises that he will listen to her.

During the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, Anandi gets a chance to put her evil ideas into action. Without her husband’s knowledge, she rewords a royal order, thereby instructing the generals to kill Narayanrao, who is mercilessly slaughtered in front of a stunned Ragunathrao who then becomes the peshwa. Orders are issued that the public celebrate Raghunathrao’s ascendancy and the people are forced into merrymaking, which Ramshastri denounces.

Meanwhile, the faithful Ranoji manages to bring to Ramshastri the royal order that had Narayanrao executed. Ranoji’s wife, Shyama, also tells Ramshastri that she had heard Anandi commanding Sumersingh to finish off the young peshwa. Outraged, Ramshastri confronts Ragunathrao on his coronation day, and calls him a coward and a sinner for abusing the custodianship of Narayanrao. When Ramshastri produces evidence in the form of the royal order, Ragunathrao’s bad conscience pricks him and he is willing to atone.

Away from  power mongers
An uncompromising Ramshastri pronounces that death is the only atonement for such a sin. Ramshastri is hailed for protecting the honor of the peshwa throne, but, having exposed the truth, he decides to leave the power-mongering world of the court once and for all. He walks away with his family as people sing, “Till sun and moon shine in the sky, your praise will be sung everywhere.”

A concluding thought: The choppiness in the film does not, however, detract from the powerful characterization of Ramshastri, who comes across as an emblem of rectitude, indeed as the very personification of truth. Given the context of India’s independence movement, and Gandhi’s overriding belief in the ultimate triumph of truth, the iconic figure of Ramshastri must have been, undoubtedly, reassuring to viewers. During a period when the national imagination was in search of glorious, idealized visions from the past, the heroic figure of Ramshastri could very well have been that.

P.S. Please help fill in the blanks/confirm the names of the cast members whom I have not identified/am not sure of.

Disclaimer: My screencaps from the film are used for academic/discussion purposes only; they may be reproduced only if accompanied by a link to this blog.


  1. Hi NIvedita,
    Tastefully created blog on a very interesting subject. What is endearing is your deep interest in culture, music and movies.
    Congrats and good luck !!!


  2. best movie.i watched it. thanx for information.

  3. I read your essay on the Ram Shastri film and enjoyed it very much. Have the folowing comments:Quite apart from the context of the film in the background of the National movemebnt, mahatma Gandhi etc- Ram Shastri was in his own right a person of great integrity. Unfortunately what is known about him from standard histories of the MArathas is not very much.
    I have seen G Jagirdar's film on Bairam Khan. have since found that he had a huge portfolio of historicals- both as actor and as director. Is there a biography of him available

    1. Thank you for your comment and glad that you enjoyed my write-up. I loved the film. Yes, considering that Ramshastri was a legendary judge, it is a pity that there is not much info about him in the history books, at least not readily available--though I think perhaps one should be able to find something more substantial in Marathi books.

      I believe Gajanan Jagirdar wrote an autobiography in Marathi--don't know the name though. I haven't yet seen Behram Khan (1946) though I have read about it in places. Where did you get to see it?

  4. I got to see it after some effort the National Film Archive at Poona has a copy.Jagirdar's historicals cover a wide canvas and address different constituencies in general backdrop of nationalism. How do I find out more?

    1. Apologize for the delayed response. Yes, his works are fascinating, and again it is sad that there is not much info to be found about Jagirdar/his works. Your best bet to find out more should be the NFAI library. I do vaguely remember that I came across a couple of references to the Behram Khan film while I was searching for something else--unfortunately I am not able to recollect where exactly I saw these mentioned. In the future, if I come across anything relevant, I will post it here.

  5. I remember watching this movie in Wardha as a seven year old lad accompanied by my teenage sister. Of course,I do not remember the details but it is a landmark in my life. I am glad to have stumbled on your blog.

    Best wishes,

  6. Thank you, Nivedita, for your valuable research in to the hoary past of Indian cinema which is fast slipping into oblivion and your fascinating presentations which help preserve the memory of a bygone era.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Your appreciative words just made my day.

  7. Hi Nivedita! A nice reading of the film. Yes, it was really the swan song of Prabhat. Regarding the cast and other members- Hansa Wadkar plays the slave girl Shaama and Baby Shakuntala as the child bride. Master Vithal plays Ranoji, who is a trusted attendant of Madhavrao Peshwe. As regrads the film's direction only Jagirdar is credited with it. Shivaram Washikar wrote the screenplay and Shantaram Athavale wrote the lyrics. These two have been Prabhat veterans and had written many successful films of Prabhat. Camerawork by E Mohammed and Pandurang Naik and the Art Design by Fatelal and Thatte has been extraordinary. in terms of the production value this has been among Prabhat's very best. Yes, that song you mention is absolutely captivating for the sweetness of the melody and delicacy of words.

    1. Thank you, Anil. Really glad that you confirmed the credits and added to the details here. I really liked this film best of all the Prabhat films I have seen so far. Yes, the art design was truly exceptional. Wonder though where the Hindi version has disappeared-- would love to compare the songs.

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  9. Hi Nivedita,enjoyed reading your blog..I was fortunate to see this film on a big screen in on of the workshops conducted by Anil Zankar sir in NFAI...was blown away by the film and discussion followed... your r blog made me recollect those memories...also this film was edited by my grandfather Mr.A.R.Shaikh who also edited other Prabhat films... Wish he was alive and could shed some light on discontinuities in the film ...thanks for writing such a wonderful blog...good to see people still care about theses forgotten masterpieces in indian cinema.

    1. Thank you, Sameer, for stopping by. Lucky you for being able to see this classic on the big screen. Delighted to know that your grandfather was the editor! I googled his name but sadly could not find anything. It is a pity that names such as his have become obscure today. I would love to know more about him-- and maybe even write about him. I will definitely try to unearth some info about him the next time I am at the NFAI.

  10. Nivedita ji,
    After a long time I have visited your Blog,but was as much thrilled as I was the first time.
    I have no words to appreciate your style of writing and the interest you have always shown in the films of yore. Ramshastry's adult wife's role is indeed done by Meenakshi Shirodkar. Her sparkling eyes were here identity. The other credits,guessed by you are also right.
    There is plenty of literature in Marathi on the legend of Ramshastry available freely. His announcement of the Judgement to Raghoba Dada (Raghunath Rao) " DEHANT SHASAN " is popular even today and is used in literary works.
    Thanks once again for a round of Nostalgia. I am today 72 yrs. and have seen almost all Prabhat
    films. i wish i could write like you.
    -Arunkumar Deshmukh

    1. That is the best compliment I have received! Coming from you, a veritable old-film database, it means a lot to me; I will always cherish your appreciation. Thank you sir.

      Glad that I guessed the credits right. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle (esp. since I found very little info in English on the film). I loved the film and was quite blown away by the character of Ramshastri. Wonder if any of that literature on him is translated into English? How I wish I were a sort of linguist!

      BTW, have you seen the Hindi version of Ramshastri? (Wonder if it has even survived since there is hardly any reference to it anywhere.) I am rather curious about the music. Do you know if the songs are set to the same tunes, or are they are quite different? I believe the lyrics are by Qamar Jalalabadi.

      So the next time I write on a Prabhat film and need to verify anything, I know whom to ask :)

  11. Nivedita ji,
    Thanks for your response.
    The Hindi version of Ramshastri was made,but failed to attract any attention . I remember 2 songs from the Hindi version,the records of which we had. One was sung by Manju-Manju Dewan(wife of actor Karan Dewan)-O more baalam.... and the other by Baby Shakuntala and Anant Marathe (brother of actor Ram Marathe of Duniya na Maane fame)-kaise khelun main... These were Hindi songs,but sounded more like Marathi songs only.
    Recently I concluded a series titled " The Flavour of the 30s " on atulsongaday. It consisted of 10 articles on films and songs .The films discussed were Yahudi ki Ladki,Maaya,Adhikar,Gopal Krishna,mera Ladka,Gol Nishan,Comrades,Miss 1933,Dharmaveer and Bramhachari.
    If you have time,you can browse thru them.
    Thanks again.

    1. Thank you for that info. I will look up those.

  12. Nivedita Ji,
    I enjoy your blogs and specially the one on Ramshatri. I recall watching the movie as a seven year old accompanied by an older sister who still remembers the occasion. Thanks for reviving old memories.

    1. Apologize for this delayed response. Glad you stopped by again on this post. Thank you so much for your appreciation. It must have been wonderful to catch the film on the big screen.

  13. Hi Nivedita,

    You have written a wonderful and insightful post on Ramshastri. I was also writing for this film. Was searching about it on the net and landed on your blog. I highly appreciate your work!

    I was searching the names of some actors. Arunkumar Deshmukh's comment on this post also helped me a lot. Thanks to both of you. Will read your blog more often now.

    This is my take on the film -

    I am a freelance journalist and My Theatre Cafe is one of the publications I write for.

    Thanks and Regards,


    1. Thank you. Glad you found it useful. Best wishes.

  14. nice blog. I liked it very much. If i remember there was one scene where wife of Shastri comes home with lots of ornaments given by i think the anandi or someone in the palace. Then Ramashastri ji closed door on her and she was compelled to discard those ornaments as they are the form of bribery? that was the morality or high standards of integrity of those DharmaShashtri?

  15. Thank you for your appreciation. Yes, I believe there is such a scene; don't recollect exactly though. Time for a revisit. A very inspiring film indeed. I quickly stopped by your blogs; an interesting array of posts there, and look forward to reading.