Further words are in order now that I finally got the chance to see Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai. This movie has been referred to so often in this blog already, and a certain scene has been discussed and promoted here so thoroughly (hint: Padmini under water…), that it might seem as though I already saw this film and wrote it up. But in truth, I didn’t have a chance to see it until a certain generous individual who initially corresponded with me through this blog sent me this movie along with a few others for my perusal. Now I can say that I have really seen it, and it turned out to be even better than I expected. (I know, I often say that about Indian movies – but in order for this one to be even better than I expected, it had to be really, really good!)
Philip of Philip’s Fil-ums, who strongly encouraged me to see this a couple of months ago, was very much on-the-mark at the beginning of his review when he wrote, “This lavish dacoit fantasy—as visually sumptuous as it is ideologically ingenuous…,” although I’d add that it was aurally sumptuous too, with great thanks to Shankar Jaikishan. The soundtrack here is on par with the classic scores that Shankar Jaikishan did for the Raj Kapoor films of the 1950s – i.e., Awara, Shree 420, and Chori Chori.
The dancing in this film is far better than what I saw in Shree 420, much as I loved that film. And how could it not be, especially in my eyes? Everyone knows that Padmini is the greatest in my opinion, and she does some her best dancing here. (Although the comparison might get a bit close if we talk about Chori Chori, beause of that Kamala Lakshman number – but no need to get into that here.)
Padmini does some of her very best acting in this film as well. She plays the role of the young dacoit woman named Kammo beautifully, with some small touches that are truly unique. For instance, it’s unforgettable (and has been to many, so I understand) when she punctuates the majority of her sentences with that little exclamation, “Hoi, hoi, hoi.” (It could be that this phrase was written into the script a lot also, but Padmini utters it in a way that makes it distinctly hers.) She also brilliantly depicts a certain transformation that Kammo undergoes, from being that tough and quirky dacoit girl to the beautiful heroine in love. (Though I should add that she never was a dacoit in the real sense; that is, she wasn’t actively committing robberies and other crimes. In this movie, a lot of people are dacoits by assocation because they are part of a small village led by the real dacoits, who are all men. Kammo is the daughter of someone who’s the chief of the dacoits when the film begins.)
Raj Kapoor does a great job here too, though I think that his character, Raju, is a little less well fleshed out than, say, the similar character named Raj that he played in Shree 420 (which, though one of several similar characters that he played in different films, is the one who kept popping up in my mind)… For instance, while the Raju here is just as much an enigma as Raj is (at least at first) in Shree 420, and while he performs a similar act of seeming like a simpleton while actually turning out to be smarter than everyone else (at least at times), in Shree 420, it becomes clear that this act/disguise is often deliberate, and the reasons are explained. In Jis Desh…, I think, Raju still remains something of an enigma right up to the end. It’s obvious that people are being wrong when they assume that Raju always knows less than they do – those people including Kammo, who seems to regard him as something of an idiot at times, especially in the first half or so, though she seems also to adore him for it. But by the end of Jis Desh…, it’s still hard to figure out if or when he’s been consciously faking it, or not. Is he brilliant in some ways, but still a simpleton in others? Or is he being brilliant by being simple, i.e., steering clear of thoughts that plauge so many people? I found myself asking a few questions, but I don’t think the answers are to be found anywhere.
What is clear by the end is that he has some consistent philosophies – merely disguised sometimes as being simple - which, as Philip pointed out, bear a lot of resemblance to Gandhi’s. (Although he was far from the only hero with Gandhian philosophy portrayed in Indian films around 1960. For instance, check out the character whom Dev Anand portrays in Kala Bazar, especially in the final scenes of that film.)
It was interesting seeing Raj Kapoor paired with Padmini. Padmini does a wonderful job here at portraying the giddiness of someone in love, and I personally love the scene in which she starts giggling at almost everything that Raju says, just because he is delighting her. I don’t think the chemistry between them is nearly as convincing as the pairing of Raj and Nargis in the mid ‘50s, but then, where was the chemistry of any couple in any movie that good? That having been said, it is still a hell of a lot of fun watching Raj and Padmini going through so much drama together, and so many song-and-dance sequences, too.
And, by the way, one actor who is really outstanding in this film is Pran. I’d been told by a couple of big Pran fans out there how great Pran is, etc., but this was the first film during which I said to myself, wow, this is a great villain, and Pran is so great in this role! It could be because this villain, Raka, is just a complete outlaw, while the Pran character I’d seen in a few other movies was actually a rich society kind of villain, possibly not quite as compelling (which is not to say that I don’t appreciate it when the rich society guy is the villain, certainly). Also, I have to say, that I love Pran’s hair in this movie; I haven’t seen other male actors in Bollywood films, especially ones this old, with a hairstyle that was anything like this…
The plot of the movie might be a little more problematical. Philip was right to point out certain contradictions, since the dacoits are romanticized but also often depicted as villains or, at best, people who are very misguided. But I found that the police were also treated in somewhat contradictory ways.
Philip points out some historical reasons why it is a little unsettling at the end to see the dacoits do what is supposedly the right thing, not only giving up their evil ways but also completely putting themselves in the hands of the police. (By the way, I hope that’s not a “spoiler,” but so many other people have spoiled that part already, I figured it’s almost as inocuous as revealing the end to Mother India.) Philip says that the state had come to be seen as less benevolent since the time that this movie was made. But the state and the police don’t seem as benevolent during the movie either, and that might be another major source of that “unsettling” feeling. For instance, it’s made clear a couple of times that the state won’t hesitate to unleash a barrage of bullets on the dacoits as an entire group (if they deem it necessary), even if it means killing innocent women and children. The police superintendent even makes it clear at one point that he believes in a sort of collective retaliation – that if this group goes around murdering children (and there was at least one robbery in which a child was shot), the state certainly can’t worry too much about the dacoits’ children being put at risk as well. (Which idea Raju, of course, counters with some words about rising above the violence altogether.) In this final scene, there is also a lot of concern about the women and children getting massacred if the dacoit men initiate a battle. We are assured at the very end that the state will be “merciful,” but even given the events within the movie, can we have total faith that this will be the case?
Clearly, Jis Desh is a socially complicated film – but that works a lot in its favor, too. For instance, I like the explanation that Kammo gives about the dacoits helping to redistribute the wealth a little, about their countering the discrepancy between rich and poor. That obviously isn’t a full or entirely sincere explanation of their actions and motives and is certainly not a justification for them. Nonetheless, this dialogue offers up a thoughtful (albeit brief) contemplation of economic inequality as a root cause of violence and crime. And a follow-up dialogue between Kammo and Raju even brings up the question of whether socialism or equality can be achieved with violence or must be sought in other ways – a really universal, timeless sort debate about tactics that appears in a very brief form in the middle of so much adventure and drama.
Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai may not be perfect, but it can provoke a lot of thought in addition to providing so much compelling adventure and some of the best song-and-dance numbers that you’re going to find anywhere.