My eyes and ears were riveted for close to half of the movie… Beautiful music (Shankar Jaikishan’s best, and one of Lata’s best), beautiful scenes and settings, real quality acting (Nargis was outstanding), and incredible chemistry between Raj and Nargis. (I’ve also been watching Mela (1948) on and off the past few days, which pairs Nargis with Dilip Kumar. Dilip is great and Nargis is great here also, but the chemistry between them doesn’t come close to this!)
So, I wanted to love this movie, I wanted to say that it was Raj Kapoor’s first masterpiece. But there were a couple of problems for me, such as the plot. The plot just wasn’t very interesting to me, and it ended in completely predictable fashion (which must have been predictable even in 1949, I think).
It basically revolves around two guys roaming around the mountains and various related vacation spots, seeking or finding love with very different approaches. One guy, Gopal, played by Prem Nath, is a big cad, thinking that he can be casual about love, being unfaithful and very neglectful to the pretty and obviously rather vulnerable girl Neela, played by Nimmi. (By the way, I was reminded of her role in Aan, which came out two years later, where she played another love-obsessed and obviously doomed character. I guess Nimmi did well with such roles.) Then there’s the character whom Raj plays, named Pran (probably not a choice that would have been made a couple of years later), who’s a big romantic waiting for the true love to whom he will devote himself wholly, eternally, etc. And that, of course, happens when he meets the Nargis character, Reshma.
Meanwhile, Pran has been giving a few speeches to Gopal about how he’ll get what’s coming to him if he continues his careless behavior, and there are many references to how he’s playing with fire. But Gopal refuses to return to Neela in a timely fashion because he’s having too much fun travelling around, enjoying the night life, dancing with Cuckoo and that sort of thing, while Neela is apparently getting increasingly miserable…
And as the movie progresses, we hear more and more poetic lines being exchanged by everyone with everyone about love. There’s pretty much nothing else that the main characters talk about, and that is the biggest disappointment. Personally, I found myself longing for the social content of Raj Kapoor’s slightly later movies. Maybe it’s just a matter of opinion whether you take to the big questions being raised in movies like Shree 420 and Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai regarding capitalism and socialism, practicality versus idealism, the nature of the outlaw culture, etc., but let me tell you, I love that stuff! Here, there’s some stuff about romanticism versus modernity (with maybe an insight on the brutality of true backwardness), and I think there’s some stuff about the plight of woman(?), but the big questions that make Raj’s ’50s films so interesting to me just don’t arise (yet) – or let’s say arise only barely.
Also, very much unlike in Raj’s somewhat later films, there is no real discussion of how the main male characters must earn a living, what they in fact must do to earn a living, and whether that living can be honest or not. There is a rather moving scene involving a prostitute who is selling herself in order to feed her sick child (a scene that reminded me a lot of a scene from Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa – though Barsaat came out close to a decade earlier), but there seems to be no discussion about how the need to earn a living affects either Gopal or Pran.
Could it be that these two guys are just too independently wealthy to have such concerns? As Philip of Philip’sfil-ums notes, this film seems to be “centered around the adventures of two city boys who apparently have no worldly obligations beyond roaming the Vale of Kashmir in an enormous foreign car, hiring ostentatious bungalows, composing poetry, and breaking hearts.”
As I’ve said, there’s some weirdness in the middle, which I suppose comprises the most suspenseful part of the plot, but it didn’t hold my interest all that much. Mainly, this part revolves around the perils of Reshma. To sum it up quickly, we see Reshma nearly drowned due to a murderous act by her father, who is concerned that her romantic liaisons with Pran will endanger an arranged marriage and, worse, cause insult to the family’s honor. (Could this be one of the earlier films to go in that direction? Certainly, there were a whole lot that did so later…) Then Reshma ends up being rescued from the river by some bullying imbecilic fisherman/woodsman/mountain man(?) who believes that now he has the right to own her and force her to marry him. (And he can get pretty scary – after all, it is K.N. Singh!)
Additionally, there’s some odd Buddhist monk-type “doctor” who seems to enable and facilitate the bullying imbecile’s worst tendencies, mainly because he’s afraid of the guy, and also – at least in the case of the impending wedding – he might get a little money out of the deal. (Not a flattering comment on the spiritual men of the mountains, I guess.) And poor Reshma almost does get bullied into marrying the fisherman/mountain man, but just in the nick of time, Pran and Gopal end up literally crashing her wedding, trashing their expensive car and putting Pran’s life in danger (before it is further endangered by that big bully groom, who really gives a go at finishing him off before the police arrive). After that, there are some dramatic scenes in the hospital where the undying faith of Reshma’s love saves Pran’s life, followed by a joyous reunion.
Gopal also goes through a sort of conversion witnessing all this, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to pay dearly for his past sins (though someone else is going to pay even more). And I must admit, the end is certainly sad enough, even though it is also entirely expected. (By the way, if you think there’s any chance you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end, don’t let me spoil that for you. If you have no such concerns, you can see the whole sad ending in this song clip .)
I don’t mean to complain too much about this film because in many ways it is a fine work. I suppose I wouldn’t have been at all disappointed if my expectations near the beginning hadn’t been lifted into the stratosphere. But I think those sorts of expectations could be met more completely with another viewing of Shree 420. (Or maybe, one of these days, if I finally get myself a copy of Awara…)