Finally, I got to watch a classic Pakistani-Urdu movie, on DVD (albeit an obviously bootlegged and illegal DVD – but more on that later) and with subtitles…and now, I definitely want to watch a few more. Though Dupatta does have some qualities that gave me a little trepidation at first… For one thing, I think this film raises the level of melodrama above what you’ll find even in most Hindi movies. Part of how it does this is to indulge in some very old-fashioned techniques that were probably out of date in Bollywood at the time. For instance, while the songs in this movie are outstanding (composed by Feroz Nazami and sung by you-know-who), the background music might be a bit too omnipresent and unnecessary. During just about the entire film, there is this music playing behind the scenes that, from what I could tell, consists mostly of old American, British and European song snippets thrown together. Sometimes I felt as though I was watching some early talkie made by people who hadn’t yet realized that you didn’t need all that music when you had real sound with dialogue.
In addition, especially in the beginning, some of the acting is very stagey. It was also that way in many Indian films from the ’40s (and maybe early 50s), but maybe it seems more so here because the sets are kind of stagey, too, probably due to limited resources. I have seen sets that looked similar in old Bollywood movies, but usually, they were used to depict stage performances within the film.
I wouldn’t say I was completely put off at first, but let’s say I wasn’t sure what to think. Soon enough, however, I was just too charmed to be disoriented, especially when the music numbers started. Then, within a short time, I was completely absorbed in this laid-on-thick melodrama, relishing the incredible heaviness and sweetness.
And this time around, to give readers some better idea of what kind of melodrama I’m talking about, I thought I might go into a bit more of a plot summary, like the kind found more often on some other Bollywood blogs. So hold onto your seats, because it is a bumpy ride!
The story is simple enough at first… It opens when a man is injured in a traffic accident, and though we don’t see him, we’re told that he has been disfigured in some way. The man’s wife goes to a doctor, believing that this doctor has adequate skills in plastic surgery to repair the damage that has been done (though he probably doesn’t), and she says that if her once-handsome husband remains so disfigured, she won’t be able to stand it. Then the doctor asks her to sit down while he begins to tell her a story to illustrate a point that he wants to make, that if a woman’s love for a man is true, it will go much deeper than dependence on physical appearances.
(Of course, we are never quite sure if this moral would work the same for the characters involved if the gender of Beauty and the Beast were reversed, but never mind.)
So the real story of the movie is the story that the doctor is telling, which began, we are told, some twelve years earlier with a torrid love affair between a village girl named Bulbul and a man from the city, Roshan (who also turns out to be a rich man, though we don’t know that until later). And this couple, by the way, are not only very much in love, but they are also very capable of expressing this love through music, lucky for us. Roshan, we soon see, is an excellent mandolin player. Though in actuality, as in many Bollywood films, it might be that the man we see playing the instrument (i.e., the actor Ajay Kumar) is not really the excellent musician producing those sounds. The situation is a little different, though, when we see Bulbul sing… Because we know that this magnificent singing voice really is coming from the woman whom we see on the screen!
(Incidentally, in case I haven’t made this clear before, I think Noor Jehan was great. But before, I got to see her only in song clips. It was a real pleasure, finally, to see her in an old full-length film that I could follow, with subtitles! )
The lovers’ relationship is naturally met with a good amount of adversity, due to an overprotective father with all kinds of concerns about reputation, a jealous stepmother, and an even more jealous rival for Bulbu’s love who engages Roshan in a treacherous knife fight; then it meets even more trouble back in the big city, due to a jealous step-aunt (I think), though there are even bigger, more dangerous jealousies to come. (And why do people get so jealous? The main reason is that Bulbul is young and considered beautiful. Bulbul’s good looks seem to cause her a lot of anguish in this movie – which makes for a nice touch of irony, considering the main moral.)
But for most of the first third or so of the movie, in spite of these inconveniences, the mandolin playing rich man named Roshan and the magnificent vocalist named Bulbul have a very ideal romance, and at one point Roshan even teaches Bulbul somewhat how to become a proper lady. (Here, it might be worth noting that the director of this movie, Sibtain Fazil, had made his breakthrough directing a movie called Chowrangi that was based on Shaw’s Pygmalion…)
Unfortunately, things get kind of interrupted by World War II, when Roshan has to go off to the battlefield. And soon enough we are told that Roshan has gone missing and might very well be dead. Then bliss turns to anguish all around – which also leads to a song that is apparently one of Noor Jehan’s most famous…
And things go kind of downhill for Bulbul for a while… Bulbul’s child gets very ill, but he is soon cured by a handsome doctor (who, yes, might just be a younger version of the doctor telling this story). Unfortunately, the fact that this doctor is young and handsome inspires the older, jealous stepmother figures on both sides to create bad rumors about how Bulbul is becoming a bit too cozy with the doctor now.
And with morality being what it was back in the day (especially in South Asian movies?), these rumors cause Bulbul lots of trouble and eventually lead her to become homeless. But Bulbul is a very strong and resilient woman (characteristics that Noor Jehan could convey very well), and somehow, she mangages to pull herself out of that bad spot in a short time by becoming a nurse…
…At which point, we know what’s going to happen next: Sure enough, she ends up working with the doctor again, in his own house! Which would be ideal, except for the fact that the doctor has an insane wife living in the attic. Though come to think of it, no, she’s just living in a room upstairs (I don’t know why I was thinking the attic…).
Meanwhile, as we expected all along, Roshan isn’t really dead either; he’s on the way back, but he isn’t looking quite as pretty as he did before.
But Roshan doesn’t reveal his identity at first, not even when he also gets hired to work in the doctor’s house. He is afraid of the shock that it will cause Bulbul, but he also wants to find out more about the situation between her and the doctor, which is causing him some jealousy. Meanwhile, the doctor’s insane wife is becoming positively feverish with jealousy!
I’ll stop here, not to spoil the most crucial part of this movie, when even more dramatic things happen before the moral of the tale comes out.
I guess you could call all this a bit of a soap opera, this movie that’s somewhat like a classic Hindi melodrama but also seems to want very badly to be an old British film based on English classics.
I don’t know whether everyone would love Dupatta… It could try some people’s patience, especially if they have contemporary sensibilities. But speaking for myself, especially in the past couple of years, I’ve dispensed with my contemporary sensibilities (so that I might seem even older than I really am), and that’s why I often end up loving melodramas. Moreover, this film was very well done despite the limited resources and outdated methods, and there seems to be a lot of earnestness behind it. But Noor Jehan remains the biggest reason to love this movie all the way through - and she should make it enjoyable for most people, whether you really do get abosorbed in the story or you’re just in it for the songs. In either case, her charm is irresistible.
P.S. A note about the DVD: I’m not sure if you’re going to be able to find this in the average American Bollywood store. I bought it in an offbeat sort of 24-hour Pakistani DVD place, and when I brought it home, I found an extensive and threatening notice on the case about how it is not permitted for this DVD to be sold outside of Pakistan. Though I doubt that the DVD is an original copy from the company anyway, considering that it’s just a white disc with the title of the movie scrawled on it in magic marker and it doesn’t have a real working “root menu,” so you can’t individually select the songs.
Fortunately, as I found out while getting the clips for this post, the whole movie is also available, with subtitles, on YouTube.