As I have mentioned a few times before, I’ve been drawn to this film Lal Haveli because of its actors and singing stars – not only because of who they are, but because I was very interested in seeing a few of these people together in a film made as early as 1944. Because it stars Noor Jehan and Surendra, I always considered this to be a sort of pre-Anmol Ghadi (and I was right in more ways than I realized). And, of course, there is the actress who plays Noor Jehan’s character as a child, a very cute 11-year-old Baby Meena [Kumari]. This film also gives us the chance to see a relatively young Yakub in one of his purely comic roles (with not the least bit of villainy) as well as Ulhas (whom I have always wanted to see a little more of in films). The cast, by itself, provides enough reason to grab Lal Haveli the moment you find a watchable copy (with “watchable” meaning, for me, one that also has English subtitles – though unfortunately, the songs that I can link to here will be from a copy without).
But Lal Haveli also contains a pretty enjoyable story, with surprising moments of originality livening up a plot that could have been far too familiar. (Though as with other ‘40s films I’ve seen, it would have been unfair to criticize this movie for seeming too familiar just because I had already seen so many similar films that had been made later. Thankfully, I didn’t feel a need to worry too much about that problem.)
At first, this film reminded me a bit of both Anmol Ghadi and Mirza Sahiban (1947 version, naturally). It starts off with a pair who are childhood friends (and perhaps sweethearts) of different social status, whose acquaintance is strongly discouraged by parents and other relatives. But there are interesting differences here… For one thing, the higher-status family is actually a family in decline, and the father has to keep doing things to please a genuinely high-status family in the city (which is something that becomes important in the plot later on). One of the reasons that this family is in decline is that a female member of the family, known as Lal Kuwar, brought it into disrepute. And the way that she did that was to fall in love with an “ordinary” man and elope with him. Meanwhile, there are hints from the first moments when this history is revealed that the present young heroine, Mukta, is just like Lal Kuwar and might take after her exactly.
In addition to being childhood friends with an “ordinary” boy (played by…I’m not sure who), who would become an “ordinary” man (naturally played by Surendra), this girl has a very strong personality and will always be headstrong. And those qualities are conveyed convincingly by both Baby Meena and Noor Jehan.
The Surendra-Noor Jehan relationship in Lal Haveli works out pretty well for a while. Noor Jehan and Surendra even seem to have a bit more chemistry between each other here than they did in their later film together. (In Anmol Ghadi, there was very little chemistry between them, just a lot of good music.) Unfortunately, though, Surendra’s character, Anand, is a bit of a jerk, prone to overreacting when he misinterprets bumps in the relationship, and prone to violent jealousy. (Alas, as I have found, those are not unusual qualities for male characters in Hindi films, even if they are supposed to be heroes of some kind instead of villains.)
Thankfully, Anand has a very amicable friend and sidekick, Manglu, played by Yakub. (And if you watch the song below, you will see a lot of Yakub and his antics. Don’t be fooled by the still pic; Noor Jehan has a smaller role in this one.)
Throughout the film, Yakub is engaging and generally lots of fun. As with some other Yakub characters, it takes a while for this one to find a woman who could find him appealing, but when he does, she is fun, too, and they are hilarious together. And they get together at just the right point, when the obstacles to the main characters’ relationship reach their peak, causing lots of upset, etc. (By the way, they meet while Anand and Manglu are doing their soldier stint in WWII and she is a nurse there. Did I forget to mention that they join the war effort? Possibly because it is the briefest and most irrelevant war digression I have ever seen in a movie. But that’s OK…)
Now, getting back to the central relationship of this film… As any viewer would expect, at some point, Mukta becomes obligated by her family to go through with an arranged marriage to a member of the higher-status family – i.e., Jawahar, played by Ulhas. The story is a little more involved, however, because Mukta would probably not have been as susceptible to that turn of events had she not already been pushed away by Anand, who becomes jealous of her associations with the other family and their social milieu when he has no reason to be. (As I mentioned, this guy, Anand, is kind of a jerk. Seeing Surendra in this role made me miss his role in Anmol Ghadi, when he was merely a depressive slacker – which I never minded, myself (probably because I could relate more to that).) Anyway, after snowballing rivalry and jealousy, Anand actually shoots Jawahar, and Jawahar ends up being in great need of blood. Mukta, obviously feeling responsible for what happened, volunteers to give her blood, which under the present circumstances is very risky for her. (I am not sure why it is so risky – I guess it is because medicine is so primitive in this time and place?)
With some encouragement from people around him, Jawahar briefly interprets this gift of blood as a sign of Mukta’s love, and this is when he definitely decides to have his family arrange a marriage with her.
But that marriage is actually disputed during the ceremony, due to a peculiar and seemingly parochial interpretation of events related to the fact that Mukta gave blood to Jawahar. Maybe it would be too much of a “spoiler” to convey exactly where this leads, but suffice to say that it is a very clever device and this entire sequence of the plot unfolds in a very clever manner. Even at that point, though, Jawahar is not entirely convinced to cancel the marriage and is also intent on seeking revenge against Anand, but more surprising things happen after that.
It is good that Lal Haveli has a plot that wasn’t always too predictable and overly familiar to me, because that kept me watching it so that I could fully appreciate all the songs in their full context. The songs, by the way, were already well known to me, because I had been listening to them for some time. Partly, that was because of the sweet music composed by Mir Sahib, but, of course, it was mainly because of the beautiful voice of Noor Jehan.
And by the way, I very much appreciated her acting here, too. It might seem surprising that I am praising her acting skills, but she really is a charming and convincing actress for much of the film, especially when her character is clever and feisty. When she is required to act upset about things, she does go a little over the top in the (melo)dramatic way that some critics and bloggers have complained about (not only regarding Noor Jehan but regarding ‘40s heroines in general). But on the other hand, sometimes we can really look forward to those dramatic moments, because we know that she will sing. And whether she is required to be happy or sad, Noor Jehan’s singing is equally gorgeous.
I guess the best thing about Lal Haveli is that it reinforced my admiration for Noor Jehan, who remains just about my favorite performer – and definitely my favorite singing star – in Hindi/”Bollywood” films, as well as in classic Pakistani/Urdu films and Punjabi films, too.