When I watched Bahar (1951), which supposedly starred Vyjayanthimala and Padmini, I kept thinking to myself, wow, Padmini looks so different here, she was so much more beautiful when she got a little older. And then I thought, but I had seen her in an even earlier film clip, and she looked much more like the usual Padmini there than she did here. I also had been puzzled by a message at the beginning of this film that it was introducing “new” stars “Vyjayanthimala and Padmini.” Because, while Vyjayanthimala was new at the time, Padmini wasn’t really. (Although I had encountered rumors earlier that this was “Padmini’s first Hindi film” – just adding to the confusion.) And then I thought to myself, if Padmini is in this film, why isn’t she dancing, like Vyjayanthimala?
Well, as it turns out, a little investigation revealed that this is not “our” Padmini. This actress is Pandari Bai, who was simply billed as Padmini. This Tamil actress was in a number of films and even co-starred with Sivaji Ganesan, but was not nearly as prominent as Padmini or Vyjayanthimala.
Nonetheless, I thought she did a fine job in Bahar. She was required to be relentlessly miserable in this film, and do an awful lot of crying, but I still thought she was consistently moving, and when Geeta Dutt sang over her, she was downright heart-wrenching.
The film itself created an interesting contrast between the poor village girl named Malti (played by Pandari/”Padmini”), who must endure a wretched existence and the privileged college girl, Lata (played by Vyjayanthimala), who spends as much time laughing and dancing (and what fine dancing it is!) as poor Malti does crying and contemplating suicide. As with many of the 1950s Hindi films that I’ve so much enjoyed, this one combines comedy with tragedy, and contains some heavy social commentary as well, especially with regard to the treatment of women vs. men in society and, even more so, regarding the different fates of the poor and the rich (always a subject close to my heart). The fates of these two very different young women become connected through their interaction with a dastardly, crooked, affluent man named Shekhar (played, naturally, by Pran). Shekhar has condemned Malti to an even more wretched fate by convincing her to have sex with him without getting married first (definitely a no-no in this time and place). He did this with the fake promise that he would come back in a month to marry Malti, pay off her family’s debts and save her from being sold into an awful arranged marriage – even while he was actually writing letters to Lata’s father, saying that he wanted to marry Lata. And, of course, this moral transgression with Malti could not be hidden, because he left Malti pregnant. Eventually, Malti goes out in search of Shekhar, who doesn’t want to be bothered with this low-class girl, especially when his sights are still set on the prosperous Lata, whose college dance performances he has been attending regularly. But Lata has her own romance developing with someone else, a neighbor played by Karan Dewan, which is a whole other story…
Vyjayanthimala has been rightly praised for her great performance in this film, which includes some fantastic dancing, which seems even more fantastic when you consider that she is only 15 years old. (Although, I have to say, unlike Madhubala at a similar age, she really does look like a little teenager here.) But without the tragic character played by that other “Padmini,” this film would have lost all its weight; it would have been even thinner than 15-year-old Vyjayanthimala and her whole skinny teenage dance troupe. (Though I have been told by someone that Vyjayanthimala really isn’t quite as skinny in this film as she looks here – I think it has something to do with a technical problem in the way the film was loaded onto DVD. And Vyjayanthimala actually said in an interview that she was not really skinny in those days – in fact, she was even asked at one point to lose weight (maybe not for this film, but at least by the time of 1954’s Nagin), because of lingering “baby fat.” That would certainly support the idea that there was more to Vyjayanthimala in this movie than meets the eye, so to speak. ) Anyway, not to carry on this pun for too long, but I really do like the heavier aspect lent to this film by the poor village girl who spent so much time weeping. This character was more the center of the film’s drama, even if she was not in the spotlight the way Lata/Vyjayanthi was with all her dazzling dancing.
P.S. I should mention, the music by S.D. Burman is fantastic, too.