Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani is a unique film for a number of reasons, starting with the basis for the plot. This film is based on the real-life story of Dr. Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis, a famous Marathi doctor among a group of five Indian doctors who went to China in order to provide medical assistance to Chinese soldiers fighting in one of the Sino-Japanese wars, in 1938. (Although not discussed in the movie is the fact that the soldiers Dr. Kotnis and his group assisted were Communists, and that Kotnis ultimately joined the Communist Party and worked in the service of Mao Tse-Tung. So this was very much a pro-Communist movie – at least sympathetic to the Communists in battle, if not overtly in ideology – but those details were brushed over a bit. Then, ironically, some years later, portions of the film were used in a virulently anti-Communist American propaganda/exploitation movie called Nightmare in Red China. But that’s another whole strange story altogether….)
Now, Dr. Kotnis did some very good things while in the service of the Chinese fighters, and his deeds sometimes required major sacrifices. For instance, he is known for curing a plague that was spreading among the Chinese soldiers and, at least according the version of the story in this movie, in order to find a cure for that plague, he had to use himself as a test subject, deliberately injecting himself with pus from an infected victim so that he could get a first-hand sense of the effects. Dr. Kotnis survived that experiment, but he eventually succumbed to other problems, as the pressures and hardships of life in the army took a toll on him. (Some movie guides wrongly state that he died from the infection that he gave himself. But history and close attention to the film will tell you something else… History says he died of epilepsy, exacerbated by wartime stress. And in the film he does appear to be experiencing mild seizures of some kind…) Dr. Kotnis also fell in love with, and married, a Chinese assistant, and he stayed in China for much longer than the other doctors. For these reasons and probably more, he was revered by the Chinese people, who honored him with a statue and a fancy tomb.
(By the way, thanks to Wikipedia for giving me most of this information. At least sometimes, that encyclopedia is very good.)
So, with the real story of Dr. Kotnis as its basis, this film already had a big head start toward becoming something memorable or even historic itself, and with the very able help of director V. Shantaram, his actress wife Jayashree, his music director Vasant Desai, and the writer Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, that’s exactly what happened. But the execution of this story was even more unusual than the story itself, and it’s understandable if, for a variety of reasons, some people find it to be a bit odd.
For instance, if you go by the conventional standards of realistic cinema, then in many ways and many parts, this movie appears to be way off. For one thing, it is a film full of the most un-Chinese-looking Chinese people you’ll ever see. They all have their eyes slightly fixed up as though that’s going to make them look like Chinese people, but they look more Indian than most of the Indian actors I’ve seen in Hindi films.
And, of course, there’s the issue of the acting and dialogue, especially in the beginning, where people sometimes recite extremely patriotic platitudes in a stentorian fashion rather than actually being engaged in a conversation that real human beings might have. (By the way, I am far from the first person to point out that problem. In fact, look, not too far into the past, at Dustedoff’s review, and you’ll see some of the same thoughts regarding the delivery and dialogue, not to mention the physical appearance of the cast.) But for me, when I consider this film’s other qualities, these digressions from realism don’t matter all that much. In fact, as often is the case with Shantaram, sometimes his work is best when it is most un-realistic.
There are many times throughout his career when V. Shantaram proved himself to be a good surrealist. And though this film isn’t as “out there” as some of the stuff he directed between the late ’50s and the ’70s, there are lots of elements that help to create a slightly surreal atmosphere: In addition the presence of the aforementioned Indian “Chinese” people, we have Desai’s unusual, slightly Chinese-inflected Hindi film music and those very stagey-looking dramatic backdrops (which seem in quite a few places to have been designed to look like Chinese Communist propaganda posters). And then, to complement all of those things, sometimes we are treated to some Shantaram-film versions of Chinese ballet:
Knowing little about Chinese music or theater (though I know quite a bit about Hindi music and films), I can’t really say how authentic this performance to “Dekho Mauj Bahar” might be as a tribute to the Chinese traditions. I suspect that it’s rather stereotypical and probably doesn’t seem that authentic, but even if my suspicions are right, it doesn’t really matter in the end, because this song/scene is fascinating, catchy, and charming too.
And speaking of charming, Jayashree deserves a lot of credit for her charm in this film. What’s more, although her eyes are done up in the same way as everyone else’s, to me she seemed like the most authentic of the Chinese characters (so to speak). There may be a good reason for that, if we are to accept the information at IMDb that Jayashree actually had Chinese origins, and was in fact one of very few Bollywood actresses or actors who did. But I have also heard people dispute this notion, so it would be great if we could confirm this fact one way or another. At any rate, regardless of what her real background may have been, she does very well playing Ching Lan, the Chinese medical assistant who becomes Dr. Kotnis’ wife.
For the most part, Jayashree plays a delightfully sweet and somewhat vulnerable sort of character, helping us to share Dr. Kotnis’ constant desire to protect her (which tendency, of course, fits with the mostly traditional male-female dynamic portrayed in this Hindi movie from 1946). But maybe this only adds to the delight that this viewer felt at the moment that she transformed into a picture of determination and patriotic devotion (albeit a very cute picture also) as she climbed a hill to rally the troops…
Yet for all its peculiarities and slightly surreal departures from conventionally good drama, Dr. Kotnis ends up being very moving in the straightforward dramatic sense. The combination of Shantaram (as both actor and director), Jayashree, and music director Vasant Desai becomes especially effective when Dr. Kotnis descends into illness and the atmosphere becomes bitter-sweet:
And incidentally, though there were no subtitles provided for the songs (which is a big shame), I had no trouble whatsoever feeling an emotional impact from these songs, especially toward the more effectively dramatic latter part of the film.
The scene for this song, “Chit Dole Nit Dole,“ is particularly interesting as well because of the way it brings out Ching Lan’s maternal qualities. Watching this, I was reminded of similar traits shown (by Sandhya) eleven years later in the otherwise highly eccentric heroine of Do Ankhen Barah Haath . I am not sure how all of this might register for viewers with feminist concerns, but some of Shantaram’s movies do very well at bringing those sorts of qualities out in the heroine, and that adds to the movies’ overall appeal.
Dr. Kotnis himself doesn’t seem to have quite as interesting a personality, but he is sympathetic enough as the good guy, and V. Shanataram was pretty good at portraying characters who had good values and a lot of integrity. (Balraj Sahni would eventually do that sort of character even better, but Shantaram was still pretty good.)
And partly because we are given such sympathetic main characters, Dr. Kotnis consistently builds up to being a very good tear-jerker by the end.
Maybe another reason this drama turns out to be so good by the end is that despite the film’s eccentricities, it manages to avoid some of the weird elements commonly found in other old Hindi films. For instance, it was a great relief to find that Dr. Kotnis contained no “WTF” moments (as many of us are fond of calling them) in terms of sudden strange behavior on the part of any main characters or outrageous out-of-the-hat plot twists. The plot progresses in a well controlled fashion, free of the convoluted or nonsensical turns familiar to many Hindi film fans (much as we love these movies, etc.). And it is also refreshing to watch a Hindi film that doesn’t have some villain who individually introduces a whole lot of complications to screw things up. (This is not to say that I don’t love a few Hindi film villains either, but the complete lack of such villain is just another factor that helped to make Dr. Kotnis a rather different viewing experience.) Of course, there is a collective villain, i.e., the Japanese fighters, who are portrayed rather briefly and stereotypically (in fact, one might say they are a bit dehumanized, in a way that is not “PC” at all). But the real focus for much of the film is the unshaken friendship/comaraderie among all the main characters, which is used very well to symbolize a great moment of friendship between the nations of India and China.
Altogether, Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani is a moving and rewarding film as well as being quite unique. And considering its historic significance (for not only its subject matter but also the time it was made and its recognized importance among Shantaram’s movies), this is a movie that should be given a high priority on many Hindi film fans’ lists.