Before starting this writeup, I’d like to thank Doc Bollywood for being kind enough to send me this movie on DVD, since I hadn’t been able to find it. Doc Bollywood wanted to review it also, so we decided to do a “joint review”; we are posting at around the same time and linking to each other. I will be referring to one other site, but there I actually read a review of the film, while I have not read Doc Bollywood’s review yet. (If I did, that might be cheating!) But I’m sure that Doc Bollywood’s writeup will be very informative and interesting, as the reviews at that blog always are.
Like many people who look for this movie, my first reason to do so was the soundtrack. I had already fallen for the voice of Noor Jehan (and also her screen presence) from a bunch of other movies and clips even before I saw the songs in Anmol Ghadi. Then I was seeing song clips from Anmol Ghadi for quite a while before I got to see the film. These songs are all over YouTube, and it’s no surprise, because this is a significant soundtrack. Not only does this soundtrack contain some of the best and catchiest songs by Noor Jehan when she was still a star in Bollywood; it also contains great efforts by several other well-known singer-actors of the day and one by a then unknown guy who would soon become extremely famous. (We’ll get back to all that in a moment…) And this soundtrack was composed by one of the greatest music directors of all, Nausahad, who would later score movies such as Mother India, Kohinoor, Mughal-E-Azam and Pakeezah.
So even if one is inclined not to like Anmol Ghadi for other reasons, it’s hard to think of anyone not liking it for the music. But that having been said, I do actually like this film for quite a few other reasons, though I understand why some might quibble…
If you’ve seen a lot of old Indian films already, you’re bound to notice some very familiar themes in Anmol Ghadi. But would it be right to blame Anmol Ghadi if these plot elements seem overly familiar to the contemporary viewer? Remember that this was made in 1946, 10 to 50 years before any of the other movies you might be thinking of.
One very familiar theme in Anmol Ghadi is the relationship between childhood sweethearts who become separated but who never forget each other, and who try to find each other to resume that love years down the road. (I think there were a few movies with Raj Kapoor or Dilip Kumar that had this theme…) And we get introduced to this love right at the very beginning, through a sweet-sounding song sung by Shamshad Begum and Zohrabai Ambalewali…
Soon enough, we are introduced to another prevailing theme, the social prohibition of love between the rich and the poor. The girl in this childhood romance, named Lata, is the daughter of an affluent government official, and our young hero, Chander, is cared for by a poor, widowed mother who has to grind wheat for a living. Because of these class differences, Lata’s father chases Chander away from Lata, even threatening him with violence if he returns. (Shortly thereafter, there is a scene in which Lata’s father is publicly praised for his benevolence to the poor. Nice touch!) But Lata’s family has to move to Bombay anyway because her father has been transferred, so fate doubly ensures that it will be a while before she and Chander meet again. Upon her departure, Lata gives Chander a watch that her father had given her, a memento that will inspire his longing for her presence for many years to come. That is the source of the name of this film, which means “The Priceless Watch.”
At the last minute, Chander finds something that he wants to give Lata as a memento too, a toy. (I found it difficult to tell what the toy was, but it’s clear that it’s a toy.) But while he is chasing her departing carriage, he falls down and the toy breaks. And at this point, another fairly common theme gets introduced. This theme is not something anyone could call a cliché, but it is repeated a few times in later Hindi movies, and it’s actually one that I always can appreciate, because it has to do with people’s ability to control their destiny – or, rather, the lack of such ability. (Unfortunately, the DVD has no subtitles for the songs, but I was able to find out the words because they are listed in a very interesting review of this movie over at PhilipsFil-ums. So, assuming Philip doesn’t mind, I am placing a nice excerpt from that translation below the video.)
(“Your toy is broken, child, your toy is broken. Fate has looted you, looted you! Your toy is broken. The Player sits in heaven and plays. Just see how the wooden puppets of this world dance! We are but toys, whether our lives are sweet, bitter, or savory…”)
Human beings are like dolls or puppets, unable to control their fate while the gods play with them… I’m sure most Bollywood fans can think of other movies that bring up that idea. For me, it immediately brought to mind Kath Putli, which was made 11 years later. In that one, the point is put across with vocals by Lata Mangeshkar over Vyajayanthimala doing puppet dances. That was superb, but this scene in Anmol Ghadi is almost as memorable, because of the lyrics and that voice – the voice, that is, of a 21-year-old Mohammed Rafi.
Shortly afterwards, we get to see quite a bit of Chander’s mother. She is a woman who is sacrificing herself constantly to raise her son in spite of the odds against her. That probably sounds very familiar, but just remember that Anmol Ghadi came out more than a decade before its director, Mehboob Khan, gave us his famous Mother India.
Chander at one point pours his heart out to his mother about his longing to see Lata again, and his mother tells him that he will be able to unite with Lata if he studies very hard. The obvious implication is that once he studies hard, he will become a great success, achieving a new economic class status that will put him on par with rich people like Lata. That’s a nice story – or myth, maybe – that you hear a lot here in America, probably in India too these days. But Anmol Ghadi is blackly humorous in the way that it defies those Horatio Alger-type expectations. Our hero does not become a big success from his education, because his education only increases his love for things that will never make him a financial success, such as poetry and music. Rather than trying to make money, he’d rather sit around and read beautiful words all day. And while he has acquired a sort of skill, building sitars, he’s so caught up in being a perfectionist about it (and probably daydreaming a lot besides), that he takes much too long to make a sitar for anyone. Now, some critics out there got annoyed by this hero’s very non-heroic nature, but I just love him exactly because of it.
Moreover, Surendra, the actor who plays the adult Chander, does a pretty nice job and also has a very nice singing voice. I like this song clip that shows him looking at the watch that inspires him to pine for Lata…and also getting all maudlin and poetic, which does not seem to have a good effect on his mother…
Chander does prove to have a little luck, when a rich friend of his is able to give him work managing a music shop in Bombay. Taking his mother with him, Chander thus embarks to Bombay, ostensibly for a better life. But somehow, we know that that’s not really going to happen – not in the long run – though some temporarily rewarding things do happen, such as the fact that he is able to reunite with Lata. And Lata has grown up to become a very interesting woman, who pseudonymously pens popular poems about her long-lost childhood and (at least implicitly) Chander…
In the middle of all this, we also get treated to a love triangle, spurred on by incredible coincidence. (And remember, Anmol Ghadi indulged in incredible coincidence long before the other films you saw!) Just coincidentally, it so happens, Lata has a good friend, Basanti (played by Suraiya) who falls in love with Chander when she goes to his shop to get her sitar fixed. (Chander insults her about her incompetence at sitar playing, which of course causes her to longingly dream of becoming his student.) Personally, I thought this side of the triangle was relatively lacking, but maybe that’s the point, because Lata is so much more intense and compelling than Basanti. On the other hand, Basanti says some good lines in the movie (she is no dummy) and she also is pretty enough, especially at that time when her image appears in front a great arty background while it is being brilliantly reflected by the lid of the piano..
And now that the film has entered the rich girls’ territory, the background scenery and props get very stunning in general. This happens at the same time that we start to get treated to a lot of vocals by Noor Jehan. That’s good timing, because this also is a place in the movie where the plot seems to slow down. It does seem to take forever for the childhood sweethearts to finally reunite (though there is a chance meeting, followed by lots of plot-twist-related hide-and-seek). Nonetheless, the buildup to their reunion makes for some very good songs, especially this hit for Noor Jehan:
But those happy kinds of moments are short-lived in this movie. It probably won’t be much of a spoiler to declare that the characters cannot exactly make their wishes come true. For one thing, there’s that thing known as an arranged marriage in the upper class, and Lata is just not the kind of character to defy her traditions and the wishes of her family. And since Chander and his mother remain poor, Chander’s mother dies an early death, as we kind of expected she would. Chander has a bit of a decline (which, as Philip correctly pointed out, anticipates some Guru Dutt characters – though I was thinking less of Pyaasa than Kagaaz Ke Phool)…
But Chander doesn’t die a horrible death himself (at least not yet) when the movie ends. And if the very ending isn’t overwhelmingly tragic (this is not Mother India), it isn’t really happy, either. (By the way, I won’t spoil the ending here – even though it isn’t exactly a surprise…) The main reason it’s not happy is that this is not a film about overcoming the odds to become a great success; it’s more about people who are not able to overcome the odds, especially if they are poor.
But wealthy people can also be trapped by conventions that are determined by class. This is evidenced by poor (though rich) Lata. She is not at all happy toward the end, when the problems pile up and she must deal with her own social limits.
Overall, it is not far-fetched to conclude that the guy most responsible for making this movie was not very optimistic about the opportunities available to people under the present system. But we might have already guessed that fact at the moment that we first saw his logo…
And as I’ve probably said before, I greatly enjoy the kind of movie that can at the same time be a fine “musical” (as we in the west would call it), a romantic melodrama, and a sobering (though some would say “depressing”) comment on class. That’s a big reason why I love (very) old Hindi movies! But Anmol Ghadi should have a lot to offer you whether or not you want to see so much emphasis on people’s thwarted desires, and whether or not you would rather see more heroic heroes. There is a lot of stuff packed into this film made in 1946, much of it presaging later movies. Of course, I had a big reason to expect to love this movie right from the start. But I’m pretty sure that I would consider this a classic even if (big “if’!) I had not become a fan of Noor Jehan.