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.
I can hardly remember anything of the film and when I saw the movie I’d no idea of the background of the story. But my mother used to talk about it a lot, altough she didn’t know much of the background as well. Not that I know it any better now, but eh, we have wikipedia!.
K. A. Abbas was like Balraj Sahni a member of the Communist Party of India. I don’t think V. Shantaram had any such leanings though.
The song ‘Chit dole, nit dole’ has nothing to do with maternity though. Loosely translated it would mean:
the soul swings, it swings daily, morning till eve
morning to eve may the mind be my beloved’s refuge.
and she goes on to describe the hills and rivers and the views in general.
No word of child, kid or son!
Harvey, thanks for the translation of the song. Now that I know what the lyrics mean, that makes it more interesting.
But I was careful to say it was the scene, and not the song, which brought out these maternal qualities. I was thinking of how Ching Lan obviously is serving a nurturing purpose, taking care of her sick husband and her child at once, and singing a song that does sound like a lullaby as she rocks the child. I was reminded of Sandhya’s song in Do Anhkhen Barah Haath in which her character sings to the children and all the other characters are lulled to sleep and we are also given images of various species other than human beings caring for their offspring in a similar way.
When I first saw the film on DD, it served one purpose at least: to introduce us to a historical character that no one had told us about before!
Wish other films would tell us more about the so -many interesting real-life figures of Indian history without descending into some pot-boiler. Hinid films by and large avoid this genre.
Gurdas Mann made a film on the famous Punjabi poet Waris Shah, in Punjabi, and it was so dispappointing- except for some his poetry being used as songs, it could have been any old Indian film romance with all its trappings. Another oportunity totally wasted.
So I admire this movie at least for more or less telling the story of Dr. Kotnis, something that most Indian directors are unable to do.
Bawa, I wish I had thought of that word “trappings” :) – it is the perfect word to describe some of the usual patterns that this film avoids. I agree, whatever its oddities, give Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani credit for sticking to the story of this real-life figure without going down the potboiler path!
“sticking to the story of this real-life figure without going down the potboiler path!”
Oh, yes. I thought (why??!) that I’d learn something about medieval Central Asia by watching Changez Khan. Other than the fact that his birthname was Temujin and that he harried the Tatars (both of which facts I already knew), I don’t think I came across a single thing that could be considered historically accurate in that film!
For me, Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani is one of those films that grows on you – I started off finding it terribly dated, but then as it progressed, I managed to overlook its flaws and appreciate it for what it was… good.
By the way, I have my doubts about Jayashree being of Chinese origin. She doesn’t look it, and I remember reading a document on prominent Goan women, in which her name was listed – as being the daughter of a man from Korgaon. Of course, it could be that her mother was Chinese, but I’d think that a bit unlikely. The Chinese in India have always been a very small and very insular community, and the chances of a Chinese woman having married a Konkani back in the 20’s must’ve been pretty thin. Someone should ask Rajshree Chapman!
I found the film interesting from the beginning, but I had a similar experience in that it seemed to become more emotionally moving while I was watching it, right up to the end.
Re. contacting Rajshree – yes, that sounds like a good idea, but how can it be accomplished? Sandhya’s still around too and she would probably know, but maybe she shouldn’t be bothered with questions about the other wife (wonder how they got along as the years went on – seems like a rather odd and awkward situation to me :) …)
I have never heard of this movie or of Dr K until now. Thank you for this very informative post.
Salim Khan’s wives, I’ve heard get along quite well.
Lovely review, this looks rather tame than most V.Shantaram movies i’ve seen, as flamboyant as his films may seem for some, he always gives me bang for my buck, his picturisations and songs from his films are always a joy to behold
Great review and information here Richard, but it’s all knocked out of my head after reading about the TWO (2!) wives in the comments. Sorry, I’ll have to process that for a while. ;) This reminds me ever so slightly of
Ek Doctor Ki Maut
Since that Dr. also injected himself in search of a cure.
Always great to see a handful of such nice comments after a day away. :)
Veen, you are welcome, and I am happy that you learned about these things from my blog here. After reading the Wikipedia history and after seeing the film, I am happy to spread the word about Dr. Kotnis, who seems very well worth remembering. :)
Bollywooddeewana, thank you for the nice word re. my review, and I agree with you completely re. Shantaram’s picturizations and the songs in his films being a joy to behold. (I like Vasant Desai’s music a lot… And in the ’50s, when Shantaram wasn’t working with Desai, he was working with C. Ramchandra!)
Sita-ji, thank you for the nice words also, and for the link to this other movie, which looks good, even if it is much newer :) …
By the way, V. Shantaram had THREE wives. I read that he married Jayashree while he was already married to someone named Vimla, and then he added Sandhya a little later. I don’t know if there was a time when they all lived under one roof… I have seen Jayashree and Sandhya in a film together (Parchhaiyan – in which they play rivals for the love of the hero played by V. Shantaram), but that may have been before Sandhya became the third wife.
Harvey, I thought I read somewhere that Jayashree became alienated from V. Shantaram and maybe didn’t live with him for a long time. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the addition of Sandhya. :) I have rather traditional western attitudes about these things; as with Sita-ji, it takes some effort for me to process.
I’ve never heard of Dr Kotnis or this movie either. Thanks Richard–there is always wonderful infromation on your blog.I first started reading when I came across something interesting you said about Balraj Sahni.
About Rajashree, just speculating–she doesn’t look half or even quarter Chinese. Full Indian–a tad South Indian if you ask me.
About third wives and such, it might have to do with the older rejected wives not leaving their wayward husbands (in Hinduism, its a terrible thing to not have a husband. In fact it is the fervent wish of a Hindu woman to die “sumangali”–i.e. before her husband and to not be a widow.)
Sophy, you are welcome, and the comment about “wonderful information” is much appreciated!
I haven’t been able to find much more information about Jayashree and her heritage (or Rajshree in respect to this), but I was looking through Mihir Bose’s Bollywood: A History (a couple of years since I read it), and there was some information about Shantaram and his wives. They did not actually all live under one roof, but close enough, and they mingled. Writes Bose (who sometimes spells the name “Jayashree,” more often “Jayshree” guess it doesn’t matter?):
Shantaram moved to Bombay, and though he hated Barua, and the movies he made, the two men’s life styles now converged. Like him, he now had two wives, who lived near each other. Jayshree, producing more children for him, including Kiran, lived opposite Vimal and her family, Jayshree and her children in Cambridge Terrace at Pedder Road, Vimal and her brood at Shahburg, across the street. The two families often met during Hindu festivals and other occasions. In time, Shantaram even bettered Barua and left Jayshree for a third wife.
I must have missed this post when it first appeared. :) Shantaram’s movies were, well, interesting. He, like many other theatre and film personalities of the time, did have communist/socialist sympathies. In India, that’s not a bad word. :) In the process of nation building, many movies of the time resonated with socialist messages. Until he became besotted with Sandhya, his films were pretty bearable. (I know you disagree on that. :) )
Regarding communist/socialist sympathies within Indian films of the time, that’s one of the things that made me so interested in the Golden Age (and then the Vintage era) to begin with. It’s not just that I have socialist sympathies myself (and I might even say “communist,” also, though I would consider that an idea for much farther down the road and I never went down the Bolshevik path, which I would not say was real communism to begin with – but I’ll stop there, because that is stuff for another blog or forum :) )… It’s because the popular and blockbuster films in India showed commmunist/socialist sympathies at exactly the same time that the anti-communist blacklists were tearing Hollywood apart. Most of these directors and actors in Indian cinema who were involved in making the most popular entertainment in the late ’40s and ’50s would have been banned and thrown out of the profession if they’d tried to express their political sympathies the U.S.!
But in the past few years, “socialism” has ceased to become a dirty word in the U.S. So, the thought of seeing socialism advocated in a popular forum somewhere does not seem as alien in this country (at least from what I see) as it was when I began this blog in 2007 (and started focusing almost exclusively on the old Indian films in 2008). “Socialism” has actually become a very appealing word for large portions of the population (and it looks to become more appealing in the new recession/depression too).
Regarding your comment: “Until he became besotted with Sandhya, his films were pretty bearable. (I know you disagree on that. :) )”
LOL Yes, I am glad to see you have caught on to how much I would disagree regarding Sandhya! I do really enjoy her performances. I could kind of understand why some say that the films starring Sandhya were not as good as much of Shantaram’s earlier work, especially if you are looking at films for subtler qualities, realism, social expression, and other things that arty Westerners like to praise – this isn’t Satyajit Ray here. But I think the music and dance is really good sometimes. I loved it in Navrang, and I also think the basic concept of the film was kind of refreshing/different. Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baage was not a good movie at all in the traditional senses; I thought the acting was terrible in that film and if there was any good dialogue, it didn’t carry through so well in the subtitles. But the music was very good, and for those who don’t love Sandhya’s dance style, we got to see Gopi Krishna, who was undeniably great (and who probably did an amazing job training Sandhya in classical dance).
Anyway, I went on a bit there… I hope that wasn’t an overly long response to your nice, brief comment above. :)