V. Shantaram’s Teen Batti Char Rasta gives me a perfect opportunity to continue my recent trend of comparing old movies to one another, because this one immediately reminded me of a couple of others that I’d seen.  When I saw the opening scene, with the household containing five daughters-in-law speaking languages from five different Indian states (in addition to two parents who come from different places, and all those sons who must be considered an odd combination), I immediately thought, oh, so this is a comedy about the need for Indian unification, and the Vyjayanthimala starrer New Delhi (1956) came to mind.

But when the story of Sandhya’s character Kshama comes out, it turns out that there’s another moral even more prevalent.  Now, I was thinking of the 1952 Pakistani film Dupatta.  Back when I wrote my review of Dupatta, I talked about the line spelling out the moral near the beginning, “Love doesn’t depend on beauty” (uttered by a doctor who is obviously unable to do some requested plastic surgery), and I said,  “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 now, with Teen Batti Char Rasta, the situation is posed with the genders reversed…sort of.  There’s a difference, though.  Dupatta revolves around the story of a man who’s been badly burned in World War II (within a story told to a woman whose husband has been badly damanged in a car accident), and we know even before we see him that he’s going to be damn ugly.  But Kshama doesn’t look deformed in Teen Batti; she’s just looks like Sandhya with a lot of dark makeup on.  In fact,  if you ask me, she’s quite cute and adorable.  I don’t know if this trick was deliberate – maybe to reinforce the idea of how silly it is in India to consider dark skin a sign of ugliness? – but in any event, it took me some suspension of belief to consider Sandhya as the ugly duckling who everybody wants to shun upon sight.

But Kshama also has another identity, the radio singer Kokila, whose voice is considered very beautiful.  And that makes sense since, after all, her voice is Lata Mangeshkar’s, and these are some of the sweetest Lata songs I’ve ever heard!  (I especially like the song I posted the other day.   Of course, credit should also be given to the music director, Shivram Krishan.)  So, it makes sense that Kshama, who is taunted and insulted constantly because of her looks, would find it very rewarding to be a singer on the radio, where she, as Kokila, is very much admired.  The DVD subtitles might get it wrong sometimes…

…but it’s clear that her natural medium is RADIO.

But then what happens when somebody forms a picture in his mind based on her voice on the radio and then finds out what she really looks like?  That’s the centerpiece of the drama that unfolds in Teen Batti Char Rasta.  This drama really gets underway when Kshama gets a job as a maid in that household with all the daughters-in-law from different states and encounters the sixth, unmarried son.  This guy,  Ramesh, played by Karan Dewan, is apparently considered a real handsome devil…

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Though I’m not so sure myself – personally, I think Dewan looked a bit better nine years earlier, in Ratan.  Still, everyone expects that Ramesh will find himself a beautiful wife – especially since he is some kind of writer and artist to boot (and not the poor kind of artist or writer either).  Ramesh, meanwhile, is completely in love with the voice of Kokila, but since he has no idea that she and Kshama are the same woman, he creates his own picture of her, based on his mental impressions, that is a bit off the mark…

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When Kshama sees this picture and finds out who it is supposed to be, she immediately dreads the thought of Ramesh learning that she is the real Kokila.  But unfortunately, she can’t avoid this discovery one night, when Ramesh stalks her after a radio performance.  For a while, he is able to see her only from behind or at a distance, but when he finally catches up with her and notices that she is entering his own house, there’s no disgusing the truth anymore.  After this, there are a couple of unpleasant scenes in which he tells Kshama outright that he has been devastated by the discovery that she is Kokila, because it has dashed his hopes, ruined his aspirations, etc.  Kshama stands up to Ramesh a little, but neither she nor anybody else informs him how insulting his behavior really is, nor is there any mention that maybe there’s something a bit creepy about stalking one’s favorite radio star across town.  In any event, Kshama disappears in shame for a little while, and this is when we begin to see signs that maybe Ramesh is starting to fall for the real Kshama…

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And that is probably the dramatic peak of this movie that is for the most part pretty light fare, though it is memorable as well as fun, mainly for the performances by Sandhya.  Having seen Sandhya in Navrang and in many dance scenes from other films, I knew that she had qualities as an actress, but I didn’t realize that she could be so much fun as an actress even in a movie in which she’s acting much more than she’s dancing.  She does have a few really nice dance scenes here – especially when she is relating news about her feelings or the events of her life to her poor and ailing father – who for some reason always brings out the dancer in her…

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But most of the work that Sandhya does in this film is straight acting and a lot of wonderful miming to Lata’s voice.  She generates much sympathy in the many sad moments that this character goes through, but for the most part, she seems just right for what is essentially a zany comedy.  (Somewhere toward the end of the movie, in one of a few plot twists I won’t go into too much, some jealous people give Kshama a powder to drink that causes her to lose her voice, without any idea if or when it will ever return.  It’s a terrible thing to happen to her, but on the other hand, the hoarse voice that Sandhya puts on for this part of the movie is quite funny.)

V. Shantaram’s direction for this film is sometimes quite zany too, though it actually seems a little less fantastic and more realistic than in, say, Navrang, or in the many clips I’ve seen from other movies that he made in the 1950s.  He keeps the off-the-wall touches relatively minimal and light, and when he does get kookier, it’s to very nice effect, as in the final number, “Teen Deep Aur Char,” which left me smiling for a while afterwards…

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